Playing like some bizarre public information film on the dangers of outdoor activities, I Didn’t Come Here to Die follows the outrageous misfortunes of a group of volunteers who set up camp in the woods to work on a project for kids. Too much booze and a bizarre accident with a tree branch spark a series of absurd events and spiralling violence. Jon Towlson talks to director Bradley Scott Sullivan about his deranged debut. Careful with that chainsaw!
Starburst: How much of I Didn’t Come Here to Die is from your own experience?
Bradley Scott Sullivan: A lot of it! Obviously the deaths and the gore didn’t actually happen. It would be terrible if it did! But the whole genesis of the movie came from serving in a volunteer organisation similar to the one in the movie.
The one I was doing, there were a lot more people, it was a little better organised. It had fourteen people but I had to narrow it down to six for the movie. But we really did travel, do volunteer work, we were stuck with power tools. We had a project where we lived in the woods for three months in tents and really didn’t have any towns nearby for a hundred miles or so, we really did rely on satellite phones and things like that. The characters are amalgamations of people from that and other people that I’ve met throughout life, but really the terrible accidents that happen in the film are my hypochondria playing out what could have gone wrong while we were out there! I grew up interested in films and avoided manual labour my whole life up until then. Then all of a sudden you’re thrust out in the wilderness and they throw a chainsaw in your hand and my brain just goes to “Oh, my God, there’s ten thousand ways I could die from this!” The movie’s just me playing that out in hopefully a fun way.
The situation builds in its absurdity as things spiral out of control – how did you approach the scriptwriting?
Unfortunately I’m not a very disciplined writer. I need to learn to just sit down in front of the computer and just force myself like a regular job, those hours, days of sitting there. So what I did when I was developing the movie is I would just go for walks and just think about it, play it out in my head. I probably looked like a crazy person because I’d be talking out loud or mumbling to myself. It took a while to break the story, because with it being a horror movie I said, “well, what is the element?” I had the set up and premise but I said to myself “where does the horror element come in? Are they working on an ancient burial ground? Did one of the people get possessed? Are there angry hillbillies out in the woods?” Whenever I would go down those paths none of it excited me and I would just get angry and shove it aside and say, that’s just stupid, I wouldn’t want to see that movie. And then finally I just said one day “what if there wasn’t a killer at all, what if it was just people’s own misdoings”, and when I started thinking about that and what it could lead into, it was just so much more fun to think about and write. It really wrote itself from there.
You shot the film in Texas, partly around Austin. What was behind your decision to do that?
It was just based on the fact that that’s where I was living at the time. Austin’s a very film-friendly town – a lot of people that are interested in independent film in particular live down there – and I had just met the right group of people that are interested in film. The composer I met down there. He also did the sound on the movie, recorded it on set. Everything happened to be right there. Someone knew where we could get a location. We had so little money and so little time that it just worked out that was the only way we could do it. Originally when I was thinking about it, it was to take place in a much more lush forest environment but I think Texas worked too, I think there’s a creepiness to how dry and desolate it is. So it was based on circumstance at the time.
The film is rich with movie references, one of them is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - was that a deliberate reference in I Didn’t Come Here to Die?
There are a lot of references in the film that people point out. Sometimes they’re intentional, sometimes I think they just get built into your psyche from seeing films. There’s a music cue at the end that everyone is one hundred per cent certain is an homage to Friday the 13th. I didn’t even notice it when I was watching the movie so I went and asked the composer. He said “No, I’ve never even seen those movies.” He’s not really into horror films. I don’t know what it is – everyone reads his own thing into it. Texas Chainsaw, I think indirectly. You’re trying to set up your own thing, you don’t want people to think that you’re copying anything. But anything in there from that movie in particular, I think might be somewhat unintentional, just from the sake of seeing other films that were influenced by everything and you can’t help but have little things that cross over. The films that directly influenced it are probably a little more modern. I Didn’t Come Here To Die probably comes off a little retro but some of the films that we watched to prepare for it, like Cabin Fever, there’s a couple of direct influences, an homage is in there. High Tension, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane actually shot at the same gas station that we stopped at in the beginning, and actually Danny Boyle’s movie, Shallow Grave is probably one of the larger direct influences.
I Didn’t Come Here to Die has been likened to an Israeli horror film called Rabies. Have you seen it?
I did see it. They both played at the Mile High Horror Film Festival in Denver, Colorado in 2011 so I got to see it there. I thought it was a great film, I really enjoyed it. I’ve seen that come up a lot, and also people compare the premise to Tucker and Dale and what’s tough is that I Didn’t Come Here to Die is getting distribution at the tail end of those films. It almost feels like now it’s a subgenre – ‘people undo themselves and they’re the enemy’ – whereas all the movies shot at the same time and just by nature of being independent films it takes a long time for them to come out. (The film was finished and got its premiere in Austin in December 2010 but is only now getting a release.)
Tell us a bit about your background – what led to you making I Didn’t Come Here to Die?
At 22 I decided to move down to Austin because my idol growing up was always Robert Rodriguez, and I’d known I wanted to make an independent movie of my own since the beginning of time. I was reading his book (Rebel Without a Crew) in high school, seeing those movies and listening to those commentaries. I didn’t really know what to do. I knew I couldn’t afford to go to LA and that seemed kind of scary because I come from a small town in Wisconsin so I thought “maybe I’ll make a baby step in going to Austin”. So I went out there and I worked as a production assistant on films. I was actually able to work on a Robert Rodriguez movie, a children’s flick that he did called Shorts and some other films out there. That got me some work as a production assistant in a film out in Los Angeles and because I had some of my own camera equipment I volunteered to shoot some behind the scenes on that film. By the time that was over the producer asked me “What are you doing now?” and I said “I’m going back to Austin, I really want to try to get this little movie made”. She’d liked what I’d done for their film so much that she said “I’d love to read it”. And when she’d read the script she said, “Let’s do this, let’s get this made.” I had a budget planned out and everything. That was Kim Waltrip. So she produced the movie and then we’ve worked together on another project since then.
You also shot I Didn’t Come Here To Die. How did you get its distinctive look?
With an indie film it’s always about working within your limits. In my head this movie was going to be my take on the ‘90s slashers like Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend and all that kind of thing, so I always saw it as a very sleek, very clean kind of movie. But then as you start realising you have less and less money and less and less time, you start working around it and so it became what it is just out of necessity. In a way that I love because I love low-budget shaky pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps sort of film-making. Would I be my own DoP again? I don’t know. There was a necessity there too – we didn’t have the budget to hire a separate DoP and I knew how to work a camera. We shot the whole movie in seven days. That’s all we had. I knew what shots we needed and what I could do in that amount of time and we did it. I don’t know if the film would have benefitted from its own separate cinematographer but I don’t think the movie would have got done had I not done that. In future films I would love to have other people stepping in to the other roles. The only thing I could see wanting to do again is edit – I love the editing process and figuring the movie out from there but there’re much more talented directors of photography than myself out there.
The actors are all strong. How did you come up with the cast?
I had only shot short films up until we made this movie and I was kind of scared to work with actors. I was always strong on the technical side of filmmaking – the shooting and the editing and the special effects – but actors, real life people, especially in today’s social media world, interacting with real people - that’s the scary part I think! Austin again is a very film-friendly town and so luckily there are a lot of outlets to go through. We posted it up on the Texas Film Commission site and some other sites, and we were able to get the back room of a coffee shop, rent it out for free and we just held auditions over the course of two days. People came in, we videotaped them and then narrowed it down. Some people came in and they were just exactly the right person, like Jeremy Vandermaus – when we saw him there was nobody else. We had a little apartment we rented as a production office and we had call-backs there and emailed the final tapes off to the producer in LA and she said “I like this one and this one”. We all talked about it and narrowed it down from there.
It’s great that Second Sight came on board for the UK distribution. What’s next for you?
I’ve got other scripts that I’d love to get on but the thing is that it’s almost been a three year full time job just trying to keep up with all the stuff for I Didn’t Come Here To Die. Now that the distributors are coming on it’s great because they’ll set up everything but up until then it’s been a one man band with me contacting festivals and doing all that stuff. It’s been tough to focus on writing or thinking about another project but I’ve got a bunch of other horror films that I’d love to do!
I DIDN'T COME HERE TO DIE is released on DVD April 15th and is reviewed here.