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School’s Out Forever: A Visit to the Set of Padraig Reynolds’ ‘Rites of Spring’!

Padraig Reynolds, director of short film The Election, for which he won Best Director at the San Francisco International Film Festival, makes his feature-film debut with crime movie/creature-feature hybrid Rites of Spring, and Bloody-Disgusting was afforded an exclusive set visit earlier this month. Filmed in Canton, Mississippi, B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen is here with all the details on the shoot, including specifics on the look of the set (filmed in an abandoned high school) and interviews with Reynolds and lead actors (and The Signal co-stars) AJ Bowen and Anessa Ramsey.
That’s totally what we’re going for here, an atmosphere movie. And story-driven. I find a lot of horror movies these days aren’t really… story-based. They’re sort of stuck in that whole [sub-genre] of teenagers in the woods, teenagers here, teenagers there…following a formula. And I wanna try to break out of that formula and do something different.” – Director Padraig Reynolds

Rites of Spring

I’ve worked in creepy abandoned buildings before; specifically at the Linda Vista Hospital in Boyle Heights (a neighborhood situated east of downtown Los Angeles), which you may have seen featured in one of those cheesy ghost-hunting series on Syfy or the Travel Channel (I swear I heard something!). It has served as a filming location for several notable movies and television shows, including End of Days, Outbreak, Deadgirl, and the pilot episode of ER. In my case, we were shooting a low-budget vampire movie starring Kevin Dillon and Lance Henriksen; I was a lowly production assistant moving refrigerators up flights of stairs and pouring coffee for talent (Milk, Mr. Dillon? Sugar?).

People on that crew claimed to have seen strange things during production – the ghost of a young girl, scurrying about the hallways; the spirit of a man haunting the room that once served as the hospital’s morgue; the sound of chains and footsteps in the old “mental ward“. I found myself feeling uneasy several times, walking along the basement corridors in search of a stray gurney or an old piece of furniture to serve as set dressing. I didn’t and don’t believe in ghosts, but I’d seen enough horror movies taking place in abandoned hospitals to freak myself out just the same. Did I ever break into a terrified, pulse-pounding sprint at the sound of my own echoing footsteps (OHGODOHGODOHGODOHGOD)? You bet your fucking ass I did, and you would have too.

I bring this up because recently I visited the set of writer/director Padraig Reynolds’ Rites of Spring in Canton, Mississippi, and they just so happened to be filming in an abandoned red brick school (Old Canton High School), vacated in the mid-1970s and now standing like a massive, decaying mausoleum in the humid Southern air. The old auditorium, cavernous and dark, once the site of school assemblies and PTA meetings, now like an ancient cathedral with crumbling walls and ghoulish, impenetrable corners. Deserted classrooms, their dusty shelves still holding books and pamphlets from days gone past, stray desks and chairs standing by like lonely reminders. Sky-blue lockers, rusted and empty now, hugging the walls of tenebrous corridors that seem to stretch on for miles.

In other words, the perfect setting for a scary movie.

It was begging for a horror movie to be shot in it, it really was“, said pretty blonde actor Katherine Randolph (Black Ops, upcoming home invasion horror/thriller Knifepoint), who plays the role of “Amy“. “All of our locations have been super creepy, and super dusty…literally, we shot one sequence at a beautiful mansion… and everything else has been like just beat to hell. It’s like `wow, how is this still standing?’

It’s easy to see why the production decided to shoot in Canton – the town feels stuck in time, with old, faded buildings standing seemingly on every street corner.
It’s been used as a location for several high-profile films, including 1996′s A Time to Kill and 2000′s My Dog Skip. On my arrival at the school, Reynolds gave me a tour of the place and spoke excitedly about the experience of filming in Canton and the nearby communities. Turns out, the region is a treasure-trove of abandoned sites like this.

There are so many good locations here“, the director told me. “Like Bonner[-Campbell] College…it’s an abandoned college in the middle of the woods. It’s like, `holy fucking shit’. This is like a ten million dollar set.

Indeed, with a low-budget production like Rites of Spring, you take advantage of too-good-to-be-true locations like this (they also shot at the aforementioned Bonner-Campbell College in Edwards, Mississippi, which was once a religious school founded to serve the black community in the late 1800s). “All our locations are really fucking big“, said Reynolds. “I wanted to give it a really big feeling and a broad stroke…I wanted to make it look bigger than the budget.

The film, Reynolds’ feature directing debut (he previously helmed short film The Election, for which he won Best Director at the San Francisco International Film Festival), stars genre favorite AJ Bowen (The House of the Devil, The Signal) as Ben Geringer, a man who is roped into a kidnapping scheme involving his ex-boss, who recently had him fired under “murky circumstances“. When the plan goes horribly awry, Ben, his fellow kidnappers and their unfortunate victims find themselves in an abandoned school in the woods where they must engage in a fight for their survival against a force of evil whose lust for bloodshed coincides with the spring season.

This blend of kidnapping thriller and creature feature instantly brought to mind Robert Rodriguez’s ’96 splatter classic From Dusk Till Dawn, and I mentioned this to Reynolds to see how he’d take to the comparison. While acknowledging the broad-strokes similarities, he also made sure to point out the tonal differences.

Yeah, a little bit“, he said. “[But] instead of getting campy with the vampires at the end, it’s more serious…[although] I’m a big fan of `Dusk Till Dawn’.” Actor Sonny Marinelli, who plays Paul Nolan, one of Ben’s co-conspirators in the kidnapping plot, echoed his director when I brought up the same comparison to him: “‘Dusk Till Dawn’ got a little campy…this stays straight until the end.

Marinelli, a tall, dark-haired actor (with a set of gorgeous pearly whites) that Reynolds discovered in a short film screening at the Beverly Hills Film Festival where The Election was also showcased, essentially plays a sociopath who serves as the criminal mastermind behind the kidnapping scheme.

`This whole adventure’s like Six Flags for him…kidnapping, heisting, murdering, intimidating“, said Marinelli. “He loves every minute of it, except when things flip [on him]. But yeah, it’s like being on a rollercoaster, and screaming, and hollering, and hiding…he’s an adrenaline junkie. Instead of jumping out of planes, he kidnaps people and robs 7-Elevens.

Rites of Spring

Also helping to orchestrate the kidapping is Ben’s girlfriend Amy, played by Randolph. The actress described her character as a tough, desperate girl who initially takes the lead in the machinations, before things spiral out of control.

She kind of drives her boyfriend Ben to do this crime“, she told me, in a slight Southern drawl that can be attributed to her Jackson, Mississippi upbringing. “It’s not that she doesn’t on the inside probably have any remorse about kidnapping a child and everything, but she sees no other way out…she wants to get through this and get over it. And then everything of course goes horribly wrong. Not only with the kidnapping, but then of course with the creature.

Ah yes, the creature. Designed by concept artist Aaron Sims (Clash of the Titans, The Unborn, The Hills Have Eyes 2) and created by special f/x makeup man Toby Sells, he doesn’t show up until later in the film, and even then only in shadowy snippets. This is because Reynolds, whose filmmaking gods are John Carpenter and Terence Malick, is more interested in suspense than shallow thrills. While he told me we can certainly expect a fair amount of bloodshed, his style is less slash `n’ burn than character-driven and methodical – a slow, inexorable tightening of the knot.

It’s very atmospheric, there’s a lot of wides, [it's] shot on a long lens“, he said. “When we were starting to shoot it, everybody was like, `hey, there’s not a lot of blood in this movie’. I’m like, `I know’. It’s sort of more of like an art film, in a way. Cause we don’t really have a lot of money, so we have to design really cool ways to show deaths, instead of just going for the cheap gag.I then suggested that Carpenter’s Halloween and some of the other early slashers didn’t show much blood either. “I saw `Friday the 13th’ on T.V., and I think they cut out like 5 minutes of it, 10 minutes of it, [and] it’s still [just] as scary“, he intoned. “They cut out all the gore parts, but it was still very suspenseful…and that’s totally what we’re going for here, an atmosphere movie. And story-driven. I find a lot of horror movies these days aren’t really…first of all, they’re remakes. And second of all they’re really not story-based. They’re sort of stuck in that whole [sub-genre] of teenagers in the woods, teenagers here, teenagers there…following a formula. And I wanna try to break out of that formula and do something different.

Reynolds, a Missouri native who was in a punk rock band for ten years before breaking into the film business, is excitable and talks a mile a minute, his vocabulary sprinkled liberally with “dude“s and “awesome“s. When I spoke with Bowen in his trailer later on and asked him how Reynolds worked, it didn’t surprise me then that the first word out of the actor’s mouth was “emphatically“.

He’s very excited to have the privilege to make a movie“, said the actor, heavily bearded and with a tone that veers from deadly serious to seriously witty (in the driest sense of the word). “And across the board on this feature, I would say that everybody is very grateful for that…we’re getting good stuff. Everyone’s showing up and working hard… and Padraig has a lot to do with that. Because he’s so enthusiastic, and loves telling stories, and loves being on set.

The first scene being shot during my visit (the last night of filming, as a matter of fact) was a tense encounter in an upstairs hallway involving Bowen, Marinelli, Randolph, and The Signal actress Anessa Ramsey (more on her later), skittish and terrified, her shirt soiled with blood. After a few rehearsals they were ready to begin, and I settled in front of one of the monitors to get a better sense of Reynolds’ visual style.

Rites of Spring

Essentially, the scene involved Marinelli menacing the other three characters with a gun and engaging in a standoff with Bowen’s character. At one point Marinelli grabs poor, petite Ramsey (who plays a character by the name of Rachel Adams) by her hair and threatens to blow her brains out unless…well, for the purposes of this article, we’ll just go with “unless“. He then drags her, screaming and flailing, towards the stairwell, as she voices her fear in a final, ragged cry for help: “Ben, PLEASE DON’T LET HIM TAKE ME DOWN THERE!

As Bowen steps forward to help (he’s toting a firearm of his own), Randolph is left paralyzed in his wake, unaware that something much more terrible awaits them. Indeed, what she doesn’t see is that shadowy figure down the hallway behind her – maneuvering from one dark corner to another, his presence is established in a single eerie second of backgrounded screen time. Randolph finally senses something and turns to look – but he’s already gone. Classic Carpenter.

When [the creature] passes in the background he’s almost a mystery until the big reveal“, said Ramsey, taking a smoke break while Bowen was preparing to film a scene upstairs where his character would be throwing a school desk through a window (after several previous failed attempts, the stunt would this time prove successful). “You never really get to see what he looks like. And so in a scene, when you just catch a glimpse of him, it’s really easy to be scared.

The actress, who I managed to snag for an interview while she was perched on the loading dock of an equipment truck in the humid Mississippi night outside the school, is almost elfin in her features – she’s very pretty and extremely delicate (a stiff wind just might up and blow her away). Her appealingly laid-back demeanor makes her easy to talk to, like an old friend you never realized you had; she’s quick to laugh and possesses a wry sense of humor (“Old Soul” is practically scrawled across her forehead) that makes it easy to see how she and Bowen became close friends since they first co-starred together in The Signal. There’s a toughness there, too, that belies her dainty appearance.

It’s definitely the most physical role I’ve done to date“, Ramsey told me between drags, when I asked about the seemingly intense physicality of her role. “I begged from the get-go when I was given the script and offered the role to do my own stunts, and they just kept telling me no repeatedly. And then about a week before I came out, Nils [Onsager at Black Knight Stunts] the stunt coordinator…called me and was like, `hey, can you come in and learn these stunts?’ I was like, `fuck right I can’. So I kinda asked for it. I definitely earned my bruises and the glass in my feet. But I definitely don’t regret it. I feel like I’ve been working out…I’ve definitely done a lot of screaming, a lot of running, a lot of being thrown around, dragged, crying…lots of crying. It’s been fun.

While she couldn’t tell me much about her character (whose nature is key to the secret of the twisty-turny film), you can be sure she’s somehow tied in with the fearsome creature’s existence. “Rachel’s sort of responsible for a lot of terrible things that happen in this movie. I feel personally as an actor that – I hate the word motivation, but – a lot of the motivation comes from feeling really friggin’ guilty about…” She pauses. “I don’t wanna give any of the plot away, you’ll see. But as far as Rachel’s concerned, she sort of flies into this and ties two stories together.

Speaking to this clash of two presumably disparate stories, Bowen talked about the arc of his character from a desperate man in over his head to a man forced to take control of a rapidly escalating – and unexpected – situation. “You take these people that are grounded in this very real, tense situation and you throw a monster in“, he told me. “My guy ends up [as] basically a guy that has a crisis of conscience – it’s not something he wants to do. He doesn’t want to be putting anybody in harms way, and then he’s thrust into a situation where he has to try to make things right.

It’s a compelling character transition that has been utilized in countless films, but as with anything in the world of movie-making, it takes the right mix of people to bring it out and make it pop. On this front, Bowen seems to have found a good match in Reynolds, who he first met through mutual friend (and The House of the Devil director) Ti West.

Everybody thinks that Padraig and I have known each other a long time, because we get along really well, [and] we have very similar personalities. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing because Padraig’s kind of an ass…but he’s my kind of ass“, he said with a laugh. “It’s a very good working relationship because similar to Ti [West], we have sort of a shorthand, and also with like Jacob [Gentry] on `The Signal’, we had a shorthand. Padraig and I, we weren’t friends before we got into it and started working, which I was with Ti and Jacob. But with Padraig…I’ll say `Padraig, what do you want?’ And he’ll say, `Midnight Express’. And I immediately know what he’s talking about.

Back on set later, and with Randolph and Marinelli wrapped, it was time to shoot a scene where Bowen and Ramsey discover the creature’s (underground?) lair. I’m not sure how to describe it, except to say: remember the scene in “The Dream Master“, where Alice aims a piece of stained glass at Freddy (“Evil will see itself – and it shall die!“) and his former victims begin pressing up against his chest from the inside? Just think of that, but writ large and set in walls of stone (“props” to Jerel and Mary Queen, who designed and built the skin-crawling set).

As for the creature itself, I’ll leave its specifics up to your imagination, particularly because in Rites of Spring, it’s truly all about the big reveal. But I will relate one anecdote before I sign off.

During some down-time on the shoot, I decided to explore a little on my own, and found myself wandering down one of the long, dark corridors on the second floor of the school. Peeking inside room after room of exposed brick and decay, and feeling a little skittish, I turned back to walk in the direction of the set when I caught a glimpse of a figure in the dark, sitting against a wall about twenty feet away. My breath caught momentarily, and tentatively I stepped closer. And then a face, almost skull-like, began to appear out of the shadows. Was this to be my first paranormal experience?

Nah. It was just “the creature“, a flesh and blood human being (who I would later find out was a member of the crew named Chris Brown, tee hee) swathed in the guise of a ghoul. But he didn’t move, and for a second I didn’t either. I saw he had a drink in his hand, with a straw – just a man, see, quenching his thirst. I walked towards him, waiting for some acknowledgement of my presence; a human reaction to the intrusion of his solitude. He finally turned to me and nodded his head. I nodded back and offered a faint smile, feeling I should say something. But despite myself, I couldn’t help the hairs on the back of my neck from standing up on end. Another moment of hesitation, my lips beginning to part in anticipation of a quick salutation – but no. It was the boiler room at the Linda Vista all over again; that familiar pang of irrational fear had succeeded in taking me over, and I kept right on walking. The echo of my footsteps followed.

Check out more images here.

Rites of Spring