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Grimmfest: An Interview With Aaron Bartuska, Director of for Roger

Image courtesy of Aaron Bartuska

For Roger is a most unusual variation on the found footage technique, and its European premiere will be screened at Grimmfest’s virtual edition next month. Its director Aaron Bartuska (who was also one of three writers) met with me recently to talk about the film.

Since reading that Aaron is only twenty-three years old, I couldn’t help but open by asking how did he manage to make this film at such a young age. “I went to film school,” Aaron answered, “at Drexel University—great school. And I’ve just been itching to make something. But the real answer is I was able to make a full, concise film (regardless of whether you like it), and this wouldn’t have been possible without the support of all my peers. I went up to about fifty people and said, ‘I want to make a film,’ and thirty of them responded with ‘Let’s go!’ So really without them, it would not have happened. They got into it: ‘Let’s stay at this creepy cabin, and let’s make your film where it starts off like a slasher but where the protagonist and the supposed killer end up like friends…’ I was like cool! They’re going to trust me.”

Remembering my interview with Charlie Steeds, I asked Aaron if his age had ever proven to be an obstacle. “I think it was an obstacle in terms of getting people to trust…not even the idea of the film but just that we were going to make it. A lot of my professors warned me, ‘You know, not many feature films get to play at festivals,’ and now I’m realising that. But I felt that the story me, Derek [Pinchot] and Gwyn [Cutler] came up with lends itself to a feature-length, even though the people who like it call it ‘methodically paced,’ and the people who don’t like it call it ‘slow paced.’ I think that it came out like we wanted, and the people who really chose to believe in the project were happy with the outcome; that’s my parents. And also one of my mentors, Tom Quinn, really just decided to trust the process. He said, ‘You told me before you’d make a feature, and then you brought me a feature, so I have no doubt you’re going to do it again, though it’s on a bigger scale.’ Really, the faith of other people helped it to happen. It was a real collaborative effort, but also, it was nerve-wracking for those two years that we were in post [production]. Everyone said, ‘You made this film, didn’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes I did, but it’s not easy getting it out there.’”

So the film was shot before the pandemic and then put together during a lockdown. “Yes, that’s right,” said Aaron. “For context, we shot all the found footage stuff in June–July 2019 and all the overarching stuff in October 2019, with reshoots in February 2020, so right before the pandemic.

As Aaron had mentioned the two sections were shot separately, I asked what the process was like of adding the footage into the main film. “It was kind of weird, but it worked,” said Aaron, “because we were sitting with this Mini DVD for four months before we could make the rest of the film. But I knew I wanted it to be that way: I wanted the tapes to have a summer feel and the rest to have a fall, Octobery feel. And it also worked so that our lead, Michael Andrusiewicz, could distance himself from those ‘memories.’ And those were mainly improvised, so we were able to get together, shoot those with a smaller, skeleton crew, and then we all banded together in October to make the rest.”

I asked Aaron what Michael was like to direct, being the only person in front of the camera for most of the time. “Me and Michael went to high school together—and Jenna [Gibilisco, who played Clara] too, actually—so we’ve been friends a long time. Me and the guy who plays the watcher went to college together. So this was like home-grown with a lot of friends doing a film together, even everyone in the crew.”

Back to Aaron’s techniques, I asked him his response to those who say found footage has had its day. “I personally love found footage—I think it’s awesome,” said Aaron. “I think it’s a subgenre with the most potential out of any horror avenues. I really do: first of all, anyone can do it. Anyone can pick up a camera, and it’s either going to be awful or great (there’s not much in between). Also, the whole thing I love about horror is how in your face it can be, and found footage kind of cuts out the middle man and goes straight there. I always refer to Lake Mungo as one of my biggest influences because you’re watching this film and you think, ‘Oh this is so uncanny,’ and then certain things happen, and there is just no boundary. Halloween is one of my favourite horror films, but at least there’s a boundary there. It’s something that was filmed by a crew—it’s OK, I’m safe. But with certain found footage movies, they remove that feeling. I’ve always loved the subgenre for that, always loved how much it invades your personal space. So with this film, it was kind of like can we make that a narrative too? Can we show a guy having that feeling that I get when watching found footage? I think we did; I hope we did that well.”

Aaron Bartuska on the set of For Roger
Image courtesy of Aaron Bartuska

We took a tangent from the interview, and I gave Aaron one of my favourites in return for his Lake Mungo: I recommended Be My Cat: A Film for Anne. “Any found footage films that I can get my hands on, sure,” said Aaron. “Automatically, you’ve got points if you’re a fan.”

Back to For Roger, I commented that the dynamic between Roger and Clara could have been set anywhere, and I asked Aaron why he chose the archetypal cabin in the woods. “The short answer is I just wanted to make a horror movie, one that followed all the rules but broke them. I wanted to set it up like you’d expect, with this guy at a cabin: I’m a fan of Evil Dead, how Ash is left alone in the cabin to his own devices at the end there. I wanted to start the movie like that, with a guy alone. But specifically, to answer your question, I just wanted to make a film in a horror setting, and the moment I saw that cabin, I thought I’ve got to make a horror film there. So it was kind of like reverse-engineering the film based on having seen that cabin. My girlfriend at that time, her Dad had this hunting lodge, and I went there on a trip and said, ‘Can I please make a horror movie here?’ and she was like, ‘Go for it!’ Her Dad actually makes a cameo early in the film, the only other actor in the film. All the deer on the wall, everything was perfect for a horror setting; we did very little set dec, that was just how the place looked. The moment I walked in there, I was: yeah, let’s find a way to make a horror movie here.”

So the location chose you, rather than the other way around, I suggested. “Yeah,” said Aaron, “but I think that’s a very common thing in low-budget movies. You just see a place and decide to use it. I mean they didn’t build the Blair Witch house, you know; they just went down there and thought, ‘What if someone stood in the corner?’”

Referring to the story of Roger and Clara’s relationship, the central feature of the film, I asked Aaron where that story came from—surely not from experience? “I hope it wasn’t from experience,” he laughed. “I guess I was interested at the time in gaslighting in some respects and the possibility of not knowing you’re the villain in your own story. Also, the idea of someone starting out as a protagonist but kind of ending up a bit of a villain by the end of a horror movie was very interesting to me. I was going through college when I wrote this, and I had a good amount of friends who were in not-great relationships and also some who were struggling with mental health (not to say that this film tackles any mental health issues). Just seeing that and talking to them with my filmmaker brain I couldn’t help thinking I could turn all this into a horror movie somehow, and I just wanted to explore the avenue of starting out fairly conventionally and then making the horror about something else, that something else being a toxic relationship.”

And at the same time, that relationship was being observed by someone else, which was a fascinating slant.

“Indeed. One of the scariest things to me is being in a scenario and hearing about myself in that scenario later. ‘You were mean’ or ‘you were ridiculous.’ I wondered if we could make a whole movie about that, a guy thinking he was being charming in his home videos, a super cool guy, and then he watches it all back. Can we make that scary?”

Considering those gaslighting themes that Aaron had referred to, which tend to be viewed as a gender issue, I asked whether there were any women in Aaron’s writing team. “Gwyn Cutler is female,” Aaron explained. “I knew I wanted to write this thoughtful female character, [and] I didn’t want to do that without making sure I was covering every aspect of that. A lot of Jenna’s reactions in the film, especially the non-speaking moments—where she quietens down because she knows nothing she could say would achieve anything—a lot of those came from Gwyn, who consulted with me on all that. Any scene that I wrote with Jenna in it, Gwyn made them better. Jenna is very talented and really stepped up to the plate because I asked her, ‘Do you want to be in this film? But you’re not going to be in the main film, just in this Mini DVD bit, and it will be your face the whole time.’ And she went, ‘Yeah, sure!’”

Aaron Bartuska on the set of For Roger with his lead actor Michael Andrusiewicz
Image courtesy of Aaron Bartuska

Those nuances prompted us to talk a little about some of the ambiguities in the film. “We went into this film having a very distinct idea of what we wanted Clara’s cause of death to be. But as we were making it, and even in post [production], we went further from that idea. We wanted to abandon the idea of having a specific cause of death because that’s not really what the film was about. I wanted it to be about the survivor’s guilt and the lead character asking himself how he played into her death. I’ve had people close to me pass away, unfortunately, and you’re left to wonder what role you had to play in their life while they were here and—oh God—don’t let me have played a role in their death. The wondering and not knowing is a big part of it, and so we kept that background open. Besides, we might have drifted into topics of mental health issues then, and that wasn’t what this was all about.”

The rapport was nice enough that we discussed a theory or two of mine at this point, but I’m not going to share those to avoid spoilers.

For Roger isn’t Aaron’s first film. I asked him where I can see his previous one, Epilogue. “That’s up for free right now on Vimeo and YouTube,” he said. “That’s the first thing we made during my freshman year at Drexel.”

So it’s a college piece that Aaron is proud of rather than embarrassed about? “Well, I’m kind of embarrassed about everything I’ve made, but that’s partly because I make the films I want to make in that moment. This is the project I’ve spent the most time with; usually, I just come up with an idea, call some friends, and then put it out there. That’s what Epilogue was: we shot it every night for two weeks for maybe two thousand bucks. I was very into Richard Linklater, and I still am. I just wanted to make a film about people talking and that weird feeling of reconnecting to high school friends. It is on the slow side, with just two people talking, and our star Michael is in that film again. But sure, if you want to check it out, and you know what you’re getting into, there might be maybe two scenes with something to chew on.”

As always, I moved to close the conversation by asking what Aaron has coming up next. “I’m currently trying to write another feature, not in the horror genre this time, more in the indie-drama genre. But the next thing is I really want to make a Christmas horror short; it’s my favourite subgenre. Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 is one I watch all the time—the worst movie ever, I love it so much. I think there’s such a lot of opportunity in that genre. You take the most joyous season and just make it dreadful, and I think that’s just a fun dichotomy. Hopefully, if all goes to plan, I’m going to shoot a Christmas horror short this November or December and then hopefully try to get it out by the same time next year.”

In swapping-films-mode again, I asked if Aaron had seen Deathcember, and we took another little tangent into anthology films. I can’t help it; I do love finding people with common tastes. “I love anthology films,” Aaron said, “and I’d love to be part of one. Even V/H/S and thinking about how they made that—it’s a bunch of my personal idols, like Joe Swanberg, Ti West, just making these films and then putting them together.” We could have carried on chatting about films for ages.

Aaron’s film For Roger will be available to watch at Grimmfest (one of two films that are only available to virtual festival ticketholders) on 14 October.

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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