Love, Lust, and Terror on 'Devil's Path' :: Matthew Montgomery on his Gay Indie Thriller

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday February 22, 2019

After receiving plaudits and becoming an audience favorite on the LGBTQ film festival circuit, Matthew Montgomery's thriller "Devil's Path" is about to enjoy a theatrical release.

First-time director Montgomery co-wrote the screenplay with Stephen Twardokus, who also stars as Noah, a jittery young man whose traumatic past has left him unable to interact easily with other people. Noah finds nature therapeutic, but even as he's seeking peace and balance in the woods he notices other men — a lot of other men — are there for very different reasons. As it happens, the forest where Noah likes to retreat is also a popular cruising ground.

The film is set in the early 1990s, a time before cell phones and their handy access to the internet and hookup apps. Men cast significant looks, engage in superficial conversation, and seek sexual thrills among the other glories of nature. Noah, inexperienced at cruising and essentially terrified of people, nonetheless takes off after an attractive man he happens to spot, a fellow named Patrick (JD Scalzo). As the two enter into an introductory conversation they begin to turn up a trail known as Devil's Path, only to be told by a park ranger that the path has been closed for safety reasons. At least two men have gone missing recently while hiking Devil's Path. It's possible that their disappearances are a matter of accidents, and the timing — one right after the other — is mere coincidence, but there's also a darker possibility: It could be the case that there's a killer haunting the woods and targeting gay men.

In the great tradition of horror movies, Patrick disregards the warning and, daring Noah to come along, ventures up the path toward unknown dangers. Soon enough, the two find themselves on the run from what they fear might be a couple of killers; lost in the woods, they have only each other to depend on — but that might not be enough, as their vastly contrasting world views cause them to clash and their fragile alliance is tested by distrust and suspicion.

EDGE caught up with Matthew Montgomery for a chat in which the filmmaker explained the movie's various permutations as it progressed from idea to reality, talked about the significance of the 1990s setting, and kept the discussion as spoiler-free as possible.

EDGE: I was curious about the reasons for setting the film in the early 1990s. Obviously, a Walkman plays an important part in the story — isn't that a blast from the past! — but what were the other reasons for that setting?

Matthew Montgomery: It was a very specific choice. I grew up in the '90s, so there's a little bit of childhood nostalgia when it comes to that decade. But also, more importantly in terms of the story, I knew how I wanted the characters to meet. I didn't want it to be on an app. Nowadays when guys meet they get on an app and they find out who's closest to them, and it's rarely a face-to-face kind of thing. Gay cruising outdoors was much more prevalent in the '90s, so I wanted to explore their meeting in that more kind of intimate setting.

I also sort of wanted to reflect — you know, the reason I use the Ross Perot sticker to indicate that we're in the '90s is there was this businessman who ran for president, and we are now politically in a time when a businessman ran for president and won, so I wanted to reflect how sometimes history can repeat itself.

But in terms of the story with the guys, it was mostly to have them meet in a more intimate setting.

EDGE: This is a thriller; it reminded me of "Stranger by the Lake," only in a forest, and I also couldn't help thinking about the name "Devil's Path" brings up the idea of sin, and sexual sin more specifically; in horror movies, sexuality is always punished.

Matthew Montgomery: Definitely. I mean, I don't want this to come across as "the danger of cruising.' That's certainly not the moral of the story. The story is more about judging other people and making assumptions, and how that can lead to dire consequences — that's really the theme of the movie.

I loved "Stranger by the Lake." It was not a direct influence for me; the movie "Gerry" [2002] was more of an influence. It's a Gus van Sant movie with Casey Affleck and Matt Damon; it's kind of a dramatic thriller that mostly focuses on these two characters who get lost in the desert, and things just spiral downward. I do a callback in "Devil's Path" — the two thugs are both named Gerry.

One of the things I really love about "Stranger by the Lake" is how they really push the envelope and I also love how they use silence to their advantage, I use a lot of music and sound to generate mood and tone, and they went in a different direction. I really liked what that movie did, so when people bring that up, I take it as a compliment that they compare these movies.

EDGE: So, is there a "Devil's Path" out there somewhere, or was that invented for the film?

Matthew Montgomery: There is a real Devil's Path. It's in the Catskills in the Northeast, and the reason why it's called Devil's Path is it's arguably the most dangerous hiking path in the country. Even though we didn't shoot on the actually Devil's Path hiking trail, I wanted to convey that these guys were going to be going through treacherous terrain that was going to reflect the treacherous emotional terrain they end up going through.

EDGE: I have to tell you, pretty early on I thought to myself, "I have the twist all figured out." But I was caught totally by surprise! How did you and co-writer Stephen Twardokus work out all the twists and kinks in the story?

Matthew Montgomery: It went through many, many, many incarnations. I don't want to say too much, but early on we had the story lead in one direction, and then we changed it... we kept playing around with the story, and we went back and forth. Stephen and I work really well together and we have very similar sensibilities, but stylistically we're also very different. He tends to bring more levity into dramatic situations, and I brought more of the darker things and moodier moments. Combining those things together was really a lot of fun.

Later in the process, when we really started getting into the characters [of Noah and Patrick], and of the third character — who ends up being [Noah's] brother, who's missing — when we really started developing that character, that was when things started coming together. For a long time, the guy who's missing was just Noah's boyfriend, it wasn't his brother, and so that actually came in later in the process.

EDGE Stephen Twardokus also plays the character of Noah — how did he get cast for that? Or was the script written with him in mind all along?

Matthew Montgomery: I cast Stephen. When I brought him onto the project I had already started working on the movie, and I knew that I wanted him to play Noah. I wanted to write [that character] for him. Early on I was going be playing opposite from him — we were going to act in it together — but when it turned into it being my directorial debut, I made the decision to focus on directing and then we cast JD (Scalzo) for the role of Patrick.

But even when Stephen came on as a writer and we started working together, it helped a lot — for obvious reasons. We were able to have these conversations about character arc and I knew what he was like as an actor already because I had produced a movie he was in, years ago, called "3-Day Weekend" [2008]. I knew what he was like as an actor and what he was capable of. That, coupled with us just being able to have direct conversations about who Noah was and what his journey was going to be, really helped us craft a character that was not only rich in layers but also utilized Stephen's innate talents as an actor.

EDGE: Did you have to rewrite the role of Patrick when JD Scalzo came onto the film? Or did you pretty much just say, "Here's the part; make it yours."

Matthew Montgomery: You know, for the most part, we actually just left it the same. We went through kind of a nightmare process trying to cast this role and had gone through a number of different possibilities, and then JD finally came in and knocked it out of the park. I mean... he's such a strong theatrical actor and knows how to make bold choices. He seemed to already have an understanding of the character. [In the sense that there's a controversy between Noah and Patrick], Patrick is the antagonist throughout the movie. A lot of layers have to go into that character. JD came in and made it his own.

EDGE: The controversy between Noah and Patrick is a debate about love and sex. Noah believes in love; Patrick is all about the sex, and he has no illusions. Patrick even says that hooking up is the only sex he finds fulfilling. Is that another part of gay culture in the '90s, and even today, that you wanted to explore?

Matthew Montgomery: In a lot of ways, Noah and Patrick are the same, and yet they are also completely different. In a lot of ways they are two sides of the same coin — their views are just so vastly different about what love is and whether it exists; what sex really means; how it's defined; what is fulfilling about a sexual encounter, or not. Early on in the movie, Noah's really trying to understand Patrick's perspective and Patrick's point of view, because Noah comes from a much more isolated background, an antisocial upbringing, and then we find out later on about his history of being abused. He's really trying to wrap his mind around this kind of cavalier attitude that Patrick has toward sex. I think Noah looks at being outdoors as his safety — as his home. It's not sexualized for him.

EDGE: This film has a kind of indie feel about it — I really felt sometimes that maybe you just grabbed a camera and headed into the hills. There's sometimes a real energy of getting out there, finding what you find, letting it inspire you. There's an energy of working in the moment if you know what I mean.

Matthew Montgomery: That's really good. It was a little bit of both, but we went through a lot of planning in order to make it look like it was just off the cuff. I wanted that energy. Early on in the process, we were debating about, Do we even start outdoors? Or do we start at a location where [Noah] is in his apartment, getting ready to go to the park? I made the decision that, no, I want it to take place all outdoors from the first frame to the last frame. And now let's talk about what the camera's going to be doing, and how the camera is going to be speaking to the audience — because the camera is a character, too, and the camera has a character arc.

We had time constraints, we were dealing with production challenges like that, so Stephen Tringali — the cinematographer — and I made the decision that we would start the camera off in a more stable way in the first act of the film, and then by the end of the film it should be much more frenetic. We tried to get that shaky feel when Patrick is running through the woods like crazy at the end.

EDGE You referenced music and sound earlier, and I wanted to ask about that because the score is so beautifully composed, so atmospheric and scary. What kinds of conversations did you have with the composer, whose name I can't pronounce?

Matthew Montgomery: Ceiri [pronounced "Carey"] Torjuseen. He's a very good friend of mine. He's a Welsh composer and he actually had composed this music previously — this is actually part of his library that he allowed us to use. He has this vast library of all kinds of different music in different genres. We went in and found things that were the right mood and evoked the right feel that I was looking for. I feel like he really gets it as a musician.

For me, scoring is so important. I actually write to music scores. There's a reason that when you lay down music on a timeline that suddenly the movie comes alive. He understood and had that talent inherently of how to compose music in a way that doesn't take away from the story but it elevates and enhances it. I felt very lucky that he came on board and worked with us because he's a pretty talented guy.

EDGE: Something else that the '90s setting, and the movie's paranoia, and especially the Devil's Path setting — that reference to sexual sin — suggests, I think, is that this movie is something of an AIDS allegory.

Matthew Montgomery: Oh, interesting... in what way?

EDGE: These characters are looking for something and yet they are also feeling hunted: There's something enticing in those woods, but it's also dangerous, and their own terrors might be their worst enemies. And, of course, in the early '90s, we didn't yet have the drug regimens that make it possible for HIV-positive people to expect that they'll live normal life spans.

Matthew Montgomery: I really like you have this interpretation and this is one of your responses to the movie, because when we were developing the project, obviously because it takes place in the '90s we had to make the decision: Do we involve HIV/AIDS as a topic in this movie, or don't we? We made a decision, consciously, not to have that be part of the story. It's interesting that you bring it up because even though we left it out and we don't talk about HIV/AIDS, it's something that you just can't talk about — even if you don't talk about it. It's part of our culture, and part of our history.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.