The “bad things in the woods” horror subgenre has gotten something of a shot in the arm lately, with films such as The VVitch and Annihilation toying with audiences’ perceptions of what they can expect out of such stories. Add to that mix The Axiom, a visually stunning, independent horror film that starts off in familiar territory – a group of attractive young adults head into the woods in search of a missing friend – but avoids the use of slasher killers, mutant hillbillies or other, more traditional monsters in favor of a story with a more fantastical bent.
When I reviewed The Axiom for Dread Central in late 2017 the film was still seeking distribution, but has since found a home with Vertical Entertainment for a February 12th release. In anticipation, Brainwaves presents an interview with the film’s writer-director Nicholas Woods, who was kind enough to answer some questions about the film and its production.
Brainwaves: First off, I’d like to ask you about the casting process. Specifically, how did you find this cast of remarkable and diverse actors and then earn their trust to the point that they were really willing to put it all out there for your film?
Nicholas Woods: Casting was an interesting process on this film. We could not afford a casting director, so me and the Producer of the film, Max Landwirth, did it ourselves. We rented a spot in central LA, put out large casting notices, and did many days of first round casting. Then we narrowed it down to five potentials for each role, some roles only two potentials. Only one role did we nearly just offer in the room, and that was for the role of Edgar played by Taylor Flowers. He was one of the last people we saw in the first round, and just captured exactly what I imagined. The lead role for McKenzie was a tougher decision. This is because I have had a long time working relationship with Hattie Smith, ranging back to college. I knew she was talented, and loved working with her, but I really made her work for it by auditioning with everyone else, until the last round. I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t casting her because it would be great to work with my friend, but because she was best for the role. It’s a wonderful thing when those two things meet, like it did here.
BW: How did William Kircher get involved?
NW: His agent saw the breakdown and contacted us. We were keeping the auditions for the role of “Leon”, the character William Kircher plays in the film, pretty select. I loved the Hobbit series, so when I saw that William’s agent contacted us I was very excited. We brought him in, had him read, and he brought such a new side to Leon… The things he was doing excited me, so we cast him. You never know after casting how someone will be on set, however. It’s an easy thing for someone to present themselves one way, then you get to set, and they act completely differently, not just in the role, but maybe interacting with the crew. With William it was such a pleasure. He was so supportive of the film, and the world we wanted to build. I couldn’t have asked for a better collaboration from such a seasoned professional.
BW: The core group in the film really do come across like actual friends, as opposed to, say, the “Hollywood idea” of what friendships are like. The film does a great job in communicating that real life aspect of friendships where you may like some friends more than others (and some may get on your nerves a bit), but everyone within the group tends to still have genuine affection for one another. Was this something that you had to work at with the cast, or did they just immediately gel in that way?
NW: That is the hardest thing to do on a set. Having to act a pre-established and long time relationship, when in reality you only met these people very recently, is hard. As a director you do your best to find people who are going to vibe together, but ultimately it is up to the actor how deep they want to go with the others they are cast with. I am still in disbelief and count myself very grateful for how far these actors wanted to go to make these relationships real. A major credit is also due to (Producer) Max Landwirth, who did two things brilliantly that helped guide the actors into real friendships. First, he signed the five up for an “Escape Room” experience in LA. Working together in a scary circumstance was exactly what was needed to break the ice. This could work for any film or work party to bring people close together quickly. The second thing he did was house them in a separate cabin from the crew. This let them just live together when they were away from set, really only seeing each other. It was so smart, because it was like a rehearsal for their relationships that happens naturally while we we’re all technically not working.
BW: The “don’t go in the woods” subgenre of horror has its roots in folklore and fairy tales, yet is still going strong today. What is it about this subgenre that you think gives it such a lasting appeal, and what was it about it that drew you to it?
NW: I’m drawn to this sub genre because the woods are so vast. Similar to the ocean deep, our imaginations give plausible probability that anything is possible there. And in history bad things do go down in the woods. It’s private, secluded from most civilization. So, as for story telling, you are already in the right spot, because it will be hard for your characters to get help. Similar to the ocean, with “Jaws”. So there is a pretty infinite number of possibility for what could be out there. But naming random crazy things that could be there is easy. We are all, in the end, drawn by the monsters, remember the monsters… but really with our favorites of these types of films, it is the great characters that deal with the monsters that are the real prize. They have to be good. They have to be interesting, real people that we care about or we will never remember the super cool monsters that try to eat them.
BW: How did you go about the process of taking a concept as fantastical – and potentially expensive – as this one and communicating it to an audience in a compelling manner, while still also maintaining a smaller budget?
NW: Well the first thing was exploring the axiom that was possible to explore under these circumstances. There are axioms which lead to other worlds with monsters that are either too large or wouldn’t be right under a small budget. The Pale Ones inhabit bodies, raise people from the dead… They come off as similar to a demon possession tale, so this world worked well because we were mostly going to be dealing with humans raised from the dead, until we meet the creatures behind the necromancy. So knowing what is possible under your budget is pretty key. Practical effects on a budget this low are hard due to scheduling. It takes one make up artist moving very fast about 6 hours, if not more, to make a practical monster by themselves. And we still had other bruising and blood continuity to keep up with. So you make a monster, it looks cool, great. But you only have about 2-3 hours to shoot with it once it is done (factoring lunch and breaking down each day). So on a budget this tight, and a schedule this tight it was tough, but where there’s a will…
BW: What do the creatures in the film represent to you, both visually and metaphorically? I’ve read that you thought of the Pale Ones as being a sort of corruption of the human form, is that right?
NW: I hope to one day get into the whole of the axioms and what they all mean collectively, as each world is unique. In this film we visit two. (Within the first one are) the Pale Ones that inhabit human bodies, like a spirit possessing the living, as well as raising the deceased. I wanted to look at established rules of possession either by film or by religious standards, and give those a voice. In movies we know ghosts and demons are constantly trying to incite fear. Quoting Shutter Island “fear rots the brain” and it’s true. This is why it is believed that spirits try to spook us, scare us, because it is easier to possess us once we are broken down. In most movies we see them broken down, then we see them possessed. I wanted to spend some time on the moment right before possession. I wanted to see the demon convincing the person to give in. Having your insecurities battle it out, your greatest struggles in life, your biggest failures all come to collision in this moment where this creature attempts to get you to let go, and let the more superior being in. So we played a lot with that. The metaphorical intrigue here I believe comes from the characters in the film, and not from the monsters, however. Monsters in the end are like animals, unless we can discover more about their anatomy and morality. They may just function. This would make the real monsters the town who surrounds the axiom and the people who do not prevent others from wandering into it.
BW: I’m pretty sure that I heard the Pale Ones referred to as “draugr” at one point, presumably after the creatures from Norse mythology. Was that just a name that you chose for its phonetics, or were there specific attributes of the draugr from folklore that you latched onto?
NW: Yes, they are pretty much a direct reference to Norse mythology. I love Norse mythology. It’s so weird, and spooky, and violent. I love Viking culture for the same reasons. These creatures we call “Drogyr” as they are not exactly like the Nordic mythos but quite similar. The draugr are the dead that can animate back to life, where here the Drogyr are the ones doing the raising, as well as manipulating and confusing the living to lead them to death. More toys for them to play with.
BW: Ever had any real world spooky woods experiences?
NW: Oh yes. In fact the scariest one, still unexplained, happened on the set of The Axiom. We were about 10 days into shooting. We were shooting a scene where one character gets injured badly and has to be brought back into the cabin outpost so the characters can assess the situation. That location is small and we were doing a long move with the camera, so everyone, myself included, was outside next to the cabin watching the monitor. I call action, the scene starts. It’s an intense scene, crying, pain, etc. But out of my headphones, very, very far away out in the forest I hear: “Help! Someone. Someone help!” My blood freezes. I ask Max and our DP Sten Olson if they hear it too – hoping I haven’t fully lost it. They hear it too. I first panic, thinking it could be a crew member. Max races away to do a headcount. The scene is still going on. No one inside knows the panic now happening outside. I try and focus back on the scene. It ends. Max returns, says everyone on set is accounted for. It’s not one of us. I call for another take, and ask Max to see if he can go find out what is going on, and he does. He and two others go out there searching for this person. Take two, three, four all go on… and again we hear this far away, but very clear, “Please help! Someone please help!” There was a possibility someone was fucking with us, but the vocals were so sincere. After take four was done we adjusted for closeups. The guys inside still have no idea, and I wanted to keep it that way, because if we miss this day of shooting I’ll be the one in the woods yelling for help! The land owner comes down, and he says he hears it too, and his house was like a mile away. We were happy to learn an outside party heard it too, and we hadn’t all just gone nuts. He calls the ranger. Ranger says they’re going to call in a helicopter. Selfishly, I probably thought, “That’s gonna fuck up the audio,” so we raced through the rest of our shots until the helicopter came. They never found anyone. We checked on it at the end of our shoot, and still no word. So to this day we don’t know who or what was calling for help.
BW: Early in the film, McKenzie makes the decision to keep the pages of her sister’s journal (as well as the information that Leon gives her) from the rest of the group. What was at the root of that decision on her part, and were you concerned it might cause the audience to turn against her?
NW: Good question. First, I look at what McKenzie wants most of all. She wants to find her sister. So that pretty much dictates everything. If they had her journal and the pages were there I don’t believe Martin would have come. So, you keep a couple pages secret. The ones that say the forest is dangerous, and many people go missing there. I figured most audiences would turn against her in the beginning, for a few reasons I don’t want to spoil. But… she is kind of a bad person in the beginning. The kind of person who would push one of Martin’s friends off a cliff’s edge if it meant getting her sister back. They aren’t her friends, and, honestly, if we all search our hearts and consider the things we would do to save a sibling, I don’t think we’d like the dark answers we would find. So part of the story is McKenzie finding redemption for her actions, and trying to salvage the safety of the group.
BW: I couldn’t help but notice the line “you know, people go missing in national parks all the time”. Were real life disappearances (such as the ones chronicled in books like the Missing 411 series) an influence?
NW: They absolutely were. Funny thing is, we got deep into this after casting, because it was Mr. William Kircher who brought it to my attention. That line in there is one he improvised, because we got so into the history of missing people in national parks and forests. It’s astounding, and so mysterious. He called me one day and was like “You need to check out this article”. That lead us down many rabbit holes, and great conversations on how maybe we can tie these mysteries to the idea that these people didn’t just go missing, they wandered into an axiom and are either dead or living their lives out in some other monster inhabited dimension.
BW: The idea of watching the time grow later and later while the sun remains beaming overhead was one that I found to be genuinely disturbing. And it’s interesting to note that while both your film and the most recent Blair Witch entry toyed with the idea of some unseen force playing with the way time flows in a specific area, Blair Witch used it to keep its characters in the darkness, while The Axiom keeps them trapped in the light. While, obviously, other horror films have taken place primarily in the day before this, they tended to lean more into being of a grittier, less fantastical nature than The Axiom. Was this a practical decision on your part? And if not, what was the thinking behind your idea to keep things in the sunlight for most of the film’s running time?
NW: What’s funny is I wrote it, and showed the draft to someone, and they go “Oh nice, mostly all daylight – that will be great for shooting”, but I never even thought of that. I love day time horrors. It’s all out in the open. But yes, we wanted to make this a bit more whimsical in setting in contrast to the outside world. I also thought it would be interesting to have this beautiful world with dangerous inhabitants. So we had to work to make that happen with location scouts, fogging the scene up, finding practical things to use in the frame, letting the light exaggerate with beauty instead of grit… The grit comes, but in stride with the fantasy.
BW: Some of the influences on The Axiom seem apparent – Evil Dead, Night of the Living Dead, etc. – but I’ve also read that the movie that served as your “gateway drug” into horror was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. While not a movie that would have initially popped into my brain as being an influence, once I considered it I did feel as though I could see a bit of that film’s DNA in the cinematography and the design work of The Axiom. What are some other movies that you took inspiration from that might not be obvious to a first time, or more casual, viewer?
NW: I have a great love of Asian cinema, specifically South Korea films. These are some of the most impactful on me. Chan-Wook Park is one of my greatest inspirations as a film-maker. I absolutely adore him and every film he has made. Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance are two movies that forced me into cinema, so I take pieces of whatever that is with me onto everything I do. Joon-Ho Bong also with his film The Host, which is one of the coolest monster movies in the last 10 years. I Saw the Devil is a fantastic horror film by Jee-Woon Kim. Then of course there is the fantasy legend himself, Guillermo Del Toro. You can’t make a fantasy film without paying homage to him in some way. During our prep DP Sten Olson and I went to his exhibit at the LA County Museum. We took so much inspiration from him, and the things that inspired him. Lastly, H.P. Lovecraft is a major inspiration when it comes to monsters, portals, and horror.
BW: The Axiom features amazing cinematography, courtesy of Sten Olson. How did the two of you go about collaborating in order to achieve the look of the film?
NW: Well, like we discussed, the film is primarily set during the day. But daylight has many varying degrees of temperature, each one changing the look of whatever you are shooting. Anyone who’s been outside once in their lives knows that your backyard has a different quality early in the morning than it does at dead noon. So our look of the film depended a lot on making sure we were shooting certain elements, especially inside the axiom, either very early, or later in the day. Otherwise it didn’t match or look right. But if we shot parts of the film at those exact times, each part of the movie, outside the axiom or inside, would look a certain way, and that was great. It took a lot of scheduling and A LOT of patience on the actor’s part. Sten is brilliant, and honestly I felt like I was going to be under utilizing him on a shoot where there aren’t a ton of lights used. He felt the opposite, as he knew there was a challenge to making day shots look great with little time to manipulate it with fill and shade. Once I saw the difference of what he was doing with the images, I realized how tough the job was that I gave him. He did such a great job, as there is not one frame in the film we aren’t thrilled about, Cinematography wise.
BW: The film seems to be scored almost like a more modern take on the classic, black and white monster movie scores from the 30’s and 40’s. What did you communicate to composer Leo Kaliski regarding what it was you wanted out of the music?
NW: We wanted the axiom the characters go into to dictate the music. So when they go into the second axiom the music vibe changes. But for the Drogyr world, we started with more classical instruments, more strings. Violin and cello ringing out the spooky, dark, haunting notes as the group descends into this ghostly world. Leo did an incredible job. I showed him my favorite similar scores. Music by Mark Kovan from the VVitch, music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis in everything they do – even sounds in the Lord of the Rings by Howard Shore. Leo found some unique instruments common in foreign countries with sounds to imbed into the score. Complementing these foreign sounds with a seemingly foreign world would hopefully lead the viewer to some subconscious feelings that we are not where we think we are.
BW: Anything you can share with us about the potentially bigger and badder sequel to The Axiom that I’ve seen you tease in previous interviews? Were the group of “good ol’ boys” that traverse the axioms something that you planned to delve into further, for example?
NW: There are two routes to go from here. Picking up where we leave off, but looking more at the culture that surrounds the axiom that we are introduced to would be great. Or going back to where it all started in the 1950’s with the post WW2 nuclear testing that creates the doorways, and how a town comes together and decides they need to keep this a secret. Hopefully we will eventually do them both, but ultimately it will be decided by which route the studio wants to take. If I was given the freedom to choose I would start us at the beginning. The “good ol’ boys” and their axiom games will come up in both stories, eventually leading to a story primarily around that ‘ritual’. Oh the fun we will have.
BW: Are there any other projects you have coming out down the line that you’d like to talk about? I know you recently mentioned a film called The Firelight Festival that you were working on getting financed, is there any new information regarding that?
NW: We are still finding the right home for Firelight. It’s an intense story so we need someone ready to take on those R rated risks. We are now getting a good deal of interest on it, so hopefully some news soon, but this part of the process moves slowly, as a lot of money is involved, so I’m getting other projects – including The Axiom sequel – in a place where someone can decide if they want to fund it. For now I’m excited for people to finally see The Axiom and spend some time in this new world.