Director: Aaron Irons
Aaron Irons is a filmmaker, musician, programmer and avid cave explorer based in Nashville. Chest is his first feature horror film.
Hello Aaron! The movie is so well presented! I am sure you had to face terrible situations while filming. Would you like to share how your shooting experience was?
Hello! And thank you for having me. So yes, with any movie you have some pretty gruelling shoots and this film was pretty rough due to the fact that we were such a small production and crew. Our main shoot, which was 7 days in a cabin in East Tennessee, was basically the 5 main actors, and 4 other people. Every day i would get up at 5 am, print the script sides and agendas for the day, drive out to the locations and set up the scenes and then everyone would come out to the location and we would film for 8 or so hours and then go back to the cabin where I would stay up until 3am getting ready for the next long day. There was barely any sleep on my end, but everyone else seemed to be comfortable and that was my intention. That shoot was pretty rough on me mentally and physically because I took on so many roles–but we survived and it all turned out great. I still have nightmares to this day about having to get ready to do that week over again though, so it was pretty traumatic. Other than that our single day shoots were pretty great. We did have a year and half on hold due to the pandemic, but luckily we all managed to stay healthy and we finally were able to finish production last year.
As you have mentioned, the procedure almost killed you! It would be great if you could share how you braved all the odds.
Well, I did have a few weeks where I lost my hearing and was dealing with some weird health issues that no doctor could figure out–so of course I just assumed I was dying. It turns out it was stress induced from dealing with the bureaucracy of SAG (screen actors guild). It was just endless paperwork, endless phone calls and people telling me I couldn’t do things, and all I wanted to do was make my movie. They are a great organisation, but terrible for indie filmmakers. I could go on, but the story where I really feared for my life during this production was when I was back in East Tennessee doing some location scouting and camera tests. In the film there are a lot of scenes filmed at an old abandoned “roundhouse”–which was an old silo from a civil war era slate mine that was converted into a hotel in the ‘30s and then a Sanitarium in the ‘50s. I had a contract signed by the landowner with permission to be there, but there was another landowner who had property on the other side of where the house sits that apparently did not get the memo. I was up there at night by myself and had just finished filming some random things and was walking down the old gravel road when a truck came barreling down the road, and slammed on its break in front of me. Two people get out, one with a shotgun and one with a handgun. They are yelling at me asking what i’m doing up there and I tried to explain the situation and the contract with the landowner (which was back at my cabin) so I said I would call him and get him to explain but there was no cell service where I was. The older man, who was named “‘Tater” (that’s a slang term for Potato, for anyone who is not aware) pointed the gun at me and told me to get in the truck. I realised that no one I knew, not even my wife, knew where I was at that moment and these crazy rednecks were about to drive me somewhere and kill me and steal all of my camera gear. Well luckily, I turned on my country charm and we managed to get cell phone service and called the landowner to explain the situation. Afterwards, the guy had the nerve to ask to be in my movie. I told him to stay away when we were actually filming up there a few months later. So we had no more run-ins with Tater.
What attracted you to Appalachian folklore? How exhausting the research work was?
Well, there wasn’t much research to do. I lived a lot of these stories. I grew up hearing all of them and the story of the chest in the cave was one that always fascinated me. It was enough for me to go out with my friends in high school hiking the hills searching for this mysterious cave. All of the weird stories in the film are real local stories. Originally we had a lot more in the movie that was told by the bartender in one scene, but we had to cut a lot for time. There are plenty of other ones that are great subjects for future horror films.
What kind of tales do you wish to present to your viewers?
I want to tell stories that are rooted in facts. I love stories that even if you are watching a movie you think that maybe some part of it can be true and can affect you, so it makes it even more terrifying. And there are plenty to draw from back home, that’s for sure.
I’d like to know if you’d further love to explore other folk cultures and the mystery surrounding them? If yes, which stories do you wish to explore?
The stories where I grew up are pretty unique. Stories of people seeing “devils” and cryptids in the woods, haunted houses and possessed people–you name it, we have it. There was one where a couple of kids supposedly got possessed by the devil and they set their mom on fire “just for fun”, they said, and nearby a man supposedly encountered the devil in the woods and went into town and started attacking people with a shovel. And my mother told me when she was young she would walk from school and along the way there was an old house with a shed behind it where a kid was locked up inside who had contracted the rabies virus and they would peek in through the cracks of the walls at him and said it was like watching a feral creature–he would see them looking and scratch and claw at the walls until his hands bled. And that area is also home to the notorious serial killer, Joe Shepard, who terrorized the town back in the 70s. I’m actually working on a horror anthology screenplay now that includes a lot of these “based on facts” stories.
Folktales or legends are still shrouded in a mysterious atmosphere and the modern world, mostly, seems to be pretty oblivious about them. What will your assessment be about the impact of folktales in modern-day?
I think folktales are really our last raw form of artistic expression. The art of handing down a tale from generation to generation is such a beautiful thing. The modern equivalent of that would be the internet stories known as “Creepypasta” which has given birth to such creations such as “Slenderman” and stories like The Russian Sleep Experiment. These kinds of stories really influence people. When people watch horror movies I think deep down they want to know that a little bit of what they are watching might get to them as well. And dark folktales present that threat–that what you are hearing is real and happened to someone, so it could happen to you. That’s the best premise for any horror movie, in my opinion.
Folktales are connected to mysterious happenings, and easily lead their way to fear and horror. I’d love to know how the genre appeals to you? What makes horror so special to you?
I feel like horror taps into that darkness that is inside of everyone. Most people pretend like they don’t have that inside them, but it’s the reason there are traffic jams surrounding a car accident. Everyone slows down so they can witness the horror from the safety of their own vehicle. Horror movies give people that release–they can watch things that disturb and scare them, and eat popcorn and then get up and go back to their safe lives. Comedy and Horror are also very closely related in that they both elicit a very raw and visceral response from the audience. Laughing and being terrified are very closely related in our brains. Horror films also are unique in that they can bridge across every genre of film and still remain a horror film. The best horror films are a combination of drama, comedy, thrillers, action, and romance. Of course there are horror films that fall more into one lane than others, but horror is the one genre that can really mess with an audience long after they leave and I think that is amazing.
The movie revolves around the chest! It easily reminds us of Pandora and her notorious box. What, according to you, is this world’s Pandora’s box? What stops this world from thriving?
I think ego and arrogance in people keep this world from thriving. And it is always people–as in, human beings– because the world would be much better off without us in it. We don’t sustain the Earth, it sustains us. But as a civilization it is always people who take themselves and everything around them way too seriously that ruins everything for the rest of us. Our existence is a dark, depressing, and overly chaotic thing–to just “be” is such an insane concept in the grand design of the universe but we as humans have this thing inside us that allows us to see the beauty in that chaos, to find light where there is darkness, and we find happiness in what is really a bleak and seemingly pointless existence and it is our artistic abilities that make this world special and meaningful. And those that let their ego and arrogance ruin that illusion for the rest of us are really the ones who are trying to open Pandora’s box and ruin everything.
Filming the movie was pretty exhausting. Would you take a risk again? For the sake of filmmaking?
I have a neighbour who is also a filmmaker, and before I even started this project I mentioned to him about starting this film and he told me probably the best advice I ever got: “When you start this, it is going to destroy your life for a while. You’ll be broke. It might even ruin your marriage. And then when it is over, you’ll want to do it all again.” Well luckily it didn’t completely destroy my life or my marriage but this process really took a toll on me. I had weird health problems from the stress, I dumped tons of money into something I was sure would never pay off, but in the end it actually brought me closer to a lot of people, and introduced me to a world I was not sure I would ever be a part of. And it opened up a lot of doors for a lot of other people, and no matter what happens with this film, that alone is worth it. I managed to come out of this without debt, still happily married, slightly broken inside, but also with a confidence that I could and probably will do this again–just not in the same capacity. I don’t plan to take on 50+ roles in the filmmaking process again. Maybe just 20.
Aaron, the movie is your first feature. And finishing with utmost perfection is surely a huge achievement. How did you feel after your brainchild saw the light of the day?
You know, it’s weird. I have always heard stories about actors who have never watched the films that they have starred in and always thought that was insane, but after making a film I get it. And I’ve been so close to this project–writing it, producing it, directing, editing, everything–so when it was finally done, I wasn’t sure how to feel. I will never be 100% happy with the outcome so basically I got it to a point where I was like, “okay, I think this is done?” and just put it out there. I really had zero clue how people would react. I knew the reaction would be mixed–as it is with anything, even the greatest films on earth–but my only hope is that it would find an audience somewhere. I knew I wasn’t making the greatest film on earth–I was making my film, and it is a representation of what I could do the first time. It’s not perfect, but it never will be. So putting my “child” out there in the world is weird because I know people are going to criticise it, tear it apart, hate on it and so forth and that’s hard to ignore, but as long as one person out there says “hey, this is great, good job” then I am okay. And so far the response has been amazing, so no matter what people say, I’ve surpassed my expectations already.
Lastly, Aaron, it would be great if you suggest us a few names that would boost our interest in such films!
I assume you mean found footage films, so yes! I have tons of recommendations. Besides the obvious ones like The Blair Witch Project, Cannibal Holocaust and the Paranormal Activity franchise–which popularised the genre–here are a few modern ones I love:
- Host (2020) – made during COVID lockdown–incredible film, incredible cast.
- The Tunnel (2011, AUS) – genuinely terrifies me every time I watch it.
- Troll Hunter – Don’t even read the synopsis of this one–just go into it cold, it’s amazing.
- Digging up the Marrow – Adam Green is one of my favourite directors ( Hatchet 1-3) and he made this amazing FF movie just for the hell of it, it seems.)
- The Phoenix Incident – the alien FF movies aren’t normally my thing but this one slaps.
- Cloverfield – I’m not normally a fan of big-budget FF films, but you can’t NOT like this movie.
- The Visit – same deal as above, this was M. Night Shyamalan’s entry into the found footage world and it is great.
- Grave Encounters 1 & 2 – this franchise is so wild–I watch these films at least once every few months.
- Creep 1 & 2 – Mark Duplass stars in these and they are just incredible, disturbing films.
- Afflicted (2013) – the effects in this one are incredible and a truly unique take of a popular trope.
- The Taking of Deborah Logan – just incredible. The old lady in this movie is stellar.
- Horror in the High Desert – another of those films that just creeps me out every single time.
- Lost Footage of Leah Sullivan – has some really great practical scares and interesting tension building.
- Hell House, LLC – this film is just masterfully done.
The Den – one of the first films I watched in the “webcam” genre of FF and it is very well done–great story, acting, everything.