After the disappearance of her husband, a struggling farmer in an isolated Appalachian community fights to save her son when the cold-hearted matriarch of the oldest family on the mountain demands payment of a debt that could destroy a decade's old truce.
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with the power team (and power couple) Ruckus and Lane Skye, the visionaries behind the new thriller film The Devil to Pay. We take a deep dive into their collaboration process from writing to directing and effectively communicating with one another, how they put their indie film together and how they got their footing as screenwriters from a script on the Black List.
Definitely get your notepad ready as you read this interview. Both Lane and Ruckus offer invaluable advice for filmmakers on writing the best script you can and utilizing your resources, network and your community to make your first film.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What initially inspired this story for this movie?
Lane Skye: A lot of elements for the story had been stewing over the years. We used to love to take road trips through the South, just for inspiration. And we found the Museum of Appalachia. And it's just amazing. It's like this one guy's collection and he's handwritten all the little stories that go with all of the items. Our favorite thing was a glass eye and a pocket knife and a story about how that pocketknife put out the real eye. [laughs] That was a really rich world that we wanted to set a story in. And then we met Danielle, the lead in the film, and we had coffee with her and talked because we were big fans of hers and wanted to see what she was interested in doing. And from that conversation, we kind of came up with this story because motherhood was an important theme for her in her work.
Sadie: Did she have a hand in developing the story with you two?
Ruckus Skye: No, she had no idea we were writing it. We had met her a couple of years earlier and had been talking about working together at some point. But when we came up with the story, we were like, “Oh, yeah, let's write this for Danielle.” But we didn't tell her we were doing it until it was finished. And then we handed her the script and said, “By the way, we did this. I hope maybe you'll want to do the movie.” [laughs] She was in. She read it and had a lot of questions.
We had another movie we were trying to make that we'd written, and we were going to direct. We’d been trying to make it for a long time and had started and stopped and it almost got made several times. And then that fell apart - yet again. And we were like, you know what, we have this window we're aiming at anyway, let's just make a movie where we don't have to wait for permission. Make a really low-budget indie movie. And that kind of spurred it. The thing is we had shoot days before we had a story or script. [laughs] But then you start listing your resources and one of them was Danielle because we knew she was an amazing actor and we knew if we could make something where she's in every scene, and she shows up, we'll have a movie. [laughs]
Sadie: Did you guys already have a budget in place?
Ruckus: Literally had nothing. It was just the script and Danielle and us. That was it. And we were just like, ‘here's what we're doing.’ We would just tell people, ‘we're shooting it here.’ And we just kind of manifested it. And it was insanely stressful, but it worked out. And when we got the money for it, two weeks before we started shooting. But it was like, we just have to make this happen, because now we're responsible for all these people that have agreed to do it.
But fortunately, it worked out. It was a minor miracle. A mentor of ours had made a film that way, and he said, “I had nothing, but I set a date and told everyone that's when I was shooting, and I got it all by then.” And we took that to heart, and it worked. [laughs]
Lane: He was committed to making it with whatever resources he had, even if it was no money and just friends.
Ruckus: Yeah, I mean, if we hadn't got the money you might have watched the iPhone version of it. [laughs]
Sadie: I love that idea of setting an actual shoot date and fully going for it. For a lot of us creatives, especially writers, we procrastinate on our work, because we don’t have deadlines. Just set that deadline, have that date, go for it.
What was the collaboration process like for you two knowing that you're both going to write and direct? How are you approaching what you were writing on the page? Was it more visual, knowing what you were going to shoot? Or was it more so get the story on the page and then we'll take it to director mode afterward?
Ruckus: Everything we write is as though we were going to direct it. I always see the film in our head and we're not putting in camera angles and stuff. And also, would we make this our self? Would we direct this? And if we don’t, then why are we writing it, because it needs to be something we're excited about.
I always tell this, it's kind of half-joking, but it's really the truth - we accidentally became screenwriters - we didn't set out to do that as a career. We wanted to be filmmakers, and we needed stuff to shoot. So, we started writing because we didn't have access to good scripts. And then a script we wrote started getting passed around and used as a sample and then people started asking us to write for them, but it was never our intention to do that. But we embrace it. We love doing it now. We love writing for other people.
Sadie: Do you two storyboard? Or along with writing do you bring in visual elements, like this is what the scenery is going to look like, this is our location we write to, etc.?
Ruckus: When we wrote this film? No, we just wrote what we wanted to see and then figured out the visuals from there. Unless we're writing something that's very specific and we need references.
Lane: Sometimes we'll draw a map or something if it's a very specific, real-time, kind of thing.
Ruckus: We just wrote a very contained thriller that we had to kind of map out because there's so many characters.
Lane: A chessboard kind of thing. [laughs] We wrote a script last year that we started with a mood board of just like images that got us excited about the story and then went from there.
Ruckus: Oh, right. Yeah, it's something we're developing with actor Lulu Wilson. We wanted to sell her on the idea before spending time writing it, so we did a bunch of visuals. And she said, “Oh, yeah, let's try something.”
Lane: It was inspiring to have something to look at. Danielle was in a short film that was like a Southern Gothic that our friend had made and Ruckus did an edit of the short film, which she was a secondary character in and it’s just Danielle played on loop. [laughs]
Ruckus: Yeah. I pulled all her shots from the film and then put some creepy music under it. It was sort of a mood board for this. And we watched it over and over while we were writing.
Sadie: That's an interesting way to develop a character.
Ruckus: Yeah, yeah. She was just so engaging on camera without having to say anything.
Sadie Dean: With your editing, because Danielle has those very still moments where I could just get lost with her watching other people. Wearing multiple hats as a writer and the director, did you jump in immediately watching dailies every night? Or did you take some space in between?
Ruckus: No, it's very not compartmentalized. I never took off the director hat or put on the editor hat.
Lane: And we tend to sit together a lot when we edit, but he does some of it without me in the room.
Ruckus: Usually I'll do a really rough assembly of the scene. That way, she has something to react to. But then we literally go through and watch every single take for every angle and massage it from there.
Speaking of the way everything is all kind of all pieces of the other thing - even the music, Brad Carter, who played Dixon in the movie, also composed the score for the film. We sent him the script and we're like, “I want you to play this character, but also write the music.” And then a week later, he just sent us a bunch of tracks of stuff he had, he was inspired by the script. And then that inspired us to shoot scenes in a certain way. And so that was kind of cool how the script inspired music which inspired the script. I'm also a musician, so I love that kind of interplay and like how the choir of the heathens, we recorded that live with no idea what we were going to do with it later other than I knew it would become a score later.
Sadie: That is so cool that you had that as an additional creative resource during your cut too, which is super rare. With the casting process, how did you get everyone on board?
Ruckus: Well, almost everyone in the movie was a friend of ours who we wrote the part for, because we knew they would show up. [laughs] And we knew they were good actors.
Lane: They’re all almost from Atlanta.
Ruckus: Yeah, we lived in Atlanta when we made this. And we've been making films in Atlanta for 15 years, like short films and doing commercials and just been in that world. So, we knew a lot of actors and half of them we had worked with before and half of them we had been wanting to work with for a long time.
Lane: Stars definitely aligned there. The only one who came from out of town was Luce Rains, he plays Percy. One of our producers, his wife had been in a movie with him and was good friends with him.
Ruckus: And he's like a real-life mountain man, so that was pretty amazing. Making an indie film, this low budget, and it's really a passion project, it really is just like, who do I know is going to show up because they like us as human beings and not because they think it's a gig, you know? they want to, and they believe in the project. Our DP and our crew were from Miami and they all wanted to come do it. It was just a weird mix of people that were passionate about making movies.
Lane: And the community was super supportive of the film.
Ruckus: Oh, yeah. We shot the film in Hiawassee, Georgia, which is in the Appalachians in North Georgia.
Lane: It's about two hours north of Atlanta. And all of our extras, all of our locations, all of our animals, they all came from that community just supporting the film, which is pretty amazing.
Sadie: Yeah, and that goat casting.
Ruckus: [laughs] The goat's name is Snowball. He brought us the goat in the chickens. Yes, that was one of the best performances in the movie. And that was like, I still remember shooting that because she's very easily startled, and it was like twenty people all holding their breath and she did like the perfect take. I'm so proud of that.
Lane: [laughs] She’s a farm goat, she wasn't trained.
Ruckus: At one point, she got off leash and went up a mountain and he's like, “You better go shoot something else because it's gonna take me a while.” [laughs] It took him an hour to go get her, he carried her back down the mountain. On indie films, you're not supposed to put kids or animals and we had --
Sadie: Kids and animals. [laughs]
Ruckus: Plenty of animals. The location with the horse, we had a different location that we lost the day before we were supposed to shoot, and we were like “we’re shooting tomorrow where?”. And one of the producers who lived in Hiawassee, found it, “We can go shoot here and it comes with a horse.” And we're like, great! [laughs] So, now there’s a horse in our movie. And we had a producer from LA who anytime we got something like free or cheap he would say, “You know how much a horse in LA would cost? And you just got a free one in your movie!” [laughs] Anyways, we were very, very fortunate. So many things went right to make the movie feel like a bigger movie than it is.
Sadie: How many shoot days did you guys have on this?
Ruckus: It was scheduled for three 6-day weeks. And then we put on extra days. Nineteen total shoot days. There was time to do everything.
Sadie: Taking a step back, I want to talk about both of your filmmaking journeys and how you two linked up and decided that you're going to be creative partners. Lane, what got you started wanting to be a filmmaker and then connecting with Ruckus?
Lane: Well, we actually connected first. I’ve always loved film. And I'd always been creative. I wrote short stories and poetry and just did random creative stuff. And we met and started dating and then got married and then we both got fired from our jobs [laughs] and we’re like we just got married and we both got fired. We both kind of had a crisis of like, “what are we going to do?” And we started putting our energy and our effort into making creative stuff, like that being our primary thing.
Ruckus: The first thing we ever filmed was I'd written a song, and I was like, let's just shoot a music video for it. None of this was ever planned out. That's why it's taken so long. [laughs]
Lane: [laughs] Very haphazard.
Ruckus: I'm only joking. That’s what we spent years doing - random stuff. We were like, let's shoot a music video and then that didn't happen. But then we shot another one, and it did happen. And then we're like, “Well, that's fun. Maybe we shoot something with dialogue.” And it was just creating things because it's fun to create things. It took us a few years before finally going, “OK, now we're going to actually put effort into trying to make a feature.”
Lane: And I will say we met working together at a restaurant, and we worked really well together. And so, after that, we were trying to find other ways that we could work together. We tried a bunch of random stuff, like we we're going to start a cookie factory. [laughs] But we realized we were both really passionate about creative stuff. And that's when we found our sweet spot.
Ruckus: Right. And then we wrote the script Rattle the Cage - this is how our career started by accident at least, we wrote this script which was originally going to be like The Devil to Pay - it all takes place in one location and we were going to shoot it really cheap and this was right about the time the Black List website launched. And so we were like, “well, what if we at least put it up there?” And three weeks later, we got an offer from a manager off the Black List website, who is still our manager to this day. And then we started getting all these offers for people wanting to buy the script, but we were like, “no, we're directing.” So, we turned them all down. But then this company, called Image Nation in the UAE, asked if they could make with the Arabic language rights and make it in Arabic. And we would keep the English language rights. And we said, “sure” because it was almost kind of free money. And so that film got made and premiered at Fantastic Fest. And it was a really cool experience. That kind of started our career. That script started getting passed around. And when we started getting hired to write for other people based off that script. But I will say this, we wrote that for us to make. It was not as if we had set out to say, “Hey, we're going to write a spec that's going to start our career as screenwriters,” it wouldn't have been that script, that's for sure. I doubt that we would have made it happen. But what we did was, we just leaned into it and we wrote something we wanted to see other people connected to. We tried to keep that in mind more when writing spec stuff. And then we just started taking jobs, having no idea what it meant to be a professional screenwriter, and learned as we went, and unfortunately, we've continued to be hired. [laughs] Hopefully, we're getting better. I know, that's probably insanely frustrating, because there are people that I know who that's what they want to do is be screenwriters, and that's their plan and their passion and it's probably really frustrating to hear that we did it by accident. But that is the truth. It wasn't our intention,
Sadie: I think there's something to the idea of writing something that you want to see rather than writing to the mainstream audience, because then you're more excited about your work and you're more passionate about it - it pops off the page. Did you two take any formal screenwriting classes or did you open up Final Draft and have at it?
Ruckus: Yeah, we seriously just figured it out. We read other screenplays and we've gotten a ton off of the Scriptnotes podcast, which I know everyone knows. But 90% of it is learning on the job.
Lane: And we wrote a lot of really bad scripts before we came to that one.
Ruckus: I'll say that Rattle the Cage, the one that started it all for us, was probably our seventh or eighth attempt at writing a feature. And it’s the first one worth reading, I’ll say that. The seven before that are terrible, but we had to get them out of our system. And even then, when we wrote them, I didn’t know if it was good or not until other people read it and went “oh wow this is really good” and I remember specifically writing it thinking oh this is kind of cool. But I thought that about all of the other ones that were terrible. Something finally clicked and we figured out how to tell the story.
Lane: We tried a new approach on that script that finally clicked. We had always tried to write a script and then write our logline afterward to describe what the script was. And we always struggled with that. And we were like, you know what, let's start and write a logline first before we write the script, and we'll use that as sort of a mission statement for the film and every idea will weigh against that logline and see if it fits. That was a huge change in the way that we wrote, and it definitely elevated what we were writing.
Ruckus: That was the first time we were writing and breaking the story, we knew what we were aiming at, versus throwing a bunch of cool ideas around and hoping a story comes out of it, you know?
Sadie: Do you do that with every project now?
Ruckus: Yeah, I literally print it out and hang it on the wall. These days, we could probably skip that, but we still do it as practice. After a while, you kind of learn how to do things internally without even having to do that. But we still do that. And they're these terrible, long-winded run-on sentences and it’s not for anyone, it’s just for us. There’s one on our wall right now that I hope no one else ever reads this thing. [laughs] We have like a list of elements, antagonists, protagonists, stakes, urgency, and we just make a long run on sentence out of it. And that gives us something to aim for.
Sadie: Whatever works - if it's not broken, don't fix it, right? What kind of stories are you two drawn to tell?
Ruckus: We’ve dabbled in a bunch of genres. We tried to write comedies for a very long time when we first started. The first couple of short films we did were comedies. And then one day Lane looked at our DVD shelf, and we're like, these are all thrillers. That's how haphazard this was unplanned, we were then like, “Oh, maybe we should try writing a thriller.” [laughs] This is why it took us 18 years to make a feature because was no goal and no plan. It was just kind of meandering and finding our way of being creative.
Lane: We’ve realized that in our sleep, we can write Southern culture. And if it's a thriller, if it's a dark drama, we can write the hell out of that without any stretch at all. We love morally complicated characters.
Ruckus: We like anything that's thematically about family and the inner workings of family and complications with family. I think every single script we've ever written probably has that at its heart. All of our personal projects are also Southern. For instance, this project we’re developing with Lulu, it’s a road movie about musicians, but it takes place in the South – there’s that through line. And I’ve been a musician and songwriter forever, so there’s another through line. On the surface, you may be like why are you doing this coming-of-age road movie, but there’s elements in there, and there’s a darker drama to it. We like to say we write heartwarming movies where people are murdered. [laughs] The more murderous it gets, the more I want a dramatic emotional moment, and I want a comedic moment in it so that there's an ebb and flow.
Sadie: Advice for creative partners that are going to both co-write and co-direct a project, what is something they should be aware of either in the development, production stage, or post?
Ruckus: I would say one thing - we talk amongst ourselves and set rules and guides to be incredibly clear up ahead of what we're expecting from each other. lf there's one area that this is going to be my area, and this is going to be her area, let's talk about that ahead of time. And not both make assumptions about that. One rule we have is that when we're on set, and we’re shooting a scene or a take, we won’t move on until we’re both happy. Even if it’s a scene that’s really mine, I’m really driving it or one where she’s really driving it, we won’t both move on until we’re both happy. And that’s just a decision we made going in and as long as we stick to that, it’s hard to argue about it.
Lane: Yeah, one thing we definitely always try to focus on is when we argue, which you're going to, like there's two people with two different opinions, you're not going to not argue, but we're always arguing for the movie. We try to keep it always about trying to make the best movie possible. All of our arguments are about that. And that way, it doesn't get personal and don't get involved as they could have.
Ruckus: It's always the best idea wins, right? And I love when it's her idea that solves it, because that's less effort for me. [laughs] There are oftentimes where we can't figure something out, I’m like, “just go in your room and figure it out and come back.” [laughs] But really, it’s being able to remove your ego from it, we're both going to get equal credit, and so, who cares whose idea it was right? It's just the best idea wins. And if it elevates the project, then let's go for it. I don't care if it was my idea or her idea.
Sadie: I love that advice. And out of curiosity with the two of you directing, how you divvy up who's in charge of the visual aspect and working with the camera and who's working with the actors? Or are you both tag-teaming those aspects?
Ruckus: It's a really good question, because we haven't done that many things together.
Lane: Like with our writing collaboration, it's constantly evolving depending on the project and what the needs of the project are. But in general, with Ruckus, his strengths lie a little more with the visuals and the technical aspects of filmmaking. And I tend to focus a little more on story and emotion. But with that said, that doesn't mean that only one of us talks to the actors or only one of us talks to the DP.
Ruckus: We do say, if we want to make an adjustment, do I want to go talk to her to you? Because I know as an actor, it has to be slightly challenging or weird even to have two different people directing and the last thing you would want is two different directing notes.
It’s all open communication, like more than anything. If we were just writing partners and not husband and wife, I think we would still have to put in the same amount of effort. The amount of effort you have to put into a relationship, like this is our 20th year anniversary of marriage, that's a lot of effort. [laughs] We have to put that same amount into our creative partnership, which is separate, even though it all blends together, you have to put that much energy into that as well. It's a challenge.
Lane: In some ways, it simplifies things in other ways it complicates things. [laughs]
Ruckus: We meet people all the time who are like, “I could never work with my husband or my wife” and I'm like, I love it. Because we're both kind of workaholics and we don't ever stop.
Sadie: What’s next in the pipeline? Are you two directing in another film soon?
Ruckus: Yeah, we have several. We have a supernatural thriller ghost story thing we're trying to do. And then that music one. We have several we want to direct. And we've written four scripts this year for other people. It's been three years since we shot this, so we can’t wait to get back on set.
The Devil to Pay is now available On Demand on Amazon Prime.