If there’s one type of film that horror fans have probably seen enough of over the past decade or so, it’s the found-footage film. Bookended by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007), the gimmick that has occasionally been used to innovative (not to mention profitable) effect has officially run its course. The last such film I subjected myself to, As Above So Below (2014), left me so motion-sick from its schizophrenic camerawork that I couldn’t even follow the plot. One could argue, of course, that paying minimal attention to the plot actually improved my impression of the film because its writing was idiotic, but that’s beside the point.
So it was with considerable trepidation that I approached Brian Netto and Adam Schindler’s new film Delivery: The Beast Within. Not only was I concerned about the physical challenge of sitting through yet another shaky camera flick without becoming literally as well as existentially ill, I couldn’t imagine how a found-footage, pregnancy-focused horror film that involved reality television could be anything other than terrible. However, I’m delighted to say that against all my expectations, I was completely wrong.
Delivery follows Rachel (Laurel Vail) and Kyle Massy (Daniel Barclay), an attractive young couple living in a quiet California suburb. Having already weathered pregnancy woes including a miscarriage only a few years into their marriage, they are overjoyed to be expecting their first child and have agreed to appear on a reality show about couples’ first pregnancies, ‘Delivery.’ After text on the screen sets up the film as a post-crisis record of “what really happened,” we are introduced to Rachel and Kyle via several scenes from the show. These opening vignettes were my first clue that Netto and Schindler had crafted a film far away from the crude, self-indulgent type I was anticipating; the fake reality footage is pitch-perfect, down to the glossy filters and aggressively upbeat music. I felt like I really was watching some cloying new social experiment on TLC (its own kind of horror movie).
But the film does more than accurately imitate the world it’s spoofing–the reality show framework quickly reveals itself to be more of a metaphor than anything else. As Rachel and Kyle try to navigate their changing relationship and anxieties about their unborn child, they are forced to confront how performative much of their relationship is, and how much others’ opinions affect their most intimate choices. They feel like they’re under a magnifying glass, and they are: both literally, though cameras being shoved at them (and surveillance cams, a la Paranormal Activity), but also emotionally, as Kyle’s childless buddies rag on him and Rachel’s overbearing mother insinuates herself into everything from the baby shower to the birth plan.
As you can guess from the poster’s creepy imagery, things decidedly do not go according to plan for Rachel as her pregnancy progresses. After a miscarriage scare she says she feels different, but can’t articulate exactly how—though she suddenly has cravings for undercooked steak, and her artwork, formerly innocuous, takes on disturbing new tones. She starts sleepwalking, the dog becomes afraid of her, and Satanic symbols begin appearing in the baby’s room. The obvious referent here is Rosemary’s Baby (1968), especially since Rachel’s every complaint or worry is dismissed out of hand by Kyle and by Rick (Rob Cobuzio), the reality show’s director and sometime narrator of the film. This aspect of the story is as old and well-trodden as it gets; women are crazy, and they get even crazier when they’re worrying for two. Even if a pregnant woman were possessed by a demon, how could you possibly tell, right? Right?
What’s refreshing about Delivery, and what’s been glaringly absent from other recent pregnancy-horror flicks like the execrable Devil’s Due, is that trotting out this set of stereotypes and their corresponding jump-scares isn’t all it’s capable of doing. Against all odds, Delivery has something perceptive to say about the confluence of our media-obsessed culture, the aging Millenial generation, and the archetypal fear that goes along with creating a new human life. Rachel isn’t pigeonholed as crazy as soon as things start getting weird; indeed, using her own video diary for the show, she films strange occurrences in the house that Kyle refuses to acknowledge. Kyle is also not reduced to one-dimensionality. Though he retreats into a teenage-boy sulk when Rachel presses him on their finances, he readily admits to Rick (and to the camera, and to us) that he’s just not sure he’s ready to be a father, and he’s worried he won’t do a good enough job. Against these raw, weighty anxieties, the possibility of demonic possession seems almost beside the point. Real life, even when it’s filtered through your TV screen, can be scary enough on its own.
Using this most modern of forms, the reality show, as its conceit, Delivery manages to stir up some of our deepest cultural anxieties—the horror of childbirth, the animalistic aspects of procreation, the enormity of being responsible for another person—without shying away from them, and without pinning them all, as Devil’s Due did, on a scary religious rite performed by dark-skinned strangers (like I said, execrable). Instead, Delivery offers an ultra-contemporary update to perhaps the most basic set of horrors; how do you make a family, and what must you sacrifice to get there?
I had the opportunity recently to chat with Brian Netto (director, co-writer) and Adam Schindler (producer, co-writer) about where Delivery came from, their experiences in the festival and distribution worlds, and what’s next on their docket.
Diabolique: So where did the idea for a reality show as a framing device for the film come from?
Brian Netto: When we first started working on this film, it was before the first Paranormal Activity, and the project definitely had its roots in the resurgence of the mockumentary/found footage subgenre. We wanted to frame the story in an upbeat world, and then start gradually introducing the horror into it. You’re watching this couple fall apart slowly but surely, until you get to the final scenes when it feels more like a traditional found footage film.
Diabolique: Do either of you have experience working on reality shows? You really nailed the feel of those scenes.
Adam Schindler: We don’t have any personal experience with reality shows–but you don’t need to spend a lot of time to pick up the format of how these shows work. Our wives both watch them religiously, so we sat down and researched them. We wanted it to be a family-friendly, TLC-style show. We wanted it to be like, this could be our neighbor, and to have it feel familiar.
BN: The stuff you see these days is very much docu-reality, because it doesn’t feel like the shows have intentionally cast certain people. But the reality is that people want to be cast, and want to be in front of the camera, and want to be discovered. So we wanted this couple to feel accessible, but like one of them would have to convince the other one to be on the show.
Diabolique: This whole film felt so naturalistic. How much was scripted versus improvised?
BN: [Vail and Barclay] were performers who lent themselves to something highly improvised. You can cast actors more easily with words written on a page, and a lot of this was finding actors comfortable with dramatic improvising.
AS: All in all, we wrote 65 pages that had bits of dialogue and all the plot points. During shooting we would just give the actors an in point and an out point and let them go. Sometimes they needed to say particular lines to get the story where it needed to be, but they never saw the script.
Diabolique: They never saw the script? At all?
BN: They got to see the script at the end, but it was just so they could see how closely it matched up [with the final film]. We didn’t want them taking any of the plot points or lines and putting too much emphasis on a particular moment, to show where the story was going. We didn’t want them to play it like a horror film; we wanted it just to come across however they played it. We wanted them to be real.
Diabolique: Did they have trouble with the improvising?
AS: We cast Rachel really early on, and then we had originally cast someone as Kyle and had to recast. Danny came in because he had a connection with Laurel. We auditioned him and he just felt right–they had the right chemistry because they already knew each other, a little, off camera. They went with it, they were pretty fearless. And they had a lot of prep time–7 or 8 months of us sending them little homework assignments of watching birthing videos and creating a backstory of their ‘marriage.’
BN: They embraced it. All the actors were exhilarated by the challenge of it, and they trusted us. They had an enormous amount of trust in us.
Diabolique: So why horror? Are you both fans, or were you just excited for the challenge of tackling the genre?
AS: We’ve always been genre fans. We’ve been friends for 25 years–we grew up in Minnesota together, and always gravitated towards those types of films.
Diabolique: Why this particular story? Or was it just horror in general you wanted to explore?
BN: It was between Paranormal (2007) and Cloverfield (2008)–the goal was to find something we could actually make. Our agent found a copy of this film Lake Mungo (2008), and we absolutely flipped for it. For Delivery, the structure of the idea was in place within a day, and we wrote it very quickly.
We also met Oren Peli pre-release, he had made Paranormal two years before and it was sitting on a shelf. He was very forthcoming and nice as we asked him for advice on putting our project together, but you could tell he knew something big was about to happen.
AS: He talked about the trials of making Paranormal, and we organized some of what we did around how he had made that film. Then literally a month after this meeting, it came out, and it [Paranormal] totally changed the landscape for what found footage could be.
Diabolique: Tell me a little about the shoot itself, and the timeline you guys were dealing with.
BN: We financed Delivery independently. We shot in 2011, and by early 2013 we were in festivals.
AS: We spent about 6 months shooting, 12 days of principal photography and then pickups and whatever, and then we brought in the producer (Cobuzio) and shot all his interviews. And then we lost a couple editors we had lined up to bigger studio deals, so we ended up editing it ourselves.
BN: We had a very specific pace in mind for the narrative, constantly bombarding people with information, sometimes answering those questions and sometimes not, and it actually ended up working out. We secured our premiere at the 2013 LA Film Festival, and around that time a lot of similar films were coming out, right in those same few months.
AS: People have thought that Delivery was a rip-off of Devil’s Due (2014), when we were actually in the can before their script was even done. But they had a bigger budget, so it ended up being the bigger movie.
Diabolique: Well, I can tell you it’s certainly not the better movie [all laugh]. Has your experience on the festival circuit nationally and internationally helped or hindered you in getting USA distribution?
BN: We sold out our screenings at LA film fest, so it definitely helped. After that, it was a matter of figuring out what’s next. And we tried to get out ahead of Devil’s Due, but it didn’t end up happening.
We really liked playing at festivals like LA and New Orleans that aren’t known for genre, and while we loved playing at Sitges (Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival, in Spain) and places like that, we knew it was a balancing act to appeal to those audiences as well as more traditional audiences. Seeing them enjoying it was great–it paid off for some people, and for some it wasn’t bombastic enough. We posed a challenge to ourselves: could we make a film about a subject that typically is not seen as suspenseful, and turn it into one?
AS: It was and is a wonderful experience–the audiences, what film festivals are about, meeting people and going to each other’s screenings, the support you get…it’s like camp, filmmaker camp. Each one offers something different.
Diabolique: So what’s your distribution plan for the film, going forward?
AS: What was our plan? [Laughs] I hope somebody buys it! We really didn’t go into it thinking about selling it; we wanted [Delivery] to be good enough for people to recognize, and then work on making the next one.
We worked with The Collective, and had a limited theatrical release in May  as well as a DVD release, and VOD which started on September 30th. Netflix and cable networks are being negotiated now but that’s all part of the plan. Thus far, it’s all been great. Getting a limited theatrical release for a film this size is great.
Domestic distribution actually came first–XYZ films came on earlier than most sales agents do, when we were just done shooting, and signed on to sell the film before it was even done. Where we sold foreign was mostly English-speaking countries that were familiar with reality television–UK, Australia, places like that. Our foreign agent told us there were places where they won’t get [reality TV], and that made it difficult to sell in some places.
Diabolique: I’d like to thank you both on behalf of all audience members for toning down the shaky camera thing! Were you really conscious of that while filming?
AS: [Laughs] We were definitely aware of it. Reality show cameramen definitely know how to frame shots, and we tried to do as little of the shaky camera stuff as possible, just a little at the end.
BN: We want to see what’s in the frame, we want to capture it. We weren’t hiding anything.
Diabolique: Did you have particular films in mind that you were paying homage to? Obviously Rosemary’s Baby is hard not to think about. Were there specific things you were trying to reference, or not reference, in Delivery?
BN: We both have filmmakers we’re huge fans of, but for this story [the goal] was literally to make it believable as a documentary, a mockumentary. Obviously Rosemary is there, but believe it or not, I had not seen it until after our first draft of the script.
BN: [Laughs} And I have no reason….but I have no problem admitting it. I’ve since become a Polanski fanatic. I watched Rosemary and I thought, holy shit, this is our movie! This is truly a film that’s going to borrow heavily from Rosemary, and watching it forced us to go even more in that direction, since we knew we’d be compared to it anyway. We amped up a lot of the things, the is-she-or-isn’t-she feeling that keeps coming up to the very end of the film. Are there characters that are not to be trusted?
AS: We embraced it–there will be similarities [to Rosemary], but we’re doing our own version of it. And people seem to be liking it. We wanted a visceral reaction to it, which we’ve been getting.
Diabolique: So why pregnancy horror in particular? Do either of you have personal experiences that made you interested in pursuing this storyline?
AS: Mainly, it was just the most original way we could figure to put this story together. But it was serendipitous too: in pre-production, my wife was pregnant all the way through the shoot, and Danny’s wife gave birth two weeks before we shot, and another crew member had just adopted an infant, so the whole movie was drenched in pregnancy. It definitely allowed us to use our experiences to really add to the reality of it. Luckily, there was no demonic pregnancy for either of us!
BN: I had seen Up (2009), the pixar movie, and there was a short that played before it about the stork that delivered babies. But this stork delivered all the bad babies, like sharks and hedgehogs. It was a fun visual–and it made me wonder where bad kids come from. I also thought about those horrific stories you hear about women with post-partum depression–what could have led to this story you’re now seeing on the evening news?
It was less about the pregnancy itself and more about peeking behind the curtains of the people next door–how are the Joneses living? People who are like you, but have that one little thing that’s different. You’re looking and, if you have a camera on something long enough, you find something you don’t want to see.
Diabolique: So what’s next for you guys?
AS: Our next film is called Shut In, about an agoraphobic woman who is the victim of a home invasion. She can’t leave her house even after that happens, and it turns out that’s not her only psychosis. It gets interesting.
BN: Another interesting, complex, drawn-out female character!
AS: We just finished shooting in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the film is hopefully coming out next year.
Diabolique: Is it a horror movie proper? Can I say that?
AS: It is a horror movie, you can call it that. A horror-thriller. It definitely has horrific elements to it, and a lot of suspense. We’re excited.