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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 01.15.21] Canada horror

Directing a horror movie is never an easy feat but for Canadian director Robert Cuffley, his first foray into the genre was a liberating experience.

Shot in one location and featuring a stupendous performance from Siobhan Williams, Bright Hill Road is a deeply unsettling movie about a woman losing her mind in a place that might just be haunted.

I recently had a chance to speak with Cuffley about his new film and we covered everything from casting and editing to tips on how to make movies look more expensive than their budget.

Bright Hill Road is now available on DVD and on-demand.

Quiet Earth: Where did the idea for the movie start? Was this purely Susie Moloney's idea or did you develop this together?

Robert Cuffley:I've known her for 10 years - I was script doctoring something of hers. She's a novelist so she was getting herself into the screenplay world when the producer on Bright Hill named Colin Sheldon said that the had an opportunity for some financial resources and asked me if I had anything and I said, "of course I do" not having anything, but I said, I did. And then I talked to Susie and she ran me through about four ideas that hadn't been written, but just ideas. And I clicked on this one. I really liked the idea and I haven't seen a woman alcoholic in a horror movie or maybe there is, but I hadn't seen it. And I liked the purgatory element as well.

Let's talk a little bit about that process because this is your first film outside of the Telefilm funding model. Was that scary at all, going into it, not really knowing what you were getting yourself into, or was this just another movie that you're working on?

It was incredibly freeing. Not, that their restrictions were terrible. They were fantastic to work with, but this was a smaller budget and the turnaround wasn't 11 years. Chokeslam took 11 years and I just can't do that anymore. Checking boxes and going through so many approval processes and rewrites to the point where you're kind of forgetting why you like the project, to begin with. So this was so different. I think we started writing in December and then we were shooting in March or something like that. Incredibly fast turnaround. We shot a second draft or very close to it and I think it holds together really well.

I think it totally does as well. The reason I kind of assumed that this was your, the haunted house from that we talked about way back seven years ago is because it does have that element as well. But there's a lot at play here. You mentioned your alcoholic lead, but you have this also the story of purgatory. There's also this haunted house, there's this redemption story that's baked into it as well. There's this weird little romance that's in there too. You mention that this is the second or third draft. How did you know that you were going in the right direction?

I think much of it is kind of flying by the seat of your pants and trusting your gut instinct. I gave Susie some production parameters that were fiscal including to limit it to three characters as much as you possibly can and let's keep it to one location. Then I gave her a few reference movies. I gave her a Repulsion by Polanski and Session Nine which I love.

I gave her those two references and the two parameters and she came out with this. So the trick from my end is making it look like you're not stuck in one location for budgetary reasons because I think people can smell a small budget a mile away. So I was trying to use some sleight of hand to hide that fact but because the hotel has so many looks within that location, it doesn't all look the same. The basement looks different from the bedrooms, it looks different from the roof. So I was happy about that.

Did you have this location in mind when you started production or did you find it through location scouting?

I thought the movie would sink or swim on the location. We looked at maybe 20 hotels and motels and some were very slick and I knew they would not have the same effect. And then we stumbled on this. It's about an hour south of Calgary and it's called Stavely Hotel. No one stays there so the whole crew and cast stayed there and they've got a working pub on the main floor. So we basically just took over the hotel and slept there and woke upshot, went to bed, woke up, shot, went to bed and we didn't have to take our gear away, which saves a crazy amount of time.

Is that more or less difficult when you're basically doing everything in one location? I'm assuming you might start getting a little stir-crazy...

W it wasn't too bad because it was such a short shoot actually. There wasn't even time to get stir crazy. And it actually was kind of exciting. It took me back to film school because it was all hands on deck approach where everyone was helping out. There weren't union rules that prohibited certain people from doing certain things. It was just everyone jump in and let's make this happen.

You have a really great instinct for talent and over the years have worked with some amazing up-and-coming talent. This is very much outside of Siobhan Williams' usual kind of role. How did she come to the project?

To be completely honest, you never know 100% if they're going to pull it off. You're always kind of rolling the dice but I do have a really good gut instinct for casting. I do have a good eye for it and a good feel for it, but I watched her on a few series. What was of equal importance was just calling around and making sure she was game for such a crazy experience because it just went by so quickly and she had so little prep time and of course she's going through withdrawal and withdrawal has different stages to it like loss or depression. And of course, you're shooting the movie out of order. So she had to know where she was because we'd go from scene 33 to scene 89. And it was a lot for her to chart and keep track of but she really, really, really did well.

What was the reasoning for shooting out of sequence if it was going to be so difficult for the performance?

It's always that way because what trumps a chronological story schedule is always budget. As an example, Michael Eklund could only be there for three days. And Agam Darshi who played Mrs. Inman had a completely different schedule. So it just never ever lines up where you're shooting chronologically. It's never happened to me before but actors are good at that. And, and my like I'm kinda nervous, but they, they seem like they're used to that sort of thing. She [Shioban] really tracked it well and there's consistency in her performance that impresses me

The movie works on so many different levels. On the surface, it has this very haunting quality to it but on a second watch, you really appreciate the intricacies of the performances.

I'm curious about the editing process and how you approach something like this, where you do have all of these layers and moving parts. There's a rhythm to the storytelling and the editing that really gives you this overwhelming sense of dread that's coming at you.

I've worked with Bridget [Durnford] before. She's won an Emmy and she's so good and so fast and she has such great intuition and always takes what I'm looking for and she just elevates everything that I do and everything the actor does and manages to elevate it. Basically, I want to be shown something that I didn't see, and when an actor can bring that, or in this case, an editor, I embrace it because if you're just going from your own point of view all the time, you're sometimes missing out on different perspectives. And Bridget, the editor, brings that and shows me things that I didn't see and by combining shots that were done on different days and from different sequences... She just has this intense jigsaw puzzle brain that I really admire.

Was the editing process quite short or did you have a little bit more time to work through that?

So it was actually quite long. So a lot of it was in person. Some of it was remote because she's in LA most of the time. But she has a house here. So when she came back we finished in person which is always my preference.

What's next for you? Is that scifi feature that we talked about still in the cards?

I would love to direct scifi but I'm also very wary. Whenever you're trying to stage special effects it gets harder to hide how little money you have. And so if it was, do you remember Cube? I love that. And I would totally be into that, but I wouldn't even entertain shooting something like The Matrix. That would just be absurd because we just don't have the production mammoths to carry us through. But if you can get creative and think of something along the lines of less is more, which is kind of my mantra these days, then the Cube idea is just fantastic.

Do you have any best practices for making a movie look more expensive than it is? You always manage to stretch your budgets to make your movies look more expensive than it really was.

No one ever does this but I suggest watching movies without the sound on because you're able to focus on the story in a strictly visual sense and what works and what doesn't. Also choosing the material. I'm very big on the theater of the mind. I love the theater of the mind so much and what happens just outside the frame of the lens and how it's quite often more sinister than what you're seeing. So if you can pull that off effectively and kickstart the viewer's imagination then you've already cut some production budget there. A lot of it is also the cinematography of the location and the score. To be honest, a lot of it is just having learned over the years you start to pick up tricks and shorthand, if you will, on how to do things sometimes much simpler and yields a bigger budget look than your film deserves.

How do you stay creative? I know you generally work from home but how do you stay creative and stay motivated to keep writing and creating?

Currently, it's music because I've started writing music and that's been also very empowering because I can do it here. I've got the equipment I need.

Bright Hill Road is now available on DVD and on-demand.

Recommended Release: Bright Hill Road

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