People often thrive on exploring the mystery of the unknown, especially when it comes to the people closest to them, and they have no idea what truly motivates them. That’s especially amplified when people come across reclusive neighbors who fail to assimilate into the neighborhood and community, and appear to thrive on secrets and strange behavior. That desire to explore other people’s unknown motives is the major motivating factor in the new independent horror thriller, ‘Mr. Jones.’ Ross Dinerstein, one of the producers of the film, skillfully used his experience in independent filmmaking and the horror genre to help build the suspense of exploring the inspirations of infamous, reclusive neighbors.
‘Mr. Jones’ follows married couple Scott (Jon Foster) and Penny (Sarah Jones), who just moved to a remote cabin to escape the pressures of the world, and so that he can film a nature documentary for the next year. Their lone neighbor is a strange hermit who only comes out at night, but he never acknowledges them or speaks. The only thing he does is drag his strange scarecrow sculptures into the woods.
As the couple starts to delve deeper into their neighbor’s world, they begin to suspect that he’s an infamous, reclusive artist known as Mr. Jones (Mark Steger), and they think they’ve stumbled up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to document his existence. But once they start researching the legend around Mr. Jones, their world turns upside down, and their only escape is through the realm of their own nightmares.
Dinerstein generously took the time to sit down in a New York City hotel restaurant during the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival to talk about filming the horror thriller. Among other things, he discussed how first-time director Karl Mueller approached him with the idea to make ‘Mr. Jones’ together, after they previously teamed up for the 2011 sci-fi thriller, ‘The Divide;’ how the hiring of Foster and Jones in the film was the easiest casting process of his career; and how honored he was that the film was selected to play at the festival.
Question (Q): You previously worked with the writer and director of ‘Mr. Jones,’ Karl Mueller, on an early draft of the screenplay for the 2011 sci-fi thriller, ‘The Divide.’ Why did you want to reunite with him for this new horror thriller?
Ross Dinerstein (RD): Karl has been a really good friend and collaborator over the past couple of years. We were showing a rough cut of a movie I produced, ‘The Pact,’ and I invited smart, intelligent people with great ideas to give us some notes on it. Karl saw the film and gave me some notes. He then asked me, “I want to do one of these movies. Would you back me?” I said, “Of course I would.”
So he spent the next couple of days coming up with a basic story idea in a couple page document. Then we started going back and forth with that document, and it turned into a 10-page document, which turned into a script, and then a second and third draft. Then the next thing you know, we were making the movie. We went from that screening to production in about five to six months.
Q: ‘Mr. Jones’ marks Karl’s feature film directorial debut. What was it like working with him, since this was the first time he was helming a movie?
RD: He was a first time director, but he was so competent and knew exactly what he wanted. So by day two, you’d forget that he was a first time director. He was very, very prepared. The crew respected him, and he really knew how to work with the actors and technical aspects. He’s a seasoned pro.
Q: Would you be interested in working with Karl again in the future on another movie?
RD: Absolutely. He’s a very good friend and a brilliant writer. I look forward to our next collaboration.
Q: ‘The Pact’ and ‘Mr. Jones’ were both impressively told, both visually and in the context of their stories. What is it about the genre of horror that you enjoy so much, and pushes you to create intriguing stories?
RD: I just love to scare people, and to make them have an emotion and reaction to what they’re watching on screen. Movies are such a great medium to create an emotional response. You can make people feel uncomfortable, and just sitting in those audiences, watching people jump or turn their head is great. Watching my wife (at the film’s world premiere at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival on Friday, April 19), she had never seen it before, and she was absolutely terrified, and that was very fun.
Q: Speaking of the premiere, what was your reaction when you found out the movie would be playing here at the Tribeca Film Festival?
RD: I was thrilled and so honored. It’s such a high-end festival with so many movies that are submitted, and I was ecstatic that they liked the film. It meant that people would get to see it, and they gave us such a great spot. It’s been a great experience.
Q: What was the audience’s reaction to the film at the premiere? Were people generally jumping out of their seats?
RD: Yeah. I’ve seen it so many times that I know all the moments. I wish that I could have focused on the audience and not so much on all the other stuff that was happening at the premiere. But I definitely got that feeling.
Q: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
RD: We often talk about the feeling you have when you wake up from a nightmare, and we tried to replicate that feeling. Sometimes you can have a nightmare that’s so real, you don’t know if it happened or not. That’s what I personally loved hearing about, that after seeing the movie, people say they feel like they just had a nightmare.
Q: Jon Foster and Sarah Jones play the two main characters in the film, Scott and Penny. Did you work with Karl at all to decide who would portray the married couple, since the majority of ‘Mr. Jones’ focuses on their actions?
RD: Yeah, I’m very involved in the casting process. For Sarah, I saw the pilot for ‘Alcatraz’ on a plane, and thought she was brilliant in that. I know her agent very well, because he used to represent Caity Lotz, who was in ‘The Pact.’ So I called him and sent him the script, and he really impressed by it, and he sent it to Sarah. Two days later, she met with Karl and I, and we cast her in the meeting.
As far as Jon Foster, I’ve always been a fan. His agent has read the script and called me, and asked, “What do you think about Jon?” I loved the idea, and Jon read the script that night and called the next day, and it was done. It was the fastest, easiest process of any of my movies.
Q: How closely did you work with Jon and Sarah once the film actually began shooting? Did you visit the set often during the shot?
RD: I was on set every minute of the movie. I’m a very hands-on producer. I trust Karl completely, but he would rely on me to fill in some holes, so he could really focus on directing. When I produce, I make it so that directors only have to worry about actors and shots, and not about any of the other noise that’s involved in the production.
Q: What did you think about the relationship Jon and Sarah developed between their characters on the set?
RD: I thought it was a really interesting relationship. They’re a couple who has been together for 10 years. There’s a line in the voiceover where Jon’s character says, “What it’s like to kiss my girlfriend now is different than we first met.”
I thought it was a really interesting theme. People fall in and out of love all the time. As they grow older, they’re different people now than when they first met, and I think that’s portrayed well in the film. At the end of the film, he grows up and he makes that ultimate sacrifice, and I think it really works.
Q: Do you think people can relate to Scott and Penny’s struggles overall as they’re investigating Mr. Jones?
RD: I do. I think it’s a very universal theme for anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship with someone they love. In this movie, he starts off as a man-child, really. But by the end of the film, he really matures into an adult.
Q: Parts of ‘Mr. Jones’ is filmed in the found footage style, as Scott is a documentarian chronicling his time in the woods. Karl has said that at times, Jon actually was his own cameraman, in order to capture Scott’s point-of-view. Did you trust Jon to get the shots you needed, and why did you think it was important for him to actually film himself?
RD: We really did trust Jon. He’s an artist in many different ways himself, and very much related to the character. He worked a lot with the cinematographer, Mathew Rudenberg, on those shots to make sure they lined up with the other shots. He was very comfortable doing that, so it very much worked for us.
Q: Since the film mixes the found footage with traditional cinematography, do you think that helped tell the story?
RD: We really don’t feel like the movie is a found footage movie. We feel like it has aspects of a found footage movie, but it’s just a unique way to tell this story. We felt it would be a great way for the audience to experience this nightmare feel that the characters are going through. We really got that mash up of that point-of-view style with traditional filmmaking.
Q: As Scott and Penny begin to do background research on Mr. Jones, they begin to enter the world of nightmares, and if their experiences are real or imagined. Did focusing on their transition into the dream world, and the deterioration of the characters’ marriage, influence the visual style and soundtrack of the film?
RD: We spent countless hours with Matthew, the cinematographer, designing the shots. I remember how much time we spent on scene 138, and I felt like all we did everyday was scene 138. I was nervous that we were only going to have one big nightmare scene. But it really worked and came together well.
From the very first document Karl created, he had a very specific vision on what the sound would be, and I followed his lead on it. To be honest, I never understood it until I saw the movie and it was married with the sound, and then it totally made sense. It had nature sounds and howls, and Karl was persistent from day one that that was the way he wanted to handle the sound. I let him go that route, and it totally worked.
Q: You used scarecrow expert Pumpkinrot to make the 18 custom-designed scarecrows for the film. What was the process of using Pumpkinrot like for the movie, and what was your overall impression of the final scarecrows?
RD: Karl scoured the Internet, trying to find a scarecrow expert. We felt that in order for the movie to work, we would need unbelievable scarecrows, who were characters in their own way. We used tracking boards and chat rooms, and we kept hearing the same name, Pumpkinrot.
So Karl tracked him down on Facebook and got on the phone with him. I also got on the phone with him, and we started having this conversation with him. He’s this artist in Pennsylvania, who’s the best of the best at building scarecrows. He had some bad experiences with Hollywood before. But after getting to know Karl and speaking to me, he said he would do it.
The next thing you know, he took a month off of his regular job and started building these scarecrows. He sent us pictures, and they arrived two days before production, and we were blown away. The reactions the characters had to the scarecrows for the first time were the same exact reactions we had for the first time.
Q: Where you worried at all about how the scarecrows would turn out, since he was in Pennsylvania and you shot the film in California?
RD: We weren’t worried because he really understood the script. He had sent us pictures of the progress, so we were never concerned and had a lot of faith in him.
Q: What was the process of getting the scarecrows and the rest of the props into the underground, abandoned mineshaft where Jon was filming his scenes on his own?
RD: That was a happy accident. The location that we found where we shot the majority of the movie happened to have these old salt mines right next door. The owner of the property where we were shooting also owned that property next door, and he let us shoot there. It was a scary, claustrophobic place, but we just carried stuff down there and back up. The actors spent an entire night shooting down there, but they never complained. It added so much to the movie.
We had caverns in the script, but we never knew how we were going to address it. So we got very lucky on that.
Q: The film was shot on a small, independent budget. Did having a limited budget influence the way you could visually and stylistically shoot the film, or pose any difficulties while you were shooting?
RD: It was very rewarding. We shot north of Los Angles in this really amazing location. All the locations in the film are on this one ranch. It would be 99 degrees during the day and 45 degrees at night. It was a really fun experience, and we had a great time. We had a great cast and crew. Everyone bonded and worked really hard on the film.
Q: What was the process of doing the stunts on the film, since it did have a lower budget?
RD: A friend of mine, who’s a high-end stunt coordinator in Los Angeles, came out for a couple days. He helped us, and there were a lot of good people who advised us. The actors did their own stunts. A lot of times when casting a movie, I’m more conscious of which actors can be a little more active.
Q: If you were given more money, would you be interested in adding anything to the film, or are you satisfied with the way it turned out?
RD: I’m very satisfied with the way it turned out. We were low on budget, but not low on scope. We were efficient with the way we told the story. I don’t think anyone missed anything from having those limitations on the budget.
Q: Would you be interested in doing bigger budget, studio films in the future, or do you prefer the independent movies?
RD: I prefer the independent films that I’m doing now, because I like making two-three movies a year. But I’m always looking to make bigger and better films. As long as the content is fun and exciting, and I’m working with people I like, I don’t care what the budgets are.
Q: Like you mentioned earlier, the film was shot on a ranch in California, but there are several scenes where Scott travels to New York to interview people who have had interactions with Mr. Jones. Were those filmed on location in New York, or did you shoot those in California as well?
RD: The interviews were in L.A., but our second unit director (Saul Herckis) did come to New York and shot a lot of that stuff over a weekend while we were shooting the film.
Q: Are there any horror directors who have influenced your career so far, and what you would like to do in the future?
RD: Yes, I’m a fan Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter and Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. I was a kid who grew up watching way too many movies, and sometimes I think I was born two decades too late. I’m into films from the ’70s and ’80s and early ’90s, more so than some of the more recent films that have been made now.
Q: Do you have any upcoming projects lined up that you can discuss?
RD: We’re working on ‘The Pact 2’ and a house arrest movie (‘Dark Summer’) with director Paul Solet.