Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Interview with Peter Podgursky, writer/director of "Cheerbleeders"

Personally, I enjoyed film school. If asked, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to get into the film industry, but isn't really sure what they want to do. Brad, on the other hand, started asking the question, "film school: yes or no?", because he looks back on it in a bit of a negative light... well, I think he looks down on some of the professors, I don't know, really. I will admit that way more than half of what you learn, you'll never use... but I think that's the same with any program. Really, you're there to get the basics down and, most importantly, network. If you going into film school with that as a goal, you'll get what you paid for. Here's what I mean...

I, much like everyone who's reading this, grew up loving movies. I was born in 1974 and I saw the original "Star Wars", which came out in 1977, 7 times in the theaters. I remember that specifically. I also specifically remember watching the Star Destroyer fly over my head in that opening scene and, at that point, I was obsessed. Somewhere in the 80's, my Dad brought home one of the first portable video camera's and that was it, I spent countless hours in the basement or in the backyard, making movies. Here's the thing... out of all my childhood friends, I was really the only guy that was that obsessed with filmmaking. When it came time to go to college, most of my friends went on to business, accounting, law, whatever... I went to film school. If I didn't, the flame would've died, I know that. However, going to film school introduced me to a whole group of people that were around my age and they were all into the same thing. When you're there, you fuel each other. Push each other. You see what's possible and, because of you're environment, you believe it's possible. THAT's what film school is about.

That's also why I was very excited to watch "Cheerbleeders" and talk to the writer/director, Peter Podgursky. "Cheerbleeders" is Podgursky's thesis film from USC and, I've gotta say, it is unbelievably well done. My thesis film, "The Town That Dreaded Some Clown", was well received, but I'm not going to lie, it was a bit of a disaster... "Cheerbleeders" is sharp. It's concise. It's well acted, well written and it's well put together, plain and simple. I haven't seen many student films out of USC, but if "Cheerbleeders" is any indication of the quality, they're doing something right over there.

We had the chance to discuss the film with Podgursky and he also invites you to contact him to get your hands on a copy. Read through and he'll tell you how... and I definitely suggest you do.

First off, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what got you into film?

Aren't most people into film? I think you'd be hard pressed to find people that aren't. When I ask people what they are into, they almost always answer "movies". They're ubiquitous. I realized I wanted to make films in high school. A big night for me was when my friend Bill showed me A Clockwork Orange and Evil Dead II at a sleepover at his house.

This is your USC thesis film, so you’re obviously a film school grad. Is film school something that you would recommend for all up-and-coming filmmakers?

Sure, I'd recommend film school. I went to one, didn't I? You definitely get out of them what you put into them. There are lots of traps that people fall into at film school, like believing that the film school politics are important.

Ultimately, it really depends on your situation. I was stuck in south eastern Idaho with a useless theatre degree and no real ins to the filmmaking industry. It made sense for me to go. Yet, some of my favorite directors never went to film school; but they didn't live in rural south eastern Idaho either. It really depends on your resources. And I don't just mean equipment -- I mean people too. I made shorts, put on plays, and played in bands when I was in Idaho, but it was really hard for me to get people to help me. There just weren't all that many people around.

Where did you get the idea for “Cheerbleeders”?

I'd say growing up in Blackfoot, Idaho as an outsider punk kid in a mostly LDS community and reading Euripides' play The Bacchae when I was an undergrad at Idaho State University. People that are into horror should really seek out a good translation of that play.

What was the approx budget for the film?

Around $22,000. I knew I wanted to do a thesis film so I started saving up the money I was making as a TA when I started film school.

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

500 ASA Kodak super 16mm film. We shot it over spring break and we did some pick-ups later on.

You kept the characters very simple and archetypal. Moments after the film starts, you get who these people are, which enables you to immediately shift your attention to the story. I think it’s a great tactic and helps draw the audience in right away… Was this something that you did on purpose? Talk about the process of writing the script.

I wanted people to be able to quickly lock onto who these character are. In high school, people advertise who they are and what they're into by how they dress. I know I did. It helps you know who shares common interests.

I sought out industry mentors during every step of making the short. Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and Jessica Bendinger (Bring It On) gave me notes that improved the script. My producer Donna Thorland, who is a fantastic writer, was also invaluable at the script stage (well, every stage really). She has since become my writing partner and I'm damn lucky to have her as one.

You also did a great job on casting the film… Penny and Devon were perfect. In fact, I was surprised at how well the Devon character switched from “loser” to “domineering God of Cheerleaders”. How did you go about casting the film?

I met Laurel Vail (Penny) in high school, she grew up in the next town over. I wrote the part specifically for her. Wyatt Fenner (Devon) was a theatre student at USC. I didn't really want to cast him because when you put him in glasses he kind of looks like me. I always get a little embarrassed when people point this out-- it's a little bizarre when actors look just like the directors. He was in my very first USC project and he just ended up having the best audition. The only reason I even gave him an audition was because my girlfriend at the time was friends with him. Later on, he played a film student in an episode of Veronica Mars, basing his character on me. I wish I could get a job playing me! I bet I'd be good at it.

Talk about your directing style.

I'm still trying to figure it out. I'm big on story boarding and video boarding. My producer Susan and I enacted the entire climax of the film in my backyard on a Sony PD150. When we shot it for real I carried my camera around to use as reference, kind of like how big budget action flicks would use a pre-vis ananamatic. When I wrote Sam Raimi to see if he would mentor my film he was too busy making Spider Man 3; however, he was nice enough to invite me to the set. It was really eye opening to see how he used his pre-vis. As far as directing actors go, I come from a theatre background and I dislike when a director is constantly explaining stuff to me before I even get a crack at it. I try to be as succinct as possible. A little improv is good too.

When I was in film school, I made nothing but gore and horror films and a lot of the faculty looked down on it. I’m just wondering, what do the folks at USC think of horror?

Depends. Some people definitely have a genre bias, but keep in mind, John Carpenter went to USC. Alex Ago, who programs a lot of the screenings there, is a big genre fan and got the school to show a Dario Agento's Mother of Tears months before it was released in America. Dario even taped a special message just for that screening. I'd be willing to bet that USC is much more open to horror than most other schools.

Speaking of gore, you had some great effects in the film. My personal favorite would be the decapitated head that gets kicked for a field goal. Talk about using gore…

I like gore, but I also like the suggestion of violence too; like seeing a guy holding a knife backing a guy through a doorway and then shutting the door behind him. We don't have to see what's going on to know what's going to happen. Both have a different feel. There is something really satisfying about seeing somebody's head getting ripped off, though. The credit for the make-up fx goes to my friend Frank Ippolito. He works for the Chiodo Bros. and he's a filmmaker too. He and his filmmaking partner, Zeke Zabrowski, made a couple short films with Teller from Penn & Teller, they're fantastic. You should interview them.

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?

We had our share of hurdles in production, but I think everybody does. I had already produced two thesis films before directing my own, so I knew what to expect. I would definitely recommend producing a film for a friend before embarking on your own. I would also encourage people to use their film as an excuse to contact people they admire WHILE THEY'RE MAKING IT. People make the mistake of doing that stuff after the film is finished. I met so many people I admire while I was making the film. And these people feel more connected to you because they actually had a hand in shaping the final product. A letter costs what?-- forty-two cents? It's worth the effort.

Not only did you enter a bunch of festivals, you won a few awards. Talk about entering the festival circuit. Is it something that every filmmaker should do?

Festivals are fun, but I'm still not sure what they do for you, unless it is a big famous festival, and even then I'm uncertain. I've never gotten into a big festival. But I still enter them. Every once in a while a blog would write about my film and I thought that was great. Later, it dawned on me that I could just send my film to the blog. It's much cheaper than an entry fee and the coverage is usually more in depth. It worked with Dead Harvey.

What did entering the festivals do for your career? Did it open any doors or get you any contacts that you otherwise wouldn’t have made?

Honestly, it hasn't done very much for me. I have met a lot of cool people; but career-wise, nada . Maybe it will, but I won't hold my breath. Ultimately a short film serves you as a directing sample, and it might help you pitch a similar feature. I'm still in the middle of it though, I'll keep you posted.

Where can people find out more about “Cheerbleeders” or get their hands on a copy?

If they Google "Cheerbleeders" there are other reviews and such. They can go to Cheerbleeders.com to see a trailer and stills. If anybody wants a copy, they can ask me and I'll send them one on the condition that they show it to all of their friends. Just drop me a line at podcore@hotmail.com.

Talk about the indie horror genre and indie filmmaking. Where do you feel it is now and where do you see it going?

I don't know, but wherever it's going I hope I'll be a part of it.

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

I'd like to write for television next. You can learn so much in that environment, and I still have a lot to learn. I'm writing genre features on spec and specking some shows I like. I love Big Love. My friend Cindy Fang and I have been making videos for youtube. We want to have a few made before we unleash them to the world, but if people are curious, they can check out Grumpypandafilms.com. We made a My Little Pony parody commercial that's going to blow peoples' minds.

I'm just trying to climb the ladder, keeping my fingers in as many pies as I can manage (how's that for a mixed metaphor!). I'm probably in the same boat as most of the people that are reading this.

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