From punk rock to indie horror, it’s DIY or Die

It was October 2005 when I woke up in a Florida parking lot, in an old electrician’s van converted to seat six people. The pink fuzzy leopard print upholstery reeked of old nachos and Chef Boyardee. Five of my best friends were still sound asleep and it was my turn to go get the donuts. As I walked down the shoulder of Route 50, looking for the nearest Dunkies, I remember smiling knowing, “I did this. I had put together a punk band full of my best friends, built a tour van out of old junk, booked a US tour for the next three weeks, and left Boston to play punk rock across the country. We never asked permission. We built everything we needed, printed every show flyer, and booked every gig. No need for managers, record labels or costumes to give us the green light. We wanted it, so we did it. It was fucking punk rock.

Justin Brooks (center) during his time with punk band Bad Ash.

I’m 40 now. The red hair dye and the mohawk may have died down a few years ago, but the “tinker or die” mentality never did. Now, as a filmmaker, that feeling seems more important than ever. In a world full of spandex superheroes worth millions, Disney is unlikely to knock on my door tomorrow with a Spider Man script and a high-five. Do I hope this will happen? Absoutely! Am I waiting with stars in my eyes and hope in my heart? Damn no!

I need make movies. It’s what I do best and what matters most to me. When I finally realized this, I went to work. I read every book I could get my hands on. I listened to every interview and watched every behind-the-scenes featurette I could find. I was looking for the recipe. The secret instructions on how to make a movie. Just a warning: there is none. Each success story is extremely personal and unique to the filmmaker who experiences it. However, I found a singular commonality.

Justin Brooks works as a cinematographer in Ethiopia.

From Maya Deren to Linklater, Smith and Rodriguez, they all have one thing in common: they looked at what they had access to, they formed a plan, and they just did something. No director did it the same way, but they shared a mentality. No more excuses and no more waiting, they gathered what they could and they did something.

My partner Emily Bennett and I saw an opportunity in each other. By bringing together each of our particular skills, we were perfectly capable of writing, producing and releasing a film. We had the band, now it was time to book the show. It would be both my and Emily’s feature debut and just as exciting as it was terrifying, I saw my old punk-rock ways resurface. After one of our long walks together (we’re partners in life and in the movies), we stopped at a cemetery in Brooklyn and were like, “Damn, let’s make a movie.” It was the start of what was to become a nearly three-year journey.

Many things have changed since that day, including the very world in which we live. During quarantine in New York, Emily and I wrote, produced and shot a feature film, Alone with you. We both took stock of what we had access to and made a plan around it. I was shooting (I was a cinematographer for many years), we were both writing and directing and Emily (a RADA trained actress) would be our lead. The entire film would take place in our apartment, except for a few exteriors, and the script would be built around our confines.

Justin Brooks casts his lead actress, co-writer and co-director Emily Bennett in Alone with you.

Those DIY days of assembling flyers or hammering insulation from an old ice cream trailer to fill it with hardware have come in handy. With only the two of us physically on set at all the time, Emily and I had to figure out a way to get the camera working, secure the lighting, and get the sound working while Emily was in front of the lens in playing. We didn’t have much for Alone with you, but what we had was ingenuity. Both Emily and I are pretty good at problem solving, which I think benefits us as directors far more than any camera knowledge or memorized lens inventory. So we went to work. We “MacGyvered” every piece of equipment I owned, so it worked for the movie. Our ceiling and walls became Swiss cheese with the amount of stuff we were attaching to them. It’s a miracle we got our security deposit back. The boom mic was often hung from the ceiling or a nearby C-stand while I operated the camera with one hand and tilted the mic with the other to make sure we had good sound.

One of the first shots of the film is a simple tracking shot: Emily walks 20 steps from the bedroom to the kitchen, puts on a record and pours herself a glass of wine. Sounds pretty easy, right? Well what you don’t see is I’m holding the camera while focusing, a boom mic hanging under my armpit so I can move with Emily’s action and the lighting attached at every corner that is not filmed. The tape recorder clipped to my belt so I could maintain my mobility. If I lost concentration, I would have to start over. If the arrow moved under my arm and turned into a shot, we had to start over. If I hit something while walking backwards, I would have to start over. I wanted to quit after the first day. Everything seemed impossible. Emily and I sat on our couch at the end of the day, completely discouraged. The next morning we drank coffee, ate a banana and took the plunge.

Cinema is full of opportunities to give up. If it was easy, everyone would do it. It may be a cliché, but it’s so true. I am convinced that there is no easy film to make. Hell, even bad movies are little miracles. That’s also the fun of it all. Cinema is an extreme sport. At any moment, everything can collapse. As filmmakers, we are all treading the precipice of total destruction. The trick is to have confidence in yourself. Have confidence in your ability to make your own parachute. Hold on to your convictions but always be ready to learn and change.

Emily Bennett and Justin Brooks triumphantly holding the question of Fangoria in which their first feature film Alone with you was first announced to the world.

In September 2021, Emily and I created Alone with you at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. It was the first of many festivals where we were able to see our film on the big screen. That same month, we sold the North American and international rights to the film. On February 4, 2022, our film will be released worldwide. Our little film, our little independent film entirely shot in the apartment in which we both lived. You know how many people mentioned the multiple sockets or the MacGyvered lighting or the boom mic hanging from the ceiling? Not one. What they saw was a movie. The story of a woman locked up and struggling to free herself. Not the staples of the canvas, but rather the artwork painted on it.

It’s strange, but I now feel very similar to that day in Florida, where I bought donuts for a band of passed out punk rockers. I did this. We did this by ourselves. We didn’t wait for it to be safe. We jumped in head first and realized we could swim all the way. I carry the same punk-rock energy with me now in film that I made tour bookings and shouted into a microphone in my twenties. The colors, the spikes, the mohawks all fade, but the attitude remains. Nothing about filmmaking is easy. It’s hard work and it takes a lot of you, but if you really want it, take stock and just say, “Fuck it, let’s make something.” DIY or DIE!

Featured image of Justin Brooks by Emily Bennett. All images courtesy of Justin Brooks.

Diana J. Carleton