Clint Carney & Kelton Jones on DRY BLOOD on its first anniversary

On January 15 of 2019, Dread Presents, an arm of Epic Pictures, released the film festival favorite, Dry Blood. Since then, the film’s score has seen a release on Burning Witches Records, and the movie’s found an entirely new audience on home video. It’s a fascinating film, which utilizes every penny of its small budget to create a slow-burn, cyclical tale of madness through the eyes of a man trying to get clean one last time.

“Brian Barnes returns to his mountain vacation home to sober up one final time. Most of the houses of this dwindling community sit empty during the snowless offseason. This ghost town seems like the perfect place for Brian to begin putting his life back together. His attempt to get clean is soon interrupted by a sadistic local Sheriff and ghastly visions of ghosts (that may or may not be hallucinations brought on by his withdrawal). Brian embarks on a terrifying quest to discover the horrible secret past of the very cabin he is sleeping in. As he pulls at the threads to the mystery, it may be his sanity that unravels first.

Dry Blood was written and directed by stars Clint Carney and Kelton Jones. I spoke with both of them by phone to discuss the film, one year on from its release.

Clint Carney, writer and actor (“Brian Barnes”)

You have a lot to do in this movie: you wrote it, you star in it, and you did the score.

Yeah, it was a big undertaking, but also a severely independent film with a low budget, so when you’re doing that sort of a thing – yes, kind of everyone involved has to just be willing to do kind of whatever comes up. That’s kind of how I ended up doing so much on it.

Did you go into it with the intention of starring in the film, or was that something that came about after was written?

I had no intention of starring in it when I wrote this. It was, I think, the sixth screenplay that I had completed, although I’ve written a few since. When I’m writing a script, I don’t imagine, “Oh, what actor is gonna play this character?” or whatever. I try to let the characters become their own people, so that so when it comes time to casting, I’m open to who is best for the job.

I certainly had no ambitions to act at all, but the director made a suggestion while we were talking about casting and he suggested that, since I had a firm grasp of the material – having written the script – that I play the role. So, I pretty much told them, “Well, let me read for it. If you think I’m passable, then sure, but if I’m awful, you have to let me know so I don’t make an ass of myself.” Whether or not I made an ass of myself is still open to debate.

I know you’ve done some acting in the past, but given that so much of your work is on the other side of the camera, was starring in a feature a new challenge for you?

It definitely was a challenge. I mean, I have acted in some things before, but we’re talking about twenty years ago in friends’ college films and things like that. I used to make a bunch of short films when I was younger, and so I was in those out of necessity, because I had no one else to be in my movie, so this was kind of trial by fire.

It was the first really big project and serious project that I ever had to do, and I’m on camera almost the entire film, so it was a lot of a daunting task.

Was it was it made a little bit easier by the fact that you did know the role and the intentions, because you had written the script?

I think that, certainly, if I had to just go into it blind, having not been deeply familiar – because, I mean, the actual writing process of the script went pretty fast, but I spent months developing the story, outlining, writing treatments, and kind of turning it around in my head, so by the time the script was finished, I had a pretty good idea of that character’s motivations, and some of them are pretty hard to put into words and I think that was definitely gave me a leg up.

But then, you know, on top of that – because I had written it, I went into it at the beginning with a lot of preconceived notions about how the character would react or what he would do, but obviously, Kelton Jones, as director, came in with his point of view and his feedback and, ultimately, on the movie set the director’s the boss. It wasn’t just, I go in there and I perform what I wrote. It wasn’t as easy as that, but I had to take what I knew about the character, and then conform that into the shape that Kelton envisioned for the role, as well.

The interesting thing about Dry Blood is that it hits this sub-genre of horror that I’m a big fan of, where you’re never quite certain as to whether or not it’s going on in the person’s head or if it’s actually happening. Was that idea of uncertainty a big part of the script for you?

That was the spark for the entire story. I thought, “You know, I love ghost movies but I don’t believe in ghosts.” I’m not superstitious in any way, shape, or form, but I think ghost movies are kind of the scariest sub-genre of horror, so I thought, “Well, how could I approach the ghost film from the point of view of someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts?” and tell the story from the role of an unreliable narrator. Where you never really know if it’s true or not was very interesting to me, so that’s kind of what I sought out to do. I think, to a degree, it is a little bit ambiguous whether or not he’s seen them and the hard part with this story is not to have your audience feel cheated.

You don’t want to spend an hour and a half with a story and then, at the end go with, “It was all a dream!” That would rob your audience of the whole experience and let them down. So that was the tightrope we were walking with this story: how to tell the ghost story from the role of unreliable narrator, but also have an ending that was satisfying. Or, at least, would make them think more than kind of a standard story ending. That was the goal, at least.

Without giving it giving too much of it away for people who haven’t seen it, what I really appreciated about that ending is that it has this almost sort of cyclical thing where it’s just like, “Oh, wait a minute: is this starting over again?”

That was a fun part about it – I mean, as fun as this story can get, I guess – but I I really like the idea of kind of book-ending it. It’s kind of ending where it began, but the difference is your perspective as the viewer has shifted, so how you feel about the entire situation at the beginning, with a very similar scene, to the end of the film – hopefully, your expectations as a viewer have completely shifted, and now it gives you a lot of insight into everything that happened at the beginning of the film.

I’m a big fan of any movie where you finish watching it and then, all of a sudden, you’re like, “I need to watch this again.”

If you do go back and watch it again, all the breadcrumbs are there. You know, it is a bit of a slow burn, but that’s the type of film that I love. I loved Hereditary and Midsommar. That sort of thing? Like, that’s kind of my jam. The feedback we’ve received is, when people watch it a second time, it actually feels much faster, because then their eyes are drawn to all these setups along the way. There’s no wasted shots in the film. There’s always something happening in the frame or in the background that’s gonna have a payoff later, but we tried not to be heavy-handed about it, because we didn’t want people to guess what was going to happen, but we wanted we wanted all the clues to be there, so they could reconstruct it on a second viewing. That took a lot of care and pre-planning, but seems to be effective.

In addition to writing and acting, you did the score and I’m curious how you approached writing music for a film, as opposed to writing music in general?

It’s quite a different process. It’s actually the third film that I’ve scored, but my approach has been different every time. The first two films I had scored with my friend Tony Doublin, and he makes very independent films. Kind of on a lower budget level, but more like super-fun, tits and gore style films – to be crude – and I approached those ones, where he had liked my music, and he said, “Oh, I like this or that song.”

I kind of did variations of different songs that I’d already written and customized for his film, but on Dry Blood, I was building the score from the ground up, and I wanted to carry along kind of that late ’70s vibe through the music, as well, but I also wanted the score to shift as the story shifts.

The score starts out very orchestral, with acoustic instruments, and then, at the end of the story, builds and shifts over. It’s more distorted electronic instrumentation – by the end of the film, it’s very heavy – very “industrial” for a lack of a better genre. It’s quite different from from my actual music. If you’re a fan of my band, System Syn, and you listen to this score, it’s not going to sound like it’s just some Syn album, because it’s very specific to this film and the process is quite different, because with writing a score, you have the visuals of the film already laid out and you’re trying to complement that, so it was a different animal altogether, but certainly a real fun fun project that I learned a lot from, and I’m very much looking forward to scoring more films in the future and kind of growing on that.

Clint Carney is currently working on a new System Syn album, due out in Spring. He is also at work on a new film – a “sci-fi fun horror film with tons of gore.” – which he’s looking to direct.

Kelton Jones, director and actor (“Cop”)

I was amazed at what the film did with such a small cast and such a small budget. I really enjoyed the fact that like everybody wore different hats on the production.

There are quite a few that we didn’t actually even credit ourselves for.

I know Clint edited the film, did the score, wrote it, and starred in it, and you directed and were also in it, but what were some of the other things that didn’t make it into the credits?

So much: everything from wardrobe and wardrobe shopping, the set design, to cutting holes in walls and things that you would have a whole department for. A lot of that fell on Clint and my wife and me and so, we ended up doing quite a few things, but we had to be, “Okay, well, I’m not gonna credit myself for this role and credit myself for this, so let’s focus on what we’re trying to do.” I don’t think my wife is credited for doing makeup, but she’d done all of the the actresses’ makeup for the film as well. We had special effects makeup artists, but I think she just was credited as the producer but she also did craft service and she was making breakfast.

So, it was it was one of those sets where everybody does everything, you know? She was up sewing curtains for the window that fit the theme with the movie – background stuff people might not even notice, but all these little details we put in.

What drew you to this script and made you want to direct it?

Clint and I had actually been working on another script that we were raising the funds for. We realized that to do it the way that we wanted to, we were actually going to need probably like $2 million to do it well, because it was a period piece and and there was a lot of music that we wanted to license for it. It was set in sort of the punk rock world, and it was a crime drama with a similar vibe to The Ranger, but it was a bit of an existentialist piece that I thought was really brilliant.

But we wanted to do something that was a little bit more manageable first, so that we could start building a name for ourselves. We wanted to do something that we could keep fairly contained, and so he had this idea of doing something at that house – which was his brother’s, a cabin that he had – and we both liked the idea of having ghosts. Were they supernatural or were they imagined, where you’re not really clear about it, along with the idea that the house becomes a character. So then, I was really excited to play with the idea of the unreliable narrator – having a story that you’re not really sure if what you’re seeing is happening or not. Being in the the point of view of the character, so you’re trying to figure out the mystery at the same time he does.

A lot of those elements I loved were because I’m a huge fan of film noir, so like there’s a noir-ish kind of approach to that not knowing if what your thing is really happening. There’s a bit of that haze thing.

The thing is it’s like there are so many things that happen in the movie, that as a viewer, you’re never quite sure what is going on. There were parts of the movie where I’m like, “is the cop real?” Like that whole aspect of watching the movie and then, when it ends, you’re like, “I’m gonna need to go back and watch this again because, this just came full circle to where we started.”

It was kind of designed that way, that it’s actually a different movie the second time you watch it. It’s an experience the first time you go through it, and then you kind of put it together in your head. Then, if you watch the movie again – knowing where everything is – then you you pick up on things. You’re like, “Oh, wow: is that happening? Is that not happening?”

We had so many conversations about the timeline and when things really happened, and if certain things happened, and what was imagined, what was real, and it got really blurry, even for us. And that was part of the beauty of it: that so much of it’s up for interpretation.

The thing I really appreciated is that you see the the headless girl walk through the room and then later on in the movie, you’re like, “Wait, but if that’s happening now, how did he see it then?” and it’s this it it definitely calls into question the reliability but it’s not a movie that ends where you feel cheated. It’s so hallucinatory and cyclical that, as a viewer, you’re sucked into the film.

We saw it as being sort of an entropic spiral, where his life isn’t a loop, but it’s a spiral, and every time you lose something in that spiraling down, it just gets progressively worse and then anybody who gets pulled into that maelstrom gets ripped apart like a boat in a storm, but so much of it is this character who just doesn’t want to take responsibility for himself that just keeps repeating the same mistakes, or some variation of them, or worse mistakes.

How did you come to play the cop?

When we were talking about casting, neither one of us had planned on being in it, and we were trying to think who we wanted to have play the roles, and going through and talking about it. Obviously, Clint had an amazing handle on that character and I was like, “You know, I really think you could do that.” Clint had an amazing presence because I had worked with him on music videos for his band, and I’d seen him perform, and I realized that not only did he have this amazing stage persona, but he did have the ability to perform and play to the camera, and be dynamic and photogenic and all the things that you would want in a character.

He also really understood this character on so many levels and I was like, “I think you could do that,” but he’s like, “Well, yeah I don’t really wanna do that,” but I was like, “But you’d be great.” He’s like, “I don’t want to suck, so if we do this, and I suck, you have to replace me,” and I’m like, “Cool. Deal. I’ll tell you if you suck.”

Then, he talked me into playing the sheriff, because I was like, “Who do we want to play the sheriff?” I wanted somebody like Tom Skerritt to do it – you know, somebody who had that sort of gravitas – and he’s like, “Oh, you could totally play this part.” I’m like, “No, I don’t want to be in it. I’m directing – I want to focus on that,” but Clint was like, “No, you should. You should really do this,” and so, he kind of talked me into it.

What really what got me was that he was like, Well, we save a lot of money and you get to have a cool death scene,” and so, I actually had him rewrite the death scene. It’s a little different than how it was originally written, because I wanted something that was even more horrific to happen during that.

My cats wake me up super early in the morning, so I was watching it while my wife was getting ready for work and she’s eating during that scene, and I was just like, “He has no jaw.”

[laughter] Yeah, that was a pretty traumatic scene, I think, for everyone involved. Like, my kids were actually involved in it. I told you that like this was very much a family project, like a lot of the family members were involved in helping us make the film. My sons – who were 13 and 15 at the time – were helping us make it, and they were doing sound, and they were doing lighting and they were doing all of the mechanical effects, and filling in a lot of those roles, so they were actually there when I shot that scene. I’m doing the scene, and I’m like, “Oh, this is great, it’s so gross” – you know, really getting into the moment, and I look up, and they just they both have tears in their eyes, and I just realized like, “Oh, my god, these kids just watch their dad die horribly. That’s gonna be some serious therapy later.” They were just mortified, but now they’re both actors and filmmakers, so I guess they didn’t take it too hard.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek
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