A new Phoenix production company hopes its debut horror anthology sheds light on all that the Arizona film community has to offer.
After securing a distribution deal with Virgil Films & Entertainment, Falling Flame Pictures released “Scare Us,” on virtual cinema last month with an upcoming VOD and DVD release June 29.
“We wanted to make a feature film that was very community driven and community based to showcase the talents that Arizona can bring to the table,” said Ryan Henry Johnston, “Scare Us” producer, co-writer, and co-director.
The synopsis: “A chilling horror anthology comprising five short stories, penned by an unlikely group of aspiring writers, in Sugarton – a small town plagued by the apparent return of an infamous serial killer, dubbed ‘Cutthroat.’
“They’ve come to share their scary stories (with each other and the bookstore owner, Peter, who leads the group), but soon discover they’ve become the stars of a sick killer’s own twisted tale.”
“Scare Us” was produced by Jason Wiechert, of Glendale, Robyn Sturgis, of Scottsdale, and Ryan Henry Johnston, former Phoenix resident. Johnston additionally directed and wrote segments of “Scare Us,” with directors Charlotte Lilt, of Glendale, Carl Jensen IV, of Flagstaff, Tom J. McCoy, of Mesa, and Ryan Kjolberg and Jordan Pillar, of Phoenix.
Lilt also stars in the fright flick alongside Tom Sandoval, of Los Angeles, Ethan Drew, of Scottsdale, Michael Alvarez, of Glendale, and Michelle Palermo, of Gilbert.
“Scare Us is a testament to what the Phoenix film industry family can do,” Palermo said.
With the exception of Jeff Hare, Falling Flame Pictures chief marketing officer, all other company lead executives are from the Phoenix area. Wiechert and Lilt are co-founders with Wiechert serving as CEO and Lilt as chief creative officer.
Ed Riccio, of Chandler, is executive vice president. Shaun Clark, of Mesa, is chief financial officer.
“We want to not only bolster Arizona film narratives, but also bring Hollywood to Arizona through our connections in Los Angeles,” Wiechert said.
Wiechert and Lilt met on the set of one of Johnston’s short films in 2015 and eventually married in 2019. They say they created Falling Flame Pictures together to have more creative control over the stories they told.
They want their films to bring
more depth to the motion picture world while building upon the film community in Arizona.
“Magic happens when you really believe in things,” Wiechert said. “The cast and crew really believed in this and it shows in the end product.”
The concept of making a horror anthology was born around 2016 and evolved over time, Johnston said.
Johnston and Wiechert say they had talked at length about wanting to do an anthology so that they could give opportunities to different small Arizona filmmakers to work together to make one movie that would increase storytelling in Arizona.
Originally, the film revolved around stories being told around a campfire, Johnston said. However, the producers wanted to make stories that were more adult-driven.
Each director brought three pitches to the table for different horror style films, the best ideas were chosen, then the short films were written around July and August of 2019, Johnston said.
“We thought that we could take six up-and-coming directors who may not have had an opportunity to be a part of a larger full feature film and allow each of them to focus on a specific segment of the overall anthology story,” Wiechert said, adding:
“Each director wrote and directed their own segments within the overall story and the main story cohesively ties everything together nicely.”
Principal photography began in early October 2019, Wiechert said. Luckily, filming wrapped in mid-December before the pandemic hit so that January through June of 2020 was dedicated to post production.
The decision to go with horror specifically was inspired by the universal love of horror movies, its marketability and success with independent films, Johnston said.
Johnston noted the success of “It Follows,” “Paranormal Activity,” and “The Blair Witch Project” as low-budget independent horror films with little starpower.
He said they were successful because they focused on good storytelling, which is exactly what “Scare Us” aims to do.
“Myself and Falling Flame wanted to make something that didn’t feel low-budget and looked at it as a challenge,” Johnston said. “We wanted an opportunity to showcase what Arizona could do and we knew that we had the team and the talent to make that happen.’’
“Scare Us” was filmed entirely in Arizona.
The producers say they used actual locations rather than building sets because they wanted to keep Arizona’s authenticity and utilize the state’s versatile beauty.
“There’s a massive amount of beauty in Arizona and I don’t think a lot of filmmakers take full advantage of all the amazing things Arizona has to offer,” Johnston said.
“Scare Us” primarily takes place in a bookstore, so finding the perfect location for it was crucial. The moment Johnston and Wiechert stepped into Books on 7th Avenue, they knew that it was the one.
This mom-and-pop used bookstore has been in business for over 30 years and has over 200,000 titles in stock, according to its website. Located in Phoenix’s Sunny-slope area at 9201 N. Seventh Avenue, thebookstore has been family operated since 1990.
Another noteworthy location is Parks in the Pines General Store.
Built in 1906, Parks in the Pines General Store is over 100 years old and predates Route 66, according to its website. It is located on Old Route 66 and N. Spring Valley Road in Parks, Arizona.
Because it is nestled among the largest Ponderosa Pine forest in the U.S., the store creates a very secluded, eerie feeling at night, Johnston said. This made it an ideal location to use as a gas station for the “Dead Ringer” segment of the film.
Each lead character in “Scare Us” wrote a scary story to share with their writers’ group, which each became separate segments of the film.
The five segments of “Scare Us” are as follows: “Night Haul,” “Untethered,” “Dead Ringer,” “The Resting,” and “After Hours.”
Hare thought of the idea to have the main characters reading their stories also play their fictional characters. This was the first time any of the actors had to play two different characters within the same film.
Drew experienced a lot of fun and goofiness on set and says that everyone in Falling Flame Pictures was so passionate because they were all brought from a smaller market to make something bigger that they all believed in.
“There was a huge sense of community and we all became a family by the time filming was done,” Drew said. “I remember having so many laughs with everyone.”
In “The Resting” segment, Lilt was actually able to act with Wiechert because he played a supporting character. Lilt says that working with her husband was her favorite part.
The cast all observed high levels of professionalism and say they were fortunate to have worked with everyone in Falling Flame Pictures. They also loved the way they bounced off one another on set and say that their bond translates on camera.
“We all just kind of mesh organically,” Lilt said. “Nothing had to be forced and you can feel it. When you watch it, you’ll see.”
The final segment of “Scare Us” is “After Hours,” which is told by Sandoval’s character, Peter. Peter is the owner of the bookstore and leader of the writers’ group who assigned the scary stories.
Wiechert hopes that fans of Sandoval from “Vanderpump Rules” will watch “Scare Us” to see Sandoval do something very different from his previous work.
Everyone from “Scare Us” still keeps in touch with one another as a family, Lilt said.
When it was safe, Hare said they rented out the Harkins Theatres at Tempe Marketplace to have a cast and crew screening so that everyone could watch the film together.
Riccio wants to do a sequel to “Scare Us,” but says they have to see how audiences respond to this film first.
“I’m hoping that this helps the government in Arizona realize the potential and benefits there are to having films here in the Valley and in the state and what it can bring to the economy,” Palermo said.
To watch the trailer or buy tickets for “Scare Us” or for more information about Falling Flame Pictures and their future films, go to fallingflamepictures.com. ′