Nick Thiel and C.J. Johnson have their own take on the alien invasion movie. In their short film, "Creepers" they do an excellent job of conveying L.A. in chaos (isn't it always?) and then shifting that focus to a more internal direction: two people who have to trust each other to survive become increasingly paranoid of one another. The film is reminiscent of one of my personal favorites: "John Cartenter's The Thing". What Thiel has done really well here is use a low-budget to his advantage by focusing on the paranoia we as a society never seem to be able to get rid of. The film has done really well on the festival circuit and continues to gain kudos. Great job, guys! For more information, check out the, "Creepers" myspace site at: myspace.com/beparanoid or check out this link to watch the trailer.
Congrats on the film, Nick and C.J. and thank you for the interview!
DH: Tell us about yourselves. What's your background and what got you into making movies?
NICK: I was inspired by James Cameron's "Terminator 2" to get into film making. At 14, I got my first video camera and starting making short movies with my friends. In the following years, I studied acting at the highly respected South Coast Repertory for two years, excelling in its acting program. Once I decided to take it to the next level I attended the Art Institute of California – Los Angeles. Every few weeks we would be required to shoot a 5 – 10 minute project. I would usually make a horror or action short, which usually the teachers didn’t want to do. But, when I showed them to people the reaction was amazing and we always stood out from the crowed because 80 percent of the classes were making dramas. At one of the film festivals I ended up winning the top three awards for my horror short “The Last of the Zombies”. Since then I have made and worked on a ton of productions that have brought me a lot of success in film making.
CJ: Nick and I both attended the Art Institute of California - Los Angeles, majoring in film & TV production. We kept making horror and action shorts even though our professors repeatedly asked us not too. Everyone else made dramas and comedies but we had no real interest in being like everyone else or creating a bunch of ambiguous drama shorts. Although, our teachers didn't like us making shorts filled with cheap scares and fake guns, our peers seemed to enjoy it and we repeatedly kept receiving awards at festivals for it. We just wanted to understand how to make horror movies and we wanted to focus on what we wanted to do later in life. I think Nick posted a bunch of our old student projects on you tube (just type in "movieman11" and "kingcj316").
Growing up, there were three movies that blew me away and jump started my dream to go into film making. They were: "Big Trouble in Little China", "Jurassic Park" and "Aliens". Even as a kid I said to myself, "I have to be in the movie business".
DH: Film school: yes or no?
NICK: I’d have to say “yes”, I attended the Art Institute of California – Los Angeles where I met up with a lot of talented young filmmakers. CJ and I started taking classes together and formed a great friendship and film making relationship. I feel what I learned in school showed me the workings of a real set and the fast pace “always on the ball” nature of it.
CJ: I'd say "yes". Nick and I went to film school and it helped us narrow down our style of film making and gave us room for error. It's always good to be surrounded by like-minded people who share the same goals as you. One important element of attending film school is that you're able to create a network of friends and work associates that you can work with after school. Also, Nick and I learned how to shoot quickly, cost effectively, and develop a shooting style. We walked away from school with numerous projects and experience under our belts, not including what we were learning on film sets outside of school. At the same token, there are plenty of success stories of people who didn't attend film school. There are no absolutes to anything. It's what you make of your experiences.
DH: Where did the idea for, "Creepers" come from?
NICK: Creepers was an idea I had for years but never got around to doing it until CJ asked me if I wanted to work on another movie with him. I pitched him the idea and he liked it. Within a week he had written a great rough draft. CJ had taken my ideas about aliens using flesh to hide and blend in with us and made it more about two characters and how they deal with the possibility of one of them being one of these things.
CJ: Nick and I throw ideas out to each other all the time. For "Creepers", I told him I wanted to do a project that he directed and I'd write. He pitched me the idea of aliens with skin falling off their flesh. It's an idea he had years ago, that I remember he talked a lot about. I liked it. So, when writing the script, I wanted to make a more personal story with epic proportions in short film. This idea of an alien attack happening without any clear knowledge of what triggered it or why they're doing it... its happening and chaos ensues really got me going. "Creepers" is a bit of a mystery story. I wanted to have a man and woman who were physically and socially opposite of each other who were forced together under extreme circumstances. They slowly learn what's happening and it causes even more tension between them.
DH: What film and/or films have most inspired you as actor and director and why?
NICK: My main influence for “Creepers” was John Carpenter’s “The Thing”. With “Creepers”, we really tried to play up the fact that the end of the world is here and you can’t do a thing about it. “The Thing” really captured that dread like no movie ever has. The pacing and tension in that movie is so intense. “Creepers” pays a lot of homage to it and brings some new elements to it.
CJ: I often get inspired by John Carpenter's "Big Trouble in Little China". I'm not sure why but, it gets me pumped. I think it's John Carpenter's music score and just this whole "Fish out of water" element with a lot of action and Chinese mystique that's very appealing to me. The beginning of that movie always gets me hooked in no matter how many times I've seen it. As an actor I try to draw from my own imagination to make things a bit more unique and original. I do look a lot at what Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and Brad Pitt do. They have a wide range of performances that always draw people in whether they're quiet or speaking. With "Creepers", I watched Gerard Butler's performance in "300" and Matthew Fox in ABC's "Lost".
DH: Describe your particular take on the alien invasion movie.
NICK: Ours is different because its not the aliens coming down in spaceships, it’s about aliens taking over us. I love the character development that can come out of not knowing if the person sitting next to you is one of aliens unless they “creep” out on you.
CJ: In alien invasion movies you either see it two ways: one, it's from the point of view from various main characters in different places that unite to face an alien threat. The second is you're stuck with a small group of people, again facing an alien threat. With "Creepers" we wanted to create a more personal story that presented the question of "What would you do if aliens invaded earth?" No seriously...what would you do? When facing frightening situations, human instincts either present the worst or the best in you. That's what we wanted to show in "Creepers". You only see things from the perspectives of two characters throughout the whole story. What happens when the cell phones go dead? The radios are cut off? Your TV doesn't work and everywhere you look people are killing each other. The world is a frightening place when you don't have all the answers. Humans are unique species. Humans have emotions, feelings, and certain aspects that separate us from other life forms. We're a complicated, difficult species to understand...even to the "Creepers".
DH: Describe your directing/acting styles.
CJ: As far as our directing styles go, Nick and I tend to use more hand-held techniques, more so Nick than I. I tend to use more fluid moving shots juxtaposed with hand-held techniques. We also like to shoot more projects in digital video to give audiences a sense of realism combined with a "film look".
In acting, I usually draw from my imagination. I ask a lot of questions like "where is this character from?" and "where is he going?" I also ask myself "what makes this character unique?" In "Creepers", I tried to show an evolution of body language throughout the whole piece. I start out as a man with quick reflexes, to very still and quiet, and finally to an emotionally unstable person.
DH: "Creepers" moved from a spectacle opening to a two person one room style story, which I thought was f'ing awesome by the way. Explain to us the reason for this decision.
NICK: We started the movie that way to show the destruction that has happened in the world around the main characters. Once the characters move into the house I like the fact that it feels like their locked in and there’s no where to go or they will die. By opening the movie that way you set up the fear and tension of why they can’t leave the house.
CJ: I love to give people a catchy opening and when Nick and I talked about it, I said, "we should just have an insane opening where the audience is right smack in the middle of things". We knew we would be working with a low budget and that we wouldn't have a lot set pieces. But, this is an epic story, there needs to be some sort of action piece that separates our short film from others. From a story telling standpoint, we wanted to show audiences why two strangers would be extremely motivated to trap themselves in a house. Our opening sets up the stakes and what type of characters we're dealing with. All hell's breaking loose and if these two strangers get into it, it looks like it could be a pretty one-sided fight.
DH: How is "Creepers" different from anything you've both done before?
CJ: I think as filmmakers, as you go along with different projects your skills sharpen and you tend to push yourselves more on a creative level. With "Creepers" this was the next step for Nick and I. It showcases his visual style and my writing and acting style. Usually in the projects we've done together he usually writes and directs his own projects and I do the same. Now this time, he focused more on the directing aspect and I focused on more of the writing and acting portion.
DH: What were the biggest challenges you faced when making, "Creepers"?
NICK: Making a movie is like going to war. But, the crew did a really good job and kept really excited and pumped about making it. A big part of the crew were people who we had gone to film school with and they all knew the difficulty in making short movies on a little budget. Every movie I have ever made has things that go wrong but its at that moment when you and the crew have to be on your feet ready to switch things and make it through the problems that lay in front of you. I believe every one on set stood up to challenges that were put before us.
CJ: In the entertainment there are always challenges. We actually had a make up artist who quit on us the day before our first day of shooting so, Nick, true to form, said, "F** it, I can do it." So, sure enough, Nick did the make up for the grocery store scene. Then I found two friends who did the make up for the other days of shooting and they did a fantastic job. For the most part, production went smooth but post-production was a hassle because of the time and energy involved. Like, I said, there are always challenges but it's what brings out the best of you. In the entertainment business, no one cares about excuses or problems. Everyone just cares about the end result. We're happy with the end result.
DH: What did you shoot on and how long of a shoot was it?
NICK: The movie was shot on digital video because of the amazing look you can get. The main production was filmed in an apartment and a city block in Los Angeles California. We shot there for two days, with neighbors and people driving by giving us weird looks because half the cast were bloody and even some with faces torn off. The other day we shot at night at Pacific Ranch Market in Orange County California. The Market closed at 9 PM so we got the rest of the night to shoot the remarkable “News Report” scene.
CJ: We shot on digital video to give our story a sense of realism and it's our style of filmmaking. Specifically, we used a Sony HD-Camera, and (2) Panasonic DVX cameras. Filming went underway for three days in three different locations (Los Angeles, California-House Residence, Orange County, California-Pacific Ranch Market, and Los Angeles California-street block). The Pacific Ranch Market in Orange County provided a critical scene that has a suspenseful newscast filled with chaos. The crew for was able to shoot uninterrupted, for hours in the market for free because Nick worked as a manager at the market as a teen.
DH: What personal sacrifices were made to get the movie in the can?
NICK: Making a movie takes a lot of your time and money. So when you make one and it’s out of your pocket you have to sacrifice a lot. The Budget was very small. It only cost a couple of thousand dollars, which came out of CJ’s and my pocket. The budget went to food, blood and make up effects, visual effects, and postproduction costs.
CJ: Well, the budget for "Creepers" came out of our own pockets. So, for a while there, Nick and I were working all the time to make up for the money we invested into "Creepers". Also, time and energy were sacrificed. That's an element of filmmaking that never changes. There are always long hours and a lot of energy invested into one project at a time. Nick and I both edit for our main source of income and I write all the time, so, believe me when I say I was sick of being in front of a computer. Even now, I can't stick in front of a computer for too long like I used to. Imagine us working 9-10 hour days editing at our jobs. Then driving home and have to stick be stuck in front of a computer for an additional three hours doing the same thing you just did all day. But hey, like the man said, "No sacrifice, no glory."
DH: Will "Creepers" have a sequel and/if so, what can audiences expect to see?
NICK: Well, hopefully if the response is good we can get more work off this movie. CJ & I have talked about turning “Creepers” into a feature and have some really fresh ideas for it. But only time will tell what’s in store for “Creepers”.
CJ: One of our main goals with "Creepers" was to explore it as a feature franchise. I'm currently writing the first draft of "Creepers" the feature. When Nick and I first came up with the idea for "Creepers” we said, the story is pretty epic, so, a feature would do the world we created some justice. With a feature I’m able to give our story and characters more exposition and really polish what I thought didn’t work for us in the short film. I think now, horror films have lost it's meaning. "Horror" used to be something that will scare the living hell out of you and because it scared you so much you can't help but love it. Now, we're loaded with gore, cheap scares, and a predictable ending...I hope with a feature version of "Creepers" we can really do what "Jaws" or "The Shinning" did for audiences. The "Creepers" feature will be a lot scarier on a visual sense and "Bridget" and "Thompson" will be joined by two other main characters. The story is really flowing right now and the feature version of "Creepers" will hopefully be made the way we always dreamed of and deliver big scares unlike anything you’ve seen before.
DH: How was your experience on the festival circuit?
NICK: The festival circuit has been really great. The reactions have been amazing and it’s so nice to watch the movie with an audience to see their reaction. So far we have gained a lot of attention and the response have been great.
CJ: Thus far, it's been very cool. With horror there's a market to show your film everywhere, so, it's nice to get a chance to show your film to people who can not only enjoy it but, see the "Easter eggs" you placed in your work. Horror has a great fan base and is great beginning for up-and coming filmmakers. From film festivals, small to large, I always enjoy speaking with true fans of filmmaking and horror.
DH: Tell us about distribution. What's your experience been in that arena and what steps do you recommend aspiring filmmakers take to get their movies out there?
CJ: We had a specific marketing strategy for "Creepers" and we wanted to begin revealing the world of "Creepers" online. The Internet is an easy outlet for independent filmmakers, especially those like Nick and I who are a part of the "myspace/youtube" generation. We're also looking at different avenues at what would work best for us as far as showing or film in other ways besides film festivals. I'd recommend for aspiring filmmakers to create a solid game plan of marketing and distribution. Sometimes that can get lost in translation because you're usually focused on the whole "creating a movie" task. For us, we presented a two-minute clip and teaser trailers online and circulated them that way to spread word of mouth and to gain interest from people. Now, you can post clips on you tube, myspace, etc. and send your films to different avenues. We sent our film-to-film festivals and different places for film review that we thought would best suit us. Now, you can even sell your movie through Amazon or itunes. It's all about how you want to present your film.
DH: What's next for Nick Thiel and CJ Johnson?
NICK: CJ and I have talked about making more movies. I have also been working on ideas for other movies in the horror genre. I’m always working and still deciding at this point what to make next.
CJ: Right now, we're still promoting "Creepers" and riding the film festival circuit. I’m also writing the first draft of the feature version. Besides that, Nick has been brainstorming about some new ideas. I've been busy writing several projects and developing a promo for a new web series I created.