Described as a “love letter to horror, slashers and creature features of the ‘80s” by writer/director David Pether, local film Ashburn Waters follows a group of old high school friends who get together for a reunion camping trip over Easter weekend in Australia.
Having failed to book a site at any of the busy local camping grounds, they are directed to Ashburn Waters, a camp that has been shut down due to unexplained murders. What starts out as a fun trip away quickly turns to horror as members of the group are taken out one by one by something lurking in the campgrounds.
We caught up with Pether ahead of his appearances at Supanova Melbourne and Gold Coast.
The film has been a long-time passion project of yours. Take us back to the start of all this…
Yes, I’ve been with this movie for a long time! From the sparking of the idea to the eventual completion of the feature film took eight years. It was way back when I was nearing the end of my film school education, the other students and myself were discussing what we wanted to do once we finished.
At this point, I had already made a few short films and had realised they weren’t really getting me anywhere. It’s really hard to sell or even gain any recognition from shorts so I thought, if we could only make a full feature film, we might have a chance! But of course, being a young filmmaker, all my ideas were of the huge blockbuster Hollywood production type, that we definitely didn’t have the budget to get made.
So, I had to think smaller. I’ve always been a huge horror movie buff, my favourite movies being the Friday the 13th franchise, and that’s when it hit me. I needed to make a camping horror movie. It could be done with a small crew, isolated sets and the best thing about horror is that you don’t need ‘name’ actors to sell it. In fact, the genre almost always thrives the cheaper and nastier it is!
It was inspired by an “actual terrifying camping experience” – what was that?
Yes, that was the point where I knew we could make a really creepy camping horror film. I was camping with the film’s cinematographer Damian Hussey over Easter weekend. Damo headed off to have a shower, leaving me alone in our tent and it was like the minute he left, this incredibly violent storm kicked into gear, battering our tent, causing the lantern we had hanging from the ceiling to throw creepy shadows over the walls.
Even though the campground was full, when I peeked outside it looked like a ghost town. Lightning would strike, illuminating the other tents and camper vans, and there was just this super eerie feeling about it all. A very cinematic feeling, I thought. Anything could be lurking just outside our tent… Then Damo came barging in out of the rain, slapping the tent flap open, scaring the bejesus out of me! That’s when I said to him, “We need to make a camping horror movie.”
You also tried to avoid painful horror clichés, right?
The main problem I find with a good number of horror films is weak, stereotypical characters. Sure, we’re all here to see them die in the most fun and grotesque ways, but it just means so much more when you actually care about them! So, when writing the script, I made every effort to create ‘real’ characters with ‘real’ issues.
Then people start dying and that just adds to their problems! For instance, in the writing process, I was thinking about what really scares me. I mean really scares me, not just monsters or killers, and at that point in time, I had just broken up with my ex and couldn’t think of anything worse than seeing her with someone new. So, our main character Brett is forced to go on this camping trip with his ex-girlfriend and her new flame. I think this mixture of the horror of dealing with this while also witnessing your friends die brings an interesting dynamic to everything.
What style were you going for?
While being a horror film, Ashburn Waters is also a lot of fun. Among the scares, there is plenty of comedic relief in the form of some North Queensland based humour. I grew up making short films in Townsville, and feel that the kind of jokes me and my mates would tell up there were rarely represented in any kind of film, let alone a horror movie. So, you can expect to have a bit of a giggle while we scare the pants off of you!
This is just the start for Shadow Fish Pictures – what’s planned from here?
The plan was always to make this smaller-scale feature and see where that takes us. I’ve got a few ideas that I’d love to see projected onto a cinema screen, it just depends on what opportunities present themselves after the release of Ashburn Waters.
But honestly, after this eight-year masterclass in independent filmmaking, I’d love to make a short film before jumping into another feature. Something I can bring to completion a little quicker! Probably something similar to what we did with Ashburn, shoot a stand-alone short or scene that we could use as a concept to gain more traction and funding to turn into a full-length feature.
What can fans expect at Supanova?
I’m am SUPER excited for Supanova! Being a self-confessed pop culture nerd, I frequent Supanova every year. In fact, I met my partner of now eight years at Gold Coast Supanova in 2012! Every year I am in awe at the artists and talent that is drawn to the Expo, and have always dreamed to be able to show off some of my work to the fans that clearly appreciate this type of content. It truly is a dream come true to be involved, and punters can expect a special screening of the film, coupled with a Q&A with myself and other members of the cast and crew, where we can share our war stories with you all!
Anything you’d like to add?
We shot Ashburn Waters in 2013 and it took six years to complete post-production, mainly because we were relying on volunteers to free up their time and work on the film when they could. The part that took the longest was the sound. I was pedantic about it, and wouldn’t settle for anything sub-par, because to me sound is the most important part of film, especially in a horror movie. Sure, pretty pictures are awesome, but it is the sound that immerses you in the world and makes you believe it. I’m very happy with our sound-mix, it was worth putting in the extra time to get it right. I now believe that what we have is the best version of the film that it can possibly be.
Ashburn Waters has basically been my baby for all that time, and finally finishing last year was extra special, as it has timed out with the birth of my partner Bec and my first ‘real’ baby! In fact, Bec started going into labour as soon as the screening of Ashburn Water’s world premiere at the Bayside Film Festival rolled credits! We had our little boy, Kit, two days later!