The apocalyptic thriller, FEAR
, directed by Jason Tobias and Geoff Reisner, follows a young family trying to survive when a group of thieves steals the last of their supplies. With time running out and the infected around the corner, Ethan, played by Jason Tobias, and Josephine (Marci Miller) must do whatever it takes to protect their children and get the vaccines they need.
Star Tobias, who also co-wrote the film with Reisner, recently talked to Jamie Ruby of SciFi Vision in an exclusive interview about coming up with the idea, what it’s like writing, directing, and starring in the same project, what it took to complete the movie, and more.
How did you start working on this? And my other question is, was this your own project that you shopped? I know you obviously worked with Geoff Reisner, who you worked with on Terrordactyl
, again, so I wasn't sure if they found you, or if you found somebody to take the film.
The way it all kind of came about was I shot a commercial in Colorado in 2018 and ended up meeting just an awesome guy, Blair Pennington, who is the executive producer on the project. He was shooting his own stuff in Colorado, and I saw his setup; I saw how he was just kind of very independent. He had his own camera; he had his own gear, you know, lights, flags, everything.
And one of the other partners, Lucas Solomon, who's the other executive producer, they're like kindred spirits, very similar guys. They're go getters: they’re entrepreneurs, and they're just great people.
So, when I shot this commercial, I pitched the idea to Blair. I said, “Hey, I've got this story. I think it'd be something that's very doable on a very modest budget. How about you come out and meet Lucas, and we’ll kind of see where it goes from there.” And that's pretty much how it all really kind of started getting the ball rolling.
Lucas and Blair met, and they liked the story. They liked the pitch package; they liked the budget I put together. Then, we just started getting pieces rolling by September, October of 2018. We started gearing up in pre-production.
I sent the script out to Marci. Fortunately, she loved it and wanted to be a part of it, because she's just fantastic as Joe.
So, we started doing casting, and crewing up as well. Then, by January of 2019, we were shooting.
That's what I wondered, if this was your idea. So, where did the idea come from? I thought maybe COVID, but you said 2018, so that was before COVID.
Yeah, this all came before that. You know, I was always a big video game player. I loved Resident Evil
, Dead Space
, Left for Dead
, The Last of Us
. I was always a big fan of video games where the relationships were kind of the through line that you followed throughout the story, but yet you had this larger looming threat that was hitting you, whether it was, you know, some type of biohazard or some monster, whatever the hell it could be. But in the process of doing that, I also enjoyed the finite supply angle that they would take, like you've only got six bullets in your gun, and you’ve got to use them wisely, or you've only got this much health, and you’ve got to use it wisely.
…This was a story that initially was about a husband and wife and this drifter that just kind of comes to town, and they let him in to their home during this crazy zombie apocalypse, and then it turns into like this torturous thing. That was the initial kernel of the idea, and then from there, it started to evolve further.
I couldn’t find who specifically wrote the script. Did you guys both work on the script together, or did you hire somebody to actually write the script?
I wrote the script. Geoff has “story by” credits on it, just because, again, collaborating with Geoff, I love working with Geoff; we've worked numerous times together. He had some great input that we put in there. He was a big advocate for bringing in the Avery Dennison character (Denver Isaac), the gentleman who gets, spoiler alert, choked to death in the kitchen. He just wanted to see more conflict in there. He wanted to see something that was like rising tension, if you will.
I know you directed it, too. So, you did quite a lot. Doing all of those things at once, does that cause a lot of problems, because you're kind of back and forth?
Yes and no. I mean, the fantastic thing is the team we've got; they're amazing. Blair and Lucas are great leaders in the executive producer position, and with Geoff on the co-directing side of things, we were able to able to delegate tasks that we needed to do. The load was never really too heavy for one person or the other. [It’s great] when you've got a great shorthand with people that you've worked with before. You've got great people that are willing to take on other aspects of not just only helping produce something, but maybe they want to help with production design, or maybe they want to help with wardrobe. Because this is a very independent project, and at the end of the day, you just have got to wear a lot of hats. And I love that challenge. I love taking that on personally, just because I want to bring as much as I possibly can to the table that can help the project flourish and really see the vision come to life.
I'm always interested in hearing behind the scenes things, and I’ve watched directors on set, and I'm just curious. I know how usually the director is a lot of times watching at video village. So, I'm just curious, if you're directing at the same time you're in it, do you kind of run, literally, back and forth to see what the shots look like, or do you have your co-director taking care of that?
Sometimes yes; sometimes, no. I mean, I trust Geoff so much with his eye for not only framing composition, but just performance, that if he feels good, he just kind of gives me a nod or a thumbs up and I'm like, “Cool, sound good. We're moving on.”
But then, there were days where I was not on set performing, and so he and I would be at video village, and we would be watching the performance and going over blocking and just trying to figure out the best way to cover something, because we had very, very limited time.
Most of the time we would run through everything the night before; we'd block everything out. We'd kind of get an idea for how we wanted to cover all of it, and if he was manning the helm that day, and he was at the village, then I just trusted him [implicitly]. I mean, he's a great artist, and it's a pleasure to be able to work with somebody like that, because when you have that kind of trust; you don't have to be running back and forth. I would assume if somebody didn't trust their their co-director totally, they'd probably be like, “Hey, can we run that back?” That's time on set that you're losing, because you're stopping camera, having them run it back, and you're watching it on the monitor.
So, yeah, it was just great to be allowed that creative relationship with Geoff, because we both handled different aspects of things, even leading up to production and during production, even in post-production. We have a dialogue going back and forth where we try to say, “Hey, what can I help you with? How can I get some work off your plate?” That's just a good working relationship.That leads me to my other question, because I know you did for Terrordactyl. Did you do some of the post-production on this too, then? I mean, obviously, this wasn't the same kind of post production...
Right. Yeah, for Terrordactyl
I did some very, very minimal rotoscoping work just to help out the team, because there were so many visual effects shots in that movie. Same in FEAR
, there was some post-production stuff that I did to help out Geoff with, like giving [help to] our editor, Christy Fall, who just did an amazing job putting the film together. We would just either be prepping things for her or getting things ready or just kind of like setting the table, so that she would have all the all the pieces that she would need...But yeah, post is a beast. It is.You’re lucky, because I know you have background in some of that, so that's got to be nice being able to help if you want to.
So, obviously, you said you wrote this before, but the whole thing was completed before COVID, as well?
Correct. I mean, we had a finished draft summer of 2018 that we were happy with.
So, obviously, it’s not the same thing, but after completing a film like this, do you look at it differently after going through a real pandemic? And on the flipside, does the film make you look at the COVID pandemic differently?
Films have a tendency to be very kind of over sensationalized. Obviously, there are reflections of real world, and then there're embellishments. Clearly the situation that we deal with in FEAR
is a very extreme one, to say the least, but that's not to say that people have not dealt with situations close to that, even outside of a pandemic, maybe during a natural disaster, during Katrina, or even during maybe a civil war within a country, etc.
So, this is something that I've always been very interested in because - and I always say this to people, you know, living in Los Angeles we have a Starbucks on every corner. We are in our cars, and we're complaining about traffic, yet, in different areas around the world, people are fighting to survive. They are literally fighting for their lives. Yet, we are just going about our day. We're stuck in traffic, grabbing our caramel mocha lattes or whatever it might be. And it's a strange place to put your mind and your head, that you're living one life, and somebody somewhere else is living another. So, even in coming up with this concept of like, they're walled off and this hellish landscape is playing itself out behind these walls, going through what we've gone through with COVID, it makes me think that we're capable of a lot as humans beings. We're very capable; we're capable of compassion and empathy, and we're capable of being very accommodating to others.
But then at the same time, we're also very capable of doing some pretty, pretty wild things. I mean, look at what we were going through now. People don't want to get vaccinated; people do want to get vaccinated. Some people hate the masks; some people don't mind the masks. Once again, you've just got the element of the wild card, as I call it, [which] is just people. When you get enough people together, you do not know what the outcome is going to be. You can put the smartest people out there to tell them what to do, or you can have them have access to whatever they want to believe in, and that's fine, but man, when you put enough people together, tribalism is going to start to set in, and you're going to go in the direction that you want to go in.
I mean, I love escapism. I love being able to get away and just say, “Hey, watch this movie that was kind of about this event,” but I would say, if anything, it definitely makes me look at the COVID situation that we've gone through and we're currently going through differently after having made the film and what it deals with.And then, can you talk about casting? It sounds like you already knew Marci?
Yeah. So, Marci and I worked together on a film in 2015 called Most Likely to Die
, and Marci is just amazing. She was on Days
[of Our Lives
] for years, but I kept tabs on our career. We were friends prior to that; we did a Star Wars
short together. And she's just such a fantastic actress. She's so truthful, and she's so in the moment and committed to what she's doing. Even as I was writing FEAR
, I had her in mind for Joe; I just could see her playing the part.
Joe is this survivor that is dealing with having to obviously make sure that her family is going to get through this, but also wondering if the person that she used to be in a life partner relationship type of union with is even going to be able to make it through this as well. And how is that going to affect them? How is that going to deteriorate, and what is she gonna have to do?
I've just seen Marci with her emotional range, and I'm like, “She'll be great.” So, I sent her the script, and I just said, “Hey, please look at Joe; I think this would be a great part for you. I hope you'd like it.” And she wrote me back the day after and said, “I'd love to play this, if you'd have me.” And I was like, “Of course, I wrote it with you in mind.”
With the other parts in the film, we did more traditional stuff, like we brought on a casting company, and we put out breakdowns, and we started getting tape back in. I remember one of the first tapes I saw was for the Mia character, the daughter, and we saw Cece Kelly, and she was out of Georgia at that time, and she just was great. She was present on camera. She just was very in tune with what we needed the character to be right off the bat. Mia doesn't get a lot of on screen time, but what she needed to be, Cece had it inherently. It was effortless for her. So, we were very fortunate in finding her.
Danny Ruiz, who plays Josh, same thing. We brought in a lot of people to play the role. We even thought about possibly casting the role as a female, so it would have been two sisters instead of a brother and a sister, but at the end of the day, Danny just had a very sweet kind of innocence to him, and it worked for what his arc needed to be in the film with what he needed to accomplish. I think he pulls that off great in that kind of hero shot at the end there. I think it all comes together very well with what Danny did with just kind of like growing up a little bit.
Susan Harmon, I mean, Susan is amazing. She plays Desiree in the film, and when I saw her tape - it was challenging to get an actress that could be believable, that wasn't over the top, because - Just the right kind of crazy, right?
Yes.Yeah, she was really good in it.
[She had to be] methodical, you know, plotting, and it needed to have all of that. It needed to have all of that, and she needed to be composed, but at the same time, she needed to be able to be fiery and almost psychotic. And her tape, the scene that she does in her tape is the one where she's talking to Ethan, telling him about “We don't have it here, but we got something back our camp,” and when Susan did it on her tape, I was just like, “She's fantastic.”
So, I met up with her at a Starbucks in Hollywood just to talk with her a little bit more, and within a few minutes, I knew. I was like, “She's going to be fantastic.”
When she was working on set, she and Marci, the scenes that they have together, Geoff and I, when we were behind monitor, we were just like, “Dude, this is great stuff.” They were just doing great stuff. We were very, very, very happy with how it came together.
Lucas and Blair were watching the dailies, and when we finally put the rough together, they were just like, “She's fantastic.”
Justin Dray was a last-second edition, who plays Lincoln, and Justin came in and killed it. We lost our actor who was supposed to play Lincoln in the 25th hour. We were supposed to go with somebody, but he booked a show in North Carolina that just took precedence, and we had to find somebody, and Justin was recommended. He just came in and owned Lincoln and just really brought his own style to what I thought Lincoln was and what Geoff thought Lincoln was. Justin brought something else that we were very pleased with. We were very pleased with what Justin could do, because he brought a kind of humanity to what we did not see in that character. We saw it as, “He's just gonna kind of be this backwater guy who's just kind of a crazy cannibal,” but he brought more than that.
And Ivana Rojas was great. She comes in and plays Mary in the flashback scene with Joe.
We were just very fortunate to find people that enjoyed the story, that really enjoyed their characters, and really just bought in, because, once again, on an independent film, nobody has their own trailer, honey wagons. They're not being catered to constantly, but they really showed up and did fantastic work, and it just made everybody else want to work harder.
So, I assume when you start something like this, you don't necessarily know that it's gonna go anywhere. Like, I assume that you shopped it after the fact?...How did that work?
Yeah, exactly. So, for Blair, Lucas, and myself at Action Figure, that's our production company, we're creating feature films. Now, in the process of doing so, there's a lot of different ways that you can tackle that. You can just make the film, and then you can go out and try to sell it. You can have presales, and then you can go out and try to raise money beforehand. You can have names attached, and you can go out and raise money. Trust me, there are just a plethora of ways to do this, but with this film, for example, we knew we wanted to shoot a feature. We knew we wanted to do something that was genre-based, because, once again, we didn't have any major names in it, nobody that's been on huge television shows or huge blockbuster movies. So, genre is a little bit more forgiving, but we also wanted to infuse it with a lot of heart. That was one of the biggest issues that I had with writing it was I didn't want this to quickly slip away into something that just was a zombie massacre film, where it's just zombie, zombie, zombie, and here they come, and here they come, and here they come. I was very, very adamant about keeping the relationship in forefront. That was our primary concern as we were going through the film itself. Some may say that it's too slow because of that; some may say that there's not enough action, but this is the story that we wanted to tell, and this is the way that we told it.
So, we shot the film, and what we did is as soon as we wrapped in January - we had one pickup day in March. As soon as we got that pickup day in March, we were already trying to cut a trailer. So, we were cutting a sales trailer, because Blair and myself were going to the film markets. We were going to TIFF; we were going to AFM, and the first market that we went to was Cannes, overseas.
And mind you, we'd never done anything like this. I've been to film markets before, but only because my films were in them. I've never been on the producer sales side of things. Blair had never done it before. He'd been as a cinephile or just as a fan where he wanted to check out movies and see how the process worked.
So, literally, we've got this oversized iPad loaded up with the trailer, and we're just walking from booth to booth. We are showing the trailer to our movie going, “Hey, we'd love to talk to you about this survival thriller that we have, and we think you'll enjoy it.” That was the lead in, and from that, just going from booth to booth to booth, we got a lot of traction. People really enjoyed the trailer; people were impressed by what we were able to do. We started getting conversations going, and from there, we found a sales agent, and from the sales agent, we found distribution.
I just think of how many people make films, and they never get seen, so you're really lucky that that worked out. I was just kind of curious about that side of it. Usually, the people interview don't deal with that side of it.
Yeah, and I feel for the folks that do it, because my hat is always off to anybody that makes a picture. It is so difficult to make a movie; there are so many things that could go wrong and do go wrong. And you've got to try to pivot, and you've got to try to pick up the pieces, and you've got to put Band-Aids on it. It's just very challenging to get it done. So, to anybody who makes something, try to get it out there, even if you can't recoup your costs, and you've just thrown in the towel, just put it up on YouTube so somebody can see it, if you've lost all hope and you're trying to recoup revenue, because you should show your art. It's something that you should be very proud of, for getting it done.
I agree. What part of it do you think was the most challenging? I mean, you've obviously acted more than you directed, but what do you find the hardest, and also, what do you do enjoy the most, the acting, the directing, the other stuff?
I love all of it, to be honest. I love it. Because, to me, you're building little worlds. You're building this story, and you're giving people an opportunity that for 90 minutes, I don't know, 120 minutes of their life, no matter how chaotic, how crazy things could be, they can just check out, and they can enjoy a story. And maybe it'll teach them something. Maybe it'll make them feel a certain way; maybe it'll help them get over something. I really love that part of the process. So, I love it, from gathering the ingredients, writing the script, pitching it to people, trying to find funding, to pre-production and gearing up and finding the crew and looking at locations and going through casting, to production and then going through the woes of that. I mean, just post-production alone, I really love it all. I don't really have a favorite part. I just love doing this. Storytelling is I think a very human activity, and to do it on this level, I feel very fortunate to be able to do it.
If I had to say what part I like in the process that I did in this film, I really enjoyed acting and co-directing with Geoff.
I wrote this part so that I could play this part due to the fact that I don't get to play characters like this. I don't get to play characters that show a lot of vulnerability. I don't get to play characters that have a lot of layers. Because my “type,” if you will, for whatever reason, I don't get that opportunity that often.
And co-directing was fantastic, because you get to be able to craft the story and show it through a lens that you see in your mind's eye.
Alright, well, you answered my next question, which was going to be did you write it for yourself?
Yeah, it was definitely part of it, but I also wanted to write a film that people would want to be in too. I wanted to write a film that when Susan read the script and saw Desiree's arc, hopefully she would enjoy that, and hopefully Marci would enjoy Joe. And Justin enjoyed Lincoln, and Cece and Danny, they enjoyed their characters. I don't want to make it so self-serving to the point where I'm like, “Oh, hey, I wrote this just for me,” but I wanted to make it a full ensemble piece with an emphasis of a character for myself that I didn't get the opportunity to play yet.
Right, right. I just feel like if you were writing the character for somebody else, it probably would have been different necessarily than writing for yourself, because you're writing to your strengths, too. I'm assuming you didn't purposely do something you couldn’t do.
So, do you have a favorite scene you want to tease, for people that haven't seen it?
Yes. There is a scene in the kitchen where Marci Miller, who plays Joe, and Susan Harmon, who plays Desiree, they have a bit of a standoff. And there was another character by Denver Isaac, who plays Avery Dennison, and the tension in that scene is just riveting. I can remember the day that Blair was standing by video village with Jeff and myself, and we were just looking at each other going, “Wow, she's in it.” Marci's giving her just as much energy, and Susan's giving it [back] just as quick. I love that scene. I have two favorite scenes in the film, but that's the one right now that just really stands out to me.
Do you have any other projects you want to talk about?
I've got another Lifetime film coming out a little bit later this year. It's called A Dangerous Defense by director Ted Campbell. I believe it'll be coming out on either Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel…It will be coming out a little bit later this year.
We are looking at doing something a little bit later in the year for Action Figure. We don't know what that is going to be yet. We do have some fantastic scripts that we're looking to dive into. We're just still trying to navigate the COVID space to the best of our ability. It's a challenging thing for sure, especially at the independent route. You have to be very safe, of course, and you also have to make sure you've got the financial responsibility covered.