I love indie horror... and although it really spawned in the 70's, I feel like I've been there since the beginning. I grew up on 80's horror and quickly got into films like "The Toxic Avenger", "Evil Dead", "Bad Taste" and "TCM". But that's me and I'm not your average film goer, the average filmgoer expects things like name actors, expensives sets and effects, as well as a certain look that indie film just can't give. I think I'm the opposite now. When I see that indie look, my mind is open. I'll accept almost anything that happens and I'll almost always find something that I like. However, when I see a studio film, I get very analytical. I look for things to complain about. It's just that, for me... if you have an unlimited budget, you better have 0.0 flaws. None. I better be absolutely blown away, from beginning to end. What I really wish is that regular filmgoers could see a few good indie horror films that would open their eyes to the genre, make them realize that it exists and make them want more. It would take a film that is well acted without name actors, look professional and have a great story. "Beneath the Surface", from Blake Reigle, is just that type of film.
If you're an indie horror fan and you're trying to get a girlfriend, boyfriend, buddy or anyone, really, to appreciate indie horror, check this film out. "Beneath the Surface" is as good as low-no budget indie horror gets. It's a true gem and I really hope it gets noticed... and it got comments like that out of me without having much nudity or gore. I had the chance to ask Reigle about the film and this is one of those interviews that, as an indie horror filmmaker, you're going to need to read. It's long, it's detailed, but I'm sure you're going to be able to take a lot away from this as you head into pre-production on your next film...
First off, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what got you into indie horror?
I got into indie horror cause my brain gravitated that way in regards to the ideas I was coming up with and films I love. Indie horror has such an awesome community of people that all work hard to better the genre and help each other out. It seems to be a youthful garage rock star genre as well filled with sincere artists who are fueled by love for the genre. Indie horror is currently the strongest independent genre and I am proud to be a part of it.
I worked for the producer of the spiderman movies at the end of college and got to be on set and meet Sam Raimi. He was the nicest guy on the planet and said he could not wait to watch my movies – that event really jump started me.
Back to the Future. Watched it a thousand times as a kid. It’s a film I always look at when writing. Also loved the Aliens series and old Wes Craven films. My mom saw I was obsessed with movies, and watching a lot of dark stuff, so she introduced Hitchcock to me at a young age. I remember renting Vertigo and Psycho often from the public library during elementary school. In terms of people that I admired growing up: Robert Zemeckis, Alfred Hitchcock, Tim Burton, Wes Craven, George Lucas, John Hughes, Don Coscarelli, and Sam Raimi. I watched everything and still do.
A lot of influence comes from comics, Brian Wood and the Luna Brothers on the indie side, and Michael Stracynski on the major side.
More than anything, I get most my influence from music. What I am listening to creatively drives what I am writing more than anything outside my emotional seif. I listen to a wide range of stuff, mostly metal, such as Norma Jean, Rob Zombie, and As I Lay Dying. Mix that with softer stuff like Paramore, moody stuff, and old country roudhouse tunes. I am a total Libra!
Film School: Yes or No?
Yes. USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Beneath the Surface is your first feature… where did the idea come from and what made you actually get out there and do it?
The initial spark came about at comic con years ago. My mind was racing, more than usual since I had just been overloaded with creative material all around me, and I started thinking about what if some awful boyfriend of the girl you were in love with ended up killing her? Well, the only way to get her back at that point would be to reanimate her. Lots of people can sympathize with the situation - Someone you have a crush on or love could be with another person that you have this sixth sense feeling about, that nothing good is going to come of it, only evil, and any attempt at interfering has high potential of making you appear crazy, more so in the eyes of the one you desire. And if you don't do something it's going to drive you crazy as well. If disaster strikes, then you are really going to loose it and end up doing whatever it takes to bring her back. Bring on the zombification! However, RIP is written on tombstones for a reason.
In BTS, Ethan brings Kahlah back from the dead in order to clear her name also, to prove her death was not as the media and authorities reported it.
It is through archaeological and anthropological means that our leading lady is transformed into the living dead. My friend’s mother is an anthropologist and she provided me with the same Harvard study that Wes Craven used for "The Serpent and the Rainbow" It became my foundation for building the living dead scenario, combined with various other significant Haitian zombie facts, to revive our love interest.
Other themes and parts to the story derived from the deceitful nature of our modern environment. There is a large portion of society today that has paved over everything, mind, body, soul, and including any shred of belief in something, considered by many to be, of fantasy or not scientifically proven without a doubt. The irony is that most of what we read in the newspapers and hear in the media "as fact" is totally spun crap. BTS suggests that what we read in comic books has the potential to be the truth and what is in the papers is fiction. Don't bury what is in your heart because someone else's mind says so.
I decided to do it after realizing how mortal we are and how quickly we can leave this earth. If I died yesterday I wanted to know I put a picture on the screen, even if I sat in a theater by myself and watched it. The trick to getting a movie made is JUST DO IT! DO IT CAUSE YOU WANT TO BY ANY MEANS POSSIBLE. I witnessed so many film school grads in their mid thirties saying they aim to be directors. I did not want to be one of those people. If you want to be a director, do it. Just make sure you know how to run the show.
I noticed from your profile on IMDB that you’ve worked as a PA and an assistant on a few big budget films. Did having jobs like that help out in getting this film done and would you recommend that other aspiring filmmakers take those kinds of jobs?
Slumming it as a PA on studio films was hard but worth it. Paying your dues provides a good production education. A working crew can easily tell who paid their dues and who didn’t and I believe they hold a special respect for those who did.
I was able to get first hand knowledge on how each department runs, tricks of the trade in the real world, proper procedure etc. Also, after working on several studio features, you collect crew lists and meet hundreds of people that you can turn to with questions and favors.
I moved back to Orange County to shoot the film and set up a smaller version of a studio production office and moved through each production department’s duties. My good friend, Brad Patterson, had worked in film for a couple years and was the first to sign onto the project. He read the script, the second after I finished writing it, and provided a big boost in momentum. An artistic genius, Brad first took on the art department and production design duties and later helped out with just about everything else production wise.
There is a highly organized and intricate work ethic that studio production’s have spent years mastering, similar to the way organ’s work together inside the human body. In BTS’ case, it was similar to having the heart, lungs, and balls alone providing life support and filling in for all the other organs. Organizational skills utilized in film production were the most important tools gained from working on multi million dollar sets along with the social ballet between cast and crew.
What was the approximate budget for the film and how did you secure financing?
I have been told by numerous people to stop stating how much was actually spent. The production cost was close to nothing. Hustled what I could and had a Visa card. I have yet to hear of a feature in the last few years that was made for less, even on deadharvey.com
What did you shoot on and how long was the shoot?
We shot on the Panasonic DVX 100 camera. Nate, the DP, did an amazing job lighting for the camera and color correcting in a way that really pushed the envelope.
We shot by location, tackling the school and bedroom scenes first over 2 weeks. Then we shot nights and weekend days here and there for a period of 2 months.
There was very little gore or nudity, yet it was very entertaining from beginning to end. Was the lack of nudity and gore a creative decision?
There were some gore scenes that were cut from the script due to money, would have liked to have them in the film. In terms of nudity, the story and tone of the film did not call for it and would have thrown viewers out if they were wedged in.
The story was very well crafted and, for me, that’s one of the reasons it worked so well with minimal amounts of nudity or gore. Talk about the screenwriting process and what you think makes a good story.
I like to have the story build in my head, from the first shot to the last. I want to be able to watch the entire movie in my head and then purge it out onto the page quickly. I created the story in my head while sitting in traffic in LA. I wrote half the script in my car actually and then over a period of ten days at my house. I also write with specific songs in mind, usually the song that helped me develop a particular scene.
You have to care about, at least one of, the characters and take the ride with him or her. Like sports, you have to root for somebody, your lives become connected for that period of time. When the lights go out, the lap bar goes down and you want to be on the edge of your seat.
I feel good stories tap into an audiences inner quirks and take them on an emotional journey that makes them reflect on themselves while thinking about how what they have just experienced can benefit them.
I really love stories that take two polar opposite things and make them collide, most good movies do thing cause it is a perfect engine for good drama.
I thought you got unbelievable performances out of your actors, yet almost all of them have next to no credits to their names…. Talk about getting good performances out of amateur actors.
You should screen test while casting to make sure they look good / interesting on screen. Eyes are very important in conveying the complete range of emotions. Even with amateur actors, casting is so important. A person with no credits can carry major productions if they are found. I put in the work but feel very blessed with who was put in my life.
Earning the actors respect and trust is very important as well as having everyone click as friends. We would hang out as if we were a family. Rehearsals helped, trying different adjustments. While shooting on set I would simply treat each actor with respect, while pushing them to their best performances based on their individual personalities, and aim to mold their emotions utilizing metaphor techniques, memory recall, believing it’s reality, and ultimately driving the energy as hard as I could where applicable. Each actor has something that works specifically for them, you have to find the right tool per actor.
What were some of your biggest hurdles in getting the film finished?
One word: Technology. Science is not perfect and screws up randomly all the time. You want to count on this magic box to crunch millions of 1s and 0s correctly all the time but it doesn’t and humans don’t have it mastered. This can cause moments of extreme health wrecking stress. Robots 3, Humans 0.
Did you hit the festivals with it? If so, how did it do? Is the festival circuit something that you would recommend to other filmmakers?
Did a couple fests: The Seattle True Independent Film Festival and the Sacramento Horror Film Festival. Won the “Best Feature” award at the Sac Horror Fest and the “Hottest Zombie” award in the Seattle.
I submitted to the “bigs” and genre fests on the west coast. Festivals are great for building press and fans. It has gotten very political, commercial, and expensive though. I think it is best to do a couple, do well, and go for distribution. Don’t worry about rejections at all cause programmers are working to fit their molds and needs. Get a couple, work it, then ride the wave to shelves.
Talk about distribution. What was the process like for you? Any advice that you’d pass on to other filmmakers looking for distribution?
I just kept on sending screeners and press kits out. Got bites. Really happy I did not take the first couple offers cause Well Go came along and they have been awesome! Working with Well Go has been a breeze and I hope they continue to grow in the indie horror genre, they have been so successful with the other genres they distribute, so I have no doubt they will. Advice to others: put together a list of positive press quotes and quotes from titular people in the industry for your sell sheet that you give to potential distributors. Have a marketing game plan you can convey to potential buyers.
After it’s all said and done, what would you have done differently?
There was no time left prior to production on BTS, but if possible I would have liked to have had much more time for script development. Script and casting is the most important and should be given as much time as needed.
Where can people find out more about Beneath the Surface or, better yet, buy a copy?
Beneath the Surface is available for rent at Blockbuster and Netflix. Purchase at amazon.com, bestbuy.com, barnesandnoble.com, target.com, fye, hastings stores nationwide etc. THANK YOU!
What’s next for you? Any new projects in the works?
I just finished co producing the definitive Friday the 13th retrospective documentary HIS NAME WAS JASON that I teamed up with Masi Media Productions on via my executive role at Crystal Lake Entertainment. It airs on the Strarz network on February 13th and is available on Anchor Bay DVD the same week. I also helped on the development of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT out next year.
I have a slate of scripts and ideas in different phases that I have been currently working on: horror, comedy, drama, even a racing flick. The plan is to shoot a couple large scale shorts in the coming months and then target the next feature script to push into production as soon as possible. This past year I teamed up with a few people and went in on some TV pitches and look forward to pitching feature material in early 2009. Ultimately aim to be shooting another horror feature ASAP.
Lastly, talk about the indie horror scene. What do you think about where it’s at now and where do you see it going?
It continues to grow and grow. There is nothing else like it. It is here to stay. It reminds me of skateboarding, which was an underground thing a decade ago, but now our culture is drenched in it.
Like everyone else, I am worried about the economy and its effect on filmmaking. DVD sales are down, which really hurts indie horror, and a lot of great high praise indie pics were not theatrically released. I was bummed that “The Signal” did not do better in theaters, I thought it was a very intelligent and awesome indie that would have hopefully opened the gates wider for others. The indie horror scene will push through the tough times better than the domestic car companies and survive. Like the protagonists in our films, we will make it through hell. Indie horror is a nice monster that will never die. We need to make hail mary passes and go buck wild, be more unique than ever, and continually re event the wheel.
Ultimately, the indie horror scene is in our control. Put your dollars into the stuff you want to see more of. Simple as that.