The stars and writer/director of Offseason, Jocelin Donahue, Joe Swanberg, and Mickey Keating, discuss the horror-thriller, which premiered at SXSW.
I had a chance to sit down (digitally) with the team behind the new horror film Offseason, which premiered at SXSW. Writer/Director Mickey Keating (Carnage Park) and stars Jocelin Donahue (The House of the Devil, Insidious: Chapter 2) and Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs, You’re Next) were kind enough to take time to discuss horror ambience, finishing a film in COVID times, and why so many of Joe’s friends seem to cast him just to brutally murder him. Mickey is a director on the upswing, while Jocelin is something of an indie horror legend and Joe is perhaps best known for his collaborations with folks like Greta Gerwig, Marc Duplass, Andrew Bujalski, and Lena Dunham in the mumblecore genre. It was a fun conversation and they were all kind enough to laugh at my dopey Necronomicon joke too.
Mickey Keating on Offseason’s atmosphere
First for Mickey, I’d love to hear you speak on your influences and what sort of tone you were aiming for. I think one of the most effective elements of the film is the atmosphere and the sense of dread that permeates the story, and I’d love to hear you speak to your ambitions there.
Mickey Keating: Well, thank you so much! I really wanted to make something that was tonally extraordinarily atmospheric and within the realm of the surreal, something dreamlike where you’re not quite sure what’s what. In doing so, I definitely was more inspired from the ideas of a Shirley Jackson story like “The Summer People” or Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” just because I wanted to embrace that kind of dreamy literature aspect of it. I said that the tone and style of the movie would feel like finding some old battered book in an old antique shop and reading about the nightmare that transpires from there.
The appeal of the project for Jocelin Donahue and Joe Swanberg
For Joe and Jocelin, what drew you to the project? The screenplay? Working with Mickey?
Jocelin Donahue: It was all of those things, I read the script and I noticed how evocative the sense of place was – this weird setting was so unique and captivating. There was a really cool tone to the script itself. Sitting down with Mickey, he just had such a wonderful energy and approach to filmmaking! He was so inspiring and has this enthusiasm, so I knew I wanted to work with him and be around him. And the team he brought together was made up of really professional, talented, and nice people. The film had a bunch of actors I was excited to work with including Joe who I’ve known for a long time but hadn’t had the chance to work with yet. I got to have a lot of cool scenes with other actors who are powerhouses as well – there were just a lot of good things for me about this project!
Joe Swanberg: It was a very easy and appealing project to say yes to and get excited about. Mickey called me first and I was like “I’ll do it! What are the dates? I’m free, let’s do it!” Then I read the script. I love that area of Florida I lived down there for a brief period of time near where we filmed so it was like a return home for me to an area I had foggy 8th grade memories from. Of all the films I’ve acted in, I probably had the most surreal and fun off-camera experiences this time in Florida. The production put us in these big vacation complexes near the beach so I used to have all these great, creepy night walks along the beach. It was really a cool experience in general and I just loved the cast and crew in general so it was really cool to be back on set. All around, it was a super positive experience.
Mickey Keating on filmmaking in a pandemic
Mickey, what was the process like in having to finish this film after COVID? I know you finished shooting just before COVID, but what was it like for you to finish your work in post during a pandemic? There’s a lot of very impressive technical stuff in the film and I have to imagine that was difficult to bring together with everything shut down.
MK: Well, you know, I live with my editor. She’s edited all of my movies. But there was this “well the world’s ending so let’s take as long as we need!” vibe. Traditionally, I like to edit as long as I can, but usually with indie films there’s always producers breathing down filmmakers’ necks saying “you’ve got to get ready for this festival or that festival!” We got as long as the movie needed which was really great and valuable. After we got into SXSW there was a feeling of “oh my god we have so much to finish,” and dealing with and navigating that with the VFX companies and the sound mix was quite an experience. But I feel very very lucky because if we had pushed the shooting start date by two weeks, the movie would not be finished. You want to talk about dodging a bullet – I feel very very lucky about that.
How much of the film’s magic was effects? I think of the desolate town at the end: was that effects work or good luck with the weather?
MK: It’s funny, we got really lucky with the clouds and the overcast days. You write overcast in a script and you’re guaranteed to have a sunshine-y day! The town was all practical. We cleared out that main street. You don’t see all the townsfolk just off camera seeing a giant camera on a truck following Jocelin! There are a lot less visual effects in the film than you probably would have expected. The bridge was all practical. I was terrified because we’d have to put it up and down to let cars through and I was so scared the gears would start to grind and the government would be like here’s a bill from the state of Florida for $100 million dollars to repair it! It all worked out – doing things in camera is always preferable when you can do it.
Jocelin Donahue and Joe Swanberg on acting for horror
Joe and Jocelin, I know you both have a long background in horror films, I’m curious what this process is like for each of you and how you may approach a horror film differently from, say, a small character drama. I’m curious what you look for in your own performance and your approach to the material.
JD: It almost doesn’t the matter the genre for me. You try to attack it and get the truth. With horror you just get to use your imagination a bit more and be in more extreme emotional situations. It was cool with this film that even though it’s a genre film Mickey wanted to make it really natural, and working with people like Joe and Jeremy (Gardner), who are such wonderful improvisors, you’re finding the natural moments in these really surreal situations. Both Mickey and Joe were wonderful to work with in finding the emotional beats. When it got to the more harrowing survival moments something else takes over and the performance becomes more physical, less about talking about it and more about just doing it.
JS: I feel like on the horror stuff there tends to be these technical aspects that are not present on small low budget relationship movies, but that’s always really fun for me. It’s a nice break from total naturalism. I feel like my character in this film is grounded, considering everything that’s going on. I’m really trying to root some of the more mysterious and strange things into a kind of grounded fear, and to play George like he’s a completely realistic character thrown into these extreme circumstances. I want to ask the question of how would I respond to this? What would be my level of fear? Of confusion? Would I be distrustful of the situation? Because I direct, whenever I’m acting in someone else’s film I feel a great responsibility to do what they want. I’ve taken the role to work with them, it’s their movie and I want to be good in service of that vision. In some areas, I’m poking and prodding to try to figure out “am I allowed to do this? Does it still live within your movie if I ask this question? Do I pop the bubble (of the story’s fiction) if I express confusion around this or does that add to the tension?” I feel like Mickey was always happy to be pushing more in the realistic direction because so many fantastical and mysterious things happen in the film having the characters start in such a grounded place gives them a good direction to follow.
Mickey Keating and Joe Swanberg on Indie Horror Today and lawyer phobia
I think one of the cool things in indie horror these days – I wonder if there’s a Necronomicon phone book you use to contact one another – is that it seems like there’s this group of players that tend to intersect with one another in each other’s films. Is there a sense where you see people and trust their work and follow them? How do you think the same folks seem to come together so frequently?
MK: You know I hope they write a book someday about what horror is like in LA now and what the genre has become. I don’t believe in making actors read for parts – it just seems counterproductive. I had seen Jocelin in many films and I’ve been a fan of Joe forever both as an actor and a director. So when we were thinking about who could play Maria, I was like why not Jocelin Donahue? So we had our casting director get in touch with her agents and we set up a meeting. Immediately, within five minutes, I knew she was The One. I was just hoping the rest of the day “oh God! I hope she accepts!” I’ve wanted to make a movie with Joe for at least five years now. We talked about another project, but when I asked him to do this I asked him “Please! Oh please Joe!!” and he agreed to do it. I just think there are so many movies Joe is in as an actor and he’s f—ing great and I wanted him to be in my movie!
JS: My friends like to kill me in movies. Literally the only reason I can think of why I’m in so many of these. If you notice, I die in every single one of them! Sometimes for the same director multiple times!
My day job is as a lawyer, my second job is as a film critic. So I wanted to talk with you about the lawyer scene in the film. I thought it was quite funny and, of course, all lawyers deserve to be sent up on what we do. I was very curious to hear your process on that scene in particular because it was one that resonated for me.
MK: Wow! That’s so interesting. Well I think it comes from my inherent feel of being involved in a litigation.
It’s a good fear to have!
JS: [Laughs] I can verify this is true. Mickey loses sleep at night because it is his main dread that he will be sued over something!
I want to see that movie!
MK: [Laughs] It’ll just be me in a room starting to cry, in a whole board room. Strangely, that element of a will being changed in the film is a story that happened to someone close to me and it sort of rattled me. At the end of the day, you look at these two lawyer characters and they’re just doing their job, right? They’re just saying you can’t change this will, but are they in on it? Is there this malevolent kind of aspect to them? It was a fun scene to film.