Director Zachary Donohue’s directorial debut, ‘The Den,’ breathes new life into the found footage genre. The story focuses on Elizabeth Benton (Melanie Papalia), who after receiving a grant for her graduate thesis, logs onto a video-chat site known as THE DEN, on a mission to explore the habits of its users. During one of her random video-chats, Elizabeth watches in horror as a teenage girl is gruesomely murdered in front of her webcam. While the police dismiss it as a viral prank, Elizabeth believes what she saw is real and takes it upon herself to find the truth. Her life quickly spirals out of control as she gets pulled deeper into the darkest recesses of the internet. And eventually, Elizabeth finds herself trapped in a twisted game in which she and her loved ones are targeted for the same grisly fate as the first victim. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Zachary Donohue to discuss his love of movie-making, his spine-tingling debut with ‘The Den’ and the challenges of bringing it to the screen!
What intrigued you early on about the world of filmmaking early on?
I grew up being exposed to horror movies through my Dad. I started off watching ‘Bride of The Monster,’ a lot of Dario Argento, ‘Friday The 13th’ and ‘Critters.’ I had a wide exposure to everything horror. My Dad also had a Super 8 camera and was always making short little horror movies in the 70s. When I was a kid, he gave me one of his Super 8 cameras and we would make horror movies out in the cemetery together. I would gather up some of my friends and do that. When it came time to pick a college and career, I thought about how I always loved movies and the process, so I decided to develop a craft! I went to NYU and made a bunch of friends there. Actually, this movie was made with about six or seven NYU people. It was a cool movie making experience!
Tell us about the influences which directly influenced you when it comes to you feature debut, ‘The Den.’
‘Paranormal Activity’ was a game changer for me when I saw it in the theater. I think ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Shining’ were also my favorite movies growing up. The friends that helped me make this movie were also instrumental in guiding me through it.
For people who may just be discovering the flick, what can you tell us about the film and what sparked the idea initially?
I think we set out to make a found footage movie that was in the vein for ‘Paranormal Activity’ but feels more like the threat is real, as opposed to a ghost or apparition. People really responded to ‘The Strangers’ when it came out because it was such an intense movie. We wanted to blend that realism of people you don’t know but could see on the internet and they could come into your house and attack you. We wanted to put a real fear into a fun forum in the found footage genre. The idea came out of my co-writer, Lauren Thompson. When we first moved out to LA, she had a job working for a website similar to Chatroulette where she would go on and ask people what they thought of the site. Everyone she ended up interacting was kind of a creep or trying to troll her. We came up with this idea of “What if you went on this website and saw something very terrifying. You are powerless to a certain degree. What if that person found a way to come to your house and terrorize you?” I think it taps into a very real free about the internet and web cams.
Did you have any particular goals or expectations for this film, as a director, when you took on the project?
I think the biggest thing was that I wanted to make a movie that was scary and made people tense. If you make a comedy and no one laughs you fail. If you make a scary movie and no one is tense or jumps, I think that is also a fail. That was the first goal; to make an entertaining film. I wanted to be innovative and try something new. We took a lot of risks with this movie and there were certainly a lot of challenges, as well.
What do you consider the biggest challenges in bringing this film to life?
When we were making the film, we were basically shooting 50% of what you were seeing and the VFX department would fill in the other 50%. There were times where would be on set and would be like “This sounds a little weird but you have to understand we are adding in all of these effects!” We would be adding in desktop background and things moving on the screen. There would be a lot of days when I would be to the side directing the actress like “Move your eyes to the right. Imagine a chat window just popped up and pretend to type to him.” There were a lot of weird directions I had to give that aren’t in most movies. The fun part was coming into the VFX portion and filling out the interaction with the website. The whole site comes to life at the beginning of the movie and I think that is pretty cool. A big challenge for our actress, Melanie Papalia, was never really acting in the same room with anyone. We would have two separate crews and tried Skyping back and forth between each other but it ended up exploding in our faces because of connection issues. Then we decided to pre-record the other person and give that to Melanie to act against the QuickTime video. That was equally stressful but ended up being the way we did the rest of the movie. There were a lot of unique challenges that presented themselves along the way.
Another challenge was that when you are limiting yourself to only one angle and you have a bad guy in the room, in my eyes, you have to get creative with how you are carrying the scares. There were a lot of challenges in trying to come up with interesting, tense and unique scenes that didn’t all feel the same.
There was a lot of having faith that it would all come together in the end. Even when we were editing process, it wasn’t until the final VFX portion came in that we were able to say “ok! This works!” Even just looking at the final cuts was very stressful it was just very awkward for awhile. Once we filled in the desktop backgrounds and gave the life to the screen it really came together. I am very pleased with it! The entire time making this film it was a constant guessing game of if it was working or not. There was a lot of nervousness about that. Ultimately, we just had to have faith that the VFX would be completed in the end. I was very the performances I got from everyone!
Was it difficult to find the right mix of people to fill the roles for this film?
Yeah. We wanted to have a very realistic feel to the film. We didn’t this film to feel like a Hollywood movie. Our cast is something that brings that realism. We wanted to find the right chemistry together and people who we thought would believably be friends in real life. In terms of the randoms we cast, that was actually the easy part! We were like “Well, we need this person. We need someone who is comfortable jumping around in a bunny suit.” We didn’t even have a bunny suit, ya know? [laughs] Directing the randoms was kind of a delight to do! In terms of picking the actors, it was a really intense casting process, it was a question of “Can you act in a very intense scene with no one else in the room and still pull of the intensity as if it is really happening.”
As you mentioned, you are a fan of the horror genre and this film puts a unique spin on the found footage thing. As a filmmaker and a fan, where do you see the horror genre evolving in the next few years?
From looking at all of the other horror movies coming out, it looks like we are moving away from found footage. It seems things are moving in a more indie direction, which is pretty cool. It is interesting because we came from a lot of traditionally shoot movies but with the handheld aspect and the whole mumblecore movement, it has brought a new type of realism to horror movies. I think you will see a lot more of that in the years to come. I also think there is a new trend in body horror movies which is coming back and that is pretty cool. I think there might be a trend in more creature oriented movies, as well. That is my prediction.
Where do you see yourself going next? Is there anything you are eying at the moment?
Yeah! I would love to make a traditional horror film, sort of in the body horror/monster movie blend. I have always been a huge fan of “The Shining” and “Alien.” They are two ultimate favorite movies. I would love to do a very straight-forward, traditional horror movie in a contained setting. I am a big fan of Ti West and what he does. ‘House of The Devil” is a brilliant example of how with one location and not a lot of cash, you can make a small budget go far.
You can serve as a great example to young filmmakers. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to those looking to make their career in the entertainment industry in the current climate?
In today’s climate, I would say, make movies you want to make, be honest with yourself and don’t try to write to a trend. When we set out to make ‘The Den,’ we weren’t thinking “Let’s ride the found footage thing guys!” It was more about stumbling upon this website and found a cool story we wanted to tell. It was basically “Yes. This is the movie we want to make! It feels honest to us.” It didn’t have anything to do with writing to a gimmick or wanting to tap into that. It was more about feeling “A webcam was an interesting way to tell a story. Let’s tell a story about it.” Be honest and write the movie you want to see is the best advice.
Thank you so much for your time today, Zachary. We really enjoyed the film and all the hard work you put in.
Thank you, Jason! Talk to you soon!
Be sure to interact with director Zachary Donohue on Twitter at twitter.com/zachary_donohue.‘The Den’ hits select theaters & VOD on Friday, March 14th!