Building a Microbudget Ghost Story Around an AirBnB Location: Director Pete Ohs and Cast on the SXSW-Premiering Jethica
Two women, each fleeing unspecified trauma, holed up in an aluminum-sided mobile home in the middle of a desolate patch of New Mexico flatlands is an apt set-up for a microbudget horror film, but the pleasures and originality of Pete Ohs SXSW-premiering Jethica are in the ways in which it avoids all the more obvious narrative pathways it might have taken. (Indeed, it’s an exemplar of George Saunders’s dictum of “ritual banality avoidance” — rejecting the “crappo version” of a story.) There are no screams or shaky-cam chases, no woman-in-jeopardy jump scares. Instead, Ohs has worked with his actors to semi-improvise an eerie ghost story, shot through with black humor, that’s also a meditation on trauma and its aftermath.
Jethica is framed as a kind of post-coital campfire tale — Callie Hernandez’s Elena has pick-up sex in the backseat of a car and winds up telling the story to her off-screen one-night-stand as a way of explaining why she’d rather not see him again. As she explains in flashback, after killing a man she was living alone in that New Mexico trailer home when, at the gas station, she ran into an old friend, Jessica (Ashley Denise Robinson), herself on the run from an obsessed, aggressive stalker. Like any good ghost story, there are rules; in this one, the lumbering, lisping (“Jethica!”) ghosts can’t enter houses uninvited and can’t physically hurt anyone, a choice that shifts the drama from the physical to the psychological. Like some American independent pandemic-inflected blend of Carnival of Souls and Wings of Desire, Jethica, which Ohs made for less than $10,000, establishes a specific tone — both deadpan and melancholy — and refracts it through subtle performances, lingering landscape shots and weighty themes explored a light touch. Hernandez and Robinson bring weary, seen-it-all determination to their roles, and, as the pallid ghosts, eyes streaked with black makeup, Andy Faulkner and Will Madden find unexpected notes of regret and renewal. It’s a rare film today in which the no-means production is a benefit, not an obvious limitation. Below, I interviewed over email Ohs and his four cast members, finding out how they developed the story together, the editing room advantages ultra-wide shots, and how ghosts function metaphorically in the film.
Jethica premieres tomorrow at SXSW.
Filmmaker: Pete, let me start with two questions about moving from your previous film, Youngstown, to this one. In your interview with Filmmaker‘s Taylor Hess, you talked about making that film based around wanting to discover more about the titular town, and about how the construction of the film’s narrative was improvised in parallel to that process of discovery. You’re working with a similarly lean production plan this time, as well as improvising along with your actors, but what was different in terms of, first, the story? It’s more of a genre tale with a strong sense of structure. How did you and your actors develop it?
Ohs: Similarly to Youngstown, the story came from the location. I found this trailer on AirBNB (many thanks to our hosts Ross and Michele!) and built the story around it. Who is living there and why? And then, for me, there always needs to be some sort of “movie” element. In Youngstown, it was the witness protection program and in Jethica, it’s ghosts. I made an outline of the first half of the movie or so and that’s enough to start with. This is all very similar to the making of Youngstown, however, the specific style of storytelling for each movie was a product of the process. In Youngstown, we were wandering around discovering things every day, so the story wanders. In Jethica, we were all stuck in a trailer together trying to not kill each other and the story reflects that!
Filmmaker: And, as a follow up, what was different this time in terms of production after doing the one-man-band approach previously on Youngstown? Did you change your gear or the way you approached the camera?
Ohs: It was basically the same. Same camera, my decade-old Canon 5D Mark III with the Magic Lantern RAW hack. I shot most of the movie on a 35mm lens as opposed to the 50mm so things feel a bit wider and spatially more dramatic. I also brought a slider and one extra light (I had two this time). I looked for more opportunities to move the camera too, but I can only get so crazy when it’s just me and I still want things to be in focus.
Filmmaker: There are many longshots in the movie, which I’m sure helped in terms of developing dialogue in post-production. Am I right about this? Were you shooting in such a way as to maximize your ability to work out any story beats later?
Ohs: I’m very much shooting things with the edit in mind, with an awareness of sequencing and shot variation, so if I just did a scene of dialogue with some basic coverage, I might mix it up and do the next scene in a long shot with the actors tiny in the frame. The added benefit of that, and yes, I’m aware of this, is that those long shots have way more wiggle room for what dialogue is actually spoken. Peppering these types of scenes throughout the movie function as a “narrative safety net” to clarify things in post if needed.
Filmmaker: How did you cast the film, and what did you approach your actors with given that you weren’t working with a formal script?
Ohs: Callie Hernandez, Andy Faulkner, and Will Madden were all friends of mine but they had never met each other. Ashley Denise Robinson came recommended. She acted in a web series called Taking Stock that was produced by Vanishing Angle, who also produced Beast Beast, a feature I helped edit. I didn’t audition anyone. There was just a conversation about the story idea and my specific approach to production and the question, “Are you down?”
Before the shoot, I had general conversations with each of the actors where I pitched the movie. This included the basic idea of the characters but none of the specifics. Each actor played a huge part in creating their characters, everything from what they wore to what they said to what they did.
Filmmaker: For Callie and Ashley, your characters both react to surprising events with a kind of deadpan, unsurprised affect that I can’t help but think is not simply a stylistic choice for the film but relating to the trauma that both characters are holding. Could you talk about how you thought through the ways your characters would respond to the fantastical events in the film as well as the ways in which you collaborated on the screenplay?
Robinson: I think it would have been very easy to make the comedy of this piece not so dark if my reaction to the supernatural was too “above the level,” per se. The core of the story, at that point, is, “How the hell do we get rid of this guy now that we know what’s going on?” and to keep my reaction contained felt right. It’s also this feeling of, “The sooner I accept this is real, the sooner I or Elena can really get rid of him for good.” And, sis is tired. Like, exhausted. Stalked, taunted, followed, harassed, threatened…whew. Coming up with the idea of Jessica taking a bath while Elena did the literal heavy lifting was so spot on — let someone else who knows more and possibly better handle this for the moment do just that.
Regarding collaborating on the screenplay, it’s not a way in which I’ve worked before but I have a million ideas swimming in my head all the time so it was a cool opportunity to get those thoughts out there. My awareness was around two things: 1. What’s the most grounded choice for my character and 2. I’m a Black woman being stalked by a white man. That second thought was really important to me — I couldn’t do a film that let Kevin “off the hook,” somehow. Those thoughts definitely shaped how the ending turned out. How can Jessica finally be set free?
Hernandez: The approach to Jethica was always experimental, so I wanted to experiment with the amount of restraint Elena could have. She doesn’t reveal much. She’s a lockbox. She’s steely and protective, but this isn’t to say she’s not permeable. She’s guided by her guilt, which is why she’s so willing to put herself on the line. So I think the deadpan quality stemmed from there, from how much she’s keeping in, no release. I pitched this idea to Pete and he said “cool.” I also had an ulcer.
The fantastical realm of ghosts, of death isn’t jarring for her. She recognizes herself in it. In a way, Elena is a ghost.
In terms of collaboration, I’m a good grunt. I made phone calls. Helped with locations and workshopping dialogue at times. Had a pocketknife. Helped where I could.
Filmmaker: Pete, your film has a simple and clear set of rules regarding the supernatural. What was important for you to do and not do when it comes to working within the ghost story genre?
Ohs: Half the fun of making a ghost movie is deciding how the ghosts work. Who can see them? What can they do? What can’t they do? What version of themselves are they? We talked about it enough to establish our own internal logic. For example, we decided a ghost can’t directly interact with the physical world, which means they can’t open doors, so if they are going to enter a building, then someone living has to open the door for them. You might think “But can’t the ghost just walk through the door?” Well, no. They can’t. Sorry. Why? Because I said so! It’s really so dumb and inconsequential but these are the things that make pretending you’re a ghost fun.
Filmmaker: Andy and Will, to follow up the last question, tell us how you collaborated with the rest of the group on the development of your characters?
Faulkner: Having lived a couple years in New Mexico in my early 20s, I noticed New Mexicans have a very slow, almost stoned, way of talking. That’s no knock on the lovely people of New Mexico, but I think that landscape really slows you down and you hang onto thoughts before blurting them out. That was the first idea for the character. But then we were all talking about how, in our universe, ghosts are trapped in the emotional and physical state they were in when they died. My character gets hit by a car, so we imagined him laying on the side of the road with some brain damage before actually dying. And there you have it – a maybe stoned New Mexican ghost with some acute brain trauma.
Madden: I spent a month sending Pete videos and voice memos as my character Kevin while feeling out where this guy was coming from. Pete patiently gave green lights to the craziness I was sending his way and eventually Kevin revealed more of himself to us. Once in New Mexico the whole team shared thoughts and contributed to Kevin as we wrote, explored, and allowed whatever happened to happen out there in Estancia.
Filmmaker: Pete, you edited this film livestreaming on Twitch. Did opening up your edit to the public work out as you thought it might, and do you think it affected the cut in any way?
Ohs: Streaming the edit was so fun, and I can’t wait to do it again. Honestly, I didn’t really think it through, it just felt like it would be a fun experiment and that the 17-year-old version of me would be excited to watch someone put together a movie. It definitely affected the cut. There were a couple regular viewers that were tuning in everyday who I eventually came to trust. From time to time, they would chime in with a question but also sometimes an opinion which led me to either defend a decision or try something different. I included their Twitch handles in the Special Thanks section of the credits.
Filmmaker: To stay with editing for a moment, can you discuss your use of landscape in the film — the rhythm of these shots, which go far beyond establishing shots to almost function in a kind of meditative way. Also, your decision to basically elide anything that felt modern from the script. There’s hardly any signage, fast food outlets, etc. in the movie.
Ohs: The story is about people who are intentionally self-isolating, which is a term I’m not sure I ever said prior to the pandemic but here we are. The absence of the modern world is a result of the story being told. Also, we were making a movie during a pandemic so it was convenient for the production that we weren’t going places where we had to interact with people.
Andy had suggested we make a movie in New Mexico and these landscapes are a big reason why we went there. During the shoot, I was happily building a stockpile of epic nature shots. When it came to the edit, they naturally found their place. Yes, they are establishing New Mexico but they are also communicating the isolation, the alone-ness. For me, the meditative rhythms provide a moment to reflect, which leads to me thinking about my life, which leads me to thinking about my death, and that’s all thematically appropriate, so I think it works for the story too.
Filmmaker: In your interview with Taylor you talked about your Talkhouse piece, which described removing pressure from the filmmaking process. It’s a worthy goal, perhaps, but I also imagine it’s not always easy to achieve. What was the most pressure-filled aspect of this production?
Ohs: You’re right. It’s not always easy to achieve, and I learned some new lessons on this film. For me, the most pressure came from the story we were telling because we were dealing with heavy topics. We were talking about stalkers and processing trauma. This is serious stuff and even though we are playing dress up, the emotions that we are all having to process in order to tell this story are releasing real chemicals into our bodies. I hadn’t fully anticipated the way the content of a story affects the experience of telling it. It seems obvious now but I just hadn’t faced this challenge before. The film’s shifts in tone is a direct response to the heaviness we were feeling. Instinctually, we started to lighten the mood of scenes which pushed the story to new, fresh, unexpected directions, and I’m so glad we followed those impulses.