Q&A: Jason Banker on “TOAD ROAD”
Set against the backdrop of York, PA’s urban legend of The Seventh Gates of Hell and Toad Road of Hellam Township, Jason Banker’s debut Toad Road proves to be the most evocative, unsettling horror-tinged exploration of drug-comatose youth culture you will see all year, firmly standing somewhere between Adam Wingard’s Pop Skull and Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill – in its highly affective blending of fiction and documentary aesthetics, unique sensorial experience and use of drugs as a gateway to an elevated level of consciousness (and decay) inviting the supernatural – often with terrible consequences. Spectacular Optical speaks with director Jason Banker, who world premiered Toad Road at last year’s Fantasia Festival. Unfortunately its star Sara Anne Jones died a few months after the premiere (read a tribute to her here), but the film is set for a limited theatrical release courtesy of Artsploitation films starting this October.
AEC: For the past 3 years, you’ve worked extensively as a DP for a variety of projects – including Jonathan Caouette’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, All Flowers in Time and Walk Away Renee. How much of a transition was it to go from DP to director on your own project, which you also shot and produced?
JB: There really wasn’t much of a transition because as a DP sometimes you find yourself directing a scene, or working closely with an actor to improve their performance visually. Plus working mostly on documentary films I’d often be filming by myself simply trying to capture the moment. I just needed to come up with a story I was excited to tell, and Toad Road was it.
AEC: I don’t want to make bold claims, but it seems to me a film like Toad Road can’t come from any place but from strong personal experience. How much of that would you say is true? Can you talk about its inception, how it came to be?
JB: I knew I wanted my first feature to be inspired from what it was like growing up in a small town. Being a skater I hung out with all the other misfits. Most of them just wanted to get messed up in one way or another just to have something to do. Having lived in NY for 12 years at that point, it gave me enough distance to appreciate that world. The film is as personal and intimate as I could make it.
AEC: While the idea of drugs as elevating consciousness is pretty common, I love the idea of drugs as gateways – or facilitators, if you will – for the supernatural. Did you aim to explore the darker avenues of drug use through that specific lens or did it result more of the characters and locales you were dealing with?
JB: Drugs do open a door to another place, and some people never come back to the same reality. I was interested in the cross over between drug use, self-destruction, and a road leading to hell. There were so many parallels and possibilities it was hard to focus on which aspect was more important. At this point I feel like those elements are so interconnected that they become an existential experience.
AEC: Along those lines, I feel like locations plays an extremely important role in setting up mood and inviting dread in Toad Road. Did you grow up in York? If so, how much of this film is informed by your own teenage time spent in woods and caves of the region?
JB: Yeah I grew up in York and hung out in most of the locations featured in the film. Although some of the spots were also places the actors recommended in Maryland. I spent a long time location scouting with an old friend who took me hiking to remote areas and hidden caves. I knew the blending of natural environments and drug exploration would be the perfect backdrop for the film visually.
AEC: Can you talk a bit more about the urban legend the film is set against? I had never heard of “Toad Road” or The Seven Gates of Hell before watching this film…
JB: Yeah the urban legend is called “The Seven Gates of Hell” which is pretty self-explanatory. “Toad Road” is the name of the road in York, PA that supposedly contains the seven gates. You can read the different stories about it online, even Wikipedia has a page for it, but I had been hearing about it since high school from friends. I think it’s one of the more interesting concepts to base an urban legend around and paralleled the drug aspect of the film perfectly.
AEC: Toad Road doesn’t follow a conventional structure in the least, instead playing with the viewer’s senses and emotions, jumping around in time, intercutting to other images, and so on. Correct me if I’m wrong but it looks like it was a hell of a film to edit! Did you shoot much more than ended up in the final cut? Any tidbits worth knowing about?
JB: I did shoot a ton of stuff that never ended up being used, but Jorge Torres-Torres did an amazing job of taking the madness that we had captured and editing it down. I wanted the film to feel like a drug experience, a bad trip.
AEC: Can you talk a bit about the tremendous sound design work that went into the film? The aural and visual distortion and the eerie soundscape were truly terrifying and smartly used throughout.
JB: I’m a huge fan of drone, and effected field recordings. Dag Rosenqvist of the band Jasper TX made a few original songs for the film, and I used bits of his other music to create several key sound design elements.
AEC: If I’m not mistaken, you have a documentary film called My Name is Faith in the works? Can you talk a bit about that?
JB: “My Name is Faith” just premiered in May at Hot Docs in Toronto. It’s a collaborative project that’s about a young girl trying to overcome childhood trauma. To set the record straight “Toad Road” is my first feature and “My Name is Faith” is my second. I’m grateful that Canadians have been interested in my work.
AEC: Last question, for my own sake: what’s with the matching BMX bikes? Those were great-looking bikes! Too bad they get lost forever…or do they?
JB: Ha, yeah… they were the bikes my brother and I rode around on when we were kids. The morning I shot that scene we took them into the backyard and spray painted them. It’s very nostalgic for me.
Please note: Some elements of this interview were altered by the film’s publicist to maintain its mystique.