Randy Van Dyke brings us an unpredictable and terrifying look at academia and experimentation with his new film Like Dogs.
Starring Annabel Barrett (the upcoming “Clifford the Big Red Dog”) and Ignacyo Matynia (“Luke Cage”), witness the terror as a behavioral experiment goes awry when a university student manipulates the research with deadly results. Abducted, and treated like animals, two university students are unwilling participants in a behavioral experiment gone horribly wrong. It gets personal when the pair learn they’ve each been specifically targeted. Once people start dying it’s a race to escape and survive.
Check out my interview with Randy! *Spoilers ahead*
I absolutely loved your film, I thought it was incredibly fascinating. I’m a doctoral student, so I’m starting to get familiar with the process of doing experiments. This is very timely for me.
Randy: I actually worked in a college. I worked in the film department, so I don’t really get to see the science/academia side of things in my little corner of campus. But that kind of stuff fascinates me so we took a crack at kind of delving into that as a story.
Well, that was gonna be my first question, what inspired this story, where did it come from?
Randy: So, there are two big inspirations… We were very much inspired by the real life things that happened with the Stanford Prison Experiment… I’ll give you the, ‘in a nutshell’ version of it. Basically it took place in 1971 at Stanford University, and they recruited a bunch of students to role play, some as prisoners and some as guards in a mock prison scenario. It was supposed to last for two weeks but it only lasted for six days before they started getting physically violent with each other. The people that were role playing as prisoners were being so emotionally brutalized by the guards that it was starting to really cause some trauma, so they had to cancel the experiment. It’s really fascinating, they made a couple movies about it, and there’s a bunch of books and stuff written about it as well but I had heard about it kind of in a cursory way. I had seen a movie about it that I read a little bit more and I’m like, ‘wow, this is really kind of fascinating. I want to kind of do something similar but, you know, be even more demeaning where people are being treated and conditioned and trained essentially like animals, like dogs.’ So that was kind of how a lot of the story elements came into being and how we modeled it as a university experiment. The other big inspiration for it was the location itself. We were location scouting for another film that I was working on, and we were in an abandoned animal shelter. We were actually going to be using it as a hospital in the context of the other movie, but we walked into the big room where we spent a lot of the beginning of the movie, and there was no electricity in that part of the building. The only light coming in was a little bit of that dusky kind of gray/blue light coming in through these big skylights overhead. And it just had these big concrete kennels, it was creepy. It was eerie, and the very first thing that I said walking into that room is, ‘I want to make a movie where we chain people up in here and treat them like animals.’ I literally said that out loud to the director of the other film that we were working on. And for sure enough, a year later, there we were back in the same location, actually making that movie.
That’s so crazy. I can definitely see how that ties into the movie.
Randy: Yeah, a lot of times locations are just wonderful sources of inspiration, especially when coming up with a story that takes place in as few locations as possible. That abandoned animal shelter pretty much provided almost every single location, with the exception of where the abduction happens at the beginning of the movie and the kitchen dream sequences, but everything else was shot at that same facility. It was wonderful in terms of like a gift that kept on giving.
How did you decide on what you wanted these people to experience?
Randy: From the get go it was always going to be, because the title of the movie wasn’t even originally Like Dogs, that was something that when we were getting really close to production and were refining the script and trying to add a little bit more science in there, which admittedly came out as pseudoscience, but we were just trying to be a little bit more believable. That was actually a title that my wife came up with and it really stuck. It was way better than my original title because it wasn’t really specifically dogs necessarily, but as the story progressed, it got refined. That was really kind of the animal of choice, mainly because of the collar aspect of it. There’s a lot of products on the market for dogs. They have shock collars and choke chains, not necessarily the choke collars like the ones we invented for the movie that inflate and actually choke a person. I had dogs all my life, I was always a pet person and an animal person, and I wouldn’t dream of using most of these products on actual animals, much less on people, but when you’re writing a horror movie or in this case, a psychological thriller, it’s kind of okay to explore the dark side of what you would never do in real life and put it up on the screen. But, yeah, circling back to your question about why animals in general, it was just because I wanted to do something that I didn’t really see as having been done before. At least nothing that I had ever read about or watched.
Yeah, this is definitely something that I haven’t haven’t seen yet either. Another interesting part of this is that the entire thing kept me on my toes. I wasn’t sure who the bad guy was, and I’m still not sure.
Randy: I have a deep appreciation and love for horror movies of the 80s, that’s kind of the era that I grew up in. There’s a lot of movies that I really really adore above and beyond the horror genre too, but this is my first crack at doing a horror movie. I come from a comedy background and I decided that if I was going to jump into a different genre for this project, I really wanted to try to avoid a lot of the cliches and tropes that I see in a lot of, especially low budget indie horror movies. So I wanted to try to not make it cookie cutter. I didn’t want you to, in the first 5 or 10 minutes, immediately have the whole movie figured out, you know? I kind of went into it with the intent that there’s no way you can guess, even half hour, 45 minutes into the movie, there’s no way you can guess what’s going to happen in the last act. I just wanted to make it fun for viewers. I wanted to make it something that in the layering of the characters and in storytelling, there’s all sorts of little easter eggs and hints and there’s stuff that you’re totally going to miss the first time you watch the movie. But if you had the opportunity to see it again, you’ll see there’s a lot of foreshadowing and a lot of hinting at things to come, whether it’s little hints in dialogue or in the production design, there’s just a lot of- if you watch it again knowing that Lisa’s in on it, the first 30 minutes of the movie is entirely different.
I am definitely gonna have to rewatch this.
Randy: Yeah, and especially when you know what George is up to, it just takes on a different context.
You also had some really really cool visuals- like at the beginning, with the dog in the forefront and then when Erica is running down the hallway and George just stands there- So stunning!
Randy: Thank you for saying that. We put a lot of effort into that because when I’m not working as a writer/director, I’m also a cinematographer. As a DP, I’m always working on my eye for putting together interesting images. And I mean, of course, you’re going to be limited when you’re working in the ultra low budget realm, but there were certain things that I really really wanted to work with our DP on. There were some shots that I was really fighting for, even if it took a long time to set up or if they were going to be kind of costly in terms of having moving camera stuff. But those were fairly simple and they were kind of time saving, like the kidnapping scene with the dog. It was artistic and we didn’t have to shoot a lot of coverage and we didn’t have to really spend a lot of time coordinating any kind of stunts with the van. It’s in the background, so you can’t tell that it’s full of padding and it’s really safe because it’s out of focus in the background. So it’s part art, part function.
That’s awesome, super handy.
Randy: And I just want to clarify that because it looks like we really treat these actors poorly in this movie. I mean it looks like they’re going through hell and I want to be very upfront and clear that it was a super safe environment. Even the chains and the collars that we were using. If they started to feel claustrophobic or started to feel anxiety while being chained up, there was a part on the collar that they could tug on and it would break away. We were super on top of making sure that nobody felt uncomfortable or felt like they were being actually brutalized in the making of this horror movie.
That’s good, I would hate for, in this case, art to literally reflect life.
Randy: Exactly, yeah. The worst thing about that facility, because we were shooting in the month of January, the worst thing about it is it got super cold and the kennels were concrete. We had little dog beds and stuff for them, so, at least, they can sit on something warm. We had a PA off to the side with a big fluffy robe for the actors to wear so they could warm up. We’ve got some behind the scenes pictures on that just just chillin probably sleeping in the kennels, in between shots.
I absolutely love that!
Randy: It got to the point where they were pretty comfortable with it after a while, especially because when we shot the movie, a lot of it was in chronological order. Most times you don’t do that, but I thought it was important, in this case, because the very first day of production, we were shooting the very first scenes with Lisa in her kennel, the very first time that she discovers that she’s chained up in this place. So as she is disoriented and reacting to it for the first time, it’s kind of a literal interpretation of that because that was the very first day of the shoot. We ended up shooting in there for something like five or six days before we moved on to shoot in the rest of the facility. And so as the time went on in those kennels, they got more familiar with it and more comfortable with it. But at the same time, more fatigued of it like, ‘oh my god, I can’t wait to get anywhere other than this room,’ which was great because that really kind of added on to the reality of it and gave them something to react to.
And the way their clothing just gets grubbier every time… we had an amazing costume designer that there’s a different set of wardrobe made for every different phase. We see something like eight or nine different days worth of wardrobe, in terms of how grubby and dirty they get over the course of the three weeks that they’re in that facility for the experiment. And that was great because we could refer back to whatever section of time we’re wanting to go back to and pull that exact wardrobe and not have to try to recreate the stains and the dirt and everything. It was very mechanically handled so that it progressively got worse. Our inspiration for that was the first Die Hard movie. Bruce Willis’s character John McClane starts the movie with just a white tank top but by the end of the night, at the end of the movie, he’s just covered in grime and dirt. You can’t even tell what color it was, it just looks gray and brown from the dirt and gunk that’s all over it.
Speaking of grub, what did you feed them?
Randy: That’s a good question. So Annabel, our lead actress, is vegan, so what we ended up using was textured vegetable protein, which is the exact same stuff that they make bacon bits out of. My wife cooked it up and put some seasoning in it and kind of made it almost like a gravy. So we took cans, took the labels off, emptied them out, cleaned it out and then put the fake dog food in. The scenes where you see them opening the cans and plopping it out onto a tray, that was a can of actual chili getting opened, and then it cuts to a shot of a clean can with our “dog food” in it. Then completely fresh stuff that never touched a can was what actually made it to the plates that the actors had to eat. It wasn’t that bad, it wasn’t super flavorful, I mean, it wasn’t something that you would crave and want to eat, but it was totally edible. But still, we knew it didn’t taste very good and we wanted them to react disgustingly to it, so we only made them eat it once. We only needed them to eat it once so that when they were eating it, the reaction was genuine. I was trying to take it easy, because I realized that while it was not bad, it definitely wasn’t pleasant.
No, that doesn’t sound very pleasant.
Randy: Yeah, but it was kind of fun. By the end of the day that we did the scene, just about everybody on onset wanted to try a little bit of it. So we had these little paper cups and we filled them up with a little bit and gave everybody a spoon saying, ‘you don’t have to eat it, but try it.’ So, that way it was kind of a moment of solidarity or bonding where we all got to try the dog food.
Is there anything else that you would like to say about Like Dogs?
Randy: I definitely want to make sure that people stay for the post credit scene because that definitely kind of changes your outlook at the ending, too. But, if I could say anything to people that are going into this movie, other than to keep an open mind, it is that if you’re going into it expecting it to be a horror, like a bloody slasher kind of horror, it’s definitely not the movie for you. It’s definitely more of a psychological thriller. So, as long as people kind of go into it with that mindset, I think they’re going to enjoy it a whole lot more.