T.J. Scott’s ‘Death Valley’ brings a chill in the middle of the desert like never before

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“Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” This isn’t a line from the movie, but actually a line from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, act one, scene two. I quote this line not just because it makes the article sound cool (because it really does, actually), but to translate the epitome of what moviegoers will realize when they see this movie, and find that all the demons and goblins are already around us. From one of the most creative minds in the industry, and the director behind great shows such as Orphan Black, Spartacus: War of the Damned, Black Sails, and most recently, Gotham, T.J. Scott brings us his latest tale of the true nature of the beast, known only as Death Valley. Shot on location, this neo-noir film engages viewers, giving a true sense of reality in the film. Bypassing the use of green screens and CGI, the film prides itself on the use of practical effects and on-site filming, stepping out into the abyss and allowing the actors to fully unravel their characters in a natural and raw setting.

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After a night of celebrating, libations, and debauchery, the aftermath results in an impulsive dash to Las Vegas for a shotgun wedding. As the quartet of new friends take their joyous road trip to Sin City along a closed road, things take an awful turn when their vehicle hits a woman alone in the middle of the road, a woman who had a gun pointed straight at them. When the shock hits that they have killed the woman instantly and their car is no longer drivable, questions and accusations arise from the frantic and frightened party. Direction and opinions are divided regarding what they should do next, between a liquored up Hollywood bigshot Billy Rich (Lochlyn Munro) and his little muse Annie (Katrina Law), and married couple Jamie (Victoria Pratt) and Roy (Nick E. Tarabay). As they decide to trek into the desert in hopes of finding an occupied road, heat and dehydration starts to mix with the alcohol and other chemicals the four have ingested, as personalities start to clash and paranoia sets in. As relationships start to fracture, and the truth about each person’s secret is revealed, these four will realize why it is truly called Death Valley.

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Munro just seems to have this uncanny ability to appear as the biggest scumbag whenever he is on the screen, anywhere and anytime. I don’t know if he went to acting school and said “I want to get the role of being the biggest jerk whenever I audition for a film, so make it happen,” or what, but whatever it is, he’s darn good at it. The cast as a whole was superb, showcasing each actor’s chemistry and balance, and seemingly making it look easy to portray their characters. “The way we cast this movie was that it was friends, it was actors who I loved working with,” Scott tells NR, as we had a chance to chat with the director about his film and what it took to create it. “I had just worked with Katrina Law and Nick Tarabay on Spartacus, and that was the first time I had met them but loved working with them.” Victoria Pratt and Scott have a long time relationship, going back to being a part of projects he’s directed such as Once a Thief, Blacktop, Cleopatra 2525, and Mutant X. Oh, and they’re married as well. “Lochlyn Munro did Blacktop with Victoria, and I really wanted to work with Lochlyn again,” Scott mentions about the actor. “He’s in every Wayan’s brother movie, and is fantastic at comedy, but he’s also really great at drama, too.” Scott holds Munro in high regard, as he feels he truly brings that Noir vibe to the film. “His comic beats kind of set up the fact that things are getting darker and darker.” It took little effort for Scott to write the part with Munro specifically in mind, meshing his cadence and voice into the lines and dialogue of the character, doing the same for Pratt. “I worked with Katrina Law and Nick Tarabay after we had written the project, so we went back and modified the roles a little bit towards them, once we knew they were going to play the roles,” Scott recalls. “They just brought so much texture and depth to the roles that may not even have been in the script, but they were just fantastic that way.”

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But Scott didn’t start out as a director. Early in his career, he got his break in the industry as a stuntman. “A whole other life ago,” he laughs. “I started as an actor when I was really young, and when I was in my teens, we saw all these actors doing all their own stunts. So a bunch of us young actors thought to ourselves ‘We need to learn how to do stunts’, and as you know, it’s very difficult to break into that business.” Scott began doing stunts for the industry, and at the same time, began going to film school, as he had aspirations for becoming a director. “Doing stunt work was a good segway because they often hire the stunt coordinator to some kind of directing.” Getting his directorial debut on the series Top Cops back in 1991, Scott became a mainstay for ’90s television, directing episodes of shows like Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, and so on (man, the ’90s were filled with too many shows that had colons in them). “I kind of got a lot of my breaks from Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert with Xena, Hercules, Cleopatra 2525 for them,” he mentions, “and then they were strong advocates for mine, telling other people to hire me. That was kind of how I got some really good breaks in Hollywood.” And now, we come to Mutant X.

If you don’t remember Mutant X, you really missed out on a show that was ahead of its time. I was actually into it when it first came out, and saw it pretty much every day it came on. Now, I know a lot of people weren’t into it, or called it a ripoff of the X-Men, but it actually wasn’t, as the storyline was completely different from the Marvel series. That didn’t stop folks from complaining, or even attempting to sue them. “We really liked that show. The reason why it didn’t get a lot of promotion, however, was that the whole time it was going on, there was a lawsuit of who owned ‘X’. 20th Century Fox said that they had owned everything with an ‘X’ on it, and Marvel had actually sold the rights to Mutant X to Tribune, saying it was a different project.” Because of the lawsuits, according to Scott, it precluded the creative team from spending huge amounts of advertising budgets on the show. “I think now, it would’ve been a lot better, because now we’re doing all those graphic novels turned into TV shows. It’s kind of very popular, and people know how the rights work”, Scott states, “I think it would’ve done better now if we were doing it.”

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Scott wanted to take a different approach when it came to Death Valley, and with the help of co-writer Brad MacPherson, strove to create a new experience for moviegoers. “We wanted to explore the idea that you never really know anyone until you face a crisis with them. We also wanted the film to run parallel with the theme that there’s darkness lurking within us all.” Scott had wanted to open the eyes of moviegoers that madness is deeply embedded within us all, especially with the help of the film’s most subtle antagonist. “We wanted Death Valley, the actual location, to be the antagonist that propels these characters to drop into their dark places.” Scott confirms that the most sinister thing about the film is how the landscape slowly erodes the mindsets of the characters, chipping away at the true selves they are deep down. “The Valley is the monster.” The whole film was shot in 12 days, with only 10 days on location, and two days in L.A. “We all lived in Death Valley for the ten days, which was very bonding,” Scott laughs,”We’d be out in the desert, all dusty and dirty all day, then we’d shower and meet up at the bar and have dinner together.” His voice grew excited as he mentions that this was a “super cool way to do a movie.” Scott was quick to mention that he loved working on this film, and that it wasn’t just the actors and actresses on the set that were friends. “The whole crew were all friends of mine, too. It was a tiny crew, everybody did like three or four jobs each, but everyone who was a part of this project were award winners in their own field.” He was quick to mention that even he wasn’t exempt from having more than just one job. “I was the writer, director, co-producer, and then a camera operator. Victoria Pratt, who starred in the film, was also the wardrobe designer. Even Juliette Beavan, who plays the woman that dies at the beginning of the film, was a composer and the script supervisor.” Scott laughs as he mentions that it was one of the most fun he’s ever had on a project. “A collaboration where all the actors and the tiny crew thought it was the most enjoyable projects we’d ever done together, because we really put our blood, sweat and tears into it.

What’s even more awesome is how much Scott is a fan of Nerd Reactor! “I love Nerd Reactor! It’s great, you can catch up on stuff in like two seconds there!” He quickly runs down the reasons that keeps drawing him to the site: “I like that you can go there and quickly see all the shows that are coming up, all the trailers, footage, the rumors. I feel like it’s a good news place to go for Sci-fi and horror and stuff. It’s great!”

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Death Valley paints an intelligent yet grim, psychological neo-noir picture that brings viewers to the edge of their seat, until the very end of the last scene. The film captivates the dark void of man’s heart, and shows the direct parallelism to that of the valley, itself, as we follow four individuals journey through Death Valley’s deserts and rocky hills, gradually revealing the true nature of each person. This, in turn, allows Scott’s genius creativity to come to fruition, as you begin to realize that in fact the grand antagonist of the entire film is the one that’s been in every scene, driving and pitting each person against each other, proving to be the victor in the end: the valley. Death Valley skillfully represents the depths of man’s depravity, and how far they will go when pushed by their surroundings, ultimately showcasing that in man’s darkest hour, the ‘valley’ will always win.

If you’re looking for a great indie film to watch this Halloween season that shows that the true horrors of this world are found within the people around us, then this film is for you! From the incredible landscape, the outstanding performances, and subtle horror that will chill you to your bones, this film definitely brings a fresh perspective on what is the breaking point of our human psyche. It is, however, in this breaking point, that the characters, and likewise us, find the truth that is frightening to behold: we each hold the darkness we fear in this world.

Rating: 4/5 atoms

NR 4 Atoms - B

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Eddie Villanueva Jr.
Eddie Villanueva Jr. 309 posts

A movie connoisseur of only the finest films, and an Encyclopod of geek and nerd knowledge. And if you know what an Encyclopod is, you're cool too!