Let’s face it: big studios would never make this movie because it could be a political nightmare for them to take a stand on anything.
Unambiguously billed as “a fracking horror story,” co-directors John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies dive headlong into the eco-horror subgenre with Unearth, which centers on just that: fracking. Fracking is, of course, controversial. Every argument for its benefits in the short run is one-upped by reasons for why it’s harmful in the bigger picture. At its core, this is a story about inheritance: what we give to our children—what we leave behind for future generations. What it offers is a bleak assessment: humanity is doomed to pay for its sins, encroaching on the environment as we do. It tells of what could befall us all, collapsing under the weight of our selfish decisions. It’s also about the battle of wills in a feud of biblical proportions staked in a forgotten part of America.
Set in rural Pennsylvania, Unearth is a tale of two houses: the Lomacks and the Dolans, two adjoining farming families facing similar economic hardships, just barely scraping by and teetering on the edge of losing everything. A mechanic by trade, single father George Lomack (Marc Blucas) is desperate to keep his family afloat. So when a fracking outfit called Patriot Exploration comes knocking with a tempting offer on his land, George makes the life-altering decision in leasing it to the predatory conglomerate. This is to the horror and steadfast objections of the equally down-on-her-luck Kathryn Dolan (Adrienne Barbeau), the matriarch of the neighboring clan, who is fighting to keep her land productive and seeing some potential in possibly pooling the two families’ resources. A year later, construction takes a huge toll. In the end, the disruption awakens a dormant enemy from the bedrock, unleashing a new type of horror upon these respective households.
It is a prescient, cautionary tale: the American dream, built on plentiful pastures by its corn-fed citizens, will be polluted by the follies of endless capitalist progress. It’s also something of a hike at times for the audience, but only because it is very serious stuff to consider and inhospitable for the faint of heart. The filmmakers biding their time before exposing the film’s genre elements, Unearth actually doesn’t feel like your standard horror movie for most of its running time—until it really does, showing how things can go from bad to worse to unimaginable in the blink of an eye. In its final stretch, the film explodes with little warning into full-blown Lovecraftian body horror.
Anthem reached out to Blucas recently to discuss this intimate project, fracking, and our future.
Unearth is now available on every major streaming platform. The film made its Asian Premiere at The Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN), which runs from July 8-18.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been condensed for length and clarity.]
Unearth is really excellent. The performances are great and the level of craftsmanship is way up there. It kind of blew me away, actually. I didn’t expect it to be as artful as it is.
That’s really great to hear, Kee. We hear these clichés about making independent movies all the time, right? On a shoestring budget, it’s so challenging. And because of the genre, we ended up shooting 80 percent of it outside and probably 70 percent of it at nighttime. There were no insurance days. If it rains, fuck it, you shoot in the rain. Then of course you turn around and it’s like, “Okay, it stopped raining.” [laughs] There’s nothing you can do. There’s no rain machine. There’s no rescheduling. It’s the classic story: every person had to do like five different jobs.
All hands on deck.
It’s just how it had to be, you know? After the first two days, we were behind four pages. Right away I was like, “We’re gonna have about a 45-minute movie. This is a problem!” So we had to change gears, and you can only do that when you have a bunch of talented people around, top to bottom. [John C. Lyons] put together a local cast and crew. We all grew up in this small town a couple hours north of Pittsburg. We all sort of phoned a friend. We needed every favor we could call in. I called friends I went to high school with for scaffolding, quads. We had to get equipment into the woods and we didn’t have the gear for that. We borrowed people’s trucks. We had to maximize every dollar. It’s the classic your-mom’s-peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich kind of thing.
My appreciation of the movie is hitting the roof now that you’re telling me all of this.
Well, hey, even better. You’re really teeing me up, Kee. I feel like this might be a trap! [laughs] It was very ambitious. It was a three-week shoot: two six-day weeks and a regular week to get everything, including the in-camera effects we needed to have. You had to believe the drilling. You had to believe the [fracking] equipment. You had to believe the noise. And we knew we needed to set aside money for post so that was handcuffing. We had no play in our budget as we were shooting. But it was a really fun shoot and I’m glad the movie came together as nicely as it did.
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Some critics have been quick to divide this film up into two constituent parts: a domestic drama and the third act that tilts into genre territory. It’s jarring when that moment comes, but I think it totally works. It’s a more experiential way in which to absorb a movie. Some things go unexplained, but the madness is there—the disorientation and the hysteria.
That was very intentional. We’ve talked about this as a cast so I think I can speak for everyone involved: we all really responded to that [narrative structure]. I like my genre movies, but I’m not a die hard fan. We’re so used to seeing blood and guts in the first three minutes where it’s trying to get the hooks in, or for shock value. It’s very rare that you see this kind of throwback to the genre where you spend the first hour really getting to know the characters, the relationships, and the situations. We all really loved this idea of developing the characters first—these are struggling family farms and everyone’s busting their ass to make a living—before the genre stuff kicks in. It was also really important to me that we developed my character in such a way that we’re not making him out to be a bad guy who’s greedy. He’s mopping up at a pizza joint. He can’t farm anymore. He’s trying and failing as a mechanic. He has kids. He has a grandkid. Their house is for sale. The farm is for sale. He’s doing everything he possibly can to make ends meet and it’s not working. Then opportunity knocks on his door—finally! He doesn’t have a choice to do it differently. He’s not passively saying, “Come and pillage my land for money,” you know? Then it’s interesting to have on the other side of the road this purist, Kathryn, who believes in her land. She wants to ride out the tough times. Because to her, no farms mean no food. George’s decision, on the other hand, is very micro. She tells him, “That’s a small band-aid for a wound that will grow and become unmanageable.” That’s where George falls short, because he is so desperate.
It’s difficult to judge either of them.
The more we believe in both sides of the argument, the better the scene is, the better the story is, and the better the complexity is. Everything gets more realistic. Neither of them are in the wrong.
Fracking is certainly an unexpected place to build from and that’s the framework.
That’s how this whole thing started with John and Dorota [Swies]. They had watched some documentaries. And where we’re from, you can see exactly what happens to the land [as a result of fracking]. It was a brilliant idea to say, “Let’s put this in movie terms and ask ‘what if?’” We all share in this idea that if we make really poor decisions, there will be a ripple effect, right? In movie speed, we accelerate that and the genre amplifies the conditions. Everyone who was a part of this, from the DP right down to our key grip, believed in the movie’s environmental message.
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How did this project come into your orbit in the first place?
Again, we’re from a very small town, right? And I’m very quick to acknowledge that I’m not Brad Pitt or Leo DiCaprio here. In our very small town, I’m a big fish in a small pond. There aren’t many actors or people in the business from our little town in Western Pennsylvania. John had known that Allison [McAtee] and I were from there so he reached out and sent over the script. And you know how that story usually goes: it’s like when a close friend writes a script and you roll your eyes because 90 percent of them suck. [laughs] While this one needed a little shaping and honing, the idea was so good. The execution was also almost all there already. I jumped on the phone right away with John: “Let’s really talk about this.” Then we went about raising the money. From start to finish, we raised all of the money locally in our town. It was a really grassroots production.
Speaking of the script, I wondered what the genre stuff might’ve looked like on the page because it gets abstract in places. Was that stuff secondary to you in terms of interest?
In terms of how that last act was gonna manifest, it really comes down to John and Dorota’s shared vision. Strictly as an actor and taking my producer hat off of it, I had questions about how it might get executed as well. All the actors were like, “So when it happens, what does that mean exactly?” [laughs] That’s obviously where we get into the gore, the projectile vomiting, the gelatinous body horror. It’s where the characters lose all mental clarity. They go crazy, right? Whether it was the old Sam Raimi stuff or even The Shining, there were a lot of things that I know were inspirational to John and Dorota. And that could’ve gone a million different ways. If I’m being extra critical of our movie, that last sequence is where I wish we had two or three more days to shoot because that’s where you want everything to really hit and pay off. I don’t mean to judge excessively, but on a wish list of things, it would’ve been nice to have extra days to shoot it the way they wanted to. But the fact of the matter is, we couldn’t. It’s the handcuffing reality of an independent film. You read so many stories about Jaws and the shark breaking down, right? And it actually worked in that movie’s favor because it forced audiences to rely on their imaginations for some things, which is often scarier. I think some of that applies to Unearth. It was intentional that all of this was gonna hit the fan in the third act and we tried to make each character’s fate be somewhat unique and specific. One thing I also really liked about where we shot is that the town is only ten or fifteen minutes away from Lake Eerie, one of our Great Lakes. In the final shot during the credits where we go up in the drone, you get to see the giant water supply. The whole movie is so contained and feels so small on these two farms, but that shot tells you what’s literally around the corner. The farms don’t exist in a vacuum. You start to wonder about the bigger picture: if it’s in the water, is it now in the food as well? We wanted to put all of these questions out there. We’re actually starting development now to see if we maybe have a shot at a sequel.
You certainly left room for that possibility. Do you wanna hear something funny, Marc?
I watched another film at the festival yesterday and they had a post-screening Q&A with the Canadian filmmaker. He said “the big bad” and I had to Google that to confirm it was in fact coined on Buffy. He wasn’t even talking about anything in the context of that show.
That was definitely Joss Whedon’s catchphrase. I think I even use that in conversation.
Marc, you do. I remember hearing you say it in the group interview you guys gave to Fantasia Festival last year. Buffy is of course a huge cultural touchstone. It just tickles me that you would say that in reference to something like fracking, totally unrelated to Buffy.
[laughs] That’s the power of what we do, right? Whether it’s books or film or art or entertainment, there are searing and lasting reverberations. Images, phrases—they can really sit with you and become a cultural marker that goes way beyond the way in which it was first introduced.
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John and Dorota are super confident. Even with all of the challenges you faced on a small production, I can sense how talented they are even in the abstractness of it all. I know they also edited this film themselves. I don’t think this is the kind of movie you can shoot and pass off to an outside editor. It’s so specific. I think that would’ve been quite disastrous.
You’re right. There were a lot of conversations about this in pre-production. They were very confident about what they saw and what they wanted to portray. This is where your budget works for you, because you can’t explain everything. We just didn’t have the time or the shooting days to do it. Again, it was such a challenge. I don’t know if you’ll like me telling you this story—
You can’t back out now.
I’ll never forget this conversation I had. It was about the scene where I’m trying to take advantage of this woman who comes in to get her car inspected. I end up doing a bunch of extra work without asking her because I need the money. Well, John shot it the way you wanna be shooting every scene: the master, the dolly push-in, a close-up of her, a close-up on me. I think that was on day two or three of shooting. That’s when we fell behind, on things like that. And remember, this was their first “big” movie as directors. We had a real artist in our DP, Eun-ah Lee, as well.
So here’s the truth: the three of them are artists and that’s amazing, but everything has to work within the confines of a budget schedule. Had we lit the scene the way they wanted, we would’ve shot it like a James Mangold movie: two pages a day and like we have a giant budget where you have the time to perfect every shot. With that scene I had said to John, “We should probably get this in a two-shot and just get out.” He didn’t take my advice. Good for him, by the way, for giving me the finger and doing it the way he wanted to. But at the same time, we were behind now. He said, “I just wanted the scene to be amazing.” I told him, “We’re gonna have to make choices now.” And I hate saying that because it makes it seem like I don’t believe in what we’re doing. But with the sandbox we had to play in, there were things we had to come to terms with. We were gonna have to sacrifice something in order to finish this movie, and I didn’t want to pull the plug on the big days. You want them to continue to just be artists so it’s difficult to come in and police them and crack the whip: “I think we can tell this story in an hour instead of two” or “In this scene, let’s tell the story quickly.” From that point on, the dialogue continued to be about where we needed to really focus and where we could lean into the abstractions you’re talking about.
After hearing John talk about the visual concept behind that last sequence, I dug deeper into cordyceps. Nature is so wild, man. Those visual cues started to really click with me. There is a complexity and dimension to the abstractness that I now feel really in tune with.
That’s how so many things work, right? I think it’s great that you felt compelled to go out and do more research because you were interested and taken by it. That’s obviously the goal. I love hearing all the behind the scenes stories. I’ll never forget William Friedkin giving a talk about The Exorcist. It was one of the amazing benefits of living in Los Angeles at the time—the things you have access to. There was a Q&A after a special screening of The Exorcist. There’s this moment in the movie where Max von Sydow is outside and it’s backlit and he’s looking back up at the window. That scene has really weird audio that sounds like a jet plane. It’s like, “What was the choice there? Is that his mental state of being?” And Friedkin’s like, “A plane went by and we had one take. We couldn’t lift the audio out of the track.” It’s this accident that’s been analyzed and talked about to death. There are so many examples of things like that. It happens so often.
Supposedly, Friedkin also kept firearms hidden around the set of The Exorcist so he could shoot them off whenever he needed real reactions from actors on camera.
You couldn’t do that now. It’s wild that he got away with it even back then.
That wouldn’t fly these days. These kinds of stories are all over the place. Another influence that stands out to me is from Rocky, where Sylvester Stallone is at the hospital because the Adrian character is sick. Rocky’s like, “I won’t fight. I quit.” So she leans in and goes, “Win, Rocky. Win.” It’s iconic and it even comes up at pitch meetings: “Where in the story is the ‘win, Rocky, win’ moment?” That scene was one take. They got it at the end of a shooting day as they were going into overtime. Stallone was like, “I have to get this scene.” He was right.
Isn’t Rocky the first film you ever watched at a drive-in with your dad?
Wow, you do a lot of research. [laughs] That is my very first movie memory, being at the drive-in with my dad. I fell asleep! I was a kid! I thought it was supposed to be a boxing movie.
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As you say, Unearth is this small, handcrafted thing so I thought the demolition derby scene in particular really helped to scale everything up. It opened up the world where the community feels fuller and lived-in. You piggybacked on a real fair for that, is that right?
We did. That was the one day in our schedule that we could not move. We couldn’t adjust that. That was a real fair. They gave us permission to shoot there. There was no “reset, do it again.” Because of noise and crowds and things we couldn’t control, we tried to tell the story visually as best as we could, not worrying about big dialogue scenes that would require so much coverage. That way, we could shoot around things. We were lucky they let us shoot at the fair and the derby because it’s a very symbolic sequence. Things seem to be looking up finally, you know? They’re having a good time. I mean, except for Adrienne’s character: “This is all gonna go to shit!” [laughs] It’s their worlds colliding. It was also a good time for the cast and crew because we were out there enjoying ourselves while we were working. We were out there getting snow cones.
I wonder how differently audiences might’ve received this movie had it been made by a large studio because I think there is added power in its smallness. What that tells the audience is that it’s a labor of love. We’ve also grown so suspicious of studios in general.
Everybody’s seen behind the curtain now. Everybody knows how movies are made and how difficult it is to get them made. So when you see a little arthouse thing you might think, “Somebody gave up their lunch every day to save money.” [laughs] I think there’s a different level of respect that comes with that: “This is someone’s passion project. Let’s see it through.” And let’s face it: big studios would never make this movie because it could be a political nightmare for them to take a stand on anything. They really steer away from things like this. I’ve joked about this before: I’ve done however many TV shows and on the last couple I’ve done on network television, you’ll have more wardrobe fittings to find the right color tie so it won’t offend the left or right or whatever. There are more fittings than there are rehearsals. It’s like, “Where is the focus here?”
Do you know if John and Dorota have had to deal with any pro-fracking trolls?
There’s always a troll somewhere. [laughs] Everyone’s a critic, right? I’m sure they received small comments online or whatever, but unless this movie has the reach of Game of Thrones or something, I don’t think you can expect any kind of extreme or dramatic backlash, you know?
Here is a quote from John: “No one is safe from the wrecking ball that is corporate greed. You may think this is a fictional story about a couple of remote farm families, but environmental injustice eventually affects us all.” What does our future look like to you?
I’m more optimistic now than I probably have been. There’s so much going on these days. There’s been a real shift of power. There’s so much information available to us. Technology continues to advance at a rate in which we’re seeing and learning things like never before. That of course has pros and cons, right? We have to be very careful. With Black Lives Matter and #MeToo and the changing of the guard in equality, the disruption is healthy and it’s long overdue. When we can have voices coming from every corner of the globe that’s well-informed and looks at both the micro and macro—things that Unearth speaks to—I think we will finally claim a sense of that we’re-all-in-it-togetherness. We obviously still haven’t had enough of that, but I think we’re at a tipping point now. We’re seeing immense change. We can see it in art and storytelling, which is the best thing that can happen. That could all lead us—if it’s not too late—into making the right choices and decisions so we don’t end up with another event movie like Armageddon to reflect the times: “Here comes the next big bad.” See? I’m bringing this interview full circle. [laughs] These movies have always been there. The big bad always comes around to wreck everything. If we can’t work together, we’re fucked. We’re in a place right now where people are really questioning governments. We’re questioning big business. We’re questioning how we treat one another. We’re questioning borders and boundaries and walls. That all has to lead to unity. And I don’t know how long that’s gonna take, but it’s gonna take a minute. There’s gonna be a lot of discomfort in getting there. I think there are healthy competitions out there: the race to the moon, the race to Mars. But the bigger picture stuff has to get addressed as a group effort. The world’s only getting smaller. I’m looking at you right now in South Korea and that’s crazy. You were saying to me, “You went to that movie with your dad.” I’m like, “What?”
What about George’s future? Where do we find him in the sequel?
Ha! Well, right now, that’s the only thing I tell John: “I don’t care what the story is. Just figure out how George lives.” We left him in an unpleasant spot. At the end of Unearth, Brooke Sorenson’s character, George’s daughter, gets sick and throws up all over me. We had this tube that was supposed to give us a violent projectile vomit moment, but while we were shooting that scene, the air machine broke. We were going into overtime so we had one minute to shoot it. Again, there was no money for that. I’m like, “Don’t cut the camera! Give her a smoothie! Just spit that shit at me as hard as you can! Right in my face! Do it now—now!” [laughs]