By Jeremy Carr.
Before ever beginning his debut feature film, director Mathieu Ratthe had proven himself adept at two critical techniques. First is a keen ability to manipulate and employ the most effective strategies of the horror genre (proper scares, an unsettling atmosphere, startling twists). Second is to do so with a polished visual style. True to form, Ratthe takes these aspects of his prior experience and amplifies them both with The Gracefield Incident.
Ratthe himself stars as a video game editor who implants an iPhone camera into his prosthetic eye, thus establishing one outlet for the film’s continuous first-person vantage point (other cameras will also serve the same purpose). His aim is to record a weekend retreat with friends, a getaway that takes a turn for the extraterrestrial when a supposed meteorite crashes down nearby and launches a secluded, claustrophobic, and inventively rendered alien invasion.
I’m curious about the genesis of this film. On a basic narrative level, The Gracefield Incident is an alien invasion movie, but on a technical level, it’s also noteworthy for its near-constant point-of-view approach. What came first: the science fiction storyline or the concept of maintaining a subjective POV?
The science fiction storyline came first. Always the story first before the technical. I don’t even think about the technical when I write a story. I wanted to create a suspenseful story that scared the crap out of the audience but also that make them emotionally involve, which is really tough to do in this kind of movie, but I think we achieved it pretty well with this film.
The conceptual idea (or I liked to call it the “technique”) came after I realized how many days I was given to shoot our film with the budget that I had. I didn’t want it to be a typical “found footage technique” movie, so this is how I came up with the cellphone camera integrated into a prosthetic eye. I thought it would be interesting for the audience to follow a subjective POV and be able to live this suspenseful story in the eye of the main character.
In terms of undertaking a horror/sci-fi film with recurrent special effects and considerable action, and doing so in this formal fashion, The Gracefield Incident is an ambitious first feature. Did you have any hesitation going in, or did you feel your skills were sufficiently honed by your short film work?
I didn’t have any hesitation at all. I had the perfect team going in and I think this was the key to making this film happen. Everyone was working in this same direction to serve the story.
On July 29 of this year, almost date to date with The Gracefield Incident coming out, it will be my 25th anniversary since I shot my first short film when I was 10 years. I shot 27 shorts films, so I was ready and prepared to do this film.
Given that there have obviously been other alien invasion movies and a few other instances of this first-person visual technique, was there anything specific you wanted to do to set your film apart?
I think the general feeling of it, but especially the last quarter of the movie. I want the audience to come out of the movie and think that they saw something different for this genre.
Not only is this your first feature as director, but you also wrote it, produced it, starred in it, and edited the picture. Was there one particular responsibility that proved more taxing than another?
I would say operating the camera on my shoulder as I was acting was the most difficult aspect of this whole film. Plus, I needed to ADR the entire movie because we realized in post-production that we were hearing the camera’s motor in my microphone and all of my production sound was useless.
What sort of pressure did you feel working on the film, given that so much of it ultimately rested on your shoulders? Did it feel like you were operating single-handedly or was there a solid circle of cast/crew support?
The cast and crew were amazing. And my DP, Yan Savard, whom I’ve been working with since he shot my first film 25 years ago, was crucial in the making of this film. I would say the most pressure I felt was because we had a small budget that allowed us to shoot the film in only 13 days. We didn’t have any margin for error or delay. And thanks to the weather, we got it done in time.
The most remarkable visual gimmick is, of course, the camera in the eye, but you also switch to the vantage point of other devices: an iPhone camera, a still camera, security cameras, etc. Was this simply a matter of visual necessity, given that Matthew can’t observe everything that occurs, or were you also trying to get at something concerning recording media as a prevalent technology?
It was really a visual necessity to create suspense but most importantly to show our main character to the audience, so they know who they were getting into the adventure with.
Along those lines, much is made of all the security cameras in and around the house. Was this just part of the somewhat comic Bigfoot plot point, or again, was it something added to increase the visual possibilities?
I would say both. It serves the story in both ways: to build up suspense and to emphasize why the cabin’s owner would have installed security cameras.
When you’re adopting the point of view of either Matthew, via his camera/eye, or Jonathan, with his regular camera, how concerned were you with making every shot consistent with what they could have actually recorded? In other words, were you fine with taking realistic liberties in order to get something important on the screen?
Of course, I’ve tried as much as I could to keep the two cameras consistent, but when you shoot a movie in 13 days, you realize in post-production that you need to do whatever it takes to tell your story and sometimes the technical aspect comes second. Which I think it’s normal independent filmmaking, but I don’t think it hurts the story at all in this case.
There is clearly an overriding theme of childbirth, loss, and family, a theme that also appeared in your short, Lovefield. Does this have some personal significance or was it here simply a connecting refrain?
It was really a way to draw parallels between the story of the main character and the aliens.
You’ve done a number of films with strong horror conventions. Is this a genre you plan to continue in?
Like I mentioned above, this would be my 28th film. I shot a lot of genres since my first film at 10 years old. I’m attracted by a good story and I have stories that I’m developing that are in other genres, but I’m definitely not done with the suspense/horror genre. More to come.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineAction, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.