Don't let the title fool you, because Happy Camp isn't the bright and cheery movie you might think it is. This found footage thriller centers on Michael Tanner (Michael Barbuto), who goes back to Happy Camp, visiting his hometown nearly 20 years after his brother mysteriously disappeared. His brother's disappearance is just one of hundreds over the years, 628 to be exact, making the town world-famous for these unsolved absences. He brings his friends (writer-director-producer Josh Anthony, co-writer-producer Anne Taylor and Teddy Gilmore along for the ride to document everything on camera, as they soon begin to realize that the town of Happy Camp holds several secrets. Ahead of this thriller's release on VOD outlets such as iTunes, Time Warner, Comcast, DirecTV and other platforms starting March 25, I had the chance to speak with writer-director-producer-actor Josh Anthony about the production, how this story came together, shooting in the actual town of Happy Camp, California and how Drew Barrymore became involved as executive producer. Here's what he had to say in our exclusive interview.
It's not every day that you see a movie that is essentially written by and produced by the entire cast. Can you talk about the writing process and how this story came to be?
Josh Anthony: It was nine days, seven people, that's including cast and everybody. I had been working with (Drew Barrymore's production company) Flower Films for awhile, and we really wanted to make a film together. I pitched Flower a few ideas, and then finally I pitched them this one. Once Drew (Barrymore) and (executive producer) Nancy Juvonen and (executive producer) Chris (Miller) gave the OK, I got Anne and Michael to help write the script and we melded it together. We took a few drives up to Happy Camp, which is like a 14 hour drive, for some scouting.
I was surprised because you don't normally see Drew's name attached to genre fare like this.
Josh Anthony: Yeah, from the beginning, she was a big supporter of it. I knew Flower wanted to get back into doing some genre films. I know they did Donnie Darko, so it was just a great opportunity, like a perfect storm, when I pitched them the idea. Plus, it has a lot to do with characters, Mike and his brother, so it was something a little bit original, that I think a lot of genre films don't really hit on, relationships and characters, which is what I wanted to focus on in this film.
You talked a bit about those scouting trips up north. Can you talk about the locations you actually decided on?
Josh Anthony: When I was doing research, I actually came across the town of Happy Camp. I did that Google Map thing where you can take a virtual walk through the town, and I thought that would be an awesome spot for a horror film. I did some more research on it and I thought, we can get up there. It's not that far. It's a far drive, but not that far, so we went up there to shoot the film. There's some beautiful scenery up there, and the people are very interesting and organic, which is why they ended up in the film. That's the place where we wanted to shoot, and we kind of built it around the town, because the town itself is such a character. We wanted to make that a big part of the film.
It reminded me a little bit of Bernie, because they used actual people from that town in Texas when the true story took place.
Josh Anthony: Yeah, that's a fantastic movie, by the way.
But these 627 missing persons cases is fictional, correct?
Josh Anthony: That's a fictional number. But, there are missing people up there, whether it be from someone slipping off a rock. There aren't 627 people missing up there, but we rounded it to that number. It's a big forest. Things can go wrong up there, and you hear some very interesting stories. It is a fictional number, but it is based on true events of people going missing up in that area.
How much time did you have to shoot this? It seems like a fairly simple story, but there's a lot too it as well.
Josh Anthony: Well, I've been working on this thing for four years, but the actual time we shot, principal photography, it took nine days. Nine days, seven people. We worked within a budget. That's all we really wanted to do. A lot of guys get the opportunity to make their first film, they spend on their camera package or buy stuff they don't need. I've been working in post-production finance for a long time, so I know where money can go when making a film. So, nine days, seven people, in this town, and we planned. We always had a back-up, something else we could go shoot and then go back later on. It's just a lot of planning. It's a lot harder than people think, and you really have to plan out your shots.
It seems like these characters are making this documentary on a whim. Can you talk about the approach to making it look real?
Josh Anthony: We had a great DP, his name is Matt Sanders. He's unbelievable. One of the things I told him is, when we start to film, I want you to shoot it very wide. I want them to see everything, and for it to not feel like a documentary film. I lot of these films, you get so claustrophobic and the camera is all over the place, and we wanted this to have an organic feel. How do you do that, with people who actually don't know how to use a camera? I kept saying to the DP, at the end of the day, we're actually making a movie. They're making a documentary, but we're actually making a movie, so the audience needs to see everything. At one point, we had three or four cameras going at the same time, so that was really challenging, but we kept it really wide so everybody could see everything, and then when we got towards the end of the film, we shot a little bit tighter and claustrophobic, to build up the tension. It definitely was a challenge. Matt Sanders is an excellent DP, and Mike and Anne and Teddy, they worked the camera too. He trained them, he trained me a little bit as well. I tried to stay behind the camera myself. As you can tell, I'm not in a ton of the film, and that was on purpose. I shot some stuff too, and it was challenging for sure, but fun.
When you see the movie, it might seem obvious what happens in hindsight, but I always thought it was something else. Was that always part of your approach?
Josh Anthony: Yeah, everything was kind of a misdirect. You start with the 911 call and the brother, so you have that set up, and you go into that town, and that's the second misdirect, then you talk to the people. There are three things it possibly could be, so we wanted to keep you guessing a bit. When we were developing this, we wanted to try something different. I'm all for relationships and characters, and if you don't have that, you have nothing, even in genre films. We wanted to really focus on that, give some misdirects, and let them know at the end, what's really going on here. It was something we definitely intended to do.
With a nine-day production, everything obviously has to be very tight. What was that environment like on the set?
Josh Anthony: It was like Band of Brothers. When I first brought everyone on board, I said, 'Look guys, we're not making this to get rich. We're going this to prove that we can actually make a film together.' Everyone bought in, and that was the cool thing. We had a ton of fun and we worked our asses off. Everyone did everything. Everyone wore every single hat, and if we didn't do that, the film would have never gotten done and gotten to the place where it is now. We stayed in hotels... in fact, I met Teddy the day before we left. He was friends with Anne, and he came on board because somebody dropped out, and he turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to us. It was all about getting together and having fun and working hard. You know how things can go bad on sets, but we had a really great crew and a really great attitude. I know I sound like a proud dad, but I'm really happy I did it with this group of people, and the people at Flower.
Is there anything that you're developing now that you can talk about?
Josh Anthony: Yeah, we've got a couple of things working. I've got a couple of thrillers, one is called Unconscious, that's about a girl who goes to a party, passes out, wakes up four hours later, and everyone's dead. That's one idea we're moving on. We've got two broad comedies too, which is more of my writing style. One is called The Worst Day Since Yesterday, which is based upon my events in hell week in college. There's one about snuff films, which is crazy enough. 8MM was one of my favorite movies back in the day. Then we have Smells Like Teen Spirit, a comedy based in 1995 who want to get laid, and all of the sudden there's a zombie outbreak. They have to hide the outbreak from these girls they want to hook up with.
(Laughs) That's awesome.
Josh Anthony: I look at guys like Jason Blum and Seth Rogen and Joe Swanberg and Mark Duplass, those guys do a lot. We have a good core group of people, and we can write thrillers and comedies. We just want to work. Our whole goal is to work. We don't want to be thriller directors or horror directors. I think we can spread our wings a bit, if we get the opportunity to do that.
What would you like to say to those who might be curious about Happy Camp about why they should give it a shot on VOD?
Josh Anthony: I think it's something different. It's in a genre that people are familiar with, but it's a really different take on things, and it's fun. It's a very independent way of making a film, and I think people appreciate what it takes to make a film. There's a lot of good character work in there, and it's a good opportunity to see what it's like to make your first film, and to see what we did to get it out there. I think they'll enjoy it, for sure.
That's my time. Thanks so much, Josh. It was a pleasure.
Josh Anthony: Brian, thanks a lot man. I really appreciate it. We'll talk soon.