Writer/producer/director JEREMY BERG sees his latest movie, the alien infused THE DEVICE, released in the UK on March 23rd. The film centres on a small group who discover a strange alien sphere and then find things taking a turn for the worst. We got to speak to Jeremy about the film, his own thoughts on alien existence, and what other projects he’s got on the horizon…
STARBURST: For those not familiar with The Device, how would you describe the film?
Jeremy Berg: Well it’s a sort of horror film, an alien abduction film, but it’s done very much in the style of the classic X-Files television show. A little more low-key psychological thriller. It’s one of those things where you watch the film and you’re supposed to question whether it’s happening or if this is not happening, and there’s some clues along the way. And that way I had a lot of fun, as it’s not such an in-your-face gore-fest, it’s more like a haunted house story or a ghost story.
So where did the initial concept come from?
The concept came from a kernel of an idea I had which was basically a group of friends go out to the woods and find this object that may or may not be of earthly origin. It was a very small idea to begin with that we kind of grew into what The Device became. The reason I wanted to do something with that idea was because I thought it would be fun to explore how finding this object would change these people and change their relationships with one another. So it basically came out of that idea - an interesting place within that concept.
And was it always the plan to make the actual sphere a key trigger in the film’s story?
Yes, it’s very much like the incident that sort of sets everything up. You see the situation of these characters, the reality of this situation and what these characters are up to, then finding this object takes everything in a new direction that they weren’t prepared for.
The film is an intimate tale in regards to focussing purely on only a few select characters.
It’s totally true because if you had too many characters then you wouldn’t be able to dig into their relationships. We’re able to with a smaller cast. That sort of interplay with the characters and how it changes them, to me, was one of the things that was really enticing, digging into their relationships and learning how those people really were because I wanted to see the reality of that situation might be, how it might affect people in real life if something like this were to happen.
You’ve mentioned The X-Files, but were there any other films or TV shows that served as inspiration here?
A lot of the classic horror films, like Rosemary’s Baby is a big inspiration for me. That film is really good at getting under your skin and being creepy even though you don’t really know what’s going on. I really love that film. I love The Shining and films of that nature. I love it when films create a mood, and the mood is sort of what affects you and gets under your skin more-so than anything that they’re showing overtly on the screen.
The Device is more about the changes in mood to the central characters than just focussing on the alien presence. Is it a case that the films you mentioned were more of an inspiration than the straightforward alien films that many may expect?
I think that what’s interesting to me is I love all kinds of movies and all kinds of horror movies, but sitting in the house and watching something, there’s definitely a broad range of film genres that I find entertaining. When you’re actually making a movie, you have to really think about what you want to spend years of your life really digging into. To me, as a director, the challenge and the important thing is to try and see if I can replicate that mood. That was one of those things that you have to really bring together with cinematography, with music, with acting. You look at something like The Shining, it’s just amazing at creating a mood. Even from the beginning, even if you haven’t seen the movie, you don’t know what’s going to happen, you definitely feel this culpable sense of wrongness with the situation. You can tell that everything is going to go wrong. You don’t know what’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen, but it’s going to. Roman Polanski in general – he did Rosemary’s Baby – in all his films, he’s wonderful at capturing a mood from start to finish.
When people see The Device on shelves to buy, many will just see it as another alien abduction movie. That’s a crammed subgenre, so what did you strive to do in order to make the film stand out from other similar films?
That’s a good question. For me, I’ve always been interested in alien abduction stories in the real world. I find them fascinating. They’re one of the only monsters that actually could be real, you know? There’s something that’s very frightening about alien abduction, and also frightening because in so many of the stories you’re absolutely helpless; sort of with no power to resist this. There’s a lot of alien abduction stories out there, and some very good ones, but what I’ve noticed is that it can be really difficult with a writer to be contending with that idea that you’re helpless when these creatures come down and abduct you and do whatever they want with you because it takes away the characters’ ability to initiate anything or to be proactive. I wanted to explore the idea of what this actually might do to these people in real life if they were in this situation. But then the device itself, the object, also gave me a way to try to make the characters proactive in their situation and not just be victims but to try to do something. Obviously, it spirals out of control and gets out of hand very quickly, but that’s sort of what I wanted to do with the subject matter.
The other similar films that are out there, are there any particular favourites of yours? A lot of people have compared The Device to The Fourth Kind or Under the Skin, so are they something you looked at?
I actually haven’t seen The Fourth Kind, so I can’t comment on that one. I love a lot of movies. I really love Communion the book, but the movie doesn’t completely deliver on the book. I feel like the movie of Communion has parts that really deliver, so I loved those moments. And Fire in the Sky is just overall probably the most terrifying alien abduction movie. That’s a little higher concept than The Device; ours is a little more low-key, like a lot of The X-Files tone shifts when we deal with alien abduction. But I really do like those movies a lot. Under the Skin, that’s a really interesting one. I did really enjoy that movie and I did enjoy the ambiguity of it – it’s much less abstract. I do find the visuals of that film to be really compelling.
We guess it’s safe to say that you’re a firm believer of “the truth is out there” and that there’s life on other planets?
I certainly am. I love alien abduction stories and my fascination with them is that my mother had a close encounter. She wasn’t abducted or anything like that but she did see some UFOs actually landing. She has one of the more compelling stories about seeing UFOs and having one of those encounters. So I think that growing up and hearing that story led me to reading about other stories and just definitely being fascinated by that. I’m definitely a believer and that’s one of the things that made doing this film really attractive to me, exploring that idea a little bit. I do think it’s fascinating that this phenomenon could be real and how horrifying it is.
And we have to ask, what was your mother’s experience like then?
It’s really interesting because it was my mom and my dad in a car together, driving home. They were on a road trip and it was night time. There are actually pieces of the story that fit into the story that Rebecca tells in The Device, though obviously the story is dramatised and taken to the next level. She came over a hill and saw three UFOs sort of landed, and they happened to drive by them. She’s a very open minded person, she’s into a lot of new-age thought and ideas, just open to the possibilities. So this situation, for her, was probably the most terrifying thing she’d ever encountered. Ask her about it and she’d talk about how otherworldly the experience was. It’s trying to wrap your head around what these things were and how they made you feel, just something that she can’t really comprehend because you have no basis for relating to it. So those are the things that I think about, that these things are more terrifying and these beings are from another world and they exist but you can’t even relate to them on any level because they’re so different that you have no basis for trying to understand them. I think that’s one of those things that make it really horrifying.
So were there any alien beings or was it just the vessels that your mother saw then?
Yeah, it was just the vessels. She wasn’t abducted or anything, but they definitely saw these vessels that were… she described them much like in some other stories where maybe they have their own glow. They had like a greenish hue to them. They were just very otherworldly. You definitely put it in a different context when it’s somebody that you know so closely. I also think that there’s a lot of abduction stories out there. It’s interesting reading them. I don’t believe they’re all real by any stretch, but it’s interesting to read them and piece together what you think the truth of it is and to see the parallel of these stories.
With yourself and your work as a filmmaker, are there any directors that you like to try and pull elements from?
Growing up I was just a usual kid and the things that really attracted me were the more big blockbusters like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. But I also grew up on a lot of horror films as well. I was watching horror films from a way too young age, too. I was too young to be watching the films I was watching, but at the same time I had an older brother, seven years older than me, who would go and rent movies. He would rent horror films and I just couldn’t keep myself out of the room. It terrified me but I also wanted to watch the movies, I was attracted to them. So I saw a lot of horror films from a young age, things like Alien, which is probably one of my favourite films of all time. There were the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, Friday the 13th, all those films. Then as I got older I started to branch out into other forms of movies. For me, it was watching Seven Samurai. Watching that film is what made me branch out even further and make me consider working in the film industry as a director.
You’ve written and produced films as well as the ones you’ve directed, so where do you see your career going from here?
I definitely have a love of many different genres and I want to continue directing. I want to try my hand at a lot of different genres and keep improving, just getting better. I love writing, it’s something I’ve always done even before deciding to be a filmmaker. I’ve always written in some capacity so it’s the medium that I feel most comfortable with. I’m also just a really visual person and I love filmmakers and storytellers who are very visual, so that’s something I want to try to keep achieving with my directing. Working at these lower budget levels, you have to make do with what you have. To that extent, I’m very proud what my crew and I were able to accomplish with what we had. I think that we definitely go above ourselves. At the same time, to talk about one of the genres I might like to attach myself to, I still love horror and I definitely have horror ideas that I’m wanting to explore and get made, but at the same time I also love a lot of genre pictures. The one thing I’m writing right now is more a crime thriller. It’s not a horror at all but it might be something like Terrence Malick’s Badlands. I love suspense and I love tension, so there’s things that I’d like to explore as I move forward in my directing.
With The Device, it’s obviously not a multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster. How did you deal with the restrictions in place in terms of the budget, the sets, etc?
A lot of it is budgetary, right? We’re not like big Hollywood filmmakers so we have to kind of make do with the budget that we can get at this point. And so far, we’re doing a good job of getting bigger and bigger budgets for the films that we make. The Device was really very small and it was about trying to hide the limitations, especially working with special effects. We made a practical alien suit. For us, it’s trying to make the suit scary. They did mysterious and tried to not show it for what it is, which works for my style. I think one of the brilliant things Ridley Scott did with Alien was he kept the alien in the shadows. To an extent, that works for me in general, but with the budget restrictions you definitely have to consider that as a practical move as well. Me, I tried to hide the alien in the shadows as much as possible because what you don’t see is the most frightening. And a lot of the restrictions came down to time. We didn’t really have a lot of time to shoot. Time is money, and the more money you have then the more days you can have. That’s a nice luxury to have. We’d rather have more time than less but you have to use what you can get. Then on top of that, the last thing would be equipment. So long as you have a camera and a strap pod, you can make a movie. If you don’t have a lot of equipment you sometimes have to bring your vision down a scale a little bit or find a way that you can get what you want without all of the equipment that you might like to have.
And what are you working on next?
My production company and I, the October People, we’re just continuing to make movies. Last year, we produced a movie called Valley of the Sasquatch with John Portanova. He’s a big Bigfoot fan, so this for him was sort of his directorial debut and a love letter to classic ‘80s creature features. It’s more fun and it’s something that he’s passionate about doing. So we have that doing festivals right now, and then we’re also producing a feature from a writer/director named Elias called A.
Is that with Tristan Risk?
That’s the one, yes. We have a casting call for that and there’s people we’re talking to. That one is going on and we’re pushing that forward. That’s the one. Tristan Risk is involved and we’re currently producing that. We’re really excited to work with her.