It’s difficult to talk about Canadian horror film Alive without giving away the film’s big twist. The character-driven film almost requires you to go in completely blind to appreciate its subtle complexity.
After seeing Alive at this year’s Nightmares Film Festival in Columbus, Ohio, I knew that I had to write about the film and so I set out to chat with writers Chuck McCue and Jules Vincent and director Rob Grant who came together to make bring this particular creation to life.
“We had been discussing horror movie ideas,” McCue explained, “but we were being really budget conscious. We wanted a story that could be confined to just one or two sets.”
“It almost seems too good or too stupid to be true,” Vincent chimed in, “but during our brainstorming session, this NFL commercial came on in the background and they were using this old [horror] trope for the ad. We weren’t even really watching it but we both kind of looked up and the idea clicked.”
And that was how Alive was born.
In the film, a man (Thomas Cocquerel, Table 19) and woman (Camille Stopps, Killjoys), both seriously injured, awake in an abandoned hospital and find themselves at the mercy of a seriously sadistic caretaker (Angus Macfadyen, Braveheart) who seems obsessively focused on keeping them alive, though he refuses to tell them who they really are or how they came to be there.
The anxiety over their identity was central to McCue and Vincent’s script, but as the latter pointed out in our chat “sometimes the answer to who you are can be the real slap in the face.”
With script in hand, the writers set out to find a director, and after approaching 775 Media, they were introduced to Rob Grant, a young Canadian director who has been making waves with interesting projects like last year’s Fake Blood.
“I read the script and really responded to it,” Grant said. “We got on the phone and talked about our goals and visions of the story and I think Chuck and Jules decided I was the right fit for them.”
The project presented the director with a new set of challenges.
He’d never directed a film for which he hadn’t written the script before, and the process of really getting to know someone else’s writing well enough to take charge took longer than he expected. Still, the story appealed to him on multiple levels and he knew that he wanted to take this journey.
“I have always been a fan of isolated characters and dark mysteries,” he says, “and I felt like I could bring something to the reveal of that story. I was also interested in that sustained suspenseful tone and I took that as an exciting challenge.”
With a director attached, it was soon time for casting and McCue and Vincent were both over the moon that an actor like Angus Macfadyen was interested in the project.
“Angus is so charming,” McCue said. “We needed that. In his character’s mind, he’s doing a great thing, and Angus brings this sort of Scottish charm to everything he does. It’s really hard to dislike him.”
“He’s a top of the list kind of guy for casting,” Vincent added. “His manager told us when he read the script he was like ‘Oh shit, Angus is going to want to do this!’ It was the best kind of back-handed compliment!”
As far as the other two leads were concerned, the writers both felt like lottery winners.
They had both recently seen Table 19, in which Cocquerel had played a rather charming nice guy, but he had the kind of presence that they knew would lend itself to the role of the male patient.
As for Stopps, she had already worked with director Rob Grant, and he was the one who suggested the casting directors check out her work and reach out to her.
What impressed everyone was the actors’ dedication to the project and their work ethic for bringing the film to life.
“They showed up with very little time before shooting,” Vincent explained. “There was no formal time for rehearsal, so they got together on their own and worked things out building those character relationships.”
“It was pretty incredible to see them spend their weekends off rehearsing the week’s scenes to make sure they were ready,” McCue said. “That time they spent together helped them work out the speed bumps ahead.”
The production lucked out again when it came to their shooting location when the producers at 775 Media suggested an old abandoned hospital for their setting. It was an impressive structure that had been used previously in television shows like “Fargo” and “Heartland”.
“It’s a two story building,” McCue pointed out. “The top floor is really in good shape but the ground level was really beat up and it just really worked for what we needed.”
One pivotal scene involves a meat locker located in the hospital’s basement which the location managers told the crew was reportedly haunted. It was located at the bottom of a set of steep cement stairs, and had once been the location for the hospital’s backup generators.
The crew agreed to keep the stories about the room being haunted from the cast in order to keep things running smoothly, but it seems that one of the actors tuned into it almost immediately.
“Angus walked down into the basement, hit the bottom step, and said, ‘Oh I’m not not staying here. This place is haunted,'” Vincent recalled, laughing. “He immediately turned around and went back upstairs. He tuned into the vibe of the place pretty well.”
After only 16 days of shooting, mostly in sequence, the production wrapped and Grant recalls that it was much the same as any independent film in the end.
“All indie projects seem to possess the same problems…not enough time or money to execute what you have in your head, so you have to adapt,” Grant said. “Without being able to shift the schedule, even just shooting our only two exterior days in weather that suddenly went from hot and dry to wet and freezing was a battle.”
And then there was the post-production process where, Grant says, the challenge became just how much information to include or hold back to make the film’s twist ending work.
Still, if audience reactions are any indication, all of the work has paid off, and both McCue and Vincent said that it’s been amazing to watch that twist land with a live audience.
“It’s reward to see people react and hear that audible gasp,” Vincent said. “What’s really interesting, though, is watching them walk out of the theater talking about all the clues that were there and putting it all together right after the rug is pulled out from under them.”
Alive is currently making its way along the film festival circuit and just recently won the Audience Choice award in the Dark Matters category at the Austin Film Festival, and for those who don’t regularly get to attend festivals, never fear. Jon Sheinberg and Matt Feige of The Machine are currently handling sales and distribution rights are available so there will most likely be more opportunities for you to see the film in the near future.
For more information on Alive you can visit the film’s official website and check out the trailer below!