Painkillers” is a new horror film by award-winning Taiwanese-American filmmaker Roxy Shih. The movie dives into the life of surgeon John Clark who gets a taste for human blood after a horrible car accident that proves fatal for his son. After the tragedy, John’s marriage dissolves, and he faces becoming a monster...unless a man named Herb Morris can help him.

Roxy Shih discussed this film and more via an exclusive interview on February 5, 2019.

Movies, plots and the filming process

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you start making Movies and how much (if at all) does your Taiwanese background influence you?

Roxy Shih (RS): I started off in the industry as an editor, working quite consistently for a couple of years on music videos, commercials, and promos. After getting laid off, I took it as a sign to navigate my intentions towards producing, where I can have more of creative input from the very beginning. A couple of years after that, with the encouragement and support from my friends and community, I ventured into directing. As a filmmaker, I find that your identity and what you present to the world is extremely important; when I was first starting I felt overwhelmed by the odds of “making it.” I couldn’t name an Asian female film director when I was starting out; if I couldn’t see it how could I become it?

We are in an exciting time right now where the landscape is rapidly shifting to favor inclusivity.

I wouldn’t directly correlate my creative work with my identity, but being cross-cultural has allowed me to expand my perspectives when it comes to developing my characters and storytelling. It has given me the power to empathize with almost every character and situation, enabling me to focus on the connective tissue on what connects all of us as human beings, regardless of genre or format.

MM: What is it about the plot of “Painkillers” that made it so compelling to you and how did you first come across the script?

RS: The script came to me when I was introduced to producers Luke Barnett and Vince Masciale of Lone Suspect through Tony Valenzuela of Blackboxtv (wow that was a mouthful!). When I read the script, my heart was pulled to it due to the fact that the story revolved around grief.

It was also unique in the fact that it’s a genre film; the protagonist develops a paranormal PTSD that forces him to drink fresh human blood in order to temporarily alleviate his pain. Immediately these themes resonated with me; when we go through losing someone so close to us, we lose sight of the ones around us… even though everyone is hurting, we still have to heal in our own way. We then start reflecting on our past actions and if we regret anything that we’ve said or done, and in some ways, we all take on different levels of guilt when we reflect.

Making the film was a fascinating exploration. We kept the film grounded despite using vampire lore as a base, focusing the meat of the story more on overcoming grief and using horror aspects as seasonings on the side.

It was a foray into a hybrid genre on perspective, and I really hope we were able to allow the audience to empathize with our monster.

MM: How did you manage the filming process and securing the locations?

RS: I had an awesome production team where everyone went above and beyond to make everything work. We shot in 15 days and had a handful of locations. We collaborated closely since we were working with a low budget; we needed our locations and logistics to be reasonable. The first week we shot on a stage in Remmet Studios in Los Angeles where our production designer Traci Hays led a team to build an entire Hospital wing. That week we knocked out everything that needed to be shot for that location, then moved to on location sites for the following two weeks.

We were crafty since we had to consolidate some choices to minimize moves; for example, the opening scene with Mischa Barton and the entire basement scene in the third act were at the same location. When we wrapped the basement, we simply had to go upstairs to shoot the opening. It was great getting to collaborate with such talented producers to make it all work. Independent filmmaking is constantly an exciting puzzle!

Scenes, inclusion, and projects

MM: What’s your personal favorite scene in “Painkillers” and why is that?

RS: Oh geez this is a hard one… there are so many that I love because the performances my actors brought to the film were all incredible. However, there is a particular “sequence” that really stands out to me; it’s after John learns from Herb exactly what his condition is and what it’s going to take for him to temporarily absolve the pain.

He goes out to test his theory going from cutting his hand open to drink his blood, to desperation driving him to the hospital to steal blood bags from the operating room. When that doesn’t work either he goes even further to directly steal fresh blood from an active surgery. The whole sequence makes you sit on the edge of your seat because you’re watching a man break every level of his limits and morality.

MM: What other movie projects are you launching and what are your big goals as we embark into 2019?

RS: I’m very excited to have a couple of bigger projects in development (especially one where I’m hoping to bring a Taiwanese-American horror story to life), and I’m still producing on the side for emerging filmmakers with fresh voices.

I’m incredibly active in my Asian-American and female communities to give lesser represented filmmakers a platform and voice to be heard. In our current shifting narrative landscape, it’s important to include the conversation of inclusion in our work both in front and behind the camera.