"The Blair Witch Project" came out almost exactly 10 years ago, which is pretty amazing... I can't believe it was that long ago. Not only that, Blair Witch is the first movie that I went to the theaters to see, where I was equal parts excited and pissed off. By that, I mean I was excited because it was ground-breaking, it was new, it was low-budget and it was good, really good. I was pissed off because I thought, "I could've done that". Although, in retrospect, I probably couldn't have. A side note - I had made a short mock-documentary in film school just before that called, "Living Dead in Montana", where a film crew went to a small town that had been rumored to have been attacked by zombies. After interviewing townsfolk, they then set off into the woods and ended up slaughtering a special needs class that was on a nature hike, mistaking them for the living dead. I thought the similarities between that and Blair Witch were striking... One was better than the other and one made a lot more money. However, mine was funnier.
Fast forward to last year... one of my favorite indie horror films of 2008 was "Alien Raiders". Quite frankly, I didn't do much research or really look into it at first. I just liked the premise and trailer, had the opportunity to check it out and did and I loved it. It was a wicked mix of horror and sci-fi and it's unbelievably well done. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who thought it kicked-ass, either. It screened at numerous festivals and won several awards and, in my eyes, it could easily have been the indie-horror of the year. When I noticed the awards and the notoriety it was getting, I started to look into it a bit more and do some research on it. It was produced by Daniel Myrick, who was one of the key guys behind "The Blair Witch Project" and, not only that, it was directed by Ben Rock, who was the production designer on Blair Witch. Rock had also worked on, produced, written and directed a few other Blair Witch related projects. Then, a bit of Myspacing and emailing later, I managed to get in touch with Rock... and I was absolutely ecstatic to find out that he was willing to do an interview for the site. Now, I know I say it a lot, but this interview really is a must read, as he covers off everything from Blair Witch to Alien Raiders. I hope you enjoy it...
First off, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what got you into indie horror?
I am a lifelong horror fan, like starting when I was old enough to turn on the television I sought out whatever horror-related films I could find. Growing up in the 1980's, there were a lot of great movies to see -- The Thing, The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, Scanners, etc. When I was a teenager I started reading Fangoria magazine, and a whole world opened up to me and I began riding my bike to the local video store every week to see the classic horror movies of the 1960's and 1970's. Romero's Dead trilogy and Martin, Argento movies like Suspiria and Opera, and the early stuff from Cronnenberg -- not to mention Sam Raimi's early stuff. I think that those filmmakers were the first indie filmmakers I'd ever heard of. They just made whatever they wanted, so they did things in their movies you'd never see in a studio film. The production values were different than what I was used to seeing sometimes, but they really had something unique to say.
As for my work, I actually started out in theater in middle and high school. At first I wanted to be an actor, but I quickly fell in love with the behind-the-scenes stuff. I was a self-taught special FX makeup artist by the age of sixteen, and in addition to directing the occasional play, I ended up doing makeup on a lot of stuff which was cool. While I was in college, I was tapped by a local makeup artist I'd worked for, and she trained me to be her assistant on some low-budget films in the southeast. I did that for about four years, when I decided to quit makeup and focus on directing.
Film school: Yes or No?
I attended not one but TWO film schools in Orlando, Florida. One was the Valencia Community College film program, a course set up and partially financed by Universal Studios and Disney when they opened their production facilities. It was 100% technical, and as a student you only worked on outside projects (in theory). It was there to teach grip, camera, sound, electric, and production only. It was a great experience, and actually I ended up doing makeup on a bunch of our projects in addition to whatever else they had me doing. In one project, I think I was gaffer/makup artist. You don't see that very often!
The second school was the University of Central Florida's film production technology program. It was a Bachelor's program that was run (at the time) very loosely, like a conservatory almost. We had access to film cameras, sound gear, lights, etc., and the rest was up to us.
A lot of people bag on film school because it can be expensive to attend and won't necessarily help you find work in the field. This is all true, but I wouldn't trade my time in film school for anything. If you want to work in one of the creative fields, you're going to have to make a lot of mistakes along the way in order to learn your craft and film school is a good place to do that. It's an instant community of peers who can help you develop your voice, know what's working and what's not, and the consequences are lower if you don't make a masterpiece. I can only imagine how cool it must be to attend film school with today's technology, how many more films students must be making now and how much more quickly they must be able to find their voice. I'm kind of jealous.
You worked on the original “Blair Witch Project”, then ended up sticking with it… writing, directing and producing various spin-off projects. “Blair Witch” was ground breaking for indie horror, as it was really one of the first indie horror films that was shot on video and made serious, serious money. Maybe you can talk about the “Blair Witch” franchise and what it did for both the indie horror genre and for your career, also noting that Daniel Myrick, director of “Blair Witch”, was one of the producers of your film, “Alien Raiders”.
Well, Blair Witch is another good reason to go to film school, in that I met every one of the Blair Witch guys at UCF except Gregg Hale whom I met at VCC. It's hard for me, or anyone who was directly involved, to speak to what The Blair Witch Project did for the horror genre. I mean, we didn't invent the mock-doc or even the mock-doc as horror film. We were watching movies like Cannibal Holocaust and Man Bites Dog (and I'm proud to say, Waiting for Guffman) as we were gearing up to make the movie. It seems like indie horror exploded a few years later with movies like Saw, Open Water, and Cabin Fever, but I don't think we can take any credit for that. I think by the time those Lions Gate movies came out, Blair Witch was ancient history.
As far as my career goes, however, I have no idea what I'd be doing today if I hadn't worked on Blair Witch. It was a real labor of love while we were working on it -- Ed, Dan, and Gregg had come up with a truly original idea both for a film and how to make it. There was a sense while we were working on it that it would either be a giant success or a giant failure, but it was a fun experiment either way. Since the first thing they'd had me do on the movie was flesh out the backstory, Ed, Dan, and Gregg had me write Curse of the Blair Witch for Sci-Fi, and that probably had more to do with my budding career than production designing the movie. I'd been in LA a little over a year when Artisan tapped me to write and direct The Burkittsville Seven for Showtime and Shadow of the Blair Witch for Sci-Fi. Those projects really formed the foundation of my directing career, and that's pretty much all I've been doing ever since.
I've also worked for just about all of those guys quite a bit over the years. Mike Monello and Gregg Halle formed Campfire Media, a viral/social advertising agency/production company, and I've directed videos for them for Audi, USA Networks The 4400, and HBO's True Blood. And obviously, Dan tapped me to direct Alien Raiders, and for that I owe him my life!
Your latest project was “Alien Raiders”, give us a bit of an overview of the film.
Alien Raiders is part Dog Day Afternoon, part John Carpenter's The Thing, with a good mix of another Carpenter flick, Assault on Precinct 13 thrown in for good measure. The movie starts with what appears to be a violent robbery of a grocery store in a small town in Arizona, but there are some strange aspects to the caper -- there's a guy who checks average people and tells the "robbers" to kill them seemingly at random, and the gunmen seem disinterested in money. When a cop who happened to be in the store takes out the intruder who's telling everyone who to kill, we come to realize that the bad guys are actually the good guys (maybe) and that what they're there to kill has otherworldly dimensions.
“Alien Raiders” is an indie film, but it’s got everything that a film ten times its budget has and it’s got a great look and feel. Can you talk about the process of getting the project off the ground? Where did the idea come from, how did you acquire the script, how did the financing come into place, etc?
Well, Alien Raiders was an idea that Dan Myrick had, and pitched to his partners at Raw Feed (Tony Krantz and John Shiban) as well as Warner Brothers, the company which has distributed all six Raw Feed features thus far. I was brought on as David Simkins (Adventures in Babysitting, Freakylinks) was finishing his last draft and Julia Fair (Believers) came onboard to do a rewrite.
The way Raw Feed works is that they get enough financing to make three films in a row, almost under a television mentality. The budgets are all the same (in this case, $2.25M), and they each have fifteen days to shoot. It's a meat-grinder. And I wanted in.
Here's how I was brought on in the first place: I knew Dan wasn't going to direct this film, as he was swamped with The Objective at the time. I also knew that the film had a lot of similarities to The Thing, which is one of my favorite films of all time. So I got him my reel, pushed and pushed and pushed, and finally he showed my reel to the other Raw Feed producers and they agreed to give me the shot. This was a big gamble on their parts, as I had never directed a feature, and I kind of couldn't believe that they let me do it.
So in a weird way, it wasn't the typical story of "write a script/find a financier/make the movie/sell the final product" kind of struggle. I knew that whatever I made, it was getting released by Warner Home Video, the largest home video distributor on the world. So the pressure was on to make it good, to take the limited time and budget and make something that would be a kick-ass ride for an audience for 90 minutes. Or at least to not suck.
This is your feature film, directorial debut, although you’ve directed, produced, edited and written lots of projects. Talk about making the jump to directing a feature film.
No matter how ready I thought I was to make a feature, it was a huge learning process. And given that I only had seven weeks of prep followed by fifteen shooting days, it was easy to overlook important details and I lived in perpetual fear that we were going to screw up major details or aspects of the film or cast the wrong people or whatever. I now feel very sorry for every director I ever watched from the makeup chair and thought "who the fuck is that guy? Why does HE get to direct?" No matter who you are, directing a feature is an insane exercise in becoming the human encyclopedia of answers.
One piece of advice that's given often is to surround yourself with people WAY more experienced than you are, and in that regard I got very lucky. Our Director of Photography was Walt Lloyd, who's been doing this forever. He shot Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Short Cuts, and Pump Up the Volume among many others. He was also the A-Camera operator on the original The Hitcher. Between him and John Pontrelli, our 1st AD, they managed to bring the movie in on time. The film was edited by Augie Hess, who's worked for some HUGE directors like William Friedkin. And obviously, our lead actor was Carlos Bernard, who's played Tony Almeida on 24 since the beginning of the show, and he's a real pro -- he really made me bring my game up radically. Him, along with a cast of incredibly seasoned pros like Mathew St. Patrick (Six Feet Under), Rockmond Dunbar (Prison Break), Courtney Ford, Joel McCrary, Tom Kiesche, Samantha Streets, Derek Basco and Bryan Krasner (and the rest of the cast!) helped make the story flow better by committing to their characters and inhabiting the reality of the story.
But still, I can only hope that if there ever is a next feature for me, I can roll some of these lessons into it and feel a little less green. You could spend your whole life on a film set and not be ready to take the mantle of directing. It's not for the feint of heart.
When you’re making an alien film in the action/sci-fi/horror genre, you have a lot to live up to and I think you nailed it. What do you think it takes to be a successful film in this genre?
I think to be a successful film in any genre, you need to start by having respect for the genre and its audience. I think there are a lot of people (who will remain nameless) who come up with some boneheaded formula and make crappy stuff within that formula and they're able to sell it -- but it's the crap out there that cheapens the genre completely and makes people who aren't fans of the "so-bad-it's-good" stuff stay away from the whole genre. For me, I'm a fan of horror and sci-fi, and I actually think that you shouldn't have to lower your expectations when you watch one of those films. Stuff like Silence of the Lambs or Alien work because they don't talk down to their audience, but pull the audience into a new place within a genre. I would never shy away from skewing too smart, or letting the audience figure it out themselves to some degree. As an audience member, I always prefer not being spoon-fed everything.
I also think a big aspect of what can make the stuff work is casting. If you have a cast of characters you really believe in, then you care when they're in danger, you find yourself caught up in their suspense, peril, danger, etc. And because we didn't have deep pockets, we knew we'd have to rely more on suspense than on giant CGI monsters attacking from every direction.
I think a lot of these films are cast based only on looks, or primarily on looks without regard to acting ability and the tone that performances set. While casting Alien Raiders, John Jackson (who is not only a great casting director, but is also the "Send more paramedics" zombie in Return of the Living Dead) and I discussed the casting of movies like The Thing and Alien, how they sometimes played against type, etc. We went nutty finding actors like Tom Kiesche, who's a 6'4" dude who nailed the role of Logan -- written for a 20-something tech geek type, or Joel McCrary who's best known for comedy work, but they contributed to a sense of realism we were going for.
There were some great effects and great gore in the film, which I think is absolutely necessary in a film like this. Talk about using gore and effects... and which were your favorites in the film and how were they achieved?
As I said, I used to be a special effects makeup artist, and having come from that world, my tendency is to avoid CGI stuff except where it's 100% necessary, and try to figure out practical ways to achieve whatever effect we're going for.
I think my single favorite moment in the movie, gore-wise, is when we cut off Tarkey's finger. Although we ended up cutting it differently, we staged it so Joel was gesturing with his hand, Tom grabs it and forces it down, out of frame. The camera tilts down and we cut it. The way we did it was that the fake arm was there the whole time, and when Tom grabbed Joel's hand Joel just stuck it behind his back and we cut the fake hand. The idea was to make it look like he was gesturing with it, and then we cut it. Like a magic trick. I love that shit.
Obviously, though, the critter at the end was the most fun. Everyone would be lucky to have a remote-controlled alien slug-monster. Very fun at parties.
For the CGI stuff, I kind of insisted that we avoid some of the traps of CGI -- seeing too much detail and everything looking all plastic, etc. The background plates we shot for the CGI work, like the finger growing back for instance, were generally handheld so there wasn't a sense of "here's the FX plate!" The company that did our 3D stuff is a company called "Engine Room," and they do amazing naturalistic work. I knew, however, at our budget we weren't going to be able to rely on CGI as a crutch, though, so we didn't really plan on that.
Talk about some of the hurdles you overcame to get the film made. Any advice that you could pass on to other indie filmmakers who might be just setting out to make a film?
The real hurdles were all about time management and efficiency. Again, we had fifteen days. And as my producer Steve Ecclesine made me painfully aware, you have to think about all your "gags," and their necessity to the film. A gag can be anything from a guy pulling out a blank gun and shooting it to a stunt, or a special makeup effect. Frankly, the gags are what the audience is there to see. But consider that on an average day, you'll be lucky to get maybe two to three BIG gags done -- that would be like the ratchet stunt where we killed the Chambers cop, the finger cutting, or a fight scene of any complexity. You might get more little ones like blank fires out as well, but each one of those things just eats up a LOT of time and you need to consider that. Since I wanted to cram the movie with as many gags as I could, I had to get pragmatic and decide which ones were actually worth it, and which ones could be implied, shown only partially, or dropped entirely. So in this instance, some of the biggest hurdles for me were figuring out which ones to cut, etc., which is never easy because you get in your head how they all need to be.
The other advice I already took myself and gave here, but I'll say it again: SURROUND YOURSELF WITH VERY EXPERIENCED PEOPLE. It's easy to get lost inside the labyrinthine process of making a feature, and people who've done it before can help you out of these corners more easily than you can yourself. I know it's tempting to work with one's friends in key roles (and I have often done that), but nothing gets you through a tough day like someone who's been in that corner 1000 times before.
You entered “Alien Raiders” in a few festivals and you also won a few awards. Talk about the festival circuit and what it did for you and the film.
I wanted to take the movie directly to the fans of these kinds of movies, so I begged Warner Brothers to allow me to mount a festival run. We played like 16 festivals between September and February, and won some awards. It was, by far, the best thing I did for the film. Not only did we get reviewed by a lot of awesome outlets, we got a buzz going among the fans of this stuff. And I got to see some fucking awesome films and meet their filmmakers as well!
The other great thing about doing a film festival run is that you get to see the movie in a theater with an audience. In some cases, you could use that as a focus group and go make editorial changes, etc. to the film prior to distribution. In this case, we were DONE with the film before it played festivals, but I could still see what moments worked best, what jokes got laughs, and what didn't work. It's too late for this film, but hopefully I'll get to apply these lessons to the next one.
Is the festival circuit something that you would recommend for all filmmakers?
Yes, absolutely, and I would budget for it. There's no more immediate way to see if your ideas worked than to see the film with an audience. You can sign up on withoutabox.com for free and use that to find appropriate festivals and submit to them. Not every film is made for festivals, but there are so many niche festivals these days that it's hard for me to believe that a well-made film won't get some play on the circuit.
Tell us about the process of finding distribution. How did that go and what insight could you pass on to other filmmakers who are looking for distribution?
As I said earlier, that was a process we didn't have to go through on this particular film, so we lucked out. The market's kind of brutal these days, and indie films over a certain budget just aren't making their money back like they would have even two years ago.
Where can people find out more about “Alien Raiders”, check it out and/or get their hands on a copy?
The first place to go is rawfeed.com, which is our internet portal. There's even a game you can play on that site, although it's filled with spoilers.
Another cool place to check out for info about the movie is dreadcentral.com. They interviewed Carlos Bernard, Mathew St. Patrick, and myself for their podcast (which is a great podcast to listen to if you're a horror fan). Also, they posted something you can't find anywhere else -- a free mp3 commentary track you can listen to while watching the movie. It's Kays Alatrakchi (our composer), Tom Kiesche (Logan), and myself.
As for the DVD itself, Alien Raiders can be found pretty much anywhere. Blockbuster, Best Buy, Wal Mart, Amazon.com XBOX Live, iTunes, TWC On-Demand, etc. It's not out on Blu-Ray yet unfortunately, but you can rent it on iTunes in HD, which I did, and it looks amazing. Feel free to email Warner Brothers and DEMAND Blu-Ray!
Also, if anyone wants to be my friend on myspace, go to myspace.com/alienraiders. We're on facebook as well, at the less-elegant url facebook.com/pages/Alien-Raiders/41286042112 or facebook.com/group.php?gid=19188962324. It's actually me running these pages, not some corporate WB person, so feel free to drop by and share some love. (Ted's note: those links look funky, but they should work)
Talk about the indie horror scene. Where do you feel it is now and where do you see it going?
Well, the best thing about the indie horror scene is that you never know where it's going. It's a big tent and there are a lot of great people out there doing some kick-ass work. On the festival circuit, I got to see some awesome horror films, some which have been released already like Let the Right One In or Tokyo Gore Police (both of which I saw at Fantastic Fest in Austin, one of the coolest genre fests out there), and some like JT Petty's The Burrowers or Paul Solet's Grace set new standards in indie horror in my opinion, and not necessarily in terms of gore but rather in terms of uniqueness. There are some great people working today in indie horror like Ti West, Toby Wilkins, Gregg Bishop, Joe Lynch, and Ryûhei Kitamura.
At the end of the day, I suppose we've seen it all by now in terms of special effects, etc., and now I think we're seeing people with a keen interest in solid storytelling take a whack at it. It's back to the stuff from the 70's and 80's, where we're seeing stuff that a big studio might not touch but it's great work and thanks to digital technology a lot of it looks every bit as good. With the economy the way it is, indie horror might be one of the few thriving genres out there for a while, so we'll see.
What’s next for you? Do you have any projects in the works?
I have a couple projects potentially in the works, but nothing has a green light yet so I don't want to look like an ass if they don't end up happening. I'm dying to get back to the set though, and get back to work!