The trend to refer to any horror film that lacks a sense of camp as ‘elevated’ has returned in recent years. It’s a term that fails to realise that horror has always encompassed a wide variety of tones and subgenres. Virus horror Together from Writer/Director Ryan Oksenberg – who previously brought us unnerving reckoning short Damage Control – is a brilliant example of this. It’s a proud horror film yet is also deeply personal, as it doesn’t seek to separate itself from its genre roots whilst telling an intimate story of cyclical trauma. Oksenberg’s film is centred around Julia, a biohazard remediator who takes on a new employee whose unorthodox work ethic causes her to question her morality. The narrative cleverly weaves through Julia’s life, slowly unpicking the elements of her childhood that have led her to question herself at this moment. Returning to DN Oksenberg unpacks the personal themes that underpin his horror drama, alongside the thorough research he conducted with a professional forensic illustrator to faithfully bring it to life.
I feel like Together is a personal story wrapped inside a genre film. What inspired you to take that approach?
I used the zombie subgenre of horror to tell a personal story about things I was dealing with at the time, personally and peripherally, as it relates to untreated trauma and how in the case of Together, trauma manifests as addictive and co-dependent behaviour. When you watch the short this way you will see how each character is suffering from something, enabling someone else to help ease their suffering, and dependent on others to ease their own grief. It’s one big cycle that is being perpetuated together.
Did that naturally lead you to centre the film around these professionals that are dealing with trauma on a daily basis?
The profession of Biohazard Remediation Cleaners lent itself well to this theme I was working through because what kind of person would want to take on the burden of cleaning another’s remains? I spoke to many remediators and my take away from these discussions was one common purpose: to protect families from seeing the devastation that occurred in their homes. Their hope was that if they took the burden of cleaning somebody’s loved one then perhaps when they walk into a clean, safe home it might encourage the first steps towards healing.
I adopted this to be Julia’s raison d’etre and from there, her motivation for starting a remediation business became clear to me. As a child she walked in on her mom cleaning her dad’s body. Now in adulthood, she is trying to heal that wounded child inside her by rescuing others from facing the same burden. I then went searching for the perfect antithesis that would challenge Julia’s philosophy. That’s when the idea of Clayton occurred to me. Without spoiling his circumstances, he serves as someone who challenges her morality but at the same time can be a valuable asset to her.
How did you find balancing the tone of a more personal piece of filmmaking within a subgenre of horror that is usually more heightened or bombastic?
I did not set out to make a horror film but mainly looked for the opposites, the mix in life, that life was just not one colour, a human is filled with many, many colours. You think the scene is going to be dramatic or scary but then you switch and get people laughing hysterically at a moment they’d never expect. Those are the kinds of films I love the most.
How long did it take to shoot Together and what equipment did you use to capture it?
Together was shot in five days in five locations on a Red Helium with Zeiss Super Speed lenses.
You think the scene is going to be dramatic or scary but then you switch and get people laughing hysterically at a moment they’d never expect.
I have to ask about the music. How did you discover the song by Panda Bear and Rusty Santos? It fits the film perfectly.
The music in Together is so special to me. I am a fan of both Panda Bear (Noah Lennox, of Animal Collective) and Rusty Santos (Producer, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Born Ruffians) and discovered their unreleased side project Together from 2004. I found it on YouTube. It’s a 20-minute piece from an art show that was performed live once. The song is dreamy, bittersweet and very moving to me. It conveyed the tone of Together perfectly for me so I licensed the music from them and diced it up to synchronize with the film.
The look of the effects in the film feel realistic as opposed to something overly heightened that you’d usually see in a zombie film. What was the thought process behind that?
Back in the day I was an Office PA on the Fox TV show Bones and my desk was next to one of the most fascinating women I’ve ever met, Dr. Donna Cline, a forensic illustrator who worked with the L.A. Coroner’s office and does technical blood splatter advising on film. Ten years after meeting her, I knocked on her door asking for help advising on Together. She walked me and Arielle Hader, the actor playing Julia, through how coroners work, their temperament, their gallows humor and also how the crime scenes should look.
The particularly gruesome job Julia is faced with in Together is a murder/suicide. Dr. Cline was to render me illustrations of the aftermath of this event. I described in great detail what the murder/suicide scene looked like in Together and sent her photos of the set. She asked me questions about the crime I did not consider while writing because it’s not concerned with the story. Dr. Cline wanted to know things like how was the knife being held? What was the stabbing motion? How long until the bodies were discovered? The list goes on. All of this contributed to the gradient and quality of the blood she was going to sketch for me. Once I had renderings drawn directly on the set photo I handed it over to my Special Effects Makeup Artist, Robert Bravo. There were a lot of gags and makeups in this script for one fella. He also had to make gore that was edible. All the gore Clayton ate was a mix of bananas, chocolate syrup and strawberries.
We had to shoot the death scene in the house in reverse chronological order. It was more logical to shoot in a pristine living room and bedroom and slowly build up to the gore. The challenge of that is filming the tense scenes at the top. The actors needed to hit the ground running and I needed to keep my eye on where they needed to be emotionally in the story. This also applied to Clayton’s makeup, he started with no makeup because he just ate his dinner, he’s healthy, then we gradually made him look more sick and sick as the day went on. With regards to the living room gore, Robert and I spent an afternoon in pre-production testing different blasts of blood against a wooden fence. We only had so many sets of curtains that we wanted to be sure the splattering would even satisfy Ralph Steadman. For the sofa, he painted gore around a dummy and then removed it.
I wanted to play the gore straight up. Nothing glorified. Death is real in this film because that is what is propelling the characters’ motives.
Clayton in full zombie mode is a nod to Michael Jackson’s Thriller directed by John Landis. I sent that exact reference to Robert. I think why the effects are so good is two-fold. Firstly, Robert Bravo is so damn talented and he had ample time to prepare. Secondly, I had some very clear references with Dr. Cline’s sketches. I wanted to play the gore straight up. Nothing glorified. Death is real in this film because that is what is propelling the characters’ motives. And probably most importantly, Robert’s connection to the material. When I first met him for coffee he told me that his mom cleaned up her brother’s death and has lived with that for all of these years. This was a personal project for him too.
What do you think are the perks of working within a genre, like horror, to tell a personal story?
Working within a genre, like horror, gives the filmmaker freedom to be more symbolic, more ironic about things and less literal as you might have to be in a straight up drama. Cinematically, there are more tools at your disposal to convey a feeling. You don’t have the barrier of reality confining you. So long as you’re logical within your characters’ choices I think you will be okay.
Can you tease us with any future projects that you’re presently working on?
I am going to shoot my first feature in 2022, a micro-budget dark comedy-horror film called Foibles. It’s about the horrors of self-awareness and thinking you’re doing the right thing by helping someone but as result, you become the monster inviting this person back into your life.