Director Benjamin Howdeshell on his thrilling suburban slasher promo with a twist for the band’s new track ‘Withorwithout’
When you listen to Parcels’ ‘Withorwithout’, we highly doubt that the first visuals to pop into your brain would be some kind of horror-short-film-cum-slasher-music-video-with-a-dark-twist. But, after watching Benjamin Howdeshell’s promo for the Berlin-based band, it all suddenly makes brilliant, gnarly sense.
The unexpected idea first came to fruition at the Cannes Film Festival, when Resident Evil star Milla Jovovich - who’s also an executive producer on Withorwithout - met the band and bonded over a shared love of horror movies. It was her doing that then got her longtime friend Benjamin involved as director.
Jovovich, the video’s Executive Producer, met the band at Cannes Film Festival this year. After bonding over a shared love of horror, Parcels brought her the concept for the video. Jovovich instinctively brought on her longtime friend and work partner Ben Howdeshell to bring it to life (Ben was on the post production team for her blockbuster Resident Evil: Apocalypse).
The video stars Milla drifting aimlessly through just another evening in her rather sad looking suburban marriage. Her husband - played by Carsten Norgaard - is similarly disconnected until the reality of the couples’ glitter-masked intruders sets in.
We need not give more away - so check out the film below, before finding out more from Benjamin on how he pulled the video off. He spoke with LBB’s Addison Capper.
LBB> The idea to pair the song with a slasher movie initially came from the band and Milla… what were you thinking when they initially approached you with it?
Benjamin> Milla pitched the idea to me over the phone and was really passionate about it. I only had to listen to the song once to know that it would totally work and I was all in. The song has a calm melancholy vibe to it that when paired with disturbing and violent images makes for a beautifully conflicted viewing experience.
LBB> So much of horror film’s suspense comes from the music and sound design… whereas with this you’re obviously working with quite whimsical disco vibes. With that in mind, how did you go about building the suspense within the film and how did you find working that way?
Benjamin> It was really challenging because, of course, sound is so critical to a horror movie. One of the most important pieces of the video is the first 45 seconds. It sets up tension and jump scares to let you know where the story is going to take you. Once the music starts we know we’ve gone back in time a little and we start building on the band watching Milla in the house. When Milla opens the door to see who’s outside, we started bringing in more and more exterior atmosphere sounds, like crickets, and then inside we hear elements of Milla and Carsten’s panic under the music through the sound of their footsteps and of her grabbing the knife. This cumulative effect lets the viewer experience the moment with them until Louie Swain (Parcels' keyboardist) comes out of nowhere and the music jarringly stops, replaced by those powerful, visceral stabbing sounds. From then on, it’s a ‘WTF is going on’ experience culminating in a great twist.
LBB> You've incorporated some elements of sound design into the film… how did you go about that without affecting the actual track?
Benjamin> It took a lot of experimenting. Jake Shaver, the editor, is great with sound design and understood how and what we needed to do, and then Parcels did an incredible music edit once we locked picture so that specific words would be on specific images and the synth solo started on the first shot of Anatole Serret (Parcels’ drummer) inside the house. From a purely technical level, most music videos play the song at maximum volume in the mix so it doesn’t leave a lot of room for sound design. Brandon Kim (our sound designer and mixer) pulled the song down just enough so that sound effects and dialogue could peek through.
LBB> What kind of movies and themes did you look to for inspiration?
Benjamin> I studied the James Wan catalogue of horror films, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, as well as The Strangers and The Purge, and then added some ‘60s and ’70s stylised vibes to match the look and feel of Parcels. And, I'm always inspired by Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil. I remember I was invited to a preview screening and there is a moment in the beginning when a zombie floating in water slams her hand against the glass and I literally jumped out of my seat. Luckily I was in the same boat as the rest of the theatre. I knew then that I wanted to elicit that type of reaction from audiences.
The location was a great find because it just fit what I saw in my head perfectly. And this is something that I don’t think I even mentioned to anyone, but I figured out how we were going to shoot Milla getting dragged around the house one afternoon when I was with my wife and kids at a park. I asked Drew, my oldest, to drag Nate, my youngest, across the grass by one leg while I used my iPhone to try out low dramatic angles. That pic of my kids is priceless because of course, they don’t mind getting dragged around by one leg, so Nate’s grin in the moment is very different from the panic in Milla’s face as she was dragged across the floor on the day of the shoot.
LBB> Talk us through the connotations of the opening scenes… this couple don’t seem particularly happy (and given the ending I don’t think they were!). What’s going on?
Benjamin> That’s a great question, and funnily enough, I think a good friend from my days making VHS films when I was a kid summed it up perfectly the other day. From David Steidtmann: “I think my favourite part of ‘Withorwithout’ is that there seems to be a half-finished bottle of wine in every room that she walks into… that really paints the picture of the grim suburban, shallow marriage grind that she is trapped in.” I don’t want to give away too much of the backstory because part of the viewing experience is having the viewer fill in the blanks based on their own experiences, but I think the brief moments when they interact in the beginning really give a sense of her disconnection from this marriage.
One thing that we did on purpose was that the knife that Milla grabs when she’s running is the same knife that is used to kill Carsten. We added Easter eggs everywhere we could. Another one of my favourites is one that Jake created by putting Patrick Hetherington (Parcels) playing the guitar on the vintage TV while he’s standing behind Milla in the kitchen scene. Of course, you realise in the end how well the song’s lyrics actually work with the theme of the film.
LBB> You’re quite close friends with Milla and she’s very well versed in starring in horror films… but what kind of conversations were you having with her and Carsten on set?
Benjamin> Most of the conversations on set were about how to silently convey emotions or circumstance at times when the song would be the overlying sound. So, what subtle movements or reactions can we create and how should they differ to convey the alternate storylines? How does Carsten touch Milla’s hand in the beginning? How does he look at her as she pulls away? How would he try to protect her, and how would she react to him in this version she’s built? And then, how to really sell the fear and spikes of violence. Of course, working with Milla is incredible because she has this amazing range and depth, which is really showcased in these short minutes as she goes from disenchanted wandering to desperate vulnerability and then just kills it with this raw power and aggression. We filmed her stabbing Carsten the first night at about 3 am. The crew was sweaty and tired, and Milla didn’t even need a rehearsal. I called action while a large group was huddled around a monitor and when she stabbed Carsten and then pulled out the knife and gave him the death stare as his back bounced off the bookshelf as he fell to the floor, we all were in absolute awe. And her ability to cry on cue even though we’re in a garage that was 95º was just amazing.
LBB> What was the shoot like overall? How long were you shooting for?
Benjamin> We shot it over two nights in the Hollywood Hills during a heat wave. Shooting overnight is already difficult, but shooting in the summer is particularly problematic because the nights are so short. Luckily, we started day one off with the car scene in the garage so we were able to start shooting when the sun was out, but it was extremely hot. Day two started off very slow because we needed to wait for the sun to go down and the sky was epically hazy that night so it took forever to get dark, but it worked out since that haze ended up giving us a gorgeous dark blue sky that you can see through the windows when Milla is drifting through the house.
LBB> Aesthetically, what were you aiming for here? Who did you work with on the grade and what kind of conversations were you having?
Benjamin> Parcels has a particular aesthetic, and I wanted to create something authentic to their sound and style, which I love. The house was the perfect backdrop and my DP Eric Leach and his team captured its elements perfectly. We used warmth, style and colour to throw the viewer off so that when the violence started it would be a shock. Omar Inguanzo at Therapy Studios did the colour, giving it a very beautiful, warm and saturated look.
LBB> The masks are pretty striking… is there any particular reason you went for that style?
Benjamin> The band came up with that one. It worked out really well because we wanted the band members to be recognisable throughout, which they obviously wouldn’t be in a typical mask. They did lots of experiments at MAC counters in Europe, but we didn’t know what colour would work best until we were on set and looked at it in front of the camera. Blue with lots of glitter, by far, was the best colour so we went with it.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Benjamin> The knife that killed Carsten was a little tricky and my VFX guru Dmitry Tokoyakov got a little pissed at me that we didn’t have at least a handle in Milla and Louie’s hand, but I really preferred them not holding back because they had something in their hands. I really love the speed and violence of the knife because both Milla and Louie really had violent movements because there was nothing in their hands to actually hurt Carsten. But I promised Dmitry to do it differently the next time I shoot something like that.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Benjamin> I’d just like to formally thank everyone who worked on this project — so please read the credits! It was absolutely a labour of love by everyone involved and so many talented people contributed to create and realise this story.
Following Withorwithout Benjamin has again been tapped by 20th Century Fox to direct an original short film set in the aftermath of Ridley Scott’s Alien, in celebration of the 40th Anniversary of that iconic piece of film history. This officially-sanctioned latest addition to the Alien universe will be released in 2019.
Director: Benjamin Howdeshell
Screenplay by: Mike Doyle
Produced by: Shawn Wallace
Executive Producer: Milla Jovovich
Director of Photography: Eric Leach
Editor: Jake Shaver
Sound Design: Brandon Kim
Creative Director: Carmen Crommelin
Lyrics and Music by:
Label: Kitsuné / Because Music
First Assistant Director: Jeffrey Fuller
911 Operator: Heather Foster
Line Producer: Bret Rea
Production Coordinator: Nathan Zasada
Action Designer: Anthony Nanakornpanom
B-Camera Operator: Adam Leene
1st AC A Camera: Ken Tanaka
1st AC B Camera: Daniel Cooper
2nd AC / Data Manager: Brendan Devaine
Art Director: Eric Palmer
Set Dresser: Grant Hyde
Department Head Makeup: Christina Smith
Makeup: Marina Procter and Shelby Smith
Wardrobe Stylist: Candice Brittain
Wardrobe Assistants: Meredith Ambruso and Marcella Deluna
Department Head Hair: Candice Birns
Hair: Erica Beatty
Gaffer: Gordon Hale
Best Boy Electric: Kate Eleneke
Key Grip: Micah Minor
Sound Mixer: Fletcher Allison and Josh Haycraft
Production Assistants: Eric Gilbert, Kenneth Prieto, and Derek Siegel
Colorist: Omar Inguanzo
Assistant Editor: Shannon Albrink
Color Assistant: Faby Zumaran
Audio Assistant: Dillon Cahill
Director of Photography: Frederick Gomoll
Assistant: Yannik Sommer
Visual Effects: Green Light
VFX Supervisors: Dmitry Tokoyakov and Lyudmila Ivanova
Producer: Valentina Zhukova
Artists: Yuliya Pavlova, Danila Godya, Alexandra Drozd, Irina Spirina, Alexander Bocharov