Before the era of heightened, so-called ‘elevated’ horror movies like It Follows, The Witch, and hereditary, small cinematic road signs pointed toward horror’s ultimate direction. These films often stood out from their contemporaries’ fads, be it found footage horror or teens hunted by slashers, and memory lane is littered with such underrated signage. YellowBrickRoad is one such film, a slow-burn existential horror that featured a variety of artists at the cusp of great careers, and is finally getting a digitally restored Blu-ray release beefed-up with supplements.
YellowBrickRoad was Robert Eggers’ first film, where he worked on costume design several years before he made his own directorial debut with The Witch. It was also writer/directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton’s first feature film, before they’d go on to make the films We Go On, The Witch in the Windowand The Harbinger. In front of the camera, Cassidy Freeman (Righteous Gemstones, Longmire, Smallville, and The Forever Purge) and her brother Clark Freeman (We Go On, Narcos: Mexico, Black Hearted Killer) appear at a very early point in their careers; the siblings spoke to us about playing brother and sister, the filming and meaning of YellowBrickRoadand their mysterious future project.
Retracing the Existential Horror of Yellow Brick Road
In YellowBrickRoad a group of researchers attempts to retrace the steps taken by the citizens of a small New Hampshire town in 1940 when, after a screening of The Wizard of Ozo, the whole town embarked on a fatal trip through a mountainous trail where only one man survived. Cassidy and Clark play sibling navigators and surveyors who try and lead the way into the wilderness while increasingly inexplicable events plague the team, resulting in a film that builds gradual tension to a crescendo of madness and terror, with one of the most interesting (and, to some, infamous) endings in horror history.
Like much of Mitton and Holland’s work, YellowBrickRoad explores mortality and the fear of death, along with a dangerously obsessive desperation to know more about what happens next and many other metaphysical questions. “I think it’s so cool that there is a whole genre of filmmaking where you can take some grand Waiting for Godot ideas of like, what is existence, and throw them in a movie to see how we can deal with them,” said Clark. “Like, how do you deal with your own existential dread? That is the beginning of a therapy session, not of a movie! And yet, these movies take on those big ideas and take you on a journey that hopefully is worth watching and with characters that you care about who are unique and real people.”
“I love its mystery, and I love its openness,” added Cassidy. “It’s a time capsule that keeps releasing, in that it still asks questions, but it was also such a snapshot of our lives. And an important one, professionally and personally.” YellowBrickRoad is just that, a document of different burgeoning careers and a prophetic glimpse at where the horror genre was heading. “Just the fact that we’re talking about it again,” said Clark, “just the fact that they thought it was worth re-releasing it, making it better, adding more stuff to it, and making sure that everyone gets to see every part of the process of making this movie because it’s that important not only is that humbling as an artist but how cool it is to revisit the experience and to even just be doing this interview with Cass.”
Cassidy and Clark Freeman: Super Siblings
Part of why YellowBrickRoad works so well is the natural chemistry of everyone involved, a cast and crew who essentially throw themselves into the woods and are tasked with developing interesting characters and escalating suspense with sparse filmmaking tools at their disposal. For the Freemans, that chemistry was practically a birthright. “Our older brother Crispin is also an actor,” said Cassidy, “there are five years between all of us, so we really got the opportunity to watch each other do their thing, and maybe that space between us in age didn’t make it as competitive, but rather made it more like we got to admire one another and say, ‘Gosh, I want to do that.'” She continued:
We all sort of clamored for whatever stage we could find to perform on […] Clark and I have always, at least from what I can remember or have been told, had a really special, super sweet sibling bond, and to be able to bring that into a world as crazy and cutthroat as Hollywood makes it feel like a warm hug when you get to do something with someone you really love and trust. So I think we look for opportunities to do that whenever we can, and YellowBrickRoad was a perfect opportunity, because not only did we get to work together as producers, but also as actors playing brother and sister, so it was a really special time for us.
“She’s absolutely right,” said Clark, “we all clamor for the stage, but had our own thing. Like Cass was a dancer and I gravitated towards music and drumming, whereas Crispin also danced and did operatic singing as well. I think it helped that Cass and I then went to college together, but again with the five-year gap, just as I was leaving, she was getting there. but we never stepped on each other’s toes there. It’s not like we were in direct competition. And I’ll just echo that being in Hollywood, in LA, it’s such a hard business anyway, but to have Cassidy […] It’s like, you never have to worry that she’s not looking out for my best interest, and vice versa.”
Each pair of siblings is contextually different, but Cassidy and Clark seem to have something figured out; in addition to acting and producing together, they’re also in the band The Real D’Coy (along with director Andy Mitton). “Because Clark and I both went to the same college, we kind of came through the same ranks,” said Cassidy, “we almost grew up learning the same language. So it really is a shortcut for the two of us. We don’ t have to talk about like, ‘what’s your process?’ We have this shared experience of types of acting and ways of approaching work, and so when you put the two of us in the scene together, we don’t really have to have the small talk. in.”
The Sometimes Painful Production of Yellow Brick Road
That’s not to say there isn’t conflict or differences of opinion, but that’s often dialectically necessary to progress, and being able to have that conflict with a sibling you love has been a soothing balm to any filmmaking annoying. “I think creativity is never just rainbows and whatever. You’re supposed to butt heads at some point,” said Clark, “But I think after you butt heads, or you have that creative disagreement, to know that it’s not personal, or it’s not going to hang around — that’s the important part.”
The filming of YellowBrickRoad wasn’t always “rainbows” either. Actor Anessa Ramsey (The Signal, The Rites of Spring) is wonderful in the film as well, but she recounted the “exhausting shoot” at the time to Dread Central: “You can’t prepare for snow in June, and that’s exactly what happened while we were shooting. It was pretty insane to have that happen. Oh, and then there were the black flies that would burrow under your skin.” Cassidy recounts one of the most terrifying moments of the production:
We lost our locations for the next six days because we were misinformed about who owns the land we were supposed to be shooting on, and we had to figure out how to pivot and work with that. I think that was a serious moment. I think when we’re going like, “Oh, we have thousands of dollars from people who believe in us, and we’ve brought these people out into the woods to make this thing, and now our ship just sank, and we have to build another ship before tomorrow morning,” those are the more serious moments.
Freeman Family Matters and the Yellow Brick Road Unit
Again, though, it helped to be part of a familiar crew who knew each other from Middlebury College and had worked together before; there were parts of the production that Cassidy likened to summer camp. “Then we had the moments where everything went great that day, and we’re looking forward to tomorrow, and we have a barbecue, and we all play guitar and sing on the porch for a few hours before going to bed. It’s more fun to do the serious things when you have those moments of levity, and when you’re doing it with people that you admire and that you trust,” said Cassidy.
“This movie was made with the endeavor to push boundaries and to try new things,” added Clark, “and I think it succeeded in that. I think the seriousness is in the active pursuit of that goal, but luckily it was such a family unit that was it fun while doing it [the making of] this movie killing people that didn’t know each other.”
“I didn’t feel like I had to prove myself, to prove that I was supposed to be there,” Cassidy emphasized, “which is sometimes a big part of being an actor in Hollywood, like trying to see where you fit within a certain given family, and you do this over and over and over again [YellowBrickRoad] family. We were just like a big group of actors and creators that love to do stuff together, and so I got to go into that feeling really secure. And I think that breeds its own kind of creativity.”
Cassidy and Clark Freeman’s Future Feature Film
“To get to play together in YellowBrickRoad was really fun 12 years ago,” said Cassidy, “but man, it’d be really cool to see what we could do now. Because we both have so much more experience under our belts apart from one another to bring to each other.” They may get that opportunity soon, as the pair are working on a film project which retraces the wild true story of their parent’s involvement in a righteous art smuggling operation.The Freemans would play themselves in this hush-hush project that Clark playfully hints to with winking shrugs:
All I think I will say, or can say, is that we’ve been working on a project about our family, about the time period from ’68 to ’89 when Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic was occupied by the Russians. Maybe our parents were possibly smuggling artwork out of the country during that time, and then maybe selling it and bringing money back to the artists, so they could, I don’t know, possibly fight the Russian regime [“and make more art,” Cassidy adds]? But this is all hearsay. Maybe it’s about a brother and sister finding this out for the first time? Yeah, we’ll probably work on something like that at some point in the near future.
It’s been over a decade since the siblings walked the YellowBrickRoad, amassing courage, heart, and brains along the way. With Cassidy currently filming season three of The Righteous Gemstones and Clark recently producing The Harbinger, they’re still tucking in “more experience under our belts,” as Cassidy said. When they do work together again, it will no doubt be Oz-some.
Lightyear Entertainment has digitally restored YellowBrickRoad, a Points North film, in high definition for its Blu-ray release, with a veritable treasure trove of great special features. The Blu-ray is out today, as well as on DVD and digital.