There are very few surreal horror films that feel like they are a layer outside of our current reality. Fewer short films can establish that feeling in under 20 minutes, yet Ringing Rocks masterfully does it. The surreal thriller short takes us through a trip that ultimately brings hell to Earth, saturating the skies with a violent orange and a feeling of hope amongst the inescapable dread of life.
Writer-director Gus Reed takes us on an idyllic trip turned into a fever dream as Anson (Hunter Doohan) takes his grief-stricken boyfriend, Cliff (Max Sheldon), to a desert resort for a vacation. Slowly, the getaway takes a dark turn, and Anson must find a way to find hope in his darkest hour. This lonesome vacation for two slowly becomes suffocating as fires rage in the distance and a mysterious person, Celia (Rhian Rees), finds her way into Cliff’s and Anson’s life.
The short is hauntingly beautiful as Reed navigates the complexities of second-hand trauma and grief in a world that is seemingly contorting itself every few seconds to disorient characters and viewers. Debuting at AFI Fest 2022, Ringing Rocks is a reflection of many creatives' fears in this world, while also highlighting personal matters in Reed’s life.
Reed sat down with No Film School to talk about Ringing Rocks, and how he considers genre when writing his screenplays, keeping the audience locked into the perspective of hell, and navigating the anxieties of filmmaking.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
No Film School: Congrats on your short’s debut at AFI Fest. Can you tell me about the inspiration behind Ringing Rocks?
Gus Reed: Ringing Rocks came out of a few different sources of inspiration, but a big thing was moving to California in the summer of 2020. Things felt so apocalyptic in San Francisco, where I was at the time. Then in LA, with COVID-19 going strong and wildfires raging, there were days when it was so dark with smoke that it didn't feel like the sun was rising, and didn't feel safe to be indoors or outdoors.
I was staying with my older sister in San Francisco for a few months before I moved down to LA to start at [the American Film Institute] AFI. She told me as a secret before she told the rest of the family that she was pregnant with her first child. It was just this time of such weird grimness but also hope for the future. It was so hard to imagine the future being positive at that time. To think of this new child being born into this world, which I think is something across time that every generation feels. That set the tone for the inspiration.
A more direct inspiration came from this overnight trip that I spent in Desert Hot Springs with my boyfriend less than a year later, around the time that I was needing to start to write the short film.
There was this uncanny quiet windy place that we stayed in. Neither of us had been to the desert or to Palm Springs before, and Desert Hot Springs felt like Palm Springs's sketchier sibling. But we stayed at this really beautiful resort and just immediately had strange encounters with the manager there, and just felt unsure if we were safe there as a gay couple or if we were just in some other reality all of a sudden.
That spoke to me as a setting, and I wanted to set the thing at that resort or similar place in the desert. Trying to think of something that could reflect all the outer dread and anxiety that I think the world at large was going through at the time, but in a really small intimate story about this couple in the desert.
Gus Reed behind-the-scenes on 'Ringing Rocks'Credit: Yukun ChanNFS: This story plays with genres and plays with tones throughout, all different kinds. When you're approaching a story, do you think about genre and genre-bending? What was your approach to this story?
Reed: I definitely have to think about genre, mostly at the stage of starting to talk to other people about a movie. I think it's useful in communicating certain aspects of what you're going for. If you want a scene to feel like it's in a horror movie, then that is something people get when you're trying to make it together.
But at the beginning, I think it's more about a feeling or just a particular story that comes to mind versus trying to make it all fit in one tone.
I'm a very anxious person and I feel like I see the world in a negative way. That's reflected a lot in the stories that I choose to tell. I think that fits well with horror in some ways, to see the world as a nightmare, but within that, I think horror and comedy have so much in common and there's so much that's absurdly funny about situations that are uncomfortable or stressful or provoke anxiety. So, it can be such a nightmare, but also such a joke at the same time. The most interesting horror movies have elements of comedy in them, but I think that just seeps in there naturally too.
It's not like I've ever tried to put a joke in a scene or something, but sometimes the discomfort is either going to fall one way. Ultimately, you have no control over what people experience as comedy or horror, it's very subjective. Sometimes you'll get a laugh when you're shooting it. That didn’t happen with Ringing Rocks, but it's possible.
NFS: I was going to say, there's a little bit of humor at the beginning when you're trying to find comfort in the situation, but when they realize there's absolutely no comfort and everything just spirals out of control, it becomes more surrealist horror.
Gus Reed behind-the-scenes on 'Ringing Rocks'Credit: Yukun Chan
NFS: I know your script was a bit longer than what you shot. How do you decide what to edit down? What stays and what goes for you?
Reed: I feel like the process of writing and then editing this has taught me a lot about my style, the conventional wisdom, that one-to-one, that one page equals one minute of screen time just does not apply at all to things I make it seems. It's more like two-to-one, or one-to-two than a page of writing a descriptive screenplay, and all these beats of people slowly taking in images and realizing things and looking at each other, it just takes a lot more time.
The script was pretty short from the beginning, it's always been vacillating between 12 and 14 pages, which seems like a fine length for a short. But our first cut of the film I think was about 22 minutes, and the final film is 16 minutes.
We wanted to keep it as short as possible and we probably could have made it even shorter. I think most of the decisions that we made about cutting things were about trying to just shape the audience's experience as close to the essential parts of the story as possible and taking out elements that we loved visually and that we had emotional attachments to. We felt in showing the film to people that we were misleading them or leading them down paths that ultimately didn't lead them to an interpretation of the film that was satisfying.
There was this whole night scene that was the last thing that we shot and took a good part of the last day of shooting, and it featured one of the scariest, most unsettling moments of the film, but when we started showing the edit, it became very obvious that people felt owed an explanation for why it had happened that we didn't want to give. At the screenwriting stage, somehow no one came to me and was like, "Who was that man in the bushes watching them?" But seeing the cut, many people fixated on that man and felt misled by his presence in the movie. So even though we loved it as a scene, we chose to cut it to serve the larger film.
The short format is really strange. I think it's very tempting to pack a feature-length story into a short, and to design scenes at the pace that you would have in a feature. That's an inevitable impulse because most of us are working towards making features. That's what we want to do with most of our lives. On the one hand, we want to get better at making and designing scenes that feel like they're playing out in that way and putting in all that detail and information about the character's lives, but within a short, it's just so hard to not make it a half hour or even 20 minutes.
'Ringing Rocks'Credit: Courtesy of Gus ReedNFS: How do you build into that climax of Ringing Rocks? How do you come to that specific moment without overwhelming the audience?
Reed: I'm not sure we did. I think there are stages along the way. We thought a lot about how you can make it feel like there is a shift that the audience can track, so you don't suddenly lose the audience by having the character be somewhere else mentally. To make sure they're tracking the character's shift from a place where he feels like he's understanding the world to a place where he is becoming aware of things that he can't explain and that is outside of his belief system.
NFS: You nail this perspective of hell very well by keeping the story from a subjective point of view.
Reed: We designed the whole thing around being from Anson's point of view. I don't know that there's any moment that we are outside of that. We were pretty strict about it in the way we, in the writing and how it's shot. I think a lot of people can do it really well where they can break the rules sometimes like they can have moments that jump out of that point of view, but I think that's more evolved, that a lot of really masterful filmmakers can do that.
I don't know if I trusted myself to do that yet, so I just stayed strictly in the one-to-one. This is our character and he's our window into this world, so we never break that.
NFS: You mentioned earlier that the film's visual style was based on the wildfires and that iconic yet tragic photo of the entire sky being bright orange during the wildfires in San Francisco [in 2020]. Did you always see this film starting as a blue naturalistic world and then falling into the hellscape that it became?
Reed: Yeah. Together, with Evan [Weidenkeller, the cinematographer] and Faith [Ivory, the production designer], we wanted to design this descent or melting of the world, our initial inspiration was David Hockney paintings, and the bright primary colors and clean colorful inviting world, and then having it melt into hellish expressionism. When it gets dark out and the power goes out, there's more to the fire and the subjectivity becomes a little more nightmarish. Things are so geometric and straight, then everything's warped.
We had this scheme where we thought about it as it takes place in 24 hours, and at the beginning in the daytime when they arrive, it's very David Hockney and very blue, and as you said, clear, colorful.
Then we move to an indoor world, all the indoor spaces are also very cold and clean. Then, the fire and smoke from the outside start to invade the indoor spaces as if the fire suddenly invaded the safe spaces. At the very end, the world outside itself is also that hideous yellow-orange wildfire haze color, so it's taken over everything. In more simple terms, it was the paradise-to-hell arc of turning this beautiful pristine resort that's supposed to be safe and healing into some sort of hell.
'Ringing Rocks'Credit: Courtesy of Gus ReedNFS: And this all takes place mostly in one location?
Reed: Well, story-wise, it's supposed to be all on the grounds. We meet them when they arrive at this resort, and the next day in their room in the morning. But in reality, we had to stitch it together. We were fortunate enough to be able to film their bedroom on the soundstage in the set that was built by my production designer and her team. So, we cobbled that together with one location for most of the exteriors, like the pool and the hot tub, then one location for the hotel lobby, and also a few shots, a few establishing shots of the front.
Those were both houses in Los Feliz not in Palm Springs because we were required to shoot in the 30-mile zone of LA. So that was a big challenge in the planning stages of finding those locations for free or for locations we could afford on a student budget.
NFS: Because of the story’s structure, your locations are allowed to shift and change to fit the narrative. So, it works. From a directing standpoint, what was the most challenging aspect of this film for you?
Reed: The most challenging shot is, well, this is a big spoiler, but the most challenging shot is this pretty long take of Hunter and Rhian, Anson and Celia, dancing in the hot tub. That was done on a Steadicam, with the Steadicam operator moving in a 180-degree half circle around the hot tub.
It was such an important moment in the story and we wanted to choreograph it so the camera would do this subtle slow movement and the actors who are dancing waist-deep in water would revolve at the right time so that we were on the right person's face for their lines, not just their lines, but for emotional beats to land.
Of course, it was the last thing we shot one of the days and we were running out of time. Fortunately, we have two takes of it, but one of the takes is great. That was the one scene that I got to rehearse in advance with the actors because the choreography was so specific. Then everyone, our Steadicam operator and the AC who was pulling focus on them as they were moving and the camera was moving, just killed it. But it was nerve-wracking because we had five minutes to get to this most important climax. That's the whole reason I wanted to make the movie. This reveals how strange the world is.
'Ringing Rocks'Credit: Courtesy of Gus ReedNFS: You went to film school, which is one of the reasons why you made this short, but is there something that you learned about yourself as a filmmaker while making Ringing Rocks?
Reed: I learned to go with my gut when it comes to casting. Hunter is having this big moment with Wednesday now.
We had this nerve-wracking experience meeting him through our casting director [Brent Hagata] and Tara [Austin], the producer, and I had this feeling that he was so perfect and the person we'd been looking for. But, he was still in Romania shooting Wednesday until 48 hours before our first shoot time, so we would have no rehearsal, no fittings, or anything.
We were so anxious that his shoot wouldn't wrap on time, and it would get pushed again and he wouldn't be back, or that he would get COVID-19 in transit. All these things miraculously didn't happen. He got back to LA 24 hours before the first call time. He was super prepared on his own and showed up for the first take.
That felt like a small miracle that worked out, but it really could have gone south in a lot of ways. I am really glad that we made that gamble and chose him.
NFS: Do you have any advice you want to give to any young or new filmmakers?
Reed: The really trite one that's just the truth is that you just have to make things. It's hard to make anything, even a little short, with no budget in your apartment. Even that requires so much. There are just a million reasons not to do it, but the only way forward is to make things.
Keep an eye out for Ringing Rocks as it prepares to hit the film festival circuit.