“When I was a kid, I went on a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary and thought, ‘This would be an awesome place for a horror movie!’ So the idea has been stuck in my head for a while,” Brian Cavallaro writer, director, producer, and cinematographer of Against the Night (Gravitas Ventures/Ball Four Productions) told Entertaining Options. Cavallaro was born in South Philly, raised in Coatesville, and went to college in Florida before settling on the West Coast to pursue his dream. [Coincidentally, Brian was visiting family in the Philadelphia area when he did this interview.]
Against the Night is an atmospheric horror tale that is set in motion by Hank (Luke Persiani), a guerrilla filmmaker who is relentless in his drive to capture visceral footage. Late one night, he persuades a group of friends to sneak into an abandoned prison to document any paranormal activities that their night vision cameras can detect. Once inside, a series of inexplicable events begins and the friends find themselves locked in the prison, separated from each other, and pursued by someone who knows the layout far better than they do. Is it one of their own who is hunting them down one by one or have they inadvertently awoken some ancient evil that has long been confined within the prison’s massive walls?
“The whole script was written for Eastern State Penitentiary,” Brian informed. “But when I started scouting the location, I found out, we might as well have tried to shoot in the Philadelphia Art Museum because there were all these rules about what we could and couldn’t do.”
Eastern State Penitentiary is a U.S. National Historic Landmark located on Fairmount Avenue in Philadelphia, just a few blocks from the fabled Rocky Steps. In it’s heyday, it was the most famous and most expensive prison in the world, housing some of the country’s most notorious criminals, including “Slick Willie” Sutton and “Scarface” Al Capone. Now, however, it is a protected tourist attraction that is also the home of “Terror Behind the Walls,” one of the top Halloween attractions in the country.
“I realized, it was going to be impossible to film there and I started wondering if it would even be possible to make this movie without that key location.”
Luckily, Brian’s location manager, Amy Cutler, was familiar with the area and suggested a different prison. Holmesburg Prison is located on Torresdale Avenue in the Holmesburg section of Philadelphia. It features the same layout as Eastern State Penitentiary’s innovative hub-and-spoke design, which was created by British architect John Haviland. Basically, the guard house is located at the center of a walled off yard, and several long corridors filled with cells extend outward from this vantage point like the spokes of a giant bicycle wheel. Ideally, a single guard tower could keep the entire prison under surveillance. From above, Holmesburg appears eerily similar to some crop circle formations.
Additionally, Holmesburg Prison had an element of horror embedded in it’s history that made it an even better location than Eastern State Penitentiary: it was the site of a number of diabolical experiments that were performed on inmates as late as the 1980s! Some of the atrocities included using young men as test subjects for nerve toxins that were being developed for chemical warfare, exposing prisoners to radioactive isotopes, and an extensive study on human reaction to dioxins. Dioxins are highly toxic compounds that are a byproduct of pesticides. They damage the immune system, cause reproductive and developmental problems, interfere with hormones, and cause cancer.
Brian managed to weave traces of all of these unsettling fibers throughout his film, augmenting the story with a fiendish atmosphere that was spawned from these unholy tales of ghastly acts.
“When you’re in the movie theater, watching a horror movie, and you hear people yell out, ‘Don’t go in there!’ They’re just saying what they would do in that situation: ‘I wouldn’t go in there!'” Brian observed. “What makes a horror movie great is you have to want to believe that they would go in there.”
“Once inside, then you start problem-solving: ‘What would I do to get myself out of this situation?’ In Against the Night, there is a lot of problem-solving. What would you do if you found out something upsetting about your friend? What would you do if you were locked in this place? How would you get out?”
Still, even when you have an unnerving story set in a creepy location that is drenched in atmosphere, and you’ve engaged the audience enough so they have suspended their disbelief, a movie is only as good as the actors who are living out the story on screen. And this is where Against the Night really shines. There are no moments where subpar acting suddenly jolts you from the movie’s spell; everything feels alarmingly real.
“Four of the actors were from Philly, one was from D.C., and the rest came down from New York. Hannah [Kleeman], who plays the lead, is from Philadelphia. She’s born and bred here.”
But it wasn’t easy finding such superbly talented actors. Brian had to cast a broad net to locate individuals who would be perfect in the film.
“I started to cast through Actors Access and Craigslist, but I really wasn’t happy with what I was getting,” Cavallaro admitted. “So I reached out to the Walnut Street Theatre, which turned out to be a really smart move because Brian Kurtas, the casting director, has a really big reach.”
“Within a couple of days, I had about a thousand submissions that came through him, so I just started going through and looking at headshots. I relied heavily on experience. Have they done a lot of stage work? We were on a tight timeline and I needed everyone to be off book because we weren’t going to have time to sit down and run lines. Also, I was in LA at the time, so I had to complete the casting through Skype interviews, trying to make everybody fit in the right places.”
Although most of the actors in Against the Night are just beginning to build their long list of impressive credits, Detective Ramsey was played by veteran actor Frank Whaley (Luke Cage, Pulp Fiction, Ray Donovan, Field of Dreams).
“The last thing we shot was with Frank Whaley. When I started this film, I decided that I was going to shoot in Holmesburg Prison for seven days. Then, I’d cut it together, and, if it worked, I’d need a seasoned actor to do this last little part. If it didn’t, the detective would be played by me.”
Ironically, just days after Brian’s taut indie thriller, Against the Night, celebrates its VOD release (March 27), The Last Movie Star, a heartwarming award-winner starring Burt Reynolds, will see its theatrical release in 20 markets around the country. Brian served as a producer on that film.
The Last Movie Star is a touching story about a man coming to terms with the fact that his glory days are far behind him. This universal tale of growing older, written and directed by Adam Rifkin (Mousehunt, Small Soldiers, Underdog), brought home two trophies from the 2017 San Diego International Film Festival.
“It’s been a crazy month for me as an aspirational filmmaker,” Brian noted. “This is not a full-time job for me, so it’s pretty wild that two projects that I’ve been working on over the last couple of years are both getting released in March. Burt Reynolds is incredible. It was an honor working with him. Against the Night and The Last Movie Star couldn’t be any more different, but that’s just how the chips fall in this business.”
“The thing I am most proud of,” Brian concluded, “is how local Against the Night is. Everything from the production designer to the cast and the rest of the very small crew, we managed to keep it all here. I am really happy and very proud of that.”
Against the Night is a dark, disquieting ride that will make you question how well you really know your friends. The ever increasing layers of tension and peril play on your own dormant phobias, prodding them awake until you feel that uncomfortable line of fear sweat trickling down your forehead. What Jaws did for oceans, Against the Night does for long, dimly lit corridors.
Against the Night was produced by Brian Cavallaro and Arielle Brachfeld, and co-produced by Mike Mendez and Hank Braxton. The film has not been rated by the MPAA and it will be available on iTunes, Fandango Now, Vudu, Amazon, Google Plus, Xbox, iN Demand and additional digital platforms on March 27.