The premise is familiar: Three young women on a camping trip find themselves under siege from three unhinged attackers and fight back. But what happens in “Black Rock” is unexpected, as rather than a more typical story of female empowerment and revenge, the film explores issues of friendship and the primal bonds that come to connect people to one another.
The film is directed by Katie Aselton, who also stars alongside Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth. The script for “Black Rock” was written by Aselton’s husband (and co-star on TV’s “The League”), actor and filmmaker Mark Duplass. The film is a change-up from Aselton’s 2010 comedy-drama “The Freebie,” an intimate, indie-scaled story about a couple, played by Aselton and Dax Shepard, struggling only to survive a rough patch in their relationship.
“Black Rock” debuted in the Midnight section of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and seemed to scramble the circuits of those more used to films with titles such as “John Dies at the End” and “Excision.” One Sundance review declared “Black Rock” to be “like a movie made by people who have never seen stalk-and-kill horror films,” while another headline asked whether the film set out to “insult the institution of horror.”
“This is not your mainstream gory thriller,” said Aselton, sitting for an interview alongside Bell just before they hit the red carpet for the film’s recent Los Angeles premiere. “Horror movies are very different today. I am just dipping a toe in their genre, and they are very protective of it and there are very specific rules. And they are rules that I obeyed, but in my way.
“I still made the kind of movie I like to make, very humanistic and real and relationship-based. I don’t love horror movies with something surreal happening. That doesn’t work for me. What’s terrifying is something that could actually happen to me and what I would do. I don’t know how to throw a punch and I’ve never had to do it.”
Despite its horror-thriller mechanics, “Black Rock” was still very much a low-budget independent production, funded in part by Kickstarter and Duplass and Aselton’s own money. It was shot in the small Maine town where Aselton grew up, with some scenes shot on the very beach she played on as a little girl. The three actresses shared a house during the shoot, which, amid the physical and emotional challenges of the production, created a deeper sense of intimacy among them.
Aselton knew Bell prior to shooting, with Bell in turn reaching out to Bosworth to participate. Bosworth was familiar with Duplass and Aselton’s previous films and initially expected more of the same from the duo.
“When I first started reading the script, I thought it was going to be an intimate character exploration like their work has been,” Bosworth said in a separate interview. “And it just took that sharp turn that I hope viewers feel as much as I felt reading the script.”
As the film opens, longtime friends Sarah (Bosworth), Abby (Aselton) and Lou (Bell) are reunited for a camping trip on a small, uninhabited island, with various long-simmering divisions and disagreements soon coming to a boil. They come across three soldiers, recently returned from combat, who are themselves looking for a getaway respite. After a misunderstanding erupts into violence, the three women are forced to fight for their very survival.
Following a scene in which Bell and Aselton swam in near-freezing nighttime waters, their characters strip off their damp clothes and huddle together naked for warmth. The scene forms a turning point and centerpiece for the story, charged with a hard-to-define energy.
“Katie was adamant to have this hiatus in the movie, this almost quiet moment in the middle of this trajectory of survival,” said Bell. “That’s unique to the movie. It’s far from sexual, it becomes very primitive.”
“There’s got to be moments of downtime, moments of waiting,” Aselton said. “And I wanted to juxtapose those moments and explore them. And we just happened to do that with no clothes on."
That scene is a key transition to the women finding their fierce warriors within, while also trying to hold onto their own identities. The production itself had a certain assertive female energy about it, as numerous key positions were filled by women, including producer Adele Romanski and cinematographer Hillary Spera. Yet the film’s on-screen trio seem reluctant to have it labeled as a “feminist” take on horror.
“I just have a hard time with that whole feminist film thing. I’m a woman, I made a movie,” said Aselton. “I believe in strong women, I’m not a fan of the mousy librarian who apologizes for being pretty and smart. I like a girl who stands up and feels she can use her big girl voice and not compromise her femininity and be strong and sexy at the same time but doesn’t have to scream it and doesn’t have to flaunt it.”
“It doesn’t strike me as particularly feminist, it just happens that we’re females in the movie,” is how Bosworth addressed it.
“Declaring something as feminist can be a difficult or negative label, or at least isolating to a certain amount of viewers,” said Bell. “And the truth is it’s not a feminist movie, it’s a girl power movie. I think the message is far more primal and simple. It’s the hunted deciding to be the hunter.”
Aselton started to say that there was no statement intended behind the movie, but then reversed herself. “I guess it was a statement, in that I don’t like mousy girls. I like big girls who stand up for themselves.”
Taking a pause, Aselton for a moment reassessed how to label her tale of women, bonding and survival. “Maybe I am a freaking feminist? I can’t decide."
Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus