Filmmaker Interview: Christina Raia (Summit)

A snowy road lies empty and silent as a parked car sits crooked off to the side. The driver’s door is aimlessly open. A trail of red stains the snow. A woman’s body lies at the end of the blood-stained trail; her skin blue from the cold, her throat slit. Her lifeless eyes stare out at the open, desolate woods.

Summit_PosterSUMMIT is a feature length Horror Psychdrama. It pays homage to slasher films in its seemingly cliché set-up but takes this typical narrative into a more nuanced and character-driven direction. The film works on a face value level as one that will shock and unsettle you, but is also a deeper tale that explores human nature, relationships and how people can unknowingly objectify each other. It aspires to be a notable addition to not only the horror genre, but also independent cinema in general.

SUMMIT will screen its WORLD PREMIERE at the Manhattan Film Festival this Thursday, June 18 at 7pm.  Anticipating the screening we spoke with the film’s Writer/Director/Producer Christina Raia on a variety of topics, from the film’s development to its influences, as well as its future, alongside much more. Take a peek inside the mind of a modern independent filmmaker with this extended interview.

Find more information & tickets to ‘SUMMIT’ at the 2015 Manhattan Film FestivalHERE

What was the very first aspect of what would ultimately become ‘Summit’ that came to you? Was it a particular character, setting, theme…?
The first aspect of the film was the genre. It came about during a conversation with a friend about how generic and regurgitated horror films have become in the last decade. I talked about missing the horror films that were more than just out to shock and unsettle, but had real social commentary. The original Texas Chainsaw, as being a commentary on class and industry, was an example that came up. My friend asked me why I had not directed a horror film yet if I loved the genre so much. From there, the seeds for Summit were planted.

In acting as Producer, Director, and Screenwriter, how did you find the balance of all these responsibilities, especially when on-set? Was there any one that you enjoyed more than others?
Finding the balance was definitely the most difficult aspect for me personally, particularly in production. I often just wanted to be the director, working with the actors and analyzing the scene I was focused on at that particular moment. However, the producer side of me often took over out of necessity. I had to make a lot of creative sacrifices. There was really no time for me to be a screenwriter in our intense shooting schedule. There were times where the director in me wanted to say to the screenwriter that something wasn’t quite working, but I had no time of my own to sacrifice and no one to really collaborate with. It was a huge learning experience. Having worn all three hats on all my shorts prior to Summit, I made efforts to prepare for this struggle. We spent a year in post-production, where I worked with the actors and discussed the characters and stories extensively, making revisions to the script and directorial choices so that there would be no lengthy pauses to make artistic decisions on set. It worked out well, for the most part; but while combating weather conditions beyond our control that necessitated changes to the film, it became difficult to retain my creativity when I had the producer in me snapping my fingers about the schedule and the daylight and the welfare of everyone on set. I don’t regret wearing all three for Summit, but I would not do it again, at least not as the sole producer.

Summit_2What was the most difficult aspect of ‘Summit’ to get done? Was there any particular aspect of its development/production you had anticipated being difficult but ended up not being so?
I think I answered this a bit in my last response, but the most difficult aspect was definitely the weather and time constraints. We shot the entire 80-minute film in 14 days in often below zero-degree weather. Trying to be productive and creative, while also making sure no one felt exploited or overworked was a real challenge. I would really say that everything about Summit was as difficult or more so than I anticipated. However, one unexpected thing was that the freezing cold sort of worked in our favor. The film was completely reliant on there being snow on the ground, and the winter in 2013 wasn’t as heavy in snow as I was hoping. But we got snow the day before we drove up to Massachusetts to begin production, and the freezing weather kept it on the ground and relatively consistent for the duration of our exteriors. In fact, the temperature rose and rain washed all the snow away literally the day after we wrapped our exteriors.

The film is described as a “horror psychdrama.” Can you expand on this description? Are there any particular influences you utilized within ‘Summit’ that you are willing to share?
That subgenre of sorts that we created came out of the film, like many indies, being a blend of genres. As stated, I really wanted to bring a certain intellect and nuance back to the horror genre. I also wanted to embed well developed and sympathetic characters into a formula where people are often just awaiting their deaths. This lead to more of a drama in the context of a horror film. There’s a visceral quality, but it’s more emotional than just from the gore one typically gets from a horror film. So, that’s where the “psych” comes in. I was very much pulling from Carpenter’s The Thing. While full of practical gory effects, it’s also full of tension fueled by human nature and relationships. It’s very psychological. Rosemary’s Baby was also influential in finding an aesthetic for the film and trying to classify it within the horror genre. That said, while both those films are supernatural, Summit is not. I wanted to make a film very grounded in reality while still playing to common genre tropes.

What were some of your favorite horror films? What makes for an effective horror film these days? What do you prefer: gore or chills?
I keep answering upcoming questions in previous answers. But some of my favorites are, as mentioned, The Thing, also, the original Halloween, The Descent, Alien, Let The Right One In; more recently, The Babadook. I’m definitely more into chills. I think effective horror leaves enough up to your imagination that you take it home with you and find yourself anxious in bed wondering about what you didn’t see.

Summit_3As ½ your budget was built via Kickstarter, what was your crowdfunding/social media strategy? What sort of advice would you give to others embarking on a crowdfunding campaign?
Part of why the film was in pre-production for a year was because I wanted to build a social media following and hype around the film before raising funds. I cast the film and shot a faux trailer for it in order to generate interest in our Kickstarter campaign. My advice would be to do something similar. People often don’t realize how much prep goes into a successful campaign. You want to have content to share so that you’re not just pushing the same link in people’s faces for a month. Updates, like cast videos and photos from location scouts, really anything visual and related to the film, will help keep a campaign exciting instead of redundant and annoying. My biggest take away from crowdfunding is how much it’s about creating a team behind the film, both in terms of the people attached to it (cast & crew) and the supporters contributing to the campaign. The more you make people feel like it’s their film and not just yours, the more success you’ll have.

Can you give us an idea of how the cast came together for the film? How did you approach working with the cast, especially directing your own words for the screen?
Casting was a fun process. I wrote one role with an actress in mind, Emma Barrett, who I had worked with on a short. The others were found through auditions. It was really important to me that the five actors have chemistry and feel like real friends because that’s the crux of the film, their friendships. I had multiple callbacks as each new actor was added, to make sure the chemistry was there and that they felt as much like their characters as possible. Aside from discussing the character’s backstories and motivations in the film, we had multiple table reads where I paid attention to how my words were sounding coming from them. It often turned into a collaborative process where we would try different things in order to find the most natural way for a line to be said by the actor while staying true to the character. This is most evident in Emma Barrett, who plays Sarah; both she and her character are Australian, and we kind of found her voice together. As a director, I really love to see where an actor’s instincts take them and then work from there. Collaboration is just really important to me so, while there wasn’t too much of that in creating the story, there was a lot of it in sculpting the characters.

How did the cinematography of the film evolve from your initial ideas to the end result? What was that initial conversation with your DP like?
Because the film intentionally starts out as any current Hollywood slasher film does and then takes the audience in a different direction, that shift was very much a part of the look of the film from the earliest stage. Once I attached our DP, John L Murphy, and I explained to him how I envisioned the progression of the look of the film, it became an immediate process of bouncing ideas off of each other. It was very collaborative. For instance, I immediately mentioned wanting to play with color in the film in terms of art direction, and evolve the use of color within the frame from beginning to end. Through conversations with John, this turned into a plan to also evolve the color tone of the film from beginning to end and give it a noticeable transition. So, lighting for the specific color grading we intended to do for each scene became an integral part of production. A lot of what he brought to the table was really innovative and exciting, and it was wonderful working with someone who was on a whole technical level beyond my own, but on the same page with me creatively and was able to balance both sides to execute the vision I came in with.

Summit_4Now that the film will premiere at the Manhattan Film Festival, where do you and ‘Summit’ go from here?
I’m still waiting to hear back from additional festivals. I’m expecting some screenings at genre festivals in the Fall. However, I’ve already started preparing for distribution. Self distributing the film was always the plan, so it’ll be on Vimeo On Demand, maybe VHX as well, by the end of the year. However, I’ve also been in talks with Seed&Spark regarding their new distribution partnerships, like Verizon Fios and itunes. So we’ll see. Manhattan Film Festival is definitely just the beginning for Summit. That said though, I do not believe it will have another theatrical screening in New York, so locals should really join us on Thursday to watch it on the big screen!

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