On the surface, Threshold is a low budget horror feature with a surprisingly emotional core, but the story of the film’s production is just as engaging as the one being told on screen. Capturing siblings Leo (Joey Millin) and Virginia’s (Madison West) road trip to break a horrifying spell was achieved with only two iPhones, three crew members, and the two leads over the course of twelve days. Co-Directors Patrick Young and Powell Robinson, and Producer Lauren Bates, explain in depth the challenges of such a production, and how they managed to pull it off.
What came first: was it the script and the story? Or was it the concept of shooting on iPhones?
Patrick Young: I had the germ for this idea, like thirteen, twelve years ago in high school. Lauren and I were getting anxious about not having a movie to make, and wanted to take something on the road that we could run and gun. I introduced this idea, we decided on the idea, and then we decided that the iPhones fitted perfectly.
Powell Robinson: At first we were deciding that we could do this on a couple of 5D’s, some DSLR, or something really easy and small that we can bring on the road. Then we quickly realised that with all the improv, we’d all be operating the cameras, so we needed something even simpler. Then we were realising that even beyond that we were in public the entire time and we needed to be invisible. Phones just eventually ended up being the most obvious choice.
So was that concept of a road trip embedded into the original idea?
PY: Yeah, originally, it was actually a bit more sci-fi: it involved a black market drug gone bad that connects to people, someone accidentally takes took the wrong dose, and their partner had to go on the road to help them find the person they’re connected to. When we all started talking about the idea, we wanted to sit a little bit more in the horror genre. That’s where we worked, it’s where we’re comfortable.
The real beating heart of the movie is this relationship between the siblings. Was that based off anybody’s personal experience at all?
Lauren Bates: So we sat down all together before we went out and created a history for these two characters, and a timeline going back as early as their childhood. I think we all threw a little bit of ourselves in there. Powell used to be in a band, so that’s Joey’s history and how he was in a band and then changed his career path. I think the brother sister relationship came from Patrick’s life. I have a daughter, so that was Joey having a kid, but also having other commitments. I think there’s definitely a piece of everybody, including the actors, in the story.
When you decided to use iPhones for the shoot, did that impact the story in any way?
PR: No, I think it just enhanced the way that we were telling the story. I think there’s a version of this movie that could have been super highly produced, big budget, real cameras, the whole thing. And this was sort of the answer to all of us needing to get away from that world, because we’ve all worked in Hollywood now for a long time. We wanted something that felt really honest and real, and had no pretence or any of the issues that sometimes comes with doing bigger projects. The project was allowed to feel almost documentary at times, it was allowed to feel really rough, and just whatever the story of the character is called for, rather than us trying to impose a look or a produced feeling on it.
There’s some really creative shots in the film, and the one that I always think about is when the phone is taped to the inside of an open car door: with Joey walking to the car, entering, and the door shutting to reveal the characters inside. Those types of shots are rare throughout the film, is that because you were conscious of the fact that it could almost become a gimmick if you constantly had these shots clearly filmed on an iPhone, or was it more trying to prove a point that you can create a traditional feature with a phone?
PY: A little bit of both. When we were planning this movie, we had a lot more of those shots in our head, we’re gonna take the phone here, we can get up on top and everything.
PR: We were gonna initially put the phone in the middle of the steering wheel. So while Joey’s driving, the phone would spin.
PY: We figured out pretty quickly that: one, we just didn’t have the time for that, and two, it broke the reality of the movie. Our actors were doing so good at keeping this feeling natural and real, and we didn’t want to at any point pop out of that, which is why you really only see those kinds of shots in the travelling montage. There we’re allowed to be a little bit more flexible.
I have to ask, how did you squeeze a feature production in twelve days? That’s insane!
LB: It was insane! Basically every day we were driving to a new location, getting that location, rehearsing, shooting, maybe sleeping for a little bit, getting up and driving again. Everybody was doing every job, and we were filming pretty much the entire time that it made sense. So it was just basically being on the clock, every day, every minute for twelve days. Powell and Patrick we’re doing pickups like a year after, so there are pieces of this that stretched outside of that twelve days, but it was just basically nonstop work.
You must have had to do so much planning, or did you just go with the flow?
LB: This was our low budget passion project, so it had to fit in the timeframe we all had available and that includes prep. It was a lot of winging it.
PY: We went out onto the road but generally knew what path we were going. We booked hotels sometimes a day in advance, and we didn’t have our third act until two days before we shot it. In many ways the mode of production matched the mode of improv, where we had goalposts and plot points of where the story was going to go. How we got there was sort of up to us, and the travel was very much the same thing.
How did your actors get along with this style of production? What was it like for them?
LB: It was very hard for them but they handled it incredibly well. We were all sleeping in close quarters, Joey slept on an air mattress half of the time, so it was difficult but they did really well. I think sometimes it led them to some of the tense moments in the film there, where they’re actually tense.
PR: Talking about the downsides, Maddie and Joey felt like when we were doing intense stuff, they didn’t have enough of a break. I will say on the positives that there was a lot of time where we’d be rehearsing most of the day while we were driving, and figuring out what we were going to do. And then we hit nearish to sunset, nearest to golden hour, which meant we’d get about 45 minutes to shoot like the whole scene after we’ve been rehearsing all day. So both actors constantly remarked on how it felt like, once we were in it, they were acting completely on instinct. It was less about thinking about the craft, thinking about the process, and just being like: “We know where we have to get to, we know these people, let’s just be these people for 45 minutes and make it happen.” It felt very organic, and very in the moment, but it did lead to having not a lot of downtime.
PY: Yeah, we’ve talked to the actors a lot about what could have been done better. It was mostly the process that was hard on them, never having a break in between, especially on a movie that’s as emotional as this one, it could wear down on you quite a bit. You’re constantly travelling and when we were travelling, there was always the possibility of us filming because it’s a road trip movie and if we saw something cool, we shot it. Once we got to our destination, most of the time we’re all either sleeping in the same room, or didn’t have our own bed, or filming in that room. The actual acting and filming process they both really enjoyed. They’re both amazing and both have improv experience, they enjoyed shooting in front of iPhones because there’s not a $5 million camera in front of their face. There’s no intimidation factor there, they’re just there.
You’ve each mentioned how difficult the production was, but what was the most challenging scene or moment?
LB: I think the bar was difficult because it was a place where people were not really happy that we were there. They weren’t happy that we were taking over their karaoke time, so that was really hard. And I also remember moments of the film before we get to the Airbnb, us being in a Starbucks and I was thinking, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
PR: Yeah, there was no particular scene that was the hardest, it was just the production: how it all fell together, and how we needed to do it. Often once we got to these hotels, Patrick and I were offloading footage and looking at it all: making sure that we didn’t need to adjust how we’d been filming it all, because when you’re shooting on the phones with no prep time, we were learning as we went. We definitely were figuring out what worked for them. By the time we were off set, Patrick and I were still doing prep work for the next day. I think that was probably the hardest part… that and the mountain was fucking freezing.
LB: The iPhones quit on us because it was so cold. We had to get them in the car and heat them up in between takes, and I think I remember getting back in the car and being like, “I can’t feel my legs” for the next two hours.
PY: Later, near the border, the phones are overheating.
PR: Those car vents came in really handy for us because we were either blasting the AC and holding the phones up to the vents, or blasting the heat and holding the phones to the vents. We spent a lot of time temperature adjusting our phones.
With bigger films you have hundreds of crew members, but here it boils down to you three. So what roles did you actually all take on, aside from co-directing and producing?
PY: Whoever had open hands, they held what needed to be held. There are shots in the movie that Lauren shot, a good amount of the audio is me with a boom mic under my armpit, then a camera in my left hand. Whoever could do something, did something.
LB: Patrick was like an official soundy, and because Powell has an actual cinematography background a lot of that was kind of on him, but everybody was kind of doing everything all the time.
PR: Lauren became the unofficial C-Camera Operator, but also Boom Operator, whenever the scenes were just too complicated. So she was always filling in all the spots that Patrick and I didn’t have enough arms for, besides also producing the film while we were going.
PR: We straight up didn’t have to production design anything, we’d just walk into wherever we were like, “Well this looks like a shitty motel, because it is, and it looks fine!” The Airbnb was maybe one of the funnier ones where we also didn’t have to PD it, because there was a bunch of weird stuff in there like the weird mannequin hand at the back that was already there. I don’t remember if we brought in all those candles, or if a lot of those were in the house as well.
LB: I made those candles because we had no money (laughs).
PR: (Laughs) See, that’s the thing, there are definitely black holes in all of our memories for certain days of the shoot.
PY: That’s right, I remember before in pre-production you literally making candles.
Make sure to put that in the credits.
PR: Candle master.
What was the biggest lesson that you’ve taken away from this project?
PR: Always have a sound guy (laughs). No, I think that learning to loosen up when directing, in terms of not needing to be on book for everything and not needing to adhere to what you thought you needed to do going into it, was really important. Also what doing improv takes, even in a scripted movie, and just letting the actors go wild when they want, I think that’s something I’ll always take with me after this.
PY: Yeah, this affected my directing style immensely. Coming from a screenwriting background, I’m very used to basing all of my direction and prep off of a script, which we did not have here and had to learn very quickly. I’m still learning how to just go off of what the actors gave us.
LB: I think for me, I think we all agree, we wouldn’t maybe do it quite this way again, just because of how sleep deprived and hard it was. I think it was a good thing for us to be able to just go out and make a movie, even if we’re not fully funded or it doesn’t look like a big thing. You can still get a really amazing story out of it. I think that was a huge lesson as a producer: you can still make something really great if you have the right people on deck.
PY: It made me so happy and confident in my friend choices. Look at these people, who I gave $5500 and twenty pages, and they gave us a whole movie that’s going out on Blu Ray with tonnes of extras and played at film festivals. They’re so talented!
Would you ever do a project like this again?
PR: Actually we have a ‘Making Of’ that’s coming out on the Arrow Blu-Ray, and the last five minutes of it is all dedicated to would we do this again. I think the unanimous answer was we would do something like it again, but it would need one more person on the road and travel days where there wasn’t any shooting happening.
PY: We had no space, no money, no script, no crew. If we just had at least one more of those things: a little bit more money so that we all had our own hotel rooms and downtime, or one or two members of crew, or an actual script, or a stricter schedule. Just something more to grab onto. I don’t think we literally could do it this way again, because we know what we did wrong and what we could do better. Thankfully, it’s still good. I think.
PR: (Laughs) Glowing endorsement that’ll go on the cover of the fucking DVD: ‘It’s still good I think, Patrick Young’.
Threshold will release on Arrow in the UK on May 3