Stayin’ Alive: What Keeps You Alive‘s Colin Minihan and Brittany Allen on Surviving a Career Wearing Multiple Hats

Colin Minihan and Brittany Allen are no strangers to multitasking.

Now on the road with What Keeps You Alive, the Canadian duo present a professional and personal partnership that spans three films and an abundance of multi-hypenates. In What Keeps You Alive, Minihan writes, directs, and edits, while Allen stars and makes her debut as composer. Both produce. 

The pair are also understandably adept at improvisation: After one of their leads dropped out a week before shooting, Minihan recast the role as a woman. The result is an unrelenting portrait of timeless betrayals between a (now same-sex) couple: both bleak and hopeful, primal and modern. 

Following the film’s New York premiere at Lincoln Center, MovieMaker sat down with Minihan and Allen to discuss the challenges of auteur moviemaking and writing women in our contemporary climate.

What Keeps You Alive writer-director Colin Minihan (L) and star/composer Brittany Allen (R) at Sitges International Film Festival

On Multitasking

Colin Minihan (CM): I definitely wear a lot of hats. It’s one of those things that I’m trying to continually get better at, because they’re all totally different sectors of my personality that I have to tap into. Editing is good because you kind of burn out at the rough cut stage and have to take time away. But my version of taking time away is to try and write something else entirely. When I was editing this movie, I needed to step away from it for a minute and so I wrote another movie! 

Brittany Allen (BA): Once we wrapped the film, Colin and I began loosely throwing around the idea of me trying my hand at scoring. And after he had the first cut ready, we picked a couple of key scenes. I gave them a shot, and it worked. My process with everything I do creatively is to do the prep: to map out where a character is coming from or what I want to say with something. But most importantly it’s about me connecting emotionally to what needs to come across. So I would watch a scene, and keep watching it again and again. It’s not a mental thing, it’s a physical thing: where does this hit me in my body? What’s the feeling that Colin has already conveyed through the edit, the color, the writing, the characters? Then I would sit at the piano, and I would just play. I would have a tape recorder going, and when I stumbled on something I liked it was usually pretty apparent. Then Colin and I would talk about it: “cool, that theme might work well here or here.” And then from there I would put it into the computer and build on it.

On Re-Imagining One of their Leads as a Woman

CM: I only talked to Hannah [Emily Anderson] on the phone. I didn’t even have the opportunity to audition her. We were six days out from filming when we cast her. And it was challenging not from a script perspective, but more from my own psychological perspective of being able to see someone else say the lines. Hanna’s take was so different from my take when I was channeling that anger on the page and picturing it through the visual of this particular male actor that I had in mind. 

With the last two films that I’ve made, What Keeps You Alive and What Stains the Sands Red, the number one character on the call sheet was originally a man. I was writing it from a male perspective, because that’s my truth and that was the easiest way to get it on the page. But in that period between your first draft and ultimately shooting your sixth draft, it doesn’t take that much imagination to just say, “what if it’s Jackie instead of Jack?” And then you slowly start to see that character from a different perspective. It also helps being with you [Brittany], and involving you. I’m constantly telling you the ideas and you’re constantly pushing back from the female’s perspective. So it allows me to see things differently during that process. But it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to just change their name and make it a girl. The dialogue will still play, I promise.

BA: And it might play more truthfully than if you were relying on stereotypes that might have been ingrained in you from birth of how a woman talks versus how a man talks. 

On Modern Horror

BA: I think that sometimes on a personal and societal level, the best art can be made from the darkest places. I think right now, there’s a constant sense of foreboding that we are all feeling collectively. It’s exciting what certain filmmakers are choosing to do, and to see the stories they’re choosing to tell in the genre. Horror does allow for metaphors to be explored and for all of the angst and anger and confusion that we’re all feeling to be expressed. I’m excited in terms of women’s involvement and the way that women might be portrayed. MM

What Keeps You Alive opened in theaters and on VOD August 24, 2018, courtesy of IFC Films.

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