Respire" is a made-in-Maryland feature centered around a secret formula for prolonging life. It's also a horror movie, so naturally the secret to prolonging life leads to gruesome deaths and mass derangement.
The Baltimore area has become a center for modest genre movies that determined filmmakers push over the finish line and often screen for cast and crew at local theaters like the Senator and the Charles before their release on DVD. I usually don't attend these events. But David A. Cross, the producer-director-writer of "Respire," was clever enough to schedule his horror movie's debut close to Halloween. He also hired an energetic Los Angeles-based promoter to trumpet the film's premiere as a "red-carpet" opening at the Landmark Harbor East theater.
It wasn't an industry or sales event. It was a cross between a workplace celebration and a surprisingly functional family affair. There were ropes to protect the stars from reporters and fans. But apart from the interviewers and producers of the made-in-Baltimore Web series "Click on This," I was the only member of the news media. The fans were friends and family of Cross and his cast. Cameras whirred and clicked; the most impressive one belonged to Tom Littlejohn, who does some work for Sinclair Broadcasting. He was really there because he taught audio-visual skills to the movie's star, Mat Wright, in 10th grade at Hereford High School.
I did do my first red-carpet interview since I yelled a few questions to Edward Norton at the Senator for "The Painted Veil." This time it was with "Respire" supporting actor Chris O'Brocki, who plays one of the more clueless and amusing victims of the film's catastrophic chain of events. Since graduating from North County High School in 2002, he has won uncredited roles in "Step Up," "Step Up 2: The Streets," and "Live Free or Die Hard," and credited parts in horror movies such as "Fear of Clowns 2" and now "Respire." He holds down two regular jobs to support his performing habit.
Cross, unlike his actors, was more comfortable talking outside the lights. The publicist shepherded us into the Harbor East's bustling bar section. Cross talked about how he hoped that "Respire" would mark a step up from his first films, "Ghost Watcher" and "Ghost Watcher 2." Both went straight to DVD, but there he found some surprising support. The reviewer for "DVD Verdict" called the sequel something "that defied the odds" because with "a glaringly tiny budget" and the need to follow up on "an obscure horror film," Cross "has managed to create a decent little flick that can stand on its own."
Encouraged, Cross decided to shoot higher with "Respire." The original title was "The Last Breath." The movie started when his sister Donna confessed a dream she'd had about boxing up people's final exhalations. Cross knew it could be the kernel of a horror movie. When he began to root around for precedents, he discovered that ancient Romans had adopted the same ritual. They bottled the last breath of loved ones. They believed it contained the soul fleeing the body. (Cross held a cast-and-crew contest to find a more novel name and wound up with "Respire.")
Cross came up with a contemporary story and shot it in Hampstead. He says "the town has wanted to draw in moviemakers and was helpful to us in every way." He exploited picturesque locations and turned a house into a soundstage containing about a dozen small sets. Almost all of the ingenious opening-credit sequence, which ranges from the 1930s to the new millennium and across the globe, unfolded in a single room.
But I found the director's own story more intriguing. "I've lived in Glen Burnie all my life," he says. He never went to college. He worked at the Motor Vehicle Administration giving driving tests. He hated his job. The thrill he felt seeing the original "Alien" never left him; making horror thrillers for a living took shape in his mind. "When I started, I was 30." "Ghost Watcher" came out in 2004, followed by "Ghost Watcher 2" in 2005. In a low-budget realm close to the shoot-and-run practices of early silent filmmaking, the gap between that film and "Respire" was "excruciating" for Cross.
With the regional production downturn, a lot of talented crafts people became available, including a slew of "Wire" veterans. Cinematographer Nick Gardner, right before "Respire," shot eight episodes of A&E's "Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire"; the resourceful visual-effects supervisor, Jeremy Morrison, had also worked on "Rome."
Cross has been learning from people like that on the job. By now he knows how to command a set. Like every movie director for a hundred years, he had to instruct stage-trained actors to play for the camera rather than project to the back of a theater.