They Reach - Interview with filmmakers Sylas Dall and Bry Troyer, and lead actress Mary Madaline Roe
Filmmaker interview by: Darren Tilby
They Reach is due to have its world premiere at the first-ever online Grimmfest Film Festival on Thursday, October 8th. In honour of this, and to find out more about the movie, I spoke to Director and co-writer Sylas Dall, co-writer Bry Troyer and lead actress, Mary Madaline Roe.
Here's what Sylas Dall and Bry Troyer had to say:
They Reach has its world premiere on October 8th at Grimmfest's first online film festival. How excited are you, what led you here and just how important are these genre film festivals to your movie?
Bry: I was crazy-thrilled to land in Grimmfest. It’s a major win for They Reach, and one of my favourite fests. I’d love to attend, but there’s this virus you may have heard of?
Sylas: I let out a little squeal of glee! Hopped around the house, you know. My cat thought I was crazy. Then I popped open a top-shelf bottle of whisky and poured my fiancé and me a glass. Grimmfest is very important. And it’s a really fun, impressive fest to get into. I just wish I could actually be there in person.
You've described your film as being an "action horror movie with a little comedy thrown in" and likened it to films such as The Goonies, and I largely agree. But, for
me, the horror element was so strong; utilised so effectively, it kind of pushed to the back that whimsical adventure atmosphere many 80s coming-of-age films had. I felt there was much more of a Stephen King vibe going on here; a jet-black comedy-horror akin to King's It.
Sylas: When Bry and I started hashing out the story, we dove into story concept and tone big time. I grew up watching those VHS tapes of my parents, who introduced me to all those 80’s greats that I watched as a kid—everything from Goonies, Little Monsters and Monster Squad to The Thing and The Shining. Definitely, the influence of Stephen King flows through my work. But we decided to move into a darker zone, more Poltergeist than Monster Squad. I guess you could say "more Stephen King-ee." Plus we were targeting the teen to early 20’s demographic, and young adults are more likely to watch a movie like Stephen King’s It, than a Goosebumps film. So, we dove right into the dark side, while enhancing the journey with the kid sleuths solving a mystery. Maybe a little Stand By Me in there.
Bry: Of course Stephen King is a big influence in our work. I’ve been immersing myself in the horror of King since I read The Shining in 7th grade. King frequently blends humour with horror, which enhances the emotional intensity of a scene. Certainly, It demonstrated this. We wrote They Reach before the film, It, was released. Although the influence of King, from many of his books to movies like Stand By Me and Misery, is evident in the stories we create.
I also thought the comedic elements were very strong, with much of the humour coming from the three young friends. Is this something that was entirely written into the script? Or is it more a byproduct of having such a great cast of young people? I suppose what I'm really asking is, what do you think is most important: a well-written comedy or good chemistry and improvisation by the actors?
Bry: Script? Or Great Actors? It’s a tie! I will say that we definitely wrote comedic elements into our script. We start with characters – especially the protag and antag – and ornament the story with colourful mentors or sidekicks, or quirky enemies. We love our characters actually. We allow the characters to take us down the road, and if that road is getting too bland or repetitive, we find idiosyncratic situations or characters – like curves in the road or rockslides blocking the road – to spice up the story. Then amazing actors come along, like Mary Madaline or Eden Campbell, and add their interpretation of their roles. This makes the move even better. We lucked out with They Reach, especially with the trio of kids solving a horrific mystery – Mary, Eden, and Morgan Chandler.
Sylas: Bry and I totally injected humour into the script. AND we also cast an amazing trio of kids who brought their own vision into the film. I can tell you, we did not set out to write Hereditary, for kids. Ha! We love to mix in humour with horror, as we’ve seen in films like Poltergeist and the Evil Dead franchise. We both love characters that don’t just push the plot along but bring life to the story. I’m a character-driven kinda guy– and Bry’s that way too. Characters should naturally take us through the story. But back to our awesome cast. I’m a director who loves seeing what actors bring to the story. And a little improv here and there is a bonus.
It's said They Reach is a film of girl power, and I totally agree. It's great to see that women are being better represented in film, both in front of and behind the camera. And both Mary Madeline Roe and Eden Campbell have fantastic central roles here. How important was it for you that this was a female-centric film? And was that it difficult to get that right?
Bry: Very important. Nearly every horror/thriller in the sea of choices sticks boys or men in the lead roles. We’re thrilled to offer a coming-of-age film about a girl, not a boy, who learns to accept herself, and not let others define who she should be. AND she has a female side-kick – Eden Campbell – as the mentor and friend to help our hero accept herself for who she is.
Sylas: Yes! Thank you! An early version of the script included a male lead. The story was just not as powerful, though. In the 1970s, girls were really locked into girl roles. I believe this was more so than boys. Obviously, gender inequality still exists today, but in the 70s girls really faced considerable discrimination. Our lead character, Jessica, is a girl who dreams of becoming a scientist for NASA someday. Most of her classmates, and even her father, do not understand why she doesn’t focus on “proper girl” roles, like cheerleading or sewing. Jessica learns to accept herself for who she is, and not change because society thinks she should. In fact, her science smarts save the day! And she has a female (not male!) best friend and side-kick, who’s also somewhat of a mentor character, who basically says “F You” to societal norms. That’s the character, Cheddar. Bry and I pulled in our “consultants”, otherwise known as beer-drinking friends, who helped us out a lot and who happened to be female. Ultimately, it’s important to me that my films are not just “generic films” about scary shit, but films that have an underlying social message tucked in them. So They Reach is all about girl power for sure!
Who was the genius behind the Ellen Ripley poster in Jessica's bedroom? Because that was awesome!
Bry: Sylas found that. Great touch, right?
Sylas: I thought that having the poster would play well with our girl power message. I know Ripley kicks ass and Jessica wanting to be in outer space, this would represent someone she idolizes, plus I love that movie haha.
Speaking of which...there are so many pop-culture references in They Reach - whether it be lines of dialogue from iconic films, posters on walls or films playing on TVs. And personally, I loved discovering them. But was there ever any worry that their inclusion, particularly as there were so many, might cause parts of the film to feel contrived?
Sylas: Would it feel contrived? All those references? You do know there are 542 references tucked into our movie—let everyone know that. They need to watch it over and over to catch all of them (Hehe! I tease). I certainly devoured films as a kid and teen. Anything by John Carpenter, Spielberg, Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Sam Raimi – I gotta tuck all those Easter eggs from my heroes in there, you know? Ha! But for real, I think we can move into “contrived” territory if the tone allows. In They Reach, the tone does allow. Bry and I spent hours discussing the concept, theme, and how it all fits together with a fun but dark tone. They Reach does not have the “take this seriously” tone of The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby. It’s closer to It, with a little Goonies tossed in. Because of this, we can embrace those “contrived”-feeling situations. I mean They Reach is for young adults, teens/20s audience. We’re not targeting The Witch crowd – although if they want to check us out, we welcome them. I feel like we knew the world that we were creating and you can even see a They Reach comic book tucked in there next to Jessica's bedside.
Bry: Because of the tone of They Reach, and the rollicking horror/mystery we presented, we were able to have a little fun.
Every film encounters problems during its production, but was there any, in particular, that stands out for you, and how did you overcome it/them?
Sylas: It was definitely a challenge to get this film up and running, not to mention all of the hurdles we faced during the production. But that's why we had to make sure our film team (film family) was so strong, to rely on each other and to help one another up this tall hill, trying to make it to the top. All filmmaking is, is a bunch of difficult challenges, it's how you solve them in a creative manner that helps push the narrative of the film through while maintaining your vision.
Bry: We certainly had our fair share of problems to overcome, from budget woes to crazy set days. Usually, when we faced a problem, we fixed it and the film improved because of it. For example, the gym scene was originally scheduled to take place on a soccer field with lots of extras. We lost that location about a week out, and I scrambled to secure that vintage gym, which was the Knox High School Gym in Olympia, Washington. Shooting in that gym actually improved the film – we could control the lighting, the gym dated back to the 1940s I believe, and no Ford Fiesta or Prius would drive by in the background.
Can you tell us what's next for you?
Sylas: Well we do have some things in development, one being a Sci-Fi / Dark Comedy / with a little horror in it. The other is a horror/comedy series. Not much else we can go into, it's kind of on the HUSH HUSH for now.
Bry: We have a couple of projects in development currently, including a sci-fi/comedy feature and a horror/comedy series. I can’t wait to share these ideas over the globe – but gotta stay hush hush for now. And I can’t wait until we can shoot them in a virus-free world!
Here's what Mary Madaline had to say:
They Reach is your first leading role in a feature film. How was that experience for you?
Mary Madaline: It was an incredible experience. I couldn’t have asked for a better cast or crew to work with. I was treated very professionally and with respect, while still allowing me to be a kid. At the end of filming, I felt like we were all one big film family. Every day on set was so much fun. It was the happiest time of my life when I was on set for They Reach.
In They Reach you play the lead role, a character named Jessica. Could you please tell us a little bit about who Jessica is and what your thoughts were on the character after first reading her part? What did you like about her?
Mary Madaline: Jessica is a 13-year-old science nerd who has dreams to have a career with NASA, but struggles with acceptance from others and herself due to 1979 societal expectations to have a different, more ‘normal’ career. I fell in love with Jessica because she is smart, tough, driven and loves science.
What do you think you brought to the role of Jessica that made her the fantastic lead she was? Did you take inspiration from anything/anyone for your interpretation of her?
Mary Madaline: As I was reading the script, it was like seeing little pieces of myself on the page. I filmed the movie when I was in 7th Grade (age 12). At the time, I was very similar to Jessica, which is one of the reasons I was able to relate to her so well and bring her to life. We both loved robotics and science, were not with the ‘in’ crowd and had a few loyal friends.
Did you encounter any difficulties in playing Jessica? E.g. were you able to connect with the character easily? Were there any scenes, in particular, you found difficult? If so, how did you overcome these issues?
Mary Madaline: It was a mostly seamless transition in playing Jessica. I am very grateful to Sylas and Bry for allowing me in on the creative process of shaping Jessica’s character.
Adapting to the ’70s was a slight hiccup – I had to learn how to ride banana seat bikes, which was fun, but took me a hot minute to figure it out, especially how to apply the brakes! There was one scene that was difficult for me to portray, which was when Jessica shows up at Sam’s house to tell him some information. Jessica is very distraught, and I really had to dig deep to make the scene work. In the end, it turned out great.
I loved how Jessica, normally quiet and aloof, came alive when she was with her friends. It was like she just opened up and became a more confident and stronger person. Was this written into the script, or was it something that occurs organically?
Mary Madaline: One thing that people don’t realize was that Jessica is reserved in the beginning because her brother, Steven, had just died and she was coming back from the funeral. She was grieving, and that’s one of the main reasons she was so quiet. Steven was an All-Star Athlete that she adored. Her Dad called him his “champ” and Steven was idolized in the community.
Jessica isn’t as animated around people who aren't Sam and Cheddar because other kids her age (and even some adults) don’t get her. They don’t know how they can relate to her interests, and instead are rude to her without trying to understand her. She is so confident around Sam and Cheddar because they understand her, and they appreciate the aspects of her that are different. Due to this, Jessica feels like she can open up and be herself around them.
Without giving too much away (if possible) what was your favourite scene in the film to shoot and why?
Mary Madaline: My favourite scene to film was a scene where Jessica is trying to get back into Alex Quinnely’s house, and Alex has to stop her. Alex throws Jessica over his shoulder, and I get to pound my fists on his back and scream. He then tosses me in the car, and I slam my hands on the car window to try and get out. This was such a fun scene to film because there was so much action and I got to go all out on it.
My favourite scene in the entire movie is when Jessica’s Dad, played by Ash Calder, sees the ultimate potato light that Jessica has created. He gazes at the potato light with such pride in his eyes, and he finally realizes that Jessica is like him in the sense that she is creative and intelligent. He can finally relate to her, which was a big struggle for him previously in the film.
They Reach is a film with a great female-centric cast, both yourself and Eden Campbell have fantastic central roles here. Overall, do you think opportunities for women in film have improved or gotten worse? Where would you like to see improvement in this respect?
Mary Madaline: They Reach is unique because there are two strong yet different female characters, and I believe this is something that sets the film apart from others of its genre. I do believe that opportunities for women have improved because we can play practically any role. I’m at an interesting age in acting because SAG films will typically hire 18+ year old's to play teenagers. I can play 13-17 because of my height, and I hope that in the future I will get more opportunities and that my height won’t be a factor that eliminates me from being cast.
Do you have anything in the pipeline you can tell us about?
Mary Madaline: Unfortunately, COVID-19 has slowed the market considerably, and so I am not getting as many auditions just because there aren’t as many projects being made right now. As soon as the market opens up or returns to some normalcy, I will be auditioning for roles. I have such a passion for acting because I enjoy bringing stories to life. Even though I portray different characters for each role, I am my truest self when I'm on set because acting is what I am meant to do.