Sundance: 3 Skiers, 1 Broken Chairlift, 2 Terrifying Hours

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Part macabre horror film and part cruel logic puzzle, it’s the simplicity of the premise that makes Frozen so haunting.

Rarely has a movie been so easy to explain: Two best friends, and one girlfriend, are on a chairlift headed up to 10,000 feet late one Sunday night when the ski resort shuts down the ride. They’re closing early because a storm’s on the way, and they have forgotten that anyone is still on the lift.

And they won’t be open again for about a week.

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Director Adam Green, who was behind the 2006 cult horror hit Hatchet, has stripped down a terrifying situation to its essentials, and then amped up the terror not through visual gags, or clumsy editing, but through his willingness to play fair with – and think faster than – the audience. One move after another, as the weather worsens, his characters try to free themselves from this hopeless situation, and the more theories they try, the more horrifying their no-win scenario becomes. Low-tech but high-on-smarts, Frozen definitely got under my skin.

I watched two Sundance films a week ago – this and the captivating Second Life documentary Life 2.0. I’ll leave you to guess which one gave me nightmares.

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The next morning, I put a few questions to Green himself:

I’m trying to image you pitching this film to someone – talk about an oddly simplistic pitch session: Two hours, three people, stuck in a chairlift. It’s so impossibly simple and straightforward; how did you come up with it?

I actually quit skiing in high school because of the concept behind this movie.

I just kept thinking about all the bad things that could happen and it was terrifying. I’m not all that athletic, and the notion of strapping myself to wooden boards and sliding down the ice was never that appealing. You’d hear about so-and-so who broke their leg skiing and I always thought: Well why were you doing it in the first place? Where I grew up, all the mountains around us were not very well-kept and the guy putting you on the ski lift was getting paid minimum wage, and one day two years ago I was watching the morning news in L.A. and the weather forecast was showing 70 and sunny, and then they started talking about the weather in the mountains, and I started looking at the image, and they were talking about how storms might be hitting those areas while showing a picture of the ski lift on one mountain and none of the chairs were moving. And all of these old fears came rushing back, and in a matter of 20 seconds the whole idea came to me.

But then I ran into my production company, and I said: ‘I’ve got our next idea! It’s so easy, just three people in a chairlift and we can do this for nothing!’ But we were so wrong.

What was the hardest part of the shoot?

Well it was just so cold. Where we were shooting, it required such stamina for the cold, and to get the chairs right where we needed them, we had to have the actors at a place where, if they wanted to get down, we had to run them all the way up and around and all the way down. This lift wouldn’t go in reverse. So you’re talking 30 or 45 minutes, going up to 10,000 feet with 65 mph winds and negative thirty degrees, and now you’re making people ride this whole thing to get down. It was hell.

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But I think when people see the movie, and see how long the characters remain seated in the chairlift, they’ll realize that the hardest thing was figuring out how to shoot the chairs while the lift was moving and people were talking. You couldn’t position the cameras in the next seat up on the line. And so we wound up shooting the whole film while dangling from the line in a cherry picker bucket, wearing an extra harness. We had cameramen, but when they saw this set-up, they said, ‘You’re not paying us enough,’ so it was just me and the director of photography looking through the camera, and I’m afraid of heights. The logistics were just a nightmare, but I think you can feel that in the final film; we’re right there, on the side of a mountain. It’s so believable that you can’t dismiss it as some sort of green-screen effects.

What is it about the allure of low-budget horror? Just this past year, there was Paranormal Activity, which became a phenomenon, and that was shot on basically a budget of nothing…your movie reminded me a lot of the low-tech agony of something like Open Water, with a small group people caught in a terrifying situation. It becomes more about the psychology…

You say Open Water – I think the similarity between that and my film is the concept of an inescapable situation. And that’s alluring. That’s what horror films can do – it’s all about the concept. When you talk romantic comedies, you need a big star but with a horror film, if you have a very effective trailer that’s enough to sell someone on the concept. One of my favorite things with Frozen is that it starts to break down into a logic test. I’ll be in screenings and hear people talking, and they’re all Indiana Jones, saying ‘Oh, well, if I was in that situation I’d take my ski pole and vault to the next chair,’ and there’s absolutely no way you could do that. They say they could get out of it in 2 seconds, but then our characters start to do all the same things they just talked about, and suddenly they get very quiet. The movie is one step ahead of them.

I think Mythbusters actually used our scenario: Could you get out of a chair by taking off your coat and sliding down the line. And there is no way that would work – the cables are so sharp they’d cut right through.

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As you were writing and making the film, did you put yourself in the shoes of that skeptical moviegoer, thinking of all the different ways they might try to escape?

Yeah, I just wrote it from the perspective of a normal person, and did things in that order, of how a normal person would do things. They freak out, then they talk about jumping, and then they start brainstorming other things. One of the guys in my film even starts having the debate we’d all have: This is gonna suck but I’m going to jump, and even if I twist my ankle I think I could still slide down the mountain. There are no gimmicks or plot holes here, and I think that hooks a viewer.

Did you study the stages of grief or denial here – how did you decide when these characters would hit certain emotional peaks?

It was interesting, in writing it I actually figured out where psychologically they would all end up, and then I worked backwards so that they would have a big arc that would ensure they would be a very different person at the beginning. I think that’s something you don’t get from many thrillers – those big arcs, and emotional storylines, where the pompous everyday cool guy with a girlfriend sacrifices himself for the group.

Technically speaking, what was more difficult to capture on film: The physical horror of these characters being exposed to the elements or the psychological breakdown?

The hardest part wasn’t the makeup effects or anything other than how do you shoot 50 feet in the air with a limited budget? A bigger film would have just build the mountain chairlift, but we had limited funds, and that was a challenge in itself. That said, I think they were able to use some of that natural exposure, particularly in scenes where hypothermia is setting in. I mean, they were really freezing, so that helps them prepare.

But the one shot that was really difficult is when one of the characters has a hand stuck to a metal bar, and we had to find a way of controlling that shot, so that we could focus on the action. That was the one moment that we shot in a parking lot, we still had a chairlift that went up 50 feet in the air, but we were able to control the environment more.

And how about the frostbite on her face?

Yeah, that was pretty brutal too. Probably a little harder to look at, though, then it was to create.

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