Interview with John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies the co-directors of Unearth
By James Whittington, Wednesday 7th October 2020
UNEARTHGrimmfest gets underway today and as usual has a superb collection of genre movies for all to enjoy and this time, due to global circumstances is online.

One movie that stands out is the very original, Unearth which is a deep and effective movie with a message for us all. Here it's directors John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies talk about this powerful piece.

HC: Did you know from a young age that you wanted to work in the film industry?

JCL: Growing up in 80's America, I have the typical story of entertaining myself and my family with a variety of audio and video recorders. My first love though was drawing. I was really into Detective Comics, but besides drawing Batman characters, I liked to create original stories which I tried to get our neighbors to pay subscription fees for. A creative entrepreneur even then. In grade school, that creativity grew into short movies I would make with my friends. At the time I didn't like writing, so it was a way around writing book reports, but ultimately making a film was a lot more work. We didn't even realize it at the time. It was just a lot of fun.

DS: Poland at that time was behind the iron curtain with very filtered cultural entertainment. The film industry was limited and not female friendly. When I turned 6, I went to study classical music. It was a very strict and isolated environment requiring constant practice. When I was finally done with that chapter, I got accepted into art school. There I got into photography.

HC: Where did the concept for Unearth come from?

JCL: I was horrified and inspired by a pair of documentaries that were produced in the U.S. a decade ago: GasLand and Triple Divide. These docs told the story of the effects of the natural gas industry on the environment and citizens in rural communities. A story that was otherwise absent from the leadership and media of our country and the state of Pennsylvania, where we filmed Unearth. Instead we were always told about the job creation and that's where the story always ended. The health of those living and working in these industrial boom towns and the contamination to water, air and land were all glossed over in the name of jobs. With fracking, we saw an opportunity to use the horror genre in a fear of the unknown story, because we don't have cameras underground, we don't know what surprises all this drilling may turn up. And then growing up on farms myself, and knowing the life of stewardship and struggle, and how unappreciated that important work is, wanting to shine a light on these important people and give them a voice.

DS: I wanted to create a one-location theatre play-like drama with a small cast. Where I could focus on the performances, dialogue and visual qualities. Unearth shows an isolated community with a few conflicted members, so I thought it could work.

HC: It's a timely, serious movie which covers issues such as mental health as well as the importance of conservation with a slice of horror. What was your writing process as you wrote it with Kelsey Goldberg?

JCL: For the first couple years, I was developing the script on my own. Receiving feedback from a trusted group of readers. My first readers were horror hounds. I started with wanting to impress them with those elements. When they were that gave me the confidence to make the impact of those moments truly land in meaningful ways. Then when cast members Allison McAtee and Marc Blucas came on board they really invested themselves in the project and provided addition feedback and ideas. With so many complex women in the story we wanted to make sure I was getting the voices and characters right, so for the year leading up to production, Kelsey Goldberg was brought in and we would take turns doing a full pass on the script.

DS: I stayed away from the script until the final versions. Where I then reviewed and refined it further.

Unearth poster for Web

JCL: Working class people have long been living paycheck to paycheck, job to job for decades. And doing so in isolation, where life mainly revolves 24-7 around the work, can be taxing on the body and the mind. We wanted to create an environment for these characters where even if the viewer isn't a farmer in a small town, I think especially during COVID-19, they can empathize with those facing these issues every day. The real-life horrors of these issues feed into the story's genre elements.

HC: The movie takes its time, lets you invest your feelings in the characters, was that hard to achieve?

JCL: I believe we were able to attract this level of talent specifically because of the slow burn, character-driven approach to the story. Everything came back to character, theme and building dread for us. Some films set out to be roller coaster rides of pure entertainment. Some do that really well and you want to take that ride again. Others can be a quick, forgettable sugar rush experience. But we wanted Unearth to be different.

DS: From the beginning, I saw it as a slow, reflective drama. The film is about coming to the surface. With our feelings, needs or fears. The camera movements were planned in a raw, intimate style. Early scenes were relatively steady, but as the story progresses, the experience becomes more shaky, sometimes with a hint of a psychedelic, surreal vibe.

JCL: From our crew heads to the cast, we had conversations before production so everyone was on the same page that we wanted these characters to feel like real life and the horror was motivated and as grounded as possible, so hopefully the viewer takes something more with them than just some great, inventive death scenes. That may require a more patient and deeper-thinking viewer, but it is a risk we felt necessary to take, especially at such an important crossroads where the planet is literally burning and flooding all around us. Thankfully "Horror" is a broad term, with room for a variety of approaches, and open-minded fans used to stories that break the mold.

HC: What's it like co-directing a movie?

DS: It can be very convenient for playing to each director's strengths. So with a peace of mind, John focused on logistics and performance, and I on the camera and visuals.

HC: The strong cast boasts iconic actress like Adrienne Barbeau, what was she like to direct?

JCL: Having Adrienne agree to do the film was a major development for Unearth. Her stamp of approval on the script meant a lot to us. She was thoroughly involved the moment she joined. Emails and phone calls with character background questions. On set with ideas and line suggestions. She really wants to create with you and make sure the character rings true to her performance. It was a creative partnership that was both fun behind the scenes and rewarding on camera. With an ensemble cast of talent like this you find the different ways each actor likes to work, and Adrienne is one that comes prepared and ready to fine-tune on set, without the ego that may come from some in the industry with her status, and we loved that.

DS: It was an effortless experience. I admire her energy and enthusiasm, especially when we had to film in such harsh conditions and odd, late-night hours.

HC: The superb effects are initially subtle but become ever more bloody, were they all done on set?

JCL: The mad scientists at TolinFX really did a masterful job of achieving the overall goal we set out for Unearth to ground everything as much as possible in reality. I had purchased the BBC's original David Attenborough version of Planet Earth while I was writing the script and I was fascinated by a particular scene involving ants and fungi that was the basis for one important aspect of the film. While we had seen the fracking process portrayed in animated form in a number of videos, no one had created a real, organic representation of this loud, violent and destructive process. These, and other scenes which I won't spoil here, really required SFX artists at the top tier and Steve Tolin and his team built everything and our DP, Eun-ah Lee, captured everything beautifully in camera.

HC: What are your personal feelings on fracking and its impact on the environment?

JCL: Coal, crude oil, natural gas. For over a century we have been reliant on fossil fuels to live our lives. They've heated and lit our homes, cooked our food, propelled our cars and made a few people wealthy. It is this last part that has been holding society back from evolving past these old, dirty, harmful energy sources from the 1800's. We've all known the alternatives for decades. We are all complicit in this slow transition and in the consequences we face now in this climate emergency. We've been spoiled and lazy and need to put the pressure on by forcing change through our dollars and our voices. We need to vote those out of power who live in a world disconnected from reality. We're well past the point of evolution on this.

DS: It doesn't have to be just about fracking but how, in general, we take the goods of nature for granted. Greed and ignorance has already destroyed our water supplies with chemicals, biological or radiological waste. Besides pollution and damage to drinking water resources, there are several disturbing drawbacks coming from living near an operational gas well. The film provokes and educates, because it shows that few profit from such ventures.

HC: Will you be nervous when the movie gets is shown at Grimmfest?

JCL: Of course we would love to be in-person with everyone in Manchester for the UK premiere of Unearth but Simeon, Katie and everyone at Grimmfest have went above and beyond to make the experience the best it can possibly be, under the circumstances. The Q&A's are nice mini-reunions so we're excited each time we have an opportunity to see everyone again. We really miss the cast and crew. Adrienne is expected to be on a Horror Icons panel discussion as well that we're looking forward to watching. The film is out of our hands now so the nerves are mostly in hoping it finds its audience.

HC: So, what are you working on at the moment?

JCL: I've been working on a sort of sequel to Unearth that would transition the story from the farms to the city. We are reading several others and also developing one with Mike Berlin that's a biting social commentary and an Altman-esque vibe.

DS: I'm finishing the Unearth website to get this film out to as many people as possible. We have signed with international sales agents, Reel Suspects, which is an exciting part of the process too.

HC: John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies thank you very much.

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