Movie News & Reviews

'Creep' opens tonight's Nevada City Film Festival near the woods that inspired it

Growing up in Nevada County brings with it some certainties. Trail adventures. Dips in the South Yuba River. The terror that stems from being alone in the woods at night.

Grass Valley native and filmmaker Patrick Brice, 31, lived “in a house with a bunch of windows out in the middle of the woods,” he said. His was the house other kids hesitated to come to for sleepovers. “There is something to be said about the very visceral fear of being alone in the middle of the forest,” he said.

Brice teases out such fears in his debut feature “Creep,” which isolates a videographer (Brice) in a mountain cabin with a client (film co-writer Mark Duplass) he just met on craigslist.

A micro-budgeted, “found-footage” psychological thriller (shot in Southern California – but woods are woods), “Creep” premiered in March, to critical and audience acclaim, at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas. Weinstein Company offshoot TWC-Radius soon picked up the film for theatrical and video-on-demand distribution early next year. The deal also calls for two sequels.

But first, “Creep” will play near the woods that helped inspire it, at the 14th Nevada City Film Festival. The film will show at 8:30 p.m. Sept. 4 – opening night of the four-day festival – at Miners Foundry Cultural Center.

Josef, the client in “Creep,” tells the videographer, Aaron, that his death from cancer is imminent. He wants Aaron to shoot his messages to his unborn child, whom he will not live to see. Josef cites the Michael Keaton film “My Life” as inspiration.

Duplass (“Tammy,” FX’s “The League”) alternates over-friendliness with baleful stares as Josef, who acts screwy from the get-go. But the gig pays well, and thus Aaron heeds none of the warning signs on Josef’s clearly twisty psychological road.

If characters in found-footage, low-budget horror films – the subgenre from which the clever “Creep” jumps off – heeded early warning signs, there would be no found-footage, low-budget horror subgenre.

Duplass is a prolific collaborator. He directs ( “The Puffy Chair”) with his brother, Jay, and acts in films by Lynn Shelton and Joe Swanberg, who make similarly low-budget, low-action, naturalistic indies that are part of a loose subgenre known as “mumblecore” (at least to people who like subgenres to be named).

Now Duplass has taken Brice, a California Institute of the Arts graduate he first met socially, under his wing.

“Patrick and I became fast friends a few years ago and quickly realized that we see the world in a similar way,” Duplass wrote via email.

Duplass “had really dug my thesis project,” Brice said by phone from the Los Angeles home he shares with his interior-designer wife, Lynsay Richardson Brice, who is from Sacramento.

That 2011 thesis film, “Maurice,” was a short documentary profiling the owner of a Paris pornographic movie house that still showed movies on 35 mm film. (Cineasts have standards). “Maurice” also played at the Nevada City Film Festival and was named “best of the fest.”

When he met Duplass, Brice was about to graduate from Cal Arts. Duplass “was kind of mentoring me, and trying to figure out what my next project would be,” Brice said. “And he said, ‘Why don’t we just go make a small, improvised movie together?’ ”

As in, just the two of them, in a rented mountain house in Crestline, San Bernardino County.

Brice and Duplass wrote an outline for “Creep” that “came out of us talking about our common interests, a big one being analyzing weird people,” Brice said.

The story also is predicated on, Brice said, the “inherently awkward” quality of interactions between strangers who meet via the job/housing/secondhand goods/casual encounters Internet clearinghouse craigslist.

The “found footage” approach was a function of two-man shoot. Since Brice’s character is the videographer, most footage in “Creep” is from his point of view and thus shows Duplass. But Brice also appears on camera, in a kind of video diary his character keeps.

Though he acted in plays at Grass Valley’s Lyman Gilmore Middle School and in community theater as a kid, Brice had no plans before “Creep” to appear in his own films. But in Duplass’ world, everyone does everything.

“I think it was something that Mark, just knowing me, was confident I might be able to do,” Brice said.

Shooting started in February 2012. About a year and a half ago, Brice and Duplass showed a cut to horror producer Jason Blum (“Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious”). Blum came on board and helped alter the film’s tone.

“It was less of a horror movie when we showed it to Jason,” Brice said. “It was more like ‘What About Bob?’ ” the comedy in which Bill Murray plays a patient who follows his psychiatrist (Richard Dreyfuss) on vacation. “It was really Jason that helped push us more into horror.”

To achieve the right mix, “we did a number of re-shoots,” Brice said. “Which means Mark and I had to keep the same haircuts” for months.

“Creep” still is more playful and less chilling than “Paranormal,” or that woodsy found-footage forerunner, “The Blair Witch Project.” Jump scares in “Creep” are plentiful but self-aware. It’s as if the filmmakers know how cheesy they are, too.

Nevada City Film Festival director Jesse Locks said “Creep” fits the festival’s aesthetic. “It is creative, and subversive in some ways, as a horror-thriller that kind of has that mumblecore, indie element,” Locks said.

The festival has been a longtime home to innovative shorts and features by local filmmakers and also to music documentaries, from near and far, that cater to an arty Nevada City crowd. (“The Byrd Who Flew Alone,” about Gene Clark of the rock band the Byrds, plays at 6 p.m. Sept. 4 at Miners Foundry.)

More recently, it has featured live comedy, offering a host of inventive, fresh comics. (P odcaster and IFC show star Marc Maron will appear at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Sept. 5.)

Hip but never alienatingly so, the festival is just kind of groovy, like the town that holds it.

Whenever he attends the festival, “I feel like they have curated (the films) just for me,” Brice said with a laugh.

NCFF showed “Maurice” but also earlier Brice shorts, including one about Deer Creek.

Opening with Brice’s first feature is “a great way for us to celebrate Patrick, but also celebrate (that) ‘Look, we did something good,’ ” Locks said. “We have cultivated this amazing filmmaker.”

Brice left Nevada County before graduating from high school, moving to San Francisco and “working every odd job you can imagine,” he said.

He earned his GED, took classes at San Francisco City College and worked as assistant to the producer on the 2008 indie film “Pig Hunt,” also a dark comedy set in a remote location.

With practical experience under his belt, he headed for Cal Arts.

“My parents saw that I wasn’t really enjoying high school, and were supportive of me starting college early,” Brice said. Though Brice said he does not encourage dropping out of high school, he called his parents’ belief in him “really validating.”

His parents are coming to see “Creep,” the first of two feature films Brice already has shot. The other is the comedy “The Overnight,” produced by Duplass and starring Taylor Schilling (“Orange Is the New Black”) and Adam Scott (“Parks & Recreation”). Brice aims to put that film, still in the editing stage, on the festival circuit when it is done.

None of his work has reached wide release yet. But “2015 is going to be insane,” Brice said. In the meantime, he keeps creating.

“Mark works a lot, so having him as a mentor has been really great, because I have this model of making as much stuff as you possibly can,” he said.