By Josh Reilly B. & George Bate
Appendage is a disturbingly relevant and darkly comedic body horror film from 20th Digital Studio premiering at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. The HoloFiles had an opportunity to sit down with David Worthen Brooks, the founder and head of 20th Digital Studio to talk about his new film Appendage, dedication to emerging talent, and the landscape of horror cinema and streaming.
Appendage comes from writer/director Anna Zlokovic, who previously created the short Appendage (now streaming on Hulu) that served as the basis for this feature film. Appendage follows a young woman named Hannah (played by Hadley Robinson), who lives a stressful life balancing her passive aggressive mother with her responsibilities as a fashion designer. The intrusive thoughts and self-doubt that plague Hannah begin to manifest as physical illness and, eventually, a ferocious and villainous growth on her body…
Appendage was first realized as a short film developed by 20th Digital for their Bite Size Horror series. The short premiered at Sundance and was met with critical praise. 20th Digital Studio founder and head David Worthen Brooks decided to adapt the short into a feature film before the short had even finished production. “I think they shot three or four days [on the short] and, on the second day of photography on the short, we had already knew we were going to commission a feature script from [Anna Zlokovic].”
The road from short to feature length horror film has become something of a trend for Brooks and 20th Digital. Brooks oversaw Bite Size Horror, two-minute horror films sponsored by Mars Candy that gained praise for their innovative anthology approach to horror akin to Hulu’s Into the Dark series. Out of the approximately 60 shorts developed for Bite Size, Brooks commissioned 15 concepts to be adapted into feature films. The first two of these films were Grimcutty and Matriarch, both of which are now streaming on Hulu.
Brooks spoke about the process of taking a short film and turning into a feature length horror film. “It’s a very logical number of steps that you can take from a short horror film,” Brooks stated. “If it’s a good short, it tells you what the monster is, and what the problem is going to be. And, if it works well as a short, it should leave you thinking, ‘Well, what’s going to happen now?’…And then we sort of evaluate what the experience with the filmmaker was like and what their pitch for a feature is going to be. And then, if that is all positive, then you can really see what [their] larger execution is going to be.”
These short-to-feature horror adaptations stream on Hulu, with Appendage set to debut on the streaming service this Halloween season. Brooks spoke about the unique challenges posed to filmmakers in the era of streaming, ““From a creative point of view, one of the things we’re very mindful of is the first 5 minutes of the film…actually the first 90 seconds of the film. It has to sell and hook the audience much more effectively than if you got an audience into a theater and they’re sitting down and they’ve committed to be there. It’s so easy to watch the first 90 seconds of a film and go, ‘Okay, what else is on?’ It’s much more TV like in that respect.”
For his third short-to-feature adaptation, Brooks was enthusiastic to work with a creative collective including director Anna Zlokovic, making her feature length directorial debut, and editor Alex Familian. “The core creative [team] is Anna [Zlokovic] and…Alex Familian. [They] are an incredible partnership. That filmmaking team, the DP/cinematographer Powell Robinson is an amazing talent. The production designer Michelle Patterson is the same. The four of them have worked together on multiple projects. And we brought on Naomi Lachter as the costume designer – she’s fantastic. Her work is fantastic in the film…And then an actor/director we’ve worked with before Kausar Mohammed, she is the third lead in the film. It’s a beautiful little cast. And it’s a great first feature from a director. Anna and her team are going to go on to great things.”
In speaking with Brooks, his admiration for and dedication to emerging talent was palpable and extremely commendable. It’s rare to see a head of a studio like this speak so enthusiastically about all of the different filmmakers behind the scenes. Brooks spoke of his philosophy to provide opportunities to new talent. “The first history of 20th Digital Studio, and previously it was Fox Digital Studio, we have always gone off after [and] scouted new talent, because we, to be frank, aren’t the most funded of the DIsney studios,” Brooks said. “So, what we need to make our economics work are talented newcomers who are ready to give their all to an opportunity. If we were going after established filmmakers or actors, we probably wouldn’t get the same enthusiasm, because established talent are at a different part of their career.”
This mentality has led Brooks to provide early career opportunities to the likes of Josh Hartnett, Jordan Vogt Roberts, and Constance Wu. Highlighting the kind of inclusivity he promotes as head of 20th Digital, Brooks scouts and provides opportunities to filmmakers of diverse background and identities. He remarked, “If we’re generating opportunities, we wanted to make sure that we are giving opportunities not just to the expected profile of filmmakers.”
One of these emerging talents is Hadley Robinson, who stars as Hannah in Appendage and features in virtually every scene of this frenzied body horror experience. Robinson most recently starred opposite Christian Bale in the Netflix murder mystery The Pale Blue Eye, and previously had roles in Little Women, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and Fosse/Verdon. Executive producer Brooks spoke about how Robinson was cast in the lead role of Appendage. “Through the casting process, Hadley [Robinson] came onto our radar,” Brooks said. “She just had all of the qualities that we had imagined when Anna [Zlokovic] first showed us the script…Everyone at the studio was very excited about the qualities that Hadley brought. To the extent that she is not just one of the actors in the film, but also one of the producers. And that was how we engaged with her, because we wanted to no just see her interpretation of the character but we wanted to have her feed into, in a meaningful way, the creative process.” Brooks went on to say, “In terms of Hadley’s work, I was shown actually a reel…of clips from films she was in and she had this quality that fit exactly what we were anticipating as the feature script involved. It was kind of love at first sight.”
Appendage premiered at 2023 SXSW Film Festival and will stream on Hulu this Fall. Check out our review for the must-watch new horror film below!