By: Kayla Caldwell
BENEATH US takes a critical look at the American dream, as four day laborers find themselves trapped in a worst case scenario disguised as a high-paying gig. It’s a terrifying glimpse at the struggles of undocumented workers, and the true horror behind the racism that has made its way - far too acceptably - back into everyday life in America.
We had a chance to speak with director Max Pachman, and unpack some of the underlying themes of this, at times, absolutely brutal social thriller. Read on as we talk about casting, Pachman’s horror inspirations, and what he hopes viewers will take away from BENEATH US.
How did this all come to be? Obviously, there are a lot of current events that could have inspired it, unfortunately.
Max Pachman: A couple years ago, I was just in a Home Depot parking lot, and I noticed a car, a nice SUV, lower their window, and then a mob of day laborers walked over, asking for work… It just got my mind racing about this situation, and the amount of trust that goes both ways when someone picks up an undocumented day laborer and takes them to their house.
I immediately called up a friend of mine, who ended up being the co-writer, Mark Mavrothalasitis, and he is half-Mexican, and just a wonderful writer. That day we started collaborating together on the project.
The idea that they can’t call for help, because they are undocumented, and so they are now trapped at the mercy of the Rhodes family… it’s terrifying. And it’s a fear that would’ve never occurred to me.
Max Pachman: I’m terrified about it. I feel like I live in a constant state of fear about most things, and that’s probably where these ideas are coming from. I really liked thinking of this movie almost in terms of a Grimm’s dark fairytale or a modern urban legend.
Do you find writing and directing makes things smoother, or was it a difficult balancing act?
Max Pachman: I think they’re two separate jobs. I did my best during the writing process to not think about the directing, and just on bringing the story to life to the best extent possible. And then when it was time to direct, there’s occasionally some tough choices that involve cutting things you loved, from during the writing process. But I try and look at them as separate parts of the process. I also think of editing as an equally important part.
There is something special about having this spark of inspiration for the story, and getting to see it come to life.
Was there a particular scene that was especially draining or entertaining to shoot?
Max Pachman: It was fun for us to shoot the scene where Lynn [Collins] gives the characters an English lesson. It encapsulates what’s creepy about the film, what’s fun about the film. It’s a movie that is terrifying, but it’s also an entertaining thrill ride.
Liz is a special type of horrifying, and actress Lynn Collins did such an amazing job with that. What was casting like?
Max Pachman: Lynn is fantastic, and she immediately got it. It was always important for us, with her, to create a larger-than-life character. We love the idea of the movie being this dichotomy where you have these very realistic day laborers struggling to survive up against a larger-than-life villain in a horror film. She really brought it.
With her husband, you can’t totally tell where he falls, or if he’s just as evil as she is?
Max Pachman: We love this genre of survival thrillers, and that kind of sidekick to the villain is a really important balancing act to get right. You want to give a potential escape hatch for the protagonist. So we had a lot of fun playing with that.
Did you know straightaway that you wanted the vehicle for this message to be a thriller?
Max Pachman: That was definitely the story we were always interested in telling. A part of what was exciting for us about this film is that there’s not a ton of representation in genre films when it comes to Latinx characters, especially as protagonists. To be able to have the film be shown through these fresh faces, and from their perspective, was something that we were thrilled to do.
What were some film inspirations, when it came to making this movie?
Max Pachman: We thought of this movie in two ways. There’s the movie that these main characters are inhabiting before the horror movie starts. For that, a movie like Amores Perros was a big inspiration for me.
Then, when the characters arrive at the mansion, they’re essentially stepping into a horror movie. At that point, movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Misery, and Funny Games were all inspirations.
What do you want viewers to take from watching BENEATH US?
Max Pachman: The movie deals with the American dream, and you have the main characters wrestling with that. I think if people come away from the movie thinking about what the American dream means today, and what it means to different people in this country, they’ll see it can’t hurt to have a little more empathy.
BENEATH US debuts in select theaters March 6.