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Filmmaker makes a short film based on the scariest night of his life (NSFW)

Los Angeles-based filmmaker Will Lowell has released a 10-minute thriller inspired by the event that happened to him one terrifying and surreal night at a motel just outside the city.

The short film, entitled Asphyxia, is a story about two strangers who meet at a roadside bar. Desperate for cash, Jessica starts to seduce a repressed boy named James. It’s not long until they head into the latter’s motel room and things start to get sexual… and dark.

Filmed over two days in two locations with two characters and a tight budget, the short explores themes of repression, sexual violence, and even the taboo topic of auto-erotic asphyxiation.

True to the real-life event that inspired it, the film is filled with tense and nerve-wracking moments that will have viewers on edge.

We talked to Lowell to know more about the inspiration for the film, as well as his creative process and future projects.

Asphyxia

What was the inspiration for Asphyxia?

“The inspiration came from a surreal experience I had at a motel. While working on another project, I decided to take a writer’s retreat at the cheapest motel I could find off the highway a few hours outside of LA. I arrived at a very sketchy establishment which included a sign inside the room that said ‘for your safety, please deadbolt the door’ – not very comforting.

“On my first night, I was awoken at 4:30am by screams from the room next door. A man kept yelling at the top of his lungs, ‘PLEASE DON’T DO THIS TO ME, TYLER!!  YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME!!’ I thought for sure it was a drug deal gone wrong and that the man was about to be killed, and that I would be killed because I’d be a witness.

“The more the screaming continued, the more I imagined horrific outcomes. I was even too scared to open the door or turn on the light, so I packed my bag in the pitch black.

“About twenty minutes after the screaming started, the parking lot was flooded with cop cars. As the cops approached the screaming man’s room, I snuck out, headed to my car, and drove all the way back to LA.

“I called the motel the next day and asked about the episode, expecting to hear about multiple homicides. I found out the screaming man was schizophrenic and had imagined the other man in the room with him (‘Tyler’).

“I was fascinated at how something could have felt so real to this man even though it was all in his head. Also, I was struck by how helpless I felt as I was alone in the dark with no way to evaluate what was going on in the other room. I knew I had to make something related to the experience, so I put my other project on hold and sketched out the first draft of Asphyxia.

“At the time, I had been interested in themes of repression and sexual violence, so I used the skeleton of the experience as a jumping off point for those themes. I still occasionally do the ‘cheap motel writer’s retreat’ thing, but I spend a little more time vetting the motels.”

Asphyxia

We loved the dialogue in this short film. It built up so much tension leading up to the climax (no pun intended). What’s your secret to writing great dialogue?

“Thanks! For me it’s always a balance of finding a natural flow to the dialogue while still taking the scene to where you need it to go. I guess I start by just writing whatever comes out – basically just ‘get the characters talking’, which can actually be pretty surprising in what they say.

“From there, I work with what’s on the page as more of an editor, and I try to shape the scene and give it direction. It’s almost two different processes: first collecting the materials, and second sculpting it into form.

“It’s a tricky balance – I hate writing that feels too rigid and overly structured, but I also hate writing that feels ‘natural’ but goes nowhere.  Ideally it feels organic on first viewing and you only feel the design in retrospect.

“As far as creating tension, I find that the success or failure rests less on what the characters say and more on the foundation of the scene. If there is a strong underlying tension to the scene, it’ll come through, but if not, writing good lines won’t really save anything. I spend more time thinking about what’s going on in the scene than I spend thinking about what will be said.”

We also enjoyed the film’s aesthetic. Could you describe to us your style?

“I don’t really know if I have a style. Oddly enough, style seems to only reveal itself in retrospect – you look back at your work and the sum of your creative choices basically announces itself as your style.

“I see shorts as an opportunity to experiment, so the aesthetic of Asphyxia was something what was designed for the film, not necessarily something I carried over from previous work. I recently shot another short and the style couldn’t be more different from Asphyxia’s.

“Along the way, you discover little quirks and unexpected consistencies, and I suppose those are the things that add up to make a director’s style. In retrospect, I see I have an affinity for transitioning to unexpected visuals, whether that’s done by panning the camera or through a cut – I like it when the audience has to wonder why they are seeing something at a given moment. There are only a few moments in Asphyxia that really fit that description, but they are some of my favorite parts.

“Also, I suppose there is a formal quality to my work, both in terms of shooting style and performance. I like the idea of staying within the rules of traditional cinematic language, but still finding something weird or unexpected within those rules.”

Asphyxia

Could you tell us more about your creative process?

“With shorts, I don’t really set out with the intention of making something – they more come from a creative burst while I’m procrastinating from working on something else.

“After I have an idea or a rough script, I slowly loop in collaborators.  Tim Smith, Natalie Qasabian, and Katherine Lodge (the producers) were my first sounding boards on Asphyxia, and they shaped all of my early ideas. I hadn’t worked with many of the key crew members before, so they all brought unexpected ideas and interpretations of the script. I get to kind of cherry-pick their best ideas, which is an incredible luxury.

“Farhad Ahmed Dehlvi (our cinematographer), Francesca Marciano (our production designer), and I looked through lots of reference images, which is where the aesthetic was really born. For this one, it was a lot of Bill Henson and Philip-Lorca diCorcia photography, as well as the cinematography of Killing Them Softly.”

“The casting and location scouting are huge in taking the movie from some something abstract to something concrete. There’s a funny moment when you’ve locked your cast and you’ve picked your locations and you suddenly realize that this movie is going to happen and that the elements that will define it are in place – it starts to feel inevitable in an almost scary way.

“I’d seen Jack’s work in Palo Alto was floored by his talent. I had seen Eleanore talk at a film festival after a screening of 7 Chinese Brothers and I loved the energy she gave off in the film and the Q and A. I had no personal connection to either, so we reached out to their reps and were kind of floored when they got back to us saying they wanted to do it – it was a nice reminder that it never hurts to ask.”

“Once the machine gets up and running, I like to refer back to my earliest ideas as guideposts. It’s so easy to get caught up in execution that you can lose track of why you decided to make the film to begin with. My feeling is if you stay true to that initial spark, you can’t really go wrong – or at least you’ll go wrong on your own terms.”

Asphyxia

Lastly, what are you working on next?

“I recently shot another short called Custom Order that I’m excited to get out into the world. It stars Matt McGorry, Sophie Kargman, and Maya Erskine, and it’s weird in a totally different way from Asphyxia.

“Other than that, I’m writing a feature script for a production company that I would not direct (big budget, explosions, etc.) and one on a smaller scale that I am hoping to direct.”

To find out more about Will Lowell and his work, head on over here.

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