The Renata Road:
An interview with filmmaker Ed Greenberg and actor/executive producer C.J. de Mooi
by Mark Anthony Ayling
In 2008, filmmaker Ed Greenberg set up indie film making company Beyond the Bar. In 2011 the company released a short psychological mystery film entitled The Renata Road, which received a number of accolades, with The Times describing it as ‘beautifully crafted… a tour de force of emotion’.
Subsequently the company set about developing a feature length film of the same name. Working with a trio of writers (Alan Mockler, Greg Saxton and Chris Worthington), returning director Ed Greenberg would take the helm, with original leading man and producer C.J. de Mooi returning as the deeply troubled and entirely mysterious Stranger, whose disturbing experiences whilst staying at The Renata Hotel form the foundation of the film’s narrative.
Despite struggling to find a distributor since its initial completion, The Renata Road has recently been gathering up a head of steam, winning a diamond award at the Mindfield Film Festival Albuquerque for best film. The film is now scheduled to premiere at the Skiptown Playhouse in Los Angeles as part of the Believe Psychology Film Festival, which is running from 20-22 May.
Mark Anthony Ayling poses a number of questions to the film’s director Ed Greenberg and actor/executive producer C.J. de Mooi, in a bid to discover what it’s all about…
1/ Homegrown psychological horror has experienced a boom period in recent years with the likes of Saint Maud and Censor both doing well. What do you think is the reason for this and where do you think The Renata Road fits in with this new wave of contemporary cerebral terror?
Audiences are certainly becoming more interested and more demanding. With the rise of streaming platforms, the public have been able to gain ready access to a wealth of content which, until now, may well have passed by under their radars. So-called Nordic Noir was one of the original, major drivers of this shift; shows like The Killing and The Bridge increased the demand for intelligent drama and viewers discovered that content was not just limited to passive entertainment, but rather we could be encouraged to actively engage, mentally, with both the characters and the stories. This feeds into the growing demand for intellectual filmmaking. Films such as Saint Maud find they now have a broader audience who will not only appreciate such subtle storytelling but will also actively seek it out.
When we began devising The Renata Road we wanted to tap into this growing desire for substance. Our narrative was conceived to not only be an entertainment but also as a film which would challenge its audience, which would encourage and reward that deeper engagement. And unlike the classic Hitchcock-inspired mystery, where the solution is delivered on a silver platter, the larger mystery of The Renata Road is very much left to the audience to decipher.
2/ You previously made a short film titled The Renata Road a number of years ago, was it always the plan to revisit The Renata Hotel and elaborate on the original story? If not, what was it that drew you back?
The interesting thing about the short and the feature is that they are completely different entities. They aren’t related at all. There is a cosmetic similarity in that they are both set in a hotel, but this was something that developed independently through the screenwriting process. Originally, the feature was actually going to be set somewhere quite different, but as the narrative and psychology of the film developed, so too did the relevance of the setting. In the short film, the hotel setting was mostly aesthetic. Whereas in the feature, the hotel itself is as much of a central character as the guests we meet. I also love the title and its meaning, and I wanted to do it justice.
3/ The central protagonist in The Renata Road remains a mystery throughout. Aside from the fact that he clearly has some obsessive-compulsive tendencies, not a lot is known about him, who he is or why he has checked in to the weirdest hotel this side of The Overlook. Why was it important to you that the film maintain this sense of mystery throughout?
You’ve touched on one of the central concepts of the film here: ‘Who is this man and why is he here?’. These are exactly the sorts of questions the audience will need to ask themselves. Of course, the answers lie within the film itself, but the solution isn’t that straightforward to find.
One of the joys of narratives such as this lies in the interpretation. Our story will mean different things to different people, and that’s exciting. There is a solution, for those who wish to seek it out – everything in the film has a purpose, everything has a meaning.
4/ As with many an impactful psychological thriller/horror, The Renata Road avoids the use of gore and jump scares, preferring instead to focus on the emotional and mental discomforts experienced by its primary protagonist. Psychological horror films have often focused on inner conflict as opposed to external horrors. What do you think are the benefits to such an approach?
It’s the sense of the unknown that truly scares us. The anticipation of the threat is consistently more terrifying than the threat itself. When you can’t see the beast, the imagination creates it for you, and these are concepts inherent to us all, we can’t escape them. That fear of what ‘may be’ is the thing that keeps us up at night as children, that makes us scared to look under the bed or to walk down the dark alley at night.
When the monster does appear, some of the most impactful, memorable, and terrifying antagonists have been those who take human form. Cape Fear and Eden Lake were excellent examples of this as the mystery is in the motivation ‘Why? Why would someone do this?’ and ‘How the hell do you escape the situation’. If we can inherently imagine ourselves in the situation, we’ll quickly become both hooked and terrified. Renata certainly uses the psychological elements of this, and as such becomes something quite unsettling.
5/ Is it possible (with repeat viewings) to unpack the mystery of The Renata Road, or was the intention to create a sensory film that viewers experience on more of an emotional, as opposed to a narrative, level?
Everything you need to know to unravel the mystery is right there. Everything that happens, every line of dialogue, has purpose and meaning, which made for an incredibly intense and fulfilling screenwriting process. Alan, Greg and Chris were the most rewarding screenwriters I have ever worked with and did such an amazing job researching, developing and writing the film. Their real challenge was to create a script that works on the two levels you suggest.
There will be those who watch Renata and will be quite satisfied with going on the journey and enjoying the film as a piece of entertainment because it is, as you say, an emotional, sensory experience. But for others, there will be the desire to unravel the mystery. For those that do, there is a whole other level of enjoyment to be had from the project. Ultimately The Renata Road is a puzzle waiting to be solved.
6/ Was it easy for you to empathise with the character of The Stranger, or did you find it difficult to portray such an enigmatic and emotionally layered individual?
[C.J.] I always try to draw on personal experiences in order to portray a role authentically. When I was a teenager, I spent three years sleeping rough, so became something of an introverted loner, which clearly helped with The Stranger! However, the difficulty here was the emotional ambiguity, as it’s never discussed why he’s at the hotel, so I had to develop a detailed back story. I worked closely with our director Ed to decide how the character reluctantly interacts with the other guests whilst always keeping his menacing motivation a secret. This was front of mind every time there was a furtive glance or reaction.
Ultimately there was a lot of my own life in The Stranger, but I had so much to add as we wanted to make him believable yet not entirely sympathetic. After all, everyone has a dark side…
7/ The film touches on themes of trauma, psychological uncertainty, repression and voyeurism throughout, all of which are often key themes in psychological horror. What is it about these themes, do you think, that draws filmmakers back to investigate them time and again?
These are universal constants. As conscious members of the human race, we are all (to varying extents) subjected to and influenced by them. What’s fascinating about psychological impactors is that they have the most profound bearing upon how we live our lives, and yet most of us are totally unaware of their influence upon us. Every day we are affected by our experiences and unconscious interpretations of them. And those stored experiences shape who we were, who we are, and who we will become.
Using psychology within horror narratives allows for the sense of uncanny; that feeling of something familiar and relatable, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. It’s unnerving, and often uncomfortable. For me, personally, these concepts allow us to explore the very nature of humanity through the medium of film. Getting under the skin of characters and individuals, understanding what it is that makes them tick. No one in life is exactly who they appear to be, and when I work with my writers and actors, we all explore these hidden depths together.
8/ The Renata Road is a surreal and discomforting film. At times I was reminded of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the more mysterious though no less riveting Mulholland Drive. Was Lynch an influence on The Renata Road and if not, where did you draw your influences from?
Mulholland Drive is an incredible film and a great example of a film that requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. But, as we discussed earlier, the real pleasure is not necessarily in the final solution but in the interpretation. Lynch is also a prime example of an artist capable of bridging surrealism and the mainstream, just as Luis Buñuel was before him. Now, Buñuel was certainly one my earliest influences as a filmmaker, Un Chien Andalou was the first film to truly capture my interest in the surrealist movement, but it was really his later films, Exterminating Angel and Viridiana that helped inspire the route I wanted to explore as a Director. There was a level of psychological study there that I had never experienced before and it helped me to develop into a theorist as well as a practitioner. As artists, regardless of the medium in which we choose to work we are influenced by everything we have seen and experienced. There is a little piece of us all in The Renata Road.
9/ In terms of producing the film, what were some of the difficulties that you encountered in getting it made?
Time is the constant enemy. As our budget was small, the one obstacle we always encountered was time, as we couldn’t afford to waste a single minute. But our cast and crew were incredible and their passion and faith in the project was so uplifting to experience. And I must give particular credit to the 1st AD Beth Norwood for keeping me sane throughout!
Unfortunately, even with the most meticulous of planning there are always going to be outside influences that catch you off guard. I think we can all relate to the impact Covid-19 has had upon our industry. For Renata, the pandemic arrived just as we were ready to go into sales, so it has caused a big delay in getting the film out into the market and in front of an audience.
One of most interesting and amusing considerations during filming though was the fact that we were shooting in a working hotel. We had to schedule around the hotel’s peak hours, which often meant night shoots and avoiding dining hours. Inevitably though, we couldn’t remain hidden from the public altogether and there were certainly some very strange looks when we were filming some of the film’s more ‘unusual’ scenes. I think it’s safe to say that nobody had seen a dinner show with a ventriloquist act quite like the one we put on.
Overall however, the most difficult scene to film was also one of my favourites. A continuous 5-minute take of The Maid, played so beautifully and subtly by Rebekah Bowman, singing a capella to the gathered hotel guests. The entire scene is a slow push in, which in itself was technically quite a challenge, just in terms of timing and pacing of the grip equipment. When coupled with the intense, moving performance required by Rebekah, the scene becomes even more challenging as you only have a limited number of takes in which to get everything perfect. We got it on take three. Everything came together and it was a triumph for cast and crew. The result is a deceptively simple moment for the audience, but it’s one that draws you in without you realising and grabs you emotionally. You feel drained by the end and have a whole new appreciation of the character.
10/ Finally, where to next for The Renata Road and Beyond the Bar?
This year will see the world premiere of The Renata Road! We began entering the festival circuit in January, and there’s a raft of film festivals we’re now in consideration for. At time of writing, we have five nominations in place, with the first public screening slated for June. It’s a very exciting time.
As for Beyond The Bar, we have a couple of projects in the works. Pendant is a theme-park-set horror, in which two families are forced to face their darkest secrets and fears as they are maniacally hunted, tortured and devoured by a disturbing and unseen force. It’s a bit of gritty, gruesome fun – think Nightmare on Elm Street meets Final Destination.
But, for those more drawn to unsettling, psychological fare like The Renata Road, I’m very excited to be working with Renata screenwriter Alan Mockler on a new project that explores some of the dark underbellies of our industry. The story revolves around an up-and-coming actor who begins to receive some rather disturbing blackmail material. 8mm meets Lost Highway is all I’m saying. It’s going to be horrifying.
Many thanks to the filmmakers for answering our questions! Keep an eye out for The Renata Road after the upcoming premiere in Los Angeles.
Author Richard Daniels (‘Occultaria of Albion’) presents ‘an entertaining and occasionally terrifying journey into an alternate realm filled with strange conspiracies, ghosts, UFOs and more’ at Louth Town Hall on 23 September…
Pre-orders are now open for Death Lines: Walking London’s Horror History by Lauren Jane Barnett