Hulu and Blumhouse have partnered up for a horror series called Into the Dark, part of a new wave of American horror features. New episodes/films are released roughly monthly, on certain holidays. The next installment, Culture Shock, comes out on Independence Day, July 4th. The story follows a young woman crossing the Mexican border into the United States, and true the genre, plays with contemporary political issues and gut-wrenching terror. At the Austin TV Festival a few weeks ago, I had a chance to speak to some of the folks behind the feature.
Richard Cabral (RC)– Male Lead
Gigi Saul Guerrero (GSG)– Director
Martha Higareda (MH)- Lead Actress
Shawn Ashmore (SA)– Iceman! But also, a Male Lead
What makes horror such a special genre to work in, especially for a project like this?
MH: For me, it has a lot to do with playing with very primal emotions. You have to always come from truth. It has to be about survival, about like, how do I get out of here? There’s this huge ticking clock on you. That is, for me, so interesting to play. And when the entirety of the thing has a very important message, like in Culture Shock, you know that you’re doing what you’re doing not just to scare someone. It really matters. What we’re doing really matters. With all the twists and turns in the story, as a performer, it’s not just another day at the office. Every single thing that was happening was so challenging.
GSG: For me as a director, I love –
MH, RC: Blood. [Laughter]
GSG: Yeah, blood, grossing people out, everybody knows I love that. My favorite thing about horror, it’s the one type of genre where you’ll hear every different kind of reaction in the audience. No other genre does that. You’ll hear people squirming, screaming, people cheering like me, some people possibly walking out, or out of nerves, people will giggle or laugh. The audience reaction is the most fun. As a storyteller, it’s the most rewarding part of the film. I love that about genre. You can never predict how someone’s going to feel. That’s why I love taking my parents out, when it’s my turn to pick a movie. My dad will pretend to love it, like “ay, mija, I loved it!” and my mom will be like, “I hate you.” I really enjoy that. I love hearing how people react.
SA: I think with genre in general, you try to push the audience to the edge. And it’s a fine line. If you go over the top, you break the illusion. But if you play too safe, you don’t get the maximum, you don’t squeeze the most reaction out of an audience. That’s what’s truly challenging about genre stuff. If you play too safe, you miss the whole opportunity that you get from throwing characters and a story and hopefully something socially relevant into entertainment. But if you go too far, then you lose people. It’s a real challenge. I don’t think people necessarily give horror and genre stuff the credit for that, whether its sci fi or whatever it is. I think that’s the challenge, and I’m assuming that’s why we were all so excited about this project, is that it sort of pushed the line, and it pushed it in a way that got me excited. It’s very relevant, and let’s run with it. Let’s be honest about what’s happening right now. That’s what was important to me, anyhow, to be a part of it.
Watching Culture Shock, there were so many things that made me say, “that’s why this is important, that’s why this matters.” What made this project matter to you?
RC: For me, it was having Gigi. A lot of times, we get people who want to tell the Latino-Mexican story, but they’re not of the descent, of that blood. It makes a huge difference. Having a woman, also, makes a difference. Men, we can be over-masculine, and like Shawn was saying earlier, if you go over the top, you kill it like that. But when you have that balance with a woman, and you can present it, it’s about balance. If it’s too soft, you’re going to throw people off. If it’s too hard, you’re going to throw people off. But having Gigi right here, bringing that brutalness with balance, that’s the biggest thing. The cast too, was of Mexican descent. That was a beautiful thing to have. I’m a second-generation Mexican-American, and to be amongst my people, to understand that it’s not about the words…there was a spirit on set. There were people that knew this world, their families had experienced these circumstances, and now, we were able to tell the story.
MH: The authenticity of it all was most important for me. When we were on set, Gigi would say, “for La Santa Muerte, we need this.” People would say, this is the bread we need, and Gigi would say, “no, we need conchas!” It enriches things, and it makes it so real. And also talking about what’s happening today, through entertainment. Being able to send that message, about how these families are just looking for a fair opportunity, about parents who want the best for their children. If you’re in that situation in a country where things are not looking good, where you’re a hardworking, honest person with the desire to go somewhere else, it doesn’t matter who you are. Everyone would do it, would cross the border. That’s what we’re talking about, looking for that fair chance for a better life.
SA: For me, I think you have to make it very, very personal. I’m a hopeful person. I know there are issues at the border, and certain people there feel a certain way. But I tend to think that if you break something down to the most human level – forget about where you’re from or what you look like – and see someone in pain, someone in suffering, it changes. This is about one human looking at another human and saying this is wrong. This is absolutely wrong. When you politicize something, when you start creating teams, it’s easy to distance yourself and not feel what it is. But if you really get down to what this is, it’s about human beings hurting, and being put through this horrifying journey they have to go through. Let’s just look at that, think about that. That’s what I got from reading the script, being on set with everybody, from talking with Gigi. It’s a very, very human story. If you can distill it down to that, I think a lot of the differences we have right now in this country will hopefully dissolve a little bit. There’ll always be people who don’t care, but if you really just look at it from a human perspective, it makes a lot more sense. And hopefully it will reach people.
I want to talk about this theme of flipping perspectives. It comes up for all of your characters in Culture Shock, changing what they think over the course of the episode. It feels like the idea is to reflect the change outward – if these characters can change their views, maybe the rest of us can do the same. Do you see series like Into the Dark helping shift that perspective? Is it a change in audience or demographics that’s doing it?
GSG: For my first feature, I feel really lucky that I’m doing this now, when all these great changes are happening, that I’m alive at such a time in filmmaking. It’s so easy to watch shows now, there’s a platform for everyone. I think that’s a huge benefit, not just for a storyteller, but for people of different ethnicities, minority storytellers. We just have to continue encouraging people to hear these different stories, to hire people of the appropriate descent, who have that voice. Make the people who actually understand the story, make them the producers, the writers, the directors. Now, too, we’re finally seeing that LatinX is not just all Mexican. We have Brazillian, Cuban and so many more, and we’re all very different. We can all be in the same room, speaking Spanish, and may not even understand each other. The more and more we encourage this, the more and more we’re going to see these different stories. For Culture Shock, what attracted me was that Blumhouse and Hulu wanted to take that risk, not just on that story and on me, but on having a bilingual film. Having two languages in the same feature is already a big perspective shift in the discussion for change.
SA: Thinking about perspective, how boring is it to see the same thing over and over again? If you’re lucky enough to have travelled, you realize so much is out there. I think that’s what so interesting about entertainment. You don’t have to go anywhere. You can have a story, a different flavor of the world right in front of you. To experience that, that’s the beginning. To be able to go into Netflix, to Hulu or whatever it is, and get that taste, to be able to open someone’s eyes. Just give them something that makes them realize, oh this is cool, oh this is exciting. And then you miss not having that. I don’t want to watch the same thing over and over again. So to have the opportunity to look at a story that’s different, to look at people that look different from you, that sound different from you, and be able to experience that, that’s all it takes. If you just crack the door a little bit. And again, I’m hopeful that people want what’s best, what’s interesting. It’s not about forcing stories to people, it’s about giving them the story, giving them different cultures. That would be enough to start that change.
MH: When I first moved to the States, I remember really liking this country because it embraces all cultures. I remember having that feeling, walking around. And really, if you talk to the younger generations, everybody really wants to do that, in their core, in their heart. You walk into a coffeeshop or restaurant, you start hearing all these different accents. I like that! The entire country was founded by immigrants, that’s the reality. And so, here we are.
GSG: To add to what Shawn was saying, if we have the opportunity to see these different things, all of us as artists at this table, we have to be the ones who challenge audiences to watch that. Even a film like Roma, no one would have watched this if we didn’t challenge the audience, if it wasn’t on a platform like Netflix with easy access. Sure, back in the 60s, the golden era, people would dig a movie like that. I think audiences are beginning to lose that, to not feel challenged anymore. And now, thankfully, we are starting to see different things, starting to challenge audiences, and not just give them everything on a plate.
Changing gears a bit here, I want to talk about the unique use of food in Culture Shock. There are moments of gore, certainly, but the goriest moments are takes with food, most notably, a scene involving pizza and massive, horrifying bites. What’s the significance of working with food in that way?
GSG: The answer’s pretty easy. I missed having my blood-filled super-soaker on set. I felt, this is the longest I’ve gone without killing people or grossing people on screen. The movie is so real and gritty in the first half, and then in America, it’s this fun, Pleasantville vibe. All the gore was saved for the last bit of shooting, and I felt the grossness wasn’t there. It was a little bit of a last minute decision, I just wanted to gross people out. I always found, as an immigrant, American food is very commercialized, very perfect-looking. I wanted that aspect, but with more of a savage side to it, too. Everything is not as perfect as it seems. I’m glad you brought it up, cause that really was the intention. I just wanted to manipulate that commercial feel, and shove it in people’s face. I was yelling at these guys, the actors, “More! More! Chew it! Chew it! Swallow it! Swallow it!” Let it fall out of your mouth, it’s okay. That was the moment we all bonded, and became good friends.
What’s the grossest thing you guys had to do on set?
MH: That black goo, in the tube and mask thing.
RC: Oh, that was nasty. What was it, chocolate, right?
GSG: It was diluted chocolate, yeah.
MH: It was like gooey, and it kept flowing inside of our mouths when we had the masks on, so nasty.
GSG: Everyone was so done, and I kept saying, no more, more! Just throw it at them. There’s always a layer of gross on everybody. I was so excited, and I could tell you guys were choking, and sticky, but it all added, to the feeling of claustrophobia. Shawn, you had it easy, right?
SA: Yeah, no, I had nothing. I just got to watch it all. It was kind of cool, actually, when all the stuff flowing through the tubes for the first time. I remember we all cheered when it worked. It looked fantastic, but you never know. You set up a rig and a gag sometimes, and it doesn’t work. That could have taken an hour, right? Got it in like five minutes.
RC: They messed up on mine, remember?
GSG: Oh, I think you should tell that story, it’s a good gross story.
RC: No, you’re the brains behind it, you tell it.
GSG: Basically, blood exploded two hundred percent on Richard, in this fight scene with a billy club. It was an over-explosion, but it made the cut, cause it just made it look that much more gnarly. We couldn’t even call cut in the moment, we were all shocked. It was Evil Dead moment.
RC: They messed up, it was like this big pressured spout, and just shot up like boom! It was red! Within a second, everything, everything was covered. The cameramen, they had these bags on them, blood everywhere.
GSG: I was like, “Uh…cut!” Deep inside, I was smiling, but I remembered, five seconds before shooting, I told Richard, “You’re going to feel a little sprinkle, make sure you watch your eyes.”
RC: Yeah, a sprinkle, right.
If you had to sell the show to someone who had never really seen anything like this, any horror, what would you say to them?
MH: It’s unexpected, and it’ll keep you on the edge of your seat.
GSG: I’d say, the American Dream is not all that it seems.
Check out Into the Dark: Culture Shock on July 4th