The new horror film Those Who Walk Away struck me as intriguing as soon as I heard about it. Apparently, it was about a couple going to a haunted house on a first date, while at the same time touching on social issues of suffering. Intriguing it certainly was, as well as chilling and gripping in parts, so it was good to get some insight from the director and co-writer Robert Rippberger.
I gathered Robert had made some pretty serious titles until now, largely documentaries, so I opened by checking with him that this is indeed his first horror film. “I made a horror short and I’ve always been a big fan of horror,” said Robert. “I actually started in entertainment really being obsessed with horror films and thinking that’s going to be my whole career, pure horror. And then, with everything going on in the world, I started to look at the power of storytelling and the role of media, which sort of led me to different topics; whether that’s the war in Syria or reconciliation—a documentary we did about Nelson Mandela—or incurable diseases, or even just an interview series I did for the New York Times that was about the problems we face and how might overcome them. And so, after I had done that tour, I felt I really understood the power of filmmaking, and that horror was a great place to go back into; to tell a story that also had something a little bit more to it.”
My homework suggested that Robert’s tour of “what’s going on in the world” became Social Impact Entertainment. “That’s right. My production company is SIE Films. In addition, I have a group called SIE Society, and I’m part of SIE Producers Guild’s social impact entertainment task force; in all those ways, we engage with other folks out there who are championing the same type of filmmaking. It’s all about entertainment, but also realizing the power of storytelling to transform.”
A social message is certainly implicit in Those Who Walk Away: in a macro sense, it contrasts “high living” with living in suffering. “There is a bit of that, yes,” said Robert, “and there’s also the theme of [the creature] Rotcreep touching others and having them rot from the outside in. We looked on that as an allegory to experiencing sexual assault and what it is to live with that. It’s a theme that we bury, and it’s not ever explicitly stated, but certainly hinted at, in terms of the characters’ trauma; but you’re right, it very much has a theme to it. For me, it was also about taking trauma and horror from the real world and putting them into a horror film: that sort of visceral and real aspect of it for me made it more chilling.” Horror is certainly an ideal genre for metaphor, I must agree.
I hadn’t read any Ursula Le Guin until watching this film which had been inspired by her 1973 short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. I read that the night before my interview, and it hit me in the chest like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. I asked Robert whether he has other favorite short stories that he plans to adapt. “Firstly, I have to clarify: the film was loosely inspired by that story; the estate wasn’t involved in any way. I took the idea from the story and it stayed with me: we live in a very opulent society while others live in squalor. Every person who lives in Los Angeles carries this on a daily basis: there are sixty-five thousand homeless in the city. It was kind of taking that idea and mixing it with other themes and putting it into what the film is now. There are other adaptations I want to make: I was actually looking at optioning and buying American Prometheus about Robert Oppenheimer, but that got snatched up by Christopher Nolan, so even though I have a script, I’ll probably need to find another project.”
Moving my focus on to Those Who Walk Away, I mentioned the easy-going style of the film’s first half; almost Linklater-style. I asked Robert if he was an acknowledged influence, or if there were other influences he could identify. “I love Linklater,” Robert agreed, “and I’ve seen every single one of his movies: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset; it really is a different way of engaging with a film and there’s a couple of others that definitely influenced me. Those who pulled off one-takes. There’s a German film called Victoria that does it very well; definitely, Hitchcock’s Rope; and the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami made a film called Taste of Cherry. He has a lot of long looks, rather than one-takes, so you follow someone around like a taxi-driver in one of his films; you’re just there with them, observing life. The way he put it is that you’re watching, you may check out for a little while, check back in, but when you check back in, you bring all of your thoughts back with you onto the screen; for him, these films that are a little bit free-flowing stick with him for much longer than a rollercoaster action movie. In a horror movie, it’s kind of like seeing an up-close magic trick: instead of a quick cut when someone jumps out at you, you’re there, the tension’s building real-time. For me, I love the technique of doing a one-shot, because it made it feel more real, more visceral.”
When watching that first half of They Who Walk Away, I was reminded of Rendez-Vous, in which the viewer got to walk alongside the characters as they got to know each other. That one had also featured a couple meeting for a first date…I asked Robert whether any aspect of his script was taken from a first date experience of his own. “There are little things here and there, sure. But also I’ve got friends who’ve been on first dates with hilarious or strange stories to tell. But in writing anything, you take little moments from real life, and sure, they’re bound to end up being retold. I think it was largely about the trauma bonding, the shared intense gravity between these two which had to either pull them together or end in an explosion; that was the main thing I wanted to capture.”
That central cast were terrific, with a believable chemistry between them. I asked Robert whether it had been difficult to find the right pair. “It was and it wasn’t,” said Robert. “I definitely knew at the beginning who I could rely on, and who would be really great for it; we did a thorough casting process and lots of initial call-backs and chemistry tests. Of course, it was all over Zoom because this was during the pandemic. But you know, in that time, you get a feel for how committed people are and how committed they are to the film; and in a project like this, we just needed beyond full commitment: they had to memorize all their lines and all the individual cues, where to stand to avoid a camera or a shadow; so many considerations but it ultimately felt pretty natural. Huge testament to Booboo [Stewart, who played Max], to Scarlett [Sperduto, who played Avery], to Grant [Morningstar, who played Phillip], to Bryson [JonSteele, who played Rudy]; they gave just phenomenal performances, I felt: everybody was there and present, hit their marks. And the stakes were extremely high: we only had two and a half goes at it each day because we also shot during ‘golden hour’ so if we didn’t get our take, then the sun was down and that was that. I can’t say enough good things about the cast that we put together for this.”
As Robert had mentioned young Bryson’s name, I asked him what it had been like to make a horror film with an eleven-year-old. “He’s fantastic! It was so funny because when we first met, he gave me this gift and I had this horror hat as a gift for him: we both really love horror films, and he’s such a hard worker. At one point, people were warning me: ‘you know you can’t cut,’ ‘you have to finish at 11 pm,’ lots of considerations led to ‘are you sure?’ The producer asked ‘are you sure you don’t want to work with someone just a little bit older so we can work with them some more?’ But after working with Bryson a couple of times, I said to everyone ‘he’s the least of all our concerns: he’s phenomenal; just watch him work in his process.’ His Mom, Stacy is phenomenal as well. His talent really freed us up to go forward with much more confidence.” He certainly held his own from what I saw as a viewer.
As for the horror of the story, once it kicks off, it is chilling, it is trippy, and really quite mesmerizing. I asked Robert whether he had drawn on a real urban legend or whether it was all made up. “It is actually all made up,” he said. “The biggest reference for unearthing the background in the story is the Harvey Weinstein trials: essentially you have all these people coming forward, who in the past had let this cycle continue and repeat. So what is the responsibility to speak up, having experienced something like that, with the mental space it puts you in? My goal was not to say ‘say something or don’t,’ that’s a much more complicated issue. Instead, I wanted to put the audience in the head of someone who had experienced that kind of trauma; and room by room, capture the mental state of trying to work that through in one’s head.”
Moving towards the end of our conversation, I had one somewhat silly question that was preying on me: why aren’t there more films with long-haired lead actors? “That’s a good question,” laughed Robert. “Booboo has a great look. It was funny: at that time, I had my hair quite long too. I agree with you, we should definitely have more male leads with long hair.” It’s an aspect of diversity that we don’t talk about, perhaps.
Of course, I also asked what Robert is working on next. “We’re working on a couple of exciting projects, actually,” Robert said. “Booboo and I are writing a new project together that we hope to announce soon. And I’m producing a film about Leonardo Da Vinci that is written and directed by the writer of Ratatouille, starring Marion Cotillard, Daisy Ridley, Stephen Fry and we’re all very excited about that. Then there’s another project that I’ve been brought on to direct which we’ll probably be announcing in the next couple of months.” Exciting times ahead!
Those Who Walk Away will be screening in U.S. theaters and available on VOD starting Friday, February 11th, 2022.