Writer/director Nick Gregorio’s (Happy Birthday Harry Malden, Green) post-pandemic thriller Old Strangers kicks off 2022 with a shiver.
Three friends reconnect in a secluded mountain town after a long quarantine. Sarah, Michael, and Danny try to rekindle the spark of their youth only to be confronted with the harsh realities of their relationships. While out for a hike, the trio stumble upon something dark and terrible, something otherworldly growing and feeding on their pain, in the deep woods.
Madeleine Humphries, Colton Eschief Mastro and Ted Evans star in the unnerving Old Strangers, now available on digital from Gravitas Ventures.
Check out my interview with Nick!
What inspired this story?
Nick: I’d written a previous script called Not Like Us, which took place in a roadside bar on the way to Buffalo, New York where a bunch of random strangers get snowed in and have to deal with some kind of an external invasion. So I was steeped in the mythology of that world and I was going through a pretty rough quarantine, which I think a lot of people were, and I kind of thought about a smaller version of it, almost like a prequel, of people trying to reconnect. I know that happened a lot during the pandemic, trying to rekindle the nostalgia of youth and going back and chatting with high school and college friends. So I wanted to tell a story where people were breaking quarantine and reconnecting and trying to recapture somewhat of a human interaction.
So, it was your intention to kind of modify your story to match what people were going through currently, right?
Nick: Yes, that was a conscious decision. I didn’t want to tell a COVID story, but I wanted to tell a story where people were affected by COVID. So, we never mention it outright, they don’t ever speak about the virus in particular, but it’s more of the side effects of the virus and the lockdown and the quarantine. It has a lot to do with mental illness, and I think a lot of people are struggling with that and a lot of other very adult issues like relationships, trying to conceive, you know, some of your friends aren’t as far along maturity wise as other friends. So just all of that kind of mixed together.
What inspired the like, alien-esque, otherworldly aspect.
Nick: There was a lot of inspiration. If you’re a fan of horror/sci-fi especially 70s, 80s, there’s The Shining, Alien, a lot of John Carpenter’s work, especially The Thing. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is pretty on the nose there, but I wanted something that would seem almost tropey because it was so recognizable, but I wanted to thrust it upon a very real world. One of the marching orders on set was, ‘we’re not in a horror movie. You guys are trying to reconnect this friends. You exist in the real world and at no point, if you were on a getaway with your buddies, if things started going sideways, you wouldn’t say, oh, it’s obviously aliens or a monster or creature. You would just be like, Man, I’m really bummed. There’s gonna be a terrible trip. And things just keep going wrong.’ That kind of was the approach that I had when dealing with very real subject matter and then really supernatural subject matter.
When was this filmed?
Nick: February 28 was our first unofficial start day, principle photography started on March 1, 2021. So, the movie came out less than a year after it was shot and I am very proud of the fact that we did it safely, we followed the Hollywood standard protocols of like a 36 hour negative COVID test and once we were up there, we bubbled up into cabins. One cabin was our hero cabin, where the cast stayed and the other cabin was the crew cabin. And we were up there in the set, no one really left but we were working really long 16 hour days for five days straight so it was very intense.
This only took five days to shoot? Holy crap!
Nick: The shooting budget was $10,000, so it was a really small movie and I don’t like to give those numbers and statistics out quickly because there’s a caveat to it. Everyone that was working on this movie- from my co-executive producer Drew Marion (who was also my lead editor), my cinematographer Blake Gaytan, my makeup effects artist Kait Matlock, my sound recorder Zane Guidon, my AC James Grant- these are all seasoned professionals. And we all work closely together. So the main team, that core team, had such a shorthand, and there was such a strong understanding of what we were trying to accomplish, not to mention everyone’s skill set and their experience was invaluable.
I just can’t believe you were able to produce that with so little. Have you ever worked on a set that was this small?
Nick: No, even though my two previous features were split for smaller budget productions, we still had a fairly robust cast and crew… I usually have a studio or a team behind me or a budget behind me. With this project, I really wanted to get back to the basics. I look at filmmaking as a craft and when you can become that very tactile craftsman, there’s something very freeing and there’s something very exciting about working so small. I have to give a shout out to my cast because they were absolutely amazing. Ted Evans, who plays Michael, is a longtime friend of mine and was in a bunch of my sketches. It was great to kind of like evolve together and have him in this project. Colton Eschief Mastro, who plays Danny, was new to the fold but I had seen his work before and we had a bunch of mutual friends. I think he had one of the hardest jobs because he had a lot of the emotional weight to pull. And then Madeleine Humphries, who is our female lead, just knocked it out of the park. She was so gung ho, was so down for any scene or situation or stunt work. There were chases, there was action, there were extremely emotional highs and lows and comedy and she was game for all of it.
Were there ever any moments where you almost had like a meta experience because you’re doing a story about quarantine and pandemics, and we’re still living in one? Any strange moments like that?
Nick: The whole shoot! I mean, the whole shoot was literally old strangers. We had worked together on a show and we got kind of furloughed with COVID. After working together for about six, seven years straight, we weren’t together anymore and we reconnected up in this mountain town and some of us hadn’t seen each other for months. And the negative COVID test that they show in the movie are their real negative COVID tests. It was getting reacclimated, it was really strange, really strange. People were like, ‘do we hug?’ But it was a very strange experience to start and it definitely informed a lot of what’s going on with the movie. So it was cool.
Yeah, you don’t actually say it’s COVID but I got this almost like an eerie feeling that this was actually being filmed live somewhere.
Nick: Something that I try to do when directing talent, and I think when you’re dealing with a lower budget, we had done a table read via zoom. Then I like to change the script in the dialogue and when we did a second table read, everyone really got into character. It was night and day from the first table read to the second and we really honed in on what everyone’s motivations were for each scene and each setup. But there were moments in the movie where I wanted to capture that weekend getaway feel, which isn’t always super exciting. There’s a feeling out process as everyone gets comfortable and even up to the fire pit scene, that’s when they really start loosening up or warming up (pun intended) to each other and you see the old bonds starting to grow stronger.
Do you think that having done this film with as little budget, little people, and little time, do you think that’s going to change the way you approach filmmaking from now on even after the pandemic is hopefully over?
Nick: I think so. We got to use a lot of really interesting tools that made the process, the workflow really efficient. And it’s stuff that I had been sort of prototyping, that I’ve used on other productions, but to be able to do it all at once, you know, doing remote casting and read throughs, sharing my storyboards via procreate with my DP, who made lighting grades and then we got together and we made like these kind of super files that had not just the script or the shot list or the breakdown, but reference material and the storyboard. So it really allowed us to use all the technology that we had at our disposal. Then in post production with Drew, he and I parodied the drive so all the footage was on two separate drives and then we just ping-ponged scenes back and forth with each other and tweaked them. We did that through the whole post production process.
So the shoot itself was five days. How long was post?
Nick: Post production took probably about four months, three and a half to four months, for our first lock, like ‘oh, this is in a good place.’ And one thing I learned from my other features and other projects is you got to work really hard, you got to get it to a pretty complete state, you got to show it to some people and then you got to live with it for like a month or so. And that’s what we did. We were done a version of the cut, probably in like June and then we took the summer off and reconvened at the end of August and really fine tuned it and polished it and changed some things up. You do need to show it to filmmaker friends and colleagues but you need to show it to family members or friends or people that aren’t associated with the industry, because there are levels of comprehension that you need to hit. There’s pacing stuff that only industry people can kind of give you notes on. Everyone’s opinion is valuable when you’re dealing with a project like this.
Since this is such a timely film, what do you want people to kind of take away from watching it?
Nick: I don’t know because I sort of made this, like, coming out of a dark place, so there is a lot of my frustrations with stuff in it. I think what I would hope people could take from this besides the terror and dread and the awkwardness is to just be understanding of each other. We might not all agree on everything and that’s okay. And that doesn’t have to define us. And that even with the risk of alien invasion, it’s worth reconnecting with people that you might not always agree with. I think being able to accept people and to sit down and have a conversation with them, I think that’s important.
Is there anything else that you wanted to add about Old Strangers?
Nick: Just you can find Old Strangers on all streaming platforms. It’s available in North America only, but if you’re international you can search it on Vimeo, there’s an international link where you can rent or purchase as well.