INTERVIEW: writer/director Timothy Covell and producer Christina Behnke, BLOOD CONSCIOUS (2021)

In a special interview, Jeremiah Kipp (writer/director, Slapface) speaks with real-life couple writer/director Timothy Covell and producer Christina Behnke to discuss their feature Blood Conscious, which has just landed on Shudder US…  

What starts out as a family vacation for Kevin (Oghenero Gbaje), his sister Brittney (DeShawn White) and her boyfriend Tony (Lenny Thomas) as they visit their parents’ cabin by the lake quickly escalates when they find everyone in the cottages nearby are dead.  A stranger (Nick Damici, Stakeland) claims that they were possessed by demons, and is suspicious that these newcomers are demons too.

After Cabin in the Woods turned this sort of movie into a postmodern fun house, one might think there’s not many other places a storyteller can go with this premise.  But Blood Conscious uses the familiar setup to explore a character driven narrative that discusses race in a complex way, and keeps the audience guessing as to whether this is a home invasion thriller or a supernatural “Are-you-the-person-I-think-you-are?” paranoia.  

Recently praised as a must-see by The New York Times, this is a low budget offering teeming with ideas, and one that defies expectations. 

You’ve had an interesting journey leading up to Blood Conscious. Christina, you were an intern and then a writer’s assistant in Hollywood before producing this movie with your husband. Were events happening to you or was there a sense of moving through these jobs to a specific destination? 

CHRISTINA: The best way to describe it is that I was moving along two tracks simultaneously. When Tim first started writing Blood Conscious in 2014, I was working as a magazine editor, but we were already talking about how he could approach a feature-length project. In 2015 I started to think about changing careers, and in April 2016 I resigned from my position. I got a couple no-or-low-pay PA gigs over the summer and landed an internship at Belladonna Productions later that year. From there, I was offered a position as a writer’s PA on Sundance TV’s Hap and Leonard, and I spent the summer of 2017 in Los Angeles for that job. That October, we were filming Blood Conscious.

Maybe this was due to my inexperience at the time, or maybe I was so used to Tim and me doing things our way, but at no point did it occur to me to pitch Blood Conscious to any of the producers I met during this time. Instead, I pursued every opportunity I had in my own entertainment industry career, and I used those opportunities to watch and learn as I produced Blood Conscious in the background. While I was interning, I assisted producer René Bastian in development, which really helped demystify the process of approaching talent representatives and making offers. Producer Linda Moran answered a lot of my questions about production and taught me how to use film budgeting software. She knew I wanted to approach actor Nick Damici, who was an EP on Hap, and encouraged me to get to know him while we were in LA. Even those early PA gigs were helpful: I met actor Lori Hammel, as well as our production designer Almudena Caminero, and our hair & makeup artist Sam Granados on set of a web series pilot. 

I continued working as a director/producer’s assistant through October 2021, so this dynamic continued right up through the release of Blood Conscious. While Tim was editing the film, I was sitting in on edit sessions, sound mixes, VFX comps, and color correction for Hap, and later Netflix’s In the Shadow of the Moon. Learning how things worked on big-budget shows and movies helped me be a lot more effective when giving feedback on Tim’s edits. I also learned the language and capabilities of post-production specialists, which helped us get the most out of our own post sessions. Over the years it kind of just worked out that whatever industry jobs I was getting would parallel what I needed to learn for Blood Conscious. And people in the corporate world always seemed a little shocked to learn that I had produced a feature!

And Timothy, what was your filmmaking background before Blood Conscious? How did that previous work lead to this first feature? What did you learn along the way and did that inform the writing and conceptualizing?

TIM: After attending film school, I interned for a few production companies out in Los Angeles before moving to Brooklyn in the mid-2000s. At the time there was a lot of interest in what was being called transmedia storytelling — expanding traditional scripted narratives from a movie or TV episode onto social media and the physical world in order to drive audience interaction. It’s part and parcel of any entertainment PR campaign now, but it was still in its infancy at the time. I worked on a web series/ARG (Alternate Reality Game) called Deleted: The Game. Each week audience members tried to follow clues from the episodes and solve puzzles to help the protagonists out of trouble. It was well received and taught me a lot about how to breadcrumb little pieces of information to keep an audience entertained and hungry for more. 

I eventually decided to write and produce my own web series pilot as a proof of concept. It went way over budget, and I’ve never felt satisfied with the end result. After that, I vowed to maintain as much creative control as possible over my future work. I wrote, produced, directed and edited three shorts over the next few years. Each of the films was developed with the idea of trying something new. So with A Walk on Cutter’s Ridge I wanted to teach myself how to direct and edit heavy dialogue scenes, action scenes and some SFX scenes. Then with Whispering Gallery  I wanted to shoot a single character in one room with almost no dialogue whatsoever. Finally with The Possession the idea was to film an ensemble police drama through found footage, employing multiple cameras and split screens. There were steep learning curves on all three, but they gave me the confidence to tackle a feature.

You both are co-creators. Timothy wrote and directed and Christina produced.  What makes you a great team and what advice would you give for collaborating with a life partner?

CHRISTINA: Tim has limitless creative inspiration, and I have a strong editorial eye. We also have similar tastes, and we know each other well. This has helped us develop an easy shorthand while working together. If Tim isn’t available to answer a question on set, I can instinctively speak to what he wants. On the other hand if I have a creative role like costuming or acting he doesn’t have to work too hard to communicate what he is looking for. 

My advice would be to approach every project like a family business, the same as if you were to open a restaurant together. Creative collaboration can be really exciting and gratifying — maybe it’s part of what attracted you to one another in the first place — but the day-to-day reality of making a film, especially a feature-length film, can be really tedious. It’s work! 

TIM: Any creative collaboration takes mutual respect, a willingness to compromise and a shared vision for what it is you’re making. But collaborating at this level with a life partner also necessitates setting down some clear boundaries. Speaking for myself, when I get going on a film that’s all I think about, that’s all I want to do every hour of the day. But that’s not healthy for a relationship. If you spend all your time together and all your time is focused solely on the film, then your relationship can very quickly be subsumed by the project, and that will not be good for the relationship long-term. It’s important to create space outside of the film. This can be a certain time of day. Maybe film work ends when you set dinner down on the table or when you step into the bedroom at night. The space can be physical. That could mean socializing with separate friend groups to give each other room to sound off to outsiders with no involvement in the project. Production is particularly hard, given the level of stress and group intimacy. If you quarrel on set, everyone on the production will know. And you will quarrel, and it will be awkward. 

Ultimately my advice would be to discuss all this ahead of launching the project. Talk about what each of you hopes to get out of the venture and what each of you expects from the other. This includes money: every dime we spent on Blood Conscious came out of our savings. This includes time: we started working together on this back in 2015. This includes responsibilities: Christina was the Producer, Casting Director, Costume Designer and Chief Cook on set. Cover everything. Talk it through honestly. If everybody feels good after that, then roll up your sleeves and go for it.

We are all so familiar with the kids who arrive at a cabin in the woods and get confronted by monsters.  Your film has a lot more on its mind, and the subtext and politics of the film make it cut a lot deeper. What sorts of conversations did you both have in the early stages of making the movie?

TIM: The setup came to me during a re-watch of Evil Dead II maybe eight years ago now. The first half of the movie involves Ash fighting demons in a cabin in the woods. At some point, a vacationing couple arrive and discover him covered in blood. They assume he’s a maniac who’s killed their parents. They lock him in the cellar, but shortly thereafter come to realize the truth. It just struck me that it would be an intriguing premise to make the vacationers the protagonists and keep the truth about the demons always just out of reach.

We’re so accustomed to movie logic where the hero may be confused or misdirected for a short time, but then all is revealed in act three; he/she learns the truth and does the right thing in the end. But that’s just not how it works in real life. Oftentimes we’re forced to make serious choices with limited visibility. Sometimes the facts simply aren’t there and a person needs to rely on their moral compass for guidance. 

In this story, however, the characters don’t do that. They begin to question the humanity of the people with whom they are at odds, because they don’t have easy answers to their questions. It becomes easier to imagine the other person is a demon than it is to try and grapple nuances of what has actually happened. We see the same thing play out every day in the news.

These kinds of moral dilemmas excite me as a writer. As a director, I was eager to make the type of film people could argue about over drinks after leaving the theatre.

CHRISTINA: One word that kept coming up early on was “ideology”: what informs people’s perspectives of reality, and what does it take to dramatically alter that? This was especially interesting to play with in a meta-textual way when making a horror film. Everyone has certain expectations for what “horror” means, and this film completely subverts that while maintaining the familiar trappings of the genre.

For a while, Christina you worked for great filmmaker Jim Mickle (Cold in July; Hap & Leonard), and his frequent co-writer and actor Nick Damici plays a significant role in your movie. Were Jim and Nick mentors in any way on this? And if so in what way

CHRISTINA: I met Jim through my internship at Belladonna and I worked as the assistant to him and his partner Linda Moran for three and a half years. My role offered me a lot of access, and as they started working on bigger and bigger projects for Netflix I got an indispensable perspective on the entertainment industry just from getting to be a fly on the wall. Jim and Linda also gave us edit notes on two different versions of the cut while we were filming his feature In the Shadow of the Moon. They were very encouraging in general. Jim is the kind of filmmaker who, if he hears that a PA is interested in directing, will invite them to watch the monitor with him and talk them through the shot. He’s very supportive of emerging filmmakers.

Though I had gotten to know Nick as a writer and EP, he came to Blood Conscious solely as an actor. It was great to get to see a completely different side of him, and to see him freed up to play and have fun on set. He had Oghenero Gbaje doubled over laughing while filming all their all scenes together! While he came prepared for the conditions of a micro-budget film, he put his complete trust in Tim and delivered exactly what we needed. The thing about Nick is, he wouldn’t be there if he didn’t want to be. Hap Season 3 was actually filming at the same time, and he travelled up from Atlanta just to appear in our film. 

I loved your cast.  For a low budget horror movie, the acting is so strong and nuanced. DeShawn White is so present, so thoughtful in her work.  Lenny Thomas is electric, tense, complex. Oghenero Gbaje centers the film with his performance and gives so much.  Did you go through an audition process?  Was there any opportunity for rehearsal?

CHRISTINA: We had worked with Lenny on our short film The Possession. We knew we wanted to work with him on a feature-length project, so when we decided to go ahead with Blood Conscious Tim tailored the role to him. We did go through a self-tape audition process for the roles of Kevin and Brittney. Once we narrowed it down, Lenny read the opening scene with various actors so we could get a sense of the ensemble’s dynamic. After the actors were cast we did a read-through where everyone discussed the script. Once we were on set, things moved pretty fast. We may have done some camera rehearsals, but that was it. 

Talking about race in a cabin in the woods / fighting demons that may or may not be there gives a social dimension to the work. Do you think the actors create the horror for the audience? The situation is scary, but I keep thinking about how the characters and actors react. And not just to the demons, but to being black in a situation where calling the cops or running for help is full of conflict in and of itself.

TIM: This underlying threat due to the characters’ race was obviously built into the very bedrock of the entire premise. Even before demons become a factor, Brittney expresses concern about what might happen to Tony while hitchhiking on the road at night. Her concerns would not be misplaced in the real world. In fact, we dealt with a few incidents during production that put people on edge.

I tried to continually refer back to the issue of calling the cops to try and get a different tone for when Tony or Brittney or Kevin say it and when Margie says it. Calling the cops seems like such a no-brainer if you’re in trouble, but only if your context for the police is that they exist to help you. Lenny Thomas, who plays Tony, does a great job of transforming his bearing: his life as he knew it is now over. Those cops no longer represent an escape from the cabin and all the carnage, they represent his likely incarceration.

It’s also interesting to note that during the daylight scenes, everybody on screen acts scared; and it’s convincing. But once the darkness settles in, the fear on their faces sure does seem a lot more palpable. Those woods are really dark up there in the Adirondacks, especially if you’re from NYC. I think we were all terrified once the sun went down.

CHRISTINA: We were aware of our limitations as white filmmakers making a film that depicts Black characters. The actors became that much more essential in bringing these characters and circumstances to life. This was an especially important aspect of the casting process: looking for actors who could not only play the characters, but who could also embody and relate to the people on the page in a very meaningful way.

Producers at this level of filmmaking are criminally under-appreciated.  How would you describe your role in the making of Blood Conscious and how did you manage all the hard aspects of making the film? Every part is difficult, from navigating the crew to keeping the train moving forward to getting enough sleep…

CHRISTINA: Thank you for saying so! One thing I should mention is that Blood Conscious was the first time Tim or I had set foot on a feature film set. If I had as much experience then as I do now, I’m not sure whether I would have gone for it. 

Over the years I’ve leaned on a few extended metaphors to explain what this has been like. Producing is like driving a rowdy bus with no brakes down a mountain. Or, if the film is our baby, then making it has been like becoming a parent: pre-production, exciting and full of possibility but scary and uncomfortable; production, painful, puts you at the mercy of others but after a while you forget the bad parts; post-production, a long, nuanced process to make something function on its own in the world; and finally you just want them to move out of the house. 

But most of all, I would compare the process to Shel Silverstein’s poem “Melinda Mae,” about the girl who eats a whale. When I started, I believed that I had all the tools I needed to do this and I took it one step at a time. I had worked a project manager in my previous career, and I had cut my teeth on Tim’s short films. Anything I didn’t know, like tax credit incentives or music licensing, I researched and taught myself how to do. The rest of the time I operated on instinct and willpower. 

Were there any surprises in post, or did the film turn out exactly as you supposed?

TIM: Maybe the biggest surprise to me, especially since Blood Conscious is my first feature, is that the film looks pretty darn close to what I originally imagined back in 2017. The camera moves, the colors, the costumes, the overall visual aesthetic are essentially what I had in mind while writing the script. 

The big departures from my original vision can be seen during the early scenes when the characters discover the massacre victims throughout the camp. I had planned a much more sprawling and brutal buffet of horrors. But we were constrained by the location and budget, so we opted for a stylized sequence that relies more on the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks.

One scene I’m particularly proud of is the opening title sequence. It was conceived entirely in post. Originally I had intended to run titles over the characters’ dialogue in the car. But I was left with an out-the-back-window shot that really didn’t fit anywhere but looked pretty cool. I started tinkering around, slowing and smoothing and cross-fading, and eventually built the entire sequence around that one shot. Add blood red titles and Sam Tyndall’s raucous theme, and I think the whole package is pretty fun. It plays especially well on the big screen.

CHRISTINA: I think the biggest surprise that came through in post was the humor. Prior to filming our cinematographer, Sung Rae Cho, gave an interview where he referred to the project as a dark comedy. We were surprised by that then, but now it seems so obvious. Tim has a very dry sense of humor that comes through in all his writing, and the people we cast are also talented comedic actors. It was always there, we just had to find it in the edit.

The life of this film has been inspirational from the festival run to being picked up by Dark Sky Films and Shudder. That New York Times review must have felt so validating. What has the journey been like for you after finishing the film?

TIM: It’s been a long time coming. We shot back in 2017. It took about two years to complete post, since I was editing at night and on weekends. Just when we lined up a world premiere at a great international genre festival Covid pulled the rug out from under us. There was a several month stretch where we didn’t know what would happen to the film. We self-financed with no distribution deal in place, so we were really hanging in the breeze. Then MPI picked us up domestically, and festivals started reopening online. The last year or so has been wonderful. The one downside has been that the pandemic prevented us from attending the festivals in person, but almost everyone has been in the same boat in that regard. The New York Times writeup was a total surprise. We were speechless when we saw Blood Conscious on the homepage. It’s a testament to the hard work of our cast and crew who, despite a severely limited budget, brought so much passion to the entire project.

CHRISTINA: I think everyone who makes a film imagines that it will accomplish glorious things. When we started, I believed that we deserved to be on the Shudder platform, as well as in theatres, and that we would be reviewed in the New York Times. Eventually I had to adjust my expectations, which was a little painful at first. There was a time when I thought we would have to self-distribute. But as a result everything that happened after that has been more like a revelation. The New York Times review was definitely validating — if only to prove to myself that I wasn’t crazy! Even more validating is knowing that years later so many of the cast and crew who worked on it still support and celebrate the film and think of it as theirs as much as ours. I’m amazed by its longevity.

Jeremiah Kipp

Blood Conscious is currently available on Shudder US.

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