Writer-director Braden R. Duemmler's flummoxing-to-many terror tale stars Ema Horvath, Mena Suvari, Trey Tucker, and Haskiri Velazquez.

By Clark Collis
April 10, 2021 at 02:00 PM EDT
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What Lies Below
Credit: MovieClipTrailers/YouTube

THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE FILM WHAT LIES BELOW.

Writer-director Braden R. Duemmler's debut movie What Lies Below caused few waves when it was released on VOD at the end of 2020. But the filmmaker was optimistic about the horror production making more of a mark after it hit Netflix last Sunday.

"I had hope because I believe in the film," says Duemmler. "I was hoping to get into the top 10 and just be in the conversation. That's all I wanted, just to see people talking about it."

The director's hopes were fulfilled, and then some. By Tuesday, Duemmler's film — which stars American Pie actress Mena Suvari, Ema Horvath, and Trey Tucker — was number one on the Netflix chart.

"It's been wild," says the director, speaking Friday. "It's just been non-stop, dealing with all these messages, all this buzz. I've done so many things to keep this alive. I drive Lyft. I've slept in my car. To have this film get a buzz, it was so worthwhile, it was an amazing feeling."

Not that it's all been good news for the director. "Every time you open a message you're going, is this going to be a hate message?" says Duemmler. "I'm getting a lot of hate messages, so it's like, do I click on it?"

What Lies Below stars Horvath as the 16-year-old Liberty Wells who returns home from camp to discover that her mother Michelle (Suvari) has a new, young boyfriend (Tucker) with abs to die for and the suspicious name of John Smith. The latter claims to be an aquatic geneticist with a special interest in lampreys but is in fact some sort of fish-man hellbent on impregnating Michelle. After some mid-movie weirdness in which John mops up Michelle's menstrual blood, and the more customary-to-the-genre third act running around, the final scene finds Horvath's character waking up in a diamond-shaped container which is rapidly filling with water and sitting in between other similar-looking, and also occupied-by-women, cells. In the very last second of the movie the now completely submerged Liberty breaks into a smile.

The movie's unusual plot elements and head-scratching conclusion have prompted both hate mail and media interest. On Thursday, The Daily Mail website ran a piece about the film with the headline, "'The most confusing movie EVER': Sci-fi horror film about a sinister MERMAN preying on a mom and daughter leaves Netflix viewers BAFFLED." The article included comments from Twitter-users about the movie which ranged from negative ("What Lies Below... what a truly confusing, terrible film. Like a sexy episode of Goosebumps") to simply baffled ("I just watched What Lies Below on Netflix and I genuinely don't know what I just watched).

No one likes to receive hate mail, but Duemmler says he is happy that people are watching, and engaging, with a movie which he insists does make sense, if you pick up on the clues he embedded in the film. "I like the conversation," he says. "I enjoy films that make you think. I really love films where you go back and you see something you didn't see. We drop little things throughout the film. We want people to be like, oh, this is so cool, and there are so many of them. It's cool to see people put it together. I saw this Reddit thread of some fan theory that is just the wildest thing I've ever read. He has ideas that I wish I had thought of."

Below, Duemmler talks more about the film — and explains the ending.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What's your background?
BRADEN R. DUEMMLER: I was actually a hockey player growing up and it didn't work out. In my freshman year of college, I took a film theory class because I thought that would be cool. I just loved it. I couldn't stop talking about film, discussing film, I got introduced to so many films from so many different cultures. I got into USC and then the rest was just me constantly trying to make movies with my friends, which ultimately culminated in What Lies Below. A lot of the crew on What Lies Below are my USC film school friends. That's how it all got made.

Is it true that you worked on a film with Ryan Coogler at USC?
Yeah. Jimmy (Jung Lu), the cinematographer on What Lies Below, and I shot Ryan Coogler's short film called Fig at USC. It was a really awesome experience. I learned a lot from Ryan as a director. Even though he was just starting out at that point, you could just tell there was something really special about Ryan. He just had a different way of looking at the world and had an incredible empathy and ability to understand people and psychology.

What Lies Below
Credit: MovieClipTrailers/YouTube

How did you cast the three main roles in What Lies Below?
We had an amazing casting director, Katrina Wandel George, and she was just super passionate about the film. I met with Mena and she grilled me, in a good way, and then she signed on and that gave us a little bit of validation and the submissions picked up. We found Ema and Trey and Haskiri (Velazquez, who plays Liberty's friend) through audition tapes.

It's a very sexual film.
It's funny because there's no nudity in it, right? And there's no really graphic sex in it, yet people think it's so sexual just because of the way we're using the camera to objectify Trey. We wanted to turn Liberty into the perspective, we wanted to create a female gaze film that made Trey the object of desire. So for the first half of the movie what facilitates the film — and what makes it feel awkward for audience members too — is that it's Libby looking at a 30-year-old man and fetishizing him and objectifying. Then you get to the boat scene, where we almost reflect that desire back on you, and you all of a sudden realize, oh my god, I do not want this at all.

So what's going on with the end of the film? Is John an alien?
I've heard the [cat] is out the bag because, if you put on the subtitles, it apparently says "Alien noises." So, yes, I would say he is a species from another planet. I don't want to unpack it much more than that. I would say, if you missed anything, maybe go back to the time that Libby drives the car down to see into the lake and look at what she sees. We could get more into the weeds of it, if you want.

I do want! So you have the two ending scenes, one in a basement and the one in the diamond-shaped cell. In the basement, we see several people who look like John digging women out of walls. What's going on there?
Okay. I saw it as John is designed by his species. He is an exoskeleton that has been designed as a Venus flytrap. Although the exoskeleton is the same, the algorithm changes for each one. One of them is a scientist and kind of nerdy. The other one is kind of a hipster. The other one is kind of rock 'n' roll. They do it to attract different personalities but they're always after the same thing, which is very clear in the last shot. They're collecting specimen. And I would say to anyone who felt awkward throughout the film, go back, and listen to John's lines, and imagine he's speaking about Libby and Michelle as specimens instead of people, and then all of a sudden his word choices make more sense.

They all just converge when the cops converge, because they don't want to leave a footprint. They're much stronger, faster, more intelligent than us, have heightened senses, they're a much advanced species, so they can clear out a space in no time.

So is the final scene on a spaceship?
Yes, it is. It is the hull of a spaceship.

And the fact that Liberty smiles at the end? What is one to make of that?
She can breathe underwater and she realizes it.

Because she's been impregnated with a blue light by John?
No, no, she hasn't been impregnated yet. She's been brought for further experiments. The blue light is the apparatus that allows things to breathe underwater.

Ah! Okay. The aliens are only interested in redheads. Why?
Yeah, it's like a genetic anomaly. I was looking for something that is a little bit different in us as humans, as far as our genetic code, and I found that red hair, it has all these really interesting traits. I felt that that might be a reason why John's species could procreate with us, that's the only way he can is because of that one gene. It's all part of this one grand experiment that's basically John Smith's species trying to figure out how they could come to this planet and take over.

Going back a bit, there is the shower scene where John sniffs his shirt, which he's used to mop up Libby's menstrual blood. Why does he do that?
His senses are much more advanced than ours. So, he can smell genes, in a way.

Some people have found the ending confusing. If you could go back in time, would you elaborate on the conclusion?
You know, I don't think we had the budget to elaborate on it. [Laughs] We were shooting a shoestring movie here.

What Lies Below
Credit: MovieClipTrailers/YouTube

Have you been chatting with your cast this week?
Yeah. Ema's in New Zealand shooting Lord of the Rings, so she's crazy, but she knows I'm an anxious person sometimes, so she's checking on me going, "Brad, how are you feeling?" Trey, we've been on the phone just laughing about all of this. He's enjoying the ride. I've reached out to Mena a few times and she's doing great. She has a little one on the way. (On Friday, it was announced that Suvari had given birth to her first child.) It's been a special moment. I talked to Haskiri too and she was just so excited about it as well. She's doing Saved By the Bell now.

I also feel like I should mention this because it's important. Olan Montgomery, the guy who played the store clerk, he passed away from COVID last March. I want people to know that's one of the last images of him in the world. He had a whole life in front of him and now that's gone. I know we're opening up, but I just want you to remember people like Olan who lost their life, and be safe with each other. He was a very special person, I had a great time meeting him, he was such a positive force on set, and so willing to do what we needed. I was so sad to hear he had passed away.

Do you have any ideas for a sequel?
Yeah. Also, I think that the mythology could be built out to a TV series. I have been starting to write, let's just to say.

Would that be your next project?
I have a lot of projects right now. I'm producing a film called Succubus with Anna Elizabeth James. She was actually number one on Netflix as well as a couple of weeks ago with Deadly Illusions. It's a friend's film — R.J. Daniel Hanna who's a really super-talented writer-director. I really love the script and I want to help him get it made. On top of that, I have a script called Mold, which is a psychological thriller about a fungus that people can trip off-of and go down a rabbit hole. I am going out to cast this summer with that. And I have a bunch of other scripts. All the log-lines are on my website.

Watch the trailer for What Lies Below above.

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