Picture this, if you can: A group of people are stuck in a house, isolated for months on end. The seasons change. The conversations stale. Everyone starts to go stir crazy, but there’s no way out.
Sounds a lot like #pandemiclife, but it’s also the premise of Professor Matthew Nash’s new horror film “Walk Away.”
The feature-length movie centers on five friends who venture to a rustic cabin in the woods for a weekend away. Once there, they find that, no matter what they do, they’re trapped within a circular perimeter around the cabin. Filmed in four sessions, “Walk Away” spans three seasons as the characters become increasingly agitated in their sylvan prison. And because it’s a thriller, you can bet not everyone is going to make it out alive.
“I’m always looking for extremes of human experience,” says Nash, chair of our College of Art and Design’s Film Department.
He co-wrote and co-directed the film with longtime friend and creative partner Jason Egan. The two came up with the original idea for “Walk Away” in 2014, during a visit to the rural Vermont cabin where the movie was filmed, a property owned by Egan’s father-in-law.
“It’s kind of the perfect location for a horror movie,” says Nash.
Although not quite as abjectly remote as it appears in the film, there’s a definite spookiness to the silence that surrounds the place, Nash says. On one occasion when Nash visited it alone, he admits that he slept with a hunting knife beside his bed.
“I live in Jamaica Plain, in the flight path to Logan. So that kind of silence is like, wow,” he says.
Flipping the script
So, the setting was set, but the pair still had to come up with a narrative. Over grilled burgers and beer, the two considered their options: zombies, an apocalypse and the classic slasher trope were all on the table.
“A horror movie is never about the monster. It’s about how people react to the monster,” says Nash.
The duo asked themselves, what happens when you take the monster out of the equation? “Walk Away” was their answer.
In the course of writing the script, Nash and Egan read books and watched films full of psychological torment that simmers from without and within, including “Lord of the Flies” and John Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” which includes the famous line, “Hell is other people.” That concept is a driving force of the film.
“(These are) the kinds of stories where your psychology slips enough for you to kind of go over the edge,” Nash says.
“Walk Away” is Nash’s first horror film, but in all of his productions — from an award-winning documentary on the Holocaust to a short about a stranded astronaut — he pursues the same thing.
“I’m interested in getting into the human experience, and film is the most immersive storytelling tool there is,” he says.
In addition to getting rid of the monster, the film subverts some of the stereotypical characters found in many horror flicks. There’s no ingenue running up a staircase to her inevitable death, and the macho hero is more of a millennial hipster whose “power comes from his craft beer, his fixed-gear bicycles and his man bun,” says Nash.
That hipster, incidentally, is one of many members of the cast and crew with Lesley connections. Ben Bocko ’12, who plays Eli, is a graduate of our photography department.
Nash, a longtime Lesley professor, always hires current students for his movies and said they’re treated like industry professionals, not interns.
“I can put them on set with industry pros, (who can help them) get internships, career opportunities, letters of recommendation, they can get training, hands-on experience and professional credits.”
The students quickly prove their worth. Between takes, Emily Barone ’21 would head off into the trees to get extra footage for the film.
“She would emerge from the woods covered in bugs with good b-roll,” says Nash.
The quality of her work got her promoted to direct the second unit.
Another student, Wyatt Beaudry ’20, was hired for his particular expertise in “gory, gross makeup stuff,” says Nash. Those skills came in handy when the fake blood began to fly.
In total, almost a dozen members of the cast and crew are part of the Lesley community: Becky Bettencourt, an alumna and professor of animation, worked on storyboarding and concept art for the film; film department faculty Joey Kolbe was lead camera, Design Department Chair Professor Heather Shaw designed the typography in the opening and closing credits; and photography alumnus Rob Coshow ’06 was cinematographer.
“Walk Away” is now available on Amazon Prime. A red carpet premiere and entry into film festivals were put on hold due to the pandemic, but once movie theaters reopen, Nash plans to host a theatrical release in Cambridge.
In the meantime, he’s feeling nostalgic for that eerie house in the woods. “Sometimes I just watch the film because it takes me back to the cabin,” he says.
His co-creator is there, however, social distancing with his wife and kids.
“Their quarantine is literally just a remake of the movie, hopefully minus the murder,” Nash quips.