One of the true standouts from this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, WE GO ON follows one man’s search for proof of the afterlife. Miles Grisson (Clark Freeman) lives in fear. His trepidation prevents him from even driving a car. But armed with a large sum of money in his hand, he decides to overcome his terror, not by facing it, but by offering a reward to anyone who can prove that after we die … we go on.
Andy Mitton’s film (co-directed by Jesse Holland) avoids all the easy clichés of what could be a pretty good by the numbers ghost story, instead focusing on the human element of what ties ghosts to this world – love and longing. When Grissom narrows down his leads to the three least crazy sounding, a scientist, a medium, and a world traveler with a ‘magic box,’ he teams up with the unlikeliest of partners for his search, his mom (Annette O’Toole). This duo tests each reward-seeker and their relationship. Not having the typical crew for this type of film makes for a refreshing tone.
Anchored by Freeman and O’Toole’s great performances, WE GO ON offers enough scares to satisfy the genre-droolers out there. However, by focusing on the emotional connection between our world and the ethereal one, Mitton leaves the viewer with something far more frightening, the unsettling reality that we are not alone, and all we need to do is search long enough. When Miles finally makes contact with Nelson (Jay Dunn), a dead airline mechanic desperate to reconnect with the love of his life (who is still alive), the film gives us one of the most complete portraits of a ghost since the Demi Moore spun her potter’s wheel. In WE GO ON, nothing is as simple as dead and alive, haunted and exorcised, and good and bad, which makes for one of the most thought-provoking films about the afterlife in recent years.
I had a chance to discuss the film with writer/director Andy Mitton and actor Jay Dunn when it played Fantasia.
BEARS: This was one of my absolute favorites here, I’m really curious, because on the surface it’s a ghost story, but it plays really very differently to genre fans and drama fans. I love that because it is approaching two different groups of people in a way that’s gonna be equally interesting to both of them, but I’d imagine equally frustrating to both of them. Was that always part of the idea in the creation?
Andy Mitton: It happened a little automatically, because we all come from theater. Clark Freeman, the lead in the movie and Jay and I, we all went to Middlebury College together, we all have theater degrees, and we all have really loved horror movies. But part of why we wanted to make horror movies, Jesse [Holland, co-director] and I in particular, is because we felt like there weren’t a lot of horror movies that paid as much attention to the character development and thematic qualities and some of the things we were interested exploring. Our goal was, can we please that adult side of ourselves, with the big questions about life, and at the same time play to the 13 year old boy side of us that just wants to be scared? That’s a delicate balance, and we knew that going in, but it’s the type of walk that was a lot of fun to do.
BEARS: When you were talking about the film to people, was it difficult to explain to them that medium adult version of a scary film that you were trying to make?
Mitton: To some people, but if it seemed too difficult to have the conversation, it was a pretty good sign this wasn’t the project to work with them on. We found that the screenplay was more of an inspiration. Annette O’Toole was a good example, because Annette has been around forever. She’s incredible, she could not have been better to work with, but when she shows up on Gray’s Anatomy and coughs and dies, this is a very extreme characters. So, to read a horror movie that would go to a genre audience, but to also give her a character with flaws and dimensions, and some nuance. As a stage actor, she was just really interested in those things. This [film]was a lot lower budget than the things she would normally be working on.
Jay Dunn: Andy and I have known each other for a long time now, probably 20 years. I forget exactly how it happened, basically I think he just kind of called me up and was like, “Hey- I wrote a part with you in mind.” When I read the script I mean, Andy’s right here, but I’ve already said it to his face, so I think I can say it again, his writing is awesome. So when I read the role of Nelson, I mean it’s exciting to play one sort of, not the villain per se, it’s sort of an archetype, but just like the mother son relationship kind of bends the genre a little bit, I think that Nelson kind of bent the archetype of the villain. That was really exciting to me, to not just play the bad guy, but sort of a sad drifter who’s just trying to get what he wants, and he’s not necessarily evil, he’s just in a really shitty situation and wants to make the best of it.
BEARS: I love what you said about Miles breaking the archetype because that was one of the things I really loved so much about the film. He’s sort of a sheltered momma’s boy and that’s not your normal lead hero character for a horror film. I was thinking as I was watching it, “Would I be having a different feeling if it was a young, hot ingénue?” The scares are different, it affects the audience differently, and there’s not really a history of that in genre film. I’ve never seen that before, so you were kind of going in blind. Can you talk a little bit, Andy, about that type of character selection, who you wanted to pin the story on?
Mitton: We knew that we would be taking a chance in going against the norm and that a lot would fall on Clark’s shoulders to play the character but not make us feel like we’re just watching some person that is himself, has strength, and is always moving forward toward his goal. So while he’s someone crippled by his fear,(and there’s this weakness there could be an detraction, if we relate to that fear – and part of the reason we told this story is the curiosity of what comes after we die is this universal thing that we’re all curious about – so we didn’t want to make him so over the top, like Jack Nicholson in AS GOOD AS IT GETS – someone who can’t leave his apartment, or just a complete outsider. We really wanted to relate to him. I really give all the credit – I think we did some of the work in the writing – but I give so much credit to Clark because he played that role with so much precision and in such a way that was calibrated to keep us with him, to keep us moving forward through the story, and not get mired down in some of the weaknesses and some of the things you mentioned that could turn us off.
BEARS: I think it’s not just the agoraphobia but the fact that his companion in this whole investigation is his mom. I’ve never seen that. Who do I want to spend time being scared with? Not my mom. It’s kind of a funny choice. Obviously you’ve got such a great benefit by having such a great actress in that role. But that set up as being the two characters – they’re both coming from very different places in their life – they’re not historical equals.
Mitton: Right, well, I felt the same. It’s just something I hadn’t seen. That makes me want to write it. I had a very strong relationship with my mother, as does Jesse. It had a lot of meaning to Clark that was personal, as he had lost his mother recently. The adult son with the mother, that central relationship was something that we hadn’t seen, and their relationship in this story as a believer and a non-believer on the same journey was also kind of a mirror for Jesse and I. Because I’m a believer in the supernatural, and Jesse is not, and we both have respect for that opposite opinion. So we were kind of on this mirrored journey. The desire to write a mother-son story at the foundation of this horror movie was – I think as much as you follow the rules, and you have to give people what they expect to succeed – you have to surprise. That’s almost more important to us, so we hope that will come as a pleasant surprise.
BEARS: The other thing the film does is to avoid the jump-scare clichés that could easily have worked in this film. There are definitely some moments that are scary. I’m just thinking for example in the school, it could very easily have been, “Oh my god, there’s a person there.” It’s shot from far away down the hall, and then the reveal of Nelson’s body, and you’re taking in the whole room rather than something thrown at you. It’s more like the scariness of the situation. To me, I find something that’s truly frightening is something that you have to think about and it seems like there’s a conscious effort to film this movie in a different way.
Mitton: Yeah, absolutely. People always feel you can have a sensory experience in a horror movie, you can be jarred to your experience, you can kind of go on a roller coaster, and you can leave the theater and be thinking about your grocery list by the time you hit the parking lot. And that’s all well and good and we love that stuff, too. If it’s something that leaves you thinking and leaves you pondering, those jarring moments, they’re gonna stay with you, and keep jarring you that night hopefully, as you go to sleep. It wasn’t just how we shot it, honestly, some of those we discovered in the edit. Like that school scene, I was editing trying to cut to the close up, which we had, of the kid, and then I realized that cutting it wide had a different effect and kept a bit of a distance from a scary thing. It created the kind of scare that reverberates beyond your viewing. It seemed to prove itself as we tested it with audiences. It wasn’t really working, and then suddenly as we got a little further away and were a little more restrained, people were really scared. That’s the other side of it, is listening – that we like to do. We like to test on blind audience and really listen to our audience, and not get so caught up on our little tour-driven mentality that we forget about our audience.
BEARS: Jay what was it like performing in that scene where you’re essentially a frightening ghost, but you’re just like, “Hey, look at my body?”
Dunn: I think one of my favorite parts was where I actually had to do the least work, in that room, was just being made up. They had so much fun to get me up in what was sort of dubbed the death room. That for me was just, so much fun, I mean, being in make up for an hour. You saw the floor where Clark sort of passes out in the maple syrup goo-
Mitton: Don’t tell them the maple syrup, no!
Dunn: But it looks like maple syrup. Doing things is actually a lot easier than not doing things. So, lying there was fun knowing how I looked, but also it was hard, you gotta just like hang there, super precise, that moment where they pulled focus from me to Clark and then back to me, to my hands, that required a lot of stillness and a lot of waiting. It’s both things – it was super fun, and bringing the cat in was just outrageous, and challenging actually, pretty challenging. We felt lucky to get that. There was a moment where I got upstaged by a cat. When the cat looks at Clark, that look was just priceless. So, that was the long answer, the short answer is just so much fun. I also just have to shout out to the production designer who, just as an actor, walking into an environment that her and her team had set up, it makes all the difference in the world where you really don’t even have to pretend any more. That the line between pretending and reality has been shortened so dramatically that it makes it so much easier as an actor to really get into what’s happening.
Mitton: That’s Yong Ok Lee, our production designer, and Jeffrey Waldron, our cinematographer. First we learn as directors: great lights on great set, hire a great production designer, hire a great DP and great actors, and get the hell out of the way.
BEARS: So, Andy, did you watch a lot of ghost hunter television to do research?
Mitton: Yeah, I’ve seen my share of everything, really. Ghost stories for me are really hard for me to write because inevitably in the last act, even the good ones tend to fall apart because you usually have to battle something that’s not on your plane of existence usually. It’s more about thinking about the ones that work, which are rare. And ghost stories also being about rules, and making rules, and following them. And I think Poltergeist is sort of a classic example for me is something we paid attention to because it lays out its rules very clearly, what the afterlife is in the universe of that film, and it stays true to them in that delivery.
BEARS: I’m glad you said that. I love talking about rules. That’s normally what I ask people when we have these conversations, and the reason I didn’t ask here is because your rules are so clear. You did your homework and your world works. Somebody else could come in and tell five movies in your world, because your rules are so particular and set up, and easy to understand.
Mitton: Oh, thank you. That means a lot. And of course, we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants when it comes to – it’s a twist on the world that most people feel intuitively, and rules that have been set down by great films like Poltergeist and the great ghost stories that I grew up on.
Mitton: Man, what doesn’t frighten me nowadays? I feel like the list gets longer and longer, especially now that I’m having babies and raising a family. It just gets crazy. My wife, Laura, who was in the film, she plays Alice in the film. She was pregnant with our son Calvin. Shooting the movie, we were giving her nice flowy costumes to cover up the baby bump. As soon as Calvin was born, and then we just had our second son, my fears have intensified. And it seemed like I was foreshadowing them a bit in this film, because it’s a lot of the fears of parenthood, of specifically bringing children into a world that seems a bit precarious, to put it nicely right now. So it’s kind of the real world things that are scaring me more than the ghosts used to scare me, to be honest nowadays.
BEARS: Jay, what about you?
Dunn: I feel like when I was in my 20’s, fear didn’t really exist to a certain extent, and now that I’m pushing 40, that my relationships to fear has definitely changed. Before, a good scary movie like Poltergeist would just completely freak me out, now it’s just the existential questions that really scare me – like, where is my life going? Will I have a family? And, it’s kind of crazy, it happened very much in the last two years. Fear has changed, and the ones that really I think a lot more about are less like a horror movie scare, like ghosts and hanging out in the dark by yourself in the house. That was sort of my preoccupation when I was younger, and now it’s the bigger things, it’s reality. And that’s an interesting thing to think about within the genre of horror, that fear isn’t necessarily like a bad guy, it’s what you’re up against everyday. This is a movie where feeling fear is the first step in him being able to take his journey. Because even the title, “We Go On,” by the end, should mean that you don’t always have to answer the unknown caller, you don’t have to go looking necessarily for whether or not we go on after, just to find a way to make sure that we go on through our lives that we’re actually living right now, and anything that allows you to do it is a good thing.
WE GO ON premiered at Cinequest in March, made its Canadian premiere at Fantasia and is currently on the festival circuit.