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Horror in New Hampshire: The Making of YELLOWBRICKROAD

Writer/director Andy Mitton discusses YELLOWBRICKROAD, a feature horror film en route to Slamdance.

By Maddy Kadish

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Cassidy Freeman in YELLOWBRICKROAD.

After receiving a record amount of over 5,000 submissions for the 2010 festival, Slamdance selected 18 feature length films for their 16th annual film festival. YELLOWBRICKROAD, a horror film written and directed by locals Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland, is one of them. It’s their first feature film and it premieres at the Slamdance Film Festival, which runs alongside Sundance, January 21-28 in Park City, Utah.

The tale goes like this: In 1940, the entire town of Friar, NH walked up an ancient trail into the woods and disappeared. Seventy years later, an expedition looks for answers. They go to find something horrible in the forest, but the forest finds something horrible in them.

Mitton says, “This is a story in the New England brand of storytelling – it has the classic New England gothic flavor. There’s real meat on the bones of this story.”

Mitton and Holland submitted a rough cut to Slamdance, which their publicist, Sherri Candler says, “would ordinarily say was death for your chances, but they must have seen what I saw, the potential in the film, in order to select it.”

What exactly is the potential of YELLOWBRICKROAD? I put Andy Mitton to the test:

Maddy Kadish: Tell me about your writing and film experiences in New England.

Andy Mitton: I’m from Marshfield, Massachusetts and I went to Middlebury College. I had this amazing playwriting professor at Middlebury. The kind you dream of – he sent out my plays without me even knowing. So for three years in a row my plays were part of the Boston Theatre Marathon, which produces 10-minute plays of area playwrights. It gave me some confidence and encouraged me to keep at it.

MK: Why did you choose horror in making your first feature film?

Mitton: I had some experience with horror. Jesse and I did a series of horror plays around Halloween, in college together. Most of my plays are dramas or comedies. We thought a horror movie would be a good place to start for our first feature. When you come through the door you have to grab people by the throat. People like drama or having a laugh, but people remember being scared.

The danger is that you could fall into that horror mold. But this is a good story with great characters. We’d like to be able to cross genres in the future.

MK: The film is not only set in New Hampshire, but you chose to shoot it in New Hampshire, rather than fake it somewhere else. Why did you do that?

Mitton: Yeah, we could have shot it outside LA. We talked about it. New Hampshire was always plan A. It was out of our love of the New England folklore. There’s something unique about those woods and we wanted the film to have a sense of authenticity. The rugged NH environment is a character in the film. Like in Deliverance, you feel the environment.

I also wanted it to be an experience, especially since it’s our first film, something that you’d want to buy a t-shirt about saying that we did it.

It did drive us crazy through. Bugs, rain, oh my god, the bugs... we shot during black fly season in New Hampshire! We shot in the rain. Actually we preferred the rain because it meant no bugs!

MK: What about the tax break issue that we hear so much about these days? New Hampshire doesn’t have that.

Mitton: There is pressure to go to a state where there’s a tax break. But the New Hampshire film office offers permit free locations and no sales tax, which helped a lot. And the locals were so excited to have us there. You don’t get that in LA. It makes a big difference to be where you feel that you’re wanted. Everyone was so generous – the people, the authorities.

MK: What about the logistical challenges that you faced shooting in the forest in northern New Hampshire - no electricity, an isolated area?

Mitton: We had generators. It was a challenge for sound, but the crew did great. We had two camera bodies so we always had a backup. Logistically, housing 40 people was a big challenge. Getting everyone to one place on time, feeding everyone, keeping everyone healthy and happy was tough. We were lucky to have a great producer.

MK: Tell me a little bit about your process for YELLOWBRICKROAD – both the writing and producing.

Mitton: Jesse and I conceived of it in February 2007 when we began writing treatments and outlines. We spent two years on the script. We did two public readings, some private readings. We got a lot of feedback. We’ve been through maybe 25 drafts.

There’s a danger of writing the heart out of your piece if you’re not careful when you spend so much time on it, but I’m happy to say there’s a lot from that first draft in it. That original spark is still there.

We shot it in 20 days last June 2009 – shooting six days a week. It was virtually all shot in New Hampshire with a crew of about 40 people.

MK: Did you bring your crew from LA or did you use a NH-based crew?

Mitton: We brought our key players from LA – the First AD, our producer, the department heads. The pre-pro was all face-to-face work in LA. Flying people out would have been too much. Middlebury College supplied us with fantastic interns, some of whom I had taught before. I taught two courses at Middlebury. We established a level of trust.

MK: How did the cast come together?

Mitton: I feel like the cast saved our butts everyday in dealing with the issues that they did!

I’ve known Clark Freeman and his sister Cassidy since college. We all went to school together - and I’m in a band with them. Clark was in my first ever play at college. And Cassidy was in my last play there. Clark and I started the Sight Unseen theatre group in LA in 2001. Clark and Cassidy have a close relationship in real life and they play brother and sister in the film. They capture that natural relationship so well. It lifts the movie to see that.

Jesse and I went back to some other people who we worked with at Middlebury for some of the roles. We saw Anessa Ramsey in The Signal at Sundance last year and loved her. So we contacted her.

MK: I feel the love in your horror film… You’re a composer too. Tell me about the music.

Mitton: Yeah, music is a big part of the film. We licensed authentic recordings from 1932-40. I’ve written a few songs and enlisted a few friends to write songs.

MK: Was there something that you learned in your process that you can apply towards your next film?

Mitton: Next time we will put more of our attention and resources towards a location manager! We found a great place where we were told it was okay to shoot. Then day two of the shoot we learned that we were shooting on some land that was federally controlled or something and we couldn’t shoot there. We had scheduled four days there. Next thing I know, we were sitting in the Pittsburg Firehouse [in NH] and one of the EMTs, a local hire, said “Hey, my family has a farm that you can use.” We were like, “Do you understand what it means to have 40 people staying at your farm?” But that family saved us. They had eight kids. They were so kind; we were lucky to be the recipients of such generosity.

MK: Anything else?

Mitton: You need to carry the right energy on the set everyday. You need to have confidence to be a leader, but you also need to know your weaknesses. Be honest with yourself and put your resources in the areas where you are weak. We hadn’t been to film school so we knew that we needed a good DP. Now actually we know a lot more about that aspect for the next time.

MK: Did you have a strategy when you submitted your films to festivals?

Mitton: Strategy? We didn’t apply to many because we were still finishing it. It was a long shot. Slamdance is the perfect launching pad for our film because it’s considered a director’s fest. We wanted to avoid the horror film circuit. I didn’t feel that was necessarily our audience – the audience of Saw, etc… The audience of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Shinning, that’s more our audience. We’re more about storytelling. We wanted to voice our own sense of style, not make a mockumentary.

MK: What are your plans for this film at Slamdance and after?

Mitton: We’ve submitted it to some other places. Hopefully we’ll make a sale at the festival – that would be fantastic. We’ll do our best. We have good business people.

We are just so excited to get into Slamdance! Really, our original goal from here is that we want to make another film and one after that. We’re out to make a career of this; we love to do it.

The Slamdance Film Festival runs January 21-28, 2010 in Park City, Utah.

YELLOWBRICKROAD: http://www.yellowbrickroadthemovie.com
Slamdance Film Festival: http://www.slamdance.com