FrightFest Interview: John Rosman for NEW LIFE
Recently released to ferociously positive reviews at Fantasia, John Rosman’s debut feature, New Life, has become quite the breakout and a major discovery of the film festival. Set on the precipice of a global pandemic a resourceful agent, Elsa tracks down patient zero, Jess in her desperate attempt to cross the Canadian border. Where one woman is unaware of the disease she is carrying, the other must face the harsh reality of a recent ALS diagnosis, making her all the more determined to aid in humanity’s survival. John discusses the central theme and the decisions involved in handling this sensitive horror tale.
We’ll get to the central inspiration, but were there any filmmakers and particular films that inspired New Life?
Definitely. Probably my biggest influence throughout is Kelly Reichardt, specifically Wendy and Lucy, but also elements of Old Joy and Night Moves. Having lived in Oregon for a while, Reichardt has this unmatched talent to create immersive films with such captivating performances the film almost becomes invisible. She’s so good and captures something so honest about living in Oregon. It’s also a horror movie. Big influences there are Cronenberg’s The Fly, Repulsion, The Vanishing and the HBO series Chernobyl.
The film is very much hinged on two performances. One that is based on a very real disease and another on something slightly more removed. Were you afraid at any point that what Elsa has to deal with could become overshadowed by the more apocalyptic themes? How did you make sure this element served the story as well as it did without being overshadowed?
That’s a great question. It’s something me and Sonya Walger, who plays Elsa (the character who has ALS in the film), took very seriously. To me, there was a great opportunity to tie working through the stages of grief with a life-altering disease within a horror landscape. But the risk is being tone-deaf or insensitive. The only way to at least try and make this part of the film not get overshadowed by the horror stuff is, I think, to make it feel honest. So, we did a lot of work.
I researched and talked with people across the spectrum who deal with ALS — doctors, family members — as well as consulted with people currently living with the disease. An amazing collaborator on this journey was Dagmar Munn. She’s a columnist with ALS Today who writes about living well with ALS. She’s an amazing writer whose work helped develop our character. But she was also incredibly generous with her time and patient with my dumb questions. Munn led us to find our actress, Lisa Cross (who plays Laura in the film). We were so lucky to get Lisa — she’s a knockout. Anyone who watches it will see, Lisa Cross is a brilliant actress. Her experience with ALS helped shape her character into something more true and gave our film a little more grounding with reality. I let my research shape those elements of the character, and in doing so I found Elsa’s arc. There’s this radical optimism I came across again and again. So many people who face this terrible disease spoke to me with optimism and hope. I found it deeply moving. It speaks to something so profound about life and the human condition, and, to me, that was a powerful journey for the hero to go on.
I love how sensitively you have approached the subject matter and shaped a character around what moved you while working as a journalist. Important stories. Did the inclusion of ALS in the story evolve at all? For example, was the story always going to involve a character dealing with her own illness against the backdrop of a pandemic or was it something much smaller to begin with?
Thank you, that’s a really nice thing to say! The inclusion of ALS was something that developed in later scripts. The goal grew into tying both of the character’s stories together to the point where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The initial spark was actually from my journalism days. We interviewed a young woman, Summer Whisman, who was my age at the time, but also had ALS. But she was also a storyteller and wrote a beautiful memoir. I read it and it always stayed with me because, like Dagmar, like Lisa, even though she was honest about the reality of the disease she also still found so much beauty in the world.
Did you ever question that post-COVID, audiences may not be ready to sit through any film that reminds them of what happened?
Of course. I don’t even think I’d want to sit through a post-COVID movie. There are so many idiotic choices I made that make this film impossible to market (for example, you can’t share the best images of the movie, the main character doesn’t talk for like the first 20 minutes of the movie, etc., etc.). But I don’t know, those choices I felt were right for this story.
What is your hope that people take away from the film?
You know, in one of my screenings I sat in front of two teenagers. One was soooo completely bored during the first half of the film. And I don’t blame him. It’s slow and methodical, and it sure doesn’t feel like a horror movie. But then once we started getting going. He sat up and started hitting his friend and was totally into it. That was good enough for me.
New Life has its European premiere at FrightFest on Friday 25th August. Book your tickets now.