Interview | David Bruckner on Southbound’s Haunted Highways
Every few years, the horror genre experiences another renaissance. And one of the trends that’s been blowing up in a big way lately is the horror anthology film, comprised of multiple scary shorts from multiple promising directors. Films like Tales of Halloween and The ABCs of Death are finding diehard audiences who love their freewheeling, independent creativity, and films like Southbound – in theaters now – are keeping the subgenre exciting and fresh.
Southbound is a film that features many intersecting tales of terror, but none scarier than David Bruckner’s The Accident, about a man who texts while driving, hits a pedestrian, and has to deal with the situation all by his lonesome. It’s a cunning film, disturbingly simple and utterly relatable, and Bruckner – who previously worked on the anthologies The Signal and V/H/S – directs it masterfully.
I got David Bruckner on the phone last week to talk all about his unnerving new film, the current state of affairs in the promising horror anthology genre, and his experiences directing a (now defunct) sequel in the Friday the 13th franchise. He also explains why he thinks horror is, at its heart, a liberating experience. Find out if you agree by reading our interview below…
Crave: Your segment in Southbound is creepy as shit, man.
David Bruckner: [Laughs.]
Like, it really freaked my shit out. Where did this idea come from, for this particular short, The Accident?
The Accident? You know, I think I really wanted to do something with one guy on the phone. Just throwing ideas around I thought it was, in the world of Southbound, the idea is that you’re running into things that you should run into. That there’s a lesson that’s coming to you, you have to endure, because of a past sin.
I just thought it would be really interesting if we had a guy who was having a phone conversation with ear buds on, that would cause him to wander deeper and deeper into a nightmarish situation and not really know what you’re getting into. The point is distraction and, trying to find a way into that, I came up with something very contemporary like what if it’s texting and driving, you know? What if this is kind of a nightmarish PSA about why you should not be distracted, why you should not look at your phone when you drive. This is the worst possible nightmare of what could happen. [Laughs.]
Where did the idea come from to hijack the protagonist of one of the other shorts?
That… well, it’s weird, it kind of came together in that sense. We’re all brainstorming different elements, it was very much a writers room approach. We had all kind of come to the table with a cool take on what we could in a haunted environment, what we could do out in the desert, and like I said, I had this solo guy who was wandering into various situations.
We were just trying to find a way to make them all fit together, and when we knew Siren’s story was going to feature [Roxanne Benjamin’s] protagonist fleeing at the end, and that some of her nightmare, some of what she was paying for involved a traffic accident of somebody she knew in the backstory of the previous segment, that just seemed to make a certain kind of poetic sense to have that paid forward on to her.
Once we just realized that we could connect the two movies that way, I think it was one of the happy accidents that you maybe wouldn’t think of if it was just an independent short. But because of the collaborative process, because we’re trying to make those movies fit, we kind of came across some weird ideas we wouldn’t have otherwise explored.
Most of your produced work has been in an anthology format.
What is it about the anthology format that you think is causing it to increase in both popularity and prevalence nowadays?
I think it’s partially because attention spans are so much shorter these days, and I think that horror films just work really well in the short format. I mean, there’s a lot that you can leave unknown in a short film, or in an anthology format, that you would maybe have to explain in a larger movie, that you would have to verify in a sense.
I think also the biggest draw for me, in making them, is just that you can take a creative risk that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to take. It’s a wonderful place to audition ideas that are spin-offs of the genre, that have an element of something that seems familiar to what you’ve seen, but you’ve never seen it presented in this way. It just allows you to go crazy.
And releasing them together in an anthology film, is that a safer economic choice than producing short films that play on their own, in the festival circuit or online?
I think it’s a combination of… I mean sure, you get to showcase the short film in a feature format, but I think Southbound is more than just a collection of shorts. It’s like Southbound was an idea that we all came up with together. Like, the shorts are tied together thematically. Hopefully by the time you get to the end of the movie, the final events of the film ask you to reinterpret everything that you’ve seen up until that point.
So it’s very much a very cohesive experience of something we were going for. I think we were going for something that was somewhere between a traditional anthology and something closer to Pulp Fiction, where it’s several stories weaved together in ways that are surprising and enlightening.
How did Southbound evolve? What was the original core concept, and how did that change as you collaborated?
Well, Radio Silence had come up with zipper transitions. So when I came on board they were already talking about the idea that you could have one element from one short, kind of passing off into another one, and the audience would follow it. So the idea was that you would seamlessly blend the shorts together and the audience wouldn’t really know where one story ended and the other story began. We thought that was really fun as a genre experience.
Audiences are so savvy now. They’ve seen so many horror films, they know all of the tropes, [so] that was a really fun way to sort of pass the baton. Once we knew that, then we could go from there. We just wanted to find an exciting location, something that could house that, and we all jumped in the car… all the filmmakers rode out to the desert and did a little brainstorm and explored some locations, and that led to the idea of a haunted highway. Which was something else that I felt like, you know, we hadn’t really seen articulated that well. And it grew from there.
The image of a whole bunch of horror filmmakers going out into the middle of nowhere to come up with scary ideas sounds like a modern version of Ken Russell’s Gothic.
It definitely, like… you know, what I liked about this was we’d very much kind of talk about the stuff that scares us, and kind of feed off it. We didn’t set out to have a thematic through line to the whole thing but the more and more we talked, we started to realize that regret and remorse and the guilt and anxiety that comes from having committed a very relatable sin was something that we were running into.
Again, I don’t think that we would have codified that. I don’t think that that would have come to the surface if we didn’t see it in each other’s ideas, so I feel like the collaborative process lends itself to something like this in ways that you never really know what you’re going to get, and I think that’s part of the fun of it. It’s part of the feel of the whole thing and the way it unfolds.
It seems like the majority of the horror genre can often be boiled down to that simple idea of people committing some sort of sin, and then getting punished for it, sometimes ten times over or more so.
I guess it’s kind of a depressing genre when you think of it that way. It’s about how we feel the need to punish ourselves.
Well, I think of it as… first of all, when you get [something] that we all relate to, like texting and driving, we’ve all done it. I’ve been a real jerk with my phone once or twice, and it’s really scared the living hell out of me. If you can relate to that sin as an audience member, if you can you feel like the film is calling you out just a little bit, that really ups the anxiety. That involves the audience in a different way, so once you get into the trope-y stuff, once you get into the genre stuff, the really-really magical nightmare stuff, it tends to resonate a little bit more.
But I kind of think of it as, we go to horror movies to sort of confront all of our negative feelings. We get to sit, contemplate in the safety of our seats, and we get to feel the anxiety and terror and the horror and the dread and the repulsions, just all measure of negative emotions we get to process together. So I actually think of it as sort of a liberating experience, that you can come out the other side and be a little bit wiser for it. That’s always been the draw for me.
And yet we have films like… I know you’re no longer working on it, but you were working on Friday the 13th for a while, and that particular horror franchise seemed to have been built very differently. Over time we started getting a different kind of catharsis out of it, don’t you think?
Yeah, I think that there’s definitely a core of the horror audience that sort of celebrates the kills, that appreciates that camp factor, or you can end up with movies that are very retro nostalgic. They’re very much nodding to things that have come before them. And I think my approach to a lot of movies, I think what I am drawn to, is to make it real again. Whatever it may be.
That was my approach to Friday the 13th. I think that’s something that exists in Southbound, you know? There may be nostalgic elements in it but I think all of the stories are trying to make it real for you. I don’t think it’s ever getting up off the content in a post-modern kind of way, if you know what I mean.
After the experience of Friday the 13th are you attracted to the idea of taking on a pre-existing franchise again, or do you think you’re going to want to focus more on your own original content?
I think the pre-existing franchise, I think the mythos of it would have to be something that really speaks to me. I feel like if I see something in it, or I feel like it’s interesting to bring that back to the table, and if I have an angle on it that I think is unique and fun… sure, I would totally approach it. But […] it was pretty liberating to go do something down and dirty like Southbound, and sort of have no creative constraints, and see where we ended up. So I feel like that’s a path that feels right for the moment.
What is your next project right now? Or do you know for certain?
I can’t say at the moment. Nothing that’s been announced. But I’m writing some things and developing several things. I’m looking to get to a feature this year, for sure.
Something small again, like Southbound? Or something more… “ambitious,” for lack of a better word?
Certainly always ambitious. [Laughs.] But I don’t think a big studio movie is going to be the answer, in the short term. I think I’m going to do something smaller and more original, definitely.
Besides the people you worked with on Southbound, who is exciting you right now as a horror filmmaker? What movies have you seen recently that blew your mind?
Oh man, I mean everybody says it but I have to It Follows was one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in years. I love what a living, waking nightmare that movie can be, and how it steps outside of our expectations and does something I’ve just never seen before. But I think that and Ex Machina were two of the most involving horror films that I’ve seen. I think of Ex Machina as a horror film at its core.
Photo Credit: Maarten de Boer / Getty Images Portrait
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.