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Q&A: Directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods on Shining a “NIGHTLIGHT”

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Scott Beck and Bryan Woods were not yet teenagers when they met through a mutual lunch-table friend at their elementary school in Bettendorf, Iowa. The pair quickly discovered a shared love of filmmaking that ultimately led to their feature debut with NIGHTLIGHT, which goes into release today from Lionsgate.

At the time of their meeting, Beck and Woods were separately making their own stop-motion flicks with STAR WARS figures at home. By high school, they had made the jump to scripted features starring friends, switching up producing and directing duties each time out. “Our taste at the time was—and, really, still is—we loved Paul Thomas Anderson as much as we loved John Carpenter,” Beck says. “That was our foundation.”

“Imagine BOOGIE NIGHTS made by two high-school kids with absolutely no life experience, and you’ll have some idea of what we were up to,” Woods adds, chuckling. “Very long, pretentious movies that were not very good, but at the same time, also served as a great film school we could put ourselves through.”

Such autodidactic tendencies were almost a filmmaking prerequisite in a pre-Internet locale so far removed from the action, standard industry hubs like New York or Los Angeles might as well have been Oz. “We always knew we had to create our own opportunities out of untapped nothingness,” Beck muses. “That really affected our approach, and gave us the ambition and drive to make movies no matter what.”

These unconventional roots are on glorious display in NIGHTLIGHT (in select theaters and on VOD), the writing/directing partners’ inventive scarefest. The movie marries the duo’s fond memories of playing teenage games in the wilderness to pure creature horror experienced from the perspective of…a passed-around flashlight. “Our mantra in making movies is always to do the same but different,” Beck says. “You know, create some relatable hook for the audience but also, ideally, engage some real evolution. The vibe of the forest demanded we tell this story in a way that hadn’t been done to death, and that could give the audience a more interesting and terrifying experience than usual.”

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“Scott and I are huge fans of the RESIDENT EVIL video-game series,” Woods continues. “We love how you are just put out there by yourself in those worlds. A lot of the suspense in those games can come from something as simple as walking down a corridor where anything could happen. [Making NIGHTLIGHT,] we talked a lot about whether there was a way to capture that feeling in a film—to, in a weird way, connect RESIDENT EVIL to Gus Van Sant’s death trilogy and put that kind of aesthetic inside a horror film.”

Ambitious, yes. But what admittedly could sound on the page like a found-footage gimmick proves quite effective in execution, conjuring up a wholly immersive atmosphere wherein perspective is limited, dread closes in on all sides of the beam and the enveloping onscreen darkness begins to merge with its offscreen counterpart, leaving viewers unsettled by what awaits in both peripheries. “We’re very much students of Hitchcock when it comes to suspense vs. surprise,” Beck says. “Hitchcock talked about how it’s much less interesting in a film to just blow up the dinner table and shock an audience than to let them know there’s a bomb there and make them sit through dinner wondering whether it will explode. So in both NIGHTLIGHT’s script and production phases, we were always trying to find moments where we could nurture tension and help it grow.”

Achieving this balance was easier imagined than done, however. First, there was the complex technical end… “We had to create this crazy rig with a RED camera for the flashlight point of view,” Beck explains.

“It looked kind of like a GHOSTBUSTERS proton pack,” Woods interjects.

“Our primary lighting source was a military-grade flashlight,” Beck continues. “There obviously wasn’t a blueprint.”

And then there was the talent end, requiring actors who possessed the skill set to adapt to special circumstances—i.e. nontraditional angles, long takes, etc. “We storyboarded a lot,” Woods says. “To coordinate all the practical and visual effects and the cast, we needed to choreograph every scene as if were part of a big dance. We saw a lot of great actors, but there were very few who could sustain a performance over the course of a long single take. When you’re not covering a scene in a traditional way and using the usual tools of cinema—score, editing, close-ups, lighting—performances have to be so strong because you’re not going to have the option of saving them in post.”

“We got lucky,” Beck says. “We found people [NIGHTLIGHT stars Shelby Young, Chloe Bridges, Mitch Hewer, Taylor Murphy and Carter Jenkins] who really rose to the occasion, whom we could trust enough to let them do their thing and see what felt most natural sometimes, too.”

When it came to special FX and stunts, the pair’s mantra was, “What would Carpenter do?” “Our goal is always to do as much practically as we can,” Beck says. “That sells a tangible reality better.”

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“A good example of that would be the train scene early in the film,” Woods says. “When we did our location scout, they took us to these train tracks. Our VFX team was with us, and they were like, ‘All right, guys, we’ll just render a train speeding by here. It’ll look great. We’ll totally sell it.’ And then our practical guys said, ‘You know, we probably could get a real train and do this live.’ So we were able to get full control of a train and an incredible stuntperson, and do something very cool and real in one shot. That’s not always possible, but it is the preference.”

The fantastic creature FX, meanwhile, were contributed by Spectral Motion, the company that brought fantastical beings to life for the HELLBOY films, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, BLADE: TRINITY, PACIFIC RIM and a slew of other genre features. “Walking into their studio was like entering the Willy Wonka factory of creature design,” Beck says, but the collaboration was more of a happy accident than an arrow hitting its mark. Woods recalls, “We had all these VFX shots in the movie, so our producer sent the project out to all these effects houses that specialize in that kind of thing. For whatever reason, [the pitch] ended up going to Spectral, too, even though they’re more a practical effects place, and they loved the script and said they wanted to be part of the movie. It wasn’t like we were going to say no; Mike [Elizalde, Spectral Motion founder] is so awesome and talented! It was an honor to have them involved.”

With NIGHTLIGHT now in release, Beck and Woods have had occasion to reflect on seemingly impossible dreams realized because of that fateful partnership forged in Bettendorf all those years ago. “We joined forces when we were so young and at such a formative time in our lives, it would be impossible to say how things would’ve turned out if we had never met,” Beck says. “I think we would have made movies no matter what—that’s in our DNA, and we’re terrible at everything else. But because we have this shared mentality as well as our own idiosyncrasies, I know we’re greater in this together than the sum of our parts would be otherwise. Or work is definitely more unique for it.”

“The filmmaking business can be super-depressing and lonely, so it’s nice to have someone to soldier it out with,” Woods adds. “Ninety percent of this job is rejection and fighting your way up. I actually don’t know how people do it without a writing/directing partner.”

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Shawn Macomber http://www.stopshawnmacomber.com
The ravings of noted South Florida pug wrangler Shawn Macomber have appeared in Decibel, Magnet, Reason, Maxim, Radar, Shroud, and the Wall Street Journal, amongst other fine and middling publications. He also hosts the podcast Into the Depths and pens the metal-lit column Tales From the Metalnomicon for Decibel magazine.
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