Interview With Brandon Christensen, Director Of STILL/BORN
Still/Born is able to successfully convey its material in large part due to the powerful performance of Christie Burke. We were able to speak with Brandon Christensen, director of the horror film Still/Born, which premiered on February 8th!
As the title eludes, one of new parents Mary and Jack’s (Christie Burke and Jesse Moss) twin babies is stillborn. From the opening and heartbreaking shot this horror creeps into your system until its final, equally distressing end.
They bring home new baby Adam to their large suburban home, also fresh for the couple, as Jack gets a promotion at his job. Mary spends a lot of time alone here, her loss eating a hole away inside of her. She does make friends with her neighbor, fellow new mother Rachel (Rebecca Olson) and seems happy enough with Jack; there just isn’t enough to fill the empty spaces. She’s also in denial a lot, avoiding help when it is offered.
At first, she hears another baby cry on the monitor. With her postpartum depression there is a lot of difficulty distinguishing fact from folly, and she struggles with that. As the film progresses, more sounds, including voices, and more visuals, including a demonic woman, threaten to completely overtake her.
First time feature director Brandon Christensen does a stunning job of committing to both sides of the horror coin here. Co-written with Colin Minihan, it isn’t necessarily a new plot, but it is done in a way that makes it original.
Until the final moment you are just as unsure as Mary is, about whether or not something is after her baby or if this is truly in her head. This psychological story sensitively tackles a very scary human concept, while not completely losing the supernatural horror quality.
It isn’t easily stomached, and at times a slow burn, but keep with the film and you’ll be satisfied with its ending. Still/Born is able to successfully convey its material in large part due to the powerful performance of Christie Burke. The movie is filmed mostly on the inside of their home, adding to the claustrophobic sensation. As she becomes more and more convinced that something wants to harm Adam, she drifts farther from her husband, perpetuating jealous fantasies of him with her neighbor.
I was able to sit down with Brandon Christensen to discuss the movie, what inspired him to make the film (sometimes subconsciously) and his future in horror!
Hello Brandon. My name is Kristy Strouse from an online publication called Film Inquiry. How are you doing today? I recently watched your film and I really enjoyed it!
Brandon Christensen: That’s great. I’ve been talking to a lot of men about it. It will be nice to get a female take on it just because it’s about a mother.
Absolutely. First, did you have any particular film inspirations?
Brandon Christensen: I’ve always wanted to make movies, like when I was a kid. It is kind of the stereotypical answer – where you have a home video camera and you are always filming these stupid skits with your siblings because they are the only people you know. But we definitely did all that. And growing up in a house that appreciated movies contributed a lot to forming me into someone who wants to be behind the camera. My brother is a writer, so I think it might just be innately built into us to want to tell stories.
With Still/Born I think it was because…I’m a parent of two and my wife and me have gone through things with our kids. So, it is definitely interesting take to try and build something around what I’ve got because I am a very typical person, I don’t have anything too noteworthy to talk about in my life, so my kids are kind of the like the one thing that I can really draw from. Finding horrors from kind of, everyday things is kind of interesting to me. With Still/Born in particular, it’s kind of funny, we would always reference Rosemary’s Baby, when writing it and I had actually never seen it. I didn’t see it until after we wrote the script. And I realized that there isn’t even a baby in that movie until like the last second, and you don’t even see it. So, it’s kind of funny too, I was kind of getting inspired by a film that I thought was something that it wasn’t. And we came up with an original idea.
Rosemary’s Baby actually came to my mind when I watched it. Obviously, there are significant differences, like the baby, but it has a similar sort of feel. It’s interesting that you hadn’t seen it!
Brandon Christensen: It’s kind of like pop culture, you kind of just absorb things and reference it over time. You have an understanding of what it is, but I didn’t really know.
You’ve produced, and you’ve directed/written/edited short films, what made you decide to go with Still/Born for your directing debut?
Brandon Christensen: Well when I produced It Stains the Sands Red that was my first real taste of doing a feature film, so it was kind interesting. Instead of like a two-day set, you are in the trenches for weeks. I never actually thought I would want to be doing it, it was always a dream, but not something I was pursuing that hard at the time. But one I kind of got thrown into. It Stains the Sands Red kind of built a thirst to do another one. When Colin was finishing his film, we started talking about getting me a chance to direct a film, because he wanted to help my career out I guess. A stand-up guy. With Still/Born, after doing Sands and spending four weeks in the desert, which was kind of a nightmare from a comfort level.
We wanted to do something that was more contained, smaller scale, just really kind of keep it intimate. A comfortable environment, much more comfortable, like say a house in the middle of suburbia. We definitely wanted to do a tale from suburbia and that’s where the idea came for a woman who loses one of her children at birth. And kind of falling into this being a prisoner in her own home, in her own depression. It kind of formed out of that and every decision that we made with writing it was kind of like… how can we keep this inside the house? So, I think in terms of like first time features go, it’s kind of like the best-case scenario. You are not dealing with a million different locations and actors, stuff like that. You are really able to focus on this one thing. Going forward I would definitely like to branch out and get a little more complicated with it. But, for a first-time filmmaker I felt like all the right pieces were in place to do as good a job as I could.
Definitely, and the film has great direction and atmosphere. Like when you slowly pan through hallways and rooms, or the lack of color. It all seems deliberate. As you stated, she was a prisoner in the home and of her own mind, and you definitely keep that feel. Can you tell us about what you were going for with the vibe of the film?
Brandon Christensen: We definitely wanted to keep it very just moody inside the house at all times. Even though you are in this big, beautiful house it feels very cold and sterile, and dark. When she goes outside its definitely a lot more saturated. We wanted to have this general discomfort level, in the visuals themselves and in the color palette. Very muted and its really like there’s just no life to anything really. Once Mary loses one of her children its like half of her is gone, and everything is kind of 50% less. Less vibrant than it should be. Our cinematographer Bradley Stuckel came up with his own way to actualize that with us.
There were some films that I really liked that had a sort of tone that I was after, like Panic Room, The Gift, Gone Girl. They just had a similar kind of look where the colors were pulled out of it a little bit and he did a great job in bringing that to life on set. I think it’s just, it’s almost like we have this giant house and you’ve got this one sort of small female walking its halls and even though its very nice and kids are playing outside…She should be happy, but at the end of the day she’s just never herself because she’s missing that other child.
Right. And Mary played by Christie Burke was amazing in the movie. Can you tell us about casting her? How she was chosen for the role?
Brandon Christensen: We did a casting out of Vancouver and right off the bat she stood out. On top if it she had this kind of youthful, sort of sweet and innocent look, and when she did some more of the darker scenes you could see this sort of fire behind her eyes. We casted her and she spent time with an acting coach, which was really cool, she did that on her own. And the acting coach had dealt with baby loss, and so she was really able to sink her teeth into the script and build the character up from the words on the page. It is such a Mary-centric film that she definitely had her work cut out for her. This was her first starring role in a film and she put a lot of pressure on herself to really bring it. We threw her into the lion’s den right away.
The first six days of production were just her, of course the baby as well, and most of the horror stuff was front loaded because most of that happens when Mary is alone. It was tough for her because it’s like day one she’s cleaning a house and then by the end of day one she’s crying about losing one of her kids. Day two she starts all over, doing something in the house not terribly important and by the end she’s in a hospital gown sobbing because her other baby is gone. She definitely ran a gambit of emotions almost everyday and it was tough for her, but she did an amazing job.
Yes, she really does. I can only imagine how that was for her.
The film deals with not only horror in a supernatural sense but obviously psychological as well. Some very real issues, and you do it in a very careful way, are at play here: postpartum depression, loss, paranoia. You co-wrote the movie, can you tell us how you managed to work that into the script? How you were able to balance these two facets of horror?
Brandon Christensen: I wrote it with Colin Minihan and it was definitely like two minds writing the script at the same time. One, I was married, and we had two kids, and I had seen things that could happen. I was more team psychological, and Colin was angling more for the supernatural. Together we looked into the demonology behind this demon that we found, based on a real Mesopotamian deity, and then we were also looking into things like postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis. Every time we would do something like “Oh this is all in Mary’s head,” we would then kind of throw it back to the other side “or maybe it’s a demon.” It’s definitely a sensitive topic and I’m sure there will be some out there who don’t want to watch it based on the name alone. It is handled, I feel, fairly well. Its not putting down anybody or anything, its really just living in this situation with her and letting the audience kind of experience these horrific events.
It’s unfortunate that it’s based on things that really happen because it is terrifying. A random anecdote, but my parents showed it to an old family friend at their house shortly after we finished it. At one point the woman they showed it to asked for them to turn it off because, and they didn’t know this, her daughter had dealt with the same thing – postpartum psychosis. And they were sort of like “Stick with it, watch it to the end.” And by the end, when the film played out she felt a lot better about it. It doesn’t really lean too heavily in the end to that one direction. It’s a challenging subject to tackle. The film itself is trying to keep the audience guessing, and by the end it does give sort of conclusion to it that can at least settle that one side. It’s not just “Mary’s crazy,” there is more to it.
Yeah, and you do handle it well. Horror often comes from real experiences and real emotions – that’s why it is horrific because we can make personal connections. That’s why this movie can really have an effect on you.
It’s funny you mention the ending. It kind of leads to my next question. The end… it definitely leans to that direction, but I felt like it was still sort of ambiguous. Especially with Jesse Moss’s expression at the end. Were you certain of that ending, or did you want it to be made for the viewer to decide?
Brandon Christensen: I definitely think we left the breadcrumbs in the film to fill in the audience on what he likely saw. The scene in question at the end, mirrors a scene much earlier on when Mary hears the second cry in the crib and she backs up to the crib, unsure of what she is going to see. He kind of does the exact same thing. It is shot very similar with it looking up from the crib, and those things were done on purpose just to sort of clue in the audience of what might be there. It’s hard to take a definitive stance on anything because art is subjective and if I say “it’s this or it’s that,” it kind of stops any discussion from happening. That’s always a benefit. It’s kind of like the Inception ending, you know the debate if the top is spinning or not. So, I don’t want to specifically say, because any given day my opinion my change a little bit on how that went. I would say that goes back to what I said about Colin and myself. I am of one mind and Colin is definitely of another.
I think that actually worked in your favor, having those two mindsets. It made the film even more interesting. And I think, just to put it out there, in Inception the ending was real. He wasn’t in the dream world.
Brandon Christensen: I hope it was, I like a happy ending.
Me too. Our publication is read by many interested in a career in film. Do you have any advice to our readers that you could pass along?
Brandon Christensen: I guess it would just be to work on stuff. With Sands I could have just been a passenger, and just watched Colin, because I’ve been friends with him for a long time. Him and his brother Stuart Ortiz. I was friends with them when they made Grave Encounters and that became a sort of cult hit phenomenon thing. And then they did a sequel, and then they did Extraterrestrial and I was kind of always watching from a distance. Because I had my own things going on, but if you really want it you really have to push for it. So, when I had the opportunity, and they sent me the script for It Stains the Sands Red, I was like “Holy shit, this takes place in Las Vegas, I live in Las Vegas.” I really pushed for them to come my way, because they were thinking of filming in California. I definitely pushed for them to come out and prove myself. I spent twenty days on set, and in pre-production with them, and just everyday working hard. It’s really, I mean one it’s relationships and two it’s about working hard and putting things aside and taking risks.
Filmmaking is definitely something you have to put a lot of work into. You can’t half-ass making a film. Maybe if you’ve got a hundred million dollars you can hire a million people to do all of the tasks. It is just so complicated, there is so much to it. When you are dealing with low-budget things you’ve really just got to wear a million hats. It’s worth taking, I think, if you can do it. Just get a bunch of like-minded people together and create stuff. Even if you are just doing things on the weekend for fun – you know, create stuff. You don’t even have to put it out there, but you learn from it. Everything is kind of like a learning experience. Just takes risks, go out of your comfort zone. Try and force yourself to do things that you might not otherwise do. You never know where it’ll lead you, I mean, it landed me a feature film and I got to do Still/Born. So, that’s what I say: don’t be afraid to try something new.
Thank you, that’s wonderful advice! Any plans you can tell us about?
Brandon Christensen: Colin and I are writing, kind of dabbling on the sequel to Still/Born. And my wife and I are writing a script together, which we’ve never done before, so that’s been kind of an interesting experience. We are writing another horror film about a family. More personal experiences things that we’ve dealt with and trying to find horror in everyday scenarios. It’s been fun, she’s someone that I’ve been with for almost ten years now, and so I’ve seen a lot of different situations come up together in our lives that we are able to draw from. It helps a lot that she is scared of everything. She is able to find the most horrific ending to any idea. If you can come up with an idea for something she can one-up you and make it very scary. But that’s a great resource to have.
Definitely! That sounds exciting. It’s great to hear of a possible sequel as well, I could tell by the ending that this was a possibility. Congratulations on the film and I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today!
We want to thank Brandon Christensen II for taking the time to speak with us. Still/Born was released February 9th. For more info click here.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.