Filming for Night of the Babysitter, a horror film shot right here in Iowa City, wrapped up earlier this month. Needless to say, the idea of a cinematic thrill-fest shot right in our own backyard is appealing in its own right, but Babysitter appears to be far more than your typical slasher flick.
Little Village caught up with the film’s director—Iowa native and UI film school alum Louis Doerge—as well as Director of Photography Jeff Wedding, and the film’s star, The Babysitter herself, Dora Madison Burge, to talk about the film, and why they chose Iowa City.
According to Doerge, Night of the Babysitter aspires to be more than just a horror movie. Sure, there’s a killer named “Father” (played by Bill Oberst Jr.) who wears Japanese Noh masks to strike fear into his victims, and yeah, it’s shot on 16mm film to achieve the grainy visual texture seen in classics like The Omen and Persona, but there’s more to it than that, Doerge says.
Tired of filmmakers portraying his home state—and the Midwest at large—as a vast, crimeless expanse of farmland, Doerge set out to make a movie that would let him show the “heartland” in a less idealized light.
“I wanted to explore small urban environments, because they really are interesting, and that’s how I grew up,” Doerge said. “That’s what I was used to and exposed to. I’ve never set foot on a farm.”
Burge, who gained national recognition from her role on the TV show Friday Night Lights, thinks of the film as a self-aware throwback to old school slasher flicks. She says she was drawn to the movie, because it’s filled with classic B-horror movie archetypes, but manages to rise above many of the all-too-familiar cliches.
“It’s kind of a play on that genre. Growing up, I was really into Michael Myers and Friday the 13th and stuff like that,” Burge said. “The original ones from the ‘70s, with like, ‘70s bush and their boobs are real and their hair is feathered, and it’s super grainy and awesome [laughs]. You know, before Busta Rhymes comes up and starts beating up Michael Myers and you’re like, ‘This is not Halloween! This is not scary!’ [laughs].”
“Horror these days has gotten so blown out because special effects are so good, you know?” Burge added. “They’re not really horror films anymore, they’re just really gory and graphic. The kind of style of horror that we’re doing is more Hitchcockian.”
Doerge says he employs a lot of dialogue to build tension, and has tried to create an atmosphere within the movie that changes drastically from scene to scene. He compares Night of the Babysitter to a piece of conversational, experimental jazz or hip hop. It’s the Bitches Brew of horror movies in a lot of ways, he says, but it also draws some of its style from the underground music scene in Austin, where Doerge formerly resided.
Up-and-coming noise-metal band Future Death, along with politically active electro-punk trio BLKSPLTN, (pronounced “blacksploitation”), made the long drive from Austin to Iowa City to be featured in the film—and, of course, to play a show at Gabe’s.
“Future Death is playing the house party scene, and BLXPLTN has a cameo, but they won’t be musically performing in the film,” Burge said. “Their lead singer, Khattie, is going to play ‘The Shootist.’”
Jeff Wedding, the film’s director of photography, says he’s been working closely with veteran lighting designer Ace Fillore to get all of Doerge’s subtle atmospheric shifts to come to life on film.
“Tonally, it shifts,” Wedding said. “The whole first act, the ‘Babysitter’ story, is a sort of cold, practical and Bergmanesque sort of a thing. Then we move to a scene upstairs, and it’s like this light spilling through the blinds. So visually, it’s going to jump around a lot. We have that sort of opportunity to be inconsistent, in a way. Because each act reads like a different story, and each story will have its own look. It’s a matter of getting the right exposure and keeping the look of it intact. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
The filming itself has been moving unusually smoothly so far, the three say.
“Louis has been so meticulous about everything that it’s been the easiest process ever,” Wedding said. “You walk in knowing, okay, this is the shot, now we just have to build what needs to go into what light is hitting that frame, and we just have to create that certain frame. On so many shoots, the director has no idea what he wants, and you walk in and have to figure everything out right then.”
Local businesses have been doing their part to help make the movie a success, too. Before filming started, Buzz Salon offered to do hair and makeup for the film, upping its production value, and local caterer Valerie Martin has kept the cast and crew from having to survive on pizza alone by cooking French cuisine.
With all the success of the shoot thus far, Burge says she’s getting tired of having to explain why they decided to make the movie in Iowa.
“My agent said, ‘Why don’t you shoot it in L.A.? Don’t you think that will be cheaper?’ I’m like, ‘Where are we going to fly in the snow?’ [laughs],” Burge explained. “I just like that Iowa City is an untapped vein. It’s a community of people who are ready to work and are excited about a movie and aren’t just punching the time clock.”
Shooting in Iowa City wrapped up on Feb. 6, but Burge says you can expect to see her and other cast members back in town for a special premiere, after the movie has been released at a yet-to-be-determined film festival. The details are still coming together, but they say an Iowa City premiere during next year’s Mission Creek Festival is one possibility.
“I’m already planning the party,” Burge said. “Billy [Singhas, who plays “Thomas” in the movie] has this school bus that’s custom graffitied, and he’s planning on bringing it …. I love being here and I want to come back to visit. It’s nice to have a spot in between places.”
John Miller graduated from the University of Iowa in 2013 with a writing certificate and bachelor’s degree in English. He’s a regular contributor to Little Village and hopes to someday overcome his fear of masked murderers and start sleeping with the lights off.