Ahead of the European premiere of award-winning independent noir-horror The Ascent at Derby Film Festival‘s Paracinema Weekend director Tom Murtagh and producer Matt Renoir chatted to Storge editor Sarah Lay about the making of the film, the role of film festivals and the biggest challenge of making the movie.
“Getting into a Festival, let alone winning an award for this film was like a huge weight off of us. Having worked on this film so intensely for so long, believing in it from the very first draft of the script, there was not better affirmation that we were not kidding ourselves about the quality of the film. Essentially confirmation that we weren’t deceiving ourselves.” Matt Renoir, producer of noir-horror The Ascent reflects on the film’s journey from independent vision to award-winning feature, as it took home accolades at both IndieFEST Film Awards and Nevermore Film Festival following its 2017 release. Now set for its European premiere as part of Paracinema Weekend at Derby Film Festival audiences are in for a treat with this taut thriller with a gripping narrative.
Writer-director Tom Murtagh focused on weaving a tale soaked in mystery, simple sets giving space to dialogue which powers the story. He said, “I wanted to make a feature film and had very little money so I knew I needed to have few characters and limited locations. During a screening of the superhero film, Thor, I found the most intriguing scene was where an intelligence officer interrogated the Nordic deity. That juxtaposition triggered me.”
It led to the story of Detective Henry Cardenas (Miguel Perez) facing what Murtagh calls the police officer’s, “toughest opponent in bloodied murder suspect Vince Marins (Stephen Buchanan), who claims to be a fallen angel. During a long night together many secrets are revealed both recent and ancient.” Around this core story is woven the murder of singer Laura Maldonado (Anisha Adusumilli) and journalist Regina Parker (Amber Waller) watching over Cardenas’ work.
The feature isn’t the first time the pair have worked together, Renoir said, “Tom hired me to shoot a spec commercial, and we got to talking about filmmaking. He’d brought up The Ascent script, but hadn’t told me anything about it, just that it was a script he’d been working on. He sent it to me about a month later, and I was hooked.
“Before tackling the feature, we thought it best to try a short, and we made the film Through The Night – a pretty ambitious action/drama short. The crew for The Ascent was almost all friends, or colleagues with whom we had worked on other projects. We held casting calls for our talent, but actually had connections already established for our two leads.”
Murtagh said, “I had been writing for years and met Matt on a short project I did as a first venture into actual production. It grew into a good relationship and we decided to go for it and shoot a feature. Matt has been involved since the beginning and even came up with the film’s title.
“Casting The Ascent was challenging, especially our two leads because we stay with them so long. We found Stephen Buchanan first, but it took months to locate Miguel Perez. We auditioned many people and we held out for someone rock solid. Miguel is excellent.”
Casting was just one of the challenges in making the independent feature, which gained crowdfunding through Seed&Spark but was made for a budget of less than $20,000. Murtagh pegs the biggest challenge as, “A very tight shooting schedule with little room for mistakes” while Renoir saw the work after shooting to be the hardest going, he said, “The biggest challenge was Post Production. Making a film out of a 131 page script, with almost the entire film taking place in one room, with our two leads, into a taut thriller was like making a whole other film in the edit. We got it down to 98 minutes, and got out of that room as much as possible in the cuts. Like all Indie Films, Post Production can drag on, and on. We certainly experienced this, but persevered, and came out the other side with what we feel is a great film.”
The constricted setting adds to the tension of the supernatural thriller rather than limits it and the pair both cite classic genre films as well as other indie’s as influencing them. Murtagh said, “Vertigo is a touchstone. Rosemary’s Baby is another. I have also been long inspired by a micro-budget horror film called La Casa Muda, from Uraguay. That film showed that forethought could overcome a lack of financial resources.”
Renoir too has a list of on-screen inspiration, “I love Thriller films – Se7en, Primal Fear, The Exorcist, The Omen, The Others, The Dead Zone, The Other, Primer. So much of those films is atmosphere, just the feel, or ominous kind of tone throughout. The darkness, the unknown. Your imagination is put to work, not everything is handed to you.
“Movies were always a big part of my life. I grew up watching staples of 1980’s cinema – Ghostbusters, SpaceBalls, Labyrinth, Princess Bride, Beverly Hills Cop, Return to Oz; and of course Wizard of Oz, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin. There was something special about just watching a film. I’d get so excited about going to the movies, it always felt like an event.
I started to really appreciate film as an art form in High School, seeking out those films that influenced the films I loved. I’d rent stacks of videos each week, just to watch and learn. The advent of digital filmmaking made it possible to just pick up a camera, and start shooting. As horrible as they were, my friends and I would just keep shooting.”
Premiering at Nevermore Film Festival its showing in Derby on 6 May will be the first showing in Europe for The Ascent, and Murtagh is positive about what festival’s bring to the independent filmmaking, “I think festivals like Derby allow the genuinely passionate film lovers to connect with new stories and allow filmmakers to see they aren’t crazy for doing what they do. Without festivals like this, we would only have superhero movies like say, Thor.”
Renoir too is excited for the UK showing, “Derby looks to be a really excellently curated indie film festival, one that will hopefully bring about interest in maybe an underserved market of film fans. Being part of the Paracinema Weekend it seems that our unclassifiable family of films are being given their fair chance to be seen.”
The pair will be working together again on their next project, which they say is a survivalist horror, and have plenty of advice for aspiring filmmakers. Murtagh offers, “Read good books. Watch old movies. Be finicky about casting. Write a lot. Paper is cheaper than renting a Red camera. Also, work as a PA on sets.”
Renoir urges filmmakers to learn the skill at the heart of the craft, “Story comes first. You can fake/fix a lot of things in a film, but you cannot fake story. Get feedback on a script, and always be open to opinions. As for production – save funds for Post Production. Production goes by in a heart beat, while the film is really made in Post.”
The Ascent will be have its European premier at 6.45pm on Sunday 6 May 2018 as part of Derby Film Festival – tickets available here. You can find the full programme and passes on the festival website.
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