The writer/directors of the upcoming horror-fantasy The Wretched share their insight (and their love of practical effects) with No Film School.
Brett and Drew Pierce grew up on the sets of The Evil Dead, where their father, Bart Pierce, helped create those crazy stop motion effects. Now the brothers have a passion for practical effects and grounded storytelling in their own horror films.
Their second feature, The Wretched, follows teen Ben, whose parents have recently divorced. Sent to live with his father for the summer, he soon realizes that something is wrong with the family next door. An ancient witch has invaded, and when she starts to terrorize the tourist town, only Ben can stop her. It's a fun, old-school horror tale that fits right in beside gory, family-centric 1980s classics.
IFC Midnight is not only releasing the dark fantasy on-demand on May 1, but also giving the movie a limited drive-in theater run starting the same day.
We spoke to the Pierces ahead of the film's release to learn about the challenges of short shooting schedules, why they insist on using practical effects, and how their backgrounds help them as filmmakers.
The importance of storyboarding
Both Pierces emphasized the value of pre-production in their work, which is an early part of the process that can save you money and time later on.
Drew Pierce has worked as a storyboard artist and animator on several productions, and he said this has been an invaluable experience to bring onto the set of their own films.
“As a storyboard artist, you kind of get to practice being a director every day," Drew Pierce said. "Because you're really focused on thinking about the shots, the shot flow, and the rhythms of storytelling. It's kind of low-stakes practice because I do all the work with a director and all the preparation work, and then I get to see the finished product."
He pointed out that many well-known directors storyboard their own films, including Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Tim Burton, and James Cameron. It can be another path to the director's chair. It can also be especially beneficial on shoots with creature makeup effects.
"I think there’s something to thinking through things two-dimensionally and thinking through things conceptually before you put it to screen," he said. "For me, it’s always been part of our process to try and get something really slick. It’s so crucial. It's the only reason we're able to make the monster sing."
The importance of the first draft
As collaborators, the brothers are obviously working together from the very start, as they did on their first feature, Deadheads. But they admitted they hit a few brief snags on this project during writing and development.
"In this case, Drew and I were collaborating a lot early on on the plotting of the movie, and we just kept on getting stuck on page 30," Brett Pierce said. "I’d write it, and then Drew in a lot of ways would be not satisfied with the first act and want to go back and rewrite it. I found that we were rewriting the first act over and over again, and never moving forward."
He said he finally had to send Drew away to just let him get some version of a first draft completed.
"You can't be a perfectionist on your first draft."
"Even if we got it perfect, we still have to write two more acts, and those are going to influence the beginning of the movie," Brett Pierce said. "So I think it was realizing that you can't be a perfectionist on your first draft. Just get it on the page, so you can look at it and say, 'This part's not very good, this isn't tracking in the story,' so you can go back to it later because it's super beneficial. I think when you keep on thinking everything has to be perfect, you never get anything done."
Drew Pierce laughed at his brother and said they at least manage to cancel each other out.
"It's sort of a balance that we have, we're both so far each end of the spectrum," he said. "The joke is I would never make a movie, and Brett would make, like, twelve terrible movies."
The unique challenges of shooting horror
The Wretched is very ambitious for a low-budget film, incorporating the aforementioned effects, child actors, stunts, and animals. Since so many night shoots were required, and the Michigan nights were less than eight hours long, the brothers ran into a few issues.
"We had really short nights, so that we had to have a full day basically be prepped right as the sun set," Drew Pierce said. "We were shooting as much as we possibly could, but we had so many long night scenes. There were a lot of times where we had to tent off everything and shoot until 1 p.m. the next day."
Sometimes, they said, they would shoot the child actors first, then go back to shoot close-ups and inserts for the rest of the scene with the adult talent.
"And that can get challenging because you're shooting everything completely out of order, not even just scene-wise," said Drew Pierce. "You're jumping around so much."
The brothers point out that the horror genre, in particular, requires a great deal of shooting coverage in order to create that wonderful tension you want in scary scenes. But that is unfortunately also time-consuming.
"If you’re shooting a tense scene," Brett Pierce said, "you're going to need the POV shot. You're also going to need an insert shot of the creepy hand coming around the corner. You're going to need the reaction shot of the character."
Because of this, a sequence that might be half a page in a script can take an entire day to shoot.
"There's also such a rhythm to scary scenes that you have to build out like this," Drew Pierce said. "It's got to be an escalation of shots. Whereas if you're shooting a dialogue sequence, it's just close-ups, mediums, master shot, done. And you just go through the whole sequence and cover it."
So keep all this in mind, aspiring horror directors.
How Evil Dead still influences them
The brothers were young when The Evil Dead was being made, but the experiences are pretty deeply ingrained, and Bruce Campbell has been a big supporter of their creative endeavors. How did that shape them as filmmakers, and how does it motivate them now?
"For me, it's more inspiration on making independent cinema," Brett Pierce said. "It felt like they were a group of friends that just decided to make these films, and they would figure out how to make them no matter what."
He explained that having the certainty that he and his brother could put productions together "just like The Evil Dead guys did" gave him confidence as a growing filmmaker.
His brother agreed.
"We've always grown up with the legend of Sam Raimi, and how they made those first movies like Evil Dead, and [how] it was the worst experience ever," Drew Pierce said with a laugh. "They shot over the course of a year. It sounds like the shoot was a disaster. Nobody thought the thing turned out okay. We've heard so many horror stories about working on set, and the actors wanting to leave and replacing cast members. That has been the foundation for our fearless belief in filmmaking, that we expect it to be impossible. That's the bar that we're expecting. Whenever we're able to do anything, we get excited. It's the thing that keeps us going, that idea of making the impossible possible."
"That has been the foundation for our fearless belief in filmmaking, that we expect it to be impossible."
This time also instilled a love for practical makeup and effects. They were determined to do the same on The Wretched.
"I think, personally, it's because we always liked it better," Brett Pierce said. "We always felt that if you can put the physical effect in front of the actors, and you can light it with real light with your DP, and everybody can be reacting to this real thing, it's so much more terrifying and effective. And so much more fun. The best part about doing practical effects, too, is a little bit of being a little kid. Everybody gets really excited on set that you're about to, like, rip open a human body, and a creature’s going to come out."
The Wretched stars John-Paul Howard and Piper Curda and is out today, May 1st, on Amazon Prime.