EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: VERSUS/MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN DIRECTOR RYUHEI KITAMURA TALKS “DOWNRANGE”

Written for Rue Morgue.

Six college kids, one road trip, one blown out tire. You don’t even have to do the math to know that some poor final girl is going to be flicking bits of arrogant jock and obnoxious blonde off her shoes by the end of the first act.

Not so fast, though. Ryuhei Kitamura’s newest exercise in sadism – and his first official horror film in nine years – tilts the table just enough that audiences with a taste for the bleak and the gory will have something to chew on. Kitamura’s action-terror stylings in VERSUS and MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN put him on Hollywood’s radar in the early-to-late 2000s, but his subversive brand of horror has been missed up until the premiere of DOWNRANGE at this year’s TIFF.

DOWNRANGE follows six students on a cross-country carpool; gone awry when a seemingly routine tire change reveals something more sinister. Each has their own separate destination, but they might be staying just where they are.

RUE MORGUE met with Kitamura and the cast of the film to talk about MacGyver’ing your own survival, subverting expectations and which movies still mess with their heads.

“…in the first few minutes, the rug is pulled straight out from under you.”

On paper, it seems like a regular horror story: A few lovable teenagers, a pickup truck, a blown out tire. We know what happens from there – butthere’s something about the execution that makes things much more tense even when you think you know where the plot’s going. What do you guys think sets the film apart from other contemporary horror films?

ROD HERNANDEZ (TODD): In SCREAM, you know that the cute girl’s gonna die. You know that shit’s probably gonna jump out at you. You know that the pretty girl at the beginning is gonna die – she’s gonna pop out of the shower and…

ALEXA YEAMES (SARAH): Make a stupid decision.

ROD: Yeah. Then she’s gonna scream and it’s gonna be over, or you know that the jock dude is either gonna be the hero or he’s gonna die some crazy death. This film – without giving too much away – in the first few minutes, the rug is pulled straight out from under you. The person you may think of as the “hero” type, something happens to them. What sets it apart, I think, is that these people are thinkers. They’re not the stereotypical yelling teens. They start thinking about how they’re gonna survive and they start taking action. They don’t just sit down and wait for someone to rescue them, they start trying to get their shit together. They’re not teens anymore, they’re warriors and MacGyvers. They have makeshift shields, and they ask what they can do to protect themselves. They’re not just pretty faces.

ANTHONY KIRLEW (ERIC): I feel like the story’s driven by the characters’ decisions. A lot of the movies we watch today are very CGI’d and visual-based. And that’s why we go to theatres – to watch those big things. When you watch this, you’re thinking “Alright, these characters are in one spot, they’re all they have”. All the audience is watching the characters making these decisions, and that’s what moves the story. You’re always thinking about what’s gonna happen next, and it’s all based around the characters. Not the visuals.

ALEXA: They do everything they can think of to survive. It’s not one of those movies where you’re thinking “oh, now someone’s going to make the stupid decision”, where you’re like “ah, shouldn’t have done that. You went to the basement by yourself.” It’s very much about how would you get out of this situation. I don’t think someone’s going to watch that and think to themselves that they would’ve done this or that differently, because they try everything. That really adds to the terror of it, there’s no easy answer. There’s nothing they haven’t attempted that would’ve worked.

STEPHANIE PEARSON (KEREN): (Screenwriter) Joey O’Bryan did a great job of making the audience sympathetic to these characters.  You’re invested in them, you want them to survive. You’re rooting for them the whole way rather than saying “Oh, I know what’s going to happen”.

JASON TOBIAS (JEFF): You’ve got these one-location thrillers like GREEN ROOM, THE STRANGERS, stuff where you can hide behind walls, doors and rooms… but here you’re just behind a car. Think of it like a divider on a highway: All you have is this four by 20 foot piece of cement that’s your only saving grace. And it’s right out in the open. How many times have you driven down an old road? It’s something that’s very familiar to everyone, and coupled with the unknown of this crazy thing happening, the imagination starts to take over. So that’s why for me it stands out among one-location thrillers, like DON’T BREATHE even, where you’re stuck in a house. You have an angle for protection.

ANTHONY: One of the characters, Eric, doesn’t even have a metal car. He has a stump.

ROD: We can stand up and move around, but if that dude takes six inches one way he’s done. If he even peeks his head out he’s done.

As I was watching him I was murmuring to myself “Put your head down. Put your fucking head down.”

(Uproarious laughter)

ALEXI: So you would’ve done something different, huh?https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBf0xLj7FhU

I would’ve lived. But as Stephanie mentioned, the audience interaction it provokes is us thinking “Well what would I do? How would I escape the impossible situation?”

KELLY CONNAIRE (JODI): It’s easier for the audience to connect with the characters because a lot of them don’t know each other, so it’s very easy to identify with the person that doesn’t know anyone and had to experience all of this.

It’s clear that you’ve become friends. I assume it’s not just a put on, though you are all actors so I don’t know… Did you feel that sort of constriction on set? Did that claustrophobia Ryuhei was aiming for make you feel like a unit? 

ANTHONY: It’s a bit crazy because when we started shooting, we didn’t know each other. But we shot consecutively, so we started to get to know each other in a kind of real-time friendship.

ALEXI: Which is so rare. I feel like it’s usually from one shot here, same location, you’re shooting the beginning and the end of the film, but the fact that Ryuhei gave us the opportunity to go through all of this in order really helped the relationships naturally grow. We have a Facebook chat and we all hang out now. It’s a legitimate group, which is really cool.

STEPHANIE: It was interesting too that our location was so vast and empty, and yet we had three to 15 feet that we were confined to. So there’s a juxtaposition for our characters versus us (as actors) out there. And it was that location (presented as it was in the film), there was nothing around there. There was no cell service. So we really did just have to sit around and become friends.

So there really was no cell service, that’s not just a plot device.

ROD: Our base camp was two miles away, so it was a ten minute drive just to get to a place where we could get service.

STEPHANIE: About two hours outside of L.A.

ANTHONY: All we had was each other.

That’s very sweet. Coming back to Ryuhei: You’ve got a segment coming up in NIGHTMARE CINEMA, that’s in post-production, and there was talk of a script for VERSUS 2…

RYUHEI: Who said that?

Wikipedia. Is it fair to say you’re coming back to horror for good?

RYUHEI: No, the movie I’m starting Monday is a pure action movie (talking about next year’s DOORMAN). It’s with Katie Holmes and Jean Reno. It’s kind of like a female-lead version of DIE HARD, with some twists and turns. Pure action movie. So after that, I don’t know. I shot for NIGHTMARE CINEMA earlier this year, and when I did that movie I told everybody “You know what, I’m done with the bloody movies for a while”. After DOWNRANGE and NIGHTMARE CINEMA, I want to go to action. I’m planning to do a couple this and next year, and then maybe horror.

Well, we’ll be waiting. If I could open things up to all of you again, what are your favourite horror movies?

ANTHONY: I’m not sure if you’d consider it a horror movie, but CABIN IN THE WOODS. Just how it pokes fun at all the horror movies we’ve had in the past. It’s funny, but it’s also kind of scary.

ROD: I’m torn between two. I’d say either the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or JAWS. Even when I’m swimming in a pool I’ll always have to look around and make sure there’s not a great white shark around, which doesn’t make any sense, but that’s how embedded it is.

STEPHANIE: I was gonna say TEXAS CHAINSAW as well. Classic.

ALEXA: I have to say IT FOLLOWS really got to me. That’s another film where we’re talking about how the things happening to these people aren’t explained. Just the psychological stressors of movies like that get under your skin. There’s no escape from it, there’s no neat bow on the box to rationalize it.

JASON: I would say THE STRANGERS for me. When I saw that, it really freaked me out. I spent a few years out in Ohio, where there are a lot of places that look just like that. Homes that were probably 15 to 20 miles away from any kind of metropolitan area. And the explanation at the end, when they show up to the house in those carnival masks and they (the family) ask why they’re doing this and they say it’s just because they wanted to. That creepiness, that blase kind of “Well, you were home and we just wanted to do this to you.” They could have picked any house down the road, but they picked yours. FUNNY GAMES is another one.

KELLY: LIGHTS OUT really messed with me. I have some specific fears: I’m afraid of mirrors, dolls and the dark. And that definitely played on my fear of the dark. I’ve watched movies with a lot more jump scares than that, but noises and moments in that one have stayed with me ever since.

ROD: What’s your favourite?

I don’t watch movies, don’t care for them.

 (Eruption of laughter, back in action baby)

 Ryuhei, do you have one?

RYUHEI: I have so many. But if I had to choose one right now, I’d choose the original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. The character of Freddy Krueger, the visions, Wes Craven… I love that movie.

Of course. Well, thank you for your time everyone. Congratulations on the movie and have fun at TIFF.

ALL: Thank you!