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“As Much As I Want to Explore a Character, I Can’t Lose Sight of Those Thriller Elements”: John Rosman on His Horror Drama Hybrid, New Life

A young woman with brown hair looking across a landscapeNew Life

Fifteen minutes into John Rosman’s elegantly scripted and emotionally harrowing debut feature, New Life, you’re wired into the psyche of Jessica Murdock, a young woman fleeing an unspecified old life and grappling with primitive elements of survival: where to sleep and what to eat. And, within a few scenes, where to live, find a job and rebuild. In her impressive feature debut, a fierce Hayley Erin brings both a feral intensity as well as a wary calm to these moments, which are of the sort found in many independent films dealing with women leaving bad relationships, or of those searching for work and home in uncertain economies. The grounded realism of these scenes, and Erin’s sensitive performance, almost make you forget that just minutes earlier the film began in a very different register, with Hayley covered in blood and fleeing her apartment as cops bust down the door. Intercut with Jessica’s flight are scenes with Elsa Gray (a fantastic Sonya Walger, from From all Mankind), a high-level corporate fixer dragged back into action for one last job — tracking down Jessica — while she quietly deals with the early signs of ALS, a disease she believes will end her career.

And then there’s the film’s major twist, which I won’t spoil here, but which blasts the film into a whole genre and is as alarmingly (and unfortunately) resonant in 2024 as it was when Rosman was in production on the picture, which premiered at last year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. Speaking to Erik Luers for Filmmaker‘s 2023 25 New Face series, Rosman said, “What the two characters in the film are facing is very similar. One is facing an apocalypse, and the other is facing a personal apocalypse. One person is OK and affects everyone else around them, while the other person is not OK, but everyone else is safe. Both women, once they realize what is going on, have to go through all of the stages of grief.”

New Life is a low-budget film, but with its narrative surety, its impressive Oregon exteriors and pitch-perfect interiors (Jade Harris is the production designer) as well as its startling moments of well-handled gore, it never prompts the viewer to think of it as such. As our conversation below explains, Rosman’s confidence as a director was born from years of shooting short documentaries, music videos and corporate work. (For a decade he also worked as journalist for Oregon public media.) Rosman had moved to Los Angeles to make a debut feature, but when that film failed to attract financing, he wrote New Life and was shooting just months later back in Oregon. He recounts that journey below, along with thoughts on balancing drama and horror, the influence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and depicting ALS on screen. New Life is in theaters and on digital platforms today from Brainstorm Media.

Filmmaker: Before this interview I read some others that you’ve done, and in each the interviewers seem to be grappling with the same thing I’m grappling with right now, which is how to talk to you about this film without going into spoilers, because you have a big one about 40 minutes in. So let me ask you instead about writing a film that has such a large reveal relatively late in the film. When you were writing the script, did you think about how you’d have to talk about the film during the release?

Rosman: No, not at all. It’s funny, by the time the movie came out and I read reviews, I kind of forgot that there was this big reveal just because I’d been sitting with [the film] for so long. [When writing] I had been thinking more about the mechanics of [the story]. I was always interested in the idea of a story about someone who is on the run and you don’t know why they’re running. And then, you know, the shoe has to drop at some point. But, of course, when I take a big step back, it is a huge reveal, and it’s weird! How do you market this? How do you sell this? How do you talk about? But when I was writing it, I didn’t think about that.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting because in your direction you’re not really priming us for that reveal. As a viewer you can almost forget about it. The beginning of the film is very dramatic, this woman covered in blood, but at a certain point I just forgot about that and felt like I was watching a woman on the run from something bad in her past, and that’s it’s own kind of indie genre. 

Rosman: Those [early] moments are so inspired by Wendy and Lucy. I love Kelly Reichardt for that reason — you get lost in her characters, and you feel a sense of place. That’s what I wanted to explore, and it’s really weird to do that in the middle of a genre film. 

Filmmaker: Not that these two impulses — independent film character study and genre film — are opposed, because they can work together, as they do in your film, but did one of these elements come first in your creative process? 

Rosman: Well, I love horror movies, and I wanted to make a horror movie. And what I think is great about horror movies is, at the end of the day, you need to entertain people. There are genre beats you hit. And so as much as I want to explore a character, I can’t lose sight of those thriller elements, because if I lose sight of them, then I really am going to lose the audience. So paramount to me in the writing, in the execution, and in the edit was making sure that the narrative pulse of the thriller was still a beating heart in the film.

Filmmaker: You mentioned in another interview The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as being formative. I can definitely see Wendy and Lucy in this film. How does Texas Chainsaw show up here?

Rosman: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre continues to be my favorite horror film because it’s so tense, visceral and horrifying, and it doesn’t really use blood or anything. It’s more the setting of the place and the kind of serendipity of everything they captured that summer. That film should have failed so many times on so many levels, but there are all these little things that come together and really do, in my mind, create a perfect film. But specifically in this film, there’s the scene where the character is running through the woods, and it’s like the woods are just like kind of collapsing on her. She’s fighting through the branches, and then by the end of the film, it’s like everything she wants is right in front of her – it’s wide and bright, she’s not hiding, and it’s not dark anymore. And that’s really inspired by Texas Chainsaw, because the first time I watched it at 14, I really felt [the protagonist’s] whole world closing in on her. 

Filmmaker: In addition to having a major reveal 40 minutes into the film, you also have a flashback structure, and the flashbacks are pretty subtle. There are loose associative triggers, like a shot of swirling drain, and then there’s Haley’s black eye, which comes and goes depending on the storytelling chronology. But you didn’t do more obvious things like use color filters. What kind of conversations did you have with your collaborators about the tone of these flashbacks and how they’d co-exist with the rest of the movie?

Filmmaker: There’s actually a lot that goes into [flashbacks] that I wasn’t thinking about when I wrote the script. As you say, there’s all the weight that goes into the black eye, and, you know, having a black eye for an entire shoot is a real pain in the ass! I was warned by my collaborators, but to me, it was really important, and I fought to keep it in there, even though it’s complicated, it takes time, and for a project this small, time equals money. 

I wanted the flashbacks to be in the same universe as the movie, which is a kind of elevated documentary style. The way we shot it, it doesn’t feel that handheld, but it’s pretty handheld. If we had wanted do a more stylized cinematic kind of flashback universe, it would have felt a little disjointed from the rest of the piece.

Filmmaker: How many days did you shoot?

Rosman: Twenty days. I worked with Mark Evans, a great cinematographer in Los Angeles, and we’ve probably done 17 things together, including a handful of music videos. We shot with a [RED] Gemini, and what we liked about it is its great dual ISO. It’s 800 and 3,200, which means that our lighting package could be stretched a bit further because we were still going to have image quality in low light. For prep, we did a mini documentary series that was ambitious in scope — 24 different vignettes in Los Angeles at different hours of the day. They were a minute long, one in each hour, and the final piece was going to be 24 minutes. We went with this crew that cleans up Skid Row every morning at 6:00 AM, we went to an alpaca farm. We ended up filming 12 of them. I never released them, but they were cool. I wanted to really hone in what our visual style could look like using this specific camera, how far we could push it. The other stuff Mark and I had shot together was with an ALEXA Mini LF and music video lighting, and this one was documentary style, so I wanted to flex that muscle with him. 

As far as prep goes, we used a Cine Tracer, and after our [location] scouts, Mark built every single environment. We had the two characters in there, and then we mapped out the entire movie, the idea being you show up on the day and you have the printout of the full shot list and then that opens you up to being able to be more creative.

Filmmaker: In our 25 New Face profile you spoke about the film’s depiction of ALS — the progression of the disease as well as the psychology of someone dealing with that disease. What sort of prep work did you do in terms of your research as well as interacting with ALS communities, which is so important?

Rosman: The core idea, whether it’s ALS or anything else, is that our bodies are all going to fail us eventually. The psychological work of that [is up to] you as a writer. We’ve all had health scares, so that’s a universal. And then in terms of drilling down the specifics, to be accurate on screen, you gotta do the research. I reached out to different communities, like ALS TDI, and I worked closely with a woman, Dagmar Munn, who writes a column for ALS Today on living well with ALS, She was just an open book, and I had her read some passages of the script, and she had some notes that helped. I called a cousin who was a caretaker for his father with ALS, and he talked to me about what that was like. And I talked with a doctor who works with patients, and also a woman [Summer Whisman] I met when I was doing journalism who wrote a memoir about her struggle with ALS and who really inspired Sonya’s character. She was about my age when we went to talk to her, and the disease taking hold was really scary, but she was really optimistic. 

My bigger point is that the more work you do, and the less that work is out of fear and more about being open to discovery and challenging your biases, that’s when you as a creator can be really inspired. ALS is fucking terrifying. It is terrible, and we don’t know enough about it. It feels random, but everyone I talked to was so open and optimistic, and that surprised me. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that that was something to build from.

Filmmaker: The scene where Sonya’s character speaks over Zoom to another woman with ALS is an amazing scene, and with one devastating line of dialogue that I won’t spoil here. 

Rosman: We were looking to cast someone who has ALS, and Dagmar [helped us] find an actor, Lisa Cross. She was incredible, and helped with the script, and she also worked with Sonya. So when Sonya was trying to get her hand movements right, she could talk with Lisa. And the message of that conversation [in the film] is that acceptance is powerful, right? Just as important as trying to fight something, which obviously you should do, is also accepting. I think it is probably the first step towards, as Dagmar would say, finding what living well can look like with a disease. 

Filmmaker: I understand that the time between finishing the script and going into production was very short, especially by independent film standards — just a few months. Did you write the script knowing that you had financing available, or was it a script that you had to send out to get your financing? 

Rosman: Well, I mean, like most of your [filmmaker] readers, it starts to feel like you’re just this person on fire after a while. I was feeling that way — I just needed to make a film. I had a different script that I was like taking around, cold calling producers in L.A. because I had just moved here wanting to make a film. And the feedback I got back, which was probably a one in 10 ratio of people I [submitted to], was that it was too expensive and I wouldn’t be able to pull it off on a limited budget. There were a couple of people I talked to who ended up working on this film, my producer T. Justin Ross and then [executive producer] David Lawson, and they gave me good advice about mining things I could get access to. Road movies can be expensive, but I’ve lived in Oregon for 10 years, and I knew all these locations and have been working with crews out there for a long time. Justin had produced a movie in Oregon and knew the tax incentives well. It’s around 30%, and it came back for us fairly quickly. So you can budget for that and make your dollars expand. So, using the feedback I gotten that my other script was too expensive, how to make this film feel bigger on a limited budget was always the goal.

Filmmaker: How did you finance the film? 

Rosman: I’m the largest financial contributor of the film. I do corporate video work for tech companies, and I enjoy it. I used to do music videos and compete for Levis Jeans commericals with every gunslinging amazing director in town, and that’s really hard. But in the corporate world I get to use my journalism background to talk with people, interview them, and then the work I’ve done in music videos allows me to create a real commercial look. I think for your readers, a big takeaway that I learned when going freelance is that sometimes these jobs that don’t look so glamorous on paper, where you’re not doing the big Instagram campaign for someone really cool, are kind of a secret win where you can start to put away money for your project. They are great opportunities to build your craft, work with bigger budgets, and then you can bring people who have been working for free on [your independent films] onto these jobs and kind of refill that well. On [New Life], I [called in] so many favors. 

And because a first film is such a gamble, I felt it was important for me to be putting up a good chunk of the budget and then to be [working with] people I trusted. And if you’re being realistic about it, the realities of making your money back are pretty steep. I think if you’re working in genres like horror or sci-fi, the margins get a little bit better because there’s a real dedicated worldwide fan base. I would encourage readers to look at their stories and see if they can find a genre element that feels true to them. People have really responded to that hybrid in New Life, because it is kind of an indie drama movie, and it is a horror movie too. But, yes, it’s totally independently financed.

Filmmaker: So no industry money in the film?

Rosman: Yeah. But to go back to the question, I know a lot people who made their first film at 22 and wish they took a little bit more time getting more time on set, doing their own projects. Now that they’re in their mid 30s, they’re making their second film, and they kind of wish that that was their first film. So I think there is something about taking your time and doing your projects. 

Filmmaker: You have an amazing cast, but did you ever go down the road of trying to stack every part with a so-called bankable actor?

Rosman: Of course. But, you know, it’s hard for your first film unless you have this amazing background in commercials or music videos or things that reached a kind of zeitgeist-y level. Those type of actors, they know, and their people all know, that they are the few people who can get butts in seats and that [producers] can build a budget off of. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing — it’s really hard to earn that trust on your first film, but then it’s impossible to get money for your first film. So, of course, you need to take some like really, really big swings and see [what happens] But then it takes two to four weeks to hear back [from an actor] —

Filmmaker: — if you’re lucky.

Rosman: We worked with an amazing casting director, Emily Schweber, and I learned so much from her. After three weeks, you can kind of be like, “Hey, we’re making this,” and they’ll get back to you. So you get two really big, wild swings, but if you think about film as a marketplace, it’s a dynamic, insane marketplace, and you can burn so much time doing that. 

But Sonya, who is incredible, was up on the top of my list. I had seen her work on Lost, and she’s incredible in For All Mankind. For [Jessica], we saw over 100 people, and this is Hayley’s first film, and she’s fucking incredible.

Filmmaker: The script that you wrote that you were going out with before this one, is that something that you’re intending to go back to? 

Rosman: I don’t know, it’s very different, kind of like a zany ’90s horror movie with these insane set pieces. But I have another project that I’m going to be shooting either this summer or early next year. It deals with teenagers who are pushing each other, pushing the limits, trying to create their own reality, and it starts falling apart.

Filmmaker: Now that you’ve done the festivals and the film is coming out in the world, what have you learned about the business of launching a first film? 

Rosman: That the releasing of the film is just as important as the idea of the film and the making of it. Being smart, getting it out there, hustling, and actually trying as hard as you can to reach as big of an audience as you can is actually also part of the work. It sucks, and it’s so not my personality, but going to film festivals, meeting people, programmers, fellow filmmakers, you start to build a community and people start to identify you with this thing and become champions of your work. You start to learn about the actual narrative filmmaking community, and that you have a place in it so when you’re doing the next one, you’re not starting over. Filmmaking is such a communal act — making it and releasing it — and starting to build a community for your work is vital.

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