By Melissa Webb.
In David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975), a parasite gets loose in an apartment complex and begins infecting the residents, who subsequently turn into zombie-like creatures needing to satisfy their most primal desires. A resident doctor must attempt to contain the threat within the building and prevent the parasite from making its way into the outside world. This movie, stemming far back from current trend but accessible through a Hulu search, raises questions about isolationism versus human connection within society. With lingering threats constantly present, would it not be better to keep to ourselves, to remain in hiding?
This got me thinking about a deep social paranoia presenting itself within apocalyptic situations of peril and disaster that endures throughout popular culture today. I watched an episode of the television series Medium the other day entitled “Apocalypse…Now?” where a man holds a young girl captive in a bunker under the false pretense that the world has ended: the landscape has been ravaged and these two are the only people left on earth except for perhaps a few rapists and murderers. They are safest apart from the rest of humanity. We see this human fear of environmental destruction and, simply, of other people in 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, as well. Who can you trust? Will meeting a stranger on a desolate road always lead to death, as told by Flannery O’Connor in her classic 1953 short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”? Why are these scenarios so popular, so fear-inducing?
I spoke with Brandon E. Brooks about Sickness, a recent film he wrote, directed, and produced. The film continues this tradition of the disaster movie: citizens exposed to a viral outbreak go unexpectedly mad and must figure out how to trust one another in order to survive against an unknown enemy in an unfamiliar world. Sickness will make its premier on Saturday, June 17, 2017, in Cherry Hill, NJ at the 3rd annual Reel East Film Festival.
First, tell us a little about your background in the film world. How did you get into filmmaking, and what other projects have you worked on? How does Sickness compare, both thematically and production-wise?
I started out in this crazy film business back around 2000 by going to an acting school in Atlantic City, NJ called Weist Barron-Ryan. Met with a wonderful individual in Ursula Ryan who convinced me to give acting classes a try. After a rough start in commercial class (laughs), I started really digging the method acting courses. As an actor I did some extra work, then some short films as featured characters, and a highlight back then was being a stand-in. One job, for Sam Jones III, was a cool experience as a young actor and aspiring filmmaker to watch the direction on set and the talent.
Not long after that I gravitated more to the filmmaking side of the film biz, and started working on whatever indie film set I could get on, doing different work on sets like the David Morse CBS drama Hack, the Brian Cavallaro directed short film that starred Angie Everhart titled Gone, and the Colin Farell/Jamie Foxx reboot of Miami Vice. Another highlight was being an AD, actor, and stunt performer on an apocalyptic thriller shot in Louisiana titled Aftermath, and working with my best friend and business partner Amel J. Figueroa to produce two indie films he wrote and directed titled The Quiet Ones and A Man Possessed.
I love the poster artwork for the film: it’s horrifically gorgeous in its deathdream-depiction of a set of people – some bloody, some gripping weapons – in front of a pink barn. Talk a little about themes of apocalypse and about random people being thrown together in the face of disaster. Does your film emphasize the threat people pose to each other or is it about the need to form connections and relationships in order to survive?
Thanks very much for the kind words about the poster. I’m a huge admirer of the work an amazing up and coming artist buddy of mine named Hector J. Ortega did with it. I sent him some concepts posters so he could get a feel of what I was aiming for artistically. Then I sent him specific photography stills and how I saw them laid out and he took it from there and created some outstanding key art in my opinion. The layout of the poster does represent the connection some of the characters share in the film, while it also channels the mayhem and carnage that takes place throughout as well. And it does in a more artistic way showcase the threat of death and destruction that all of these characters face in Sickness.
Are there any films you’d point to that were used as reference points? Does the film have a gritty-realistic look to it, a surreal nightmare one, is it impressionistic, etc?
Sickness has an old school horror mixed with new school horror feel if that makes sense (laughs). One of my amazing producers, who is also an editor, Violet Mendoza and I experimented with different looks for the film due to the formats and style it was shot. I also like to think Sickness stretches itself into territories that most films in this style don’t as much because it has a lot of heart to it. I tried to make the audience feel for the villainess character, who is essentially a victim as well of this mysterious plague. And the actress playing this role, Katarina Leigh Waters, does such a phenomenal job with telling a story without dialogue while she’s causing mayhem. She showcases her great acting skills and presents a struggle and an inner turmoil while doing bad things, and that’s what makes this role special. I’m a fan of the anticipation of doom, which is always more impressive to me, that tense feeling of not knowing what kind of bad is around the corner, or in the basement. The payoff is cool sometimes, but if the build-up keeps you on the edge of your seat, that’s money to me.
Oftentimes, a central feature of a horror film is the musical score (Bernard Herrmann’s in Psycho; John Carpenter’s in Halloween, etc). Is music important to the overall feeling or atmosphere of Sickness? Or did you opt more for use of diegetic sound? I feel, sometimes, a twig
snapping with no music can be all-the-more frightening. In other words, talk a little about how you utilized sound in the film.
Music is absolutely key in all genres of cinema and TV, but even more so I feel in horror themed work because of the nature of the imagery being put forth. That Carpenter Halloween theme is gold. It makes a simple concept into a masterpiece. So with Sickness, that was a big deal for me to find the right music to suit many of the scenes in the film, as well as specific songs that vibe with the tone of particular sequences. In Sickness, music and sound is on display in various fashions, and it definitely enhances even the fantastic performances.
Finally, talk a little about the process of making the film itself. I’d imagine it was a complex process for you, since you are the writer, director, and producer. How did you go about juggling these different roles? Were there any unexpected issues you had to deal with that made it more difficult than you’d have hoped?
It was a long difficult journey with this one. To make a long story short, I actually made two movies under the umbrella of one. The original Sickness was a different tale, one more centralized to a specific location, whereas this new and improved, in my opinion, version of Sickness opens in a world of chaos and contagion. Juggling many hats is challenging in this type of endeavor, but it’s necessary for the ship to sail and not end up drowning at sea. And at the end of the day, if you’re able to come out of it with a piece of work you are proud of, then that’s rewarding. Working with a lot of good people and outstanding talent made the journey worthwhile. Having an accomplished actor like Brian O’Halloran, whose work I’ve admired for years, believe in me enough to be in this film means a great deal. And having unbelievably supportive individuals like Amel, Violet, and Katarina, and Fallon Maressa, Gary Gustin, Jake Willing, Isa Walker, Drew Vernon, Ricky Brava, and a grocery list of other very talented souls, means the world to me.
One horribly tragic occurrence I want to mention is that we lost one of the best people I’ve ever known during this process, that being Dennis Ronin, who plays “Dean” in the film. He passed away unexpectedly in 2014, and that hit me hard, as it did Amel and many of his friends and family members. Dennis was one of those guys who could make you smile on your worst day, just a once in a lifetime soul who will always be missed. It’s sad to me that he won’t be able to see this film finished, but I’m glad to have been able to make his fine performance work without having completed all of his filming.
One thing I really took to heart is a statement another director I really dig a lot in Kevin Smith has said in a nutshell is to make work you would wanna watch, that you would like, that you would go rent. I love that thought process because it makes all of this indie filmmaking business less stressful in my mind now to conquer because I’m not trying to build the dreams of others to make them happy, I’m attempting to build my own dreams that I’ll enjoy, and in turn hopefully a lot of people will as well. But as long as I can say “I like what I did, and the effort I put forth to do it, I’m cool with however my work’s perceived whether loved, liked, or hated.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m finishing up an action thriller screenplay titled We’re Here, a project I’d like to make this fall if all the stars align. I also wrote a music-fueled drama titled Strum, which has been in talks to do possibly this year as well. Years back I created a full first season bible for an action television series in the vein of the original “21 Jump Street” and “The Mod Squad” shows. It’s titled “Difficult Kinds”, and is an awesome project I’m slowly developing.
Where Sickness is concerned, my initial plan when I started was for there to be a trilogy. I started scripting a sequel awhile back titled Surviving: Sickness 2, but halted the script when a major rewrite was needed for the first film. But now that Sickness is complete, I plan to see how it’s received and decide if I want to go back to the sequel script. We shall see.
My big passion project I plan to tackle at some point in the future is a Latin themed crime drama titled Sweet Fifteen. It’s received solid coverage from two of the biggest agencies in Hollywood, and at one point had the interest of many of the amazing actors I had in mind for roles. So I’m certain when the stars align, this project will happen and be an extremely fulfilling one for myself and all involved. I’d also love to make a big martial arts action flick and a big badass coming of age film in the vein of The Outsiders. And lastly, like Kurt Sutter, I’d like to be another Jersey guy to create a successful TV series on cable like he did with one of my all-time favorites, Sons of Anarchy.
Melissa Webb is an editorial assistant for Film International and received her MA in English from Rutgers University-Camden in January 2017. She helps program the Reel East Film Festival.