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Q&A with Ryan Oksenberg, Director of “Together”

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Name a Horror character you relate to on a spiritual level? Who is your Horror spirit animal?
All right, so my answers need to be different from the answers I gave during the Damage Control Q&A, which was Harry Earles from the 1932 film, Freaks. I’m going to say Henry Spencer from Eraserhead (1977). Henry’s experience depicts a fear of fatherhood and the responsibilities that role entails in a surreal and horrifying way. The film shows how we can confront fear, destroy it or embrace it in a blissful way. I myself have not been faced with the responsibility of fatherhood and in fact, I’m very much looking forward to that day. However, I relate to how Henry’s anxieties and emotions can warp the mind, blowing things out of proportion in nightmarish ways that aren’t in fact logical.

You’ve gotta go through some bad ideas to get to the good ones. Tell us one of your bad ideas. How do you get past the bad ones to find your spark?
This one is really bad. For Together I had Julia’s character completely figured out. She was a biohazard remediation cleaner and her raison d’etre was to protect families from seeing the devastation that occurred in their home in an attempt to heal the wounded child inside of her. I was looking for the perfect antithesis to her that would challenge her morality on the job. Before I came up with the idea that Clayton was dealing with this impossible circumstance of being bit and needed to satiate his appetite for survival – just for a second, I had the terrible idea that he was having his way with the human remains. So embarrassing!

Do you consider yourself part of a horror community?
I feel more a part of the genre and ‘fantastic’ films community. I love horror. Believe me, when I was a kid I went to video stores and collected horror VHS tapes because the key art and practical effects blew my mind and I loved the thrill of being scared. But I come from more of the camp of using genre to address uncomfortable truths about the world. That is not limited to horror. I think I have a lot more dues to pay and developing more of the language for horror before considering myself a part of its community. Together has bits of horror but I’ll let the die hards viewers of Alter decide if it belongs in the catalogue or not.

When you’re building the world of your film, where do you look for inspiration?
My last answer for Damage Control was how a fractured society inspired me. As it relates to Together, I totally went full Stanislavski and dove into the world of biohazard remediation cleaners to inspire me. It helped me understand the characters and frame the world through Julia’s POV. I wondered what type of person would do the dirty work for families of victims. I spoke to technicians around the US and shadowed one as well so I can learn the protocol with families and the process of cleaning. I observed the tools they used, protective gear they wore – all so I can buy them off of Amazon for Together! My take away from these discussions answers my initial inquiry about why they do the job: to shield families from seeing the devastation that occurred. Hopefully, by walking into a clean home it would encourage the first step towards healing.

Lastly, I brought on Dr. Donna Cline (Bones), a forensic illustrator who worked with the L.A. Coroner to render drawings of the murder/suicide depicted in Together. She asked me super specific questions about how many times the perpetrator stabbed the victim, if there was a struggle or not, how the victim was positioned and how long were they dead until the coroner arrived. Once I thought of the answers she drew the death scenes for me that the SPFX artist Robert Bravo referred to in his creations.

In short, the more research I do, the more inspired ideas I have.

What would you do if you woke up inside of your film?
I would put on my PPE and N95 respirator right away or else I’d vomit from the smell of decomposition. That, and I’d stay the hell away from forests!

Who would be on your ultimate horror villain squad?
I did a David Lynch universe squad for the last one, so for this one let’s do a Twilight Zone villain squad. Anthony Fremont from It’s a Good Day can send us good folks to the cornfields, the Gremlin from Nightmare at 20,000 feet can provide in-flight trauma and Kanamits from To Serve Man can feast upon our brains. Nightmare combo right there, right?

Lightning round: Freddy or Jason? Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft? Practical or CGI? Post Apocalypse or Pre Apocalypse?
Freddy
Stephen King
Practical – a million percent. CGI horror kills me.
Pre-Apocalypse – the dread is within the downward spiral!

How do you go about creating the props and sets for your film? How do you create objects that are relatable but unfamiliar?
I go about creating props by knowing the rules of the world you are creating or basing it off of. They can be familiar objects but how you frame it as a director is what gives it a unique quality.

I had discussed how I shadowed biohazard remediation cleaners to find the right PPE gear and tools required to safely clean and remove biohazardous substances and dispose of them properly in accordance with OSHA and health regulations. What you see in Together is what they actually use.

Spoilers ahead: the suicide letter addressed to the surviving child of the family that Julia finds and chooses to rewrite was a unique process. Our costume, production designer and props expert Danielle Vornkahl was an actor and her unique approach got her the job. She’d work from the inside out and do character work in order to determine their clothes, what their surroundings would look like. She wrote dozens upon dozens of suicide letters and found a bunch online to work with. It gave a lot of weight and emotionality to what we were doing. It wasn’t just making a short film but understanding the realities of pain that people go through.

And finally, Ghostface would like to know ‘What’s your favourite scary movie?’
I said The Exorcist before so now I will say Ernest Scared Stupid! Childhood classic. Boogerlips!