How to Escape the Field With Shane West

The Gotham star heads to the cornfields for new thriller

Shane West in Escape the Field. (Photo by Lionsgate)

How did the makers of survival thriller Escape the Field get Gotham and Once and Again star Shane West to leave the Covid-proof safety of his home to travel to Canada to make a movie? "They promised an actual corn field."

In the new thriller, West plays one of six strangers who find themselves dumped in the ultimate corn maze: a seemingly endless field, filled with traps, puzzles, and a growing sense of distrust. Which is exactly what West hoped he would find between the stalks. "I'm a big Stephen King fan," he said, "and this felt like my chance to be part of a Children of the Corn-type thing."

Escape the Field arrived on VOD last week, but it was actually one of the first films to be produced during the pandemic. The cast assembled for the shoot just outside of Toronto in July 2020 - "The heart of Covid," as West noted.

This was a tense time for the film industry, which had effectively shut down on March 13 of that year. People were nervous, and more than a few actors were attached and dropped out, unwilling to risk exposure. West, however, said he had been on hold for a series and had a film fall apart twice just before the pandemic, "so careerwise, in those two months before Covid, I was like, 'What the heck?' So I was already eager to go. So just from your job, that stop and start drives you nuts, so I had a little more enthusiasm to work, period."

However, this is where the cornfield location shoot had another appealing element: "We were all outside, so this all felt very safe to me."

Once he got on-set in Ontario, it was into the new norm of social distancing and on-set bubbles. West explained, "If we had to go this way, the crew had to go that way, and I still don't know what anyone looked liked because they were all covered up"). On top of all that was the daily safety check, with the first wave of Covid tests, "those long, all-the-way-in-the-brain tests. ... I videoed every single Covid text we got up the nose on Escape the Field, and it was brutal. They were up there for 10, 15 seconds."

But for West it was definitely worth it, and it wasn't just about the corn field, or to find a way to work safely when there was no end to the industry shutdown in sight, or to work again with his Red Sands costar, Theo Rossi, or even the unexpected pleasures of having nothing to worry about except performing and hanging out in the hotel ("I did a lot of yoga. There was a lot of time to reflect, and a lot of time to rehearse"). Ultimately, as always, it came down to the script: as he explained, "The simplicity of the story, but with twists that you weren't going to expect."

Austin Chronicle: There's something very American about cornfield horror, something about the American heartland that filmmakers and writers tap into.

Shane West: The main character of this world is a corn field, and it was not CG. It was legit, and it went on for a very long time.

And because we were able to film in a real cornfield, we were able to have that feeling. All the feelings I thought I might have because they scared me and creeped me out as a kid when I was watching Children of the Corn happened while making this film.

One of the cool things that happened on this project was that we were filming on a farm, and nearby the farm was this kids' playground area. They had to edit all this out of the movie - which I was like, "Please keep this in the movie, I know it makes no sense but please keep this in the movie," but it wouldn't have made sense - but you'd be in the middle of a cornfield, in the middle of a scene, or there's a quiet moment and you'd hear these kids giggling in the background. A lot. But, unfortunately, because it didn't have anything to do with the plot, we had to erase them out.

But the fear was there. It's very Americana.

AC: So, beyond Children of the Corn trauma, why do you think that cornfields are scary?

SW: What makes them so scary or intimidating is that you can't see anything for a long time. It doesn't have to be corn. It could be that film In the Tall Grass. Forests can be that way, the ocean can be that way as we've seen in many movies. It's the sense in a cornfield that you're not usually tall enough to see anything, so you have to sort of plough through it.

“One of the things I was really worried about was all the goddam bugs.”
One of the things I was really worried about was all the goddam bugs that might be out there, or what creatures and critturs will be out there but - knock on wood - nothing bit me, and I was able to survive eight weeks out there. Because we'd just run out there. It was gonzo filmmaking sometimes. It would be, "Shane, you're going to be looking for Jordan, so I'm just going to run out there." Run? No one knows what's out there. No one swept or anything. It was just the middle of a wild cornfield. You weren't going to run into anything except maybe a spider, but if you didn't like creepy crawlies it was definitely a little more scary. We had little cuts and scrapes, but we were definitely in their world.

AC: I was on a set a few years ago. Texas, mid-summer, and all night the bugs were just screaming. The sound guy was pulling his hair out.

SW: I just did a film this past fall in Knoxville, Tennessee. It's another contained movie, mostly outside, and Fall in Tennessee? The sound guy was also like, "Screw it." Just so many bugs, and the weather you have to contend with.

AC: Was the weather at least OK in Ontario in summer?

SW: The very end of July, we went out to start our quarantine, so we started shooting mid-August into September. So what we got, unfortunately for me, was unbearable heat during the day - which was great, because nobody was supposed to look good, everyone was supposed to be stressed out. It was just reacting to the heat. If you saw little sweat stains or dirt, a lot of that was real.

But we also had night shoots, because the finale of this film was at night. I was more cold than I've probably ever been in my life. I was shirtless, and it was two nights in succession. We did this cool drone shot where I was involved - once again, shirtless, in the middle of the night - and I don't know if you've had a drone this close to you, it's just adding this much more cold.

AC: So at what point did [writer/director Emerson Moore] admit, 'I'm secretly trying to kill you?'

SW: I think with the drone shot that they finally cut out of the film. I gave him hell for that.

Escape the Field is on VOD now, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray June 21. Read our review here.

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