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Q&A: Director Ben Ketai Mines Claustrophobic Terror in “BENEATH”

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While it might seem like true underground filmmaking, director Ben Ketai reveals that making BENEATH, out tomorrow on DVD, was not actually a subterranean experience—though it was still a challenging one.

A gritty psychological horror story bearing no relation to Larry Fessenden’s 2013 big-fish flick of the same title, BENEATH (released by IFC/MPI) is set 600 feet below sea level and centers on a group of miners (played by a cast including Jeff Fahey, Kelly Noonan, Brent Briscoe, Kurt Caceres, Eric Etebari and Joey Kern) trapped after a disastrous coal-mine collapse. As their oxygen supply begins dwindling, they spiral into madness, the darkest tendencies of their human nature rising to the surface. The film explores the depths of the horrifying subterranean conditions and the toll they take on the psyche, and as Ketai (whose credits include a pair of 30 DAYS OF NIGHT video sequels and co-scripting the upcoming supernatural feature THE FOREST) explains, helming a movie so gratifyingly grim wasn’t a simple feat.

FANGORIA: This must have been a very interesting movie to film, in terms of the location. Can you discuss what that process was like?

BEN KETAI: That was the trickiest part, and where a lot of our efforts and budget went. For safety and logistical reasons, there was no way to shoot in an actual coal mine, so we built an entire set. Our brilliant production designer Michael Barton brought together a crew to craft the mine on a soundstage in Culver City—and it wasn’t a very big soundstage, either! We couldn’t fit it all in at once, so we had to construct it in different sections.

Logistically, it was a fascinating process. We actually had a mining consultant come out from Illinois—he had been a coal miner for most of his life and recently retired. He came to our set a few days before we started shooting, and as he walked through it, he said, “Guys, you know what? This actually feels pretty close—frighteningly close.” We felt really good knowing we were making something that felt authentic.

FANG: It must have been very claustrophobic.

KETAI: While we were shooting, I sometimes had to remind myself that we weren’t in a real mine. The whole crew would be crammed in a tight tunnel, and I had to remind myself that sunlight was just 20 feet away.

FANG: What was that like for the actors?

KETAI: They had to crawl into dark and scary places, and the set was dressed with real dirt and rocks and things like that. How cramped we were in those spaces really helped with believability. I was blessed with a group of smart actors who did their own research and figured out how to put themselves in that place emotionally and mentally, finding the sense of desperation and loss of hope.

BENEATHKETAI

We wanted to give very human elements to the characters, and it’s all tied together brilliantly by Kelly Noonan [playing Samantha, daughter of Fahey’s crew leader]. She had to go through this day in and day out—I think there are only one or two scenes she’s not in. She had to get emotionally amped up every day for 20 days straight shooting this thing. I’d never worked with an actress who had so much of a movie on her shoulders; it was amazing what she was able to deliver.

FANG: Twenty days is a tight shooting schedule as well.

KETAI: It was. That’s pretty tight for any movie, especially one involving lots of gore effects while also trying to build suspense and be meticulous with the camera. It was a very big challenge, but one that I’m now extremely used to embracing, coming from a low-budget horror background.

FANG: The FX are fantastic. Can you talk about how you combined them with the movie’s more surrealistic, nightmarish elements?

KETAI: We had the classic, standard injury effects that any movie like this needs—compound fractures and all that stuff. But when we got into the nightmare territory of faces melting and things like that, we wanted to accomplish them without using CGI, but there was no way to manipulate that, so we used a combination of practical and digital effects. They did a brilliant job; it was definitely a labor of love for both departments.

FANG: Can you talk about how much of this movie was inspired by true occurrences?

KETAI: It wasn’t so close to any story that we could say it was based on one event, but it was definitely inspired by the rash of coal-mine collapses that have been in the news the past few years, and I know that was the initial launching point for the writers [Patrick Doody and Chris Valenziano]. They wanted to do a mine-collapse movie, but where the movie becomes really unique is in what happens after the collapse. Obviously, we wanted to be true to the world of coal mining; it was very important to me that before they went down there, they seemed like an authentic group of people who had been doing this job for years and years.

Each actor had their own research packet that the writers helped put together with newspaper articles and Internet sources, everything about coal mining. We even did a seminar where the mining consultant answered questions from the actors. All these things helped them find out what it’s like to do that job—something I was really proud of, and I think it shows on screen. You believe these guys know what they’re doing.

FANG: How did you go about casting the roles?

KETAI: It was a strangely easy process. With this movie, I was lucky to be involved with producers who were just trying to make the best movie possible and cast the best people we could for each part. We went through a traditional casting process, which was strangely refreshing—reading people for roles and doing callbacks. It felt like old times—before I started doing movies that had a studio component to them [laughs]. We ended up with a really strong and smart cast—an interesting motley crew of people. It always takes me out of a psychological horror movie when I know the actor; it becomes hard to separate that somebody from their body of work. But when you have a newcomer, it really allows you to assume they’re a normal person and relate to them on that level, which I believe is really important in horror—more so than any other genre.

FANG: Due to the small number of films in this subgenre, BENEATH inevitably draws comparisons to THE DESCENT; how do you feel about that?

KETAI: We knew that from day one. The first thing we did was watch THE DESCENT and say “OK, this movie is awesome; we all love THE DESCENT. But how do we make sure we’re not making the same movie?” And really, it comes from the characters and the psychological aspects, which is why movies like THE SHINING and ALIEN were huge influences—films like those are great touchstones for doing a more cerebral movie like this. It’s interesting how the cycle works—those films are over three decades old, but that admiration for psychological horror is coming back around again. It was nice to be able to pull inspiration from the films I grew up watching that made me want to make movies.

FANG: Are there any on-set stories you want to add?

KETAI: [Laughs] The memories are all such a blur! It’s really fun to make a movie like BENEATH, but while you’re doing it, you’re living it. What was interesting about working on that set was that it was so dark and dusty, and I think the crew started to slowly go crazy, too. One by one, after the first week, people started getting sick because of the lack of sunlight and the dust in the air. By week four, I think we were all ready to just murder each other. This is a crew I’ve been working with for years now; they’re awesome, and everybody really stepped up and powered through a truly grueling schedule. I think if we had shot in a real coal mine, or anything that wasn’t a soundstage, I wouldn’t be here talking to you now!

FANG: Well, thank goodness for the ability to recreate a coal mine in Culver City.

KETAI: Exactly. Movie magic!

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About the author
Vivienne Vaughn
Vivienne is an undergraduate at New York University studying film and TV production and is also a horror screenwriter and director. Some of her favorite things include EYES WITHOUT A FACE, THE X-FILES, SANTA SANGRE, John Hughes movies, 1950s/60s girl groups and J.D. Salinger. She currently resides in Queens.
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