Would you want to know exactly when you’re going to die? If your answer is yes, then you’re in luck because there’s an app for that…at least there is in Countdown, the new horror/thriller from writer/director Justin Dec and STX Entertainment. Sixty years, fifty years…it’s all fun and games when the prospect of facing death is a distant premonition, but what if you’re told you have only days to live? A young nurse, Quinn (Elizabeth Lail), is forced to uncover the truth behind the mysterious app when it tells her she has only three days left. With the clock counting down and death closing in, she must find a way to save her life before time runs out.
Born and raised just outside of Boston in Woburn, Massachusetts, Justin Dec made headlines with his first short, an independent pilot titled Rolling, which earned him the “Best Director” award at the 2010 New York Television Festival. Dec parlayed this success into a number of web series and viral shorts, including the Hollywood satire Boats, that have garnered millions of online views, as well as an ADDY Award-winning commercial campaign. Justin Dec now makes his feature-length debut with Countdown, a movie that began with a simple thought—what if we knew the exact moment we were going to die.
We had the opportunity to speak with writer/director Justin Dec on his debut feature, favorite theatre snack, and much more:
REGAL: You said the concept for Countdown began with you watching your phone timer ticking down and questioning what it would be like if the timer was ticking down to when you were going to die. Talk a little more about that idea and how it turned into a feature-length movie.
JUSTIN DEC: It just sort of snowballed into even more questions. We all have a death clock. We don’t know when that’s going to be, but we have a countdown. And we’re all carrying our phones around, so if we had that information at our fingertips, what would that be like?
And then I was at a Halloween party, and I heard this song in a mix called the Purple People Eater…total classic, very creepy, children singing in it. It just stirred something in me, and I wrote a little proof of concept short, where the idea was in the last three minutes of your timer, that song would start playing from your phone, and it wouldn’t stop until your time was up. I wrote this little short, and I shot it over two nights in my apartment—sort of a proof of concept. I sent it to two of our producers on the film, Sean Anders and John Morris, and they just flipped over it. They were like, “lets turn this into a movie,” and that’s kind of how it became what it became.
R: Do you think you would want to know the moment of your death if you had access to this app?
JD: Absolutely not. I am happy being oblivious [laughs]. It’s interesting, there’s nobody in the middle on this. They either very confidently say yes or very confidently say no. There’s nobody who’s just like I don’t know. I’ll think about it.
The Countdown app that predicts the exact moment of one's death in the horror/thriller Countdown (2019)
R: This is a movie you both wrote and directed. What is your writing process and what are some of the challenges of making a finished script come to life on screen?
JD: I’m a big believer in preparing. I do a lot of leg work before I even start writing a draft—working out the beats ahead of time, sequencing out the movie, talking it through with my producers, seeing what’s working, what’s not. It’s a long, long process of discussing, discussing, discussing and also digging into what are we trying to say with this movie, what’s the theme of this movie, what are the characters going through in relation to that theme, and really going as deep as we can. Even if it’s just on the surface of the movie, I think it’s really important to go through those steps and figure out who these people are, what’s the story you’re telling, and why. So there was a lot of that. There was a lot of drafts. We talked about, at one point, this being a teenage-centric film, but I always wanted to go in the direction of The Ring, and let it be more of somebody who’s in their 20’s, who’s a little more professional out in the world. So we explored that and kind of figured out that this is a movie [that] if you took out all the scares, if you took out the supernatural element of it, it would be a drama about basically finding out that you have a couple of days left and what you would do with that time; what’s important. And I think, for most people, all of your priorities would realign. I think a lot of the things that you think are important would just fade away, and it comes down to relationships, right?
So that’s kind of where we landed with our main character. What are her relationships in her life and what happened? With her, we basically came up with the idea that she’s somebody who was negatively impacted by death. She lost her mother when she was a teenager, and she blames herself. And because she blames herself she’s not living her full life, and she’s pushed her family away. And when this app comes into her life, it sort of forces all that stuff to the surface, and it forces her to deal with it and then come to a healthy place at the end. So it was always important for us to tell that kind of story.
Quinn (Elizabeth Lail) in Countdown (2019)
I’d say one of the biggest challenges when you write a scene that works on paper is when you hear it in real life—when you’re in a room, and you’re rehearsing it with actors, and you’re seeing it come to life for the first time. You may have figured it out a million times in a room by yourself…but once you see it come to life, and you know if it’s working or if it’s not working, is being able to adjust in those moments. Luckily, I had really great collaborators behind and in front of the camera, and the actors were so great at trying to find the truth in the scene, and we would always figure that out. A challenge just ends up becoming an opportunity.
The key too is, once you throw ego aside, and you’re just like, Ok, what are we trying to say with this scene, everybody who’s in the room, who’s talking about this scene and knows this scene, everyone is going to have some great ideas. It’s just about finding that best version, and a lot of times, that’s where the best stuff comes from. Maybe for me, as a writer/director, it’s because it’s new in the moment versus something that I’ve lived with for months and months and months. But it’s always more exciting to see it come to life in that new way.
R: What was your favorite scene to shoot and why?
JD: The opening because it’s exactly how I pictured it. The idea was to slowly build suspense piece by piece, and draw the audience in. I’m really proud of how that turned out.
R: What were some of your biggest takeaways from completing your first feature-length movie?
JD: That’s a big question because you learn so much. Ever day you’re learning something new. There’s this great quote by David Fincher that always makes me laugh because it’s dead on—“You’re always ready to make a movie when you finish the movie”—because no movie’s the same. Every experience you’re going to be relearning a lot of things to sharpen your knife…but, I would say really just the balance of managing people because I made a lot of short films where I was the writer, I was the director, I was the editor, I was running in and doing the art department stuff, so I wore a lot of hats.
In this one, it was the first time that I really was handing off all those duties, and I could just focus on the shots that I wanted and getting the performances that I wanted. It was a little bit different for me, especially the edit bay too. Having edited all my own stuff, having to sort of release and let go, it’s the hardest thing for a filmmaker to do. So learning how to collaborate with all these great people was my biggest takeaway from it, and letting go, because a lot of these people are really great at what they do. You want them to shine. You don’t want to sort of micromanage what they do. It’s inspiring to collaborate with those kind of people, and sort of let go of just being a jack of all trades.
Writer/director Justin Dec on the set of Countdown (2019)
R: What do you think audiences are going to gain from seeing Countdown in the theatre, on the big screen, that they wouldn’t get seeing it any other way?
JD: When I saw The Conjuring in the theatre, it was sold out, and it was this communal experience of just the whole room feeling terrified. The tension in that room was palpable, and it’s the same with comedy. When a group of people, strangers, is feeling the same thing at the same time, and that energy just sort of takes over the room, it becomes a communal experience. It just enhances the experience, and I feel like with comedy and horror especially, the genre films, they’re best seen with a large, filled theatre of people, like-minded people, who want to share that experience, and I just don’t think you get the same thing sitting in your living room by yourself. I mean, you’ll still enjoy the movie. I watch plenty of stuff at home, but these things are, just like a Marvel movie or any other sort of event, they’re built for an audience. They’re built to be seen in theatres with people.
R: Yeah, being scared or terrified by yourself is different than being terrified along with hundreds or tens of other people. You all kind of feed off each other in the moment and kind of get through it together.
JD: 100 percent. It’s a shared energy, and it’s a good experience. I think everyone is kind of in their bubbles these days, and it’s important to get out of your bubble every once in a while.
R: What are some of your favorite movies in the genre or some of your favorite filmmakers that you grew up idolizing and that have influenced you in your career so far?
JD: Everything by Spielberg—Jaws, Jurassic Park, Poltergeist…in the genre, I would say The Ring, the first Conjuring—love those movies…the Paranormal movies—their use of just silence versus bombastic score; I love those movies…oh, Halloween—big Michael Myers fan…grew up on that, grew up on Freddie. I always loved the fantasy element of Freddie, just so much fun. We have a lot of fantasy element in Countdown too that was really fun to play with.
R: Halloween is terrifying, especially with that ending, which is kind of the fantasy element like you talked about. The rules of reality don’t seem to apply. You don’t know where they’re going to go next with it, and that’s always terrifying.
JD: I love that because, to me, we get this rare opportunity to make magic, you know? It’s all an illusion, what we’re doing, so why not take it to the next level and create things you can’t see in the real world? And Michael Myers is certainly one of them.
Supernatural element in Countdown (2019)
R: Do you remember the first movie you saw in the theatre as a child?
JD: I can’t remember the first movie [laughing]. I can tell you the movie that left the biggest impression on me. I think I was single digits, maybe 9 years old. When Jurassic Park came out, I remember just being obsessed—buying the trading cards, buying the souvenir magazine—up until the lead-up of the movie and then dragging my parents to see it the weekend it came out and lines wrapped around the building and then seeing it like five or six times, just completely blown away. That movie was one of the first movies in a theatre that just transported me, and it was like, Wow, you can do anything in movies.
R: That’s an amazing feeling when you get that sense of awe and inspiration from a movie.
JD: I feel like I’ve been chasing it ever since. Every once in a while, a movie comes along that makes me feel that way, and it’s like a drug. I want to make movies like that. I want, one day, someone to go and just sort of escape our reality and go on a fun, popcorn filled adventure, you know?
R: Definitely! Speaking of popcorn, what’s your favorite movie theatre snack?
JD: Oh, Reese’s Pieces, hands down.
R: Butter or no butter on popcorn?
JD: Butter and salt.
R: If you had only hours to live, time enough for one more movie, which movie would you watch?
JD: Ooh, that’s a good one [laughing]. I don’t know why, but right off the top of my head…Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Every time I put that movie on, it has me from start to finish. It is Edgar Wright’s masterpiece.
Tickets are now on sale for Justin Dec’s feature-length movie debut, Countdown, coming to Regal theatres October 25th.