While there are many opportunities for teenagers to attain all measures of easy fame (even if it's just Instagram celebrity or, at the very least, internet memedom), there are still some ventures that require a lot more time, effort, and talent before anyone takes notice. Like making feature-length movies. But French high school student Nathan Ambrosioni has already carved out an impressive IMDB page writing and directing two wide-release horror films—2014's Hostile and the recently released to VOD thriller Therapy—all by the time he was 16. (He also made another experimental full-length film when he was 13, but who's counting?)
With Therapy, Ambrosioni wrings the utmost creepiness and anxiety out of a seemingly straightforward found-footage flick concerning a family (and friends) who are taunted by unseen forces while camping in a remote French wilderness. The group is lured into a maze-like abandoned industrial building, where they're pursued through corridor after corridor by a Mike Myers-looking killer, all of which is filmed by the family's son (played by Ambrosioni), who is ostensibly trying to work on a video for a "class project." The twists (and added tension) come from a pair of police officers, who've discovered the footage as part of a related crime scene, and are watching the events unfold alongside the audience, racing to try and figure out what the fuck is going on and if they'll actually be able to stop the inevitable massacre.
It's a solid addition to the genre that exploded into popular culture with 1999's The Blair Witch Project—a film that's roughly the same age as Ambrosioni (anyone else feel ancient?). VICE talked to the now 17-year-old director on the line from his home in the south of France to find out how he got into horror, what it's like bossing adults around on set, and just how a teenager ends up being so prolific.
VICE: When did you first get into horror?
Nathan Ambrosioni: The first horror film that I watched was when I was 12, it was The Orphan. And since that film I've been fascinated with horror films. I loved it. I was very fascinated by them, and was watching a lot of making of horror films. And then I met a friend who was fascinated too. So we talked about it in class and after class. And so I wanted to make a film with my friends Luna Miti and Julie Venturelli (who play Olivia and Amanda in Therapy). We made my first experimental film together—it was a horror film called The Rush In Tape [that we made] when I was 12 and 13. It was a feature film but very experimental, so it's more like segments of films and scenes, that I just put together.
After you made that film, who saw it?
We organized some projections in our city, and my father really liked it and told me if I wanted to make another film that he'd be there for me as a producer.
Is that what led to your first proper feature film?
Yes, my first real feature film was Hostile in 2014. When I started to work on it I was 13 when I wrote the script. I called my two friends, the actors of The Rush In Tape. And I called some [other] actors—I went to the theatre club of my city and asked people if they wanted to be actors in my movie. It was really just friends and contacts. They had to work without money, so I had to find people who would do that.
What did people think of working with a 13-year-old as the director?
Sometimes it was difficult because I was—I am—a teenager, and you have to talk with someone who doesn't think like you because they're adults. So it was difficult for me to have the authority that I wanted to have, to direct them as a filmmaker. But it was OK. The team was very kindly and the atmosphere on the set was very good. So it was very fun.
What was the reaction to that film? Do you hear from people now that it's available everywhere?
The reaction of the audience was good but it was just in festivals, there was not a theatrical release. Most of the time it's cool and it's a good atmosphere. I read some very bad critics, but that's OK. It's a no budget film, and it's not going to be like the Hunger Games or something like that. A film is a film, even if we have no budget to make it, so the critics are sometimes very hard with the film. But that's OK.
What was the inspiration for Therapy?
There was a lot of inspiration from Sinister, and Halloween, from John Carpenter, andThe Poughkeepsie Tapes. When I wrote the script I was in the house where we shot a lot of the film. A lot of the film came from this house where I wrote the script because I was in the room thinking about what can happen in the rooms with these characters.
The abandoned industrial building itself in the first part of the movie is kind of a character, it's the source of most of the terror etc.
It's a maze. It's a huge building—you can't even imagine—and the atmosphere is very very dark. When we were in there at night we were just as scared as the characters were in the film. It was terrible. We spent five or six nights, but we'd start to shoot at 6 PM and end at 1 AM. So it was overnight in this building. There were just the five actors and two technical people. And we were very happy that the [actor playing the] killer had an axe—it was very reassuring to know that we have someone who has an axe to kill anyone if we're in danger, because it was very very very scary. When we shot the film, I told the actors to do what they want to do—they can do whatever they want because it has to be natural in that building. And most of their dialogue is what they really said on set when we did the scenes.
In the end it's an interesting approach to the found footage genre. And it came out basically at the same time as the new Blair Witch movie. Was that film also an inspiration?
Yes. I love that film. I watched it when I was seven, when I was a kid. But I can't remember anything—my dad didn't want to show me the end because it was too violent for me. [Later] I watched it. And it was impressive because it was so scary, but you can't see why it's scary. I didn't say [earlier] but it is a huge inspiration for me.
What do your classmates think of your films and the fact that you are a filmmaker?
I don't really talk about that at school, but they often ask me some news about Therapy!
Making three feature-length films, including the first experimental one, by the time you're 16 must take up a lot of your time... What else do you do for fun?
Yes, it's a lot of work, but I really love cinema. It's my greatest passion, so most of the time I go to movie theatre to watch film, or I'm working on a new project, or I play piano sometimes. And the rest of the time I'm in high school.
What's next for you—what kind of film do you want to make next?
I wrote a horror script and I hope that the preproduction of it will start soon. I wrote a dramatic script, too. I love this kind of film and I would like to try other things.
'Therapy' is available now on Shudder and other VOD services.
Follow Chris Bilton on Twitter.