UT students to release full-length horror film, “Who We Were Before”

Elizabeth Hlavinka

“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “The Strangers” and the developing film “Who We Were Before” have two things in common — they’re all directed by UT students or alumni, and they all redefine the horror film genre.

“Who We Were Before” is an upcoming horror movie that will be directed and co-produced by Zach Morrison, an advertising and radio-television-film junior. The film features a group of estranged friends reunited in the East Texas woods, who are joined by an unnerving, haunting presence.

Morrison developed the screenplay in January 2015 with his sister, Avery. Morrison said he wants the movie to resemble the feeling and tone of recent releases, which use suspense and atmosphere to produce paranoia instead of the overused “jump-scares” that have recently dominated the horror film scene.

“There’s this horror renaissance going on with movies like ‘It Follows’ and ‘The Witch,’ [which] are movies about mood and tone,” Morrison said. “[‘Who We Were Before’] is telling a good story that, at the end of the day, can stand on its own.”

Radio-television-film junior Madeline Dimayuga, the film’s executive producer, said “Who We Were Before” is about more than scaring the audience. She said the message she wants the audience to take away relates the importance of companionship and trust and the power that comes with working together — a dynamic that reflects the crew working on the film.

“Trying to estrange and isolate yourself from others is probably the worst fate you can commit yourself to,” Dimayuga said. “It’s only when you come together for a common future that you can actually accomplish anything. Film is all about camaraderie — you’re no good unless you want to be with other people.”

Morrison said the film is heavily influenced by the director Jeff Nichols, who creates a timeless, rustic Americana feeling by transforming the setting of his films into its own character. He said he hopes to develop the East Texas woods as their own entity, like Nichols did with Arkansas in his 2011 film “Take Shelter.”

The film’s crew is composed of 24 members, 20 of whom are UT students. Most of the crew members have collaborated with each other on projects before. Morrison, for example, has worked with the film’s director of photography on 13 other projects.

Radio-television-film lecturer Micah Barber said the joint effort of so many UT students is what sets “Who We Were Before” apart, and he thinks the bonds formed between the crew members will lead to future partnerships.

“It’s a special project in its level of ambition and also in its level of collaboration,” Barber said. “Some really positive relationships are being forged right now, and I think those will continue into the professional realm as they move on.”

The film’s crew will begin shooting “Who We Were Before” in June, after a period of pre-production and developmental work in May. On Feb. 28, Morrison launched a Kickstarter campaign, which recently exceeded the halfway point of the crew’s $10,000 goal. Morrison said he hopes to debut the film at Fantastic Fest or South By Southwest.

Barber said the most important thing for the team for the project to be successful is to maintain the positivity and ambition with which Morrison and Dimayuga have approached the project.

“The two of them combined can do just about anything,” Barber said. “We have fantastic students in RTF, and we have a lot of very creative, entrepreneurial people. Zach, Maddy and their team represent that really well.”