Something in the air
Something of a cathartic endeavor for filmmaker John Pata, his latest feature Black Mold follows two photographers — Brooke Konrad and Tanner Behlman — who are exploring a number of abandoned buildings to develop their portfolios. When they arrive at a much larger and decrepit facility, Brooke is triggered by something in the air that reveals her traumatic past and is forced to confront her ghosts. Pata — known for his editing work on Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist — manages to deliver a resourceful psychological horror that plays with many familiar tropes; to begin with as much about the texture of the scenery as it is the hallucinogenic horrors that unfold…
What was the inspiration behind the production... the seed of the idea?
Black Mold originated from a mixture of my own experiences photographing abandoned locations, coming to terms with my own mental health, and the acceptance of losing my father at a young age. At that time — during August 2016 — I was struggling mentally… and it was impacting so much of my life. I knew that most of these issues were stemming internally and in my own head, but it seemed like no matter what I did, I couldn’t overcome them. In other words, I knew that the main villain in my story was my brain, and the idea of focusing a film around that seemed compelling.
I initially worked out a rough outline of the story but didn’t come back to it until November 2020 when I wrote the first draft. By then I had been in therapy for four years and had made a lot of progress in my journey with mental health, which allowed me to introduce a more informed point-of-view into the script.
Were the sets within actual buildings? If so, were the interiors dressed or constructed... or a combination?
We shot in actual abandoned locations throughout central Illinois. These locations had no power, no water, no heat, and for the most part, either no windows or heavily compromised windows that prevented any form of protection from the cold wind. I was keen on using as much set dressing from the actual locations as possible. I would say a good 80%, if not more, of what you see on screen was what we found in our locations and repurposed for our needs.
We built a set, as well. The bathroom Brooke and Tanner wake up in and the room attached to it — which we called ‘The Den’ — were built. Even though it was a wonderfully constructed set (the construction and art department absolutely killed it), it was built in an abandoned hangar that once again, had no power or water or heat. Perhaps this is needless to say, but there was nothing glamorous about this shoot, which we all knew going into it.
The day we shot in an actual heated location with power and all the other amenities was at a funeral home. This ended up being a bit of a mind fuck because the one day we were in an actual, living environment, it was a funeral home and I had Maisie Merlock (Young Brooke) crying directly in my ears via my Comtek for ten hours. It was a heavy day, that’s for sure.
I’m interested to hear about how much your editing work has helped to develop your skills as a director. Being an editor, are you editing in camera; knowing what you can heighten after the shoot in the editing suite?
I actually start thinking about the edit when I’m writing, which then carries over into my direction. To me, writing, directing, and editing are all synonymous with each other, so I’m kind of always balancing all three roles mentally no matter what part of the production I’m in. There are times when I know what I’ll be using from a certain setup, so I’ll either just pick up that moment and move on, or still get the entire take because we’re there and so heavily focus on that specific moment or two. Being that I have a large amount of experience in posts, I do often lean on my knowledge/experience to know what we can heighten once we get into the edit/post.
Of course, nothing truly ever goes as planned in the world of filmmaking and you always have to adapt, and sometimes there are literally minutes to figure out a solution. It’s times like that when I’m directing that I’ll tap into my writer and editor side so I can do my best to get us out of a challenging situation but still walk away with a full scene that will work.
There are various tones to the film — the slow creep of dread, gore and humour — was this difficult to balance, intentional... or was it simply going through what was captured during filming?
I think the varying tones are a reflection of me. I’m a rather positive person, but at the same time, I have quite a nihilistic view of the world and life. I often am making jokes and not taking things too seriously, but inside I’m struggling with ongoing depression. One minute I could be talking about something fun and absurd and the next minute I’ll be exploring an existential thought I’ve been stuck on. I’d say there’s usually a duality in flux with me and that is also something that appears in my scripts. It’s hard for me not to slip some humour into something serious and heavy, and to give some weight to something that’s pure fun. Ultimately, that’s how life is. There’s never a constant flow to anything, there’s always a change in the tide and I like reflecting that in films.
Thankfully, the cast not only picked up on that but embraced it. Agnes Albright and Andrew Bailes — who play Brooke and Tanner respectively — had such a genuine connection and bond that quickly formed on set, they naturally fell into those moments.
What have you learnt working on Black Mold that you wish to build on for your next feature?
It was nine years between Black Mold and the last thing I directed; a short film called “Pity”. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be stoked if there were another feature for me — I have others written and more I will be writing — but who the hell knows? The world of filmmaking is a complicated, ever-changing landscape and just getting one film made is a massive accomplishment.
While I co-wrote/co-directed a feature called Dead Weight in 2012, that was a total DIY, no-budget, made-with-our-friends film, but Adam Bartlett (my creative partner on it) and I weren’t directing as much as we were just doing everything we could to keep the ship afloat because we ultimately wore just about every hat. We didn’t come from any film backgrounds; we were two long-time friends that grew up in the punk rock/hardcore scene that decided to make a feature because those scenes taught us that if there’s something you want to do… then fucking do it.
As I mentioned, I directed “Pity” nine years prior, which was a short film centred around one character sitting in a parked car. So, in many ways, Black Mold was my first time directing in a substantial capacity. I won’t lie, when I walked onto set for the first day of pre-production and saw the trailers and vehicles and crew people running around and then walked onto the nearly completed build, I absolutely wondered if I belonged there and if I could even do it. The beautiful people in our cast and crew got me through that; they never backed down no matter how cold it was, how much raccoon shit was on the floor, or how hard those locations made our days. We did it and I’m endlessly proud of what we all accomplished together.
If I do (get to) make another feature, I’ll be going into that one feeling more confident about myself and knowing I can trust myself because that’s something I learned through Black Mold. And (for now) that's enough for me.
Black Mold has its international premiere at FrightFest on Friday 25th August. Book your tickets now.