What happens when five young Americans go on an exciting adventure to a strange, exotic land? In the horror genre, more often than not they have a thoughtful and compelling cultural experience and walk away emboldened by their strides towards self-actualization… Alright, so we all know what happens to our soon to be fallen hapless and naïve explorers. Whether it’s a cryptic legend of a doll-making witch in Connecticut or a bunch of hipsters looking at VHS tapes in some dead guy’s house, we know that whatever sense of adventure will be quickly cast aside, often flipping it to reflect our worst expectations. Going into the woods with only one map and no smartphone because it’s 1994? Bad idea. Moving into a house built on an ancient Indian burial ground? Super bad idea. Want to help out a young girl possessed by some demon? Let the old priest and the young priest handle that one please, it’s what the Church is for. And the list goes on and on.
But where other movies use the “over-the-meadow & through-the-woods” adventure set-up as an excuse to quickly kill people off, Renny Harlin’s latest project takes a page from one of his most famous films, Cliffhanger, where the surroundings play a huge part of the emotionality of the characters. In Devil’s Pass, Harlin’s “found footage” horror movie, releasing on VOD and in theaters this Friday, August 23rd, from IFC Films, the exoticism of the Russian Arctic Circle plays an integral part of the story. With a past and present that exists both stuck in time and timeless, how these character react to the elements within this vast isolated “nether-zone” characterizes the strange occurrences within this landscape as the region’s own demonic forces. In other words, the location itself becomes a type of atmospheric void, functioning as the faceless monster that is (figuratively) tearing them apart.
We here at Diabolique had the opportunity to catch up with Ryan Hawley, Gemma Atkinson and Holly Goss from the film and see what it was like working on Devil’s Pass…
DIABOLIQUE: This project was really quite a surprise to the horror community, as it sort of came out of nowhere and has been shrouded in mystery ever since it’s enigmatic announcement. However, with a project like this, there must have been a certain amount of willingness to dive head first into whatever horror may lie within the film. What was the first thing that attracted you to the script to Devil’s Pass?
RYAN HAWLEY: I love horror films. I became obsessed with them as a kid, so I’ve always wanted to do one. I liked that Devil’s Pass was an investigation into real events that happened over 50 years ago, that to this day remain unexplained. After reading up on [those events], I found it fascinating. I was quite surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. I thought the story we were trying to tell about young filmmakers, venturing into the Ural Mountains trying to solve the mystery was really engaging and a perfect situation for a horror movie. Also, it had a sense of humor which I liked and I thought that made it quite unique.
GEMMA ATKINSON: The first thing that attracted me to the script was that it said “Directed by Renny Harlin” under the title. I’m a huge fan of his films, especially Cliffhanger, so the thought of being able to work with him directly was a huge sway before I’d even read the script. [But] the story is great too; you genuinely have no idea what is happening to anyone throughout [the film]. It wasn’t predictable, which I liked.
DIABOLIQUE: Inversely, what became your favorite aspect to the Devil’s Pass once the film was completed?
HOLLY GOSS: I loved the fact I found it frightening. If you’re involved in something, you understand how it’s done and how it works, so you think you wouldn’t find it as frightening but I still did. Maybe I’m just a scaredy-cat!
ATKINSON: My favorite aspect to the film was how real it looks. The filming conditions were tough and it looks that way on camera. There weren’t any makeup touch ups or making sure we looked neat all the time like on other films I have worked on. [The characters] all look freezing cold with red noses and blue lips, and we were too! It makes it much more fun and real to watch. It feels like a real documentary.
DIABOLIQUE: Having an experience and ambitious director like Renny Harlin in your corner definitely separates Devil’s Pass from many run-of-the-mill studio found footage projects. What was it like working with Renny Harlin as a director?
GOSS: It’s certainly not something I’m going to forget anytime soon. When I was younger The Long Kiss Goodnight was one of my favorite films. I even wanted to have the short blonde hair like Gina Davis had; I thought she was so tough and cool. It’s very exciting to work with someone whose work you admire.
HAWLEY: At first, I was quite intimidated meeting him. I had seen most of his movies and it can be quite nerve racking meeting someone like that. But when I met him in the audition, I realized I was completely wrong. I remember that we had to improvise something for him and I did [my character] Andy’s take on what could have happened to the original expedition and throughout I could see his beaming smile in my peripheral vision, and when I finished, he was laughing, and he goes, “We’ve got to put that in the movie!”.
Every suggestion we made or any contribution, he loved it and wanted to use it. He was so encouraging and responsive to any suggestions we made as a cast and I felt so involved and included in making the film. When we got to Kirovsk, the town where we shot the snow scenes, it was pretty remote and we were all like one big family having dinner together every night, and up on the mountains all day, it felt like an expedition. It was an incredible experience and I had so much fun working with him.
ATKINSON: Working with Renny was fantastic. On set, he’s the boss, but you have no fear in asking questions or queries to him. He knows what he wants shot wise and until he has it, he’s not happy. He’s passionate about the end result even if it means him not sleeping for a month! Off camera, he is a real gent and always made sure we all socialized around a table full of food after a long shoot day. He looked after his cast and crew. He’s a strong character who I admire very much.
DIABOLIQUE: A lot of times in found footage films, character development is left by the wayside, but Devil’s Pass definitely works hard to involve the audience with these characters and their journey. What was it like playing your characters Holly, Denise, and Andy, respectively? What appealed to you about these roles, specifically?
GOSS: Sharing the same name as the character is where the comparison ends. I’m really nothing like her: different age, different background, from a different country, completely different personality. So having the challenge of playing someone so unlike you and trying to give a realistic interpretation of that person in an extreme circumstance is a challenge, albeit one that excited me greatly and one that I tried very hard to rise to.
ATKINSON: With Denise, I firstly loved that she was an American as that, for me, was a huge challenge. She’s also one of the lads and a bit of a tough cookie, which I liked. I liked how the cast was so small, the five of us each made our characters individual and in the end just bounced off each other in scenes. It became really natural.
HAWLEY: I loved that he was such a know-it-all with all this bravado, always competing, taking himself so seriously, trying to maintain his alpha male status. I had a lot of fun playing around with that [aspect]. I got to be the guy in charge leading everyone through the snow climbing the mountains; I absolutely loved it.
Also, with “found footage” films, there is the added challenge of creating a sense of realism and spontaneity with your performance, so the audience believes in the situation. I really liked the playfulness involved in that and the relationship you have with the camera, as you often address it directly as if one of the characters is operating it. There was quite a lot of improvisation from the whole cast, a lot of which made it into the film.
DIABOLIQUE: The found footage genre has especially seen a boom in its entries as of late, considering they’re cheaper to produce and often times more practical to pull off. What sets the Devil’s Pass apart from other horror movies with similar “found footage” set-ups?
GOSS: Of course, there will always be comparisons to other found footage movies, but in watching it I think most people will agree that it was the best style for the story. I feel the film is quite a unique horror, certainly in terms of the story. When filming in Moscow, I was amazed at the amount of intelligent Russian men and women, who are not “conspiracy theorists” and still genuinely believe that something untoward happen to those nine people, most saying they believe it had something to do with the Russian government. There is something incredibly frightening about that, that even today, in a world where most conspiracies can be countered with some rational explanation, “The Dyatlov Pass Incident” still remains one of the greatest conspiracies. There couldn’t be more of a perfect setting for a horror film!
HAWLEY: The setting for this movie is very different from anything else I have seen. Yes, it’s remote and isolated and foreign to the characters, but it’s the place where the real life events actually took place back in 1959 and I think the fact that there is a true mystery at the center of it makes it so intriguing. No one knows what happened to those people back in 1959 and once you know a bit about it, you want to know more, [which is something] I hope that will attract people to the film.
Also, although it’s “Found Footage”, there isn’t shaky camera at all. These are some very good student filmmakers with good equipment and camera skills! The shots of all the scenery are absolutely breathtaking.
DIABOLIQUE: Of course, with horror projects, there’s always the question about the content of the piece, whether it’s the physical stress it puts the actors within or the actual extremity of the film’s violence. Was there any scene within the film that made you feel uncomfortable while filming?
HAWLEY: We were filming in the Arctic Circle, which is by far colder than anywhere else I’ve ever been, and although we were very well clothed and looked after, there are scenes in the film where we are wearing less than we should be, and that was quite a challenge. After a couple of takes, I remember my hands being so cold from falling in the snow so many times without gloves on that I thought I was going to lose a finger or two! But when I looked around and realized I wasn’t the worst one off, I thought it would be best to keep my mouth shut and get on with it. But later that day, one of the other guys fell over in the snow and lost feeling in his hand and had to go to hospital. After a few days, it started to come back but that was quite scary!
I also remember some of the hiking in the snow shoes was on pretty steep slopes and it could get quite icy and there was a lot of slipping, and the character I play is the team leader so I was always in front. I loved it, but then sometimes I did look around and think, “I wonder how safe this is.”
GOSS: The environment was of course extreme; scenes that were shot at night on the mountain are exactly what you see. We were there at 9 p.m. at night, in the dark, in well below freezing temperatures, but it was fun, exciting and a once in a lifetime experience.
Plus, if it got really cold, you never seemed to be far from a Russian with a hip flask.
ATKINSON: There was a scene which was hard to film for the reason that I was beyond freezing! Without giving too much away there’s a scene where my character is particularly vulnerable to a lot of snow, and we only had a few minutes to film it as the mountain team had said any longer could lead to me having frost bite. I was in my trailer psyching myself up for it and, in the end, I just went for it. Of course, the team were fabulous and the scene looks great! I had the longest hot bath and the biggest shot of whiskey in my life after shooting that day!
DIABOLIQUE: What do you think audiences will enjoy most about the Devil’s Pass?
ATKINSON: I think Devil’s Pass is different, in that elements of it are genuinely true. We still to this day do not know what happened to those people. To be a part of that is surreal. I feel I now have some kind of a connection to an unsolved mystery.
HAWLEY: I think it’s a fun movie to watch; it’s like an adventure. It’s so different to anything else I’ve seen and has such an interesting mystery at the center with epic, real scenery and some unexpected turns in the plot that will surprise people.
GOSS: I think it will be different things for different people. It’s certainly a thrilling film and I think horror fans will really like it. It tries to do something quite different [with the genre] and I think it achieves that; that’s got to be something that any film fan can appreciate.
Devil’s Pass, starring Hawley, Atkinson, Goss, Luke Albright, Richard Reid and Matt Stokoe scares select theaters from IFC this Friday, August 23rd, and will simultaneously be available on VOD, iTunes and Amazon. For more information on Devil’s Pass, you can visit its official website, visit IFC Midnight’s Facebook or follow IFC Films on Twitter: @IFCFilms. For more from Holly Goss, you can follow her on Twitter: @hollsie. For more from Gemma Atkinson, you can visit her official website or follow her on Twitter: @MissGAtkinson. Check back later this week for Diabolique’s exclusive interviews with Devil’s Pass actor Luke Albright and the inimitable director of the film, Renny Harlin.
For more on Holly Goss, Gemma Atkinson, Ryan Hawley and Devil’s Pass, keep checking back here at DiaboliqueMagazine.com! Don’t forget to pick up Diabolique #17, available now for iPad/iPhone at the App Store, and will be on shelves and for other digital platforms VERY soon!
– By Josef Luciano