Note: This contains SPOILERS for the film, What Lies Below
The writer/director of What Lies Below, Braden R. Duemmler, opens up on his inspirations for 2020’s new psychological horror movie.
The horror genre is able to get under people’s skins in many different ways and 2020 is turning out to be a fascinating year for horror. Many highly anticipated movies have been pushed forward to uncertain release dates, but some features have found distribution through other means like drive-in showings and streaming options. What Lies Below is a new supernatural horror film that’s set to hit in December and promises a surprising take on an old formula.
What Lies Below centers around Liberty (Ema Horvath), a teenager who returns home from camp only to discover that her mother (Mena Suvari) is now engaged to a mysterious stranger named John Smith (Trey Tucker). Tensions mount as John wedges a barrier between Liberty and her mother, but Liberty begins to fear the worst and suspect that her mom’s new beau is too good to be true because he’s actually something sinister that bears more of a resemblance to one of the Universal Monsters than the father of the year. What Lies Below is Braden R. Duemmler’s debut feature film and the writer/director takes some time to discuss his inspirations for this evocative picture, what territory a sequel might explore, and why the sacred bond of family is such compelling territory for the horror genre.
ScreenRant: What fascinates you about frayed family relationships and why did you want to make this territory part of the driving force for your first horror film?
Braden R. Duemmler: I think horror audiences are the most passionate audiences in the world. I was at the Toronto International Film Festival’s “Midnight Madness” when they were premiering the new Blair Witch and people were just going crazy and freaking out over it. They particularly go nuts when there’s a good death and someone gets killed in an effective way. I always thought that my challenge as a filmmaker is to take that same audience and make them cry when a character dies, not cheer, and to get scared over it. So my approach to horror has always been to get the audience to care so much about the characters and so the audience cheers for them to survive, not to die. That empathy is really what connects us all as human beings and it’s the real avenue to creating fear.
ScreenRant: A huge part of whether this film works or not is in how John comes across. Was it difficult to find the right tone and balance for him?
Braden R. Duemmler: I still remember that when we were first sending the script out to people, we really got a full range of reactions of how creepy he comes across. The initial shoulder touch moment in the dining room scene would already have people thinking that he’s a horrible human being, whereas some people were telling me that hey didn’t even notice it. So when I heard that there were these range of emotions, I told Trey [Tucker]—the actor who plays John Smith—that we need to have a variety of options in the edits to turn the creep factor up or down depending on how people are reacting when they see a cut.
In moments like that, Trey and I had a kind of “creep-o-meter” where at the end of a take I’d tell Trey to do it at a 5, or at a 7, or at a 3. He has such great control as an actor that he could dial that creepiness up and down and then when we were in the edits and saw that people were a little ahead of the story at times, we’d dial him back down and then do the reverse if we thought people weren’t picking up on things.
ScreenRant: Another tricky area in this film is Liberty’s growing bond with John and how that becomes a rift between her and her mother. It’s not a one-sided thing and Liberty is definitely intrigued on some level, which is not the norm in this kind of story.
Braden R. Duemmler: We were definitely conscious of that. Libby’s 16 and is a little more composed and reserved, so this could be a little late for someone to come out of the shell, but it works in this case because of who her mom is to her. It was definitely intentional to depict this awakening and curiosity within Libby, which is unfortunately what propels John’s actions in the movie.
ScreenRant: It comes back to those horror films that deconstruct family dynamics that were more popular during the ‘80s and ‘90s, like The Stepfather movies. Were those types of movies an influence here at all?
Braden R. Duemmler: I watch a lot of reference films before I write a screenplay and some of the reference films for What Lies Below were Let The Right One In, Under the Skin, Get Out I watched again, but a lot of female-driven narratives, especially by female filmmakers, because I felt a certain responsibility there to do the best that I could. I can’t recall if I dipped into the ’80s, but I did look at moves where if you eliminate a certain element—like horror—that the film can still function. Get Out is a great example of that because even if you get rid of the whole creepy underbelly there’s still a story in the discrete racism of the family and that’s why it’s such a dynamic horror movie. I definitely wanted to try to take those ideas and help them influence What Lies Below.
ScreenRant: You can definitely see the Under the Skin influence. I was going to ask about your use of light and color in the film, which is so distinct, but it’s coming from that same place.
Braden R. Duemmler: I really love that film. The whole beach scene with the mom swimming out is one of the craziest things that I’ve seen on film. I don’t know how they did it. When Jimmy [Jung Lu], the cinematographer, and I talked about the movie I told him that I wanted to use colors that we’ve never seen before. I wanted it to feel different and not normal through all of this and to convey that through color. The movie even begins with a more saturated look to make it feel like more of a rom-com, but then we try to progressively de-saturate it and then bring in these odd colors—these cyans and ambers—that you wouldn’t normally see as a way to help show John Smith’s rise.
ScreenRant: There are a number of exceptionally tense moments, like the shower scene, that play into the audience not knowing exactly what’s going on with John. Was it important to plant scenes like that throughout the movie to keep building this sense of dread?
Braden R. Duemmler: I’m a big fan of suspense in horror, more so than jump scares, so I always go back to Hitchcock’s expression of how I’d prefer to see people eating at a table, cut to the bomb under the table, and then cut back to the conversation rather than just see them explode out of nowhere. So I looked for moments to exploit and manipulate suspense as much as possible. A lot of it is just based on what information the audience or characters have. In that moment, simply put, Libby doesn’t know that John is there.
ScreenRant: A big turn in the movie is that John is a parasitic monster. How did that idea come about and was it always a part of the story?
Braden R. Duemmler: It kind of grew as it came along. At the end of the day I looked at the movie as a mystery. It’s of course horror, sci-fi, and all of these different things, but it’s really a mystery at its core. The mystery revolves around who is John Smith, why is he there, and what does he want? The ethos of all of that really grew from looking for a plot that could compliment that best. I needed to shoot at a lake house because that’s what I had to shoot with, so then I thought why does he want to be around natural water, which then maybe triggers something about his planet having natural water that’s without salt. That’s where the lampreys came in and all of that stuff.
ScreenRant: The monster has such an unusual look to it. Where did its design come from and did it change at all during production?
Braden R. Duemmler: There’s some Ancient Aliens and Reptilian stuff that’s in there. Also some snakes that have really sharp scales. The lampreys too, which I mentioned. All of these creepy species came together with John’s conception. If you go back and watch the movie you’ll see that in every scene John is either touching water or drinking water because he requires water to breathe and can’t be far away from it at any time. The reason that that final shot has everyone in these water tanks is because they’re being prepared to be taken away to an all water planet. The blue light is to allow them, hopefully, to breathe underwater. The last shot is where all of this is supposed to come together and click in, which not everyone may understand, but I love the debate that it generates afterwards. That’s the intention of the ending shot, which is in the cargo bay of John’s space ship.
ScreenRant: There’s another really specific moment that speaks to all of that too, which people might miss where John’s monster form walks on salt water and steam comes off of him.
Braden R. Duemmler: Throughout the film John continues to search for a solution to a problem that pits fresh water against salt water. His species is from a fresh water planet and they can’t survive in salt. They’re highly allergic to it and it can kill them if it’s consumed. Libby knocks some salt into the water that’s on the floor, so that steam that’s coming off of him is actually a chemical reaction—a burn—to what he’s experiencing there.
ScreenRant: You’ve touched on the ending, and I always have serious respect for downer conclusions and you really don’t mess around here. Did you always plan to end on that note and highlight that this is a much bigger evil than expected, or was there a version where Libby survives?
Braden R. Duemmler: That last shot was in my head for a very long time. In fact, the reason that all of John’s victims are redheaded is because I needed a physical trait that could be seen from a distance in order to make that shot work. When I realized that really the only physical genetic trait that’s obvious from a distance is red hair, it became the genetic anomaly that John Smith looks for in mates. It’s what allows him to mate with the human species. In the boat scene, when he tells Libby that she has a little red in her hair, it’s significant. It’s also why Michelle’s first line in the movie is “What do you think?” in reference to dying her red hair blonde.
ScreenRant: Obviously you’ve thought a lot about the film’s ending and John’s backstory. Have you looked even further ahead and is this the kind of story that you’d like to continue in a sequel?
Braden R. Duemmler: Yeah, for sure. I do have a sequel idea of where it could go, as well as an angle that could maybe work better for a TV series. Who knows, but I’m open to ideas. I also have a bunch of other projects I’m working on and this was such a labor of love that I might work on some other stuff first and then return to this world. I’d love for the opportunity to get to explore a second chapter of this story.
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What Lies Below is available on VOD on December 4th, courtesy of Vertical Entertainment
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