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Producer Sasha Yelaun talks ‘Monstrous’, filming during Covid, and a story that resonates with traumatized grief

Apr 14, 2023 | Feature Films

Monstrous with Christina Ricci BTS

We carry grief in silent pockets in our eyes, or quiet in bed when only the night-shadowed walls exist to observe without judgment. Some of us, under the weight of loss and isolation, turn to a darker place.

The monsters that find these dark places have no preference for day or night. They visit day after day until something breaks.

Monstrous is a supernatural thriller directed by Chris Sivertson, starring Christina Ricci and Santino Barnard, and produced by Sasha Yelaun (Producer Robert Yocum optioned the story).

Navigating a story about one woman’s mental state through a 50s period piece with a twist ending was a challenge on one level in storytelling finesse. Outside the story universe, filming began in November 2020, ran right into the height of the pandemic, and presented unprecedented obstacles that threatened to derail the entire production.

For an industry that is still perhaps coming out of an emotional pandemic hangover, it feels relevant to reflect on a film that was endangered to fall apart right in the middle of it. Fable House talked with Producer Sasha Yelaun about his experience during Covid completing a thematically heavy supernatural thriller that rests somewhere between Mad Men and The Twilight Zone.

Sasha Yelaun on the set of Monstrous BTS

Sasha Yelaun (right) on the set of Monstrous

Filming for Monstrous began in November 2020 and was paused in March with the countrywide Covid shutdown. When protocols were loosened, the production picked back up with the ambition to finish on their original location and timetable. They wrapped in March 2021:

SY: “Monstrous was my first Covid movie. So obviously, it had its challenges…Essentially, it created an additional layer of complexity to the model, because obviously now you have the extra cost of testing everyone and also balancing the timetable of making your schedule. But, you know, it was a different beast. Because I didn’t know what I was stepping into in that environment and it was also when L.A. was at sorta the height of its pandemic.”

On the decision to continue through and get the film done:

SY: “We’re gonna follow all the protocols, we’ll test everybody, we’ll mask up, we’ll do everything that the back-to-work guidelines state…Even though we hadn’t had any experience with running a production during Covid, that was sort of our first: you’ve gotta sort of roll with the punches and learn and ride the wave, and try to maintain everything to the best of our ability to follow those protocols and guidelines and continue shooting.”

This was Carol Chrest’s second writing credit, and by the end of the film, I felt like it had a lot of emotional heft that transcends a straightforward monster flick. Was this a random spec script that you came across or how did you get attached to the script for Monstrous in the beginning?

SY: “I was actually brought on by Barry Rosen, who’s another fellow producer. He met Robert Yocum, the other lead producer who was close to Carol and had optioned the script at a coffee shop.”

Correction for clarity: Barry Rosen met Robert Yocum at a coffee shop. Robert Yocum was the original producer who was close to Carol and had optioned the script.

He continued on the appeal of a good twist:

SY: “For me, I like stories with a twist that sort of a deeper meaning behind them, and it kind of followed in – in a different dynamic, I had produced a movie called The Vanished – it was Anne Heche’s last film – it was Thomas Jane, Anne Heche, and Peter Facinelli (Peter Facinelli directed it) – it was similar in the sense that it was letting someone go but with a different dynamic. This one was very much contained, and the reason I also decided to take it on was, besides it having that twist in the end that was very powerful and emotional, it was also very contained. There were limited characters. I think we had like, seven or eight characters at the end of the day and it was really revolving around one lead and her son. And that made it sort of a – for me – a Covid film, in terms of execution on it.”

Correction for accuracy: The Vanished was one of Anne Heche’s last films, but not her last. She has had several films released posthumously and according to IMDB, three remain in post-production.

Monstrous is set as a 50s-style period piece, where a chipper Christina Ricci talks with her son in a bright yellow dress, in a house that is fully dipped into a color palette of manic yellows.

Christina Ricci on the set of Monstrous (photo courtesy of Sasha Yelaun)

Christina Ricci on the set of Monstrous (photo courtesy of Sasha Yelaun)

While you were filming Monstrous or when you first saw a finished cut, what was your view of how the color and cinematography played into the story?

SY: “What I enjoyed most about the film’s style and cinematography is its retro colors and style above the surface that were cheery and upbeat displaying a simpler time, while bubbling in the subconscious with a sort of eerie chaos of something creepy and unknown – we were going for a Mad Men style for the period piece aspect of it, which I felt met The Twilight Zone in the present as the character seeps in and out of her own reality.”

What thematic elements most stood out to you that this was a very original, unique take on this character’s mental state and grief?

SY: “I liked the idea of going in and out of reality in the present and past through different time periods. Growing up with Quantum Leap, The Outer Limits, and The Twilight Zone – that part of the story stood out to me while exploring the human psyche for the character in the film dealing with her inner demons and past trauma she lived through.”

On the emotional weight of the twist at the end:

SY: “It was definitely climactic and there was a song – they ended up switching out what the ending song was, which really drew the emotion for me. I felt like it did its job because in the end, every time I watch it or somebody watches it, I see them like, crack a tear. So I know – if it achieved that for you, it felt climactic for me, then I know that the film ultimately did its job.”

(The final song before the credits roll is “True Love Ways” by Buddy Holly.)

Can you tell me about your relationship with Chris Sivertson going into the film, and what you thought the vision might be that you wanted to execute?

SY: “He was really a force and an auteur that just hadn’t had the opportunity to do so. I just sensed from the tone of his voice and from having a couple of calls that he was the right person for the job…I think that Chris really brought wonders to it.”

Correction for clarity: Sasha’s intended remark about Chris Sivertson’s approach as an auteur was to say that Sivertson is an auteur going back to The Lost (which was a hit at SXSW), but doesn’t get that many opportunities to prove his directing abilities, not that he’s never had one before.

He continued:

SY: “He knew exactly what he wanted. There was no ego at all, he was always thankful, he was always sweet, and he really brought his own sort of aura and capabilities to the table as an auteur.”

Christina Ricci on the set of Monstrous BTS

Christina Ricci on the set of Monstrous (photo courtesy of Sasha Yelaun)

Throughout Monstrous, there’s a purposeful way the environment is used to portray Laura’s (Christina Ricci) mental state. The desert surrounds them, the hills are scraggly and sun-scorched. They are truly contained within a wilderness. 

On the skillset of Director Chris Sivertson to navigate the logistical obstacles during production and keep the story grounded:

SY: “Figuring out how to shoot around not all the talent availability lining up, production shutdowns, making an interior and an exterior of a house work as one…there’s not very many directors out there in the industry like him. I think he’s a silent force.”

On the challenge of figuring out the proper genre branding for Monstrous:

SY: “I think the challenge was always, “Is this a horror film? Is this a supernatural thriller?” Because they would always look at this and say, “Well, there is a horror element to it. There is a monster. But is this more supernatural?” Because it’s not gore. We didn’t want it to be a horror film, we wanted it to be more classy. That’s why we introduced it with a 50s take on it, like a Mad Men-type subplot behind it. I think the challenge was just figuring out what it was – a horror film or a supernatural thriller.”

On what he needs to do to help set the tone and atmosphere to encourage everyone’s best work to come out:

SY: “No matter what the challenges are, you still have to be cool, calm, level-headed, and know that you’ve gotta get to the end goal. There was many times that we were frustrated, and we just didn’t know – especially with all the shutdowns – if we would ever finish it or even get to the end. We were presented with many challenges throughout that process, so we just had to keep going, and rolling with those punches, but still maintaining a level-headed calmness knowing that the objective is to finish the movie, make everybody be proud of the end goal, be proud of what they did, but also make sure that they feel safe on-set.”

Sasha Yelaun on the set of Monstrous BTS

Sasha Yelaun on the set of Monstrous

On the resiliency of picking back up after a Covid shutdown without losing any on-set chemistry:

SY: “Having my producing team around, having my DP around, knowing that Chris would pick up at any moment and go and be a team player, that really helps. Still having a strong core team around you that is motivated to finish no matter what the challenge is, you can pick that chemistry right back up.”

On what was the most exciting element of production for him:

SY: “My wife and I owned a school in Laguna Beach, and at the time we had moved to Austin. I generally don’t shoot very many movies in L.A. – the last time was 2014. And what we were able to do was for all the school scenes that you saw, my wife (who wasn’t there – she stayed back in Texas where we live now) – she got to use a lot of her students to be in those scenes. That was sort of exciting – there was a “special thanks” credit to her academy in there and for her to get her students to have some exposure on the screen – some of them were anywhere from five to nine years old – for the first time – was exciting.”

Monstrous is a unique portrayal of grief that reflects a pointed era in history

It’s almost off-putting to look at some of the art that was produced during 2020-2021 – the subconscious of certain films seems to so eerily reflect the milieu of the pandemic. Yes, you could easily argue that Writer Carol Chrest had the idea for Monstrous long before Covid hit, but in hindsight, here’s an interpretation:

A woman is contained within her house with her young son and encounters an increasing sense of feeling trapped and emotionally distraught. 

Okay, totally fits. 

The other interpretation is this: 

Grief affects all of us as a shared human experience. It is a dull, heavy, grinding consistency of weighted loss. Sometimes we channel it into art. Sometimes it is absorbed into the love felt through community. 

And sometimes, lost in the wilderness, we wake up to nightmares that still live in the daylight.

Monstrous is currently available to watch on Showtime or rent on Apple TV.

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Fable House is a video production company based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana that specializes in production for film, video, commercials, and TV. Our team are experts in physical production, post-production, and VFX. We produce content for major brands, TV networks like Syfy and Lifetime, and provide production services to Louisiana’s never-say-die indie filmmakers.

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