Down the Road exemplifies the strengths that lead me off the beaten path and into the uncharted wilds of indie film. Not knowing what to expect from this supernatural mystery, I found its unassuming gravity pull me into an atmospheric, thoughtful story unlike anything I have found anywhere else. When a local paperboy goes missing in the local forest, efforts by law enforcement stall after weeks without leads. As his friends follow the clues where no logical searcher would tread, they uncover a secret beyond the understanding of forensic science.
A 10+ year effort on behalf of Erik Margolin, Down the Road was a project that taught him the fundamentals of writing, editing, directing, sound mixing, and visual effects. Where independent films sometimes suffer for their low budget or unrefined talent, Down the Road brings a distinctive energy that holds your attention and earns your respect. Despite its low budget, the film doesn’t look cheap from its framing or construction. The only clear markers of its homegrown quality are the sometimes grainy visuals owing to a camera from 2004, but that grain adds a layer of disquieting obscurity to the film that helps build its sense of mystery. That’s not to mention how far a cheap camera pushes a filmmaker to learn about lighting and composition. I’ve seen many films shot for cheap in the forest, but none of them gave the trees the same sense of looming intensity that Erik managed to.
Down the Road could never have come about as a product of professional filmmaking; it exists only because Erik did not compromise on his vision or rush the production to get it over with. The decade or more of its development saw drastic changes to its script and story. The production was an organic evolution of a concept that had been percolating in his skull since learning about the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle. Originally the town of Clearwood where the film is set was going to be called Adumreb as a reference, but that idea was scrapped for being too awkward and on the nose. About a third of the film is different from what was first planned, marking an interesting parallel between this and blockbusters. Erik changed the script because of the long process of feeling out the mystery and how he was going to communicate it, while most reshoots are the last minute mandate of business people who see caring about art as a naive weakness.
The missteps of self-taught work ended up teaching Erik a lot. Beyond doing most of the production and post-production on his own, he taught himself frame by frame rotoscoping to complete the 298 visual effects shots. It’s ironic, as Erik told me he would avoid that arduous process in the future, and AI might make it completely unnecessary. At the same time, director Phil Gellatt’s rotoscoped feature The Spine of Night experienced a production of 7 years due to not being able to find artists with that level of experience in the rarely-used technique. Erik also composed the film’s score, one of its strongest elements, which builds the theme and keeps you uneasy as the narrative proper slowly develops. If you’re on the fence about this project, listening to the score and immersing yourself in Down the Road’s signature atmosphere is sure to change your mind.
Down the Road’s air of desperation and paranoia hang thick, but its progression as a mystery is probably its strongest feature. Luke Tarzian’s Charlie is the only one left with hope that his friend is still alive, and that hope pulls him to follow leads that no one else would take seriously. What’s surprising is how effectively the narrative brings the audience along for this journey. Charlie is a logical, intelligent individual, who only believes the absurdity of what he finds because of the care of his investigation. The clues he uncovers are equally impossible and undeniable, unfolding the full story at a deliberate, considerate pace. The one point of controversy I have seen about Down the Road is where those clues ultimately lead. There is no doubt that they make absolute factual sense, as everything ties together tightly once you find where the road leads. More complicated are the thematic elements of this mystery, and whether the tone of the ending is inconsistent with that of the bulk of the film’s staging and development. I am still thinking about it myself, which is more than I can say for most mysteries I’ve come across. Luke, by the way, is not an actor but an author first and foremost, with an impressive array of dark fantasy books under his belt that I am going to make a point to read soon.
Erik expected a few hundred to a thousand views on YouTube, but due to its quality and word of mouth it has shot past 1.2 million views in the past four months. It is finishing its circuit through the festivals, picking up well-earned awards along the way. It’s an emboldening thing to see something so strange, so personal, so off the beaten path make its way in front of a large audience. Erik understands the intimacy and the magic that comes with discovering an independent project like this, but watching its community grow has helped to elevate ten years of effort that easily could have sat on YouTube without notice.
What comes next from Rickair productions is unclear, but ideas abound. You can check out the website or YouTube channel to see more updates, or the film’s behind the scenes production blog if you want to know more about its story. After years of learning to write, edit, compose, and more, Erik’s interests range from episodic podcasts to videogames to other film projects. Whatever form the next project takes, he is confident that we won’t have to wait until the 2030s to see more from him. I hope that his audience pays attention (and maybe some money) into whatever he puts his hand to next. If Down the Road is what he can put together with nothing but outdated technology, time, and the moxie of the young, I have nothing but high hopes for wherever the road takes us.
John Farrell is a legal aid administrator, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at: https://jokerswildpodcast.weebly.com/