Set in Oregon, John Rosman’s debut feature New Life initially keeps its cards close to its chest. The opening shot of a bloodied, frantic woman looking for a place to hide implies someone dangerous is hot on her trail—but is she a victim or a wanted fugitive? Retrieving keys from the front steps of an empty house, the woman enters and finds an engagement ring that may or may not be hers. Within minutes, law enforcement arrives, and she’s back on the run, befriending anyone who will get her closer to the United States/Canadian border. A tale of two women—one being chased, the other a fixer doing the chasing—New Life is a pandemic-era horror film that rewards its audience with gory twists and a surprisingly heartfelt center.
Raised in the metro Detroit area, where he performed in local bands growing up, Rosman credits his initial interest in Oregon—where, at the state university, he would obtain a degree in journalism—to countercultural novelist Ken Kesey. “In my senior year of high school, I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Rosman remembers. “Kesey was somewhat of a figure in Eugene, Oregon, and I had heard that he sometimes taught creative writing courses at the University of Oregon, but he was actually dead at the time. I also read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and really loved it.” A landlord of Rosman’s participated alongside Kesey in the cross-country psychedelic bus trip Wolfe’s book documents.
Video editing and television production courses solidified Rosman’s collegiate focus. While working numerous odd jobs, including at a local hot dog stand and at a Chinese restaurant, Rosman interned after graduation at a local NPR affiliate, which led to a 10-year career in public media, a path he credits with teaching him filmmaking fundamentals. “I definitely learned storytelling that way,” Rosman says, “as it involved a process where you had to pitch an idea, then you had to defend that idea. The best idea wins, and everyone’s working to get the best idea out of something. If you’re crafting a story for radio, the longest version of it will be four minutes, but you have to spend a week researching it. You have to learn what’s important, how to be concise and how to edit.”
Envisioning an adventurous, multihyphenate, form-jumping career like Spike Jonze (whose Being John Malkovich he fondly recalls seeing in theaters with his mother and brother), Rosman honed his skills and expanded his technical knowledge by working on commercials and music videos: “I saw that as a [career] path: making music videos, then transitioning into commercials and fashion, and from there someone would give me the money [to make a film]. But I think that stopped being a career path in, like, 1998, and I didn’t get the memo!”
After writing, directing and (after an actor dropped out) co-starring in a found-footage short, Oregon’s Door to the Dead, Rosman moved to Los Angeles but returned to the vast landscapes of Oregon to shoot his first feature. Rosman saw New Life—which just premiered at Fantasia International Film Festival—as not just a horror tale but a road movie partly inspired by a fellow Oregonian filmmaker. “Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is just as big of an influence on this film as The Fly is,” Rosman says, also citing Chloé Zhao’s The Rider as an inspiration. And in depicting one of the film’s two main characters’ increasingly debilitating struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Rosman pulled from his documentary background by recalling interviews he conducted with a young woman diagnosed with the disease (Summer Whisman, to whom New Life is dedicated) for public broadcast. “What the two characters in the film are facing is very similar,” Rosman says. “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. If you’re not thoughtful enough or you don’t do the work, the film could have all of these unintended metaphors and just feel cheap and shitty, and I did not want that to happen.”—Erik Luers/Image: Noah Dye