Q&A with Jason Trost, writer/director of How To Save Us

Cult Projections: The cinematography of How to Save Us is a standout feature, the use of the Tasmanian landscape stunning. How much of the visual narrative was storyboarded? Was it based on extensive location hunting? Was there much improvisation in terms of where you shot?

Jason: Thanks a lot. I’m super proud of it. My DP Phil Miller did an incredible job. We only storyboarded a few scenes, the more intricate, “Ghostly” ones. But we generally just had a rough shot list of what we needed. Both Phil and I know the editing process, which I feel really helps when making a movie because we know what shots you actually will need in the editing room. I devised a rule early on with the movie we could follow if we were ever to get into a tight spot or were particularly brain dead after lugging equipment around, which happened a lot considering we only had a four person crew including me. The rule was, we could never move the camera. I always loved in old Survival Horror video games when the characters just walked from static surveillance shot to static surveillance shot. The sense of isolation it gives you is great. Because for me, the second I see a camera movie, I know someone was there operating it. I wanted to make the viewer feel like they were just as alone as our heroes.

CP: What did you shoot the feature on? Do you have any kind of preferences in terms of cameras and post-production tools?

J: This is kind of a funny story. Originally I bought the Blackmagic pocket camera and I was like, “Screw it, I’m just going to get a tripod and go shoot this movie myself!” Then literally a month before I flew to Australia, Phil met me at a bar and had seen the teaser trailer I put together to raise money and was like, “Slow down, I have an epic, this idea is rad” Then I was like, “We physically don’t have the money in the budget to fly you to Australia.” Then Phil threw down a Delta credit card and said something along the lines of, “I got miles!” And just like that, I had a DP and an epic and my ass was saved.

But as far as actually answering the rest of your question, I don’t really get caught up in the whole, “Who has a bigger camera” obsession that most filmmakers get caught up in. My theory is, it’s about what you put in front of the camera that makes the movie look great. You know, the performances, the story, the costumes, the production design. You can have the best camera in the world, but it’s not going to make a shitty actor in a white room look like a real movie.

CP: The story is heavily immersed in the world of the supernatural, yet the narrative backbone is an intimate one, something that feels very personal. Can you tell me a little about the origin of the screenplay?

J: It is indeed very personal. Everything I make is. If it isn’t how the hell do I know what message I’m trying to convey? I had the idea for a movie about a guy wandering around in a sort of ghost apocalypse for a year or two before I actually wrote anything. I could just never quite crack it. It was always the debate of, why would anyone want to watch one person for 90 minutes. Then a couple of dominoes lined up. First, my girlfriend took me on a vacation to Tasmania and I immediately feel in love with it. It’s haunting but beautiful, the scenery changes every ten miles and it feels abandoned. All things that help if you want to make a movie for nothing. So I kind of came up with the bare bones story structure and a list of locations I could use in my head while we adventured around. Then I saw the movie Gravity. Which love it or hate it, it reminded me that you can just watch one person on screen for 90 minutes and it can totally be engaging. The third domino was seeing my entire family all together for the first time in ages in one place at Christmas and something inside of me awoken. Then everything just fell in line and I hammered out the script. 

CP: Do you believe in the paranormal? Do you believe in malevolent ghosts? Or was the realm of the supernatural there more to facilitate the sub-plot of the family inter-relationships?

J: I definitely believe in the paranormal. I’ve seen things, people who I’m very close to have seen things, it’s just too much to ignore for me. The tricky thing was sitting down and thinking about what ghosts could actually be and why only certain people could see them. It’s usually damaged or abused people so it seemed like that could be a good thread to tie their worlds together. Believe it or not, there was an early draft of this script where we explained them as dark genies from millenniums ago. Save that for the sequel, ha.

CP: A distinct air of melancholy permeates the movie, was this atmosphere something you conjured deliberately, or was it something that came about in the editing process?

J: It was always supposed to be a super dark film. I think anything that actually tries to say something kind of has to be to get it’s point across. I definitely lightened up on the tone in post. Originally it was much darker, much bleaker. I had to thin some of that out because I think it became exhausting for people to be bummed out for that long and by the time you’d reach the end, you wouldn’t care about the message.

CP: Tell me about your approach with the use of sound design and score. It is used to great effect in How to Save Us, but is never heavy-handed. Did you have the composer in mind from the beginning?

J: Thanks. The sound has been a big battle on this movie for me. I learned a lot from my previous films about sound and wanted to employ it in an interesting way in this film. Again, if you’re going to have a last man on earth movie, it’s got to sound interesting to keep people’s butts in the seats.  I’ve known the composer Tori Letzler for several years. She’s been a good friend of mine and we’ve been trying to do something together for a while. She’s a fantastic vocalist as well as a composer so I always knew I wanted something where we could use her voice front and center. I won’t blow it for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, but I always wanted the score to be the voice of one of the “Characters” in the movie. And Tori knocked it out of the park, considering she did the whole thing on a laptop on her weekends off from her real job. I’m forever grateful to her, because music really is at least half of your movie and can make or break it.

CP: How to Save Us is in some ways as much an alternative road movie as it is a science-fiction-horror movie. What, if any, movies influenced, or inspired you during the writing and directing process?

J: A lot of movies inspired this, but truth be told, it was more video games. I grew up playing a lot of Silent Hill and Resident evil and those games are chilling. I always love world building. And for my money, video games just do it better than movies. I think it’s way more interesting than jump scares. And I’m not the biggest fan of one location movies, I know they can be done well, but like these games, you’re constantly exploring, going further down the rabbit hole. That’s what I love in video games and movies alike. Going on a journey, but it’s not something you usually see with horror. Though John Carpenter, especially, The Fog had some serious inspiration on the movie.

CP: The CGI effects are used sparingly, and effectively. What is your opinion on the use of CGI vs. practical effects, especially in horror and science fiction movies?

J: Thanks you! That’s a relief. Been sweating on that one. I think practical always wins, especially in horror. I feel like the second your brain registers that something is fake; it turns off and goes into autopilot. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had any nightmares about a CG monster. I still have nightmares about all the man and suit movies from my childhood. If it looks like you can touch it, you believe it can kill you. I think CG can be a great additive but should be used only when absolutely necessary.

CP: How to Save Us has an apocalyptic tone, but offers hope. How important is hope in horror movies, or should it be entirely optional to the writer/director?

J: I think everything should be optional to the writer/director. The second we try to say what the industry standard is we start getting 8 superhero movies a year. But jokes aside, I love hope, I think it’s super important for me and people everywhere to remember it’s always there, no matter how dark it gets. And that’s what I love about movies; they can remind you of that when nothing else can. Honestly, I’d rather make movies about hope, because I’m staring at whatever I make for at least a year straight, and watching something that’s just miserable for a year can be pretty miserable ha.

CP: You are the very definition of an independent filmmaker on the rise, a maverick even. Are you prepared to divulge any of your rules or secrets to budding filmmakers, in terms of writing/pre-production/shooting/post?

J: Those are very kind words. I have no idea if I’m on the rise or not. Every budget of mine has gotten smaller since my first movie and it’s been increasingly harder each time to find money. But I’ve definitely found a comfort zone of how to make a movie for nothing. I’d love to go on for several paragraphs about how I do what I do, but then I might be out of a job. If there’s any one things I could say it’s, Impossible is just something quitters say to feel better about themselves. 

CP: How to Save Us is your fourth feature, in as many years. One could justifiably describe you as prolific, is this kind of intensity something you hope to continue?

J: I have no idea. Every other day I’m either quitting the film business forever or starting another script. Hopefully someday soon, I’ll get paid to do what I do and I can finally call this my career. Until then, God only knows ha.

CP: No doubt you’ve got several projects on the boil, what can we expect next from Trost Force Productions?

J: With any luck, a paid vacation!

CP: Thanks for your time Jason!


How To Save Us screens at Fantastic Planet Film Festival, Saturday, November 22nd, 9pm, Dendy Cinemas, Sydney AND at Monster Fest, Wednesday, November 26th, 5pm, Yah Yahs, Melbourne.