Elise Robertson & Mouncey Ferguson Interview on Donner Pass

A couple of weeks ago I posted a write-up of a new film called, Donner Pass. I’m really excited about the film and have been singing its praises since I viewed the trailer on youtube here. In Donner Pass, “A party of settlers became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1846 and had to resort to cannibalism to survive. Some 150 years later, a group of teens on a ski trip discover that the curse of the Donner Party still haunts those mountains when members of their group start turning up not only dead, but half-eaten.” Luckily, I was able to get in touch with the director of Donner Pass, Emmy Award winner Elise Robertson, and her husband, producer Mouncey Ferguson. Without giving too much away, Elise and Mouncey gave me a little knowledge into the plot, themes, casting, and other interesting topics of Donner Pass. Check out the interview below to read all about it.

The first thing I wanted to address was the plot. Who conceived the idea? How did it come about? Little did I know, there is a lot more lying beneath the surface of the plot that you may not know from viewing the trailer. This is some of what they had to say:

Elise: “The script is actually written by a friend of Mouncey’s, R. Scott Adams. It was his brain child, to use The Donner Party as the jump off for the film. Just to be clear, this is a totally fictional story. If there are any relatives of The Donner Party, any descendents – this is not real in any way and we never say that it is. We use what happened to The Donner Party as the inspiration for our little cannibal movie.”

There is a Native American myth called The Wendigo. I know early in Scott’s writing that was really critical. It’s the idea that if you eat human flesh, you develop a taste and hunger for it. In our movie, there is no Wendigo per-say, but we use that mythology as an idea for what happens to people when they first eat human flesh.”

Mouncey: “It gives you their life-force. You can steal their life-force by eating them.”

Elise: “You can basically live forever.”

Mouncey: “In the movie there is an urban legend about George Donner; that he brought those people up there on purpose, instead of the natural tragedy they teach you in elementary school; that he’s been up there ever since, stealing people’s life-forces. It goes beyond that, the curse can happen to anybody. The hunger is still out there, it’s in anyone of us.”

Interesting! I had known about the legend of The Wendigo through watching an episode of Charmed while I was in middle school. I think it’s really cool how this real myth is being added to a real tragedy to bring movie watchers something new and inventive. Obviously, cannibalism would be a main theme throughout the film, but what else could we look forward to that would keep our psyche entertained?

Elise: “There’s a little bit of an allegory between the soul stealers, the people affected by the hunger and our teenagers in the film. It thematically deals with some of the horrible things high schoolers do to each other sometimes. For me, that was a really fun thing to explore – the character development with all these teenagers, and their relationships with each other, and the horrors that they perpetrate on each other psychologically are almost worse than the horrors outside the cabin.

It definitely has its share of scares. It has its share of gore. I would like to think there is something there for every type of horror fan. It’s not a slasher film, it’s not all about the kills. We deliver some really original ways of having people die, it was sort of unexpected. We like to call it a dark thriller. In a lot of ways it follows the pattern of a suspense thriller than a horror movie, but it is about cannibalism. It delivers in the moments when it needs to on the blood and gore.”

Mouncey: “It feels like a slasher movie in the middle, but it goes into a new territory at the end. I think it was that fact, at least in part, that mutilating people is what attracted Ralis Kahn, who was our special effects guru. He came aboard to help us do our effects and they’re pretty cool.”

Ah, great transition, Mouncey! I always give a little extra inquiry into the cast members because they are such an important part of the whole production. The production quality of Donner Pass looks great, the script is new and inventive, so the cast must be awesome too, right?

Elise: “I’m a working actor in Hollywood. A lot of these people were my friends. A lot of the guys that are in the period open are actors I’ve worked with for years on different things. I also teacher acting and Desiree Hall who plays “Kayley,” the lead, is one of my students. She’s now launching a real career for herself, so we were lucky to get her as a lead for our movie, which was really fun because we’ve been working together for years so I had a great ease on how to communicate with her as an actor. Of course Adelaide [Kane] is a total pro. She came in and nailed it in the audition. I never met her before and her first crack at “Nicole” nailed it.”

Mouncey: “She read for “Kayle” first, but she made it evidently clear that she didn’t want to play “Kayley.” She wanted to play “Nicole,” who is kind of the ice-bitch from High School, the chick who is too good, too beautiful for you. She wanted to play the evil, bad chick role. She made that clear and we loved it.”

Elise: “We have these experienced actors. Eric Pierpoint plays “George Donner” and he’s been around for years and years and is quite accomplished. John Kassir who was the “Crypt Keeper” from Tales From the Crypt. He’s doing Jack The Giant Killer, Bryan Singer’s new movie.”

Mouncey: “We have a nice balance of real established pros where you know their names and folks that, in a couple of years when their movies are on our DVD shelves, we’ll say we knew them way back when. I’m very proud of the performances that they gave. People don’t always put the attention into the performances. The movies we all love are the ones with really powerful performance scenes.”

Now that I had covered all the basics with Elise and Mouncey, I wanted to see if they could share some other behind the scenes information. Usually I ask about some funny or tense moment on set, or just anything general that comes to mind when thinking about filming Donner Pass. They were more than happy to share a funny anecdote about beginning to film the movie in March:

Elise: “I was terrified because that’s when the snow is starting to melt. We were terrified that we’d get up there and there’d be no snow. The very first night of shooting there was a blizzard, a serious blizzard to the point where the generator couldn’t make it up the hill. We were at this little cabin up in Big Bear with old wiring, so we were having a terrible time trying to get our lighting set up.”

Mouncey: “Heading up there, we knew the blizzard was coming. As a producer I was thinking, “This is perfect.” It’s supposed to be snowing in the movie. Then when we get out there and we’re shooting in the blizzard, it was a hard snow. It’s not that downy, soft snow you see in the movies. It’s slapping you in the face. When you see the movie and the tree branches are waving in the wind, it’s real, there’s no one in there moving the branch or anything.”

Elise: “I remember at the very end of the night, 3AM in the morning, slowly we were losing people and I’m there with my shot list saying, “Wait we only have one day at this cabin. We have to get this last shot.” Somehow signals had gotten crossed and everyone got sent home including the actor we needed for the one shot. It was basically me and the DP, the sound team was gone. I’m thinking, “What are we going to do? We need our lead guy running up the drive way.” Finally, the DP took it upon himself to fill in.”

Mouncey: “We’ll leave it to the people to figure out which shot it was, but it did make the final cut of the movie.”

To wrap up the interview, of course I had to ask when fans can expect to see the finished film. Here’s what Mouncey had to say:

Mouncey: “Nothing is completely finalized. We’re hoping to have a premier at one of the horror film festivals this fall. Hopefully, then, it should be out and available in January.”

Thank you both for your time. I had a wonderful time chatting with you. I’m more psyched than ever to see Donner Pass. Other excited readers can “follow” it on Twitter here, “like” it on Facebook here, and view the official website here. Also, don’t forget to add Donner Pass to your Netflix queque! Again, thank you Elise Robertson and Mouncey Ferguson for taking the time out to speak with me.

Written by Michael DeFellipo

(Senior Editor)

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