ZACHARY DONOHUE is the director and co-writer of THE DEN, an exciting new horror film which premièred at the recent Film4 FrightFest. The tale of a young woman who happens across the activities of a serial killer online, it's best described as REAR WINDOW for the Internet generation. STARBURST was lucky enough to catch up with Zach before the film's première, where we chatted all things web-based, found footage, and YouTube...
STARBURST: How does it feel having The Den's UK première at such an impressive event as FrightFest?
Zachary Donohue: I am truly honoured to be featured in this year's festival. The line-up is absolutely incredible - and to be shown alongside many of these awesome movies is humbling. I wish I could attend, but it's thrilling nonetheless. Unfortunately, I can't attend as I'm still very much a starving artist. But I've seen The Guest already in the states and it blew me away. I can't wait to check out Starry Eyes. And as a huge fan of Eli Roth, The Green Inferno is something I've been looking forward to for a while.
We thought the film was great, are you pleased with the overall critical reception so far?
Thank you! Yes, I am. I think overall the movie has been well received by most critics - both in the horror sphere and out... and that's been really exciting for a first time director like me to hear. And even some of the negative reviews have helped shine a lot on things that I could improve upon for whatever I do next. So overall I've enjoyed the process.
For the unaware, how would you sum up The Den?
Told entirely on someone's computer desktop using webcams and internet browsers, The Den is a modern horror movie about a young woman who witnesses a murder online and becomes wrapped up in solving the mystery. But as she dives deeper into her investigation, she soon realizes that her family and friends have now been targeted by the very killer she's trying to catch.
So how did the idea for the film come about?
When my writing partner Lauren and I first moved to LA four years ago, we took a job working for this random videochat site (much like Chatroulette or Omegle) that basically wanted us to poll its users on their experience with the site. And over the course of our online journey, we met a lot of weirdos, exhibitionists, and perverts - and we just realised, "wow, this is such a great playground for a surreal horror movie." And from there, we just let the dark part of our imaginations run wild.
Was the distinctive style of filming always part of the plan, or did the story come first?
Yes. We knew from day one that we wanted to tell the story entirely through the protagonist's computer screen. It felt like we were breaking new ground. We wanted the websites and the Apps to be characters in and of themselves. I also felt that the singular nature of a webcam POV allows for a really oppressive atmosphere from the get-go. Because there are no traditional cutaway angles, the audience is at the mercy of whatever is on screen before them.
Talking of the style of filming – how would you describe The Den? It's been most commonly referred to as 'found footage', but that doesn't seem to quite do it justice.
The movie is more akin to a "screen capture" or a "live stream." In fact, at one point in the development process I had toyed around with calling the movie Screen Capture. But yeah, found footage usually assumes that the movie already took place and you the audience member are watching it months after the fact. For this, it's more meant to be that this movie could be unfolding right now. And that there's a sense of immediacy - both thematically and emotionally.
Were you wary of making a film many will describe as 'found footage' – bearing in mind how many films in the subgenre are about today?
When we first started working on the movie it was 2011 and I feel like the found footage movement hadn't quite reached its zenith as it has today. But it seems like as we delivered the movie a few months ago, we released alongside a plethora of other ones... so no, I had no idea there would be such a surplus of found footage movies when we started.
But that's not to say that I discredit any of them or that I regret making one. Honestly, I think people put too much stock in labels (especially when it comes to horror movies) and I think that people should just enjoy a movie for what it is and what it's trying to do, regardless of whether it feels like it's part of a trend. All that matters is: did the movie move you (or rattle you) in some way?
What steps did you take to avoid the many clichés which go with the format?
I never really thought about what I didn't want to do or things I should avoid - I concentrated more on what kind of scares I thought would be cool for the concept.
Writing the film, did that take a lot of research? Did you spend much time trawling such websites as Chatroulette and so on, looking for inspiration?
Yes, after the initial gig ended, I went back on Chatroulette by myself and recorded a bunch of conversations and just noted the funniest/most bizarre interactions I had. I watched a lot of other people's videos of Chatrouletting escapades that are posted on YouTube. And I also watched videos of conversations that my girlfriend had by herself on the site - I think there's certainly a huge difference between how people on Chatroulette interact with women as opposed to men... and that's a theme I wanted to explore in the movie.
What's your opinion of such websites? Harmless fun, or something a little more sinister?
I think these websites can be used for both good and evil - it just depends on who is on there. The fact that these websites can connect people from all parts of the world is cool... and I once saw a video where a bunch of elderly people in the US were able to connect with kids from another country to learn a new language - and I think that that type of connection is how the internet can be a really exciting place these days.
But on the other hand, there's always going to be a group of people who want to subvert these kinds of sites for their own ends - and that's what I wanted to say with the ending of the movie. That the more connected we are, the more danger we invite into our lives... and the anonymous nature of the Internet is something to always be mindful of.
With that in mind, what's the worst thing you've ever found online?
On these types of websites, generally the worst thing you can see is a penis or a masturbating man staring intently into his webcam.
How did actress Melanie Papalia come to be involved?
She came in to audition and she blew us away. After she read the scenes, we just knew that she was perfect for it.
The film seems to end openly enough in a way that lends itself to a sequel or franchise. Is that a plan, somewhere along the way?
Not as of yet. I would certainly consider it if someone seriously approached me about it, but in my mind, I said all I needed to say about the subject matter. But then again, as technology advances in the next few years and social networking morphs with it, a new story might start to take shape for a sequel.
The film has been described as a modern day version of Rear Window. What other horror films and directors do you enjoy and have been inspired by?
The Shining is my all-time favourite. For this film, I was greatly influenced by Bob Clark's Black Christmas and John Carpenter's Halloween.
What are you working on next?
I just finished a new horror script that's a contained monster movie and it's not found footage this time.
Will you stay within horror for future work, or do you plan to move within other genres?
I would love to continue to learn more and grow in the horror sphere, but I also don't want to limit myself to just horror alone - as I love many types of movies.
Finally, in keeping with the Internet theme, can you share with us your favourite YouTube video?
Here's a video that I think is very much in the spirit of The Den...
THE DEN is currently awaiting a UK release date, but is out now on DVD/Blu-ray/VOD in the States.
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