When a disturbed young man breaks into the house of a wealthy older gentleman an enlightening conversation takes place and their shared history in uncovered. Actor-turned-filmmaker Erik Odom’s directorial debut Box on the Hill is a compelling piece of horror drama about the consequences of repressed shame. Starring in the film alongside Brian Foyster, Odom brings a tense frailty to his unsettled protagonist whose relationship with Foyster’s character is realised and excavated across a nail-biting conversation between the pair which is shot with a compelling, subtle and deliberate precision. With the short now available to watch online, DN joined Odom for a comprehensive discussion about his ambitions as a filmmaker, the value he found as an actor/director in setting aside time for rehearsal, and his plans to extend the themes of Box on the Hill into his debut feature.

Where did the concept for Box on the Hill originate?

Shame fascinates me. Ten years ago, I was at the first table read for a play I’d booked at a theatre just outside LA. I was to play a character with epilepsy discharged from the military pre-World War Two. During his big monologue, about his own shame, I burst into tears. Racking, uncontrollable sobbing. Wasn’t scripted to, wasn’t supposed to, couldn’t stop. The writing hit a nerve I didn’t know was there.

Years later, I wrote a feature-length script, Simple Beast, that dealt with the idea of shame as a monster. I wanted to direct but needed experience. This was around the time I connected with my now-producing partner, Brandon Shypkowski. The question was… could we explore Simple Beast’s themes on a smaller scale in a standalone short with a single location and minimal crew? That led to Box on the Hill.

Keeping one human element surrounded by other not-quite-human parts helped give an ‘uncanny valley’ look to the demon.

The short is centred on the relationship between these two men which must’ve meant casting would’ve been a key factor. What made you land on Brian Foyster as your scene partner and how did you develop your on-screen chemistry?

For the older man, I connected with Brian Foyster through our mutual friend, Craig Archibald. Brian brought a depth and sadness that surpassed what I had written. Rehearsal was important. I’ve been an actor for 15 years, but I’d never directed. The last thing I wanted to do was have everything set up perfectly on the day and then drop the ball acting.

I have to ask about the look of the demon. It’s so unsettling and impressively intricate but I also imagine it didn’t cost the world to create. How did you land on their design?

For the look and design of the demon, the RBFX Makeup Prosthetic Catalog was a lifesaver. It provided a starting point that we were then able to customize for what we needed. Miya Tamlyn’s artistry helped us achieve the final look. The level of detail in her work was beautiful. A makeup test weeks before the shoot helped us iron out smaller details and see how everything looked on camera. It also gave me a chance to discuss the demon with Vander, whose performance is one of my favourite parts of the film.

What did the two of you discuss in those conversations to inform the demon performance?

We mostly discussed the central metaphor of shame as an emotional cancer. A living tumor. How would it move? How would it exert control and enjoy its freedom? I also told Vander we wouldn’t cover their eyes with contacts. Keeping one human element surrounded by other not-quite-human parts helped give an ‘uncanny valley’ look to the demon I really liked.

On the day, Vander played with subtle movements and shifts in physicality. There was a sensuality there that really worked. A tilt of the chin here, a movement of the shoulder there… it was awesome and nuanced work.

Did your experience as an actor affect your approach as a filmmaker?

Absolutely. You take little things from every set. People you want to emulate, others you definitely don’t. Most importantly, you see how many ways things can go wrong. I’m neurotic enough as is, so there’s no such thing as overpreparing. Once everything’s set up and solid, there can be spontaneity. You can start chasing moments. That’s where the fun is.

The last thing I wanted to do was have everything set up perfectly on the day and then drop the ball acting.

Do you see yourself continuing to star in the films you direct going forward? Is that a method of creating you enjoy?

I love acting. If it made sense and I felt I could do both jobs at a high level, I would. But it’s important to be honest with yourself and know when it’s better to focus your energy on one position. In a perfect world, it would always be about what’s best for the project. One positive of doing both… I’ve never been more stressed but less anxious in my life if that makes sense. It’s deeply fulfilling.

How long were you shooting for and did everything go smoothly? There’s a real precision to the shot choices, was that an aspect you planned in advance?

We shot the film over two eight-hour days in Los Angeles. Not enough time, is there ever? But my Producers Brandon Shypkowski and Chelsea Blechman, who doubled as our 1st AD, kept things on track, and our DP Jesse Aragon and his team were incredibly efficient. Jesse, in particular, did a great job keeping things visually interesting. Once our two characters land in their respective seats, the blocking is fairly static, but he was able to subtly manoeuvre the camera to capture individual moments.

Can you tell us about anything you’re working on right now?

Right now, Brandon and I are in post-production on his short film 29 Palms that we shot in Joshua Tree late last year. We have a variety of projects in development, but my next goal is to finally make Simple Beast. It builds off of Box on the Hill’s themes in a really exciting way.

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