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Infectious Terror: John Rosman Discusses Debut Film, NEW LIFE

A woman sits outside a rusty car located in the woods
Image courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

By Shannon McGrew

In John Rosman's debut feature, NEW LIFE, a mysterious woman (Hayley Erin) is on the run from a resourceful fixer (Sonya Walger) assigned to bring her in. Their two unique stories inextricably link, as the stakes of the pursuit rise to apocalyptic proportions.

For the release of NEW LIFE, Creepy Kingdom's Shannon McGrew spoke with writer/director John Rosman. During the interview, they discussed everything from the genesis of the film's ideas and influences to the importance of practical effects in horror, accurately representing disability on screen and more.

Thanks so much for speaking with me today, John. I'm interested to know how the concept for NEW LIFE came about.

John Rosman: I've been obsessed with the idea of a movie that opens with someone covered in blood, and you don't know what they did, and then follow them as it's slowly revealed what happened. I lived through the global pandemic, which influenced it a little bit [Laughs]. Then I started thinking about who is assigned to bring the other person in and how their stories could play together in interesting ways.

When it came time to cast the roles of Elsa and Jessica, what was the process like, and how did you know that Sonya Walger and Hayley Erin were the right choices?

John Rosman: I've been a fan of Sonya's for a while. I love her performance in "For All Mankind" as Molly Cobb. In the TV show, she's also this cool professional who's the show's hero, but she has this vulnerability that we see through her relationship with her husband, and my film doesn't have that. The vulnerability she has is she's this professional at the top of her game; she's dedicated her whole life to being the best of the best, and she has a disease slowly chipping away at that identity and what's left. When a character is that stone-cold, removed, and has that vulnerability, it's this tricky dance of how much you show and what's true to the character. That's why I bet Sonya would be able to do that, and I was blown away by the choices she made.

Hayley plays Jessica Murdoch, the woman on the run. She auditioned, and we audited over 200 people for that role. What I loved about Hayley was, again, the film opens up with a young woman covered in blood and a black eye, and you, as the audience, project so much on that. I wanted this character to be like your good friend or your friend's little sister, neighbor, or classmate - just an everyday person. We auditioned some of the big emotional scenes, and her level of craft was absolutely off the charts. She's been doing soaps for a long time, probably over 300 episodes, and she's this immense talent. We were really lucky to have her for our first film.

A woman in a hazmat suit points a gun
Image courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes

As you briefly mentioned, Sonya is grappling with a disease that we come to find out is ALS. As someone with lupus and fibromyalgia, I felt very seen in Sonya's internal struggle of overcoming her pride while maintaining a hold over her independence. What was the research process like in understanding this neurodegenerative disease to portray it properly on screen?

John Rosman: Coordinating a fight or pulling off practical effects are significant challenges. But to me, all that stuff is second, and if you get that wrong when you're just communicating, it can feel cheap. It doesn't feel real. It takes people out of it. It feels exploitative in a way. When we decided to explore ALS, what worked for me was making sure I talked with people. I researched. I did the work, and when you do that, you surprise yourself because you come in with a lot of assumptions. I think an assumption with ALS, which is the disease that Stephen Hawkins had, is that your body kind of shuts down from your extremities, but your brain is very active. It's terrible, and we don't know as much about it as we should. While researching it, I was surprised that there's a lot of hope. The people I talked with had a lot of hope and optimism about living well and living one day at a time. These people are facing big challenges that I have not faced yet and are reporting back something really deep and profound about the human experience and something worth fighting for and protecting. That really moved me and continues to move me when I think about it. I wanted that in the film, and I wanted to show that. I knew if it surprised me, it could also surprise my viewers, and I'm happy that it also feels honest.

Aside from ALS, the film also touches upon Ebola, which I can only assume was a doozy to research.

John Rosman: Ebola, to me, is interesting because it's like if the pandemic wasn't a respiratory illness and didn't affect people who were older but instead affected children, or let's say instead of coughing, you're hemorrhaging blood through your skin, we would have lived through something completely different. I always thought about that during the pandemic. We study diseases by supercharging them in secured labs, and that's how you develop vaccines. This was before the lab leak theory, and I'm not trying to make a political comment on this or even start a political conversation, but that is how we do studies. That does feel close to what we talk about when we talk about pop culture and infectious disease, taking some creative liberties with that and exploring what I thought fit for a story.

I also want to say I appreciated how you incorporated practical effects when the story takes that hard left turn.

John Rosman: I love horror movies, and practical effects are one of the great tentpole artistries of horror films. It was really important for me to get someone good and make it look great because it's secondary to the emotional things. If you're making a horror movie, the practical effects need to work and feel good. Our special effects makeup artist, Christina Kortum, is incredible, and her work was next level.

Lastly, is there anything you hope people take away from your film?

John Rosman: I'm so grateful people watch and engage with it. Horror movies are awesome because they deal with life, death, and action. As a filmmaker, you get to deal with tension, fight scenes, and character arcs, and that's why I love horror movies. I think that's why it's really fun to write horror movies. With NEW LIFE, what was fun was infusing an American indie element to it at the top. People engaging with and talking about it is enough for me and means a lot.

NEW LIFE is now in theater and On Demand.


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