Co-Directors discuss fracking horror ‘Unearth’

One of the most unique feature films screening at this year’s Grimmfest Online Edition is the fracking horror Unearth.

Co-directed by John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies, it follows two neighbouring farm families whose relationships become strained after one of them chooses to lease their land to an oil and gas company.

Bloody Flicks caught up with John and Dorota to discuss the project –

What was the writing process like for Unearth?

John – The writing process actually began in January 2013, I had a couple of close friends who were big genre people and I had the big ideas for specific scenes that I hoped we could put together as a feature. I bounced those ideas of them and they were losing their heads and they thought it was a great idea. It was then a process of plotting each individual character and all of their traits. Then I began writing for a couple of years on my own and after seeing that there was a lot of female characters we brought on Kelsie Goldberg in for the last year to make sure things were ringing true. The story and framework stayed essentially the same, it was just honing it and refining it.

There is a real slow burn quality to Unearth, how do you ensure (as a filmmaker) there is sufficient pay off to that sort of build up?

John – Everybody has different tastes, I find myself more invested in genre stories where I care about the characters. I feel like they are lived and I can relate to their decisions, right or wrong. Those seem to be the types of films that stay with me the longest and appreciate. Unearth really is a family drama that slowly descends into horror. Character was really important to us.

We know that farming communities all over the world have struggled and we just wanted to capture some of that realism on screen and the hone in on decisions that are made for families to survive in these communities. We wanted to show the slow squeezing vice on these characters that start off in a bad place and things get more tense and stressful.

One theme that features in ‘Unearth’ is self-harming, how did you approach this?

John – In a way one of the families is choosing self-harm by signing the gas lease which has reprocussions. Some of the characters have repressed emotions and are unable to convey them properly. We wanted to show from the outset how isolated these families are which could lead to repressing parts of themselves which could lead to self-harm in private. It was important to show that, and show it intimately. There was a counsellor who saw the film and they said the interpretation we portray was accurate, which was pleasing.

Does the highway in ‘Unearth’ symbolises the future compared the farm being the past?

Dorota – Yes this is very much what we are looking to show on screen.

What were the challenges of switching from a slow-burning story to a faster pace in the closing stages?

John – It was very important to keep it rooted in character but then the use of practical effects was a nice throwback to films such as John Carpenter’s The Thing. We wanted to do as much practical effects as possible. We had some amazing visual effects artists working with us to keep the story rooted in character with some characters fates linked to their personalities using some stunning visuals.

Was there a conversation early on about using practical instead of computer generated effects?

Dorota – We definitely discussed this with our visual effects company early in production, and talked about what we were looking for. We started working with the company about a year before we started filming so we could really get our designs just right. There was some that they had never seen in a film before which excited them. We only had an 18 day shooting schedule so it was important to make sure they were ready to go once we were on-set.

How Did Adrienne Barbeau get involved in ‘Unearth’?

John – It started off with a small Kickstarter project where the film had a smaller budget. Marc Blucas and Alison McAtee heard about the film as did a number of others and it kept picking up momentum over time. We were worked with some great casting directors who were able to bring on board actors like Adrienne and P.J Marshall. We sent Adrienne the script and crossed our fingers. She loved the story as she grew up on a farm and could relate to some of the struggles our characters go through in the film. She brought her own boots and some of her own wardrobe was really amazing to work with.

Dorota – We worked in quite difficult conditions but our cast did not complain once. We had a scene filming at 4am in the morning and Adrienne, like the rest of our crew, was ready to rock. It was important for us to assemble a cast that was able to work long days and maintain a high level of performance, as we knew the film was going to be demanding. It was great to have so many strong female characters too, who don’t conform to gender stereotypes and are allowed to show strength in ways not always shown on-screen.

Are there plans to release ‘Unearth’ on DVD & digital in the near future?

John – We just signed an international deal with Reel Suspects, who we are delighted to work with as they have a great portfolio already of genre films. At this point we have no limits and are hoping to have a DVD, Blu Ray and Digital release.

What is your next project?

John – I have been working on a sort of sequel to ‘Unearth’ which overlaps the story and takes it in a different direction.

Unearth screens as part of Grimmfest Online Edition.

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