‘Remote’: Marc Roussel’s Highly Suspenseful Mixture of Time Travel and Home Invasion

Do you remember Gregory Hoblit’s 2000 science fiction thriller called Frequency, where a present-day son (Jim Caviezel) manages to connect with his long-deceased father (Dennis Quaid) through the radio? Or The Lake House, Alejandro Agresti’s somewhat panned 2006 romantic drama where Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock somehow connect through the postal service even though they live in two different time dimensions? Well, what if the means of this supernatural connection wasn’t the radio or the post, but television? What if we weren’t talking about a sci-fi thriller or a fairy-tale drama, but a genuine horror film? There’s no need to answer these questions: Marc Roussel, the first assistant editor on The Skulls 2 and Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies, as well as a prolific short film director, delivered the answer back in 2008, when he made Remote, a multiple award-winning mixture of sci-fi and horror. The film triumphed at the Seattle True Independent Film Festival and WorldFest Houston, among many other venues, and it received a prestigious nomination in the Directors Guild of Canada’s short film category. Watching it today, seven years after its premiere, it’s not difficult to see what the juries found so attractive.

A vicious storm is on its way, and Matt settles for the night in his lonely apartment. Even though he planned to dedicate himself to finishing up a certain project due to an impending deadline, he glances over his freshly delivered divorce papers and falls asleep on the couch. It’s the TV that soon wakes him up: he lost his signal and, among dozens of channels full of nothing but static, he lands on a single one with a clear picture, and what he sees is unbelievable: a young, attractive law student called Justine enjoying a casual evening at her apartment, tucked in for the night also due to a huge snowstorm raging outside. Nothing strange about that, right? Only it’s his apartment, she claims it’s 1978 and she can talk to him right through the screen. Just as the two accept that what they are experiencing is something inexplicable, unbelievable but somehow authentic, they start getting to know one another. Unfortunately for them, this friendly, casual exchange is abruptly stopped as, thanks to a quick Google search, Matt realizes Justine is about to get brutally murdered in her (their?) home. Can he do anything to stop it and consequentially change both the history and the present?

Remote is a tense, gripping, gut-wrenching 19-minute-long horror flick that is delivered in a very effective way. A lot of attention was given to storytelling, and Mr. Roussel, who not only directed but also wrote the script, made sure to cover all the necessary ground. We get to know the main character in the first minute: he’s obviously either divorced or on the verge of becoming divorced, he’s busy and has a deadline, he’s forced to isolate himself and concentrate on work, which is why he asks his presumably ex wife to take care of their daughter that night even though it’s his turn this weekend. The storytelling is neat, practical, the exposition is anything but tedious as it sets the situation up literally in a matter of a couple of minutes. The weird photo Matt receives through the mail is just as puzzling as it should be, and when the motif is revisited half-way through the film, the moment feels satisfying. Justine, the other protagonist of Remote, is successfully sketched in a few sequences of dialogue with Matt, and the only potentially weak side of the story is her apparent willingness to believe in a highly unbelievable and improbable situation. But, hey, we’re talking about a short film, and considering the fact that digesting such a supernatural occurrence would take hours if not days in real life, Justine and Matt’s dealing with the situation doesn’t seem all that awkward.

As things quickly become much darker and insidious, Mr. Roussel’s talents display their full potential, as the filmmaker masterfully creates all the tension needed, further enriching the film by conveying a strong feeling of helplessness through the screen. As Matt watches the assault on Justine on his screen, he experiences a powerful desire to act, to help, to intervene, but can’t do anything about it as he’s physically prevented; this is a beautifully realized parallel with the emotions that go through the viewers as they watch any horror film or film in general. A part of the praise should definitely go to Ron Basch and Sarah Silverthorne, who managed to create a believable chemistry and give their characters enough charm and authenticity for us to become invested in their fates, without which the impact of the film would be much softer.

Shot by Robert Scarborough, edited by Mark Sanders, who co-produced the film alongside director Roussel and actor Basch, and with Christopher Guglick’s musical score, Remote is very exciting and suspenseful. Mr. Roussel combined the idea of time travel and time paradoxes with that ever-inspirational horror motif of home invasion, and the result is simply well worth your time.

Mr. Roussel, what inspired you to make Remote and why did you decide to combine time travel and horror?
The kernel of the idea came to me in the dead of winter in early 2004 while I was living with my in-laws in a rented bungalow. My brother-in-law and I hung out in the basement where we’d spend late nights on our computers or watching movies on a small crappy TV with no cable. One night, while everyone was sleeping, I put on my copy of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, a movie I’ve seen multiple times over the years. There’s a scene about four minutes into the film that has Tony Musante witness the attempted murder of a woman. He scares off her attacker but can do nothing to help her because he’s trapped between two walls of glass by the killer.

I paused the movie after that scene and jotted down these notes: What if a man witnesses a murder live on his TV? What if that murder happened in his house 30 years ago, before he lived there, and his TV was a window into the past? How could he prevent that murder from happening?

I did nothing with the idea until late 2007 when I was looking to make a new short film with a bit more heft, something longer then the 3-5 minute movies I’d been making up to that point. I found the 2004 note and decided that it could make a fun, contained horror film. One location, a handful of actors and lots of suspense. I wrote the 25-page first draft in a day and called it Killing Time. I spent a couple months doing re-writes and changed the title to Remote.

What can you tell us about the process of making Remote?
The first person to read the script was my Red Sneakers Media producing partner Ron Basch. I wrote the part of Matt for him because Ron is also an actor and starred in two of my earlier short films, Sweet Tooth and Alchemy. He loved the script and we financed the film ourselves. It was February 2008 when he read it and we were expecting a snowstorm that week so we quickly found the exterior of the house through a friend of Ron’s, parked his car on the drive way, and let the snow cover it. Later that night we shot all the night exteriors during the storm. I then shot some video of Ron screaming into the camera between hits of static interference “He’s in the house! You have to get out! He’s right behind you!”, and cut it together with images of the snow covered house and that became our 30 second teaser to generate interest with cast and crew.

Over the rest of the winter we began casting our non-union actors. We found Sarah Silverthorne and Julie McCarthy, who play Young Justine and Older Justine, through an online casting website. Young Henry was played by Ron’s good friend Peter Racanelli and we discovered George Komorowski, who plays Older Henry, through an agent Ron knew. George was a retired school teacher who had recently started acting and was a wonderful find.

We began shooting the pre-storm house exteriors in mid-April 2008 with Ron, George and Julie. These scenes open and close the film. Then we shot the 1978 interiors over two days in mid-May in the basement of a friend’s factory warehouse. We converted their company’s party room into a bachelor apartment. These were all the scenes of Young Justine and Young Henry in the basement apartment, all shot from a locked off camera meant to be Matt’s and Older Henry’s POV from the TV in 2008. We also shot the aftermath of Young Henry’s death where we finally get to be with Justine in her blood spattered living room for the first time. Ron and George were there reading all their off-camera lines for Sarah and Peter.

After that, I needed a week to edit all Justine’s footage that were spread across 7 DVD’s and used for playback on the present day TV in Matt’s version of the basement apartment in 2008. I even added all the static hits that disrupt the video to keep all the effects in camera because we could not afford visual effects.

The following weekend we went back to the re-painted and re-dressed apartment and shot all the present day footage with Ron and George. It was a complicated shoot because of the TV and timing all Ron’s delivery with Sarah’s pre-recorded footage. On our last day our DP, Robert Scarborough, had an asthma attack and had to be taken to the hospital and we didn’t get all of George’s coverage.

Mark Sanders, my editor and a producer on the film, began cutting and discovered that all the close-ups of the TV playing back the 1978 footage was all cross-hatched every time the camera would move across the television screen. We screwed up the shutter speed I think, anyway we could not use the footage. So, in June 2008, during a heat wave, we shot the missing Older Henry coverage and all the TV shots in the living room of my editor’s house. In the end, we shot for seven days.

How much thought have you given to the issue of time paradoxes, which are always integral to films about time travel?
There are many paths you can take with time travel stories that can easily confuse the audience so because I only had 20 minutes to tell my story, and there was a lot of it to tell, I decided to stick to the grandfather paradox, which is basically whatever you change in the past affects the future, so when Young Justine stabs Young Henry repeatedly in her timeline, she can see on her TV screen that she is killing Older Henry in the future, which in turn saves Matt from being murdered because Older Henry now no longer exists.

What can you tell us about the feature-length version of Remote? Is there any chance we’ll be able to see it anytime soon?
The feature is essentially the same story as the short but this time Matt has more of a personal stake in making sure Justine survives the night. He’s recently lost his wife and daughter in a car accident and when Justine appears on his TV, he sees her as his salvation, as the only person that can find him in her future and warn him not to let his wife and daughter get into their car that fateful morning of the crash. Unfortunately, like the short, they discover that Justine was murdered that night and they work together to keep her alive from her deranged stalker Henry, who is the creepy old man across the street in Matt’s timeline. Older Henry has cancer and is not expected to survive the year and sees this anniversary of the night he killed Justine as a way to live another thirty years… by convincing his younger self to cross over into the future! That’s right, in the feature version, Matt discovers that the TV screens are a literal window through time and he or she can enter each other’s worlds.

Ron and I had a version of that script optioned in late 2011 by a Toronto production company who tried to secure financing unsuccessfully. The rights eventually reverted back to us and we shopped it around a bit more but had no takers so I don’t see the film happening anytime soon. It’s a technically challenging project that has snow storms and lots of visual effects that make it a pricey gamble for a first film, so I get the reluctance we’re met with. I’m happy with the script though and would love for it to eventually be made, but I’ve since moved onward and am developing new material.

You won a lot of awards and praise on the festival circuit. How satisfied are you with the audience’s response to your film?
I am thrilled and forever grateful that the film has its fans. And now is as good a time as any to announce that we licensed Remote to Ruthless Pictures and will be featured in a new horror anthology called Dark Web later this year, which means more people will get to see it. Ruthless licensed my short film The Last Halloween for their 2015 anthology All Hallows’ Eve 2.

Since seven years have passed since Remote‘s premiere. When you look at it now, would you make anything differently?
Oh for sure I would change some things. And I did, in the feature version screenplay. What the film really needs is more time for Matt and Justine to process this strange phenomena they find themselves dealing with and I expand upon that in the feature. As the years go by, the technology in the film becomes more and more dated and I find myself cringing whenever I have to watch it again, but I am very proud of the film we made.

What are you working on at the moment?
Mostly just my writing. Developing material. I’m currently writing a psychological horror feature called Transient with my writing partner Mark Thibodeau. He created and co-wrote with me my last short film, The Last Halloween. (Check it out, it’s a very creepy film.)

I also have two new short films I am trying to get made. One is called Page Turner, a thriller about a young woman who finds a notebook on her way home from work and calls the ‘Please return to’ number printed inside the front cover and makes plans to meet its owner the next day. That night, while alone at home, her curiosity is piqued by the books contents and she begins to read the unsettling ravings of a troubled mind and discovers that her life is inexplicably tied to the dark journals object of desire. It’s a fun script, very much in the same vein as Remote, a twisty suspenseful ride. The script has placed at a few writing contests and festivals so there is interest in the story. I just need to find a bit of money and get a cast and crew together. The other is a psycho-drama called The Cypher Sessions that I submitted for a production grant. Hoping to hear we got it late this summer.

Who are the filmmakers you look up to, who influence you as a filmmaker the most?
John Carpenter’s The Thing was the film that determined my future when I was 12 years old. So he was the first filmmaker to influence me. I made The Last Halloween as an homage to him. My hometown hero David Cronenberg has always been a great influence on me. I usually gravitate towards horror or thriller with my writing so the early work of Polanski (specifically his Apartment Trilogy Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant) was an influence on Remote and Page Turner. I admire so many filmmakers, old and new, that it is really hard to narrow it down.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
I really don’t know to be honest. If you’d had asked me that when I was 25 I would have expected to have made my first feature when I was thirty! Oh man, was I wrong. So who knows, maybe putting together my second feature?! I just have to get my debut feature made first!

If you had an unlimited budget at your disposal, what kind of a film would you like to make?
It would be great to one day make a globe-hopping action thriller or a science fiction film I guess. Those types of films need big money to be done right. But I don’t have a burning desire to write anything like that so I’d be happy with a modest budget at best. Enough money to hire a cast that helps sell the film internationally. Money buys you time, and that’s always good, but more than that, all you really need is a good story to tell and you can do that on a low budget.

What’s your opinion on the quality of contemporary horror films?
I think we are spoiled for choices when it comes to horror today. There are so many great films out there right now like Always Shine, Creepy, Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, The Wailing, It Follows, They Look Like People, It Comes At Night, Get Out, Split and The Witch to name a few. All smart films. And that’s what is so great, we are getting intelligent, thoughtful horror films and TV series. I loved Hannibal and was crushed when it was cancelled. The Exorcist was a wonderful surprise and I love Ash vs. Evil Dead.

If I had to pick a recent favorite it would be Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation. She created a palpable sense of dread that I don’t think we get enough of in films anymore… and, like Remote, it’s set in one location!

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