He has made a place for himself in the horror genre with the “30 Days of Night: Dust to Dust” miniseries and the web series “Chosen.” Now with “Beneath,” Ben Ketai breaks into the feature film realm with a story about a bunch of coal miners who get trapped several hundred feet underground after a catastrophic accident. The movie stars Jeff Fahey as veteran coal miner who spends the last day on the job with his co-workers and his daughter Samantha (Kelly Noonan) when the accident happens, and they have to work together to escape the mine before madness and toxic gasses kill them.
I got to speak with Ketai over the phone, and it was great fun talking with him as he explained what it was like working with Fahey, the challenges of maintaining a strong level of suspense for ninety minutes, and the research he did on coal miners for this movie. “Beneath” might look like your typical horror movie, but in many ways, it isn’t.
Ben Kenber: I thought this movie was very riveting and I like how you managed to keep the suspense up until the very end. How much of a challenge was it to maintain that suspense from start to finish? It could not have been easy.
Ben Ketai: One of the challenges when doing a horror movie like this where you are stuck in one space for the entire film, and I give all the credit to Chris (Valenziano) and Patrick (Doody), the writers, is figuring out how to build a proper level of escalation that keeps the story moving without breaking the suspense until the very, very end. It definitely makes my job much easier when you have a creative group of people like that.
Ben Kenber: This is definitely an interesting story for a horror movie. There have been a lot of stories in the news over the past years of mines collapsing and miners being trapped for an agonizing period of time. Was there a specific event that inspired the story for this film?
Ben Ketai: It was really, for Patrick and Chris, the Chilean coal miners and what they went through was the first seedlings of the idea. And then while they were working on it, I think there were a couple more incidents that came along and so we had a lot of different unfortunate happenings that allowed us to draw inspiration from. A lot the inspiration for the film also comes from just coal miners who haven’t been in collapses, and Chris and Patrick did extensive research while writing the script talking to coal miners and visiting coal mines in West Virginia. We had a recently retired coal miner talk to our cast before production. It was like a little seminar on what it’s like to be a coal miner. There were lots of wonderful sources of inspiration.
Ben Kenber: Where exactly was this movie shot? It looks like a real coal mine, but I came out of it not knowing if it was actually a movie set or not.
Ben Ketai: We actually shot it on a soundstage in Culver City, and pretty much everything you see inside the mine was constructed by our brilliant and very resourceful production designer Michael Barton.
Ben Kenber: At times, I thought it looked so real.
Ben Ketai: I had to remind myself sometimes when we were actually on set. I would start to get claustrophobic, and I had to remind myself that we were on a soundstage and that there was sunlight outside.
Ben Kenber: While watching “Beneath,” I was reminded of a number of other movies like “The Descent” where a group of women went cave dwelling and encountered a bunch of vicious monsters. Was there any movie which inspired you or played through your mind while you were making “Beneath?”
Ben Ketai: We actively tried to avoid “The Descent” and other movies like it because we knew it would draw such strong comparisons just because of the subject matter. But of course we watched “The Descent” and we looked at what works best in that movie, and then also what signifies what that movie is and what that movie looks like it feels like. It sounds too derivative, but while making the movie and immersed in the experience I tried to pull from movies that aren’t actually entirely of the genre. I wanted to try to put something more human to the horror experience. Honestly, one of the movies that my crew and I watched the night before we shot was “Friday Night Lights” simply because it’s a film to me that just does a great job of capturing real camaraderie, and also it has a very piece of life feel to it. That was something that we wanted to bring to a movie like this and to try to make the characters feel like real people that we love and care about, and if we can do that then the horror is going to take care of itself. “The Wrestler” was another movie we watched, and it did such a great job of getting the camera to capture the world of wrestling in such a personal way. I wanted to do that same thing with coal miners and have that same sensation.
Ben Kenber: I’m assuming that you did a lot of research on coal miners and mining accidents, and I imagine that when you have a lack of oxygen down there beneath the earth that you start seeing things that may or may not actually be there. What kind of research did you do in preparation for directing this film?
Ben Ketai: All sorts really. The writers had a great head start obviously and they worked on the script for about a year and a half. When I came onto the project just a couple months out from production, they kind of dumped all the research into my lap and I had to do a crash course and catch up fast with them. We were developing the script through craft and with the actors. We just gathered as much information as we could about what happens to your brain during oxygen deprivation, and not only that but what happens when you were trapped in a coal mine. It’s not just that you are running out of oxygen, but the air itself is becoming toxic. There are always toxic gasses that are leaking into the coal mine, and usually if the mine hasn’t collapsed there is stuff that extracts that from the working environment. When the collapse happens, it basically cuts off their flow of fresh air, and things like methane and poisonous gasses continue to build up. All the crazy things that can happen to you like hallucinations to total personality changes, that was really the most exciting thing to me. We had this great device that creates a real-life thing that could explain away all those supernatural things. We really wanted to make it all ambiguous, and we did.
Ben Kenber: The cast for this movie is really spot on. All the actors look like they have worked in a mine for a long, long time. What was it like casting this film?
Ben Ketai: The casting process on this movie was awesome. It was probably the most enjoyable process that I ever had working on movies because we didn’t have a studio looking over our shoulder and we didn’t have foreign sales companies to answer to. So we really just got to do it the old school way and we just had auditions. We really took our time to figure out who were the best people to embody these characters, and we managed to assemble what I felt was a cast of just all incredibly talented and incredibly realistic people/actors.
Ben Kenber: What was it like working with Jeff Fahey?
Ben Ketai: It was a really, really incredible experience. I’ve always been a fan of his. I was probably 12 years old when I first saw “Lawnmower Man.” I grew up with Jeff Fahey. It’s kind of a dream to get to work with a guy like this, and not only that but he’s got so many years of experience under his belt and so much passion for his craft that working with him is sort of like… You turn him loose in a scene and his energy and his expertise kind of permeates to the rest of the cast. I think it really helped pull everything together. I feel like, as a director, I’m just lucky to be able to put that in front of the camera.
Ben Kenber: Robert Rodriguez once said having less money to work with forces you to be more creative. Was that the case for you on this movie, and did you have to cut any corners to get the shots that you wanted?
Ben Ketai: It definitely forces you to be more creative, and I really actually think in many ways it’s what gives the movie its voice and personality. We had to spend so much money building the set itself because we couldn’t film in a coal mine. There really wasn’t much left for anything else. When I came onto the film as director, my first role was to try to make everything feel as real as possible. Myself and Tim Burton, my cinematographer, we wanted to make it feel like we were down in the coal mine with flashlights and headlamps. So what you actually see onscreen is lit with practical lights. Instead of spending our time and our electric budget on a huge lighting truck like you would get on a big studio movie, we were at Home Depot looking at different kinds of flashlights.
I want to thank Ben Ketai for taking the time to talk with me. “Beneath” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.