Wisconsin native Hunter Adams talks exclusively about making his newest horror feature Dig Two Graves, starring Sami Isler (Captain Fantastic, Sean Saves the World) and Ted Levine (American Gangster, Silence of the Lambs) currently on the festival circuit.
Dig Two Graves is a period thriller set in Southern Illinois. Can you tell us where the script came from?
The script started out as a story about a young boy wrestling with a difficult and morally ambiguous choice. I had lost my mom around this time and became a little obsessed with the hypothetical question ‘How far would I be willing to go to bring her back?’
There are many films that involve adult protagonists burdened with difficult choices, but I wanted to see this inner conflict reflected through the eyes of an innocent child. During the casting phase, I began to notice that the young girls auditioning for the role of the sibling were much more interesting than the boys who were auditioning for the lead. So I flopped the gender of the main protagonist. But I kept the name Jake because I was too lazy to think of a girl’s name.
Dig Two Graves started life as the short film Jakes’ Choice. Did you find any difficultly developing a short into a feature?
DTG started out as a short because we planned to use it as a fundraising tool for the feature. It didn’t help with the financing per say, but it definitely helped me clarify the visual and aural design of the film. I was fortunate to work with a very talented cast and crew in Northeast Wisconsin where we shot it.
While watching Dig Two Graves I noticed how well the different time periods were captured. How much research went into designing the sets?
Production took place in Southern Illinois, about 6 or 7 hours south of Chicago. We shot in January during one of the coldest winters on record. So there’s also a stark beauty you get from the dead trees, howling wind and hanging icicles.
Southern Illinois feels like it’s frozen in time. It was lucky for us because we didn’t have much money to create the period feel so we relied heavily on real locations and what we could find in local thrift stores. And I’m not a huge stickler for exact period authenticity. More important to me is the emotional impact of a location. How is the set and the art direction supporting the themes of the movie. Our set designer Merje Veski did an incredible job (on a very limited budget) of creating sets that conveyed the moral decay and dissolution that is an important visual theme of the movie.
Having cast Sami Isler in my short film No One Knows, watching her work is like being in acting class. How did you end up auditioning Sami for the role of Jake?
I auditioned hundreds of young actresses from across the country for the part. Late in the process I received an audition tape from Sami. She made really strong and clear choices in the reading. I knew her instincts were good and she clearly had a strong intellectual capacity to analyze and comprehend very complex emotions and relationships that were present in the script.
And she ended being an absolute joy to work with. Her first day on set she had to gut a dead deer, fire a hunting rifle and hold her own against an intimidating Ted Levine.
Dig Two Graves blended some incredible live acting stunts. How did Tom Lowell prepare the actors on-set?
We did have some challenging stunts but Tom is one of the best in the business. In fact, when we were trying to convince Ted Levine to do the film he was reluctant at first. But then he first learned that Rick Lefevour was the stunt coordinator and that convinced him. Ted actually called me up and said, “If Rick is doing the film, I’ll do the film.” Tom eventually took over production, and was very good at finding a way to make a stunt work with maximum visceral impact. And most importantly, he ensures the stunt is done safely.
Ted Levine is famous for his roles in The Silence of the Lambs, and American Gangster. What kind of presence did Ted add to Dig Two Graves?
Ted is just a great actor. Having him around elevated everyone’s work, both cast and crew. His acting style was pretty subtle and I didn’t fully appreciate his performance until I was in the editing room and I just couldn’t stop watching him. He’s mesmerizing. And he gives you so many options to work with. He’s an absolute pro.
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