Warning: This Article Does Contain Spoilers
(But not as many as it could have; you’re welcome.)
Infliction (2013), an assembled footage film by Jack Thomas Smith was released on DVD (Amazon, Walmart), iTunes, and Netflix Queue July 1, 2014. I had the pleasure of reviewing the film prior to its release and jumped on the opportunity to speak with some of the actors. I wanted to get an idea of what it was like to record what is easily now my favorite film in the “found footage” genre. There have been hundreds of film projects with varying levels of budget, critical acclaim, and overall success which qualify as either a “found footage” or “assembled footage” movie. This style lends itself easily to horror and thriller flicks and the equipment requirement is also appealing for lower budget and independent film projects. The Blair Witch Project was among the first movies to bring this approach to filmmaking to the mainstream. As of July 10, 2014 there are 317 film projects tagged with the ‘found footage’ identifier on IMDB. 150 of those projects also identify as horror films, while 80 of them identify as thrillers. Needless to say, we have a wide variety of film options within this rapidly expanding genre. As with any branch of cinema, there are examples of well executed movies and poorly executed movies. I asked Jason Mac, Elliott Armstrong and Ana Shaw about what made Infliction different from the movies we have already seen. The initial appeal of the movie for me was the fact that it was about two brothers on a killing spree. The movie proclaimed that it was shot from their perspective, something that I hadn’t seen before. I imagined Diary of the Dead from the perspective of zombies and knew I would have to take a look.
On the technical side, the challenges of handling the camera mainly fell to Elliott Armstrong and Jason Mac. They played Kenny and John Stiles, respectively. Rather than having 1 or 2 cameras, Infliction featured over 5 cameras. The portable cameras are repeatedly handed off during the film between characters. This means that angles must be constantly considered. The actors also had to adjust to looking at the camera as though it were a person in the scene, as well as getting used to holding the camera as if they were filming. By the end of the project Armstrong said he felt as though the cameras were an extension of his body and he no longer felt the urge to put it down in order to talk with his hands. The difficult part, he said, was adjusting to the fact that the angle you held the camera at would matter for additional scenes. Mac mentioned something I didn’t know. Infliction was mostly recorded chronologically. This gave the actors an edge while they were filming. They didn’t have to jump back and forth between different mindsets because they were staying (mostly) on a consistent timeline.
Ana Shaw who played Andrea Stiles did not have to experience many of the challenges which came from handling the cameras. She spent the majority of the time focusing on remaining in character and on the scene at hand. Her entrance and exit were among the most intense moments in the movie, so remaining set in Andrea’s state of mind was of the utmost importance. Each actor acknowledged that they grew from Infliction and learned a lot from playing characters that were so drastically different from themselves. They also had to battle the elements for the night scenes, so it is disappointing for me that more critics do not give these independent actors the credit they deserve for their dedication.
Armstrong described the filming project in a way that presents to me as an organic, collective process. From deciding how to portray characters to determining how scenes should be shot, the director/writer Jack Thomas Smith was open to collaboration, something that is rare in many feature-length films. Mac said that Smith went so far as to sleep on the floor of his office in the house much of the cast shared so that others would have better accommodations. Both Armstrong and Mac said that one of their favorite elements of working on Infliction was the preparation required and the friendships made while working on the movie. Armstrong came to North Carolina over a month before they began shooting to spend time getting deep into character. Once filming began, the cast and crew would spend up to 13 hours a day trying to get angles perfect and create scenes. After 13 hours on set, they would come “home” and spend more time rehearsing scenes, discussing the scenes that were filmed, and trying to fully absorb their characters’ pain and motives. Eating, sleeping, and breathing Infliction is what gave this movie its powerful sense of realism.
Both Armstrong and Mac spent a significant amount of time together in order to establish the familiarity of dialogue that is present in the film.
(Not that they had much choice, given the accommodations. 🙂 ) Beyond their physical transformation these actors had to portray brothers who were willing to kill and die for one another. John (Mac) was the driving force that kept the brothers in motion, while the observant Kenny (Armstrong) recorded the carnage. In order to really portray John well, Mac had to fully devote himself to maintaining a steady stream of rage. John’s super objective, fueled by that rage, was to get back at his parents and everyone who had wronged him and his brother. Mac described the super objective as what caused John to get up in the morning, what made him tick and what kept him focused. Having this goal allowed him to get refocused after setbacks. Armstrong had to take special care to modify his voice and make it more monotone. He did so to convey a more introspective, non-responsive persona as opposed to either his normal voice or the one he reserves for his comedy work. Armstrong prepared for the role by going to places with lots of people by himself. Once he was there he would simply watch everyone. He felt this was necessary to get into a more observant, less interactive state of mind. His goal was to progress as an actor and get fully into the character.
Shaw actually had the most challenging task, in my opinion, of remaining completely still and in character when she was having her face cut off and when she was forced to lay on the creepy dead baby in the grave. It was cold, she was damp due to fake blood, and she did not shiver or so much as breathe. She described that scene as her favorite because it no one else in the world was doing what she was at that moment, and she was really acting. Facing and conquering those challenges, both in terms of character adaptation and the elements proves the commitment of these actors.
One thing that Armstrong said that really appealed to me was that the Stiles “were truly characters.” That struck a chord. There really was nothing normal about any of the Stiles family members. Even Andrea, who seemed the most stable in the group based on her financial situation and the fact that she had a family of her own, was fundamentally broken. She started doing what she felt like she needed to do at an early age, just like the brothers eventually did, but her love of her father came first and foremost. Her love for him clouded her actions. I think all three actors did an excellent job of summing up what the Stiles family really is. Armstrong said that they really were the antithesis of what a family is supposed to be. You look at all of the qualities that make a family, and then do and say the exact opposite and you’ll have the Stiles. John and Kenny managed to retain some of the conventional family values like loyalty and trust that one would expect to see, but the kindness and fondness ends with the brothers. Both Mac and Shaw alluded to the fact that the family was caught in a cycle of abuse and overall were dealt a very poor hand. None of the children really had a chance to be normal, well-adjusted people.
Infliction is easily one of the most interesting and most engaging found footage films in recent years. Although the film lacked large studio funding and backing, the intense commitment of Jack Thomas Smith and each of the members of the cast and crew really allowed them to create a high quality, believable film. It isn’t often that the assembled footage genre is able to deliver a realistic, thought-provoking movie, but where so many have failed Infliction succeeds!