Friday, August 15, 2008

Exclusive Interview with Paul Traynor, director of "Witches' Night"

It's been quite a while since I've seen a decent entry into the 'witch' genre of horror. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to say I've seen a decent one in years. I could think harder about that, but, well... I won't. I do have to admit (and maybe I shouldn't), I loved the "Witchcraft" movies back in the day. They're on the 9th one now and I haven't seen the last few, but man-alive, did I like them back in the day. Then, a while back, there was "The Craft" and a few other films like that, as well... but, regardless, it's been years since there's been a good entry. So, when I recieved "Witches' Night" from first time feature director Paul Traynor, I was very excited to see that someone had returned to the genre. After watching it, not only did Traynor put together an extremely professional, top-notch looking film his first time out, he delivered everything that you'd want from a 'witch' film. There's sex, violence... and, of course, hot nude witches. Dead Harvey had the opportunity to ask Traynor a few questions about the making of "Witches Night"

Tell us about yourself as a filmmaker.

To me, the most important element of a film is a great story. It all begins and ends with that. I'm a huge fan of Francis Ford Coppola. His movies have such indelible characters, but they're always revealed through the conflict inherent in these great, engaging tales he tells. In the world of horror, I love John Carpenter's movies. The stories are always clear and gripping, and he always sets such a great & specific tone. My own directing style is definitely a work-in-progress, but for me it begins with making the actors & the crew feel comfortable, and finding ways to help them do their jobs well. In WN I tried to keep my focus on what challenge each character faced in the moment. I also think it's important that everybody has fun, and feels like their contributions are appreciated--especially on such a low-budget, technically challenging shoot. Making movies is hard enough without having to deal with bad attitudes. I want to treat everyone well, and only have people on set who truly want to be there. If it's not fun, it's not worth it.

Film School: Yes or No?

I didn't go to film school. In fact, when I decided to make WN, I had virtually no production experience at all. Back In 2004 I produced and directed a test scene for the movie, and that was of tremendous benefit. Some things went really well with that, but a lot of things went wrong-- and it was really an invaluable experience. I wish I'd had the experience of film school, primarily because learning the proper language and conventions of film gives you a very helpful shorthand--one that I had to struggle along without at first-- but in some ways I feel like you can't really simulate the experience of directing a feature, anyway. Until you're on your own set with the clock ticking and everyone looking at you, wondering what to do next, it's hard to know how you'll react.

Where did the idea for "Witches Night" come from?

I'd always been scared of, and fascinated by, witches, and I felt they'd never really gotten their due in the movies. And I really wanted to turn some of the basic horror conventions on their heads-- you know, like most horror movies have the pretty, topless girl run screaming through the woods with the big burly guy with an axe in hot pursuit. I thought it would be really fun to switch that around, and make the guys the sort of helpless, ditzy victims, and make the women these calculating, evil and methodical killers. And I thought a beer-drinking canoe trip was the perfect device, because floating drunk down an unfamiliar river just seems to make the guys so vulnerable, and in a way, impotent. Which also fit the theme well.

How did you go about securing financing and what was the approx. budget?

Let's just say there wasn't a line of people with checkbooks queued up at my door! Like most first-time directors, I had to work very hard to get people to take a chance on WN. I think the first investment came from my mom and dad, and the second from the woman I've worked for for ten years. A lot of support from my family--thankfully I'm Irish, so there were lots of family members to hit up! But once we got things going, and people could tell we were serious, it became easier to raise the rest of the money we needed from outside sources. But our original budget was $1 MIL, and I think we ended up shooting for about 20% of that-- so there were lots of sacrifices that had to be made, and we had to find creative solutions to get the story told. The fact that we could make WN at all on our budget astounds me, frankly-- and the credit for that goes to our Producer, Sean Bradley, who was really able to work miracles with our very limited funds.

What did you shoot on and how long was the shoot?

We shot on the Panasonic HVX 200 (P2), which came out about six months before we shot. There's no way we could've made this movie at our budget without that affordable HD technology-- it really enabled us to pare things down. We shot the movie on location in Wisconsin in 18 blistering days! We could've used twice that, but somehow our crew was able to pull it off.

Witches Night has a great cast, including: Gil McKinney (the upcoming "Grudge 3", ER), Wesley Walker (Prison Break) and, of course, Betsy Baker, who was in "Evil Dead". What was the casting process like? How did you get such a great cast?

Sean (again Sean Bradley, our Producer) had worked for several years at O'Connor Casting, one of the top casting companies in Chicago, so we were lucky enough to have them cast the film for us. We really saw all of the best young actors in town, and were extremely lucky to get all of our first choices. I met Betsy Baker through a mutual friend, and was delighted when she agreed to do the picture-- not only because of the EVIL DEAD connection, but because she's such a talented actress-- she was just right for Marge, which is a tricky role. After we'd auditioned for several weeks in Chicago, we'd seen a few really good actors read for the role of Jim, but no one who we felt was just 'the guy'. So we ended up reading about 20 actors in LA for that role, and Gil just popped from the first time we saw him on tape. Sean and I both come from an acting background--Sean actually runs an actor training program in Chicago-- and we just knew when we saw him read that he could carry the movie. And thankfully he agreed to come do it.

The film had the look and feel of a big budget, Hollywood film. If there's one thing you could pass on to filmmakers, what would you say is the most important thing to do to achieve that look and feel?

Hire a great DP! We were extremely fortunate to land Steven Parker, who's shot countless features, many of them on tight schedules. He is an extremely talented man who also works lightning-quick-- that's a rare and potent combo. The other thing I'd say is even if you're shooting with a relatively inexpensive HD camera (or perhaps especially if you are) don't scrimp on the lighting package. We used a big chunk of our budget to make sure that we had a big enough lighting package, and an eighty foot condor crane, and so our Gaffer Addae Shelby was able to choose from a fairly good range of options to get the looks we wanted.

You also hear all the time "don't scrimp on sound", and that couldn't be more true. We had Tom Beach mix our picture, and I don't think we had a single take that was unusable due to sound, which is almost unheard of. It was also essential for us though, because on such a tight schedule we only had time for 2 or 3 takes of most scenes.

One thing that stood at for me was the score. Talk about the process of scoring the film.

Yeah, the score is one of my favorite elements of the whole picture, and in many ways I think it makes the movie. Our LA Producer, Michael Lent, put us in touch with Gordy Haab, who is just insanely talented. Gordy and I jclicked from our first phone call, and throughout the scoring of the film I always felt like he knew exactly what I wanted, but was always a couple of steps ahead of me. Everything he came up with did exactly what I wanted it to, but nearly always was much richer, and more complex than I'd expected. They always say that the score is the key to a good horror movie, and I think that's definitely the case with our picture.

After it was all said and done, what would you have done differently?

Well, there are always things you could improve on, but overall I have to say that we did pretty darn well, considering our limitations. You've heard the old saying "it's better to be lucky than smart"? That was us, in a lot of ways. Things just sort of worked out the way they were supposed to-- we had really good synergy.

But if I had my druthers, it'd have been great to have more time in pre-pro with the produciton team, particularly the designers. We definitely could've used a few more days to shoot, as we really had to rush through much of the action sequences, frequently to our detriment. And of course the biggest thing is that as a first-time director, there were lots of little things--and some big things-- I had to learn along the way. Many of the important lessons I learned from the shoot didn't really become clear to me until we were in the edit, forced to make decisions based on the coverage we had. I was lucky to have great support, and I do think that the film largely captures my vision, but I guarantee you I'll be a lot smarter and a lot more prepared next time.

Talk about the festival circuit.

We only did about 3 or 4 festivals, actually-- but we had good experiences, for the most part. We attended them while we were still seeking distribution, and the one thing we learned is that there are very few festivals where you actually have a chance at getting noticed by distributors. But the great part about them is that you get to watch your movie with horror fans, and so can tell pretty quickly what works and what doesn't. And despite their sometimes scary appearances, the horror enthusiasts I've met really seem to be among the nicest and most supportive folks you'd want to meet. In that sense, I think it makes horror the most rewarding genre to work in, especially for indie filmmakers.

What about distribution? How's that going? Are there any lessons that you would pass on to other indie filmmakers who've just finished a film?

Our international distributer is Quantum Releasing, and we just had our US DVD release last month with Rivercoast Films. So far the response has been really good, and we can't wait to see how things go in October! Since the movie is set on Halloween, we think it's a particularly good choice for the season. As far as advice goes, I'd say two things: first, find a good Producer's Rep. and let them shop the movie for you. It's so important to give yourself that buffer between you and potential buyers, and of course unless you've worked in distribution yourself, a rep is so much more capable of navigating those sometimes-tricky waters. Mark Bosko repped our project, and he was a tremendous asset.

The second thing I'd say is resist the urge to get the movie out there before it's absolutely ready. Distributors literally get dozens of screeners every week, and if you send them the movie when it's 80% ready, because you just can't wait any longer, you'll shoot yourself in the foot. Don't assume they'll see your film's 'potential'-- they want to see your best finished product.

Where can people find out more about "Witches Night" or, better yet, buy a copy?

They can do both on our website: www.witchesnight.com. In fact, if Dead Harvey users enter the promo code "samhain" they can even get $2 off of the "Witches' Night Special Edition DVD", which is available only on our website. It includes some really cool Bonus Features, including a couple of 'making of' featurettes, and the interview "Catching Up with EVIL DEAD's Betsy Baker", deleted scenes, etc. If people just want to see the flick, they can find it at most of the usual rental shops and e-tailers.

What's next? Do you have any projects in the works?

We're hard at work on our second feature right now, and hope to shoot in the Summer 2009. I can't tell you much about it right now, but I will say one thing-- it's not in the horror genre. Although we hope to get back to making scary movies soon!

You can go to the "Witches Night" website here.

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