Braden R. Duemmler, Director, What Lies Below (2020)

“Write cheap and then write another…” with Braden R. Duemmler, Director/Writer of What Lies Below (2020)

USC School of Cinematic Arts graduate and successful filmmaker, Braden R. Duemmler, reveals what he has learned over the years – from being a student at a prestigious top-tier film school to producing his own cinematic horror What Lies Below (2020) and how it gained full distribution with Saban Films.

Duemmler walks us through the most important aspects of filmmaking, how he handled his budget and how he made the connections necessary to get his film off the ground.

What Lies Below (2020), starring American Beauty‘s Mena Suvari, is a science fiction horror that follows a 16 year-old girl as she returns home from camp. Her mother has a new boyfriend, one she is set to marry; a man whose charm, intelligence and good looks set him apart from the rest. Is he really all that he seems?

FF: Could you introduce yourself, please?

BD: Sure. I’m Braden. I am a filmmaker, a writer-director from the US. I started out growing up as a hockey player, and being really into sports. I finally found film in college through a film theory class and eventually ended up at USC Film School, where I ultimately got into production.

So, when you go to a very top tier film school, a really good film school, you end up working with really talented people that are very passionate about the craft. And as a result, that’s in itself a commodity that I think is underrated, and probably one of the best.

FF: That leads me nicely onto my next question. You’ve had the benefit of a comprehensive film education: you became the first film major at the University of Vermont to win the coveted Dugan Folley Award and you also earned the Thomas B. Bush Cinematography Scholarship at USC.

Mena Suvari actress in What Lies Below (2020)
Mena Suvari, actress, in What Lies Below (2020) from director and writer Braden R. Duemmler

Can you explain to us the value of going to film school, some of the biggest takeaways from that academic experience and do you think that you would have got to where you are now regardless of that?

BD: Wow, that’s a great question. I’d like to think that it was necessary, that I did need to do all of this. I think I value some things more than others. Like I said before, I grew up playing hockey, and really only cared about sports. I did academics but it wasn’t something I really committed to throughout high school.

But then when I went to college, I took a film theory class, just because I thought it’d be fun, “History of film, cool, I get to watch movies and talk about them”. And my professor Todd McGowan, who I’m still in touch with to this day, just made me fall in love with the material. He was just so charismatic, so interesting, so fantastic.

And from that point on, for the next four years, I learned so many things. I watched so many movies from French New Wave, Italian Reconstructionism…all these different styles of filmmaking. We even watched some really incredible experimental films that were done by filmmakers who would literally scratch the film and paste things onto it to create an image. I mean, there was just so much stuff that I got introduced to through film theory, that I think it taught me the language of film, it taught me how to speak in film. And as a result, I had the foundation to be a good filmmaker.

And then when I went to USC, which is more for production, I had that language in my head, but I didn’t know the practical way of creating it – I didn’t know the X’s and O’s to it. And so, USC really brought that together in the sense that I learned, I picked up a camera for the first time and I shot it. I knew what I wanted to capture in my head, but I didn’t necessarily know how to physically capture it with the camera.

FF: So, you hadn’t picked up a camera before that then?

BD: Not really. Except for the little tape, video recorder things that people used to use before HD. That was kind of my only real experience with a camera. And then I got to USC and I just completely dove in from day one – automatically you were shooting stuff. And it was funny because I was picked out as a kind of cinematographer in the school. I think part of that was because of my film theory background. So, USC taught the production; University of Vermont taught me the foundation, the language.

I think another thing that USC taught me was how to deal with, work with, motivate, and inspire, and redirect actors. I think that’s such an underrated quality of a director’s job, to maintain the performance of a film. And I didn’t even know that that was a job for directors until I went to USC. Because in film theory, we talk about the image so much that we spend a little less time on performance, so that was a big learning experience. I think the biggest value I had from UVM was the language, but from USC it was the physical production of things, which you could have learned just from doing it. You could have just kind of taught yourself, but also the people that I surrounded myself with.

One of the reasons that What Lies Below (2020) came about was because one of my best friends from USC. I met up with him, I shared the script, and he sent it to a producer from USC who loved it, who sent it to one of his producers who loved it. And then the ball gets rolling.

So, when you go to a very top tier film school, a really good film school, you end up working with really talented people that are very passionate about the craft. And as a result, that’s in itself a commodity that I think is underrated, and probably one of the best. It’s not necessarily the people that have already graduated, like I’m not going to reach out to Steven Spielberg anytime soon, just because he is involved with USC. But the people I came up with, the people that I worked with, and I worked on their film set, and they worked on my film set back at USC, I’m still in touch with them. And that in itself is an incredible wealth to have at your disposal when trying to make movies.

FF: Yes, it sounds a little bit like what we’re trying to achieve here at Film Forums. Clearly, we’re not at your level, but most of us on the Film Forums team now are indeed aspiring filmmakers. And we’re interviewing more and more people and making connections and who knows where that will lead? So, a similar kind of networking experience for us as well. So that’s really good to hear that networking, full stop, is a great thing that leads to collaboration.

BD: So, I honestly hate the term networking because it makes it feel shallow. You just need to develop really good friendships. You have to have people that you really trust. I mean, I know a ton of people that are in film, but there’s five or six people that I will go to battle with on a film set any day of the week. Those are the ones that you really have to hold onto, because they’re really special. And they’re always going to genuinely support you.

So network, absolutely, but find your core group. For people that are listening: find those four or five people that get you, you get them, you work well together – even if you argue that’s great, arguing’s good. Different opinions are good, but just make sure you trust people and they work hard, and you work hard for them.

FF: That’s a really good point. You alluded to your latest film so let’s talk about that. Can you tell us what your latest movie, What Lies Below (2020), is about? And have you always been into the horror genre?

BD: Okay, so What Lies Below (2020) is a film about a 16-year-old girl who comes home from her typical summer vacation at camp to realise that her mom has met a guy and the guy is kind of an Adonis. He’s just this incredibly good looking, handsome, charming, man. For the first time in her life, there’s a little bit of a sexual awakening in her and things start to get awkward. Then, one night in the middle of night, she wakes up to this bright light in the backyard, and she looks out the back window and she sees the man basking in the light. And then all of a sudden, he just starts walking towards the light into the lake. And we’ll leave it at that.

The rest of the film is really a mystery. Who is this man? What’s the light? What’s going on? All these things. It is very much a horror film; it is very much a thriller. But at its core, I think it’s a mystery. And that’s what I love about it. And yes, I’ve always been into horror. I think it was James Wan who said, “the thing that’s special about horror is it’s very difficult to make, because if the audience sees the seams, they’re not scared”. So, if they see the mechanism of the camera, they’re not scared.

And I also have always had, personally, this kind of morbid fascination with death. Even when I was five years old. I still remember I was so scared of death, at like five or six years old, that my parents had to buy me a book that explained death to me in little pictures. To understand that it was just a process of life and that it happens very late in life, it’s not a big deal. And the book really didn’t help, but I eventually got over the fear as a kid. But, it kind of manifests itself in different ways now as an adult.

And so, I’m always fascinated by stories that tell life or death struggle; things that you don’t know if the characters are going to survive this, because, to me, that’s life. Life and death is the ultimate challenge. We’re all slowly dying throughout our life, and we’re trying to avoid and prolong it as much as possible. And so, it kind of brings that to the forefront and I love stories that have that drive. So that’s why horror is just such a great ballpark. It’s just a perfect medium, the big perfect story genre for that.

Trey Tucker actor in What Lies Below (2020)
Trey Tucker, actor, in What Lies Below (2020)

FF: Yeah, absolutely. I would say with What Lies Below (2020), it certainly seems more of a unique take on a horror than I’ve seen for quite a while. Without putting any spoilers in, some of the devices you put in there are really impressive, and I haven’t seen anything quite like it before. So, I definitely implore people to watch it. It builds very, very nicely, and it isn’t your typical ending, I would say.

What challenges did you face during filming – especially with the scenes on the water?

BD: Oh, man, there’s so many. I mean, it’s an indie film, so we had a tight schedule. It was originally scheduled for 20 days, but because of some of those issues, that ended up being 19 days. And it was crazy. There’s so many things that are part of film. I think one thing that’s most important to realise, is what’s the most expensive thing on a film set, a lot of people don’t realize what it is: it’s labour, it’s people.

To get those people, to get talented people on set working on your film, that costs the most amount of money. So anytime you lose time on a film set, you are costing yourself money. And that’s such an important thing to realise. When young filmmakers are writing something, they need to do stuff that can happen in the shortest amount of time, that they can shoot in the shortest amount of time. So minimal locations, minimal actors, etc.

But as an example of how badly this can go wrong, for the light in the lake scene we had to rent a 4000-watt light. There was some debate about whether 2000 was enough or 4000 was enough. And 4000 still didn’t end up being enough so we were actually wrong. We still needed even more than 4000 but we couldn’t get it, so it was never as bright as I had in my head. But when we put the light in, a screw on the casing broke. And the light kept falling apart and falling over in the water. Our gaffer and our grip took three hours to try to figure out a solution to fix this screw.

So, the entire set is waiting for a small group of people to try to figure out this one screw. This is the problem. We’re talking about I don’t know how many people hours, and all over a single screw. It just shows you how fundamental things like that are, how important it is to not lose time, to never ever lose time. And that’s why they always say on film sets, if you’re on time you’re 15 minutes late, because you just have to be on it.

FF: Yeah, absolutely. I guess you’ll never forget that experience! How many crew members does it take to fix a screw?

BD: Exactly! [laughs].

FF: When is the movie released and where will it be available?

BD: So, I’m not 100% sure about the UK, unfortunately. I know, in Germany, it’s December 17th – my family’s originally from Germany, so I have a lot of family members over there. But in the US it’s released on December 4th, and it’ll be on video on demand. It’ll be on the section “In Theatres Now”, because there might be a small theatrical release to go with it depending on COVID, of course. And so that’s the best way to get to it.

FF: Okay, thank you. What advice would you give to budding filmmakers and what do you wish you’d been told before you embarked on your filmmaking journey?

BD: Yeah, so two things. One is, if you can write – and even if you can’t, you should – but if you can, write. Because that’s the only thing that doesn’t cost any money, that nobody can take away from you, that you can always do. And there’s value in a script, a script has value, a feature script has value. So, you’re always committing to something that actually has value. And don’t ever get hung up on one script either. Once you finish one, and you’re pretty happy with it, move on, write another one, write another one, write another one. While you’re trying to get one made, write another. While you’re trying to get the other one made, write another. Because you never know which one is going to click.

I was actually really far down the road with another script, when I was writing Viscous, which became What Lies Below (2020). And when somebody read What Lies Below (2020) it just all of a sudden, everything shifted. And that’s the way it is, you just never know what’s going to click with people.

The other piece of advice is write cheap. Nobody is ever going to give you $4 million, $2 million, $5 million to do your first feature. You need to write something so cheap that you could do it yourself. But you would like to have the money, right? Like you could literally do it on the weekends with a credit card and your friends, if you had to. And just go out and do it. Because then you don’t have to wait for anybody to say, “Yes, you’re good, you can do this”. You can do it yourself. And then if you’re fortunate enough to actually make a connection where somebody finances it, great. And if not, you can still make the movie because it’s cheap to make.

FF: Yeah, that’s great advice. I’ve interviewed over 30 filmmakers now for this, but no one’s actually said that. No one’s actually spelled it out, which is really obvious. But it’s a really good bit of advice.

BD: I mean, if you look at a lot of recent filmmakers that have come up, a lot of them started out making like $40,000, $20,000, $50,000 first features. One of my buddies, who’s now making this major $20 million studio film, started out with a $40,000 horror film in a motel. He just shot it with friends on a little Canon 7D. And then he made some money off of that and he made another one for $50,000. They made some money off that and he made one for $100,000. And they made some money off that…He just kept building it until he kind of had a name. And he got noticed.

Actors Ema Horvath and Trey Tucker
Actors Ema Horvath and Trey Tucker in Braden R. Duemmler’s What Lies Below (2020)

FF: Very smart.

BD: The low budget feature is the new short film, in my opinion. And so, if you can go make a low budget feature, go do it.

FF: Yeah, that’s cool. Thank you. And the last question really is the obvious one, what’s next for you? Obviously, you’ll be pushing your current movie and rightly so. But beyond that, and maybe beyond Coronavirus, what’s next for you? What’s in your future?

BD: Well, as I said, I’m always writing. I’m outlining a script right now. I have a lot of other scripts that I have. I have a Russian mafia thriller called The Close and Holy Darkness. I have a sci-fi horror/psychological thriller called Mold. I have a historical horror film called Nestrone set in the Viking Age.

So, I have a ton of scripts, and my hope is that when the movie comes out, you get some traction, you get people excited about you and your work. And then you can send those scripts out and try to get some interest and try to get something going. A lot of this industry is just momentum. It’s who’s hot, so to speak. And so I’m just hoping to have some momentum out of this, and then hopefully go right into another feature.

FF: Cool. I noticed the Post-it Notes behind you straightaway. Just out of interest, is that one story or is that multiple narratives you’ve got going on there?

BD: That’s one script and what I do, part of my process is I do a lot of research on the topic; I watch a lot of reference films, I read a lot of books. And then while I’m doing that I take notes. Anything that makes me interested, any quote I think of, any character I think of, any scene that I think of, I just write it down. And then I write up what a basic outline would be, and I try to put those notes into the spots. And I feel when you do it that way, it’s a little bit more organic than when you try to figure out the scenes based on what the narrative should be. So, I’m kind of deconstructing it a little bit and it works for me and every colour has a different meaning for me and helps me organise my thoughts.

FF: That’s cool. It’s kind of old school, because everyone’s on iPads and computers now. That’s great, and it definitely serves its purpose but you’ve got it old school on Post-it Notes, which I love. That’s really cool to see.

BD: It’s good because you can shift things around and try things very easily, you know?

FF: Yeah, absolutely, that is awesome. Thank you so much for joining us today, and I really appreciate your time. Thank you.

BD: No problem. Thank you so much, man.