Braden Duemmler ’07 learned quickly that, in Hollywood, agents and managers typically have three piles of scripts on their desks: one for clients, one for referrals of clients and one for interesting projects they hope to work on someday. “They barely get to the second pile, let alone the third and I was in the third pile, all the time,” the filmmaker says. After ten years of grinding out scripts to no avail, it was the advice of a friend that helped him get his first out of the pile and into production.
“What Lies Below” (originally titled “VISCOUS”) — written and directed by Duemmler and starring Mena Suvari — is scheduled to hit select U.S. theaters this December, followed by a digital/streaming release. Details about the film are being kept under wraps by its distributors for now, but what Duemmler can share is that it’s a mystery-thriller that turns the concept of a femme fatale on its head and follows a storyline about a mother (Suvari) who introduces her teenage daughter (Ema Horvath) to her new, unexpected fiancé (Trey Tucker). “There's this to-be-looked-at-ness from the fiancé that constantly feeds the film,” Duemmler says.
“There’s always been a want to see female protagonists, but the industry has refused to do it for some reason. Now, they're really buying into that and shooting female-driven films and I think this movie is feeding an audience that's always been hungry for it,” he adds.
Before “What Lies Below,” he says he was basically chasing a carrot on a stick to get his work in front of the right people. So, what did his friend say that turned things around? It was simple. Start small.
“He said — straight up — ‘Brad, nobody's going to give you five million dollars to make a movie. Nobody knows who you are. Nobody gives a [crap] about you. You need to make a low-budget movie. You need to write something super low budget and just go out and make it.’ That hurt at first, but that reality check was needed,” Duemmler admits.
Ironically, that’s what he had been doing all along in his career. Duemmler found a niche for himself professionally as a shoestring budget filmmaker for music videos and web shows in the years before “What Lies Below.” He recalls the first time he was asked to shoot a “no-budget music video,” he proposed that he and the artist sneak on to a rollercoaster on the Santa Monica Pier to film, rather than shoot against a flat background, like a wall. It was a hit with the agency. “I got a lot of experience out of it but I could never break the threshold of being the low budget guy.”
Once the sting from his friend subsided, Duemmler got back to work, this time ditching the million-dollar scripts and pivoting to smaller, more contained scripts. In many ways, “What Lies Below” is a return to his professional roots.
It also happens to be a return to his roots at the University of Vermont. Not only is the film set on a lake-side rental in the woods — “the impetus of the whole thing was I had this image of a light from the sky hitting a person, in the chest, in the middle of the woods and I built it out around that,” he says — but it actually features some b-roll near UVM’s campus, shot by UVM students.
On a visit to Burlington to shoot b-roll after a majority of “What Lies Below” was shot, he met with one of professor Hilary Neroni’s classes. Duemmler has stayed connected with his FTS mentors like Todd McGowan, Sarah Nilsen and Neroni, and regularly offers to talk with their students and his fellow alumni. After Neroni’s class, a handful of students stuck around to talk with him, “asking so many questions and I could just tell how excited they were about film,” he says.
When it came time to shoot for “What Lies Below,” he contacted two students from the class to see if they wanted to help. “Sure enough, they were able to come and I was able to pay them a little bit. We shot some b-roll together and they got that experience.” August Benjamin ’21 and Sydney Kaster ’21 are both listed in the credits for their work. “They both knew their way around the camera. It wasn’t like they were leaving the lens cap on or I was going ‘Hey, go figure this out.’ They did great, and I'm glad I got to share that with them,” he says.
“There’s a lot of things I wish I had learned earlier in my pursuit of a feature film, like that I should start writing low budget and I should go out to cast first. I don't know if I can help students or alumni make a movie — I don't have those kinds of resources yet — but at the very least, I can have a coffee with them, give them some advice and maybe save them a couple of years of pain and torture. That's why I give my time back, it’s really for the teachers and for the students,” he says.