This year, FrightFest celebrated their 20th bloody year and what a celebration the bank holiday weekend in August was. Among the films, screening at The Prince Charles Cinema on Saturday night was Josh Lobo’s debut feature I Trapped The Devil. It’s all in the title; the film follows Matt and Karen who visit Matt’s brother Steve who claims to have trapped a man in his cellar who may or may not be the devil himself. Expect slow-burn horror and creepy vibes.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Josh before his film screened for fellow FrightFesters. We talked about filmmaking, Ti West and shooting on location at someone’s house.
The film is already out in the US since April 26th. What’s the reception been like?
It’s been good. I think people that like kind of slow-burn horror films have really dug in. And I think people that don’t like slow burn horror films have kind of been indifferent to it. But more than not, it has gone over really well. I’m very proud of it.
Horror is having such a moment now, especially slow-burn horror with Ari Aster especially. Do you think that has kind of made it easier to make a film like this?
People say slow-burn for movies that are just character movies. I don’t love the term, just because… I like that this movie is about characters. I think that people that like it are people that just like drama movies, they like character interaction, not so much violence. There’s violence, but it’s not violent. It’s not the key focus of the movie.
The film is set at Christmas. Why this setting?
I just felt like the most natural way to get the characters together. It’s kind of a fractured family, and bringing them together… You know, if they just showed up together, it’s like “okay, cool.” That’s very convenient for the story I’m trying to sell. But I think over Christmas, it sort of makes sense that these people who have a fractured relationship are trying to reconvene whether they like each other or not, at the holidays.
And it makes for a really cool visual aspect as well.
You get to put Christmas lights everywhere!
When we spoke briefly earlier, you said that you’ve never actually seen a Dario Argento film before you saw Tenebrae here last night. But that’s where my mind went immediately during the film.
I’m sort of the laughingstock of all my friends, because I just have never seen Argento. I love Giallo and I love that genre. I work my way through directors. There’s so many movies, you can’t watch everything. Every day I’m like “Oh, no, there’s 15 movies that people are talking talking about.” I really was inspired by Mario Bava, and especially his movie Planet Of The Vampires, which is very light. It’s Technicolor, it’s gorgeous. And I chose my DP, I like that kind of 60 style. And we figured out a way to sort of mesh that with a more contemporary. Originally, the movie wasn’t supposed to have any color at all. It’s just to be very drab. And in the basement of the film was supposed to be red to stand out a lot. And we were shooting and we were like this is actually really ugly. So we quickly re-evaluated and went to something a little bit more saturated and colorful, and I’m so happy that we did that now, because otherwise, it would have been hideous.
Did you do that during pre-production, or was that during shooting?
Yeah, like two days in the set, my DP came to me. We’d shot two days in location at the house that was not colorful, and he came to me and said I think this movie’s gonna be really boring if we don’t change something now. And I said you’re not wrong, let’s figure it out. And when we started shooting scenes with Christmas lights and the Christmas tree, we were like, okay, here’s our motivation. And we can really play with this. I think the movie ended up beautiful, and it’s very dark. And we shot it very dark, too much to the dismay of some of the distributors who are like, “Hey, you know, you can lighten this up”. And we’re like, “No, we don’t want to do that”. This isn’t meant to be seen on an iPhone. This is meant to be seen on the theater screen, which won’t happen very much. But it will look great on a blu ray.
You’re directing, editing, writing and producing here, is that how you like making films? Doing everything yourself?
No. When you’re making films this small, money wise, you just have to do what you need to do. And at the end the movie, you’re like, “Oh, I guess I did this, and this and this.” I had another producer, his name’s Spencer Nicholson, he also edited the first cut of the movie. I live in a different state as him and we couldn’t figure out the workflow. So when I went back into the edit, the stuff that he had done had been corrupted, and I didn’t really understand it. So I basically started from scratch. And I had never edited anything in my life. And Spencer’s a great editor, but it was hard. I couldn’t afford to live in a different state. So I basically went in, and I started from scratch, and I just taught myself how to edit. And I edited the rest of the movie. It’s a blessing in disguise how it turned out because I had no prior editing experience. I didn’t even know what to do, just “I guess I’m going to do this now”. I’d find these the computer screen would pop-up saying critical error, I’d just click the exit button. I didn’t lose anything. The next movie, I might probably have an editor because it’s a bit of a task.
Was there anything else that you learned from this, that you’re never ever going to do again? Apart from the editing.
What I learned on this movie was to just be present. And you have to like get your hand in on all the aspects of it, be it helping the grips tear down the lights, or helping the production designers paint or editing the movie, or doing any of these things because you’re not working with a lot of money. And you’re asking people to do a lot of work, and quite frankly, if I go to my day job, and I’m not being paid to do what I’m there to do, I would get frustrated. On a low budget film like this, you really have to step in and because we’re all in the trenches together, we got to do this together. At the end of the day, we just want to make a good movie, because at the end, it’s all on our reels, on our resume and whatever, and nobody wants to make anything not fantastic, you know?
So where do you feel most comfortable? Is it on set directing, or post-production?
I like writing, I definitely come at it from a writing perspective, because it costs nothing. And I can spend as long as I want on it or not. I could spend the next three years writing a script in private, and then be like, Okay, I’m here to make another movie. And I can go to Starbucks every single day for the next three years and make it a little bit better and a little bit better and a little bit better. And if you have a bad script, and you have incredible everything else, your movie can only be pretty good. But if you have a great script, and everything else is lacking, your movie can still be great. It just the story and the dialogue and characters. That’s what people remember, everything else is extra flourish. For me anyways, I feel like that’s what’s most important.
The film is set mainly in that one location, the house. So how was the shoot, was it all on location?
Yeah, we shot it on this house. And we tore apart this house for like a week and a half. You’ll be like, “Hey, can I shoot in your home for a week and a half?” They’re like “Yeah, sure! A movie, fantastic.” But nobody really knows the trials and tribulations of it until it’s 3am and there’s a grip smoking cigarettes on your front porch. And people are lugging 50 pound cases of gear in and out, in and out. Now, we will basically always urge the homeowners “Please, please don’t come back” Because they’re just going to be absolutely horrified.
How did AJ Bowen get involved?
He was brought on by my producer Scott Weinberg, who had been friends with AJ for a while. And I had written the script and I had no idea casting wise yet, I was going to kind of go with an unknown. And Scott was like “Well, you know, AJ is great and really likes this. He’s been looking for a Christmas movie” He introduced me to AJ and immediately, he had a couple notes for the script, good, constructive feedback. And we just kept working on it a little bit. I had been a really huge fan of AJ’s work since the days of You’re Next, Horrible Way To Die and everything. So bringing him on was fantastic.
What about the rest of the cast?
Because it was kind of a family affair, the DP is my best friend. AJ, when he came on, he was like, “This is a movie about family and about people I’m close to. And I know a lot of talented actors, but there’s a couple of people in particularI’m extremely close to, and we act really well together, I think we would all be good for this.” So he introduced me to both Scott Poythress and Susan Burke, and Jocelyn Donahue, kind of, she came in a little bit of a later date. But he introduced me to all of them. I took a leap of faith and I Cast them off of AJ’s word and what I had seen of their work. Susan and Scott they came in and they just absolutely killed it. And AJ was right on the money. And if they hadn’t, if none of these people had come on I don’t think the movie would have been as good as I believe it is. I love my movie. And I think that those guys really sell what I was trying to sell.
There’s a lot of conflict and the chemistry between AJ and Scott is very palpable in the film. So what was the atmosphere like on set?
They’re best friends in real life, so it was like summer camp. And they’re like teenage children that are like running around, hitting things, making jokes and prodding at each other. And then the second where it was like get ready, they both go into this sort of like, so in, and then they hate each other. And it was it was great to watch. It’s fun for them to because you get to go to work with your best friend. And that’s kind of the atmosphere in the whole thing. Even during the hellish, -20 conditions.
What I really took away from the film that it feels timeless, there’s not a whole lot of technology there. Was that something that you consciously wanted to do?
Yeah, we made the decision pretty early on. Originally, the script had been set in 1990. And when you’re making a low budget movie, you’re looking at what’s best on screen. And there’s a lot of things where I was like, I would love to set this in 1990. But I can’t be 100% sure that the dial up phone that’s going to be hanging on the wall is authentic to that time period. And my production designers did their best. So we decided to incorporate elements from the 60s and today. So the movie has this all around feel that’s never really brought up. We just wanted to make something that felt kind of vintage. It could take place now, it could play take place 20 years ago. I never wanted to date the film.
The film has got this really cool, old-school vibe. And I thought of immediately of The Witch. There is the devil, but it’s not really the devil that’s already ripping this family apart. And I also thought of Ti West, which is partly because of AJ and Jocelin Donahue.
I love Ti West, he should make another movie. He’s been gone for a while, he’s been doing TV. Come and do another movie. He spearheaded that slow burn thing. There was a lot of things that influenced this. And I love House Of The Devil, and I love those actors. I wanted to tap into that same kind of thing. This sort of “satanic thriller” that’s about the characters. The devil was never meant to be a main character. He was just meant to be the ignition to the gunpowder.
And this is your debut feature. Do you think you’ll stick with horror and this theme of family and the supernatural?
Yeah, and the thing is, I think horror is so broad. Erotic thrillers, domestic thrillers and slasher films, I think they all kind of fall under it. So it’s a huge area to play in. And it’s doing really well right now. And so I’m very interested to continue exploring the stories. I want to make a comedy, well, not a comedy, but I want to make to make a film about witches. So you can find an area within this extremely broad genre to tell your story. And then genre people will go see it. I want to make a story about heartbreak. You can channel that through a genre film, and the general audiences, they love seeing new and interesting stories, but there’s so many different issues and topics that you can tackle within.
What you want people to take away from the film?
The mood and the atmosphere. I really want people to dial into the atmosphere and not go in looking for gratuitous violence or monsters, but just go looking for something that might be kind of disquieting. It’s tense and it’s kind of moody and that’s what I want to bring to the table.