A movie about a family huddled together inside a house, leery of unknown dangers lurking outside and nearing a claustrophobic meltdown? Sounds like last year’s COVID-19 quarantine.
The hook of “We Need To Do Something,” however, isn’t a deadly virus. The taut horror film from IFC Midnight concerns a suburban father, mother, daughter and son who are stuck in a bathroom after a massive storm.
But there’s no ignoring the subtext. It was made in 2020 in metro Detroit during the pandemic by a small cast and crew that could relate to the confinement and anxiety of the story’s characters.
“We Need To Do Something” opens Friday at the Emagine Royal Oak and will be available the same day for streaming and video on demand.
Director Sean King O’Grady, who lives in Detroit, and producer Bill Stertz, who’s in West Bloomfield, spoke via Zoom from a work trip to Los Angeles about immersing themselves in a project so similar to the pandemic.
The movie stars Pat Healy (“The Post”) and Vinessa Shaw (“Ray Donovan”) as the bickering parents, Sierra McCormick (“The Vast of Night”) as their teenage daughter, who is carrying a mysterious sense of guilt, and and John James Cronin (“NOS4A2”) as their young son.
With hints of “The Craft,” “Pet Sematary” and “Don’t Breathe” peppering the plot, the movie efficiently builds a sense of impending doom and sprinkles in nervous laughs for good measure. Although there are cover-your-eyes scenes and gore, the filmmakers chose to keep the terror outside those bathroom walls is unseen.
Said O’Grady: ”Whatever mental picture that (viewers) create, if we’re not showing something, or if we’re only hearing it, is probably coming from their own nightmares and is much scarier than whatever we would have tried to manufacture and force you to experience.”
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At the start of last year, things were looking promising for O’Grady, the executive producer of two films at that year’s Sundance film festival: “The Assistant,” which starred Julia Garner as the employee of a Harvey Weinstein-esque boss, and the Michigan-made “Dinner in America,” a bold indie about a punk rocker and his biggest fan.
Then, in March 2020, came the pandemic lockdown. O’Grady and Stertz (who also was an executive producer of “Dinner in America”) had several projects in the pipeline, including two collaborations with metro Detroit author Josh Malerman of “Bird Box” fame. But suddenly, like everyone else, they were stuck inside their homes, trying to figure out when and how they could return to work.
In July 2020, Malerman’s manager, Ryan Lewis, sent the “We Need to Do Something” screenplay (by another of his clients, Max Booth III) to Stertz, who found it so compelling that he read it straight through. “I immediately said to Sean, ‘This is the one,’ because it resonated so much. He read it an hour later. And we were off to the races.”
O’Grady, who, like his business partner, didn’t want to make a pandemic movie, had the same reaction.
“It wasn’t about COVID, but it had those themes that, I think, all of us could relate to, especially at that time, of isolation and of fear of the unknown outside the door. I think also we’d seen amongst all of us — friend groups, family groups — this isolationist claustrophobia that makes bonds stronger or it breaks them.”
In a couple of months, they were able to secure a team and finish pre-production. Shooting began in late September 2020 and took about 17 days. There were fewer than 20 people the cast and crew combined, including numerous local talents like film editor Shane Patrick Ford and Detroit native David Chapdelaine, a composer who’s now based in Los Angeles.
O’Grady admits there was “a lot of anxiety” about working within the COVID-19 safety protocols of masking, frequent testing and so forth because the industry’s standards were still relatively new. ”We basically erred on the side of just being as cautious as we possibly could,” he recalled.
He says the cast and crew created “a full bubble” by staying at a hotel that shares a parking lot with Atlas Industries, the production company that O’Grady and Stertz formed in 2016. For about a month, they rarely saw daylight. The routine of those involved was walking from the hotel in the early morning hours to their windowless set, then walking back to the hotel at night.
“The only thing we did together was actually make the film, which was fantastic. But when filming was done, it was back to your hotel room and I hope your Netflix queue is loaded,” said O’Grady.
He felt particularly bad for Healy, who brings a ferocious energy to his role of a man on the verge of becoming unhinged. The actor had flown to Detroit previously for a small role in “Dinner in America” and had a similar drill.
“The Hilton Garden Inn in Southfield is the only part of Michigan that he has seen,” said O’Grady, describing the actor’s tight, two-day schedule of shuttling from the hotel to the “Dinner in America” sets. “At some point, Pat Healy has to come to Michigan and see something other than that parking lot.”
The main set for “We Need to Do Something” was built inside the small soundstage of Atlas Industries (for flashbacks, a few nearby locations were used). The bathroom itself was about 14 feet by 8 feet at its widest point.
”The set took up almost the entire room. There was a fire lane around the outside. There was enough room to store some equipment. And then, both for COVID reasons and because of spatial reasons … it was, ‘Unless you absolutely have to be there, we just can’t have people around,” said O’Grady.
The bathroom had removable walls to allow filming from different vantage points. Still, achieving certain shots required ingenuity. For one of O’Grady’s favorite scenes, the crew built a half-door that allowed filming from below as Healy’s character punches the blocked bathroom door that prevents the family’s escape.
Within the bathroom, each character had what O’Grady describes as “their own turf,” which helped convey a sense of separation within the togetherness and keep things visually interesting.
This is O’Grady’s first crack at directing a narrative feature. His previous work includes the documentary “Land Grab,” which chronicled finance mogul John Hantz’s plan to build the world’s largest urban farm in Detroit and the controversy that it triggered. It premiered at the 2016 Freep Film Festival.
Hantz and his daughter, Lauren Hantz, are executive producers of “We Need to Do Something,” one of several movies that O’Grady and Stertz are producing with Hantz Motion Pictures as their financial partner.
Those projects include the upcoming “I Love My Dad,” a comedy filmed this spring in Syracuse, New York, starring Lil Rel Howery, Patton Oswalt and Rachel Dratch. They’re also in the early stages of a drama that hasn’t been announced yet.
O’Grady sounds happy to be simultaneously immersed in editing for “I Love My Dad,” preparation for the dramatic project and publicizing “We Need to Do Something.” It’s a welcome relief from 2020’s tension of not knowing when he’d be able to start filming again.
He hopes his horror film will connect in a cathartic way to audiences.
”To me, it goes through the emotional roller-coaster that 2020 took us all through. When you’re watching the movie, you need to know that it’s OK to be scared, it’s OK to feel emotional at times …and it’s also OK to laugh.”
O’Grady said the pandemic reinforced the need to laugh at ourselves: “What are you going to do? The two options are I’m going to laught at the absurdity of this horror show or I’m going to never get out of bed again.”
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at email@example.com.
‘We Need to Do Something’
Opens Friday at the Emagine Royal Oak and also available for streaming starting Friday
1 hour, 37 minutes