The ethereal, independent horror film Toad Road, which premieres this Friday at Hollywood’s Arena Cinema, asks, “How far would you be willing to go down Toad Road?”
The film, which was written, produced and directed by Jason Banker, chronicles the nightmarish misadventures of a young drug user James. Sarah, a new arrival into the small rural town, begins experimenting with narcotics with James. The two also visit Toad Road, a spot in the forest that — as local legend has it — leads to the Seven Gates of Hell.
Banker took the idea for the story from a real legend that haunts his hometown of York, Pa. The story caused kids from his local high school to walk down Toad Road to see how far they can go without turning back.
“I wanted to make a film that was a combination of a documentary and a narrative film,” Banker said. “I’ve been doing documentaries for a long time and I wanted to do something a little bit different, where I had control of the story to a certain degree. But I also wanted to incorporate real people, like I’m discovering who these people are and the dynamic between this real group of friends, and then merging my story into that.”
To cement this sense of authenticity, Banker took a cue from filmmaker Larry Clark, casting amateurs instead of professional actors. Banker found them on MySpace from towns he felt had strong countercultures. From there, he said, it was all one big experiment.
“I found a group of people and I didn’t really know who was going to be the lead and who was going to play what role,” he said. “I was very open to different dynamics between the group of friends and using that in the film as we went along. It wasn’t really written out — it was more or less improvised with the idea of the fictional story that I had as a backbone.”
Despite being his first acting job, James Davidson, who plays the protagonist of the same name, said he felt very much involved with the creation of the film due to its improvisational nature.
“It was a really organic experience,” Davidson said. “Jason was willing to try anything and took a bunch of risks. Just the amount of footage we have that wasn’t used is unbelievable. He would set up the scene, we would sort of fumble our way through it, and based on tensions with a friend, that would be a springboard for another subplot.”
Davidson said he had to do little to prepare for the role, as the character of “James” wasn’t so much an artificial entity as it was a natural extension of him as a person.
“We were let loose and sort of dangerously so,” Davidson said. “We didn’t have to get into the character — he found people who were the characters. [Every scene] that wasn’t directly moving along the Toad Road plot and the gates to hell was literally just us hanging out or drinking or doing terrible things to each other.”
Filming took place primarily in Baltimore, where Davidson and his friends lived, with scenes of the actual Toad Road shot in Banker’s hometown in York.
With nearly no budget and a video camera to shoot with himself, Banker said he found it “pretty amazing” that this small, no-budget film has gotten this far: Toad Road will premiere on both coasts and actor Elijah Wood signed on as an executive producer.
Though much of the film deals heavily with drug use, its hallucinatory quality had to be conveyed through the power of storytelling rather than special effects because of the film’s limited funds.
“I thought it would be cool to mix drug use with a type of horror theme, where the main character, and the viewers too, aren’t really sure if it’s reality, or if it’s a consequence of drug use, or if it’s urban legend,” Banker said. “There are a lot of different levels you can perceive the film. A lot of the drug use in the film is real.”
The storyline mirrors the trajectory of experiences that one goes through while experimenting with drugs -— a “bad trip,” as Banker puts it.
“There’s kind of this phase of discovery where you’re testing it out, and as you delve more into that world, it can get darker,” he said. “It can lead to some places that are bizarre versions of reality. I wanted to make a film that felt like that. At first, you’re following this character that is just getting into drug use, and then she has a bad trip and it starts to get worse, and then it’s enlightening, and then it’s a mixture of all that stuff.”
Banker said he wanted to gear the film toward an early-20s crowd. He felt that this demographic could relate to making their own decisions, sometimes the wrong ones, and pushing their boundaries and sometimes going too far.
“I hope that it at least makes people question where the line is between self-discovery and self-destruction,” Banker said. “When I was growing up, I was afraid of trying drugs and I was afraid of a lot of things. That fear — it’s healthy, but at the same time, it’s pretty boring if you only see life through one lens. You should try and expand your mind and realize that there are multiple levels of reality out there and there’s different ways to perceive any particular thing.”
Davidson echoes this philosophy. Though Toad Road might be a horror film, it appeals to a more intellectual side of viewers.
“It can be very jarring and alarming and upsetting at times,” Davidson said. “But it’s also just a really beautiful and bleak exploration of the reckless nature of that age.”