To Hell and Back: The Story ‘12 Kilometers’

After a near-fatal accident and grueling recovery filled with vivid hallucinations and waking nightmares, Mike Pecci sprang back to make the most ambitious — and personal — film of his life.

Courtesy of McFarland & Pecci

With Mike Pecci’s 12 Kilometers, there are two stories to tell. The first is that of the film itself: a psychological horror-thriller short set in the remotest corner of the USSR, in which a drill team responsible for the deepest man-made hole on the planet is faced with a mysterious presence that unleashes their deepest fears and anxieties. Visually inventive, technically impenetrable, and psychologically stirring, 12 Kilometers is a stunning achievement guaranteed to entrance audiences and floor film professionals who learn of the small budget, practical effects, and DIY work ethic that created this Hollywood-caliber production.

The other story is that of Pecci himself: an artist who stared into the face of death and emerged with a renewed sense of purpose. On what was supposed to be a romantic day with his girlfriend in the winter of 2014, Pecci strapped on a pair of ice skates for the first time in his life, stepped out onto the Boston Common Frog Pond and immediately slipped, falling backward and fracturing his skull. While in recovery, he experienced waking nightmares and vivid hallucinations brought on by the combination of medication, swelling in his brain, and doctor-enforced sleep deprivation, taking him to the darkest depths of his own psyche, the lingering effects of which can be found in the symbolism and emotional foundations of 12KM.

Yet when the film premiered at the Boston International Film Festival in April 2016 to a rapturous response — and a Best Actor award for Ara Woland — Pecci fielded questions with delight where one might expect seriousness and severity, especially given the emotional rawness of the piece.

Post-premiere Q&A at BIFF. L-R: Gene Ravvin, Mike Pecci, Ara Woland, Pavel Shatu, Paul Caldera. Photo by author.

This blend of intensity and optimism may seem strange to those unfamiliar with Pecci, his history, and his work; after all, here is 12 Kilometers, a tale with no happy endings (or beginnings, for that matter) with an arguably bleak view of humanity’s ability to overcome our innermost demons, yet Pecci presents the film at BIFF with a smile you couldn’t pry off with a crowbar.

Boston Reel caught up with Pecci and members of the cast and crew to learn more about the story of 12 Kilometers — on-screen and off — and Pecci’s enthusiasm for the craft even while exploring the most brutal corners of the human mind.

Photo courtesy of McFarland & Pecci.
The first time I saw [Mike] in the hospital, he was really happy to have people around him, but he was also really happy to share his experience of the whole thing. “I have new ideas for my movie. I know how to fix my movie.” And we’re like, “Motherfucker, you just cracked your head open. What are you talking about, you know how to fix your movie?” — Tony Fernandez, co-producer

The emotional core of 12 Kilometers is the way in which its characters confront their deepest fears, regrets, and anxieties in their most visceral form. The human body — particularly the brain — is shown as a dirty, damp bundle of matter represented by the setting, a drippy mine full of dark canals with only dangerous electrical currents piercing the grime. The lead character, Eduard (Woland), arrives at the borehole with the intention of shutting down the project, which has become coopted by the self-serving ambition of Professor Mihailov (Ernst Zorin). Eduard’s disdain for the mine extends from his relationship with his deceased father (for reasons we won’t spoil), a vulnerability that makes him a prime candidate for the subterranean creature to manipulate.

Though film makes clear parallels between its subject matter and experience of Pecci’s accident and recovery, the idea that would become his most professionally ambitious and personally cathartic work yet was initially one idea of many on a notepad. Collaborators recall the words “Russian drill team” written on Post-Its, mentioned offhand in conversation, always lurking in the background while working on other projects. Inspired in part by the so-called “Well to Hell” urban legend — in which a Soviet drill team lowers a recording device into the world’s deepest man-made hole, the Kola Superdeep Borehole, and records the sound of souls screaming in hell — stood out in Pecci’s mind as fertile ground for a Carpenter-inspired creature feature.

“The part about [John Carpenter’s] The Thing I think is really relevant is, who’s the creature?” says Pecci. “Who’s not the creature? Who’s of their mind, and who’s not of their mind? And that’s what makes that movie fucking fantastic.”

The drill crew. Photo courtesy of Gina Manning.

Pecci tells as much of the story as possible visually rather than through exposition. Through the dialogue, we learn of Eduard’s relationship with his father and the circumstances that brought him to the mine on this fateful day, but the beating heart of the film is in its commitment to technique as a means of conveying meaning and emotion. Collaborating with director of photography David Kruta and science photographer Linden Gledhill to create 12KM’s rich look and 100% practical special effects, the film doubles down on the atmosphere of impending doom through a gorgeous yet uneasy color palette and quick cuts to what appear to be biological changes in Eduard’s brain and body on a microscopic level.

For Pecci, “movies are a visual storytelling medium, and I think that you’re supposed to tell a story with pictures. We’re supposed to take a wide shot and a close-up and have them mean something.”

To this end, Pecci — himself a trained photographer and cinematographer — reached out to Kruta and Gledhill specifically for their experience and similar views on visual storytelling. Kruta, an admitted “nut about lenses,” had coincidentally acquired a set of Soviet-manufactured Lomo lenses, the same model used by the legendary Andrei Tarkovsky for his masterpiece, Solaris; appropriate not only given 12KM’s setting and time period, but for the narrative and thematic overlap concerning a non-corporeal yet intelligent entity with unknowable motives that toys with human weakness.

“Since we shoot digital most of the time, it has limited what the possibilities used to be with different film stocks and pushing and pulling and all these different ways to process it, and color,” says Kruta. “The way that lenses change the image, you have different levels of softness and sharpness. You have the way that they render color. You have the way that they render bokeh, how they flare or don’t flare.”

“I like my image to have character. I like it dirty and I like flares, and I like things that are soft and things that feel accidental, because it feels like you’re in the moment.” — David Kruta, director of photography
Pecci and Kruta on set. Photo courtesy of McFarland & Pecci.

Pecci approached Gledhill, a biochemist-turned-microscopic photographer, for his work with magnetically charged ferrofluid, the substance with an otherworldly appearance that came to represent 12KM’s creature.

“[Mike’s] enthusiasm is infectious,” says Gledhill. “He’s so into what he’s doing, and he shared the script with me, and it seemed a really cool story … It resonates with me. And I love seeing my work used in different ways, and the thought of working on a horror film — I love classic horror films. So for me, it was a childhood connection there as well. I spent a lot of time with old horror films in the past.”

Ferrofluid in action. This is a photograph, not CG. Photo courtesy of Linden Gledhill.

Gledhill and Pecci experimented with ferrofluid for three days, bending it to their will and creating effects more surreal than CG could ever achieve. Says co-producer and frequent M&P collaborator Tony Fernandez with a laugh, “The only CG in the entire movie is the thing that you wouldn’t expect to be CG, and that’s the cigarette dropped down the hole. That's the only thing that was animated, because we couldn’t do that on set. We just couldn’t get a cigarette down the hole at that time.”

This was the first application of Gledhill’s work to a film of this tone, and there was quite the horrific revelation of the substance’s effect on organic tissue. Gledhill recounts one incident in which “we got a brain, a pig’s brain. And what was amazing was we expected the fluid to try and flow to the surface of it, but it didn’t do that. We put the magnet underneath the brain and put the fluid on, and it dived directly into the tissue. And then when we moved the magnet around, it moved the tissue around, and we all visibly were shocked by that. So it instilled that horrifying effect, even when we were filming it … With tissue, because it’s so soft, and especially brain, it just went straight into the tissue, which was quite amazing. Mike wanted some effects of it going across skin and that, and I don’t think we should have. It’s good we did the brain piece first, because I don’t think I trust the magnet underneath a hand. Might pull it into the skin, so we decided not to do that.”

Woland and Pecci on set. Photo courtesy of Gina Manning.

Woland, a frequent Pecci collaborator, was invested in the project from its earliest stages. Woland recalls the script as a three-page sketch, without the unforgettable ending or even the part of Eduard. The two met on the set of Woland’s second film, on which Pecci was DP, and have collaborated on several projects since. Fluent in Russian and born Armenia, Woland provided the historical and cultural nuances for the script as well as the initial translation.

Filling out the Russophone cast is accomplished stage actor Zorin as Professor Mihailov, New York-based veteran of Russian TV comedy Pavel Shatu as the excitable audio engineer, Gene Ravvin (“The Americans,” “Madame Secretary”) as a defiant drill worker, and Boston-based Lana Orlova as Annushka.

Shooting a film in a language not spoken by the director required a great deal of trust in both directions. Though much of the production was meticulously staged and storyboarded, with sets built for very specific purposes, the actors were encouraged to improvise and experiment throughout, a process which gave birth to some of the film’s most poignant moments, including — without giving too much away — the exact nature of how the creature manipulates its hosts.

The one actor on set who did not speak a word of Russian was Paul Caldera, Pecci’s uncle. Caldera appears in virtually all of Pecci’s projects, frequently as a dead body, a zombie (sometimes both in the same film), and perhaps most memorably in the video for Meshuggah’s “Bleed.” A set builder by trade, Caldera calls himself an “accidental actor,” and is as awed by the creative as he is happy to help his nephew with any and all requests. His involvement in 12KM was the tallest order yet; the role of Eduard’s father required extensive, unconcealed full-frontal nudity while reacting convincingly to being shouted at in a language he did not speak while delivering no spoken lines.

Kruta and Caldera. Photo courtesy of Gina Manning.

Caldera tackles his role with aplomb and comes across every bit the professional thespian, even taking the sudden announcement of full-frontal nudity in stride. Caldera recalls, “I show up that day, I go, ‘All right, Mike, I’m ready to go.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, well, you know, we’re kind of thinking of doing it completely nude. Is that OK with you?’ I go, ‘Yeah, sure. Whatever.’ The show must go on. I was in the Marines, 50% of my life is running around naked in front of other guys, you know?”

“It was freezing in that place while we were shooting. It was probably 68, but when you got nothing on, 68 is cold!”

Music video for Meshuggah’s “Bleed,” directed by Pecci and featuring Caldera as the painted deity.

Assistant camera Anthony Jarvis attributes the positive on-set dynamic to Pecci’s ability to “find people that are really good at their job, and having them do something else that complements that job, but also helps them expand on their forte … He surrounds himself with great personalities, and everyone works so well together, and I think that makes Mike’s magic even bigger. It definitely brought a lot more out of this film. There was so much camaraderie between the crew and the cast and everything. We’re all such good friends, and Mike brought us all together.”

Despite the weight of 12KM and its origins, everyone involved has only positive memories of the experience, and the film was glowingly received by the BIFF audience. Woland suggests that “the line between comedy and drama, tragedy and comedy, sometimes they’re blurred. And also, [Caldera] vomits so much black fluid on me, people laugh at that. It’s scary, it’s weird, it’s bizarre, and you don’t see that kind of stuff a lot.”

Pecci in recovery.

After Pecci was released from the hospital, he was under strict orders to not engage in any physically taxing activity, including sneezing, otherwise it would put too much pressure on his already swollen brain. Pecci did find himself in such a situation, resulting in a fever and crippling headaches while on Cape Cod, requiring he, his girlfriend, and his mother drive north to Boston. Rather than panic or let go, he took the opportunity for a fateful moment of introspection.

Says Pecci:

I’m riding in the car, I’m processing all this stuff, like “OK, so am I happy with what I’ve done with my life? Am I happy with everything I’ve done?” Yeah, I’ve had a really good life. I got a good family. I got a girl that’s really pumped about me. I’ve had a career. The only thing I haven’t done is do a feature. That’s the one thing that I haven’t done. That’s it. “Man, I wish I had done a feature.”
We get to the hospital up here in Boston, wait forever, go see the guy, and the guy’s like, “You’re fine … There’s nothing wrong with you.” And this was at the end of an eight-hour, fucking horrific day. And I remember the whole sigh of relief that came out of everybody. “What do you want to do?” “Let’s go get pizza.” Just this moment of pure relief that came from that.
I look back at it as such a great experience now because I got to go on this roller coaster ride of excitement, because I came out great. I’m sure if, you know, I couldn’t move my hands or if I was taking seizure medication I’d have a different outlook on it, but I made it. But in that period when I was at home, I was like, “I gotta make this fucking movie.”
It was that quick for me. I knew when I came out that that was the one thing I hadn’t done. That was the one thing I really needed to do, and it was really the kick in the ass that I needed to take on the onslaught that was this film production.”

12 Kilometers is currently being submitted to festivals. This page will be updated to reflect upcoming showtimes and streaming opportunities as they become available.