It shouldn’t be a secret to anyone who read my review of The Lost Footage of Leah Sullivan, that I am a huge fan of this refreshing spin on the found footage genre. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to have a chat with the filmmakers and stars themselves, Burt Grinstead and Anna Stromberg, ahead of their premiere in Los Angeles this Wednesday, Dec 11th.
HorrorBuzz: So let’s start with some softball questions to kind of get the ball rolling. What inspired you to make this movie? Where do you get the wild hair to do something like this?
Burt Grinstead: Oh, I like that, a wild hair. [laughs] Um, we actually… a friend of mine, Rob Runyon [co-producer], who is also in the industry and I, have been talking about found footage films for a long time, mostly because it’s an affordable way to tell a story. From there I came up with this story… and when I met Anna, I think everything became really clear with it, and Anna was able to help me put it together and just go with it, and create what we ended up creating.
HB: And that was something I wanted to touch on and ask you. Catching up with you on social media and everything after seeing the film, I was able to see how your life panned out after the movie, and I wanted to know where your connection came from, because clearly this worked out really nicely for both of you. [Burt and Anna were married earlier this year]
Anna Stromberg: [laughs] Yeah, we actually met in New York years and years ago. We went to the same school together, the same acting school in New York. And then we started dating each other a few months before we started working on the movie. And Burt basically just told me he had this idea, so we started kind of coming up with some characters, and then we wrote the dialogue together. So yeah… And then since then we’ve been together, written some plays and done those… and then we got married!
HB: I love that. Were you influenced by other found footage films? Or I guess what I really want to know is what found footage tropes and tricks did you try to stay away from because I really feel like this is so fresh and original.
BG: That’s a really nice thing to say. We… actually we’re kind of um… the word is naive, but we’re kind of uneducated when it comes to found footage films. Rob Runyon, my friend, is an expert in found footage films – he sort of knows everything about everything. So a lot of the stuff we learned was through him, but we also did watch some of the classics in the pre-production process to creating this movie. Uh, we didn’t…
AS: Some of them during the actual process of creating the movie, which was a little scary since we were staying in the cottage.
HB: Oh my gosh!
BG: But the one thing we wanted to focus on was creating a very real atmosphere with our documentary. And a few things we had watched that really were influencing were Werner Herzog films… like Grizzly man was kind of a big one going into it. He’s got a unique sense of humor the way he tells these really dark and intense stories. And I think that’s what we were trying to go with. Anna introduced me to that.
AS: And Burt had me watch… I don’t even know how he found them… but high school and early college… like on youtube, younger journalists doing blog-style journalism. And I just started watching those, and that — I know it’s not found footage — but it was a big influence on how we would approach it and the level of professionalism that Leah Sullivan would bring to her journalism. Influenced by that a lot.
HB: Oh, so kind of coming from a student’s point of view or perspective.
AS: Right, yeah.
HB: Interesting. So rather than seeking to make a found footage film, you approached it more documentary style. You made the documentary that ended up being the found footage.
BG: Right. Yeah, the idea was… similar to Blair Witch Project, which is sort of all-encompassing, the one that started it all in a lot of ways even if it wasn’t the original… the goal was to make it look completely unedited, so it was like if somebody found a memory card and just plugged it into a computer, these are the clips they could watch back to back, and also be able to tell the story through that. But also on the flip side of it, to tell a real haunted house story. Like what if a haunted house was an actual real thing, not grounded in ghost stories.
AS: Like there *could* be an answer.
HB: So how much of this was scripted and how much was improvised as things happened on the day?
AS: It was actually almost entirely scripted. The only things that weren’t were little blips.
BG: Yeah like a few “Oh God”s or scary little in the moment exclamations, but I think most of it…
AS: Yeah almost all of it was scripted.
HB: Interesting. I think… I’ll be really honest with you guys, I started watching and I was like “Ugh, found footage, I know where this is gonna go…” and one of the things that bother me most about a lot of found footage films is … even we talked about, Blair Witch, because so much of it is improvised or unscripted for the most part it ends up being mostly those little exclamations, like, “Oh shit” and that’s the whole movie, and it was cool to see “Oh, they’re still telling the story, and totally freaked out at the same time.” It worked for me for sure.
BG: Thank you, that’s really nice to say… yeah, we do have kind of an obsession with plot and dialogue, I think, that all our projects have that…
AS: I think… we both grew up doing theatre, and that’s sort of… I don’t know if it’s our main passion, but especially in terms of what we’ve been up to in the last year has been a lot of theatre projects, and so I think… in theatre, there’s not a whole heck of a lot of improv.
BG: and there’s a lot of dialogue
AS: a LOT of dialogue
HB: Yeah, well… and… You know that’s funny, because I also come from a theatre background…
AS: Oh awesome!
HB: Yeah, and I think as a filmmaker and as a writer and all these other things, it does give you kind of a different springboard for sure.
AS: Totally! Oh that’s so cool.
HB: Like your needs are totally different in terms of what you’re expecting from a project. So I totally understand that.
AS: That’s awesome.
HB: So again, in kind of researching this movie and sort of looking into what info I could find on IMDB and wherever else… this was a super tight little crew.
HB: How many of you were there? How did you coordinate and manage that… jumping from writer to director to actor to cinematographer… you guys were all over the place, both of you and the rest of your crew.
AS: Yeah, we really were.
BG: Yeah so, we actually just updated the IMDB because the credits were sort of spread out a little bit from an earlier pass at it, but yeah we just… we had, basically, it was Anna Stromberg, myself, and Paul Odgren, who were there every day all day from the beginning of the pre-production… once we got in…
AS: Once we had the script all nailed down
BG: Yeah, once we got to Massachusetts. So then from there it was about a week of pre-production before we got into actual shooting, and we hired 5 or 6 actors that we knew or knew through other people, a couple of people we had to cast but it was really just people that were… that we appreciated and respected. And then about halfway through the shooting of it, the guy who played the creature – David Nash is his name -came in and kind of became our all-encompassing…
AS: He did SO MUCH.
BG: He did so much.
AS: He was amazing.
BG: So it ended up being just… everybody pulling a ton of jobs. We had one production designer, and Paul ended up helping out a lot, and Anna ended up being basically our main cinematographer because she was holding the camera the whole time, and then beyond that, it just came down to pulling double and triple shifts and if something came up, someone would get to it.
AS: And it was really cool because it was a lot of Burt’s friends from growing up. It was shot in his hometown, so he’d have different friends come on different days, and that part of it was really fun because we hadn’t been together that long. So in addition to getting to know Burt as a director, and creatively collaborating, I was getting to know him through his little high school buddies.
BG: Probably not the best way to meet all my friends.
AS: It was a pretty charming experience.
BG: But I did end up… we did have one big day where we hired a bunch of people to make the house…
AS: Oh that was so fun!
BG: This beautiful house we had rented on Air B&B into a haunted house, and I think we had about 7 or 8 people there and just… everybody was working.
AS: Everybody was just so gung-ho, and Lily [Bolles, production designer] was incredible, all of her ideas… I mean, she just really helped us stretch the budget, and to figure out all the ways of aging this house and making… you know the dust, making it feel like it’s been there for a long time, and they did that in 6 hours I think?
BG: Yeah it was kind of unbelievable. We had to shoot that morning and then transfer it into something else that evening. And then we also, during the post process too… I hope I’m not talking too much now, but I’m excited to talk about this, it’s been a while… during the post process too, Anna and I lived together because we were dating and got engaged eventually during that process, so we were able to do a lot of the ADR and foley in our apartment…
AS: So yeah so we had like, blankets and comforters, and every cushion in the house and mattresses up against our kitchen table, and we’d kind of crunch underneath there, and then do ADR, and we’d do foley like “How can we make this sound? What is this sound gonna sound like?” I mean… just the amount of garbage we had under that table just trying to figure out… [laughs]
BG: Yeah, our apartment was kind of a wreck for a while.
AS: It was a huge mess!
BG: Yeah, and then we ended up hiring a sound guy who came on and made everything better.
AS: saved our lives!
BG: But I still think we ended up using a lot of our sound…
HB: That is so cool. So clearly it was all-encompassing. So what was the timeline in terms of… I guess from pre-production until now, or until you had a finished product?
BG: Ooh, okay so… pre-production was about a week, we shot the movie in two weeks… and then we… I pretty much had a rough cut of it in two weeks because it had these longs shots, you know? But then after that, it was probably almost a year… 8 months to a year…I was just tinkering with everything, to make sure everything looked as best it could, because it had to look unedited, so any little thing I had to mask as much as I could. Different movements…
AS: That was also a wild part of the process, it is just, the amount of editing to make it look like an unedited film. Pretty funny.
BG: And also this was mine and Anna’s first time doing any of this stuff, so to take any of this on… this was a pretty steep learning curve. I certainly could manage it better next time. I learned a lot.
HB: Yeah trial by fire for sure, you took everything on. Um… Did you feel like… because… I just keep gushing about this movie. I just was so excited…
BG: I know, Your review was amazing!
AS: I know! It was… So encouraging. So… it was really awesome
HB: I’m so glad that “encouraging” is the word you used, because I was like… I just want to tell these people that I think this is fantastic. Did you know that you had something special on your hands, did you feel like you were making something special?
AS: Oh my god! [laughs]
BG: Oh… I don’t know… I mean there were moments where we were like oh, this is cool! This is really awesome! This is really fun…
AS: This is something I could show my mom…
BG: Or this is something I’ll NEVER show my mom… but there were also moments where we were like, this is terrible… I think every filmmaker goes through that process where you’re constantly questioning your decisions with everything. And I’m really… I think the one thing that we’re very proud of is what we ended up with… or at least I am, I’m extremely proud of the final product. I feel like given more time, money, and manpower we could make a much better project next time but with this material and with what we did… I’m so… I’m very impressed by us. That’s what I’ll say. [laughs]
AS: Yeah I … um… Wow.
BG: We’re a little overwhelmed that you’re reacting to this, and we’ve had other viewers that have been very kind as well.
HB: Well, like I said, you guys deserve it. You know… This is what I do, and I’m also a filmmaker, and with that comes a sort of jaded and cynical, you know “Oh I’ve seen it all”, and this movie surprised me, and I said that in my review, that I did not know what I was in for and I was really pleasantly surprised.
Both: Thank you.
HB: You are so so welcome. Okay, a couple of fun ones and then we’ll wrap up… What scares you? What horror movies influence you? What did you kind of take into this movie like, “this really freaked me out, I want to incorporate this…”?
AS: Ooh, yeah.
BG: Gosh well a couple of things… we’ll go back a ways, this might be a long-winded answer because we have a couple of things we could bring into it, but… I fell in love with the horror genre… we’re not like the biggest horror fans in the world… but I fell in love with the making of horror movies when I did a play called Death Trap a few years ago, and it was just a lot of fun to kind of explore… and being able to do that every day, and I think we ran for 6 months, and it’s the most fun I ever had, so making the horror movie… learning the science of it… and really kind of diving into that, that’s what fascinates me as a filmmaker. How can I BEST make this scary. There are 3 or 4 moments in the film that took way longer than they should have because we spent so much time trying a million different things to see which was the scariest.
AS: Yeah, I don’t know if you remember the scene where I’m at the computer with the window behind me… we spent, I don’t know, 7 hours. There’s no dialogue. There’s nothing going on. But we spent so long trying to figure out the beats and the timing… we almost lost our minds, and broke up our relationship. [both laugh] trying to figure out that moment, but we called on so many things we had seen… and everyone was throwing out ideas and references, to different films, the timing of this thing… I think Paul brought up something, someone brought up Silence of the Lambs, we were just trying to make that moment work.
BG: Yeah so it became really collaborative, and I think everybody had a good time even though it took forever.
AS: Well because everybody has, everyone is so affected by the horror genre… or most people.. It stays with you, so everybody could call on these moments so quickly. That part was cool.
BG: And then another thing we are really influenced by, or at least me, particularly… I love mystery. So any horror movie that has you trying to figure out what’s happening, those really capture me. And the ones with a twist too… those really get me. So I like early M Night Shyamalan, and those kinds of movies, and then Anna came in with really character-driven movies, like Silence of the Lambs and things like that… those were really influential in the making of this or writing of it for sure… [long pause] did we even answer your question? [all laugh]
HB: You totally did! But I guess the first part of the question was… what scares you? Clearly you spent all this time in this apparently wonderful house that I guess is on Air B&B, but it looked scary as hell in the movie…
AS: Listen, it was terrifying. When you started the question like that the first thing I thought of was the first day when we were given a tour by the woman who owned the house, and we were walking through the woods, and immediately I started feeling like… I don’t know it just had that feeling to it, and the ice was… the water was just starting to freeze on the lake, so the ice was… singing, I guess it’s called, so it starts to freeze, and makes this noise like… [high pitched sounds]
BG: Yeah it’s so weird.
AS: Yeah these just bizarre noises… so we were just like this is awesome… this whole thing feels like the perfect set up for a horror movie. It was really hard for us to sleep while we were there, but it was kind of perfect.
BG: Then the second day, since the heating didn’t work, we had a bunch of heaters plugged in so we blew a fuse and all the lights went out at like…
AS: 2 in the morning?
HB: Oh NO!
AS: Yeah so we had to go into the basement… with flashlights… [all laugh] to try to fix it…
HB: Yeah… uh… no, thank you… I’m good…
AS: Yeah for a second there I thought Burt was doing one of those like… where you do things with the actors where you put them in a house for a while or mess around with them before shooting… I get it, okay, time to turn the lights on…
HB: So funny. Okay so… I guess, last question… what’s next?
BG: Okay so we have a few things in the works… we just finished about a year-long run of a play we produced, that’s a comedy version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…
AS: A horror comedy version
BG: And that got published so I think that goes on sale this Christmas season… and then we are going to produce another movie I think next year, and there’s several in pre-production…
AS: We started writing a few of them…
BG: Yeah, and then there’s… we’re also going to do another play next year… we don’t want to give any… or say any titles yet… because there’s a lot up in the air but… we’re doing a lot, is what I mean…
HB: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me…
BG: Thank you!
AS: Thank you so much!
HB: And you guys premiere the 11th, correct?
HB: Well, I will see you there, I have my tickets!
AS: We can’t wait to meet you in person!
BG: Thanks so much again, we’ll see you there!
Tickets are still available for THE LOST FOOTAGE OF LEAH SULLIVAN premiere screening in Los Angeles, 12/11 at 7:30 pm
HorrorBuzz wants to thank Anna Stromberg and Burt Grinstead for taking the time to talk to us!