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Location, location, location: The real estate and restaurant mantra applies to movies as well, particularly in the case of Cambridge-based filmmakers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen.
Their first produced screenplay, "Long Distance," was shot at an abandoned mental hospital in downtown Boston. The brothers’ 2013 directorial debut, "Dark Feed," used some of the same sites as "Shutter Island." And you can probably guess where their script for John Carpenter’s "The Ward" took place.
The Rasmussens’ latest, "The Inhabitants," was recently released by upstart distributor Gravitas Ventures via video on demand, just in time for Halloween. A slow-burning throwback to atmospheric haunted house pictures from the late 1960s and early '70s, the elegantly spooky flick follows a newlywed couple attempting to open a bed and breakfast on a property with a secret history of madness.
"We’re very proud that this film was not shot at or taking place in a psychiatric hospital," Shawn smiles.
Instead, the “The Inhabitants” was filmed on location at the Noyes-Parris House in Wayland. Students of the Salem witch trials, or anybody who read “The Crucible” for that matter, will have some not so fond memories of Rev. Parris and his offspring.
But Michael insists that the production — a happily microbudgeted affair with one brother running the camera while the other recorded sound — was hardly haunted by the ghosts of their location. “For once it was just nice to be working in a house with proper plumbing and the amenities you need for shooting a film.”
Raised in Salt Lake City, the Rasmussens settled in the Boston area about 15 years ago, but began feeling a creative itch right around the time a local institution was getting off the ground.
“We were both working 9 to 5 jobs, bored out of our minds thinking we’d like to do something creative. Mike has a film degree, so we thought it would be fun to start writing something together. That was the first year of the Independent Film Festival Boston, which was taking place right around the corner from where we lived at the time.”
“It was so cool,” Michael remembers. “We got a pass and went to every screening. We always sat in the front row, so Adam [Roffman, IFFBoston’s former program director] started calling us ‘Front Row Guys.’ We went to all the panels, talked to all the filmmakers, and really tried to learn everything we could. It just goes to show you how important film festivals are. That was our beginning. I’m so glad it’s still going on.”
“The Ward” was originally written to be the Rasmussen’s directorial debut, which is why Shawn says “it was such a weird conversation when our agent called and said, so I have an offer on your script from John Carpenter. Are you OK with that?"
“I don’t want to be a dork about it but he’s totally cool,” Michael says, trying not to gush about working with one of his childhood idols as he and his brother rattle off some of their favorite scenes from “Halloween,” “The Thing” and “Assault on Precinct 13.” Still a Hollywood outsider after 40 years in the business, Carpenter lived up to his no-nonsense reputation.
“John smokes — I mean, like a smokestack — so there was no place in LA where we could meet with him indoors," Michael says. "We sat with him at this old style Beverly Hills poolside cabana as he went through the script. He had a very subtle, self-deprecating way of giving notes. He always said, 'You guys are the writers and I’m just this dumbass director. But…' ”
“We recorded a lot of our script meetings and it wasn’t until we listened back to them again that we realized how amazingly John made us believe that we came up with all the ideas he had for the movie,” Shawn confesses. “He’s brilliant.”
Like most filmmakers, the Rasmussens caught the bug early. “When we were young we had a place called the Blue Mouse,” Michael elaborates, referring to Salt Lake City’s famous, first-ever art-house cinema, which closed in 1986. “That’s where we saw ‘Harold and Maude’ and ‘The Tin Drum.’ I don’t know how they even got ‘The Tin Drum’ into Utah in the first place … that opening scene when he comes out of the birth canal? I mean, here at least you can watch things like that at the Brattle surrounded by like-minded people, but imagine being in Salt Lake? People’s heads were exploding.”
“We’d alternate between going to see things like that at the Blue Mouse and then going to the malls to see '80s Spielberg films,” Shawn laughs. “When we were little, one of our neighbors told Michael the whole movie of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and spoiled everything. He was so upset that after that our parents would take us out of school on opening day, so we could see the new ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ movies before our classmates ruined them for us.”
Michael laments that the multiplex experience isn’t what it used to be, particularly in downtown Boston. “We go to a lot of those early screenings, probably the same ones you critics are at. I’m always sitting there with Shawn saying there’s something wrong — the top of that guy’s head is cut off. Then you have to trudge through the lobby and try to find a living person [to fix it]. It’s only like their entire business and they don’t even have anyone in the projection booth.”
Of course they’re both sadly aware that theatrical exhibition isn’t an option at all for most independent films these days, as more and more art-house releases head directly from festivals to video on demand. “It seemed like these kind of movies used to at least show up at the Kendall,” Shawn sighs. “But if even Brian De Palma can’t get a big screen, where does that leave the Rasmussen brothers?
“We were recently talking to a producer who was saying that audiences now who are 25 and younger, they’ve never bought anything in their life. They’ll just find your film on BitTorrent. They don’t even have cable. After ‘Dark Feed’ we did auditions with a lot of young BU actresses, and every single one of them told us they had watched ‘The Ward’ on YouTube. It’s broken up into like 20 clips. You could probably find it somewhere online to rent in HD for $2. But no, it’s free in 20 parts on YouTube."
One of the more bizarre online phenomena today is that of trailer reaction videos, in which young folks post footage of themselves watching coming attractions on their computers. (Some of them get more viewers than the movies themselves.) “These reaction videos are so big. I guess it’s sad? But promotion is promotion.” Shawn shrugs. “It’s something we can tweet. Gawd, what a weird world we live in.”
"The Inhabitants" is now available on demand via iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu, Google Play, Xbox LIVE, Sony Playstation and cable providers. You can’t watch it for free on YouTube yet.
Over the past 16 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at splicedpersonality.com.
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