Don’t Look Back: We talk to writer, producer and director Jeffrey Reddick about his latest picture

Kurt Cobain once said, “If you’re a really mean person you’re going to come back as a fly and eat poop”. In many ways, this seems unfair to the humble fly, but, it does point to a belief in karma. A conviction embedded in diverse cultures, religions and social structures since the dawn of humanity; the need for us all to believe that what goes around, comes around, a comfort in a turbulent world. While at the same time feeding our human need for justice, even when it sadly lacking.

As a result, the subject of karma has long held a place in horror; latching onto our need for some supernatural justice in a world where evil people and bad things often go unpunished. And it’s here where Don’t Look Back, from the writer of Final Destination Jeffrey Reddick finds its voice. In a film that boldly explores the role of the bystander in events and situations that result in tragedy. The ripples of those events, slowly turning into a stream of guilt, anguish and trauma.

Caitlin Kramer (Kourtney Bell), is a woman still recovering from the trauma of a recent home invasion. One in which she lost her father in unimaginable and sudden terror. However, as she slowly gets her life back together, venturing out of the house for the first time in months, Caitlin finds herself witness to a brutal and unprovoked attack. The victim Douglas Helton (Dean J. West) murdered before her eyes in a vicious beating. A group of passers-by standing watching as the attack ensues. But, while Caitlin may be in shock, she does attempt to help, grabbing the phone of one of the bystanders filming the brutal event, and calling the police. However, her efforts are in vain as the life drains away from the man in front of her eyes. With her fellow witnesses quick to absolve themselves of any blame for their lack of action.

As she sits in a police interview, recalling the events, Caitlin is struck by a feeling of impending doom. One that only grows over the days and weeks following the murder, as one of her fellow bystanders, dies in mysterious circumstances. With Caitlin beginning to question whether the spirit of the dead man is stalking each of those who stood watching his final breath. But when the victim’s brother Lucas Helton (Will Stout) labels the bystanders as ‘bad samaritans” in the media, events take an even darker turn. One where an invisible yet deadly force seems to surround her every waking moment. But, is this force a ghost, deadly karma or the guilt of her inaction bubbling to the surface?

Don’t Look Back carries the tension of Final Destination while equally taking a different turn in skirting the boundary between supernatural and human horror. With a narrative that dovetails the modern-day obsession for watching horrors unfold, with the spiritual notion of karma. In a picture, that dissects not only the morbid curiosity of us as humans but also the guilt that ensues. However, look deeper, and the overwhelming need for instant justice sits central to Reddick’s vision. Within a society where notions of justice, just like media, have become instantaneous. The need to apportion blame both quick and decisive; while often not rooted in law. The result of which creates a wave of apprehension that only further increases human inaction when tragedy strikes.

I recently caught up with writer, producer and director Jeffrey Reddick to talk about the making of his feature-length directorial debut, while also reflecting on the themes at its core.

Don’t Look Back (2020)
Hi Jeffrey and thank you for taking the time to talk to me about your new movie Don’t Look Back, about to show at FrightFest in the UK. Back in 2014, you released the short film ‘Good Samaritan,’ how did this pave the way for the feature-length Don’t Look Back?

Hey Neil, thanks so much for interviewing me. The funny thing is, the short of Good Samaritan came after I had written the script for what would become Don’t Look Back. So I took the character of Nathan and created a whole story around him, basically to demonstrate that I could direct. And I thought that would open a lot of doors for me, but magically it didn’t!. I just had to go with the producer, who wanted to finance a film independently with me, instead of waiting for other people to come forward. So, while I think the short is very cool, it’s definitely more of a supernatural horror when compared with the mystery thriller that became Don’t Look Back.

There must have been numerous challenges in bringing Don’t Look Back to the screen, how long did it take to get the project off the ground?

It’s been a long time; years and years and years of stop and start with finance coming, and then falling through. So I don’t want to say precisely how long, because I don’t want to date the project, but let’s just say it’s been a long time coming!.

Am I right that you only had 22 days of filming? And what pressures did that create?

Our 22-day shooting schedule was actually pretty good for an indie film. I know a lot of movies that have 18 days or less, so I was fortunate to get 22. But, there were still challenges. Including the number of locations that we had to shoot. All of which led to set moves, with all of our equipment. That definitely ate up a lot of our time and put pressure on us to get as much done, as quickly as possible. However, I was also fortunate to have two cameras on this film which helped enormously. But yeah, just getting all the different location shots was the biggest challenge.

Don’t Look Back threads supernatural terror with a far more human horror. Can you tell us about the origins of the story?

My inspiration for Don’t Look Back started with the story of Kitty Genovese during the 1960s. And while I hadn’t yet been born at the time the news hit, it became an urban legend of sorts. It was about how these people had watched her being assaulted in a courtyard, with nobody helping. And that always haunted me, making me wonder what I would have done in the same situation.

You know, we’ve seen a lot of TV shows, where shocking scenarios are created to see how people react, and that’s always fascinated me. So when I decided to direct my first feature-length picture, I wanted to do something that had a universal theme. Something everybody could relate to, and the theme of witnessing a shocking or violent happening, and our behaviour during, and after, is something that feels relatable and real.

Don’t Look Back (2020)
You open the film with a powerful reflection of the videos that circulate social media daily of violent acts filmed by bystanders. Do you think social media has led to a world where violence is often viewed from a distance as entertainment?

All the videos in the opening credits are real. And in the process of putting them together, I became really troubled by how many videos were out there. I think in many ways, social media has become a beast that feeds off viral and shocking content. And this has created a world where people pull out their phones, instead of calling 911; their instant recording, an opportunity for viral fame. So I guess, in many ways, it has become a vicious and ugly cycle between the media and the public. With the handheld camera at its heart.

But, I am also really troubled by our lack of empathy for each other. And when people ask me what I’m most afraid of, it’s not supernatural creatures or serial killers, but how regular people can so quickly turn on each other. And the ability of humanity to believe ideas and rhetoric that thrives on hate due to race, gender, religion or sexual orientation.

Don’t Look Back is your feature-length directorial debut, that must have been scary in itself?

Oh, yeah, it was scary. And I freely admit I got a little cocky due to having been on a lot of film sets. Plus I had a short under my belt, so I was like, you’ve got this. But, you don’t know what you don’t know until you’re on the ground shooting, especially with an indie film; where you have challenges that you can’t just resolve with money. So it was a great learning experience. And I was so lucky to have such a great cast and crew on the journey with me. I’m never going to be one of those directors who try to take all the glory for finishing a film. Because without your cast and your crew you’re nothing really. And while a director may steer the ship, it’s the cast and crew that bring the vision to life.

Kourtney Bell’s performance is one of sheer strength and power, how did you come to cast Kourtney in the role?

I am so fortunate to have found Kourtney. When I saw that she was on our list of auditions, I Googled her before she came in. And in doing so found a website she had created of clips from all the shorts and commercial stuff she had done. And on watching these, I saw facets of who the character of Caitlin was in each clip. So I kind of knew before she came in that she fit the bill. But, of course, you can’t cast somebody before you have met all the talent. Kourtney is an amazing and talented actress, and I think she does a wonderful job of carrying the picture.

Don’t Look Back ensures that strong African-American characters and actors sit at the heart of the story. Do you think Hollywood is beginning to embrace positive representation both in front of, and behind the camera? And what more still needs to be done in creating a genuinely diverse and representative industry?

You know, representation is something that I’ve been fighting for throughout my entire career. When I wrote the story for Final Destination Two, I wrote the lead character, Kimberly, as an African-American actress. I knew we lacked any representation among the young cast in the first film. Still, you know, continuously throughout my career I have written characters of different races, only for them to be cast with white actors and actresses. And the same applies to gay and lesbian characters.

Hollywood is making some big strides, but for some reason, when you talk about diversity, people still get this weird knee jerk reaction. I guess what people need to understand is that when you send out a casting call for a roll, especially a leading man or woman. The default that every casting person has in their head is still a white actor or actress. So, in every one of my films, we’ve never had a person of colour submitted for a leading male or female role. It’s like that’s just not the default setting for who they offer. And even when you send out a casting notice that says open to all ethnicities, 99% of the submissions will be white actors and actresses.

But, there is such a vast pool of talent out there of every race, and for my first film, I wanted to find the best lead actress from the entire, diverse pool of talent. So, I sent out casting notices, saying send me African-American, Latino and Asian actresses. But, it’s like you have to almost go out of your way to search for diverse talent, mainly due to studios not automatically thinking about people of colour in lead roles. So I had a really great opportunity here to showcase a wonderful lead black actress in her first feature-length role. And, you know, that was really thrilling for me.

As far as what needs to be done, I think I answered that a little bit, in my thoughts earlier. But, there is also something around our natural reflex that needs challenging. People often envision a white person as the lead in a book or script they are reading. And, you know, that’s what we need to all move beyond. After all, a character can surely be brought to life by any person, no matter of difference. We are all human beings at the end of the day, and we all have the same wants, needs and feelings.

Hollywood thrives on what is successful, and I think both Black Panther and Get Out proved that diverse stories could be box office winners. And hopefully, this only increases a desire for authentic stories, while also building representation in lead roles across cinema no matter of race, disability or sexual orientation. I think representation is as important as telling stories about different communities.

Get Out (2018) ©️Universal Pictures
It would be easy to label Don’t Look Back as a ‘karma’ based horror, but grief, loss and a need for perceived justice thread through the narrative. If there is one broader social message you would like audiences to reflect on after watching Don’t Look Back, what would it be?

You’re absolutely right. I knew when I made the film, a lot of people would expect a Final Destination style horror from me. And so I kept telling our marketing people that it was important to sell the film as more of a mystery. I wanted audiences to be unsure whether the forces in the film were supernatural or human. While at the same time dealing with broader themes of grief, loss and faith.

I think the social message that I want people to take from this movie is the need for us all to start caring about each other more. That doesn’t mean throwing yourselves into a dangerous situation to stop something terrible happening. But, it does mean calling 911 instead of automatically getting your phone out and filming. Or if you see something wrong, say something. So yes, I guess, I would just like us all to care more. Because right now we seem to be living through such a divisive time that seems to get worse, not better every day.

Back in April, we celebrated the 20th Anniversary of Final Destination here on Cinerama Film Online. Did you ever anticipate your X-Files inspired screenplay would become one of the defining horror films of the past twenty years?

You know what, as a horror fan, I am just humbled by the impact that the movie has had. It was such an honour working at New Line Cinema for 11 years; the studio that produced my favourite film A Nightmare on Elm Street and went onto produce Final Destination. And I guess I always hoped the movie would go onto have sequels, but, I never imagined that it would become part of the cultural zeitgeist. I mean, I’ll be out when I hear people comment on something that happened using the phrase ‘oh, that was a final destination moment‘, and it just makes me smile. And I’m like, ‘holy crap! The movie I started is a cultural thing!‘.

I didn’t expect it to become what it has become, but I’m so grateful and humbled as a fan and as a creative person that it has. And I’m so appreciative of the fans. And yeah, it’s just really cool.

Finally, what horror movies inspired you as a young person? And what advice would you have for aspiring young screenwriters?

You know the first movie I always talk about as my inspiration is A Nightmare on Elm Street. That was the film that made me fall in love with the genre. Up until Elm Street, my friends and I would just watch horrors for the blood and scares. We were young and, you know, we thought it was cool. But, Elm Street was different. It was a movie with a strong female lead in Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp). While also creating a phenomenal villain in Freddy Krueger. And when that was coupled with amazing special effects, I fell in love with the genre.

I think other touchstone movies for me have been, Night of the Living Dead, which featured a black lead, while at the same time carrying a powerful message about our fear of others. I also loved Candyman, a movie the dealt with inner-city poverty and an interracial love affair. And you know, when I found out Tony Todd was going to be in Final Destination, I was like ‘Oh my God! Candyman is going to be in my movie!.’ But you know, I could spend hours talking about all the horrors I love.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) ©️New Line Cinema
And your advice to aspiring writers?

The biggest piece of advice, I would give aspiring screenwriters is to write. Procrastination is one of the worse things you can do. And use the energy and passion of youth while it’s there. You know It’s hard to sustain that as you get older, so if you’re a young screenwriter tap into that passion and use it, but also remember that you’re only just starting and have room to grow. The truth is, no matter how good you think you are, your first couple of scripts are not going to be great. I mean, I hate to say that, but it’s the truth!.

Writing is a craft you have to learn, think of it like singing. A Singer spends years tuning their voice to perfection, and writing is no different. The biggest stumbling block I see in a lot of young writers is the assumption that their first script is perfect. Alongside a resistance in taking constructive criticism; those writers never grow.

Writing cannot just be a hobby where you think ‘Oh, I think I’m going to try screenwriting for a year and see if I can make it‘. It took me ten years after graduation to sell Final Destination. And in that time I grew, learned how to make contacts and hone my craft. And also you have to cut through the clutter; it’s like survivor, in that you have to outlast all the competition out there.

But, on a more positive note, we have iPhones that shoot in 4K, and access to technology that I never dreamed of growing up. Therefore, It’s so much easier to make stuff on your own. And that’s probably the biggest thing I tell people, especially if they are aspiring writers, directors or actors. Find some friends that are just as talented and passionate as you are and create stuff. Short films are a great way of your work playing out in front of you. And the more you do, the more you’re going to learn from it. Plus the more opportunities are created in somebody seeing it.

And I guess my last piece of advice is to surround yourself with good, supportive people. We all need people in our lives who encourage us to grow as artists. Negative people will only undermine you and cut you down. Whereas, positive friends and colleagues will help you get through the rough times. Especially in a business where there is often no work, and you’re like, ‘did I make the right choice?.’

Thank you so much for your time Jeffrey, and please come back and talk to us again soon

Absolutely, and thank you.

Don’t Look Back is showing at FrightFest on Friday 23rd October, book tickets here