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Jason Banker and Elijah Wood on ‘Toad Road’

Toad Road is a new “horror-thriller” that blurs the line between documentary and traditional film. I spoke with the film's director Jason Banker and its executive producer Elijah Wood about the premise and how the definition of “horror” has...

Toad Road is a new film directed and produced by Jason Banker that simultaneously expands the parameters of what documentary filmmaking can be and blurs the lines between that format and traditional scripted filmmaking. In production since 2008, Jason views the film as a “horror-thriller” that follows the lives of a group of hard-living young friends who pursue an urban legend in York, Pennsylvania, that concerns a path in the woods that supposedly leads to the seven gates of hell. Their journey is one of self-discovery, heavy drug use, nihilism, and all of the other things young people around the world are struggling with at this very instant. What sets Toad Road apart from other movies is that the film was conceptualized and shot in a hybrid documentary-feature style, weaving a narrative out of the real lives of its subjects in a way that hits on greater truths than either form is capable of alone.


The film is due to be released—appropriately—this October. And it was during a prerelease screening attended by Elijah Wood that his horror-film company SpectreVision decided to back it as executive producers. I spoke with Jason and Elijah about the premise for the film and how the definition of “horror” has changed in this increasingly terrifying world we all share.

VICE: The way you cast this film was unique. But it falls in line with the aesthetic of the film. A few years ago, when you were conceptualizing the movie, you looked to VICE’s top MySpace friends and through that found your principals. How did that idea come about?
Jason Banker: I wanted to do a hybrid doc-horror thing, but I wanted it to be real situations. I started using MySpace first because at the time you could search it by area code, and I wanted to shoot it in my hometown. But I couldn’t find anybody from there, and I was like, “God, I want some really cool kids.” People who were pretty hardcore, you know? So I thought I should go on and check who’s friending VICE because everybody who reads VICE is connected to that culture. So I did that, and I found this perfect group of kids—actually I found one, and then I looked at his top friends and they were the perfect cast.

How long ago was this?
I started casting in 2008. It’s been a long process because I didn’t have any money to make the film and I needed to find real kids. I wanted to do this thing where I used their real lives and bend a fictional story around them. They were totally down to do it. And I told them I wanted to use like them using real drugs and being who they were, and find the characters that way.


There’s an interesting thing that’s been happening in film and television over the last few years that has comingled documentary and narrative storytelling. I’ve been calling it “surreality TV” for lack of a better term. On one end of the spectrum you’ve got stuff like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Louie—fictional, largely improvised, and exaggerated scenarios based on the characters’ real lives. And now we’re seeing films like yours on the other end of this spectrum. Do you think it’s a form that’s here to stay?

The thing is, I come from a documentary background. I had done this music festival documentary, All Tomorrow’s Parties, which covered the music festival [of the same name]. I would get all this offstage stuff of people who just showed up and wanted to party. I got all this amazing footage of these kids and the energy, and I was like, “Damn this is such great footage, but it’s not really saying anything. It’s just party footage.” And so, I thought, You know what would be great? A film that felt like this but actually went and had a real story to it. I actually wanted to do something more genre-related for a long time… I thought it would be cool to do something like Kids meets The Blair Witch Project.

Yeah, I think obvious comparisons will be made between Kids and Toad Road. But even though Kids featured actors who were sort of reliving or embellishing real-life experiences and its aesthetic was appropriately gritty, with your film you’ve defined parameters that blur the lines even more. No one on your cast was a professional actor in the slightest. Did you face any difficulties when you had to direct them in the more narrative-centric scenes? There’s some traditional “acting” involved, but there are also scenes that seem like straight documentary, and I imagine that was a challenge. 
It was definitely difficult. The first thing I wanted to establish was a story about a guy and a girl—a couple—going into the woods, and when I got into shooting Sara [Anne Jones], I realized I wanted her to be the lead, but she was dating Whitleigh [Higuera]. So there was a lot of friction because I had to pair up James and Sara, and Whitely kind of got frustrated. I actually ended up incorporating some of this into the film, where Sara starts sort of seeing Whitleigh. So that’s one example of the kind of difficulties we faced. Then there were other things, performed things, that I wanted to do—performances that also relied on real drug use and real moments and letting it be organic and actually crafting the story around that.


I imagine the editing room is where a lot of the fine-tuning of the narrative took place, and lots of surprises were discovered.
I shot a lot, and then what happened was I started editing it and that’s where Random Bench was incorporated. I started working with them a little bit, and we would talk about how the actual narrative needed a couple of extra things here and there. There was a lot of shooting additional scenes after the fact. We massaged the story as we went along, realizing we needed more elements to talk about.

The process of a filmmaking process such as this must have also had residual effects on the actors in their real lives. Were you conscious of that as you were shooting? Did you have parameters? In other words, was anything off limits?
I tired to make it as low impact on them as possible and the whole point was to work with a group of friends that had their own dynamics and emphasize those. But we worked on it for such a long time that certain people started having issues with other people… The film really comes down to James and Sara, which made it doable because I wasn’t focusing on the whole group for the whole film. James and Sara were very professional, and they wanted to tell the story and keep working on it. Without them, the film wouldn’t have come together. They put a lot into it.

The film explores what might be considered a sort of tortured existence of a group of young friends in a very real way. Tragically Sara passed away last September of a drug overdose shortly after the film’s premiere. I’m sure everyone who worked on it was deeply affected, but in some ways it makes the film’s story all the more powerful. But it’s real, these ramifications of nihilism and drug use and—I guess… boredom? How did her death affect you and how you viewed the project in hindsight?
It’s been very difficult for any of us who have been involved in the film. It’s super tragic. It’s very hard for us all to believe… I don’t know… I’m still working though a lot of things about it. And even the film itself is difficult because it’s a document about a group of kids. It’s a time capsule and you look at that and reflect on that, and it makes things very complicated and confusing and, yes, even more tragic. It’s tough to talk about, but I felt like she put a lot of herself into the film. It’s obvious that she was an up-and-coming person. People have really responded to her performance, and I was thinking of dedicating the film to her.


VICE: How did you become involved with Toad Road? I know that you saw a screening after its completion, but what compelled you to back its production, after the fact?  
Elijah Wood: Well, it so perfectly exemplifies what we’re trying to do with SpectreVision, our horror-production company. We came across the film last year at Nightmare City, which is this film festival that we started with Cinefamily. We were programming the festival and looking for films, but actually weren’t actively looking to lend our name to them. It hadn’t even occurred to us, because we were so busy producing our own content. But we came across this film, and part of our interest in starting this company was not only to make interesting genre films—specifically horror films—but we were really excited about the notion of trying to make films that kind of pushed the boundaries of what people consider a horror film. And, seeing this film, it so perfectly exemplifies that mission and that idea, because the movie—effectively, a good 80 percent of the movie, or 70 percent, depending on what Jason would say—is a genuine documentary. And then he weaves this kind of horror narrative into it in a way that the documentary elements are sort of horrific in themselves. We were blown away by the hybrid, and how organic it felt. We’ve seen a couple of films—Catfish being one of them, I guess—that tries to sit within the context of being a genre film, and people often question if it’s real or not. And with this, there was no question. We knew it was real and, therefore, extremely powerful and disturbing and difficult to watch. So it hits you on a visceral level. We were extremely impressed by all of the elements. That’s what pushed us to want to be a part of helping them get it seen by other people.


It seems that your company is part of a growing trend—with something like Django Unchained, for instance—that hones in on genre in a very specific way to almost subvert it, turn it on its head to widen the scope of what a genre film can be. With Toad Road, it becomes more intriguing because of its hybrid nature, but there is definite “horror” there. What are the parameters of the horror genre to you? What scares you? 
That’s a good question. It’s interesting, because I think you’re also talking about the idea that the definition of genre, I think, is, in a way, becoming blurrier. [laughs] And I feel like we’re in a much more global world now, in regards to the cinema that we’re exposed to. Some of that is responsible due to VOD and the power of the internet in terms of giving attention to films that people may not have otherwise seen. A lot of those films tend to be genre. And it feels like genre has sort of expanded in its reach—and it’s not just to a sort of select audience anymore. I find that interesting. I think that, as it pertains to what is “horror,” or what we look for and what scares me… it can be a variety of things. I’m moved by and inspired by classic horror cinema and cinema from the 70s and 80s, and those things that remain frightening and remain scary. But I think there are human stories that can be equally as scary and don’t necessarily have to include any kind of exploitable elements or “horror.” In a way, those are the stories we’re looking for. We [at SpectreVision] always talk about the notion of classic horror movies that we love, that if we were actually to take the genre elements out, they would still be compelling. I think that one of the elements that I love so much about a movie like Let the Right One In, for instance, is that’s a movie where you could take the vampirism out of the film and the film would survive on its storytelling, because it’s essentially about a boy and a girl who become friends. I think that can be true of horror at its greatest—that it’s not surviving wholly on its violence or its gore, but that it’s actually surviving solely on its storytelling and its characters. And that’s where it should rest its hat on.


The drug use in the film is real, which is sort of terrifying—perhaps especially to those who have no experience with drug use. Do you view Toad Road as a sort of cautionary tale? 
It might be. I think it’s a cautionary tale about what can happen with letting go… going down the path of that much drug use. Experimentation with certain substances is a part of being human, and it’s sometimes a part of expanding one’s mind and having different experiences. But it can also lead to dark places. Which I also think, to a certain degree… it’s those kinds of things that are reflective of our own internal struggles, too. If we’ve got something to sort out that’s unhealthy within the context of our insides and who we are, I think that that probably will manifest in the substances that we choose to experiment with.


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