[Interview] Manipulative Forces and Their Lonely Prey: A Discussion on Cults and New Horror Film '1BR' with Director David Marmor!
What if there were terrible cults living right underneath our noses in apartment buildings, who kidnapped people and forced them into joining? That's the terrifying premise of David Marmor's 1BR...
...The sad truth is, it's not as outlandish of a premise as you may think, because those cults DO exist.
Not long ago, I had the immense pleasure of sitting down with director David Marmor to discuss his new film. We talked the making of the film, the existence of urban cults, the loneliness of moving somewhere unknown to you by yourself, and just how far audiences will let you go when it comes to the abuse of animals in your horror film.
Check out the full interview below, and don't miss 1BR, which is now available on VOD from Dark Sky Films!
WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD
Killer Horror Critic: 1BR deals a lot with ideas of community. Recently, audiences have been drawn to these sorts of movies with films such as Midsommar. What do you think it is that can be scary about community, and what made you want to focus on that concept for your first feature in 1BR?
David Marmor: I’ve always found the scariest movies to be the ones that find the horror in the most ordinary things. Something like The Invitation to me is much creepier than a monster movie, even a very good monster movie. To my mind there is something inherently creepy about apartment buildings, especially in LA.
The seed of the idea came from personal experience when I moved down here in my early twenties. It was my first time living away from home outside of college and having to get my own apartment. I found myself living in this building and waving to people in the breezeways and not knowing any of their names, and you’re hearing them walk overhead. It put me in this weird mental state where it was like, if some emergency happened and I had to go to get help it would be these people I had to go to and I don’t know anything about them. There was just something so bizarre about being so packed in with people and yet feeling so alone. That felt like a scary thing to me and it felt like the seed of a horror movie.
KHC: So, it’s basically, you come here—and I know the feeling, I’m a transplant myself—You come here and you don’t know anybody. And now you’re in this community where if something happens to you, you have to rely on people you don’t know, and that’s pretty terrifying.
DM: Yeah, exactly. I also was getting really interested in reading about some of these groups, like Synanon and some of these LA based utopian communities. There was something to me that was fascinating about them and it wasn’t a coincidence that I was getting interested in them at the same time. I think you have a lot of people who are coming here alone who are coming here young, seeking something, and I think it’s very appealing to find, when you’re that alone and that isolated, to find something that feels like a family. When those two ideas came together that was when I really felt like I had the seed of a movie.
KHC: So, since you’re a transplant and your main character Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) is a transplant, would you say she was heavily inspired by your experience?
DM: Oh yeah. That character is basically me as I saw myself at that age when I moved in. A lot of the stuff about her inability to stand up for herself…a lot of that was how I was. I was not an assertive person, I hadn’t learned to stand on my own in a lot of ways, so all of that was very personal. And then in terms of the backstory, that was sort of a hybrid of a very close friend of mine who had been in a similar situation with her parents, with some embellishment to make it work for the story, but yeah that character was sort of a hybrid of me and this friend of mine.
KHC: That’s what I figured, because when we all move here, we all go through those feelings of where do I fit it in here and how do I survive out in LA?
DM: Yeah, like how do you take that first step, right? It’s hard to remember sometimes once you’ve been here for a while. But yeah, it feels very daunting and feels like, how do I make myself heard and not just anonymous in this sea of people?
KHC: Totally. To me it was almost like moving to a different country because it’s just so different, especially for someone like myself from the Midwest.
DM: Did you come from a small town?
KHC: Not quite, but I did grow up in suburbia in Illinois.
DM: But suburbia, that’s a very different feeling. I grew up on the Stanford campus in a University setting, but it felt very suburban.
"Once the idea of my feeling of urban alienation came together with the idea of these urban communities, then I think I recognized that there was something interesting about what if one of these groups was right under our nose and not off in their own compound somewhere? And the fact is, since I wrote the script, there have been reports of just this kind of thing."
KHC: Well, so as you know, in the suburbs we also have that sort of strangeness of you walk down the street and you wave to your neighbor and they wave back and everyone’s super nice. Was there an immediate difference that you noticed between where you grew up and that first apartment complex you moved to in LA?
DM: I mean there definitely was. I’m not sure how to put it into words. And it’s also hard to know because how much of that difference was the difference in the environment and how much of it was just that where I came from was my home and I lived there my whole life and I knew people and I knew how to navigate that world? But I think there is something that is fundamentally different from living in a single-family house on a cul-de-sac street and having that suburban experience vs LA. It’s funny, I wonder, if I had moved to New York instead of LA, would I have written something like this? Would it have been different? I’m sure there’s urban alienation in New York as well, but I’m sure it also feels different from LA. Just something about the vastness…there’s no center to LA and that’s sort of disorienting.
KHC: It’s a curious thought. I lived in Chicago for a bit and I can say from experience that living in the city in an apartment building is much different than living in an apartment building here in LA. Because it is more of a community here whereas being in a city, everyone’s more like screw off, leave me alone.
KHC: Something I found interesting, is that a lot of the time, these horror films dealing with cultish communities, they typically take place outside the confines of society, and in the case of 1BR, you set it right in the dead center of LA, so was there a particular reason for that?
DM: I would say that came from the fact that the core of the story came from my experience from living in such a place. I think moving it outside of an apartment building in the heart of LA would have taken away why I wanted to do it. It wouldn’t have been at all the same story. Once the idea of my feeling of urban alienation came together with the idea of these urban communities, then I think I recognized that there was something interesting about what if one of these groups was right under our nose and not off in their own compound somewhere? And the fact is, since I wrote the script, there have been reports of just this kind of thing.
DM: This Nxivm group in New York…there’s some famous actress that got caught up in it…it was this crazy sex cult and I think it all was based in an apartment building in New York. These things can happen anywhere, it’s kind of crazy.
You know, part of the effectiveness of 1BR is that once you start realizing there are cameras in the smoke detectors in Sarah’s room, it made me start to wonder, how many people are going to be thinking, I need to check my smoke alarm now?
DM: I would take it as a great compliment if anyone did that.
KHC: It is crazy that things like this happen. You’re right in that the effectiveness of 1BR is that it doesn’t seem that unrealistic and that something like this could happen.
So, in the film, Sarah immediately begins to encounter strange things in her new building, such as creepy neighbors, creaky pipes, etc. Was there anything like that which you encountered when you first moved to LA that helped to inspire the film?
DM: Yeah, I mean a lot of the little details, especially during the first part of the movie are adapted in some way from my experiences. The character of Miss Stanhope (Susan Davis) is an extrapolation of, there was this old woman who lived in my building, and I never talked to her, but I could see her. She would go stand on the breezeway and smoke a cigarette in her dressing robe and there was something sort of ghostlike and sad about her, and I always wondered what her story was. That was the seed of Miss Stanhope.
I had my share of sleepless nights when I first moved in, especially with weird pipe sounds from the walls, and I had people walking back and forth overhead a lot. That would happen and wake me up in the middle of the night. Those sorts of experiences were definitely taken. The most sort of overt element that came from my life was in that building, there was a no pets policy and at some point, I picked up this stray kitten and I couldn’t find anyone else to take him, so I ended up keeping him. I had an illegal cat in my apartment. And that brought its own level of paranoia. I would think next time I open the door, is he going to run out on the breezeway, and then what do I do?
"...that scene as it exists was a pretty late change. The script that we went out with…had a different version of the cat scene in it which, without going into too excessive of detail, it was more explicit. It involved the cat being nailed to a door, basically."
KHC: It’s very relatable, especially in LA. Which is strange, because a lot of people in LA do have pets, because it’s a place where most people are so busy, that not as many of them have kids, and they have pets instead. So, I’ve always found it interesting that not as many allow pets.
DM: Yeah. You know it’s funny, it’s definitely eased up more recently, because apartment buildings are starting to realize it’s good business for them to allow pets.
KHC: Right. Otherwise we’re just going to sneak them in anyway.
DM: Exactly. Or go find somewhere else where we’ll pay $50 extra a month at a place that allows pets.
KHC: I can definitely imagine this all helped inspire a certain moment with Sarah and her cat. What was that night of shooting like, considering that that scene in particular is so disturbing?
DM: I have to be honest it was very much like every other day we were shooting, because we were moving so fast. The speed of this production was unbelievable. I’ve never had to shoot anything that quickly. Our main production was fifteen days which is pretty crazy fast.
KHC: That’s like back in the day, Roger Corman shooting style.
DM: Exactly. The one luxury we had was we had a set for all the interiors. We had one set that we redressed to be all the apartment interiors in the movie. That oven scene was probably shot during the day. We certainly didn’t have a whole day to do it. That day we shot that entire sequence, from when she wakes up, all the way through everything that happens after the oven in the apartment. We didn’t get a day to shoot that, we just had to move it along.
What I remember is having a hell of a lot of trouble with the smoke, so that when she opened it, it would reveal properly. You kind of want to see what’s in there, but you don’t want to see too much. I think we did six or seven takes of that oven. We never quite got it exactly how we wanted and ended up doing some VFX on the smoke from the oven.
KHC: Major props if everything was one or two takes because the performances are all phenomenal.
DM: Thank you. All credit to the actors and especially Nicole who was phenomenal, we were so lucky to find her.
KHC: Amazing performance.
Anyway, so it was moving so fast it was just like throw the damn thing in the oven and let’s move on?
DM: Yeah that was sadly the way it was. I had done very extensive prep for everything. I had shot lists, I had storyboards, I had gone over everything with our DP David Brolen, who’s brilliant. So, we knew what we were doing. It’s a weird thing because you think about these sequences so much for so long when you’re writing and prepping, and then you get there on the day and it’s like whelp, it’s just another shot and we have to get it. You hope that it works like you saw it in your head and sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it comes out better. In that kind of crush of production, you can’t really be precious about anything which was a good lesson for me, but you wish that there were moments where you could slow down and say okay guys, we really got to get this, this is a key shot. But there just wasn’t time for it.
KHC: Oh, for sure. When it comes to writing, directing, editing, you always go back and find something you want to change.
DM: Of course.
KHC: Back to the…incident in the film…anything related to animals in horror can be pretty traumatic for viewers. Were there any other ideas for this particular scene that you had during the writing process?
DM: Oh yeah. Actually, that scene as it exists was a pretty late change. The script that we went out with…had a different version of the cat scene in it which, without going into too excessive of detail, it was more explicit. It involved the cat being nailed to a door, basically.
"There are certain serial “enslavers” who would capture people and keep them locked up in their basement for years and years, and some of that stuff came from my research into those types of people. It felt like it would not be out of bounds in terms of really driving home to Sarah the seriousness."
DM: I liked the way the scene played. There was a good reveal to it. I thought it would’ve been a very effective scene in terms of being really scary, but it was one of the very few things that when I sat down with Alok Mishra and Shane Vorster to go over notes, it was one of the very few things that they were adamant about. They both had spent twenty years testing movies for studios. So, they have this years and years of experience…they have a real feel for what audiences will accept and won’t accept and they said you will lose your audience with this scene. I was really resistant because that was one of the early scenes that I had come up with and I thought it was really gonna be very shocking. It’s not like the good guys are doing this, right? Yeah, it’s horrible, but it’s supposed to be horrible.
KHC: It’s a horror film. Terrible things happen.
DM: Yeah. But they were like, you just can’t do it. Find another way. I pouted and stomped my feet and then I finally said all right, I’m gonna try to find something, but it’s not gonna be as good. Then I came up with that idea and once I wrote it, I was like, you know what, this in some ways is more elegant. You do so much more with the orange light and the smoke. It’s less of a shock but in some ways, it’s creepier.
KHC: It might not be as visceral of a shot, but you still have great tension building up to that reveal.
DM: Right. Right. Right. I think ultimately it was the right thing to do and I credit them, begrudgingly, for pushing me into that.
KHC: It’s interesting that you mention the cat was going to be nailed to the door, because Sarah ends up with her hand nailed to the wall. Is there a connection there, or is that coincidental?
DM: Yeah. I don’t know that it was any kind of deep connection but there was a little bit more of a through line of the methodology of this group and they have this limited tool set and one of the tools they have is a hammer and nails. The hammer does come back again toward the end of the movie after the scene you’re talking about. It was kind of a motif a little bit more than it is now. Also, yeah, the cat in some way is sort of a symbol of Sarah’s softer side, of her innocence in some way. So, to have the same thing happen to her that happens to the cat is not unintentional.
KHC: Touching on the methodology, it’s all very fascinating. It feels realistic and how something like this might go down. Did you research how this sort of brainwashing may work, or was the process of your cult all made up?
DM: Unfortunately, when you say it all feels realistic that’s because it is. Almost all of the techniques in that central portion of the movie came from research. Those are things that our government does and has done in recent conflicts. There’s some elements that came from the British government during the troubles. These are tried and true military techniques sadly.
KHC: Even the nailing of the hands to the wall?
DM: That goes a little more baroque than they usually would do. Some of that stuff came more from research I did into…and this is really the least pleasant research I did…there are certain serial “enslavers” who would capture people and keep them locked up in their basement for years and years, and some of that stuff came from my research into those types of people. It felt like it would not be out of bounds in terms of really driving home to Sarah the seriousness. You find out in retrospect how careful they’ve been in terms of how they do it. To go through something as permanent as that I think…the whole goal of these techniques in my research is to essentially break down all resistance. You want to break down the person’s personality and get them to give up. Get them to give up and stop fighting. Stop resisting in any way. So that felt like it would be the final straw in a way. It was very intentional that, especially for that second hand, that they just wait for her to do it herself. That to me was the signal that she’s giving up.
KHC: Yeah, it’s really hard to watch because it’s so dark and troubling to see her giving up like that.
It’s also interesting, because we do eventually see Sarah still trying to escape. So, in your mind, do you think Sarah is truly contemplating giving up and becoming part of this group in those moments, or from beginning to end, is she looking for a way out?
DM: I wouldn’t want to inject my own opinion on that too much and just allow people to draw their own conclusions. That’s one of the through lines through the movie is for the audience to be wondering where she stands. I will say this, they’re not necessarily looking for total devotion right from the beginning. They understand that it’s a process. I do think that whatever sort of thoughts Sarah is harboring, I think if Lisa (Celeste Sully) had not come along and she had stayed there, without that irritant coming into the system...I think in a matter of years, probably she would have fully fallen into it. I don’t think you can exist in that world for that long and maintain that kind of mental resistance.
KHC: Oh totally, it seems you either give up and give in, or give up in a different way.
DM: Right, exactly.
KHC: You know, something I’ve experienced moving to LA and have encountered with many friends and co-workers here that are also transplants is how many of us lose touch with family with such a focus on careers. With 1BR, do you think there’s a lesson in the film or something you’re saying about that with the way Sarah is trying to get away from her own family?
DM: I’m not trying to say anything specifically about that. To the degree that there’s any kind of deeper meaning that I tried to put in there, I think on some metaphorical level it has to do with, at least in my life, there’s always been a great deal of tension in being true to myself and what I want and the obligations that I feel towards those around me. Towards my family, towards my friends and society in general. I think in some way the movie ended up being kind of like a microcosm of that tension. There have been times that I’ve sort of felt trapped in my life where you go, I could break away from all these obligations and just take off and do my own thing, but that doesn’t feel like a satisfying way to live either, right? I think there’s that level where I feel like I’ve had very ambivalent feelings about friends and family and keeping in touch vs going off on my own. I certainly felt like I was trying to put something of that in there. It manifests itself most obviously in that late scene with Lester (Clayton Hoff). But yeah, that’s sort of the only overt idea I was trying to put into the movie.
KHC: I do think it came through because I myself have gone through feelings like that and definitely got that from the film.
Well, best of luck with the film and thanks again so much for discussing 1BR. I really enjoyed the film and it was a pleasure chatting with you, David.
DM: Thank you, I really enjoyed this.
By Matt Konopka