From Punk Rock to Indie Horror, It’s DIY or Die

Whether playing guitar in the bands Bad Ash and Ashers or now making his debut feature Alone with You, Justin Brooks has kept the same ethos.

It was October 2005 when I woke up in a Florida parking lot, in an old electrician’s van converted to sleep six. The pink fuzzy leopard-print upholstery stank of old nachos and Chef Boyardee. Five of my best friends were still fast asleep and it was my turn to go get the donuts. As I walked on the shoulder of Route 50, searching for the nearest Dunkies, I remember smiling to myself, knowing, “I did this.” I had put together a punk band full of my best friends, built a tour van from old scrap, booked a U.S. tour for the next three weeks and left Boston to play punk rock around the country. We never asked for permission. We built everything we ever needed, printed every show flier and booked every gig. No need for managers or record labels or suits to give us the go-ahead. We wanted it, so we made it happen. This was punk-fucking-rock.

Justin Brooks (center) during his time with the punk band Bad Ash.

I’m 40 years old now. The red hair dye and the mohawk may have fallen out a few years back, but the “DIY or die” mentality never did. Now as a filmmaker, that sentiment feels more important than ever. In a world full of spandex superheroes worth millions, it’s doubtful Disney is going to be knocking on my door tomorrow with a Spider-Man script and a high-five. Do I hope it happens? Ab-so-lutely! Do I wait with stars in my eyes and hope in my heart? Fuck no!

I need to make films. It is what I’m best at and what I care most about. When I finally realized that, I went to work. I read every book I could get my hands on. Listened to every interview and watched every behind-the-scenes featurette I could find. I was looking for the recipe. The secret instructions on how to make a movie. Just a heads up: there isn’t one. Each story of success is extremely personal and unique to the filmmaker living it. I did, however, find a singular commonality.

Justin Brooks working as a cinematographer in Ethiopia.

From Maya Deren to Linklater, Smith and Rodriguez, all have one thing in common: They looked at what they had access to, they formed a plan and they just made something. No one director did it the same way, but they shared a mentality. No more excuses and no more waiting, they gathered what they could and they made something.

My partner Emily Bennett and I saw an opportunity in each other. By bringing together each of our particular skill sets, we were fully capable of writing, producing and releasing a movie. We had the band, now it was time to book the show. It would be both my and Emily’s first feature and while equally exciting as it was terrifying, I saw my old punk-rock ways peek out again. After one of our long walks together (we are partners in life as in film), we stopped at a cemetery in Brooklyn and said, “Fuck it, let’s make a movie.” That was the beginning of what would become a nearly three-year journey.

Many things have changed since that day, not the least of which is the very world we live in. During quarantine in New York City, Emily and I wrote, produced and shot a feature film, Alone with You. We both took stock of what we had access to and built a plan around it. I would shoot (I was a director of photography for many years), we both would write and direct and Emily (a RADA-trained actor) would be our lead. The entire film would take place in our apartment, with the exception of a few exteriors, and the script would be built around our confines.

Justin Brooks shooting his lead actress, co-writer and co-director Emily Bennett in Alone with You.

Those DIY days of piecing together show flyers or hammering out insulation from an old ice cream trailer to fill with gear came in handy. With only two of us physically on set the entire time, Emily and I had to find a way to run the camera, secure lighting and run sound while Emily was in front of the lens performing. We didn’t have much for Alone with You, but what we did have was ingenuity. Both Emily and I are pretty strong problem solvers, something which I think benefits us as directors far more than any camera knowledge or memorized lens inventory. So we went to work. We “MacGyvered ” every piece of gear I owned so it worked for the film. Our ceiling and walls became Swiss cheese with the amount of things we were securing to it. It’s a miracle we got our security deposit back. The boom mic was often hanging from the ceiling or a nearby C-stand while I was running the camera with one hand and tilting the mic with another to make sure we had good audio.

One of the first shots in the film is a simple tracking shot: Emily walks 20 paces from the bedroom to the kitchen, puts on a record and pours a glass of wine. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, what you don’t see is me holding the camera while pulling focus, a boom mic slung under my armpit so I could move with Emily’s action and lighting secured to every corner that isn’t on camera. The sound recorder slung to my belt so I could maintain mobility. If I fell out of focus, we’d have to do it again. If the boom shifted under my arm and into shot, we’d have to do it again. If I bumped into something while walking backward, we’d have to do it again. I wanted to quit after the first day. Everything felt impossible. Emily and I sat on our couch at the end of that day, feeling entirely dejected. The next morning, we drank coffee, ate a banana and dove right back into the deep end.

Cinema is riddled with opportunities to give up. If it were easy, everyone would do it. It may be a cliché, but it’s so true. I’m convinced there’s no such thing as a film that was easy to make. Hell, even bad movies are small miracles. That’s also the fun of it all. Film is an extreme sport. At any given moment, it can all crash down. As filmmakers, we all walk on the precipice of total destruction. The trick is to have faith in yourself. Have faith in your ability to make your own parachute. Hold on to your convictions but always be ready to learn and to shift.

Emily Bennett and Justin Brooks triumphantly holding the issue of Fangoria in which their debut feature Alone with You was first announced to the world.

In September 2021, Emily and I premiered Alone with You at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. That was the first of many festivals where we got to see our film on the big screen. That same month, we sold both North American and international rights to the film. On February 4, 2022, our film will be released into to the world. Our little film, our little indie shot entirely in the apartment we both lived in. You know how many people mentioned the multiple takes or the MacGyvered lighting set up or the boom mic hanging off the ceiling? Not one. What they saw was a film. A story of a woman locked away and struggling to get free. Not the staples in the canvas, but rather the work of art painted across it.

It’s strange, but I now feel very similar to that day in Florida, getting donuts for a bunch of passed-out punk rockers. I did this. We did this on our own. We didn’t wait until it was safe. We jumped in head first and realized we could swim this entire time. I carry the very same punk-rock energy with me now in film as I did booking tours and screaming into a microphone in my twenties. The colors, the spikes, the mohawks all fade, but the attitude remains. Nothing about making films is easy. This is hard work and demands a great deal of you, but if you truly want it, take stock and just say, “Fuck it, let’s make something.” DIY or DIE!

Featured image of Justin Brooks by Emily Bennett. All images courtesy Justin Brooks.

Justin Brooks is an award-winning filmmaker known for his short form documentary films, narrative horror shorts and commercials. He has worked for such brands as Vice, Vogue, the History Channel, Vanity Fair, Vox and others. Alone with You, which he wrote and directed with Emily Bennett, is in theaters on February 4 and on demand, digital and DVD on February 8. His most recent short film, Pains, will premiere on Gunpowder & Sky’s Alter channel later this year. Justin’s work can currently be seen on a three part WWII docuseries on the History Channel and other top-rated shows currently on the A&E Network and TLC. (Photo by Keith Barraclough.)