BJ Verot on his feature directorial debut ‘The Return’

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BJ Verot, in his feature film debut, brings us an amazing sci-fi horror film, The Return

Synopsis: After the death of his father, a brilliant college student returns to his family home where he learns that the horrors from his childhood aren’t as dead and gone as he once thought. 

The Return was written by BJ Verot and Ken Janssens and stars Richard Harmon, Sara Thompson and Echo Andersson.

Check out my Q&A with BJ.

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How exciting is it that it’s going international now?

BJ: Oh, it’s great. I feel like the journey on this particular film has just been extra stressful. We shot it in 2018 and we were in post and then COVID hit. We did an online festival run and two and a half, three years later, it’s finally coming out. It feels so good and I’m very excited to see how people like it, outside of my own country, Canada.

And this is also extra special for you because it’s your feature film debut, right?

BJ: Yeah. I’ve done a lot of short films in the lead up to starting to transition over to features and so it was really nice to be able to use some of the tools that I built up in my skill set along the way, across the shorts that I did. Whether that was really focusing on moving the camera in one particular shot or makeup or special effects, I feel like a lot of those elements came together to form a greater whole on the feature film which was very helpful.

You also have a really impressive IMDb resume, especially with stunting and acting. Did you always want to direct, what did you want to do and how did you get here?

BJ: I feel very lucky to be in the position that I am in. I’ve always wanted to be a director or a writer or a storyteller ever since I was a little kid. That’s always been very deeply ingrained in me. I was also really physical and competitive and whatnot. In my younger years I competed Judo, I did wrestling and I can also do backflips and this and that. So, when I was in university, I took a course called stage combat and the professor for that class was the stunt coordinator for film and television and I knew that so I worked really hard in the class to try to show what I could do and slowly that evolved into being able to take on some stunt work here and there and then eventually it kind of evolved into getting more calls and then it’d gotten to the point where I was working pretty regularly as a stunt performer, which is amazing. So, the honest answer is I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to have two separate paths. As a filmmaker, I tend to write and direct and to this point, I’ve produced virtually all of my own works and then, in the other lane, I get to work as a stunt performer for film and television which is just amazing. I love it. If you’re not making a movie, it’s definitely one of the most rewarding jobs on set for sure. I love it. 

What inspired The Return

BJ: Well, my co writer, Ken Janssen, came to me with the idea that he had for a film which was originally entitled, ‘Homecoming,’ you know, in terms of Roger coming home to deal with his mother’s affairs but then that Julia Roberts show came out on Amazon so we had to change the title. But he had the idea and I loved that so I have to credit Ken with the initial concept for the story. But as a director, what really resonated with me was that it really started as a very classic haunting story and over the course of the film, it very organically evolved into that really wild third act shift where it goes into full on sci-fi because of the the breadcrumbs that have been laid out prior. It doesn’t catch you off guard. It all kind of comes together and makes sense and yet it takes these two genres and blends them together and is playful and fun and scary at times. It was just really fun. 

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So, why time travel? 

BJ: Yeah, for me personally, like my two genres growing up as a kid, I was born in the 80s and I just love all of those decadent and wild horrors and sci-fi that were coming out, whether that’s Predator, Aliens, Robocop, Total Recall. All of those films kind of walk that line, not all of them are horror/sci-fi, but, you know, Aliens, Predator, maybe even Robocop, in some shape, kind of have that element. Those two genres really speak to me as a filmmaker and for me, being able to have that opportunity to kind of jump onto The Return and do it the way we did it, time travel just made sense with Roger’s mother trying to go back in time to fix the death of her daughter and then screwing it up and then ending up being pulled in two separate directions. I found that very appealing because there are two separate segments that are being told in the film, there’s the flashbacks and then the contemporary timeline that gave us two distinct opportunities to kind of showcase the ghostly entity in a different way. In the flashbacks she’s basically flayed, she has no skin. In the contemporary timeline, because we start there, I wanted to harken to something that’s a little bit more tropey and ties into one’s expectations into what you might expect when you get into a classic haunting, you know, a shadowy figure lurking in the darkness and that kind of thing. It was really fun to be able to play with those two elements. 

You mentioned tropes and what people would expect, there seems to be this shift of doing away with tropes. Why did you lean into this one?

BJ: It’s funny that you mention that because I think, on the whole, I mostly don’t really try to lean into tropes either. But after this film, I think, because of where the shift happens in the third act, I felt like there would be a stronger arc, I guess, in like that sub narrative kind of aspect where if we start at point A, which, in this case, is the wispy shadowy ghostly figure, you know, a man and his girlfriend and and his best friend coming back to this big empty house. Even the score is a little bit more somber and isolated. It just gives us a greater arc across the whole narrative story. I mean, we started to kind of transition it around the point when Roger gets his memories unlocked with Dr. Cox. After that, as his memories are starting to come back and he’s remembering his mom and his dad packing away the little mini hadron collider time machine, that’s when we started incorporating more sci-fi and synth elements to the score. So I felt like if we started kind of really on an island of just like really stripped down bare core kind of concepts and elements, it would just give us more growth across the whole film. By the time we hit that third act, things are really ramped up and moving very fast at that point.

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What films did you use for inspiration?

BJ: I was born in the 80s, so I was going to the theater when like 13 Ghosts and The Haunting of Hill House remake was coming out and all that kind of stuff so I was like, ‘okay, what are the things that I liked from those films.’ I don’t know if they were necessarily amazing films but there was definitely something in there that I wanted to tap into. And then also just being a fan of like Japanese cinema and whatnot, I also tried to kind of lean into a little bit of like what could be a little bit Grudge-y, you know, that kind of stuff too. I actually think the ghostly entity probably taps in a little bit more into Samara from The Ring and that type of thing. I was kind of drawing from stuff that you might expect, and then try to find a way to deviate from that.

I’m a huge ‘The 100’ fan, so seeing Richard (Harmon) and Sara (Thompson) was great! What was it like working with them and with Echo (Andersson)?

BJ: They’re all great. For starters, that’s, I think, one of the strongest elements of the whole film is just the chemistry of the three cast members. And so, when Richard came to town, I’m from Winnipeg, Canada, and when he came here for a film called I Still See You with Bella Thorne. I was his stunt double actually, so we met very briefly. We didn’t talk too much, but we just had a few kind of small talk kind of encounters and I just found him to be really nice guy, good sense of humor and easy to be around which is, you know, those are all, in my opinion, very admirable attributes to have, especially on set because things are very fast paced and it can get very hectic. And when my film went out for casting, the casting director, Carmen Kotyk, asked me who I thought. Well, Richard Harmon, it’s his if he wants it. So, we had a phone call where we talked about kind of some of the stuff we were talking about here (in this interview), just some of the science fiction elements and where he thought Roger ends up at the end and where I felt Roger ends up at the end and I think we were both kind of on the same page. He was the first one on board. And then from there, Sara and Echo came on. And interestingly, Sara was on our film and then they were casting for (‘The 100’) and I think Richard might have helped get her an audition and she ended up landing one of the lead antagonist roles in that season (Josephine Lightborne). So, she actually was on The Return first and then ‘The 100’ followed. So, in hindsight, as our film releases,. They’re both coming out of ‘The 100’ which is pretty cool. It’s so amazing how big the film industry seems and yet, it’s through all these little interconnecting stories that you realize the industry itself is not that big, it’s just, you know, the geographic locations where things are being made are kind of far apart, but it’s really cool.

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What is something you’re really excited for, for viewers to see with The Return?

BJ: Well, I love shaking up genres so I just want to see what the reaction is as we jump out of that second act and take a really hard left turn into the sci-fi realm. I think it’s a really fun surprise and at that point, if you’re into the movie and you’re engaged, I think it’s a really fun shake up. It just freshens everything up. Things are moving super fast at that point. Because in the first and second act, there’s a lot of setup and there’s a lot of information that’s being given out to not only Roger and his two friends but also to the viewer. I almost feel like the viewer is like the fourth friend in the house, learning as we go. So by the time we get into that third act, I want to see what people’s reactions are when we get into full Ghostbuster mode and fighting for your life mode.

Is there anything else you would like to add about The Return?

BJ: I’m just going to take this opportunity to say thanks to the cast and crew. It wasn’t a huge budget, but I feel like the movie really resonates pretty strongly on screen, and that was a culmination of everybody’s hard work. I’m just very, very grateful for the opportunity that I was given as a writer and director to make something like this and I hope everybody enjoyed the film. 

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The Return is now available On Demand and Digital from Uncork’d Entertainment.