Rarely do we see indie films with special effects that level up to those of big-budget monsters taking over the box office. But director Clay Staub tests the waters with his new thriller “Devil’s Gate,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week.
Staub, who’s worked as a 2nd unit director for Matthijs van Heijningen (”The Thing”) and Zack Snyder (”Dawn of the Dead,” “300,” “Man of Steel” and “Justice League”), is making his directorial debut with the cop-drama-turned-horror-movie, testing genres in an original story featuring an unexpected sci-fi twist. (We won’t give it away here.)
“That was the core idea, [it] is: Can we just play with the genre and flop it?” Staub told the audience during a Q&A following the premiere Monday night.
“Devil’s Gate” follows FBI Agent Daria Francis (Amanda Schull) as she tries to track down the whereabouts of a missing woman, Maria Pritchard (Bridget Regan), and her son, Jonah (Spencer Drever), with the help of local deputy Colt Salter (Shawn Ashmore). But when Francis and Salter head to the Pritchard home and find Maria’s husband, Jackson (Milo Ventimiglia), in a state of mayhem, the story gets a lot more complicated than one can imagine.
“I don’t know that I set out to find a genre thriller, something that was dealing with certain matters that we did here,” Milo Ventimiglia, who’s enjoying great success with NBC hit show “This Is Us,” said of joining “Devil’s Gate” during the Q&A. “I read the script, I loved it, I saw the cast assembled ― they’re friends and I’m a fan ― and I was like, ‘This just feels like it would be fun to make.’ And it was fun, but it was also dark and fucked up!”
“I didn’t see it coming,” Shawn Ashmore added of the plot. “This got me, and then as soon as that twist happened, I was like, ‘Now I need to get to the back of this [script].’”
Below, another one of the film’s stars — Amanda Schull — chats with HuffPost about her role in the genre-bending flick, and why she was proud to play a female detective in a mostly male-driven field.
The film was totally not what I was expecting! Is that what drew you to the script? It appears to be this typical cop thriller and then all of the sudden you’re like, “Wait, where is this going?”
I know. Shawn [Ashmore] said that was one of the things that drew him to the film ― that he knew where it was going, absolutely got it, knew what the outcome was going to be, but then, 30 pages into it, he was like, ‘Wow, what?’ And yes, that was it for me, but it was also the character. For me, personally, a story can be great but if the character is kind of lame, or you’ve done it a number of times or it’s just a trope or she doesn’t have any depth to her, what’s the point? What’s the statement you’re making when you’re putting in your time and your energy into creating this? I was fascinated with my character, the material was really interesting ― it was something I’ve never done before ― and the actors were pretty fantastic.
Yes, it’s a great ensemble cast. Milo Ventimiglia was saying at the premiere that you were all fans and friends of each other. Was that the case with you, too?
Yeah, it was. I think they spoke to me before anybody else, but I had known they were speaking to other people a little bit into it. I had never worked with any of these people before and the circumstances of the film ― where we shot in the middle of nowhere, the hours that we spent, and the fact that we were literally on location for 12 hours every single day in a mouse-infested barn ― [was intense]. But I loved it, every second of it. It was really cold, and this will make it sound really horrible, but there was a tick infestation — but I would do it again in a heartbeat. I was fans of their work beforehand, but then I became fans of them as people ... Getting to do a scene with people who were on the same page and challenged me was invigorating ― you don’t get that every single day with acting, so I was really lucky in that regard.
I think people are sick and tired of seeing girly girls. I think they’re ready to see women as they are in the world ― strong and capable and just as competent as men. Amanda Schull
Usually you see detectives as men, being that it’s a male-dominated profession, but it was cool to see you kind of as a Jodie Foster or a Mariska Hargitay in this lead power position. Was that important for you? Clay Staub said during the panel that he was originally going to cast a man in your role.
Yeah, I didn’t know that, that was news to me! Excuse me. But, yeah, I’ve been really lucky over the last few years to have these interesting, strong female characters placed in front of me and I hope I’ve done them justice because, like any man, women are just as strong and capable in these positions. But they all have flaws. I know my character right now that I play on “12 Monkeys” has become very physically strong, as well as with her mental capabilities, yet she still has weaknesses. And that’s something, with this as well, that I wanted to make sure I didn’t fall into the trope of being a victim. That these circumstances start happening around Agent Francis that could easily fall down the rabbit hole of being scary, and it’s just a different way to visualize and project fear that’s maybe masked or ingested in a different way. I think people are sick and tired of seeing girly girls. I think they’re ready to see women as they are in the world ― strong and capable and just as competent as men.
This movie does have a really big twist ― it turns a little sci-fi. How was it to play in this world?
I shot this only after the first season of “12 Monkeys,” so I hadn’t dabbled in the sci-fi world so much. In the first season of “12 Monkeys,” my character lives in what we consider present day. I hadn’t yet experienced the time travel, the windy twists and turns. So this was my first foray in a lot of ways, which was fun but really intimidating also. First of all, sci-fi audiences are very smart and very perceptive and, I don’t want to say critical, but they’re very intelligent viewers. Also, from an acting and logistical standpoint, a lot of what we experience and see and live through in that world doesn’t get added until postproduction, so you don’t necessarily know what it’s going to be. We were lucky because we were given the gift of Clay’s storyboards and these paintings and renderings of what he was going to put in in post with visual effects. And that was helpful.
How do you feel the emotion or build yourself up for a scene when you don’t actually have these effects to work alongside of?
For these scenes, I had the gift of my fellow actors. I am only in a couple of scenes by myself, but for these emotional, scary or heightened scenes in “Devil’s Gate,” I had Shawn ...
Yes, you guys have a great buddy-cop relationship ...
Yeah! I love working with Shawn. If someone were to offer me a buddy-cop film with Shawn, I’d jump at it! I’d love the opportunity to be his buddy cop.
And then Milo. Milo’s character is much more intense and emotional and he understands the depth of what is happening much better than anybody else, so he had to work himself up, in a way, differently than our perspective. And we got to play off that because he did it not only for his coverage when he was in front of the camera but for our coverage behind the camera ― he did a performance that we could play off of, and did it just as well as if the camera was on himself.
It’s weird because he has this whole “This Is Us” fame around him now with the beloved Papa Pearson, and this is a different, deep, disturbing role.
Yeah, I know. We shot this before all that. As far as I know, I don’t even think that he had even been introduced to that. He was on another show at the time.
What did you guys think, reading this indie script and seeing that it needed all of this postproduction work? Was it hard to visualize how an indie film could do what a big-budget film does?
I think it comes across as a big-budget movie. Clay has a background [with those types of films], as does Scott Mednick, our producer of Mednick Productions, who was on set with his son Skyler, our executive producer. They were on set every single day, every single scene ― that is not common. And for him to be as involved and communicative and yet allow us creativity [was great]. Often on an independent film, you have the producer on set just to be a naysayer or to be like, “We only have time for this one shot, forget about this other thing, it’s not important.” He wasn’t that. He was encouraging and excited and a part of the whole process from tip to tail. And that gave us an incredible amount of confidence and security. From the very beginning, he said, “I’m going to protect you, I’m going to do this justice, have faith in me, I have faith in you, and let me show you I’m going to do that.” And he’s a man of his word.
Is it nice for you to see your trajectory ― going from your film debut as a ballet dancer in “Center Stage” to a detective in “Devil’s Gate”?
They’re very different people, I guess. [Laughs] When I was watching myself [at the premiere] pull a gun and talk about being a federal agent, part of me was pinching myself because I’m like, “God, I’ve tricked a lot of people into giving me opportunities.” I’m really lucky that I was in the right place at the right time and I finagled my way into these wonderful characters. I don’t know what I did in a former life, but I’m pretty thankful to whoever she was to have gotten this gift.
“Center Stage” is 17 years old already!
Even longer than that, we shot it about 18 years ago. Actually, I invited Sascha [Radetsky], who plays Charlie, to come to the premiere [of “Devil’s Gate”], but he couldn’t because he had another event.
Well, that would have been a nice photo op!
What’s your hope for “Devil’s Gate” going forward?
Gosh, I hope that people get to see this movie ― it’s been a real labor of love, I know for Clay and Peter [Aperlo], the co-writers, and producer Scott Mednick. And, for us, it was such a wonderful experience and to get to see it in its finality with an audience ... I think it holds up, as far as the story, and also [as far as] flipping stories on their heads. What you expect to happen does not, several times over. So I think people will really enjoy that ride and I hope people get to experience it. I would love people to take a trip down “Devil’s Gate” lane.
“Devil’s Gate” is now playing at the Tribeca Film Festival.