Colin Minihan’s What Keeps You Alive is a film that doesn’t let up. The intense cat-and-mouse thriller from IFC Midnight stars Brittany Allen (Jigsaw) and Hannah Emily Anderson (The Purge TV series) as a married couple vacationing in a remote cabin in the woods. Things turn dark when Jules (Allen), realizes that her wife Jackie (Anderson), is not the women she thought she married. Our very our Tyler Liston called What Keeps You Alive a “brutally enjoyable film“. You can read his full review here.
Nightmare on Film Street sat down with Brittany Allen and writer/director Colin Minihan to discuss their creative processes, wearing different hats in a film’s production, and the dark fun of getting into a character’s head.
Grant DeArmitt for Nightmare on Film Street: One of the first things you notice about this movie is that the script and the score compliment each other so well. Was that a collaborative process?
Brittany Allen: It wasn’t necessarily from the get-go. Colin wrote the script, and while he was writing it, we didn’t know that I was going to do the music for it.
Colin Minihan: The story did inform the score to a point though. I knew that there were going to be three classical pieces of music being used. I knew I wanted to use these different Beethoven tracks throughout it. So you can’t really deviate musically too much with the score once you set that as a foundation.
Brittany: Yeah once you know those instruments are going to exist and that the piano is going to be pretty heavy with those moments…that had to be an element in the score.
Colin: So that informed the pallet a little bit.
Brittany: Ultimately the score is about servicing the story and servicing the tone that has been established. Once I set out to create the score, that was a very collaborative process. We live together so, I’d be working on something and he would be listening from the other room –
Colin: – giving bad notes too soon.
Brittany: (laughs) Yeah, sometimes that was a good thing, but sometimes it was a bad thing. We learned a good balance for when I needed to go off into my own world and really flesh something out before presenting it to [Colin], instead of [Colin] squashing it right away. I’m kidding. But I like having Colin, because it was my first score and Colin has a lot of experience directing music videos and working with composers. Having a director who knew what he wanted musically was very helpful. It was a good give-and-take.
NOFS: Besides the classical pieces, what were some other influences you had in writing the score?
Brittany: Ultimately I didn’t want to be too heavily influenced by anyone. I have people that inspire me, but I wanted to figure out my own sound. Because of the piano, [Colin] referenced The Game which is a score that’s entirely built on piano. It’s an awesome Michael Douglas 90s movie. That was a good reference. We also talked about Eyes Wide Shut…
Colin: Yeah, that was just this dark piano, minimal, and Brittany wanted to add a lot more industrial, grungy distortions that would make it feel a little bit modern. But it would still have that organic piano as the base.
Brittany: So I would start every composition on the piano, come up with the theme there, and that was cool. It was like, “what 5 notes can capture the feeling needed in this scene, without anything else?” Then I would put it in my computer and work on a more electronic distorted thing. I would say that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are inspirations as well. hopefully I didn’t sound too close to them. Like I said, I didn’t obsess over any one score. I would dabble, listen for a second and try to capture the vibe and the sounds, and then try to come up with my own.
NOFS: Speaking of inspirations, Colin, this movie combines the classic horror themes of “a cabin in the woods” and “a relationship hiding a dark secret.” What horror movies with those themes inspired this script?
Collin: I wasn’t really inspired by any “cabin in the woods” horror movie. It was more like mid-90s chase thrillers like American Psycho. Look-wise, I was more inspired by recent stuff. I really like the look of The Invitation, which has a really warm palette inside the house. There’s also a mid-90s action thriller called Surviving the Game, which is about Ice-T getting chased through the woods by people trying to kill him. When I was writing the script I thought “this reminds me of that in a weird way.”
NOFS: You also found inspiration in true crime stories. Your previous work, however, has all been supernatural horror (Grave Encounters, Extraterrestrial). What was different about writing non-supernatural evil?
Colin: It was so much more fun to write the words of a psychopath. Because I could just stay up all night and channel some of that darkness, and have fun while doing it. She has a lot of clever lines throughout it that were just so irresistible, I couldn’t not write them for the psychopath character. That was probably the most fun thing about writing the script, was being able to tap into some of that darkness.
It’s a situational, cause and effect movie. In terms of the initial discovery of where this idea came from, it came from researching married couples in which the husband had killed his wife. Once I landed on the idea of a couple in a remote area, the movie became so rapid fire. It knew what it was, it wrote itself from there. And it was a lot more fun than having an alien that doesn’t talk as your villain.
Brittany: Yeah, with that it’s a bit harder to understand the motives of an alien or a zombie –
Brittany: – with this, you can really tap into the dark mind of the threat.
Colin: Yeah, I hope a psychopath watches this and thinks “Oh shit, they got me right.”
NOFS: Speaking of getting into the mind of a character, Brittany, your character goes through a lot in this movie. Both physically and emotionally. How do you prepare for something like that?
Brittany: I actually didn’t have a lot of time to prep for this film. I was shooting something else until about a week before we started shooting this. In that week off, I was racing around Toronto finding wardrobe for the movie. So that was a lot of work trying to find all the looks for me and Jackie. I think a lot of the prep was quietly done while I was busy doing other things. A lot of it was, I suppose, mentally preparing myself for the turmoil that I knew my character would have to go through. Maybe even just resting a part of my body and my brain to just quietly coach myself into being okay with going there.
That’s something that a lot of people ask about, because the thought of going to such an extreme place feels like it would be really challenging. And it is, and it might have been when I first started doing these kinds of movies. And now I try to make it more real than the last one and try to be better than I was in previous films. But going to that place comes sometimes easier for me now, then having to do a scene a restaurant when I’m just talking to someone. Because in those moments, my anxiety has a chance to be louder when fighting for my life is the most important thing. Everything else just goes away, so I can throw myself into it.
NOFS: Brittany, You wore a lot of hats in this film. You did the music, acted, designed the wardrobe. Did those roles feed into each other?
Brittany: You take them one at a time. I think that is one of the special things about the films that Colin and I made together. When it comes time to shoot the film, I’ve been aware of the script in the story and the characters from maybe a year prior. So whether or not I’ve been actively preparing for it, it’s been ruminating in me.
Colin: You find the character more when you’re finding what they’re going to wear.
Brittany: Yeah! Sometimes when you get into a shoot, you’re hoping that the wardrobe person is on the same page you are. Rarely is that the case. I suppose the deeper you understand the story you’re trying to tell the more truthful your work will be in every area. It’s something that happens without thinking about it.
NOFS: Colin, do you purposefully try to work with people who have been there for the whole process?
Colin: I just like working with people that aren’t jerks. So I surrounded myself with a group of friends in Canada in these indie films. We go back pretty far and they’re all talented filmmakers in their own right. There’s a mutual level of respect between producers on set. They never pull the plug on the director at the 12th hour, like can happen on bigger shoots.
And I love working with Britt, she makes the casting processing really easy. The casting process on any other movie it’s so stressful trying to find a lead, but not when I’m literally able to tailor it for a year-and-a-half of writing it.
You become a family halfway through the shoot. You know it’s such a tight group of people, we had the smallest crew I think I’ve ever worked with. This was a 15-person max on set. It’s really intimate. You’re in the woods together on a mission. It was hard to let go after.
Brittany: It was really sad.
Colin: And it’s exhausting too. I say it was a lot of fun, but it was also hard work. By the end of it we felt that we’ve earned something. We grew.
NOFS: You’re both horror-thriller fans. What about this movie will horror-thriller fans especially appreciate? What’s unique about it?
Colin: I think the people were really dig this movie. It has so much going for it. The performances are outrageously good between Britain and Hannah (Emily Anderson). They have immense chemistry and you feel for this couple. No matter how bad things get, you kind of wish they could make it work. Because there is such chemistry. Hannah in particular is playing a role of a female psychopath, which is not something that you see in cinema a lot. And she totally destroyed that character and did an amazing job. There’s a revenge element to the film, there’s dark humor, it’s violent. It’s fun.
Brittany: Tonally, I think it knows exactly what it is. It’s a tight, dark, beautiful journey that you go on while you’re watching it. There’s this foreboding that drives the whole thing. Every time I see the film, and this is rare, I genuinely love the film. Every time I see it I find more things to love about it.
A big thank you to Colin Minihan and Brittany Allen for sitting down with us. What Keeps You Alive is a beautifully-shot, refreshing take on the genre, and it is sure to make waves in the horror world. But don’t just take my word for it, check out Tyler Liston’s review. . What Keeps You Alive hits theaters August 24th.