The premise is deceptively simple: Three college students spend the day skiing, only to be forgotten on the ski lift at closing time—with five days before the resort opens back up for business. Suspended 50 feet above the air in freezing conditions, the three must find a way to get out of their chair and off the mountain.

Like Open Water before it, much of Frozen‘s horror is of the “this could happen to you” variety. Fresh off its Sundance premiere and in theaters now, the film’s busy writer-director, Adam Green, took a few minutes to speak with MM about Frozen‘s origins and the challenges of shooting a survival film in real locations.

Jennifer Wood (MM): The idea of being stranded just minutes or feet away from general civilization, but not being able to reach it seems to be something that’s of interest to you both in Hatchet and Frozen. Where does that come from?

Adam Green (AG): With Frozen, it’s much more of a “this could really happen” type scenario. As somebody who used to ski at these rinky mountains that were only open Friday through Sunday, it would always go through my head when it would be Sunday night, going up that last run and the chair would stop for no reason; any skier knows that feeling. The problem is that they don’t come on the loudspeaker and say, “This is why the chair is stopped. It will start again in a few minutes.” They just leave you there. So, as soon as I came up with the idea, I felt pretty confident that most everybody could relate to it. Even if you weren’t a skier, you could easily get into it. And I think there’s not a lot of these stories because they’re not easy to do. Most people would be inclined to shoot it on a soundstage or a green screen, and that’s why the movies wouldn’t work. You can’t show the audience a survival movie without really going through the survival aspect of it.

MM: I know you were adamant that the film be as realistic as possible. You shot it in the cold, on a mountain, with the actors really suspended in air. What was the biggest challenge you faced in making that decision to do it?

AG: Well, every day had its own set of challenges. But interestingly enough, the hardest thing out of everything was to shoot the scenes when the chair was actually moving and the actors were speaking on it, because how do you shoot that? Originally, I figured you put a hostess tray [camera mount] on one side of the chair and you shoot in the chair in front of them, [shooting] back at them. But you can’t hang anything on the chair.

MM: Because of the weight?

AG: Yeah. And you can’t shoot the whole movie from the chair in front of them, because it would get pretty boring. So we built this kind of contraption that we could hang in front of their chair with two harnesses in it, so that two different camera operators could dangle from the cable and shoot back at the actors. When the camera department saw it, they quickly said, “No way, they’re not going in it.” I called over a maintenance person from the mountain, and said, ‘This is safe, right?’ His answers were always like, “I don’t see why it should fall,” or, “It shouldn’t fall.” And ultimately…

MM: …that’s not going to work on an insurance form.

AG: In fact, they made us sign waivers saying that we couldn’t sue them if we did that. So, the director of photography and myself shot the scenes ourselves. And I’m scared of heights, which is why I wrote the movie in the first place. It was really, really scary. That was probably the biggest challenge that we didn’t see coming. You come pretty prepared for the cold and the snow and working with the wolves and stuff like that. We really did our homework, but that one—nothing could really compare to that.

MM: How did you choose the camera and equipment, knowing that it too would need to hold up in these conditions? Not just suspending them, but the weather, too.
AG: Well, the first thing that always comes up on an independent movie is, “Well, why don’t we shoot digital or on the RED [ONE digital camera]? We’ll save money.” But In these types of weather conditions, I did not want to be standing there, waiting for the camera to initialize and all these weird technical problems happening. I know these cameras are getting better, and I actually just shot Hatchet 2 with the RED, but whenever I was around one, it was always too hot or too cold and the camera was acting funny. So the only thing that I trusted was the old-fashioned, 35mm film. We didn’t really have to do anything too special for the cameras, because they can hold up in cold. It was just keeping the film at a certain temperature above freezing, so it didn’t get brittle and crack. That was definitely hard. All we had to do was put hand-warmers around the canisters and it worked.

MM: The film has a pretty simple set-up: Three college students stuck on a ski lift. They have a week before it opens back up. How do you keep the suspense going for an hour and a half, when that’s sort of the basis of the story?

AG: Well, in writing it, the first thing you need to realize is that as cool as the set pieces are and these suspenseful moments are, that all has to be secondary to the characters and their story. So, by making the dynamic two people who didn’t really know each other that well yet, and their being joined together by somebody that they both know very well… that really gave me so many places to go with it. It made it very unique in that way. It wasn’t three friends; it was two strangers and one person who knows them both better than anybody. When I wrote the characters, I sort of figured out how I wanted them to end up being and then worked my way backwards, so they could each have their own very big arc and be a different person than in the beginning. And that’s been something that’s really paid off almost more than anything, practically. All the mainstream reviews we’ve gotten, I never would’ve imagined a genre movie getting reviews like this. The fact that people appreciate the characters and the dialogue and recognize the performances… you normally don’t see that in reviews for a thriller or horror movie. Usually, it’s all about “Was it scary?” So I’m very proud of that.

MM: Can you talk a little bit about how you worked with your actors? Their scenes are played out in a very stationary way—being stuck in a ski lift, they don’t have the freedom of physicality to fall back on. So how were your conversations with your actors on Frozen different than on previous films?

AG: Well, with this one, because I couldn’t actually ever take them aside, they had to understand from the get-go that I would have to be speaking to all three of them at once, every time. That’s very hard for an actor, because a lot of them get defensive when they’re getting direction—and now they have to do it in front of everybody. So, thankfully, there were no egos on this. There was just a walkie-talkie in Shawn Ashmore’s coat and I just had to speak freely to whoever I had to speak to, and they all had to hear it.

One of the things we did right was that I don’t like to rehearse. I like to have lots of meetings before shooting, where we talk through each scene and hear what their ideas are and choices they want to make, and they can ask questions and argue with me about words and lines. So, by the time we get out there, everything is so thought out. One thing I did differently with Frozen was that I gave them each different backstories and they weren’t allowed to talk to teach other about it, and that made for very subtle things between them in their performances.

For instance, I told Kevin Zegers that his character was probably going to break up with Emma Bell’s character by the end of the day, because he was trying to integrate her with his friend and it wasn’t really working. And then I told Emma that he’s probably going to marry you, because now he’s finally bringing you around his friend. And that way, when the panic set in, the way he would speak to her was very confusing to her and it would become very hurtful and upsetting, because she didn’t understand why he was taking that tone with her. And that really helped add a level of tension to the story.

MM: After premiering at Sundance a few weeks ago, Frozen just came out in theaters. And now you’re already shooting Hatchet 2?

AG: We finished principal photography [on Hatchet 2] right before I went to Sundance. And now we’re shooting three more days in Los Angeles and then two more days in New Orleans, over the next two weeks. And then I’m done with that one and have to do the international press for Frozen, so it’s kind of a crazy year.