Downrange, a high concept thriller about a sniper who targets a SUV full of College kids on a deserted highway, made its debut last September at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness and will now stream on Shudder this Thursday, April 26th. The film hails from director Ryuhei Kitamura (The Midnight Meat Train, Versus) and stars a number of up and coming young actors, several of whom are making their feature film debut. I had the chance to sit down with Kitamura and his cast in advance of the film’s world premiere to chat about crafting a Hollywood pitch, working with an SUV as a co-star and how the film taps into topical American fears.*
Kitamura kicked things on by describing how the film came about: “This idea came to me five years ago. We [he and writer Joey O’Bryan] were focusing on coming up with an idea – something high concept, ’cause in Hollywood it’s all about the pitch…We were talking about what scares us. The big guy with the axe or the machete wearing the mask, he doesn’t really scare me – I can fight him. Sixteen years ago I made Versus because I wasn’t afraid of the zombies. Ghosts? They don’t scare me. Then Joey came up with this idea: what if you were targeted by a sniper? And that scared me. Because if I can’t see him, I can’t fight back…Three hours later, we had the idea.”
The young cast was attracted to unorthodox characters, whom they praise as strong, smart, and resourceful. They like that these kids have depth and aren’t stereotypical. Rod Hernandez (Todd) explained: “Being a minority actor, it was nice not to have to play the typical immigrant role,” suggesting that the casting was a deliberate attempt to break free of preconceived Hollywood moulds. Kitamura went to great lengths to find his six leads, calling actors back for multiple auditions to chat about the character. Jason Tobias (Jeff) felt that this was a way for Kitamura to get a feel for the actors and ensure that they were the right fit. In the case of Anthony Kirlew (Eric) and Kelly Connaire (Jodi), both of whom were students at the time, that meant taking a chance on first time actors for integral roles in the film.
It was important to Kitamura that the characters weren’t “a bunch of stupid kids [who are] crying and screaming.” Anthony praised the fact that everyone tries to survive, even if not all of their attempts work out for the best. “We’re all fighters” Stephanie Pearson (Keren) chimed in. This includes the SUV, which Rod joked should be considered “the seventh character”; the viewer that protects the characters for the majority of the film also provided the cast an opportunity to perform their own stunts. One memorable sequence occurs when the group tries to push the vehicle backwards in neutral to find a cell signal. Kitamura cited that sequence as his favourite scene of any of his films.
Filming in a single California location with wildly varying temperatures created its own share of challenges. Stephanie explained that the characters wear jackets during the day (when it was sweltering) and only t-shirts at night (when the real life temperatures plummeted). The outdoor shoot also garnered some unwanted attention: the fake blood makeup attracted both bees and wasps, the memory of which elicited groans and laughs from around the room.
Downrange makes unorthodox narrative choices by opening the film in media res. Kitamura explained that this was a deliberate decision. “One thing I don’t like about most horror movies,” Kitamura explained, “is when the first 15 minutes (sometimes 20, sometimes 30) is boring, meaningless conversation…[filled with] bad direction, bad acting. We made the decision: we’re not going to do that. So one of the first things Joey and I decided was to open the film when the tire goes boom. We open with a bang!” This, however, presents another challenge: how to introduce the characters without setting the scene? It is for this reason that the characters are strangers carpooling together; the introductions that follow the blow-out allows Downrange to establish relationships and create tension around how they will work together to survive.
Kitamura and O’Bryan also wanted to subvert expectations around preconceived expectations of who lives and who dies. Alexa Yeames (Sarah) believes that this requires audiences to pay closer attention: “You can’t just be a passive audience because you don’t know what’s going to happen next.” One thing audiences shouldn’t expect, however, is answers. Both Kitamura and the cast felt very strongly that the identity and motive of the sniper are best left unknown. Referencing classic 80s horror films like Duel and The Hitcher, Kitamura believes that leaving details about the villain unexplained makes it scarier. As Alexa stated: “It is closer to reality. There’s no bow at the end to explain why it happened or why it won’t happen to you.” Stephanie ventured further, suggesting that the film taps into a prevalent, topical concern for US viewers:
“That’s the great American fear – that people can pick you off for no rational reason. You go to the mall or school and that’s on your mind.”
So how does Kitamura feel now that his passion project is finally being screened for audiences? He and the cast are incredibly pleased with the finished product, calling it scary and thrilling.And even if audiences don’t like the film, Kitamura has faith in his ending. “The ending sells it. This is the ending that people will be talking about for years.”
*Portions of this interview have been condensed and paraphrased.