I caught up with Tom Murtagh and Matthew Renoir director / writer and producer, respectively of the noir-tinged horror film The Ascent – making the festival rounds right now and whose Seed & Spark crowd funding page for the film is finishing Friday March 16. Check out the project and contribute here.

In The Ascent, Veteran LAPD detective Henry Cardenas (Miguel Pérez) faces off against his toughest murder suspect yet, Vince Marins (Stephen Buchanan), who claims to be something other than human. Over the course of 24 hours, truths both new, and long buried will be revealed.

The Ascent is sleek and superb film noir tinged with its own peculiar supernatural horror that also makes the film a tale of redemption and coming to terms with the past too – this is, to some degree, a tale of crime and punishment. What really jumped out to me was the beautifully subtle visual poetry of the film – reliant very much on the deft cinematography with skillfully-employed Dutch angles, stunning compositional geometry, and soundly-done lighting elucidating the narrative in many spots. All of this is enhanced by intelligently chosen and heartfelt music that really reinforces the emotional grittiness of what characters like the lead detectives are feeling in the exquisite winding narrative that keeps you guessing.

I highly recommend The Ascent for fans of great horror, great film noir, and just a great story. Check out The Ascent on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram too. The film can also be found on the web at www.theascentmovie.com.

I hope you enjoy Tom and Matt's observations on film, film-making, film noir, horror, and what makes great cinema, in the chat below and catch The Ascent when you can – you really owe it to yourself to experience this gripping and adroitly-executed story.

Hello Tom and Matt and welcome to The 405! I'd like to start, if we may, by getting an idea of your individual and collective histories for our readers. What got you guys into film as individuals and what brought you together?

Tom: I have been writing screenplay for many years. Some years I had made a living from writing and others were more stereotypically fraught with disappointment. Near-misses. Producers optioned scripts, stars were allegedly attached.  Then it all goes away. Blah-blah-blah. 

I wrote a micro-budget indie film called Orphan that was produced and directed in 2000 by a friend and a great guy, Richard Moos. It did well at several festivals but was not picked up for distribution.  I have written more scripts than I can recall over twenty years beyond Orphan but none had been produced.

About six years ago I belatedly decided to join the digital revolution and start making films myself. I started out small, with a few short spots for the Doritos Superbowl. A million bucks is a lot of money. I started making calls to people I knew to help out and someone referred me to a DP named Matt Renoir.  We worked well together and began creating other projects together. We both wanted to make features and things flowed from there. We did not win the one million dollars, in case you were wondering. 

That last part sucks but excellent that you guys met that way.

Matt: I'm a lifelong movie lover. Growing up we were always watching movies- lots of Disney films, but also Beverly Hills Cop, Labyrinth, Back to the Future, and Spaceballs. We also had a video camera around – shooting sketches, parodies – and later in high school more school projects, and short films.

I went to San Francisco State University, majored in cinema studies, and English literature. I entered a media internship after graduating, which put me to work on a feature film right away. I moved to L.A. Almost eight years ago, and met Tom about a year after moving here. Tom actually hired me to shoot something for him.

Nice! Favorite films and directors? I'm curious here about which you would consider most pivotal on your development as artists and story-tellers.

Matt: I've seen Napoleon Dynamite too many times to count, so that may be the favorite. It's hard to keep a solid list of favorite films, but I love The Fountain, The Wizard of Oz, The River, House of Flying Daggers, Jurassic Park, Blade Runner, North by Northwest, Batman Returns, Ghostbusters.

I dig David Cronenberg, Denis Villeneuve, Christopher Nolan, Todd Solondz, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Penelope SpheerisDavid Lynch, Michael Haneke, Park Chan-Wook, Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar Wai, Jean Renoir, Kathryn Bigelow, Richard Linklater.

Tom: I think The Wizard of Oz is perhaps the best American film ever made. Rosemary's Baby is another.  I also love Capra, Hitchcock (Vertigo in particular...), Scorcese, John Huston, Louis Malle and the Coen Brothers.

For storytelling, there is no replacement for the great stories like the Bible, the myth of Gilgamesh, "Grimm's Fairy Tales" etc. I love Shakespeare, he covered a lot of ground in human behavior.

I enjoy history a great deal; I just read a biography of Genghis Khan. He was far more interesting than his grandson, Kublai Khan, the center of gravity for Netflix's show, Marco Polo. The story of Native American Tecumseh would make a profound North American epic. I enjoy the books of Thomas Harris, especially "Red Dragon". I think it is an underrated classic piece of American literature.

Quite the breadth of influences gentlemen. I dig it! Since The Ascent is a horror-tinged noir (or a noir-tinged horror piece), favorite films noir and horror pieces?

Tom: Christopher Nolan's Memento is a masterpiece of structure. I still puzzle over its logic.

Me too. Exquisite use of color and the dizzying non-linear narrative structure. Really puts one in the seat of anterograde amnesia.

I love Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon, Miller's Crossing and again, Rosemary's Baby. The Boys from Brazil is actually a very similar story, about the literal birth of pure evil. Both arise from Ira Levin novels. Jaws and The Exorcist are superb. 

Matt: For horror, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead tops my list. It's the earliest horror movie I remember seeing, I was maybe 5 years old. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, in a farm house, so NOTLD was quite effective.

I love Halloween, Alien, The Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Near Dark, It Follows, A Tale of Two Sisters, Jaws, Se7en, The Ring.

Film noir, I love Brick, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Drive, Blade Runner.

Excellent and eclectic choices. Another question I like to ask: what makes a great film? Also because of the nature of The Ascent, A great film noir? A great horror flick?

Matt: Story, mystery, and atmosphere. Not giving away everything until the end. Keep the audience guessing. Film noir should have interest in both the police, and the criminals. Great horror is atmosphere for me. I love jump scares, and great practical makeup, but the feeling, it's all about the feeling.

Great summation. I find it fascinating how noir as an aesthetic has evolved to include stories without a huge police presence to though. Looking at more modern noir pictures like Mulholland Dr. for instance that keeps the ambiance of noir without a huge police presence.

Tom: A character we love struggling against a universe intent on stopping him/her while also overcoming something internal. A great film noir must peel the onion layer by layer and find nothingness instead of onion at the center.

GREAT definition Tom. There is a sort of nihilism or at least profound human weakness at the heart of great noir.

Tom: A great horror flick must make you want to close your eyes and simultaneously prevent you from doing so. 

 

Detective Cardenas (Miguel Pérez) opposite Vincent (Stephen Buchanan) in THE ASCENT.

That really gets into Mary Shelley's definition of "terror" versus "horror" – I dig it. Getting more into the meat of The Ascent, what inspired you to write it Tom? Matt, what inspired you to come on-board for the project?

Tom: I was burning to make a feature film. I knew I had very little money and understood enough of the mechanics of filmmaking at this point to approach the writing as a reflection of budget. Few locations, few characters, long takes.

I knew great scenes could be carried by great actors and I had the good fortune to live in Los Angeles, a city with a small army of talent.  I had the idea while watching one of the Thor superhero films. I am not a huge fan of these mega films but there was a scene where Thor is being interrogated by a CIA officer and that I found interesting. Thor being a deity from Norse mythology, sitting in a room with a government authority, did trigger my imagination.  So thanks, Thor.

[Laughs] Very cool.

Matt: I had met Tom when he hired me to shoot a few spec commercials. We were talking about the next project, and I said you can sell a feature. Tom has written many screenplays, but had one, The Ascent, which he hinted at, and eventually sent to me. I read it, and was captivated the entire time. We actually made a short Through the Night, which Tom wrote and directed, to get a bit of a practice run before the feature.

One scene I thought was particularly brilliant was when Cardenas and Oslo (Sam Rodd) are doing the initial walk-through of the murder scene. Where most films of the genre would opt for a dialogue-intensive scene where things like theory of the crime are explained, you instead went to what was pure visual poetry (the composition was impeccable, and very subtly noir in the angles) – letting your images speak for themselves – accentuated by that haunting organ dirge, without any dialogue in the scene. That was a bold choice that in my opinion really paid off. What was your creative process like in deciding to go that route?

Matt: We had originally choreographed a 12 minute steadicam shot that was to encompass the entire crime scene location. The technical hurdles were too much for us, namely the changes in lighting from exterior to interior. Much of what is in the film is from one take, but having a montage allowed us to use alternate steadicam takes, along with stationary interior shots.

Tom: There was dialogue and a few scenes written for that section but that day, we were running very late. There was no money to come back another day. So we decided as time slipped away to just shoot MOS ["Motor-Only Sync" – meaning without sound] and use music for that in a montage.

The song is a beautiful piece written and sung by a very talented woman named Fur Dixon. I heard the song in its original form which was a folksy/Americana style. I asked if she would re-record it in a more rock-ballad style, which she did for the movie. I have heard that song in several styles and it is beautiful in each.  It was the first of two songs that we re-recorded for the film. We sometimes say we are partially a musical as well as horror-noir. 

Vincent (Stephen Buchanan) in THE ASCENT.

Wow. Indeed necessity is the motor of invention. The direction and cinematography were very impressive for the micro budget the film was shot on as well. What were some of the challenges like on the film?

Tom: I like actors. I toyed with becoming one years ago but I didn't have the talent. But a few acting classes helped me a great deal both in writing and directing.  The trick is finding great actors who just go for it.  We spent a lot of time casting the film.  Our leads, Miguel Pérez and Stephen Buchanan just clicked with each other in rehearsal. They did most of the work.

Matt: We shot on Canon 7Ds. These cameras have a 4 GB, 12 minute limit on each video file. Shooting as many as 13 pages a day, often being just one scene, we had to rely on a second camera, rolling a bit after the first camera, to cover any 12 minute limits.

These cameras are notoriously good in low light, but have the most incredibly shallow depth of field, so hitting focus can be a bit of a challenge. Luckily our setups were mostly locked off, so we caught a break.

We also had a very small, very resourceful crew, so everyone did at least three jobs. A lot of choices were made due to budgetary restraints – shooting on location, using almost all of the production audio, keeping the bulk of the script between two characters in one location.

I see. Very interesting. You guys definitely got a lot out of relatively little cash there as many great projects – in my experience – do.

Anisha Adusumili as the doomed singer Laura, who is pivotal to the second narrative strain in in THE ASCENT.

Last, what is next for you both?

Matt: Tom and I are developing a survivalist horror feature. This time an ultra-low budget.  

Tom: A horror/thriller idea is in development. No supernatural on this one. That's all I can say.