A chat with the director of horror short Intrepidus, Alex Greenlee

(Intrepidus from Ale Greenlee)

Intrepidus, a fabulous new horror short directed by writer Alex Greenlee debuted at the Oscar-Qualifying HollyShorts Film Festival last week. The film harkens back to great 1980’s monster in the woods films such as Friday the 13th.

Starring Michael Horse (Twin Peaks, Call of the Wild), Justin Rain (Fear the Walking Dead, Blackstone), and Cha-tah Ellem (Grey’s Anatomy, Rutherford Falls), Intrepidus follows the story of a Native American foster youth desperately struggling to accept his mother’s suicide while an ancient monster takes her shape to feed on his pain.

The student short predominantly features an Indigenous cast and terrifying practical effects from Emmy-winning SFX artists of Star Trek: Discovery and American Horror Story.

Writer/Director ALEX GREENLEE is an award-winning filmmaker recently graduating from Chapman University Dodge College of Film and Media Arts May 2020 magna cum laude with a BFA in film production and a minor in advertising.

His films, Cybolica, Dead Wall, Unheard Voices and Out of This World have received numerous awards from film festivals such as Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Atlanta Horror Film Festival, Freak Show Horror Film Festival, Russian International Film Festival, Big Apple Horror Film Festival, HollyShorts Film Festival, NOLA Film Festival, Horrorhound Film Festival, Sacramento Horror Film Festival, Zed Film Festival, Sacramento Film and Music Festival, Terror on the Plains, L.A. Skins, Pocahontas Reframed, NFFTY and have screened at the Chinese TCL Theatre.

For the second year in a row (2018-2019) Dead Wall and (2019-2020)Cybolica Alex has been recognized as a “Best Director” at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. He is represented by A3 Artists Agency (Adam Kanter agent) and Wicked Curve (David Styne manager). Take a look at the trailer for Intrepidus below:

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Reel 360 had a chance to sit with Alex and talk about the film.

I see the inspiration for the film is based on the senseless slaughter of Native Americans. Have you always wanted to do something creative that addressed that? And why do it in a horror film? Granted it is horrific to begin with?

The seed of this story began growing a long time ago. Like most of us, in elementary school, I remember learning about “Indians” in history. But the discussion was always a byproduct of learning about something else: John Sutter, Sutter’s Fort, Lewis and Clark. And so in general, I was taught a perspective that saw these historical figures (who had often committed horrible acts) as “heroes” and Natives as the “Others.” The Native experience was ignored, and the truth was not explored.

In middle school, I met one of my mentors, Jack Kohler, and began working with On Native Ground, a Native American production company, through a program at the California State Fair and YBAMA. So for the past decade, I’ve had the opportunity to work with them on a variety of Native issues through film and live theatre. A few years ago, I was invited to be the cinematographer for ONG at Sundance and I saw firsthand the way the major media outlets ignored the Native filmmakers who deserved to be there. 

At the same time, I became interested in the juvenile justice system and directed a documentary for Sacramento County for a program that dealt with keeping youth from crossing over into the criminal justice system. I began to see the effects of childhood trauma through the loss of a parent and decided I wanted my senior thesis to be about a Native American foster youth grieving his mother’s suicide. My antagonist, the monster, would represent the blind hatred of Manifest Destiny, which created a generational loss of culture.

From the beginning, I knew I wanted to tell this story through the horror genre. I believe as children, we often use the fantastical to explain the world around us. What Dillon experienced as a child was horrific, and I wanted to use the genre to further explore what he was dealing with and create a world that would force him to overcome his past.

The horror genre has mostly been born out of our fears of the unknown and what we can imagine, but to me, real horror is something that has happened or is happening now. In the past, mankind has conjured monsters to explain the things we have done to each other. Stories of wendigos and skinwalkers were created to scare Natives into converting to Christianity. It only made sense to represent the evils of the past with Salzuja.

How was the production? Any hiccups that you can share with our readers?

Filmmaking is all about problem-solving. This was a very challenging film to make. It was my undergrad senior thesis, which meant I had to abide by University restrictions. We were to shoot over two weekends (6 days in total) and were a SAG project, so our shooting hours were limited. We filmed in Idyllwild, and when you are filming in the elements (the creepy woods) problems are bound to arise.

We had constant warnings of fires that were threatening to shut down our film, the wind was an issue for our fog, silicone blender pieces for the prosthetics wouldn’t stick because of the chemical compounds not reacting properly due to the high altitude, we dealt with constant power surges, losing power on cine and sound… it was a stressful time.

We also had to finish the movie remotely on my laptop when COVID struck and my school’s facilities shut down. But no matter how many problems arose, we persevered and creatively used our problems to our advantage. 

Alex Greenlee and Michael Horse

Always been a big fan of Michael Horse since Twin Peaks. How did you cast him?

Michael was a pleasure to work with. My good friend Jack Kohler from ONG was our casting director on the film. It was very important to me that we secured an Indigenous cast from the beginning, and Jack was wonderful in sending the script to his colleagues. Michael has an undeniable presence on screen, and everyone felt it on set. When he walked into the room, everyone was elevated.

My cast (Justin Rain, Cha-tah Ellem, Izzy Israel Dixon, Carly Kohler, and Meir Parent) was amazing. When they read the script, they knew what the story meant for their community. Each brought something special to their character. 

It’s really hard to create a terrifying creature these days, especially when they are CGI? Tell us about creating the creature. It seems like you went practical with it which took me back to Alien and even Camp Crystal Lake.

I’ve always loved practical effects. I knew from the beginning I wanted an actor to play Salzuja. I wanted to film as much in-camera as physically possible, and that is exactly what we did. There is something special about having something to interact with the actors on set.

It’s an energy, captured under cinematic lighting. I believe it’s the closest thing to magic; the reason I fell in love with movies. I hired my friend Santino Ferrese who was part of the Emmy-winning SFX team of Star Trek: Discovery to build the creature suit and design the mother’s makeup. It was important to me that the monster physically represented the very thing my protagonist, Dillon, was running from: his past (both culturally and genetically).

Blind hatred was the mentality of Manifest Destiny, so the creature has no eyes, only vestigial ones on its chest. Salzuja appears to Dillon as his mother to feed on his pain, so I wanted there to be a visual tie between its different forms. We had custom sclera lenses produced for the mother’s make-up which would match those seen on the monster’s chest, and Dillon’s eyes when he is in Salzuja’s trance.

Long, bony fingers have always scared me, so we had custom digi finger extensions produced that would act like joints and extend my actor’s hands, produced by Gary Fay Creations.

All of these elements, mixed with dark lighting, sound design, and the beautiful performance of Meir Parent all worked together to create Salzuja’s screen presence. 

Part of the horror genre are the kills and the way people are killed… usually through stupidity. No one dies in your film (aside from the mom) why did you decide to let everyone survive?

When I was writing the short, this was an internal debate. I ultimately chose to have my characters survive because I wanted to focus on their resilience against the pain Salzuja brought upon them. With all of the death depicted in the past, I thought my characters needed to survive. Because that is what the story is about. Surviving tragedy. The story is dark, and I knew that as dark as I wanted to go, there needed to be hope.

To me, the last scene of the film is the most important scene of the story. It’s the harsh realization of what happened to Native Americans. It ties all that came before together solidifying Dillon’s arc and accepting his place in his culture and understanding his mother. His people were slaughtered, and although he is the last Noachee, his people were here first, and nothing can ever take that away from him, not even a hate-filled monster.

Congrats on the ASC nomination, Alex. The photography is stunning. How did you arrive upon a style?

I think visually. I write visually. My cinematographer Drew Gardella is amazing and is an excellent collaborator. We finish each other’s sentences when it comes to creating the visual language of our films. I wanted to create a dark, cold, empty atmosphere that mirrored Dillon’s perspective of the world. It’s not till the end where we start to introduce color into the pallet.

I’ve always loved big night exteriors in movies, so we set out to create a stylized look at night where the fog was a character, representing the monster’s presence in the land. With a tight schedule and extensive shot list, you want a DP who moves fast and really gets it. That’s Drew.

Alex, if horror is your jam, what are some of your favorite horror films?

I grew up watching horror movies. Monsters have always been part of my life. I used to build a haunted house in my garage with my dad to raise money for children’s cancer research. As a storyteller, I don’t want to be confined by genre. Right now, I see horror as a means to convey the stories I am telling now, but that may not always be the case.

As of now, my top horror movies are The Shining, The Thing, Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth (although it is more fantasy than horror), Train to Busan, Kairo, It (2017), Alien, Pumpkinhead, Event Horizon, and although many don’t consider it a horror movie, it’s a master class in suspense and made me want to make movies, Jurassic Park.

Alex Greenlee

Event Horizon is a f**king underrated horror film.

Exactly! It’s terrifying. We need more cosmic/lovecraftian horror.

Are there other Native American stories you want to tell?

It is impossible to summarize the Native experience in a short film of 24 minutes. In America and Canada, boarding schools were created to force Natives to leave their culture behind. Children were torn from their families, their hair was cut, and often beaten if they spoke in their Native tongue. I would love to write a movie with a unique angle about this unknown subject.

I want to reach a point in my career where I can greenlight other Native American filmmakers to tell their stories. I owe them everything. I truly believe that if we respected the Native culture of love for Mother Earth, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

Are you planning a feature version?

Intrepidus was always designed to be a proof of concept for a feature film. I recently finished writing the feature, and it dives into all of the issues I wasn’t able to in the short. It’s much darker, and perhaps might render a different answer to your “kills” question.

Is the film screening in any other festivals?

Yes, so far the film has screened or will be screened at The American Indian Film Festival, Pocahontas Reframed, LA Skins, Atlanta Horror, New Filmmakers LA, and NOLA.

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Colin Costello is the West Coast Editor of Reel 360. Contact him at colin@reel360.com or follow him on Twitter at @colinthewriter1