Deep in the woods outside the sleepy farming town of Carnation, a woman’s scream rips through the damp night air. It’s a blood-chilling sound, raising the hair on my arms despite the fact that I’m surrounded by the film crew for Dead Body, a feature-length horror-thriller shooting at locations across western Washington. After four run-throughs of this climactic scene—four screams from actress Leah Pfenning, each as unsettling as the last—this one’s being recorded.
The action unfolds around a minivan, parked and idling under tall Douglas firs, strewn inside and out with faux mangled corpses. Auto exhaust holds the red glow of the van’s brake lights (actually a fog machine and color-gelled spotlight), which the crew and I watch as ominous ambiance on a flat-screen monitor nearby. The raw footage we see is somehow unaffected by the set lights that cast daylight-white fluorescence over the woods.
Inexplicably, the video feed cuts out right as the action starts. We huddle around the dead monitor and listen as the actors lunge around the van reciting their lines, unseen by everyone but a boom-mic guy and a cinematographer with a handheld camera. Per the script, they need to capture the entire minutes-long scene in one panning shot. The rest of us wait in tense silence until the final line of the scene and, after a beat, break into applause.
Dead Body—about a group of kids descending into fatal social anxiety at a cabin in the woods—is in its third week of production. I’m here because I’ve been hearing screams through the walls of my apartment: Writer/producer Ian Bell lives in my building and has been editing audio at home. This is Bell’s first produced feature—his previous work is in documentaries—though he and writing partner and co-producer Ramon Isao have completed scripts for several others.
It’s a shoestring operation, but the cohesion and communication among the cast and crew is totally professional. Everyone involved is local; almost everyone is working on their first feature, except lead actor Cooper Hopkins, who starred in Zombies of Mass Destruction, an Isao-penned script filmed in Eastern Washington last year. Director Bobbin Ramsey has previously directed for the stage. Executive producer Jeff Wilson, who owns a tile company, founded a production company so he could finance the project.
With each take, Bell, Isao and Ramsey make tweaks: A slight turn of an actress’ head. More tiny traces of bruising around a wound. Less volume on a scream. The degree of on-the-fly minutiae is exacting, but the crew nails every change. Almost.
We watch playback after a tech fixes the flat-screen. Bell notices a shadow cast by the mic guy. Ramsey wants less smoke. They set up to shoot again. It’s almost 1 a.m. by the time I leave. The shoot will go on until sunrise.
Filming will wrap by mid-September, then post-production will continue until mid-October. Bell and Isao are submitting Dead Body to Sundance and SXSW but are banking on the horror film festival circuit—or they might distribute digitally on their own. They’re crossing their fingers that SIFF will give Seattle its first look next year.