Countdown writer-director Justin Dec has 40 years, 67 days, 12 hours, 54 minutes and 25 seconds left to live … and he is happy about that.
Dec recently sat down to talk about Countdown, his new horror-thriller film which centers on a evil app that tells users how much time they have alive.
It is a terrifying premise for a film, but it came to Justin a few years ago when he simply set a timer on his phone and was watching the seconds tick down.
In this interview Justin explains why he has 40 years to live, why he cast Elizabeth Lail and Jordan Calloway as his leads and how Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis inspired him to become a filmmaker.
Hey Justin, Countdown was a fun movie to watch. A lot of scares, but also laughs. Is it true you originally shot a Countdown short film and the response was so strong you were encouraged to make this feature?
Justin Dec: That’s correct. Years ago I shot a short over two nights in my apartment with the basic idea of the app telling you when you are going to die. There’s a young couple who wake up in the middle of the night to their alarm going off. The girl only has three minutes left. I started submitting it to film festivals and my producer friends Sean (Anders) and John (Morris) said, “Stop sending this to film festivals! We want to make this”.
When did you first come up with the idea for the film? Were you using your phone and a particular app?
JD: I was using the app that you can set an alarm on, or a timer, on your phone. I opened it up one day and I was setting a timer to do something. I was watching the numbers tick down and the idea popped into my head. I thought, “What if this was ticking down to when I’m going die” and then it just started snowballing from there. We all have our phones in our pockets. We all are going to die at some point in our lives, but we don’t know when. I thought, “What if we had that information at our fingertips?” It was just a thought at the time. I wrote a quick five-page script. I had done nothing but comedy up until then, so I liked the challenge of doing something where I am building up suspense.
As scary as what Countdown is, there is a lot of comedy in it. You added your comedic sense of humor to the script.
JD: I always remember a great filmmaker talking about how important it is to have tension in a movie and to release the tension like a valve. It naturally brings the audience back to zero. They can rebuild. Otherwise, I feel like if you have them in a state of suspense and for the whole time you’re not giving them a moment to recover. I think finding that balance of comedy gives you that room again. That was the plan all along to make sure that this wasn’t just a scary movie, but also a really fun one.
Elizabeth Lail is great as Quinn, the lead role. Can you talk about why you cast her?
JD: My wife and myself binged the show “You” on Netflix. As soon as I saw Elizabeth I knew she was the one. Quinn needed to be the heart and soul of Countdown. She needed to be someone that you really cared about, the girl next door. She just naturally exudes warmness. That is exactly what she became. She is the heart and soul of the movie.
Was she your first choice for the role?
JD: Yes. She wanted to Skype and talk about the role so we did. Then I didn’t hear from her for four weeks. I thought she passed on it. But then I found out the studio was just negotiating her deal. When I talked to her she was like, “Oh my, after our Skype all I wanted to do was call you and talk to you about the movie” (laughs). I said, “I did too!” We were both excited about working together and she was so perfect for the role. You care about her so much and you don’t want her to die. It is so important.
Jordan Calloway was great too. Can you talk about what led you to casting him as Matt?
JD: Yeah. Jordan came in and he was so friendly. I loved him in the casting room and I knew audiences would love him and bring the stakes up so much. When he tested with us he had the flu. He was so personable. He wanted to do a five feet apart audition because he had the flu (laughs).
It was actually a great ensemble cast. Can you talk about Tom Segura, PJ Byrne and Peter Facinelli?
JD: Yeah. Everyone across the board was phenomenal. Tom was someone who I have wanted to work with since I first saw his stand-up on Netflix. Two years ago was the first time I saw him. Tom’s character, Derek, went through many iterations, but in my mind it was always Tom. I knew he would be dry and sarcastic and perfect for the role.
What about PJ as Father John?
JD: It was a tough role to cast because people played it either too serious or too comedic. Nobody really understood naturally it wasn’t about either. It was about Father John being someone who’s just a geek for all things religious. I compare him to a Comic-Con guy who is so passionate about going to every single little Comic-Con venue and collecting all the toys and stuff. That is how Father John is with the Bible. PJ was a no-brainer.
And Peter Facinelli?
JD: Peter always plays a really likable character , like in Twilight and Nurse Jackie. It was fun to flip the expectation around and make him a real scumbag (laughs).
We often hear of weird, scary things happening on the sets of horror films. What about Countdown? Did anything spooky go on behind the scenes?
JD: Oh, I wish (laughs). A crew member did go to the bathroom in a fake toilet on the set on a Friday and we didn’t discover it until the following Monday. That was pretty horrifying! (laughs)
That is horrifying! The Countdown app of course takes center stage in your movie. How important are apps in your life? Today there are apps for everything?
JD: I would say the activity app is the one I use the most. I have an Apple watch and I’m obsessed with closing my rings every day. It just keeps you moving all day. There’s also a breathing app that teaches you how to do slow meditative breathing. I think everybody needs that.
What about the Countdown app? Someone actually made one, right?
JD: Yes. I did use it. I have 40 years, 67 days, 12 hours, 54 minutes and 25 seconds left (laughs). It is actually very exciting. The person who made the app was a fan of the Countdown trailer. He is a 21-year-old app developer from England. He made his own version of the app and launched it last week and it went viral. It was the number one app in the world.
Do you know anyone who’s used it that’s got just a couple of hours left? That would be terrifying.
JD: It’s funny. PJ texted me and said he only has three minutes left and I read his text an hour later (laughs).
I really liked how you weaved in the user agreements into the story. Most of us never read the user agreements. Do you read every word in contract agreements?
JD: I don’t read all the fine print. I should. I’m pretty sure a demon is coming for me!
Who are your favourite horror or thriller filmmakers? Who inspires you?
JD: I’m a total child of the 1980s. I grew up with a healthy dose of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis. Jaws was my all-time favorite film and the reason why I wanted to become a director. I was hooked. I loved Halloween, Poltergeist and Alien. I think I was nine or 10 when I saw my first R-rated film. I think it was Predator.
What is your philosophy as a filmmaker?
JD: I came up in this business fetching coffee as an intern and being a production assistant and working for a million different bosses throughout my career. I learned that the people who treated everybody with respect and had fun with what they did, everything just felt better on set and it transferred to the screen. That’s what I like to create on my sets.