Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Interview with Brian Thomson, writer/director of Bachelor Party in the Bungalow of the Damned

"Bachelor Party in the Bungalow of the Damned" is a great indie-horror flick. It knows what it is, what its limitations are and delivers. It gives you all the boobs, blood and laughs you'll need with a great cast, including Monique Dupree, Zoe Hunter and the quintessential cameo from Lloyd Kaufman. For a debut feature, it's unreal. You need to check it out.

I'm not going to say much more about the film because I want to get to the interview that we did with writer/director/editor, Brian Thomson. It's a long interview... but he had a lot to say. I know I say this a lot, but I really mean it this time. If you're setting out to make a film or are in pre-production right now, this is a must read. He really spills his guts on how he got the film made. You'll save yourself a lot of time and effort down the road if you read this now...

Tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences, where did you get started and what brought you to filmmaking?

I turned to filmmaking because I got sick and tired of being an ‘aspiring writer’. Breaking in can be a bitch, so with Bachelor Party I decided to see if maybe I could make my own luck and hack the system. I’ll let you know if it works!

In college I had the good fortune of rooming with a guy who was in film school and he basically gave me a crash course in world cinema. Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers is probably my favorite movie of all time. Maybe that’s why I originally tried to get my start a few years ago by doing a short comedy about an IRA bank heist. It fell apart during production because the gardai in Dublin didn’t seem to like actors in balaclavas running around the Irish Financial Services Centre with bulging duffle bags…

So I guess you could say that I finally got my start with Bachelor Party, since it was the first time I truly tried to make a movie. I’d certainly watched a hell of a lot of them, but there wasn’t much horror in the mix until I finally caught Night of the Living Dead in Dublin. My background is Brit-lit so I was probably a bit of a snob, but NOTLD knocked me on my ass and showed me that you could do really smart things in the genre. Since I’m basically a comedy guy, I got a kick out of Evil Dead, Dead-Alive, and Shaun of the Dead once I started paying attention. BPITBOTD’s debt to all of these is huge.

Film School: Yes or No?

That would have to be a big, fat NO. As somebody who spent eight years at NYU studying English and working in the bookstore’s shipping department, I have to say that film school seems like one of the worst things that can happen to a budding filmmaker. It’s right up there with psychoanalysis. I wish that I’d had the technical skills you can pick up from film school when I started BP, but if I’d gone to film school I probably would have ended up as an insurance salesman or something. Nobody I know who went to Tisch for film ever made any movies, for one of two reasons. Either they got themselves into so much debt making their thesis films that they couldn’t afford to slog it out in the industry trenches, or else they became so infatuated with their own (often imaginary) talent and ‘vision’ that they produced projects whose pretensions stood in the way of finance.

I actually interviewed to become a secretary for the Tisch film school at NYU. All went well until I asked if many of the students were choosing to shoot their projects on DV. ‘Students come to Tisch to make films,’ the interview hissed. Served me right! That attitude is why film school has always struck me as being a system of indoctrination, convincing kids that only certain types of movies are really worth making, and that they must be made in a certain way, with certain production values—or else they aren’t worth making. The most frightening thing of all is that some of these kids are today’s so-called ‘Independent Filmmakers’! Is there a single genre that is more tired, boring and clichéd than the indie drama? Seriously: when I see a quirky family, I reach for my gun…

Spend your tuition on your movie. And try to make something that people want to see.

Where did the idea for “Bachelor Party in the Bungalow of the Damned” come
from and what made you actually get off your ass and go out and make it?

The location preceded any inspiration. I was really inclined to do something about a wedding, but even an inexperienced producer like myself could figure out that it would require a big cast—as well as a big crew to wrangle all those extras. A bachelor party seemed more manageable. I don’t know what I was thinking!

I decided early on to do a horror movie because the genre has a loyal fan base even at the no-budget end of the spectrum. That might sound mercenary, but when you’re dead broke and asking other people for money you’re kind of obliged to try and make some of it back for them. I knew that I wanted man-eating boobies, a face-melting snowball, and intestines getting sucked into a hot tub. Working out how to get from sequence to sequence gave me the structure of the second act—which I always find the most difficult. The central story of the best man, Sammy, owes a big debt to the Korean revenge movie, Oldboy. I loved the idea of a guy who is unexpectedly confronted with the ramifications of a seemingly insignificant event in the distant past. Once again, the locations I had access to really determined the way that I set up that central storyline in the first act.

I got off my ass and made it because I really despise teaching. When I finished my PhD in English I had a negative revelation: I just couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life trying to give a bunch of snotty kids a collective hard-on for Chaucer. So I took a step back, mulled over my options (or lack thereof), and decided that I’d make a movie if it killed me.

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

I originally budgeted BP for $150,000 but quickly discovered that this is a terrible budget. It’s far too cheap for a major financier to take an interest in (because you’re still going to be working with no-name actors and relatively low production values) and it’s far too expensive for friends and family. Unless your last name is Gates, in which case go out and do a remake of Heaven’s Gate. Maybe if I hadn’t spent so many years in Ireland I could have torn a page out of Sam Raimi’s playbook and raised the money from local dentists and lawyers, but it’s not that much of a stretch to say that I was a stranger in my own hometown when I started trying to raise money.

I thought about increasing the budget, but even I could read the writing on that wall. Assuming I could have found some name-brand actor willing to peg his fortunes to what is ultimately a vampire stripper flick, there’s no way in hell I would have been allowed to direct it. So I did the only thing I could and cut the budget to an absolute minimum. $10k: the whole she-bang earmarked for production, and not a red cent for post. The IMDb says $20k, but I have no idea where they found this figure. Brain Damage, maybe. Certainly not from me.

The first thing I did to get it was to send the script out to a few ladies with cult followings, trying to get a genre star to appear in the movie. I received a few favorable responses, so I grabbed their publicity stills, got some photos of the location, worked with a friend to produce some storyboards, and put together a prospectus. I took a job at Borders for three months to raise the money to a) buy hosting for a production company site and b) cover the fees for starting an LLC—about $500 in NY—and then I ended up raising all the money from friends and family and friends of friends and family anyway.

What did you shoot on and how long was the shoot? …and did I notice some ‘day
for night’ shooting in there?

We shot with a DVX100A and dual system sound (on DAT) for a total of twelve days and three hours. We spent about nine of those days at the titular bungalow, each one a soul-destroying exercise in sleep-deprivation. We broke up the shooting into three weeks: two three-day weekends, and one six-day slog during which I lost 16 lbs. from pacing. This wasn’t some improvised romantic comedy: as I repeatedly told the troops, this was a goddamn special effects extravaganza and we were doing it in twelve days!

The day for night was really unfortunate. The location didn’t have lights and the production didn’t have the cash for a generator. As a first-time filmmaker, I was foolish enough to think that we didn’t need a production monitor and could get away with a cheapo car seat screen. This was fine for framing shots, but was not at all up to the task of calibrating color on a D4N shoot. Things got really ugly when one of the guys kicked the DVX’s LCD off the camera during a stunt sequence: I really tied both of my fantastically talented DP’s hands behind his back.

I did everything I could on those D4N shots, including a month spent rotoscoping 3,000 frames of sky. (It didn’t work.) Eventually, I just tried to make the picture during those sequences as stylized as possible. The screen goes almost completely black at times, but most of the people who’ve seen the movie at various stages agree that it’s less distracting than the original footage. Which isn’t to say that I’m happy with it, but…

Personally, I'm a horror-comedy fan. However, I find that making something funny is almost harder than making it gory or scary. Talk about making sure the humor came through.

When I sent out screeners to all of the actors at the end of post, I received one reply that literally made me shit. This was from one of Bachelor Party’s stars. ‘I just finished watching the movie—LOVED IT—but I never realized that it was supposed to be a comedy.’ Fuck me!

In retrospect I think it’s a good thing that he/she didn’t realize that a movie called Bachelor Party in the Bungalow of the Damned was supposed to be a comedy. If you want the humor to come through, you’ve really got to play it straight: no mugging to the camera for the sake of mugging, and no winking to the audience. You might get a laugh, but it takes the audience right out of the story. They may appreciate the actor, but they’re no longer going to buy the character. BP’s got a lot of broad humor, but it comes from the awful situations these ludicrous characters get themselves into. If you’re going to get an honest laugh from the audience, it’s going to come from these characters being true to their inner assholes and digging their personal holes deeper and deeper.

There were actually a whole bunch of great effects, great monsters and some damn good gore. Talk about making the effects. What was your favorite and how was it done?

I was very lucky to hook up with Jay Alvino of WickedFX early on in preproduction. I’d talked to a few effects houses, and they’d all laughed when I told them what I wanted to do on the budget I needed to do it at. Jay didn’t laugh. I think his exact words were, ‘We gotta make this fucking movie, bro!’

Monique Dupree’s demonic boobies are the highlight, of course. When she walked into the casting call, I sort of had a hunch that we’d eventually get a distributor. Well, within a week of signing up she was in Jay’s basement with Vaseline slathered all over her chest, getting a lifecast so Wicked could get work to work on modeling the prosthetic. What they produced was just so far beyond my expectations of what was possible that I’m thinking of calling my first kid Mandible.

But for practical reasons I think that my favorite effect in the movie was the splinter. It was supposed to be a short scene, the whole point of which was to show a little blood on Chuck’s [Joe Riker’s] finger. On the day of the shoot—and bear in mind that this was the first day of shooting—I had a brain fart and asked Wicked if they thought they could do a gi-normous splinter. ‘Sure,’ they said, and half an hour later Joe was in the bathroom with the monstrosity you see in the movie stuck in his index digit. I tell him to do it slowly, and we end up rolling for a minute and a half in extreme close-up as he’s squeezing out all the blood. Then I called ‘Cut’ and the last thing you hear on the DAT is Jay’s voice: ‘Dude, that gave me a boner’ and everybody on the set explodes in laughter. When everybody on the set saw the effect work as well as it did, they started to trust their totally inexperienced first-time director. I deserve maybe 1% of the credit for the effect, but I reaped a huge reward because of it.

I’m also very proud of the skull on the fireplace, simply because I should never have been able to do it. I personally ended up shooting backplates, doing motion tracks to solve the camera moves, importing that data into a 3D program, modeling 3D shadowcatchers for the room’s architecture, rigging a dynamcs simulation on the skull so it would bounce on the mantle, rigging a particle simulation so the brains would push the eye out through the socket, and compositing the whole thing so that the final render would match the colors in the background plate. I’d never touched a 3D program before doing it. I figured out how to do it by watching the awesome documentary on Pete Jackson’s The Frighteners, and got the technical prowess by lurking around various chatrooms. Total cost for the shot was about $10 for the skull model, which I picked up from DAZ3D.

I noticed that you did the score… It was simple, yet very effective. It definitely kept the flow of the film and set the tone. Talk about the process of scoring the film.

My only prior experience as a musician was as the bassist of an awful punk band called The Snot Cowboys whose only vaguely listenable opus was a little ditty called ‘I’d Kill the Pope for a Pack of Smokes’. The big problem in terms of scoring was (and is) that I can’t play keyboard to save my life. I ended up composing the entire score with a MIDI controller that had 25 keys—out of which I used one. I would fire up my sequencer (Reason 3), then tap out the melody I had in my head along with the metronome. When I was done, I’d shift around the notes until it sounded like I wanted it to. Then I’d copy and paste for the other notes on the chord, and move on to writing another part. I chose Reason because a) it behaves like analog equipment and b) there’s a $20 plug-in that lets you synch your composition to picture.

I’m actually going to release the soundtrack through CreateSpace. Even I’m not naïve enough to think that people will put the whole thing on their iPods and relive their fond Bachelor Party memories. But since I kept the copyright to all the music, I thought it might be nice to release it as a dirt-cheap royalty-free collection. I had to use canned music for the sex scenes (which naturally won’t be on the soundtrack) and I was shocked and awed by how much this stuff costs. If anybody can use the bits I wrote for BPITBOTD on their own projects, more power to them.

You also edited it yourself… and there were some interesting transitions. What did you edit on and what was that process like?

I cut BP on an ancient G4 running Final Cut Pro. By the end, I’d filled up my hard drives and spun them down so badly that I ended up picking up a dual G5 on eBay instead of replacing them. But Apple’s customer support is so snarky and incompetent that I recently pulled up the stakes and built my own workstation. It’s faster than a quadcore Mac Pro and when it breaks at least I know how to fix it without breaking the bank.

Editing BP wasn’t a huge challenge. I’d slashed and burned about a quarter of the script during the shoot because of time constraints and since we shot the movie with one camera there wasn’t exactly a bulging bin of coverage to choose from. (We still managed a near-suicidal seven hundred set-ups in twelve days!) I finished the camera audio rough cut in about two weeks, then synchronized our DAT audio using a consumer-grade, nontimecode deck—a nightmare of tedium that sucked up more time than the cut itself. After that, I probably spent about six more weeks refining the cut.

The problem with this cut was that whole sequences were inadequate, unusable or just plain missing. Monique’s death scene consisted of her leaning against the fireplace. Useless stuff, really. That’s why I had to learn a thing about CG: without it, there wouldn’t have been a movie. It wasn’t clear that the intestine was spooling out of Zoe Hunter’s ass, so I had to animate an ass and figure out how to get intestines to spool out of it. You couldn’t see the jizz on the snowball shot—time to bone up on fluid dynamics! I had a shot with Lloyd Kaufman and the Fish [Dan Rusu] but where the hell were they and what the fuck was going on? Answer: a crane shot using stills from iStockphoto ($6) and a bit of AfterEffects pixel dust. A credit sequence? Shit—hadn’t thought of that… I’d love to say all of this went smoothly, but I had no idea what the hell I was doing when I started. Post ultimately took a year and change. On the positive side, I now know how to do every job listed in the end credits of any movie ever made!

I only made one drastic change during post-production. There was a trippy flashback shot in which Sammy [Gregg Aaron Greenberg] actually ate the heart of his nemesis, Gordon [Joe Testa]. I wanted to suggest that Sammy had turned Gordon into the vindictive little shit he is in the story. But when I previewed the movie, people didn’t get it. The shot confused them because they took it literally. I cut it half a dozen different ways and it didn’t matter. It bugged them. I was pulling my hair out, and then I had another brain fart and completely cut it out of the movie. After I did that, people not only liked the movie better: they understood the point I was trying to make. I guess it just goes to show that you don’t always have to beat people over the head!

You managed to get Lloyd Kaufman to do a cameo. How’d you get him?

He got me, actually.

I ran into a snag in the early days of pre-production. I’d gotten a genre starlet to sign on to BP only to discover that her rate card was out of date and that she’d relocated. I was going to have to fly her in from Phoenix. As a producer, I needed to decide whether the added expense would be offset by better distribution potential. I had devoured all of Lloyd’s books and figured that he might be willing to give some advice to a schmuck like me, and so I wrote to him and explained my situation. Much to my surprise I received an honest and comprehensive reply the next day. At the end of his letter he said that he’d be in the movie if I had a part for him. I finished writing his scene about four minutes later!

Tell us about some of the hurdles you overcame to get the film done. Any advice you can pass on to other indie filmmakers who might be just setting out to make a film.

I think that filmmakers—and particularly indie filmmakers—are very creative people. Which is lovely and honorable and all, but absolutely useless as preparation for making a movie. Filmmaking is a business from start to finish, and the sooner you start thinking like a producer, the better your movie will be. Work out the logistics of your shoot beforehand, and you’ll compromise fewer of your shots during principal photography. Think about everything in practical terms. It’s a hell of a lot easier to move from INT to EXT on paper than it is on a set, where it entails heavy lifting, resetting lights, laying dolly track—not to mention wagering that an act of God isn’t going to change the weather and screw up your continuity.

Unfortunately, the best piece of advice that I can offer is one that doesn’t sit well with my Trotskyite soul: don’t trust anyone you aren’t paying. I’ve read dozens of books about low-budget filmmaking, and 99% of them contain a fallacy along the lines of ‘Everybody gets very excited when you tell them that you’re making a movie’. Well, yeah...except that they also tend to get very resentful of the fact that while they’re out busting their asses doing some crap job that they despise, you—the artist—are off being artsy-fartsy with a bunch of melon-breasted actresses in various stages of undress. (Can’t say I blame them, either.) I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, really, but most people would probably prefer to see you fail because it would make them feel better about the disappointments in their own lives. It’s natural, I suppose, but when the meal somebody promised to bring never materializes, or when the van a friend was going to lend you suddenly has a flat…you’re the one who’s fucked.

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

I would have hired an Assistant Director. Every moment that I spent making sure people were where they needed to be was a moment not spent making a better movie: working with an actor, choosing a better angle, tweaking the lighting, etc. If you’re not making the best movie possible, then you’re letting down not only yourself (which is almost irrelevant) but also the people who are working their asses off for you (probably for nothing) as well as the folks (probably friends and family) who trusted you with their money.

I also would have sold a kidney in order to rent a generator and not shoot day for night.

Did you enter it into any festivals? If so, how’d that go and what can you pass on to other indie filmmakers who are thinking of entering their film into festivals?

If you’re going to hit the festival circuit, you better have a strong stomach. BP premiered at the I-Con sci-fi convention in New York. Watching an audience respond to your movie is amazing—when they respond. I got lucky this time and the applause gave me a better buzz than a barrel of Murphy’s. But some of the other indies at the convention didn’t get lucky, and had to watch as row after row emptied out.

Festivals are expensive to enter (except for Tromadance, of course), expensive to attend, and of questionable benefit to your bottom line unless they’re attended by folks higher up on the industry food chain. Now that BP has a distributor, it makes a bit more sense to go to festivals because there’s at least a chance that I’ll be able to pay for the trip through DVD sales. But until you’ve got copies to sell (or an honest-to-god shot at being picked up by Lionsgate) you’re probably better off hitting cheap festivals within driving distance. BP is scheduled for the Atlanta Horrorfest on October 25th and I’m still trying to figure out if I can afford to go!

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?

The best time to worry about distribution is during pre-production. DO your homework and figure out the sort of deliverables you’re going to have provide. Start thinking about your Music & Effects mix before you get to the set. Even small distribution outfits license films for international sales, and most of them are going to ask you for an M&E mix (and time-coded dialogue cue sheets) for dubbing. This means that you can’t rely on sound recorded while your actors are doing their thing. When they’ve done the ‘magic take’, get your shotgun (or even a Zoom H4, which I’ve found to be very handy for impromptu foley) and have them walk it through again, miming their dialogue and performing all their actions. I didn’t do it this way, and it cost me nearly two weeks of foot-stepping, sheet-rustling, and zipper-pulling once we had a distributor.

Just remember that distributors aren’t magical. If you don’t expect anything from them, then you probably won’t be disappointed with what you get: cheap producer copies and a release notice in Fangoria (if you’re lucky).

Where can people find out more about “Bachelor Party…” or, better yet, buy a copy?

You can buy the DVD on Amazon. Just shoot over to, click on the DVD pic and it’ll take you there. On the site you’ll also find ridiculously extensive production notes that dig deep into the technical challenges of making Bachelor Party. (Along with trailers, some music, and other fun stuff.) People can watch the big fight scene between Gregg and Monique over at my other site, although I had to censor Monique’s (non-demonic) boobies to make the clip ‘SFW’. Just click on the link to Video Services.

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

The next feature I hope to direct is a fabulously blasphemous, pitch-black splatter comedy called ‘Bible-Belt Vixens of the Apocalypse.’ The script’s finished and it’s a lot more ambitious than BP, but the “Second Coming Christian-Zombie Sex Comedy” angle isn’t exactly a soft sell. I’ve recently finished two mainstream scripts and am about two-thirds of the way through a guide to no-budget filmmaking based on my experiences making BP, so if I can sell and/or option at least one of them, I’ll kick-start preproduction. Believe me: it’s going to make Dogma look like The Song of Bernadette!

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