As we languor in the doldrums of a wet, grey and dispiriting February, the motivation to get out of bed and take our place in society, whatever that may be, can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Set in a dystopian, bleak and indiscernible time, filmmaker Gabriel Caste’s psychological thriller Are You Awake? envisages a world where a service is available to help you rise, if not shine, each morning. Opening with an insight into the typical monotony of the wake-up caller’s door-to-door role, it’s not long before Caste injects the sharp thriller backbone into his short as our detached protagonist sees her own terrifying dread reflected in of one her clients. Are you Awake? takes a haunting approach to its analysis of the pressures of living and the weight of suffering with depression and is a film we were eager to speak to Caste about, digging into how he primed his audience to actively engage in the off-kilter nature of the world, selecting an aspect ratio suited to building a claustrophobic atmosphere and driving a three-ton truck around LA to ensure the film’s dour lighting was spot on.
We have such a blend of genres here, what inspired you and how did the script form to encompass all the elements it does?
I want to begin by saying – if you are reading this, you are the reason why I make movies. Before I started my journey as a filmmaker, I was a film lover. The ability to teleport an audience to a completely different place and time within the span of just a few minutes is the biggest inspiration to me. By watching independent films, reading articles like these, supporting the small artists you know – you are strengthening the power of new voices. Thank you!
By opening in the middle of the moment, it forces audiences to immediately start scanning for clues to ground them in the story.
What inspires me most in filmmaking is subverting expectations. Taking gritty, grounded human dramas and unearthing the magic is what really speaks to me. Are You Awake? is not a Covid movie, but some of the ideas resonate with that time. Feeling awful is a universal human experience, and even being locked in your own mind, can feel like a horror movie. The film was a personal response to depression that resulted in an inability to get myself out of bed. I channelled this dark period into a script as a mediation in mental health and self-care.
Why did you want to immediately throw your audience in the opening scene?
I loved exploring the duality of waking someone up in the morning but as a job. On one hand, the act is often personal – even intimate. The first image of the film is the protagonist Dale, played by Ellyn Jameson, waking up a man in his bed. First impressions suggest they are a romantic couple. But in the next scene, we reveal the man is just one of many stops on Dale’s route. By opening in the middle of the moment, it forces audiences to immediately start scanning for clues to ground them in the story.
We have no sense of time either as to when the film is set or how long a period the film spans.
The entire thesis for the film is about being stuck in our own cycle of misery and days blending together. Narratively, it was important to experience a portion of Dale’s average day on the job, which meant we needed to see several patients during their ‘wake-ups’. But since this was a short film, we needed to get to the meat of the story! A wake-up montage seemed the most economical, in terms of both storytelling and production.
Worldbuilding is the single-most powerful thing a director can do, and that was my intention by injecting quirks into the film.
The truth is, Are You Awake? takes place in the present day but not in our present day. Worldbuilding is the single most powerful thing a director can do, and that was my intention by injecting quirks into the film. The pacing and setting are intentionally brief and disorienting, like snippets of memories in a scattered mind. Furthermore, if you want to make a low budget short film and only have two days to shoot it, I suggest not writing a script that requires seven unique bedrooms and two unique kitchens and living rooms. Your team will thank you!
The aspect ratio adds to the claustrophobia and feelings of being trapped, what guided that choice?
Early in pre-production, prolific DP and long-time collaborator Ian Coad said the film was, “A study in restriction.” As you mentioned, the aspect ratio creates a claustrophobic experience – a direct nod to the environments of the patients trapped inside their sad little rooms. Our North Star for much of the visuals in the film was ‘Less is More’. Son of Saul is a masterful use case for this idea. The entire feature film was shot close up on the protagonist’s face with a cropped aspect ratio. This created an unexpected effect. As you watch that movie, you start gathering as many hints about the world as you can by studying the details at the edges of the frame.
Are You Awake? also uses a saturated colour palette and restricts itself to flashes of dull muted light through curtains until the end. Talk to us about lighting the locations
With a similar approach to the aspect ratio, the lighting and color were an extension of the dreary tone we sought to convey. The characters we see in Are You Awake? have lost their taste for life. They sleep on bare mattresses in beige rooms, swallowed by deep shadows in the corners. Pretty cheery, eh? Also, thank you for mentioning the lighting. We rented a 3-ton grip truck package and guess who had to drive it across Los Angeles every morning? I wear my new gray hair proudly.
We shot the nightmare sequences on a tracked dolly. It took six men on a narrow rickety staircase to get this beast of a device up to the second story.
Can you talk to us about the planning and shooting of that terrifying fast paced scene when Bradley is talking Dale through his nightmare?
The nightmare sequences are the only moments when we break our own rules. Bradley actor Paul Archer came with us to the location scout, where we walked through the interconnected rooms to map out the shots. We filmed on location in a dilapidated two-story house from 1915. Everything inside was original – peeling wallpaper, creaking wood floors. We shot the nightmare sequences on a tracked dolly. It took six men on a narrow rickety staircase to get this beast of a device up to the second story. After that, it was about finding the moments with the geography we had.
Why did you want a vintage, dirty look? Did you consider shooting on film?
At its core, Are You Awake? is an honest, raw human drama that deserved a fitting aesthetic. Something that frequently takes me out of the story when watching movies is perfect, overproduced images – when everything in the frame looks glossy and even – like a Marvel movie. We did not try to emulate a film look – (there’s nothing quite like it!) – but we did take inspiration from traditional film photography such as over/under exposing the sensor and shot on an Alexa Mini with vintage lenses. Images from American film photographer Todd Hido were also on many early mood boards.
What can we expect from you next?
I am working on a new film. Every Year We Go To Heaven is a feature length mystery thriller steeped in style and violence. It follows a woman on the day she abandons her family for a new lover. The dysfunctional couple cross paths with an unhinged mother and son who claim they’re being hunted every year by an inhuman force. The script is production-ready with a shooting schedule and budget. We’re currently seeking a partner to bring the film to life!