Creating A Vision of Horror, Interview with The Boy Behind the Door Production Designer Ryan Brett Puckett
Austin’s Fantastic Fest is the largest genre film festival in the U.S., attracting the best in horror, sci-fi and fantasy. This year was no different, even if it was entirely virtual, with stand outs including The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Possessor and Teddy. Another title garnering attention from critics was The Boy Behind the Door, directed by newcomers David Charbonier and Justin Powell. The chilling tale follows best friends Bobby (Lonnie Chavis) and Kevin (Ezra Dewey), as they are kidnapped and taken to a strange house in the middle of nowhere. They soon come to the realization, either outwit their capture or never see their families again. Adding to the overall darkness of the film is the production design by Ryan Brett Puckett. Puckett, whose other credits include The Walking Dead: World Beyond and The Star Wars Show, goes into full detail about his approach for the film, including the famous bathroom/axe scene reminiscent of The Shining, below. You can also learn more about Puckett here: https://www.rbpproduction.com/about-ryan-brett-puckett.
-Was there anything that surprised you with the production of The Boy Behind the Door, once you all began filming?
This movie is obviously thick with tension, and it was all very serious through preparation. Once we got to shooting everyone would be huddled around monitors watching a scene unfold so quietly, then when “cut” gets yelled there is this big rush of excitement, and joking, etc. Lonnie and Ezra could be running around laughing and playing outside just minutes after finishing an intense scene. Those kinds of moments are always the nice surprises.
-What would you say is your main job as a production designer of a film in the horror genre?
Usually finding good reasons to be elsewhere when it comes time to clean up the bloody scenes! Generally, the tasks of Production Designer are the same as any other genre of film. We create a look for the world in front of the camera based on the script and the Director’s vision. Most designers I know really enjoy the challenge of working in different styles. Getting a chance to take a deep dive into a niché aesthetic, add your own twist, then run with it is a really engaging adventure. Compared to other genres, horror can be such a wide-open opportunity to push those boundaries and I find that to be exciting.
-In a previous interview you said you created a backstory for the origins of the house in your design process. What was that backstory?
The vague spoiler free version involves three generations of family and struggles over inheritance of the house built on the wealth of a local oil boom. Our kidnapper became the final owner eventually. As an outcast from the family business, they ended up selling off the remaining estate and using the property for a variety of shady business arrangements which evolved in severity as the stakes got higher over the years.
-There is a scene in the film that is very reminiscent of the bathroom scene in The Shining. This was intentional correct?
I had been looking forward to this scene for weeks! So much time went into testing and building the doors to behave the way we wanted when hit with an ax, all while still being safe for the actors. Our amazing stunt coordinator and I got to swing at a lot of doors, and there was a lot of anticipation for how it was finally going to play out.
I’m certain David and Justin have a much more eloquent perspective of how these references work within the world of the film. I always enjoyed the belief that our kidnapper appreciated The Shining as much as I do, then acted on that memory out of reflex. An ax really is an efficient tool for getting through an old panel door.
-Why do you think the directors, David Charbonier & Justin Powell, thought it was important for the film to take place in the Midwest, as opposed to California, where the film was shot?
I don’t think there is a black and white answer here from my perspective. The evolution of a film during production, even after a script is finished, becomes an intriguing part of the process. When I started working on prep, the fictional location of the house was a vague idea, though we knew the film ended at the ocean. Most of the time shooting in CA isn’t a creative choice but rather a practicality based on access to equipment, actors, scheduling etc. Our Art Director Kyle Smith and I started researching places around the country that had oil fields with similar geography to our real house location, and there were only a few places that matched. We felt there should be some literal distance between the wide-open ocean the kids dreamed of and the cold horror of the house location, so we settled on the idea of it being located in a fictional portion of the Dakotas.
-Did you map anything out in prep, that once you began filming you had to modify?
I’m a big fan of planning in advance for potential chaos, so when new opportunities present themselves, we are in a comfortable enough space to consider them. About midway through shooting, a chance came up to expand the concept of one of the sets, but there was no room in the house location that looked right. In just a few days we were able to work up new designs, start additional construction, and re-order the shoot schedule to allow for one of the previous rooms to be converted to a totally different space. The story starts to grow on its own, and those last-minute transformations can be great opportunities to further develop the world.
-The kidnapper’s house is surrounded by oil rigs. How do you think that setting affected the vibe of the film?
I hope it had the same effect it did on us while filming. It’s like a constant and inescapable ticking clock. There is something surreal and unsettling about the juxtaposition of houses embedded in industrial spaces like that.
-From watching The Boy Behind the Door trailer, it seems like most of the shots in the film are never naturally lit. They either have very yellow, blue or red tones. What was your thought process behind this?
Lighting color palette is an aesthetic choice the Cinematographer develops with the Directors to guide the emotion of the film in a way they feel best tells the story. As Production Designers we work with that palette to build a cohesive look in the sets, props, and locations, etc. to help support that overall look. The idea of natural lighting can mean a lot of different things depending on the context. Since our house was located in the middle of an oil field, it was surrounded with a wide mix of residential and industrial light sources. The mix of sodium or mercury vapor lamps, old fluorescent tubes, and traditional incandescent sources really did create an environment with an array of colors. Our Cinematographer Julián Estrada lit the house during filming in a way that, while very stylized and beautiful on camera, was also appropriately natural relative to the odd location we were in.
–The Boy Behind the Door has screened a few different film festivals. Do you have an idea when it will be released in theaters or VOD?
I am eagerly anticipating more details on this as well! We’re excited for more people to have the opportunity to see the phenomenal work the cast and crew poured into this film.