“Filmmaking is Not a Job, It’s a State of Mind”: Directors John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies on Unearth
Fifteen years ago I was touring the regional horror film festival circuit with my first feature when I discovered the work of John C. Lyons, a filmmaker based in Erie, Pennsylvania whose short Hunting Camp was one of the more inventive and compelling movies I encountered that year. It was also one of the most interestingly photographed, by cinematographer Dorota Swies, who formed Lyons Den Productions with Lyons in 2004; the two of them have been working together ever since. Their latest collaboration and first feature together is the environmental horror movie Unearth, set to premiere on August 25 at this year’s virtual edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival.
Set and shot in rural Pennsylvania, Unearth begins as a powerful drama about neighbors in an economically challenged farming community who have very different attitudes about the prospect of local oil and gas interests fracking on the area’s land. As the story progresses, Lyons and Swies follow in the footsteps of politically conscious horror directors like George Romero and John Carpenter by seamlessly merging their social and psychological concerns with genre conventions; the palpable suspense generated by the characters’ financial anxieties becomes even more riveting as supernatural elements enter the narrative in the final act. The script, which Lyons wrote with Kelsey Goldberg, is filled with rich characterizations that an excellent ensemble cast (led by Marc Blucas, Adrienne Barbeau and P.J. Marshall) brings to vivid life, and the restrained but precise visual style steadily escalates the tension so subtly that you don’t realize how deeply the movie is working on you until the intensity becomes almost unbearable. Swies and Lyons co-directed Unearth, with Swies focusing primarily on the visuals and Lyons devoting his attention to the actors, and they co-edited the film as well; together they’ve crafted one of the best films of 2020 in any genre. I spoke with them a few weeks before the Fantasia premiere, which is set to be the first of several online festival engagements for the movie – you can find information on the film and its scheduled screenings at http://unearthmovie.com/.
Filmmaker: One of the things I really like about this movie is the way it works as a drama of economic anxiety and family tensions before it ever becomes a horror film. What was the starting point for the script?
Dorota Swies: A central aspect of the story I connected to was showing a way of life outside of large agglomerations—the life of struggles, regrets and disappointments, but also friendship and love. It’s why I saw it more as a reflective drama, where we can simply absorb that slow pace of rural living, look at it with some criticism, draw conclusions and then perhaps move them to our own lifestyles, to appreciate or do it better. The whole film is really about coming to the surface with our feelings, needs or fears. It’s why the film is titled Unearth, as in revealing the truth.
John C. Lyons: Make no mistake, the first images that popped into my head when developing this story were the most horrific ones, but having well-developed characters and a strong dynamic, between and within each family in addition to their natural surroundings, was always the highest priority. I wanted to establish a strong foundation for character and setting above all else to give those genre elements more impact. When we brought co-writer Kelsey Goldberg onboard, she further solidified these dynamics and, most importantly, maintained the accuracy of the many female voices in the story. I spent my childhood in the farms, fields and forests of Pennsylvania. I know this world and the tough decisions these people face. As far as the economic anxieties portrayed in the film, Unearth is set against the everyday injustices inflicted on our working class communities and the environment.
Filmmaker: Did you have any other movies in mind as models or influences?
Swies: Unearth is sort of a female-centric throwback to the genre. In terms of pacing, we drew inspiration from films such as John Carpenter’s The Thing, Todd Haynes’ Safe and Robert Eggers’ The Witch, as well as Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation and even Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Each of these films gave us the confidence to stick to our character first mentality.
Lyons: Other major influences were the documentaries Triple Divide and Gasland. Both were shot in our state of Pennsylvania in the early 2010s and show the real-life horrors of industry. Joshua Pribanic and Melissa Troutman, the filmmakers behind Triple Divide, advised us from a technical standpoint as well. I reached out to Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk while developing the story and he said, “I wonder if fracking will generate horror stories the way nuclear testing gave us giant spiders, ants. Pesticides gave us the shrinking man. Find your metaphor, and you have a classic.” His feedback stuck with me to always stay true to character, setting and theme, even when the genre elements bleed into the story and motivated me to find creative ways to visualize them.
Filmmaker: The performances across the board are really strong and have a nice naturalistic quality. What kinds of conversations did you have with your actors, and how did you work with them? Was there any kind of rehearsal period?
Lyons: We cast Allison McAtee and Marc Blucas way back in 2016 to shoot a proof of concept which we used to raise funds for the full feature. They eventually came on as producers to help bring the project to life. McAtee, Blucas and late addition Rachel McKeon were all originally from northwestern Pennsylvania, so we had a strong, homegrown core of talent to anchor the cast. Allison introduced us to L.A.-based casting directors Becky Silverman and Lisa Zambetti, who took the film to another level with Adrienne Barbeau, P.J. Marshall, Monica Wyche and Brooke Sorenson. Local talent from western Pennsylvania rounded out the supporting cast.
Swies: We had a very limited number of days for production and no rehearsal or script read-through time in the budget. The cast was coming in the moment they were free from other projects. For example, P.J. Marshall came directly from Fincher’s Mindhunter. To solve that issue, we had phone and video conversations with each actor during pre-production to compare notes on their motivations for the characters. The natural tone was very important, as was the feeling of dread. Everyone connected to the complexities built into their character and we were impressed by the lived-in performance and additional tweaks and tics each actor added.
Lyons: Each actor has different methods and needs. The key for a director is to listen to their ideas and concerns and make yourself available for that dialogue. Since we had no prep time on location, we had to be as accommodating as possible and tweak our directing style to best suit each performer. Some actors don’t like to be complimented, others do. Some want to get into the details and background, others don’t. There’s just a lot of trust that you hired the right people, and only need to step in if you feel something isn’t true to the moment or the character. We were blessed with a professional cast, and seeing them perform at that level motivates everyone on the crew and supporting cast to bring their best. Our shoot was exhausting and challenging, but our cast kept the crew’s spirits up and went above and beyond for our little film. It’s infectious.
Filmmaker: What’s the independent filmmaking community like in northwest Pennsylvania where you shot?
Lyons: I had been the executive director of the Film Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania for nearly a decade before shifting into my current role as director of programming. The Film Society and Greater Erie Film Office are building a film industry in Erie and want to make it the home of the million-dollar movie. Unearth served as a test case to see if the Erie region could support productions of this size. People here are hungry for the work—we have a great arts community and the talent needed. Being essentially first meant a lot of piecemeal. That was challenging. But from Cinefit to Greater Erie Arts Rental to Cinelease, we managed to cobble together enough key equipment to pull it off with the skin of our teeth and the sheer grit and determination of the crew. Would we do it the same way again? No way in hell. But we learned a lot for everyone that comes to town after us.
Swies: Pennsylvania offers some remarkable benefits to film in. For the whole production, the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit was crucial. The region itself represents variety of locations, and enthusiastic community support. Locals are not spoiled by this type of venture and always willing to help. The challenges are mostly in rental houses, thus primary equipment came from Pittsburg or LA. And when it came to production, Unearth shot in a rough environment of dust and sharp corn stalks during an August of extremely hot days and extremely cold nights.
Filmmaker: There’s a sequence at a fair that has a lot of production value. Was that a situation where you had permission, or were you stealing shots? Tell me about integrating your actors with what was actually happening there.
Lyons: This was at the Crawford County Fair during their annual demolition derby—7,000 in attendance just at the derby, and at least double that around the fairgrounds. The derby was one of those scenes that when you write it sums up so many things about American culture and how it’s tied to a celebration of the oil and gas industry, but you don’t really think about how you’re going to pull it off. Adrienne and the rest of the cast were right there with everyone in the crowd, in real time during the event. But honestly, no one paid any attention to us once the demolition derby started. It was kind of funny. It’s like we were just making our film with them in the background and vice versa.
Swies: That scene was a good example of strong community support. The fair staff knew, otherwise it could have been a disaster. We had walk-throughs a couple of times, one on our tech scout and again with just a small group, and we worked out all the logistics with their management. Our cast was surrounded in the stands with about 30 extras. The rest of the people were regular ticket-holders. The crew was limited to just essentials, one camera covering the cast and the second the crowd and derby. The scene was tackled piece by piece, in the order it unfolds with the sun going down.
Filmmaker: I really liked that this was largely a horror film set in the light of day. What was your overall philosophy about the look of the film and how did you work with director of photography Eun-ah Lee to achieve the effects you wanted?
Swies: We had some lighting equipment deficits so our G&E team had to improvise. For the interiors or night exterior shots, I wanted low key, obscure light. Didn’t want that well lit, clean look, nor bunch of practicals in every corner. With time and equipment limitations, exteriors with bright, flat daylight were especially challenging. We needed overcast skies, but instead we got 98-degree heat and no shade in sight. In general, camera movements were planned in a raw, intimate style. Early scenes, to match the action, were relatively steady, but with the story’s progressing drama, especially for the climax: mostly handheld, shaky, sometimes with a hint of psychedelic, surreal experience. I had that vision to film everything dirty and tight, and whenever possible, eliminate wide establishing shots. While filming dynamic, key scenes I was right with the camera. I had a bunch of visual references prepared ahead, and our DP understood them well.
We shot on the Arri Alexa Mini because of the weight, grain quality at lower exposures and overall softer image look. Our lenses in terms of aperture or focal lengths, were somewhat inspired by a combination of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. I wanted lots of good quality bokeh, with a strong desire to shoot everything wide open. Since we could get a good deal on Leica Summilux-C lenses—which open wide yet stay sharp—we used them and shot most of the footage this way. Because we were working with so shallow a depth of field, it required an amazing focus puller.
Filmmaker: You’ve got some great practical makeup effects in this film (at least they looked practical to me). Without getting into spoilers, can you talk about your approach to those?
Lyons: From the beginning, it was our goal to use practical effects as much as possible. For me, even when you have a 200 million-dollar budget, the CG rarely holds up a couple of years down the road, especially when it’s a central element. Practicals are captured in camera, in the location light, and never change. TolinFX brought my vision to life with the designs of a whole variety of practical effects that burst onto the scene in the film’s last act. These included the underground drill and sets which had to accommodate both dry and wet elements. Those elements were based on real drill specs with moving parts. MoreFrames did VFX enhancing and our key make-up artist Doug Fairall came through as well.
Filmmaker: Talk about the editing process. What are the benefits of editing your own material instead of working with an editor, and what are the challenges?
Swies: For post, we hadn’t planned on editing the film ourselves, but that’s how it ultimately ended up, and we had to adapt. Working with an editor gives major benefits, such as specialized experience or a fresh perspective leading to new solutions in rearranging the footage into a story. The benefits of editing your own material is that you know it well, you have your favorite takes in mind and implement them right away, which speeds ups the process. Other benefits are free labor and an enthusiasm for long work hours. Finding the rhythm wasn’t easy, especially with limited resources to choose from. In the edit we wanted to lure you into the family drama, while slowly depressing you with hopelessness and dread, before unleashing the unknown terror from all sides in the final act.
Lyons: We received helpful feedback from editor Curtiss Clayton and cast members Allison McAtee and Marc Blucas. We love that Adrienne says it’s the most tense final 30 minutes of film she’s endured in a long time. Since Unearth wasn’t edited to temp music, our composer, Jane Saunders, created everything from scratch and layered it onto the film. She is a great up-and-coming musician who had experience with a sound installations connected to fracking. We had no idea what to expect, as Jane had also played flute in an orchestra and fronts the avant-garde metal project The Greatest Fear. But the moment we heard her compositions we were sold. Her score connected to Unearth’s DNA, resulting in something both beautiful and terrifying.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about what your original festival/distribution plans and goals were and how they were affected by COVID?
Lyons: After working on Unearth, which began as a small Kickstarter project before it became a full-scale production, for five years, you feel like you owe it not just to everyone who committed themselves to it, but also yourselves, to give it the biggest release possible. But as we all know, filmmaking is full of surprises. Did we think we’d be releasing in the pandemic of 2020? No. We, of course, envisioned experiencing the whole festival culture together, in person, with our cast and crew. We always planned that festivals would be a part of our release and our festival strategist, Elodie Dupont, has helped us chart those waters. Every step of the way we’ve encountered challenges, so we’re rolling with it.
Swies: It’s exciting to be at this point. For all its challenges, we’ve survived. I think back to watching our cast and crew gather together in a dark forest somewhere at 4 AM to create something from nothing. It was a profound experience. Filmmaking is not a job, it’s a state of mind.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.