Fantasia 2012: Taking the (Toad) Road to Hell with Jason Banker and Jorge Torres-Torres

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
Fantasia 2012:  Taking the (Toad) Road to Hell with Jason Banker and Jorge Torres-Torres
Building a name for himself as a cinematographer (All Tomorrow's Parties, Teenage Paparazzo) and documentary filmmaker in the New York City film scene, Jason Banker dropped his first feature, Toad Road, into the Sève Cinema at Fantasia.  A fictional story using hybrid documentary elements to tell a creep-filled horror tale centered around a Pennsylvania urban legend about a forest path leading to an abandoned mental asylum (long since burned into the ground) that causes strange hallucinations and intense sensory experiences, not unlike a Timothy Leary psychedelic trip.  Banker was enthused with the reception to his very tiny and unconventional horror film, but was an endearing mix of excitement and nervousness during our conversation; as if the raw experience and highly personal relationships involved in making the film were threatened with being exposed.  He was joined by his editor and colleague, Jorge Torres-Torres who shot some scenes for the film.  A slightly abridged version of our conversation is below, which features some mild *SPOILERS* from the film, so fair warning.

Jason Banker:  Hey Kurt, I've got Jorge Torres-Torres, editor and cinematographer with me.

Kurt Halfyard:  Hi!  Great!  Let's start then.  According to the closing credits of the film this was a very tine production could you elaborate on the size of the crew you had when you were making the Toad Road?

JB:   I wanted to do it like a documentary, and I also had this crazy idea that I could do the whole film myself, doing every possible role.  Producing, writing, directing, driving the actors to the set, everything.  The idea was that if I had a camera and a nice group of kids that I shot in their local area, that I could do it with no crew at all, really.  But after I started working on it, I realized that it would be at least good to have another person shooting.  That is where Jorge came in.  I asked him,  "I'm doing this project and already shooting, it would be great if you were to come down and shoot a bit.  For the sake of the narrative feature, I wanted to be able to cut away, instead of a single camera. 

KH: And everything on location?

JB:  I actually wanted to find actors that lived close to Toad Road so I wouldn't have to transport anybody, say from NYC to Pennsylvania, they all lived about 45 minutes away.  We shot either in Baltimore or for one day, or in York for the day.  

KH:  I had heard there is a lot of no trespassing signs in the Toad Road area, and it's notorious for a lot of people going up there.  

JB:  Originally I wanted to shoot right on Toad Road.  But, yes, the people are notorious for being intolerant, or rather they will call the cops.  A no toerlance policy.  We got away with shooting the first gate which is right by the road there.  But the $450 per person fine that you get for going down there, we shot down the road which was in the same woods, but it was about a half mile away at a rifle range.  We used the rife-range path as our set.  We were trespassing, technically.

KH:  *Laughs* just in a lower traffic area

JB:  *Laughs*  Exactly.

KH:  How or what made you connect the urban legend of Toad Road to the reality of drug addiction or at least those late teens/early twenties paths of excess?

JB:  I always heard the urban legend as such an obvious thing to make a movie about.  It was a road that leads to hell and it has seven gates.  I was amazing how it paralleled the idea of kids exploring drug use and being self destructive and pushing their boundaries.  It was kind of a no-brainer.  It also blended with the idea that I wanted to do something in York, where I grew up.  Everything just seemed to fit together very well and didn't have to be forced.

KH:  I understand that the lead actress, Sara Anne Jones, is a New York City model, how did her casting come about?

JB:  Now she is a model.  I'd take a little credit that she moved to new york.  I was telling all the actors, "you guys are really talented"  Especially the leads, James and Sara.  I told them that they could do great things and Sara was a model, but I said, you should move to New York, and maybe she took that advice, she's there now.  But about the casting process, I originally, I did flirt with the idea of using actors, because I wanted to make a narrative film.  But I quickly realized it wasn't organic, I really lacked the energy I was looking for, and the chemistry and the ability to improvise.  So i went onto MySpace.  The thing about MySpace is that you can search by area code.  You can basically type in an area code - at least you could, I do not know if you still can - and say, Show me everyone who lives within 10 miles of this area code.  I started searching around Pennsylvania and Baltimore because I didn't anyone in the immediate area that really worked, and then, even to narrow it down a little bit, I went onto the Vice Magazine site, friends of Vice Magazine.  And then I saw a headshot of Jamie Siebold, the guy who does the condom trick, and I looked at his network, narrowing it down to the top 6-8 people, and I saw immediately that this was a full cast of people, and Sara was on there and Whitleigh, and it clicked right away.

KH:  You shot most of the scenes with no script whatsoever; it was just plant the cameras in there and see what happens.

JB:  I originally started shooting, the first week I was just going and hanging out and shooting whatever they were doing, and usually that was partying.  That is where I shot the scene where james gets pulled down the hallway naked.  I had a backbone of an idea that explores the road and that one of them disappears, but other than that there wasn't too much that I had planned.  I knew that I wanted to shoot with these kids and get into their life, and let who they were and what they did inform the characters completely, or at least to a certain degree.  That's how it went.  We would just improvise, I would just go over there, and most of the scenes are just them being documented.

KH:  The scene where a guy is lighting people's pubic hair on fire?

JB:  Right.  That was obviously not planned.

KH:  It's probably hard to think of something like that!  *Laughs*

JB:  Yea, we had already shot for that day, and then that started happening, so I pulled out the camera just started shooting again.  That is pretty much how most of the shoot went.

KH:  The shots were they were flat out partying, whether inside houses or inside the caves was shot with a totally different style than when James and Sara are sober and flirting.  That was shot in a more classical or romantic way.  Was it a function of the constraint in the documentary shooting vs. more control where you could plan what was happening, or was it a conscious decision?  

JB:  I was conscious in the sense that I wasn't afraid of that contrast.  The film may have veered a little more raw than I originally anticipated, but at the end of the day  I did want to do that, I wanted something that felt different.  I do not know too many other films that have that contrast studied and thought out.  

KH:  Are you a fan of Peter Weir's PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK?

JB:  I am, definitely.  I remember when The Blair Witch came out there was reference to that film, and I watched it.  I love that more atmospheric approach rather than something that hits you over the head.  I wanted something that captured a mood and an energy than actually nailing something down concrete.  That film was an influence.

KH:  That leads me to the question about the music.  Is Dag Rosenqvist and Rutger Zudervelt your Gheorghe Zamfir?  Where and how did they come in to the film?

JB:  Those were bands I had been listening to a lot.  The films soundtrack is made from stuff I was listening to at the time.  I just wanted to put the music I loved into the film and give these guys some credit for make this awesome stuff.  Their music is just great and not too many people know about them.  They're from The Netherlands.  That's where Rutger is from anyway.  I like just like acoustic doom, as some people refer to it.  You should check all that stuff it, it's great.

KH:  I saw you thanked Jonathan ("Tarnation") Caouette in the credits.  How was he involved with the film?

JB:  He wasn't involved directly with making the film.  I work with him a lot however, in his All Tomorrow's Parties documentary.  Working on that made me want to work more  with kids that are partying and out of control because I shot with a bunch of those kids in the making of that film.  I thought he should be acknowledged.

KH:  There is a sequence, a kind of subplot, where Sara goes off the Whitleigh, it's a scene of emotional warfare against Sara and James' relationship.  Could you comment in how that fits into the film overall?  Was there a temptation to go further with their dissolution, or the petty politics in their group, a think that is pretty universal from office workers to activists to druggies.

JB:  Well that is one of the magic tricks of the film.  I'm trying to find the line of what to tell and what not to tell.  When I was working with this group of six people, originally Sara was dating Whitleigh (some people when watching do not even pick up on that it was a girl!) in real life and to a degree it was a problem.  Whitleigh and Sara would argue about the fact that Sara had to kiss James and hang out with James to have fun for the film.  Because they were all friends it created friction.  I wanted to include that in the film, because that was the whole point of making the film, to include the subtleties and nuances of these types of circles.  It is kind of a real moment that they are having in relation to the film being made.  When she says, "Well, you're still fucking James" that argument was real argument.

KH:  That's fantastically meta.  Then your documentary-style worked?  Is what you are saying.

Jorge Torres-Torres:  The film shooting, being an editior and watch all the stuff he shot and all the experiments conducted with fiction and documentary style.  There are so many scenes that didn't make it into the film, we shot so much, but he caught these amazing moments that he integrated into this fantasy, and that is the beauty of it.  The clarity of real and fiction and there are so many wonderful moments that didn't make it for whatever recent.

JB:  There is a moment we recently cut that I kind of want to put back, an argument of them walking up the hill...

JTT:  Art imitating life, life imitating art.

JB:  Yea.  The movie started to go on autopilot in a weird way, and we ended up going too much into that story, and then we cut a lot of stuff out, to keep it on Toad Road and away from too much love triangle.

KH:  It feels like in the movie, as months go by that the group starts to dissolve, as these things happen.  Has this happened in real life, x number of years after production?  

JB:  This circle of friends, I believe, no longer exists, Sara and Whitleigh broke up, but the short answer is that things have changed, and you know,  During the making of the film, the circle was unraveling, and James was a little bit on his own.  It is little bit in the story.  When we shot the scenes in the cabin, we went to this place I found on Craigslist, and the the guy who owned it was the guy in the film showing him the house.  

KH:  He let you break the place up a bit?

JB:  *Laughs*  I'd love to tell you that story, but I can't.

KH:  Now that Toad Road has been unleashed on the world, what is next for you?

JB:  I just did complete a documentary on East Village squatter culture in New York.  I've been working on a documentary that is kind of another level of seeing the horrors of being on the street.  This one is just a documentary, it was kind of a reaction of making Toad Road, There were things about that process that were so difficult that I just wanted to do a simpler documentary, something I had a bit more control over.  So the next thing is SQUATTER.   But we are going to do another horror film after that, which will be another narritve type of thing.  Jorge directed a film in Louisiana, that I shot, it's tentatively titled SHADOW ZOMBIE, but it is working in the same style.

JTT:  We are definitely following the Toad Road aesthetic.

KH:  You have made a pretty big splash here at Fantasia and I loved that particular blend.   Thanks a lot for talking about the film with me during the festival.

JB:  Thanks guys for being supportive, it's been so great!

KH:  It's our pleasure, we support what we love!  Take Care.

JB/JTT:  Thanks!!

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Jason BankerJames DavidsonSara Anne JonesWhitleigh HigueraJamie SieboldHorror

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