Movie Sleuth Exclusives: Interview with 12 Feet Deep Director Matt Eskandari and Unreleased Poster Art

TMS: We just watched 12 Feet Deep last week and we basically loved it. Where did you draw your influences from when making this movie?

ME: Thanks for the insightful review! I was influenced by a need to challenge myself as a director and tell a contained story with very limited effects. I looked back on films like Open Water and Phone Booth as inspirations. My favorites are actually lesser known Hitchcock works like Lifeboat and Rope. Seeing how you can tell a compelling story with only a single location is something I'd always wanted to tackle as a director. 

TMS: The water has been a mainstay in horror for years. In a sense, this element has become its own self defined villain. What are some of the hardest parts about shooting scenes in this type of environment? Is it harder to shoot with water involved?

ME: Water is inherently atmospheric as a visual and layers instant production value to the image. You can make it look ethereal or eerie or frightening, all with a single well composed shot. I went into this with very little experience shooting in water, but I have a much greater appreciation for how challenging it is. The water slows people and equipment down to its bear minimum, but it forced me to carefully plan out all my shots and how I wanted to execute a scene. Any indecisiveness would have cost me hours of valuable time we couldn't afford to lose. 

TMS: Also in that regard, I really respect the way the film was shot. It could not have been easy filming in such limited quarters. How did you maintain your composure when dealing with claustrophobic spaces?

ME: My worst fear was because of time and limited budget, being forced to shoot the entire film with some shaky handheld cameras that floated next to the actors. It would have been painfully nauseating and something that had been done a hundred times before in films like Open Water, Adrift, etc.. I needed to find a distinct look for this film that relied on a unique visual language. The DP, Byron and I carefully crafted an aesthetic that made the compositions very controlled, but also slowly creep in more and more. Having the frame close in on the characters and the audience as the film progressed would ratchet up the claustrophobic nature inherent in the story in a subtle, but subconscious way. We also strayed from those wavy blue reflective water effects you see in every film shot in the water. I wanted it to look different, so we had various lighting looks built into the major sequences. From bright daylight under the cover, to moonlight mixed with a subtle orange auxiliary light to the darker more moody blueish hue that takes over the final sequences. All that controlled look raises production value in a way that shows a consciously controlled design behind every frame. 

TMS: Did anyone ever freak out being under that pool cover? Being confined like that would freak me the hell out. I wouldn’t last as long as they did.

ME: No one had a nervous breakdown that I know of, but the film was definitely emotionally and physically exhausting on both the lead actresses. I don't blame them, it was long hours in the water with very intense scenes that required real authenticity and truthful performances.  The great thing is you can really feel their agony, pain on screen because they were tapping into something that was very real for them.

TMS: Obviously we’ve seen movies like Open Water, The Shallows, 47 Meters Down and numerous other survival horror films that are not quite as claustrophobic as yours. When developing this story, how did you make sure to keep it original?

ME: All those films are about SHARK ATTACKS so I didn't have that easy crutch to fall back to when I was making this film. It was much more challenging in that sense without that un-killable antagonist to scare the audience or build dread. Regardless, Open Water was a definite inspiration from a contained story perspective but The Shallows hadn't come out yet while I was filming and I'd never even heard of 47 Meters until the film was released this summer. Very strange coincidence, but ultimately our stories are all inherently very different and in time you can look at all these different films from a removed angle. No one to my knowledge has ever done a film set entirely in a public swimming pool before, so we will always have that first to our credit.

TMS: As a director, who do you look up to the most? Which creative genius makes you want to keep making movies and developing your craft?

ME: There are so many great directors that I admire. I'm sort of obsessed with old school greats like David Lean, Akira Kurosawa and Hitchcock. Whenever I want to get inspired I look back on one of their films and learn something new. Inventive ways to block a scene or interesting places to setup the camera and reveal nuances I'd never seen before. Kurosawa and the eclectic way he uses colors is really mind blowing. Lean had a very special way he edited scenes and trusted the audiences intelligence. Hitchcock blocked out whole sequences that added layers of suspense and tension. As a filmmaker you're never really done learning, your whole life is about understanding more about your craft. It never ends.

TMS: We obviously live in an age where the internet rules our lives and online personas can be harsh and volatile. How do you deal with people that might troll your movie or insult your work? 

ME: We definitely live in a much different world. When the trailer dropped it caused quite an online stir, somewhere close to 15 million views in a month which is absolutely insane for a film of our limited budget and zero marketing dollars. You can't pay for that kind of viral presence and if people are responding to your work than at least you're raising your profile and using it to spread word of mouth. There were some strange comments and click-bait articles written that I found misguided, as they were jumping to conclusions without seeing the actual film. Ultimately, I try not to get bogged down or obsessed with other people's critiques. It is nice to read the positive critical feedback we received from several major outlets once they saw the film. In the end, you are your own biggest critic. Your job is to grow as an artist and tell stories how you want them told and show your evolving craft as a filmmaker. 

TMS: On the opposing side of the coin, what are some of the best things you’ve heard from people about your latest film?

ME: When the trailer dropped I saw all these posts from random strangers about how the concept was their worst fear or they'd always had nightmares of being stuck in a pool. I had no idea we tapped into some latent phobia people had. Hands down the best responses were from viewing the film with an audience of film students and alumni at USC. Seeing how they responded to scenes in ways I never would have imagined. Gasping at moments, laughing at others and watching them glued to the screen were priceless. The cinema really is an art form ideally meant to be experienced in a dark room with others. 

TMS: Give us a little background on how you became a film maker? And what hoops did you have to jump through to get here? I’m sure it isn’t easy. 

ME: I went to USC and have directed three independent features since gradating film school. I could write an entire book on the hoops I've had to jump through, so to call it a hard business is an understatement. It takes an almost superhuman level of persistence and tenacity. Getting any film made is usually like pushing a boulder up a mountain. You take a deep breath and thank god it actually happened when it's all over. I'm hoping one day it will be easier and people will be knocking on my door with bags of money and a green-light feature but I have a feeling that wont be happening just yet, so you have to fall in love with the process. It takes time but once the journey itself is enough reward you'll be a much happier artist.

TMS: Horror has seen quite a revitalization the last few years. I think the fandom has been super supportive of the changing playing field. Fans are flocking to smaller movies like yours. What do you think has changed? And how has the way we watch these movies changed the world of entertainment?

ME: People are tired of bloated blockbusters that play it safe. Every single big budget studio movie to come out over the last few years ends in the same Act 3 “giant massive portal sucking up into the sky.” Horror gives the audiences a genre that isn't afraid to experiment and let the filmmaker behind it imprint a unique perspective. I've noticed all the films I've ever done, unconsciously or not have the same recurring themes. They're about damaged characters who did something in the past and through the course of the story seek some sort of redemption or reconciliation. Horror and the darker nature of the genre seems to make this mold of story much more accessible, so I think there is a sort of personal impetus for being drawn to those themes. Thankfully, with the internet and streaming services making it so easy to watch and find a small film, we have even bigger audiences than ever before. 

TMS: What made you decide to throw in the side story with the ex-con that holds them captive in the pool? And how did that come about?

ME: She was one of the more divisive aspects of the film, but there was always a strong thematic reason for her inclusion. It made logical sense that someone would be at the pool like a janitor or maintenance person after closing, so we had to find an organic way to integrate them into the story. Like most normal people Clara doesn't take the incident very seriously at first, “two girls stuck in a pool, no big deal, it's not like they can't just float and hang out for awhile, right?” She see's it as a way to take advantage of an unfortunate situation and that's when things spiral out of control. She makes some bad choices, but it isn't very surprising since she not exactly the smartest person in the world. Look at where she's ended up; a broke, lonely, and damaged woman. Ultimately, her inclusion added a strong thematic layer to Jonna's own journey. She serves the purpose of a dark future projection of the main character. What if Jonna doesn't “kill her monsters” would she end up being very much like this woman one day? Does Clara see a bit of her own rebellious daughter in Jonna? A daughter that she know longer has for some reason? Perhaps instilling some hard love on Jonna will make amends for what she failed to do with her own daughter. There's a reason why Jonna decides to let her go in the end of the film. She recognizes a part of herself in Clara and feels remorse. All these characters have battled their own inner demons and come out of it in a different direction. 

TMS: Where can people see 12 Feet Deep? And did it get a limited theatrical release?

ME: The film is available to stream on most platforms like Itunes, GooglePlay, Amazon and Vudu.  I hope people will watch and check it out for themselves!

TMS: I ask this a lot and I always get really interesting answers. If you had a choice to remake any genre film, what would you choose and why?

ME: That's an interesting question. I wouldn't want to remake something that's a classic or you fall into the trap of imitating it or trying to improve on perfection. I recently saw Stephen Kings Langoliers and thought that it was a brilliantly done story of mystery and tension. Unfortunately, the visual effects in the last 30 minutes absolutely destroyed the film and the perfectly happy ending was a bit underwhelming. If I could extend that into a long form Netflix tv series with better modern effects and add some additional twist and turns, I think it would make a great story about time travel and survivors searching for a way home. Sort of a mix of Lost and The Walking Dead.

We thank Matt for taking the time to talk to us. Now check out the exclusive unreleased posters he shared with us!