Thursday, May 28, 2009

John McNaughton on "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer"

Where did the idea for the story come from?

JOHN MCNAUGHTON: I had done this series of documentaries for MPI, called Dealers in Death, which were about American gangsters, primarily from the Prohibition era. We had scoured the archives for a lot of public domain photographs and footage, got Broderick Crawford to narrate it for us, and made a little money on that project. I was getting to produce and direct another documentary piece, based on professional wrestling because I'd found someone who had a collection of wrestling footage from the 1950s and 1960s, with Bobo Brazil and Killer Kowalski and Dick the Bruiser and Andre the Giant, from the period of wrestling before the WWF or the WWE.

I lived in the city proper, but I was journeying out to Oak Forest where MPI was located. It was two brothers, Waleed and Malik Ali, who owned the company. I went out to meet Waleed, to talk about doing these wrestling documentaries. When I got to their offices, I sat with Waleed and he informed me that he had contacted the person who had the footage for sale, and what happened was that person with the footage had quoted a price and when the Ali brothers approached him, saying, "Okay, we'll negotiate on that price," the guy realized that the brothers had money, so he increased his price. The Ali brothers were not to be dealt with in that manner, so Waleed informed me, "Listen, we're not going to do business with this guy. He's a crook."

Early on in the video business -- and they got in at the beginning -- the major studios weren't interested in video rights, because there just wasn't enough money involved. So they were selling off the rights to their films. A couple of companies, like Vestron and Pyramid, became wealthy for a short period of time, until the studios saw the potential in the video market and started creating their own video divisions. And those companies went out of business.

But in the early days of video, you could buy the video rights quite cheaply for low-budget horror films, and since a lot of sort of "b" horror titles hadn't been seen widely, they were very successful on video. A "b" schlock horror film that people may not have been interested in going to the theater to see, they were more than happy to rent because they're a lot of fun.

So what was happening at this time was that those titles were becoming so popular that the rights acquisitions were becoming more and more expensive. And so Waleed had determined that it would make sense for them to fund a horror film and thereby own all rights into perpetuity, rather than just buying the video rights for a limited period of time. So he proposed to me that we should join forces and make a horror film.

I went in thinking I was going to be doing these documentaries and, instead, it was the day that my dream came true, completely unexpectedly. I was kind of in shock and after concluding the meeting with Waleed I was walking down the corridor, and in an office down the hall was the office of an old friend of mine who I had grown up with, Gus Kavooras. I had gone to grammar school and high school with him and we had been friends throughout childhood; in fact, I was the one who introduced him to the Ali brothers, which is how he came to have a job with them.

Gus was always a collector of the strange and the arcane and the weird. I stopped in to see him and I was kind of in shock. I said, "Gus, Waleed just offered me $100,000 to make a horror movie. I have no idea what my subject will be." And he said, "Here, look at this." He took a videocassette off the shelf and popped it in the machine. It was a segment from the news magazine show, 20/20, and the segment was on Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Elwood Toole, who were serial killers. The term "serial killer" was coined in 1983 by the FBI. In 1986 I had never heard the term before and this was something new to me, the idea that there were these random murderers going around.

Most murders are committed by people previously acquainted to the victim. Husband kill wives, wives kill husbands, husbands kill wives' lovers, wives kill husbands' lovers. Most murderers are committed by people who are known by the victim. But this was a new trend in murder that there were these individuals who were just randomly murdering strangers. It was, indeed, very horrifying. There were some interviews with Henry and a lot of photographs; he was really a creepy character. And so that became the germ for the story.

Was the budget an issue while you developed the story?

JOHN MCNAUGHTON: The budget was written in stone. That was the mandate from Waleed, "Make me a horror film for $100,000." So the budget was always a consideration.

Did you set out to make such a controversial movie?

JOHN MCNAUGHTON: I intended to make something very shocking. I remember, in my youth, pictures that sort of crossed the line. Back in those days, there would be these incredibly lurid radio advertisements that if you listened to rock music on the radio a lot -- like most kids in my generation did -- they had these incredibly lurid campaigns for pictures like Last House on the Left and Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Those pictures were sort of watersheds, alongside pictures like The Wild Bunch. The Wild Bunch was incredibly shocking; up until then, in a Western, if somebody got shot they fell down. There was no squib work, there was no spouting blood.

If was like, "Okay, you've got $100,000 and a chance to do a film and it's going to have to be a horror film, so let's make a horror film that is going to horrify." (Co-writer) Richard Fire and I set ourselves a goal, and it was if we're charged with a horror film, a. Let's redefine the genre, and b., Totally horrify the audience.

Like many things, the words "horror film" is like "liberal and conservative." The original meanings of the words have gotten lost. One would think that conservatives would be interested in conserving the environment, because the word comes from conservation. When you think of "horror film" now, it's a set of conventions and we meant to defy those conventions. Monsters, creatures from outer space, ghosts, the genre often includes the supernatural or something beyond reality. But we didn't have a budget for any of that, so we set ourselves the goal of, "How can we most completely horrify an audience without using the traditional conventions?"

What advice do you give to someone starting out on a low-budget project?

JOHN MCNAUGHTON: I would tell them, especially with the technology that's available today, is to make a movie. They're making fewer films today then they were back when we did Henry. And there are fewer directors being hired. And it costs a lot more money to make movies and so there's a great fear factor.

I went to Columbia College, and in my day you could check out a Bolex 16mm camera, but you still had to pay for the film and pay for the processing which could get expensive. They had rudimentary editing facilities at the time, but it was rather daunting. Now at Columbia College I don't know how many AVIDs they have, an amazing number of them.

You can now buy a HD video camera for around $3,000. You can go out and shoot a film that looks reasonably decent. You can cut it on your Mac. You can do a picture pretty cheaply today and if you have friends and know actors and everybody wants to make a movie, you can get by pretty cheaply and make a movie. And I think that's the most important thing, because to move out to Los Angeles and try to break in is a really hard way to go.

But if you make a film and get on-line and see what festivals will be interested in your film, the opportunities are much greater now then they were. I was just very fortunate that these guys were willing to put up $100,000. Just trying to work one's way up is a tough way to go.

It makes a big difference when you can get an hour's worth of shooting for $20. It's become incredibly cheap, while film has never been cheap and never will be cheap.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sean Melia on "You Don't Know Me"

What was your filmmaking background before beginning You Don't Know Me?

SEAN: I had no formal training in filmmaking.  About five years ago I had an idea for a feature spec and wrote it.  It was kinda terrible but I was hooked.  Nights and weekends were spent writing three more specs over the next four years.  They all had their good points, but overall none of them were producable.  That's when I decided I needed to actually make something to understand what writing for film really meant.  

So I started reading everything I could about filmmaking (including your book Digital Filmmaking 101, which was great, btw) and decided to go for it.  I was already a writer.  I learned how to be a director and producer through the process.   
What was the inspiration for the film?
SEAN: As a kid I was always into horror stories.  My feature specs were all over the place, a comedy, a drama, a sci fi adventure, but when I decided to make a short, horror was the first thing that came to mind.  I woke up one morning with the initial idea...  what would happen if you pretended to be a killer, only to find out one of your best friends was the real thing?  My goal was to make a suspenseful short, but without any blood and guts.  In fact you don't see anything at all, everything is implied or left to the viewer's imagination. To me that's the best kind of scary.   
How did you plan and execute the film?
SEAN: I wanted to make a great looking film but not spend a lot of money doing it, especially since I was financing it myself.  I wrote the script specifically for my apartment, that took care of the location.  I decided early on to shoot on video instead of film to save on materials and post costs, so I looked for a DP who owned an HVX 200.  I'm lucky enough to be friends with a bunch of really good working actors who were gracious enough to do the project for free (we operated under a SAG Indie contract).  

Jon Hokanson, my DP, found our gaffers, camera assistant and grip.  I took care of hiring hair & makeup and sound.  Everyone got paid (except for me and the actors) but it wasn't a lot, so I made sure everyone was happy in other ways, like providing cab fare when needed and better than average craft service.  We managed to shoot 15 pages in two days.  Everyone told me that was unrealistic going in, but we did it, and it came out great. 
What obstacles did you overcome?
SEAN: Honestly, the only major obstacle was finding a new DP seven days before we were scheduled to shoot.  About a month beforehand I was debating whether to go with Jon or this other guy who seemed to have a better resume.  I chose the other guy, who at first seemed really into the project, but then started canceling meetings, then got "sick," and finally told me he had a "family emergency" and couldn't do it.  Luckily Jon was still available.  Best thing that could have happened to the movie.
How have audiences responded?
SEAN: The response has been awesome, especially considering this is my first film.  After screening it for friends and crew, I posted it on (here's the link) to start building an audience.  The reviews and comments I received were extremely encouraging.  Recently it screened as part of the NYC Downtown Short Film Festival (where it went on to win the Audience Choice award).   Hearing the audience get uncomfortable when they see the plastic covering the bathroom floor, followed by the gasps when Michael reveals who he really is... it was pretty cool.
What was your favorite part of the process on You Don't Know Me?
SEAN: When I first started working with the footage with my editor.  Shooting the thing was exhilarating (and exhausting), but I didn't really know what we had until we started to piece it together. 
What did you learn making this film that you've taken to subsequent projects?
SEAN: I learned that if you're going to make a film on a small budget, the more organized you can be going in, the better.  That means putting together detailed story boards, following your shooting schedule, listening to your DP when he says he needs to do something a certain way and keeping your actors and crew happy.  

The experience made me a better writer and gave me the confidence to become a director and producer.  Since completing the film, I've written three more shorts and a draft of a new feature.  My goal is to build on what I accomplished and make two shorts this year (I'm in pre-production on one), find some financing and tackle the feature in 2010.  We'll see... 

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Susan Seidelman on "Desperately Seeking Susan"

How did you get started in filmmaking?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: When I started out, I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer. When I originally went to college, I went to a school in Philadelphia for design. Just on a whim I took a film appreciation course; this was in the mid-70s, and film schools were not nearly as popular as they are today. I liked watching movies and I got hooked on watching movies. And then I kept taking more and more film appreciation classes. They didn't have film equipment, and it was certainly before digital, so it wasn't like you could take your home video camera and make a movie. So I started to make radio plays, because they had a radio studio at the school.

Little by little I realized that one of the things that I liked about film was that it combined a lot of the things I was interested in, like design, storytelling, music. And then on a whim I decided to apply to NYU film school. It was not that hard to get into film school back then, and so without ever having made a film (I sent them a design portfolio with the radio drama tapes I'd made), somehow I got accepted.

But once I started film school and got the chance to make my own little films and work on crews and play with the equipment, I realized that was not only something that I loved, but it was something that I found I was kind of good at, on the student level. I was nominated for a student Academy Award, so I was getting positive feedback from the little student films I was making and I was able to win some grants to continue to make longer and longer short films.

How involved were you in the casting of Desperately Seeking Susan?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: I was pretty involved in the casting, but I wasn't involved in Rosanna Arquette. When Midge and Sarah brought me the script, Rosanna was already attached. She was a given.

It took some time to get the movie financed, so we worked together on script revisions and meetings at studios trying to get it made for several months.

We had a casting office here in New York and because I'm a New Yorker I was somewhat familiar with the New York talent pool. I had heard of Madonna -- she actually lived a couple blocks from me in downtown Manhattan -- her career hadn't quite taken off yet, she had one single out that was getting some attention. So I knew of her as the up-and-coming singer who was a downtown New York personality.

Did you face any resistance to casting her?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: No, because I was the one that brought them Madonna, they didn't bring me Madonna. They were the ones saying, 'I don't know if we can go with this person because I've never heard of her.' And I was the one saying, 'I think she's right for this character. Let me do a screen test.' And she was right for the character.

What did you learn doing Desperately Seeking Susan that you were able to take to future projects?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: Learning how to work with a crew. One of the things I realized is that it's a collaborative art form, so you're dealing with so many different people, all of whom have their own artistic vision. The director's job is to maintain a single, artistic vision by coordinating everyone else's. Everyone wants to give as much as they can, but it can become a real hodgepodge if there's not one, unifying way of looking at the film -- one unifying vision.

I watched movies where I felt that things were out of control because all the actors were doing something different and all trying to do something to the max and it really needed someone to say, 'No, don't do that. Yes, do that.' Learning how to modulate things, whether it's the performances or learning when to be flashy with the camera and when to be subtle. When to not move the camera and when to move it.

It's all about trying to maintain this one vision and that's what I started to see in Desperately Seeking Susan. I'm still learning, it's an ongoing process. But that's the skill that I realized that good directors have, being able to get what they need and incorporate other people's ideas; knowing how to use the best and politely (without hurting people's feelings) not use the stuff that you don't think works.

Sometimes different directors find different ways of doing that. I've heard about or seen examples of male directors who seem to feel that they have to be like drill sergeants and Nazis to show that they're the boss. Scream and get into fistfights and do that macho tough thing.

Now, as a woman, that isn't a style that particularly works for me, and as a woman who's just a little over five feet, I knew that no one was going to be physically intimidated by me. So I had to find my own way and have found my own way over the years of getting what I needed in a different way.

So what still excites you about making movies?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: Telling stories, that's what excites me. Telling stories. And that's what excited me in the beginning. To me, characters and stories are the heart of what makes a movie great. And although I'm always impressed when I see movies that have amazing technology and amazing special effects, it's the more human aspect of it that really grabs me.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dan Myrick on "The Blair Witch Project"

How did you and Edward Sanchez come up with the idea for the movie?

DAN MYRICK: Ed and I were both fans of the 'In Search of …' series, with the haunting Leonard Nimoy voice-over, and movies like "Legend of Boggy Creek" which had a limited theatrical run for a while. There were all kinds of these UFO, Bigfoot faux documentaries television shows and features that kind of walked the line between fact and fiction. And we always found them very scary and haunting and they resonated with us.

I think Blair Witch was born out of wanting to re-visit that and recreate that, on a more contemporary video language. So we definitely used those films and television shows as our inspiration and tried to stick to what scared us as kids and put that into Blair Witch.

We hated a lot of traditional fake documentaries because there was always some sign or red flag in them that would be a little telltale sign that it was scripted or faked in some way. The camera would happen to be in the right place at the right time too many times. A line of dialogue from a testimonial just sounded too scripted, too convenient.

So our theory was, let's shoot this like a documentary as much as is humanly possible and set the stage for our actors to play in character their roles within this documentary, so hopefully when we come out the other end we have, effectively, a documentary. Without infusing our own subjectivity in the shooting process, I think we came way with what looked very natural and what looked like very unpredictable footage.

Then we cut, from that footage, the story that ultimately became The Blair Witch Project. Not to say that this wasn't scripted and outlined; but the shooting process has to look like it was done like a documentary.

That was our theory, our logic behind it: not to become our own worst enemies and not become victim to our own narrative conceits by wanting to have the camera at the right place at the right time and stuff like that. Instead, allow that free flow and unpredictability and spontaneity to happen, and then you just get what you got.

As a result, it came across as very authentic and very real, which we thought ultimately would lend to the horror.

Do you ever get tired of talking about The Blair Witch Project?

DAN MYRICK: No, I'm as fascinated by it as anybody else. Certainly I'm very proud of Blair Witch and it's opened up a whole wealth of opportunities for us. But at the same time it was like this science experiment that took on a life of its own.

It's always interesting for me to hear other people's perspective on what happened and what their take was on it. It was this phenomenon that was greater than any of us had anticipated. For most of that ride, we were on the outside looking in like everybody else and were as fascinated by the evolution of the whole Blair phenomenon as anybody else was.

We had an inside look at what was going on, but to this day I look back at the confluence of events and the timing and the Internet and the reality approach we took to this--how everything intersected-- and what happens when that does.

I find that fascinating to this day.