<I>Sting</I>: Director Kiah Roache-Turner's new horror thriller
Issue: March/April 2024

Sting: Director Kiah Roache-Turner's new horror thriller

Sting is a new horror thriller from writer/director Kiah Roache-Turner. In the indie feature, a mysterious object falls from the sky one stormy night, crashing through the window of the New York City apartment where 12-year-old Charlotte (Alyla Browne) lives with her mother, Heather (Penelope Mitchell), stepfather Ethan (Ryan Corr) and newborn brother. Charlotte creates a bond with the small spider that emerges, keeping it as a pet and naming it Sting. But what Charlotte couldn’t foresee was Sting’s alarming growth rate and appetite for blood. As her neighbors and family fall victim to Sting’s aggression, Charlotte realizes that’s she is the only one who knows how to stop it.

While the feature is set in New York City, it was actually shot on a stage in Australia. Many of the effects were captured in-camera, including Sting, which was designed as a puppet by the team at Weta Workshop. Kiah Roache-Turner recently spoke with Post about the challenges of making the film, how he made changes on the fly, and how it ultimately all came together in time for its April 12th release.

Kiah, what was the production process like, and did the shoot go as expected?

“We didn't get everything we needed. This is an indie film — an Australian indie production. We had six weeks. We needed a minimum eight — probably 11 or 12. With the budgets these days, what are you going to do? So we had six and we jammed them in. I would say we probably cut 25 percent of the script at the end of the day. There were a lot bigger and more set pieces, and more kills and stuff that we just didn't get to. But, all you can do as an indie filmmaker is just go, go, go, and get what you can, and then pray to the cinema gods that it all cuts together. We got a decent horror film out of it, so, mission accomplished!”

Photo: Writer/director/editor Kiah Roache-Turner and the film's nemesis, created by Weta Workshop.

Was the post production process as stressful?

“Post production is a bit cheaper, so you can spend a bit more time. It's just a bunch of nerds like me sitting around in rooms, and it's not as expensive. You can spend months and months doing that stuff. The shooting is always just a really intense artistic game of football, and you just running the whole time. And then somebody says, ‘That's the end of the game,’ and then you're into the edit.”

You shot on a stage and relied on production design, rather than an actual apartment building. What were your thoughts?

“Well, any time you can do it in-studio, it's easier and faster, because you're throwing people into walls and throwing the camera around and getting unusual angles. You can move walls around and get the shots you need, and everybody's in the same place, so everything's set up. Half the time, in film production, the thing that kills you and is so expensive, is moving location to location. You’ve got to move like a hundred people, and it's a problem. You waste a lot of time doing that. But if you just set up in the one spot, you can just shoot and shoot and (there’s) minimum time wasted.” 

What was it like working with cinematographer Brad Shield? Did you rely on his choice of cameras and lenses?

“Well, it's a conversation. Some directors just go, ‘Make it look good, and let's just be fast.’ Then they concentrate on the actors and whatnot…But then you've got directors like, Coppola or Sam Raimi, who are really obsessed with lenses…Scorsese, and camera moves and stuff…and that's me. I've worked as a photographer, I've worked as a DP myself. I'm super into cameras and what they can do and what lenses can do and lighting. And I've got very, very specific ideas. That's a way for a DOP and director to work — you’ve got to sit down. I have a whole bunch of ideas that I throw at Brad. He throws a bunch back. And, at the end of the day, a good DOP brings his stamp. My original idea was to make it very monochromatic, like Alien, and he came in and convinced me to add more color, and maybe use a few more wide-angle lenses. So his stamp is on it, and I'm glad that it is, because he's a very sophisticated. He's a veteran. It's the first time I've worked with a guy whose credits go back to Terrence Malick and The Thin Red Line. He's worked with everybody, so he was bringing 40 years of just genius work to the table.” 

Do you recall what camera he was using? 

“He used, Arris — there was the Alexa Mini, I think. We talked about whether we (should) use anamorphic lenses or not. I think we went with spherical, just because they're easier to focus, and it's faster to shoot with, but the look of the film was very specific. I wanted the camera to move like a spider, and I wanted the camera to constantly be moving. I was after some really difficult angles, and we didn't have a lot of time to get a lot of the angles that I wanted. I'm a director who's very visually inclined, and so I have a specific style that I'm after.”

I know you find inspiration in films like Alien and Jaws. How did that influence your decision to bring in Weta Workshop for the spider effects?

“Like I keep saying, horror is a tactile medium. There's nothing better than having something in front of the lens and in front of the actor. The lens reads it better, and the actor can react off of it and be scared of something that's tangibly moving around in the space, especially if you've got light and shadows, condensation and rain, and all sorts of stuff. Then, that creature is interacting with not only the actors, physically, but with the elements in the physical space itself. What that does is make it real. And if you can convince an audience that what they're looking at is real, then they'll be more scared of it. That's always the problem with the overuse of [digital effects] in horror. There is always an ‘uncanny valley’ element, where you're looking at it going, ‘Well, it definitely looks scary, but it doesn't seem to have any gravity or weight to it?’ So part of your brain is screaming, ‘Not real!’ And then only 90 percent of you is scared. I want 100 percent in my screams, so that's why I want to use real elements.”

In addition to Weta Workshop, Cumulus and Spectrum Films also provided digital effects. What were their responsibilities?

“With the creature, our goal was, any time it's a medium or a close up, it's the puppet. There's a couple of wide shots, but we planned very specifically to hide it behind little bits and pieces. That that takes a lot of planning and a lot of time. But every now and again, you’ve got the spider just roaming around, and you can't get a puppet to do that…but there's only like two or three of shots like that in the film, where the big spider’s moving around. Everything else is very cleverly hidden, either in shadows or just off frame. Weirdly, I actually found (that) some of the scariest moments were when you couldn't see the spider, but you could see what it was doing to the characters. 

“And all of the spider was created in sound design, so you could hear the growling, snarling and scuttling of its legs. And you could see the fear in people's eyes, so that was very effective. It's just straight up horror filmmaking. But every now and again, we've got to show a wide shot of the spider, and Cumulus did such a good job. They are one of the great digital companies in Australia. They did all of this stuff when the spider’s small and crawling around — the doll's house at the start, or crawling around in the jar or on Charlotte's hand. That's all digital and Cumulus made a really beautiful photorealistic creature. When it's big and crawling on the ceiling, that's digital too. I just wanted to minimize that. Even when it's a small spider, I wanted to hide it behind glass and be very careful not to show too much digital stuff, because I do find that, it can detract from the reality.” 

All of the VFX shots were captured on the stage, rather than against a green screen?

“It was all stage. I think we had like two or three green-screen shots, and that's only for like the exteriors. We were going to build that, but we just kind of ran out of time. I think it was okay because it was pretty cold out there and there's a lot of snow blowing around. So there's a lot of movement in the foreground.” 

Being both the writer and director must have been helpful when knowing what could or couldn’t be cut due to time and budget?

“Yeah. And, I can be often more brutal than the producers. Often I'll just go, ‘We'll cut that.’ And they're like, ‘No, no, no!’ I'm just brutal. I want to just get through it, make my days and come in on budget. Luckily I can cut or change or alter anything, and write my way out of it, so, that is one of the benefits of being a writer.”

What were some of the more difficult shots? There are quite a few that take place in the building’s air ducts.

“There were so many. It's hard to say. Unfortunately, I write films that are just really hard to make, so there were a lot of hard days, but I would say probably the hardest thing physically was the whole basement sequence. There's a whole third act moment where the [fire sprinklers} come on for pretty much for the whole third act. We've got a wet-down set, people are screaming and being thrown around and smashed into walls and wires. And you're trying to get a 12-year-old girl to crawl through a small hole and make sure she doesn't get hurt. It's all slick and slippery, and I don't want her to fall. It was very dangerous and it was very scary, and it was not something that you could do quickly. But, the whole time as a filmmaker, you got this looming schedule over your shoulder, so you've got to find a real balance between speed, safety and not breaking any of your actors. And that just went on for days, and it was very stressful.”

This is an independent film, but you were able to create an original score?

“We had Anna Drubich, who had done the score for Barbarian. I just couldn't believe how good it was. And I was like, is she available? And she was. She's just a real artist. The thing that I love more than anything is when somebody has a classical ability, but a modern take on that classical approach. And that's Anna. She's very classically trained, but she's just got a really modern approach to horror scores.”

What kind of direction do you give her, since you, as the writer and director, probably have a very good idea of what the film might sound like?

“You just throw a bunch of words at her. I wanted it to be terrifying…big crunching, just distorted, psychotic madness with the spider. But then when we're dealing with the family and the first act, I wanted to have kind of a fairy-tale feel . So those are the two things that she had to move around in. The first third of the film is like a fairy-tale approach. It's quite beautiful, but also just almost naive. And then as soon as the spider lands, it just goes into crunching, horror territory. She had to ride that line.”

How long was the post production process?

“We weren't crunched at all in post. We took our time. We knew that it wasn't going to come out for a while. I think I did my director's edit in seven weeks, and then we edited it again for another six maybe, and then post for about three, four months, something like that. It wasn't rushed. I never felt rushed in post at all. Everybody involved in the post was fantastic. It was it's my favorite part. There's no stress.”

How are you involved in the edit?

“I edit my own films. Luke Doolan edited with me, Regg Skwarko, Jeff Cummings. In this case, I worked very, very closely with my co-editor, Luke Doolan. He's the guy he cut Animal Kingdom and a bunch of stuff. He's one of the best editors in Australia, even though he works in LA.

“As I was shooting, Regg Skwarko was putting together the assembly. Then he gives me the assembly. I do a director’s assembly. And then Luke comes in and does the fine cut with me in conjunction with Regs and Jeff. It’s a team effort, but it's a bit weird because I'm an editor. I insist on doing a director's edit before anybody comes in and starts giving me notes. I'm more of an editor than I am a director or even a writer. I've spent more time editing than anything else. I shoot very much as an editor. Just little bits and pieces that I know I'll need — usually multiple cameras, so I've got options. And I storyboard very specifically towards a specific edit.” 

What do you prefer to cut on?

“I was trained back in the dark ages and Final Cut Pro 7, so I made a transition to Adobe Premiere. I'm a Premiere guy. But we then had to take it out of Premiere and then put it into the Avid to make the fine cut, so it was two different systems. It was Premiere and Avid.” 

What’s next for you? Are you going to be writing and directing?

“Yeah. It's written. It's ready to go. We're starting pre (production) next month. It's called Beast of War. It's a World War II, giant-shark movie set on a raft out in the middle of the ocean. It's really fun. So were starting that one soon. I'm developing something else with Jermaine Fowler that I can't really talk about, and developing something else with my producer/very good friend Chris Brown. It's like a killer alien thing. You’ve got to keep moving. You’ve got to juggle like five different pies at the same time. It's how the industry is. And then you hope that somebody makes the pie.”