SAFER AT HOME Interview: Director Will Wernick On Shooting During The Pandemic, Technical Challenges, And More
We recently sat down with Safer at Home writer and director Will Wernick to get his thoughts on making a movie during the pandemic, whether the property is one with franchise potential, and more...
Safter at Home is set two years into the pandemic, and follows a group of friends who throw an online party with a night of games, drinking and drugs. After taking an ecstasy pill, things go terribly wrong and the safety of their home becomes more terrifying than the raging chaos outside.
It's a movie which will definitely leave you wondering what comes next, and we recently had the opportunity to catch up with writer, director, and producer Will Wernick. Safer at Home was conceived and shot during last year's COVID-19 lockdowns, something that was clearly no easy feat. Adding to that challenge was the fact the story takes place in the midst of Zoom-style video call!
We picked Will's brain on all of that and more ahead of the movie's release in select theaters, VOD & Digital on February 26th, and want to extend a big thank you to the filmmaker for taking the time to take us through the challenges which came to bringing his vision to life when the world was going mad!
Oh, and you'll definitely want to scroll down to see what the Escape Room and No Escape helmer had to say about the possibility of one day taking a crack at comic book movie...
I’m guessing with the pandemic, you must have been forced to shoot Safer at Home quite close to...well, home?
Extremely close to home! We shot in June on what I think was the first day of the real curfew in Los Angeles. Things got stranger from there [Laughs]. There were all the riots going on and, of course, we had written the script about a month or so beforehand. It was then a lot of things in the script started happening which was very strange.
Where did the idea for the movie come from, and how much time passed from that initial idea stage to finishing production?
It was fast. I was actually in Colorado writing in the mountains to get away from Los Angeles at the beginning of the pandemic, and one of the producers, John Ierardi, and I had the idea before I left. I presented that from here, and Voltage picked it up immediately, so I drove right back, and we were filming seven weeks later.
Safer at Home takes place during the pandemic, but in this world things have gotten even worse; why did you decide to explore this possible future where COVID has really taken hold?
We saw at the beginning of the pandemic, and through it, the way the Government was dealing with it in not such a great way. There was also a lot of societal upheaval, and a lot of change happening with Black Lives Matter and all these things, so we asked, ‘What would happen if this didn’t even out over the next two years and new, worse strain came up, and we kept dealing with it badly?’ It sounded like horror, and this isn’t a horror movie, but the horror of that felt very personal to me because at that time, especially in Los Angeles, everything was closing. The neighbourhood I live in, half the restaurants closed and the streets started feeling unsafe. We had lots of helicopters above us all the time. So, it came from all these discussions we were having with friends and family in real-life thinking about where it could go
Was that why you included so many real news clips in the movie?
Absolutely. I think we use them to bookend the movie because, at the beginning, it puts you at a specific time and gives you some backstory we’re familiar with. So many things about the way Donald Trump and his administration dealt with the pandemic at the beginning were so flawed and absurd, it seemed like good fodder for a thriller [Laughs].
Things escalate extremely quickly in the film, but how difficult did you find it to create that sense of panic and fear when you’re not shooting what’s playing out on screen in a traditional way?
Things like blocking become really important. In the main house, a lot of the "action" has to happen within one angle, so figuring out how to situate the house and lighting so you understand all of it while still making it feel mysterious was pretty difficult. We shot this on real cinema character, but it was actually shot simultaneously at four different locations in actor’s houses and such. We’d do long takes and give notes afterwards, and give them four, five, six bites of the apple with each scene, but they were very long scenes due to the way it was written. It was very difficult, and I don’t know if I’d want to do it again like that, but it was an exciting challenge.
Were the cast able to interact with each other at all, or did they all have to shoot their scenes separately, with their respective video chats later edited together to obviously give the impression they’re interacting?
Exactly. Each of the cameras was piped into an iMac, and that was next to the camera so they could see everyone else on Zoom, and all the cameras were linked together with a satellite time code so everything was frame accurate in the editorial process. Then, my editor, Sean Aylward, had a mountain of footage to cut through as we had four or five angles to get through every time we were shooting.
It must have been challenging for you as well to juggle all those different balls with so many actors in so many different locations?
Absolutely. Then, if you have a technical problem, everything gets really crazy. We had a small, but very proficient crew. The technology package helped us solve problems, so it wasn’t as crazy as it could have been.
Was there much room for improvisation from the cast, or was it important for them to stick to the screenplay given the tight production schedule?
Both. I would do the same thing whether or not we were filming like this, but the first couple of takes you attempt to get what’s on the page so we know we have everything covered, and then once we know we have that, they can do whatever they want. For any given scene, we would do at least two takes not necessarily directly improvised, but following what was scripted and allowing them to play with it. I think it’s really important and that it comes through with the group dynamic at the beginning of the film. I think they feel like a real group of friends.
How challenging was it putting together the cast for the movie in the midst of the lockdowns last year?
We didn’t do a traditional casting. These were all actors the producers or myself had worked with before. We had a couple of people drop out right before because they didn’t want to deal with doing a project about the pandemic, and I can’t blame the for that. It’s a strange headspace to be in for that long given the way the world was. The casting process felt pretty organic, and Dan Johnson, who plays Evan, was in my first feature film, and the minute I called him, he said, ‘Absolutely, I want to do it’ and he was all in. The rest of the cast filled in from there, and it was great.
We’ve seen films shot on iPhones, of course, but did you ever consider using a video calling app to attempt shooting Safer at Home, or would that have presented too many technical challenges?
It’s important to me that we touched on new ground with this. I’ve seen other screen life movies where they’ve tried to make it feel very real so you think you’re watching cell phone footage, and they do shoot with them. I think, personally, I wanted more of a cinematic look. The lighting became very important as did depth of field. Having a somewhat thin depth of field, the actors pop out, and knowing that this was potentially, and now is, a theatrical release around the world and in the U.S., we wanted it to look really good on the big screen. Striking a balance between making it feel real with the static and glitching, but allowing it to be a God mode from inside the devices and not really try to mimic an iPhone. iPhones, in production, are very difficult especially when you’re trying to link all these things together in multiple places. That would have been a nightmare [Laughs].
Do you view this as a film with franchise potential, possibly focusing on other similar, scenarios, or was this just a one-off story you wanted to tell?
Originally, it was just a one-off story. We’ve discussed various ideas for a sequel. We’re not actually thinking about making one right now, but never say never, and I think there are interesting avenues to explore. Maybe other places in the world, so we'll see...
I know you have a few different projects you’re working on, but is the superhero genre one that interests you and, if so, are there any characters, in particular, you’d like to bring to the screen?
Oh, wow. I think that would be really exciting in the right context. I would personally like to make something like the first Deadpool which, for a superhero movie, was relatively independent and small. I love movies like Iron Man and what they’ve done with all the Marvel movies, but it’s such a giant machine to work with that, at least right now, I can’t imagine doing that, but I’d love to at some point.
Are you planning to continue in this genre moving forward, blending thrillers with horror, or are you looking to go to some different places?
I’m definitely looking to go to some different places. I have a thriller called White Bread that two of the producers on this are part of, and that one will shoot a little later this year it looks like. It’s a straight thriller which I’m excited about. Then, a script that I co-wrote with a writer named David Hill called The Bend is a dramatic thriller we’re setting up to shoot this summer. That’s where I’d love to live going forward with the more dramatic, thrilling movies. I’m sure I’ll make more horror/thriller-type things. They’re fun!
Do you see "Zoom" style movies like this taking off as found footage ones did a few years ago, and would you like to revisit the idea or go back to a traditional style of filmmaking?
I love technology in filmmaking. I’ve always been a bit of a camera nerd, and owned my own. The screen life movie thing you’re going to see tonnes of, and it’s not something I really want to do again. I think part of what we liked about this is that there was no supernatural element, and it was a very grounded story which I liked a lot as it’s a little more like Searching. I like the traditional style of filmmaking; I think there’s still a lot to be done with that in the way where all teh disciplines come together is what really excites me. So, probably no more screen life movies [Laughs].
It must be quite exciting as the writer and director to see what people think about the decisions the characters make here?
It is exciting. Yourself and a few other interviews I’ve done recently are the first people I don’t know who have seen the film. I’m excited to see everyone’s reactions. When you’re working on a movie, you never know if the twists are going to work, and it’s such a long process, they’ve been spoiled for me, personally [Laughs], so I’m really excited to see how it’s taken.
Finally, were there any scenes or moments you wanted to include in the film that weren’t possible due to budget or time constraints?
Aside form a few very small trivial things, we got to shoot everything we wrote. As a producer, writer, and director, we were able to trim away the things we knew we couldn’t accomplish because of the pandemic or time restraints before we were even on set and I think that’s been the biggest learning curve. As the third feature film for me, figuring out things before you’re on set not only saves money and time, but allows what you do shoot to be bigger and better. That was an exciting part of this process, for sure.