What Keeps You Alive‘s Colin Minihan and Brittany Allen on Their Survive-the-Night Serial Killer Grinder
Film directors casting their significant others is a trend as old as film itself, but Colin Minihan and Brittany Allen are different. They met when he cast her in his 2014 alien invasion pic Extraterrestrial. Not only did they start dating, she started producing his films, in addition to being their star. There was the zombie-thonIt Stains the Sands Redin 2016. Now there’s What Keeps You Alive, a romantic cabin getaway that abruptly turns into a survive-the-night serial killer grinder. It’s not just about putting the one you love on screen; theirs is a true collaboration.
Ever since his debut feature, 2011’s found-footage fest Grave Encounters — made, like Extraterrestrial, with co-writer/-director Stuart Ortiz, back when the two billed themselves as “The Vicious Brothers” despite not being related — Minihan has been a staple of Canada’s low-budget horror circuit. His films are minimalist, often with very few characters or effects; It Stains the Sands Red contains only one zombie. What Keeps You Alive boasts five actors total, and mostly stays with two: a same-sex couple, one of whom (Hannah Emily Anderson’s Jackie) suddenly pushes the other (Allen’s Jules) over a cliff. Jules survives the fall, and finds herself trying to both escape and, if she can, maybe enact revenge on the woman who dumped her something fierce.
Allen herself is a longtime and prolific actress. She started as a teen, spent a stint on All My Children and appeared in last year’s Saw reboot Jigsaw(alongside Anderson, although the two didn’t share any scenes). She’s even a director herself, having made the 2014 short Valentines Day — like What Keeps You Alive, a dark and honest look at relationships. On top of being one of Alive’s stars, Allen also composed its atmospheric/driving synth score — her first. What Keeps You Alive is currently in release — in New York it’s at the IFC Center — and on digital platforms.
Filmmaker: You two are a couple who have also collaborated on three films together, so you’ve presumably worked through some of the initial practical issues that crop up in that circumstance. With What Keeps You Alive, was there anything different about your arrangement?
Brittany Allen: When we shot it, we lived in separate places. That was helpful. We could come to the set and he could be the director and I could be the actor; he wasn’t just my boyfriend who I was going to see afterwards. But in the post process, this film was different. With the previous films Colin and I have worked on together, he’s staying with the film for six or seven months after we’ve finished shooting. I’ve always been like, “What are you doing over there? Come and be in this partnership again.” But this time, I was there with him and had my own part of the process to focus on and see to the end.
Filmmaker: You’re referring to composing the score.
Allen: Yes. That was great for me to recognize the work that goes into finishing up a film. It strengthened our artistic collaboration and relationship as well.
Colin Minihan: It was very collaborative in many ways. When I cut, I don’t cut to temp music. I feel like that dictates the tempo [of the movie], and it dictates the tone too much. You become married to the temp. The task of the composer becomes “give me what the temp does, but make it your own!” She was coming at the score from, obviously, having starred in the movie, but she also had to start from scratch. That’s more challenging, but it’s more rewarding, and you’re less influenced by something else.
Filmmaker: Was it always the idea to have Brittany compose the score?
Minihan: No. She’s always been incredibly musically gifted; she went to music theater school as a kid. I’ve seen her grow as a songwriter and as a producer and engineer. I’ve seen her make all these baby steps. [Turns to Brittany] You started in GarageBand and you conquered Logic and now you work in Ableton; your sounds sound 100 times bigger than when you started. Experiencing your growth on the periphery, I had the idea that it would be interesting, once we wrapped the shoot, to give her a scene and say, “Show me what you come up with.” And you killed it on that first scene.
Allen: I built most of the themes for the film on piano. I’d sit there and just let my hands roam where they wanted to go. I’m not actually a trained pianist, and I think that I would like to become more trained, but in this case, I think in a lot of cases your limitations can sprout more original ideas, because I’m not bound to the idea that this chord progression would naturally go into that chord progression. I don’t know all the theory behind it; it’s just where my hands want to go. I bought Omnisphere, which is a big virtual synth that a lot of people suggested would be good for scoring. They have a humongous library. It’s particularly good for scoring horror films, because there’s some pretty dark and messed-up, twisted sounds you can access from their library. There’s one plug I used called “Camelcrusher” that really ekes out this uncomfortable quality. It was about how to make the audience feel more of what was already there.
Minihan: It’s interesting: When I cut the film initially, the film played incredibly well without a score. We actually got our first distribution deal based on a rough cut with no score. I wanted the movie to work regardless, because I find there are so many great composers, but so often the thing I take away leaving the theater is the score more than the story itself. Sometimes a composer is too heavy-handed — and those composers are the most revered, which is the irony. Sometimes it’s the score you don’t notice that’s actually the strongest, that’s helping to support what is going on but isn’t overwhelming and the end-all-be-all. The delicate thing is that, when you don’t have a score at first, once you start scoring one thing, no matter how subtle it is, the rest of the film starts to feel empty without it. At first it was like, “Let’s see how sparse this score can be, because this film is working so well with these long, drawn-out scenes of quiet walking through the woods and what is going through the character’s mind.” But as soon as you start adding, you realize you have to add here, and now you have to add here. Eventually there’s 40 minutes of score in the movie.
Filmmaker:Unlike in America, the Canadian government actually allocates funds for the arts, including movies. I don’t imagine they’re handing out money for horror movies, or even that you applied for funding for this…
Minihan:No. It’s really funny, because in Canada, there are a lot of filmmakers who feel the only way to get their movies made is to go through government channels for funding — the Telefilm grants, the Northern Ontario Heritage money that’s out there. To be frank, I feel like a lot of producers who use it exploit those avenues, because they’re not incentivized to make a commercial product. Not that I want to call our movie a “commercial product,” but there is a business behind it. Those films don’t recognize that, because they were given three-quarters if not all of their money through subsidized means, and there’s no incentive to actually recoup that budget. So you end up with a lot of movies that no one ever sees, that don’t find distribution.
Allen:Although that’s part of their intention. The mandate behind the government funding is to support art that might not be supported in a commercial way. That said, though I see the good in that intention, I think they can find a better balance. Right now it does seem like there’s a certain kind of film that will get money. And I do think there’s an art in being able to touch a lot of people. Sometimes people think the highest art is something that only a few people will understand or appreciate. There’s a bit of that vibe in Canada, and it would serve the art and the artists in Canada if that was opened up a little bit.
Minihan:They’re not huge fans of genre movies as a whole.
Allen:No. [Laughs] Maybe taxpayers would have a problem if they found out they were funding genre movies.
Filmmaker:It does seem like genre filmmakers have plenty of options, at least if they’re willing to gain a business sense. Low-budget horror is having a huge renaissance right now, with a lot of small films being made well outside various studio systems. What has your experience been making very small horror films, often with very few characters and very few effects?
Minihan:I made my first movie when I was 24 years old. I made a movie called Grave Encountersthat cost $100,000 to make — half of which I funded along with my co-writer and co-director [Stuart Ortiz], half of which was an investment with a 20% fixed return. If the movie made money the investors would make money. Luckily, that movie made those investors some money and they re-invested into the next one down the road. Essentially, I’ve built a community of investors at this point that come in on these sub-half-million pictures that are risk-adverse, that are contained movies that I can get made myself. I work with an agency in the U.S., ICM Partners, who represent the domestic sales side here. Our goal is to essentially make the film for x amount, and hope that we can get a great festival that can create some buzz, that we can create a return for the investors so they’ll reinvest in the next film. It’s an incredibly risky business, and you hear about bridges being burnt constantly — that this filmmaker got this oil tycoon to invest and then squandered their money and now he’s no longer going to invest in film. I wish I knew that guy. But I have very slowly developed a relationship with several parties that are interested in what I’m doing and interested in supporting the type of work that I make, and are fans first and foremost. I can tell you, as a filmmaker, there’s nothing more frustrating than being in L.A. and pitching to get your movie made for two, three, four years and having it go nowhere.
Allen:And be told this company’s interested and be dragged along.
Minihan:Or even have them look you in the eye and say, “It’s greenlit, we’re going to camera in six months,” and then never hearing from them again. It happens constantly. I love to be able to take back the power from the business component. Over the course of six films now, either as a producer or as a writer-director, I have learned the economics of the foreign sales landscape, as well as what you can do domestically. Balancing that is really a challenge, being the creative and being responsible for investors financing.
Filmmaker:I imagine it’s easier if your film is a genre film.
Minihan:Genre films play well all over the world. What’s scary here is going to be scary in Japan or in the U.K. or wherever. But British comedy doesn’t translate the same as American comedy does; that’s why they remade The Officewith Americans. An independent comedy might not have the same market value overseas as a horror film does. The thing I love about horror is you can comment on so much socially and you can fold these other genres into it. A lot of the film I make have a lot of laughs in them. The interesting thing is those laughs don’t always translate when I travel abroad to international film festivals. But the fear translates. And the fear is what carries the movie, business-wise.
Filmmaker:The horror wing of the festival circuit is very strong, but with What Keeps You Alive, you’re also stepping into the LGBTQ section. Initially the script was about a hetero couple, but you changed that at the last second due partly to last-minute casting changes. What kinds of thing were on your mind when you knew you’d be making a horror film that also played to another demographic?
Minihan:I was very cautious about making this film. I didn’t want it to be a skewed male version of what a lesbian relationship would be like. But the film was never an overly sexualized film, so it wasn’t very hard to change it. I just needed to convey a couple as truthfully as possible. Their sexuality was not a factor in the narrative. Changing them into a same-sex couple ended up being one of the most positive things about the movie, because a lot of same-sex-driven films are about the fact that it’s an LGBTQ film. This just portrays a couple as a couple; it doesn’t matter what their sex is. It normalizes the whole idea of a same-sex relationship, because it’s not part of the conversation, in the filmmaking and in the narrative itself.
Allen:The character of Jules did change pretty dramatically. In the original version, her biggest struggle when you first meet her is she’s trapped in this feminine ideal of who a woman is supposed to be. She’s quiet, afraid to speak her mind, very submissive. Throughout the film she finds her voice and her strength. Through the last-minute changes, Jules became a woman who at the start of the film is quite assured of herself, and is in a lot of ways the more dominant one in the relationship. That way it’s more devastating when the rug is slipped out from under her. Her sense of self is completely shattered and her vulnerabilities come out. That became an exciting challenge for me to play, just because I got to embody parts of myself I wasn’t necessarily comfortable embodying prior to the shoot — things like speaking in a lower register, moving from a different place in my body, being less concerned with my appearance.
Minihan:On any indie, you can get stuck on the way you envisioned the scene in your head. But then budget constraints or casting or whatever circumstances it may be — maybe it rains the day you wanted it to be sunny — crop up. You have to be willing to adapt. In this case of this movie, one door closed and another door opened. Even in terms of the location: I didn’t perceive the house to be what it became. It just happened my producer found this incredible location with a house much bigger than I had imagined for this claustrophobic narrative. But I was open to that idea and I helped shape it. It’s constantly a matter of adapting to every single moment.