(2013, 90 mins, color, Red Epic, dir. Larry Fessenden)

BENEATH | cast | crew | notes | press | comic | score | trailer | press kit | BENEATHTHEWATER.COM



BENEATH was designed to be a spare allegorical tale about the tragic inability of people to rise above their differences even in the face of a grave threat. The pettiness of the kids in the boat muddles their response to the danger they are in, and they are unable to save themselves. Even as I made this harsh statement on humanity, I had affection for the characters individually and wanted to respect them, so we worked to give them their dignity. But how did we end up on the lake to begin with...?

I was called into the Chiller office at 30 Rock one afternoon to pitch some stories for their new batch of origi- nal features. My company, Glass Eye Pix, has been making low-budget genre films since the 90’s-- some of them have been quite successful: Ti West’s THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and THE INNKEEPERS, Jim Mick- le’s STAKE LAND, Glenn McQuaid’s I SELL THE DEAD and my own THE LAST WINTER and WENDIGO. We’ve made some pretty great smaller films by less celebrated directors as well, so I was confident we could give Chiller what they wanted at a budget. When the meeting ended, the jefe said he liked the pitches, but he wondered if I might look at a property they already owned. It was called BENEATH: six teenagers on a rowboat being attacked by a giant fish. I was hooked.

JAWS had been a seminal film for me. I still say it’s my favorite movie, even though I don’t really believe in ranking things that way. Let me be clear: I saw JAWS six times in the theater the summer it came out, I built a six-foot replica of the Orca in the family garage, and I wore a hat like Robert Shaw’s for three months. I had been obsessed with sharks since I was a kid. I knew what they looked like, and I knew the shark in JAWS looked fake-- but that didn’t bother me; I’d grown up on fake-looking monsters from old movies and they still captured my imagination.

I loved the idea of making a movie on the water with a giant fish. But what really struck me about the script by Tony Daniel and Brian Smith was that the central construct of the story was how the kids in the boat turned on each other and became more vicious adversaries to each other than the fish itself.

I met with the writers and requested they make some adjustments to the script. I suggested we keep all the action on the boat and let the back-story of the characters’ relationships be revealed as events unfolded. Tony and Brian were very accommodating. They had written the script some time ago and seemed happy to breathe new life into it. Once their draft was done, I made final refinements to accommodate the 8-act structure that the TV movie format called for. Every form of filmmaking requires compromise and negotia- tion. I like the challenge of working with restrictions, be it budget, schedule or otherwise. Here we had a movie with six teenagers being eaten alive one by one, and they couldn’t utter a single swear word. Now that’s a restriction!

There was never any doubt the fish should be a practical effect. I’ve had my share of hardships bringing creatures to screen at a budget, but I was excited to try again. We needed a ten-foot fish that could swim on its own. I designed the fish in a Photoshop amalgam of real creatures. I wanted a prehistoric-looking thing-- part fish, part alligator-- that would have an alternative to a shark fin, but whose presence was still known by something cutting through the water’s surface: Porcupine quills seemed right... We hired Fractured FX out of Hollywood to make the massive rubber puppet.

We cast the film out of New York with Lois Drabkin who was able to introduce us to the huge talent pool of New York up-and-coming actors. I wanted to expand on the inherent clichés of the story (a jock, a nerd, a babe... etc.) and find committed performers who would elevate the material. The final pieces of the puzzle were to find the older gentleman, Mr. Parks-- and an unexpected first victim, Deb. Mark Margolis is a New York actor I have admired since Aronofsky’s PI came out back when I released HABIT. It was a tremendous occasion when we landed Mark for the role. Finally, America’s sweetheart from the long-running 7TH HEAVEN, Mackenzie Rosman, all grown up but permanently youthful, brought the right spunk to our first hapless victim.

Our cast in place, we needed to figure out how to make this flick in 18 days, the amount of time our budget would allow. We built a barge of plywood and barrels and anchored it in the middle of a lake in Connecticut. On that barge we put a 20-foot jib arm. We brought in a crew of 50 that had to be shuttled, six at a time, from shore to set. They say that shooting on water reduces the productivity by half, so I like to say we shot the whole movie in 9 days.

Working with D.P. Gordon Arkenberg, I designed the entire movie in storyboards, little scribbles I drew and Gordon had to interpret. We had a model of the lake, the boat, the characters and the fish, and we blocked the whole film in advance; then Gordon had to map out how to position the barge and the boats to maintain a consistent key light (the sun) and avoid the shadow of the jib arm.

In designing the film I wanted to try to achieve a lyricism and fluidity to the camerawork that would empha- size a dream-like inevitability to the plight of the characters, suggesting they were doomed by a series of little choices that led to their predicament. I hoped to show that they were absurdly close to shore and yet trapped on the boat, with each other; In essence, to create an existential “no-exit” experience for the viewer, like in Bunuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL where no one can leave the living room. The film starts in a dream and keeps getting pulled back into dream-like passages that emphasize the sadness, futility and self-imposed nastiness of the kids’ plight.

The fish puppet was a challenge to manage, and we usually had only an hour at the end of the day to work with it, as a great deal of prep would go into orchestrating each fish shot. But again, my hope was to create images with the fish that were evocative and strange, eschewing any specific attempt to make it “scary”. The fish is without malice, but is persistent and plodding and big and insatiable—it is amoral, like fate, like nature itself. The malice in the story comes from the kids, who in their mounting dread reveal a wealth of pent-up jealousies and petty grievances that cause them to turn on each other with remarkable ease.

We moved into post-production as soon as shooting ended. I cut in Avid for the first time since early 2001; it was good to be back. This was my first digital film, and I took advantage of some of the expanded opportunities allowed by the digital realm: reframing and speed changes are a breeze when they don’t incur lab expenses. We had Neal Jonas work on numerous subtle visual effects to enhance the fish and massage the image.

To move in and out of an altered reality, I worked with long-time Glass Eye Pix collaborator Graham Reznick to sculpt a soundscape that heightened the sense of futility and menace. I wanted the most explicit scary music to be under the characters talking. It was my first outing with composer Will Bates of Fall On Your Sword, and we sought to create a score that had aspects of regret, melancholy and tension built out of unexpected instrumentation.

The tone of BENEATH is particularly tricky, as I wanted to capture sincerity and satire, melancholy and menace all skewed with a certain heightened reality that places the story in the realm of allegory. From start to finish, I saw this project as a way to express my deep frustration with our inability as a society to make any progress in our public sphere. We are literally like kids stranded in a boat unwilling to band together and combat the adversity that always comes, and that can only really be addressed by working together. Are we in fact doomed to drift stupidly in a sinking vessel while a big fish stalks...?

WhatThe Zeke? | What's in Black Lake

BENEATH | cast | crew | notes | press | comic | score | trailer | press kit | BENEATHTHEWATER.COM