Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Interview With Graham Ratliff, writer/director of "Growing Out"

It goes without saying that there's a lot of differences between studio films and indie films. However, there's one difference that a lot of indie filmmakers tend to overlook... or overlook on purpose, I'm not sure. When a studio green lights a film, that film has already gone through an arduous process. The script could have been based on a book or some other property, it could've come from a name writer, it could've been based on an idea that someone in the studio had, who knows? Then, it passes through executive after executive, studio head to producer, to... Lord knows who. Each person puts in their opinion and the project is tweaked a bit. It's discussed with the marketing people and they do research, surveys and punch numbers, forecast and on and on. Then, like I said, they MAY green light it. After that, the real process begins. At the end of the day, what gets cranked out is a watered down, collaborative piece of work that is produced for the masses to optimize returns and licensing opportunities.

Indie film, on the other hand, is completely different. Usually the guy who came up with the idea is closely involved in the actual production, if not producing and directing it himself. Most of the time there's no board, no executives, no marketing people, no research, no case studies and no test audiences. There's a handful of people who think they've got something and they go for it. If they can raise financing, they're off to the races and no one can tell them that what they've come up with won't fly. It's not for the masses, so who cares what the masses think? This is the environment where truly unique and imaginative work can be created.

Now, here's what I think a lot of indie filmmakers overlook... and sometimes on purpose. They look to the studio system and believe that they need to emulate them. They think that if that's what THEY'RE doing and that's what people are watching, I should do that, too. However, I think they need to take a risk. Take lots of risks... do what the studios can't do. Sure, it may flop, but it may be what brings attention to your film. It may launch your career. If you try to make a watered down film, catering to the masses, you're competing with Hollywood and that's a big beast to fight. If you make something that they wouldn't make, you're fighting a different battle. Make sense?

It's a tough decision, I know... as I, like most people of my generation, was raised on the blockbuster - Star Wars, Jaws, Indiana Jones, James Bond, etc... You want to recreate those kinds of films. However, I have to say, as my love of film grew, so did my appreciation for more obscure films. Now, I find myself watching more obscure films than blockbusters. Why? Honestly, because, in a lot of cases, they're more interesting. There's more creativity. They give me something to think about. Sometimes an obscure film will leave me scratching my head, as was the case with the film I just watched last night - Frank Henenlotter's "Bad Biology". However, a lot of the time, they're so creative and unique, they give me faith that there's still a future for film, as was the case with Graham Ratliff's "Growing Out".

I'm not sure where to start with "Growing Out", but to give you a general idea of where they go, it's about a troubled songwriter that discovers a human growing, like a plant, out of his basement floor. There's so much more to this fantastic piece of independent filmmaking, but I really suggest you check it out yourself. If anything, it's creative, unique and something that could only be done outside of the studio system. If you're into the obscure and creative, you'll need to check it out. We discussed the film with Graham and he offered up a great interview, check it out...

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

When I was about 9 or 10 years old my Dad bought a Hi-8 video camera. He got it to record my brother and I playing basketball. Of course it wasn’t long before the basketball playing stopped and the movie making with our friends started. Really jokey action films with lots of violence, or at least as much violence as we could figure out how to do. It wasn’t until a couple of years later when I saw “Army of Darkness” (I dragged my family to see it at least 5 times in the theater) that I thought I would like to make movies for a living. Up until then it was just a hobby.

I went to film school at U.C. Santa Cruz and after graduation I moved to L.A. and worked in the art departments of a number of different films.

So as far as influences go, obviously the Evil Dead movies were a big influence and the early movies of George Romero. Also Frank Hennenlotter’s “Brain Damage” and “Basket Case” had a large impact on me.

Film School: Yes or No?

Yes. I wouldn’t have been able to make “Growing Out” without the experience of film school. Filmmaking is a collaborative art. You just can’t do it by yourself. Film school laid the groundwork for how to work with others and established contacts that I still use today. But it’s not really just about the school, it’s more about the experience gained from working on projects. If you can’t afford to go to school or you want you use that money to make a movie, fine, but you better put the work in before hand. Listen to commentaries, watch behind the scenes segments on DVDs, join film groups, hunt out and read websites like this one, and work on other people’s movies, basically do everything you can to learn about film before you put your (or someone else’s) money into it. The movies and TV shows I’ve worked on in Los Angeles were just as important a learning experience as film school was. They both gave me experience I needed.

I’ve always hear this phrase, “I’ll learn on the job” well trust me you are going to learn on the job film school or no. In Hollywood I’ve met people time and again who say they are filmmakers, but they don’t work on other people’s projects. Like it is somehow beneath them. They sit around waiting for someone else to just give them money to make a movie. I personally don’t get it. If you love film and want to make movies, then get involved in it. This industry is totally about connections and who you know, so get busy knowing people and working with them.

On “Growing Out” we were able to build our sets much much cheaper because of help we got from a construction coordinator I met on “Elizabethtown”. We were able to shoot on a soundstage in Orange County because it belonged to the film school my wife went to. We got to use that soundstage and the surrounding offices for a month and a half for the same price as a single day rental at other stages. These connections just wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for film school and working on other shows.

So maybe I should change my response to Film School maybe, but work experience and contacts are a must.

What was the approx budget of “Growing Out” and how did you secure financing?

I wish I had a better story on how we found financing. Through my grandfather we had learned of some people that had just made a lot of money selling a piece of land in Texas. We asked them if they would like to produce a movie and they said yes. There you go. The initial budget was $120,000, but of course we went over that. Then it became about scrimping and saving and calling the family and getting them to pitch in. As you can see from the credits, it was a family affair.

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

We shot for 29 days on a JVC camera. We actually had the camera plugged directly into a computer and using an AJA card and a Cineform codec captured HD directly to the hard drive. This allowed us to capture full uncompressed HD. This was both a blessing and a curse. It meant we could play back takes instantly to make sure we got everything we needed, and to be editing scenes together in between set ups, but it also meant that we had to lug around this large computer set up everywhere we went.

We also used a mini-35 lens adapter on the camera, which I loved the look of, but it cut down on light dramatically. So it always took a bit longer to figure out the lighting.

Tell us a bit about “Growing Out”. What’s it about and where did you get the idea from?

“Growing Out” is about an out of work singer songwriter named Tom who takes a job fixing up an old Victorian house for free room and board. There is a creepy old woman living upstairs and a loony person living out back. Then one day Tom finds a human hand growing out of the basement floor and it just keeps growing…

The film started as a short, my senior thesis at U.C. Santa Cruz. At the time the idea came from the notion that artists have their own personal muse, and in some cases that muse might be something that needs to be hidden from the world. Of course part of the requirement of the class was that the short be less than 12 minutes long. That was pretty limiting. So the concept always stuck around in my head as something that could be expanded upon.

Now, the film was based on a short film, which is included on the DVD. Talk about adapting a short film into a feature length project.

Well my brother Garett and I sat down and discussed what a feature of “Growing Out” would be, what the main characters and moments would be. Then Gare would disappear into his cave to emerge 3 months later with a script. The relationship between Tom and the Growth was pretty easy to see how it would translate, but working in the other characters took a bit of doing. It is a heightened world that they inhabit. Very close to the real world and yet something seems off, so it was important to make sure that every character fit. Garett was really able to nail the tone of the characters, which helped everything else fall into place.

Now, this is definitely a film that could only be done as an indie, as it’s as ‘out there’ a concept as you’re going to get. Talk about raising financing for a film like this and what it means to have complete, creative freedom.

Well having the short film certainly helped. I’m not sure we ever would’ve gotten the funding if it wasn’t for that. It allowed us to clearly show the tone that the movie was going to have and give a sense of the visuals of a human being growing out of the ground. I think it also helps that my brother writes amazingly readable scripts. His writing style is neat and quick. It reads fast and is very entertaining so I think that helped a lot.

But you are right; this isn’t a film that could be made as anything other than an indie. Not only is the basic concept of the film “out there” but the ending really would fly if this wasn’t an independent film. And really that was the most liberating part of it. There were arguments about what should and shouldn’t go in the movie, but those were arguments between the director and the writer. Not the director and head of a studio demanding different music, or a different ending. I worked on a television show called “Life” and saw the notes the studio would send in on the episodes and it was mind boggling. Often it seemed there was no rhyme or reason to it, just “Cut this” “change that.” It would be stifling. So every time I would wish we had a little more money or a little more time I would have to remind myself that we were getting to make the movie the way we wanted to. And really that’s worth almost any trade off. Except for maybe a luxury trailer. I might be willing to change an ending for a luxury trailer.

Music played a big part in the film and you did a great job of mixing it in. Talk about creating and using music effectively.

The one of the big changes in going from the short film to the feature was Tom’s profession. In the short he is a writer and we changed that to a singer/songwriter in the film. That choice was made because we felt like there were just too many movies about writers going crazy. Plus, my brother is a musician and he wanted to write about the process of coming up with a song and the experience of playing it for an audience. For the movie it was a great decision, for us trying to make the movie it was a big challenge.

We posted on Craigslist and other online sites looking for a songwriter that could handle the songwriting chores, but didn’t come up with anything we liked. It was a challenge because we wanted all of the music to have a similar sound, but they had to be coming from different characters and representing different themes. It was tough.

I was working with Jason De Meo on “World Trade Center” at the time, and he mentioned to me that he was in a band. When I listened to his stuff I was just blown away. It was almost exactly the sound we were looking for. He was interested in writing songs for the movie so we discussed the characters and types of songs we were looking for. He and his cousin just produced these amazing songs, which really helped complete the world of the movie.

It was a bit tricky too, because we weren’t making a musical. You want to use these fully produced versions of the songs, but in the world of the movie it’s just a person and a guitar singing. So I tried to play with it visually, and show that when the full mix came in we were really in the head of the character. Hearing more than is actually there. I think it worked pretty well.

Michael Hampton did a great job of playing the troubled songwriter, Tom, and you did a great job of casting the film, every character was a bit surreal and you made it all believable. Talk about your directing style, as well as the casting process and how you created this strange world that Tom lives in.

We posted casting notices everywhere we could think of and got an insane number of headshots sent in to us. Well over a thousand different people to look through. It was a fun process because you get to try and match faces and types with characters that until now have only existed on the page.

Once it comes time to audition I find I mostly go by my gut. You can easily tell if someone has any acting talent or charisma, but when it comes time to pick the final one I always go with what feels right. And in the case of “Growing Out” that lead to three of the leads looking very very different from how they were presented in the script. They just captured the character and brought it to life. It’s also important to pick up on personalities as best you can. You are going to have to work with these people for many long days, so you want to make sure you can stand to be around them.

When it came to directing the actors I was always most interested in finding a connection between the over the top nature of the characters and the real world we all live in. We rehearsed a lot. Another bonus of being low budget and having sometime early on is that you can spend it with the actors. It tells you what is working and what isn’t, and will save you tons of time on set. Rehearsal is a must.

But in the end the actors we got really made my job easy. They were all pros. Understood the characters and what was needed and extremely dedicated to the work. They were amazing.

Almost all the characters had some sort of defect, in one way or the other, and I thought that was great and I loved the fact that, juxtaposed with that, there was a fully, functional human being, with no idea of what real life is like, growing in the basement. Talk about the ideas going on there and I do have one specific question, as I don’t think it was explained… what was with the thing on the back of Philip’s neck?

I’m glad you picked up on that. We did want every character to have some sort of physical defect. It was fun to play around with the differences in character based on that. Vernon is almost proud of his missing arm, playing guitar and writing a song about his lack of piano playing skills. Veronica uses her missing finger as a tool to gain sympathy and seem weaker than she is. And the boil on the back of Philip’s neck is a weakness. He is full of bravado and arrogance until Tom notices the lump and then he is suddenly on the defensive and awkward. There was never some greater conspiracy to it other than that it was his defect. Of course I realize in a movie like Growing Out smaller strange things jump out more.

You are right though that The Growth is supposed to run counter to all of that. To look at the innocence we all have before we are jaded or hurt or scarred by the world. To examine what we do when faced with something more pure than we are.

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

The funny thing about filmmaking is that the huge insane obstacles that pop up during the shoot will seem small and manageable once it is all done. The best advice I can give is never lose your cool. (This isn’t to suggest I never did.) There is always another solution and the worst thing you can do it become so attached to an idea that you can’t bend. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t hold to your vision and make the movie you want to make, but you need to also be flexible and open to different ways to get there. On “Growing Out” the original tree in the park we were going to shoot at was cut down two days before filming. The exterior of the house had its sidewalks torn up the day before we were going to shoot there. (And FilmLA didn’t bother telling us about it, even though they were aware of it. Then when we wanted a refund for our unusable permit they fought us on it.) Our P.A. backed the truck with all our equipment into a BMW. On our first day in the coffee shop no extras came. Those are just a few of the things that popped up to make life difficult during shooting. That doesn’t even get into the headaches that came up during post. It’s a long process, but it’s funny to look back and think how little it all mattered to the finished product.

On a practical note, be sure to save money for post production. I know during shooting we had a mindset of “We will deal with post when we get to post”, but there are a lot of expenses to be aware of. Mixing the sound. Doing an M&E mix if you want to sell overseas. Coming up with the deliverables for your distribution company. All of these things cost money, so it’s a good idea to have some of that set aside. We had money set aside for post in the early going, but it was gone quick.

Did you enter “Growing Out” into any festivals? If so, how did it do and is the festival circuit something that every indie horror filmmaker should consider doing?

We did submit to a couple of big festivals, but didn’t get in. It was suggested to us that when it came to sales you really only needed to submit to the big ones (Sundance, Slamdance, Toronto, Telluride, etc.) and that playing a little festival wouldn’t help much. So as our funds were drying up, we stopped submitting. But as an artist who wants their work to be seen, applying to every festival out there is very very appealing. So I do kind of wish we had applied to more. It is terribly expensive though. I’m told you can call directly and talk organizers into waiving the fee, but I never had any luck with that. But if you can afford it I would submit to every festival you can, because ultimately it’s about getting the thing seen.

Talk about the process of finding distribution, what would you tell filmmakers who’ve recently finished a film and are looking for distribution?

We were very lucky. My wife worked on Pirates of the Caribbean 2 + 3 with an artist who had directed a small horror movie called “Haunted Forrest”. He recommend us to a company called Circus Road. They had worked on his film as Producer’s Reps and gotten him a distribution deal with Lionsgate. A Producer’s Rep basically shops the film around for you using their contacts and connections, and then when the film sells they get a percentage of that sell. I’m not exactly sure why they aren’t called agents, because it seems like the same thing as an agent, but no, they are producers reps. So we contacted Circus Road and sent them a screener of Growing Out. They thought they would be able to do something with the film and sent it out to Cinema Epoch. Now Gregory Hatanaka the President of Cinema Epoch was just an all around great guy. So often you hear about people to whom movies are just a commodity, people who have no interest or concern about the art of a film. Well that isn’t Greg, it was great to sit down with him and talk about the film and see that he really got it and knew of all the same obscure and off beat horror films that we did. He was really great to work with and gave us a lot of freedom on the DVD and the theatrical release. Just really involved us in the whole process. I don’t think they accept screeners, but I do believe their website has some info about where to submit a pitch.

But this again is another story about how connections we had made working on other films helped us with our film. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here.

Where can people find out more about “Growing Out” or, better yet, buy a copy?

You can find out more about the film at or you can check out our distributor at You can buy the movie online just about anywhere, Amazon, Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, and you can actually go into a Fry’s Electronics and pick one up, which is pretty exciting. You can also rent it on Netflix, Blockbuster, etc. It’s not too hard to track down a copy.

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

I remember when I was growing up we would drive around to 3 or 4 different video stores just to see if there were any new horror or cult movies that we could rent. It was a real scavenger hunt. Today, when we have two or three genre movies released a week it’s a lot easier to find stuff to watch. It’s exciting, but now it’s about finding movies that are good, the scavenger hunt is still there. Sadly there seems to be a lot of “Me too” filmmaking out there. They see that one movie does well so they keep making that kind of movie. Look, I understand that this industry is just that, an industry. You have to make money. But when you are talking indie well the doors really are wide open. So it bums me out sometimes to see people not going further. This isn’t to say there aren’t people out there on the indie scene making fantastic stuff, because there is. And at the end of it all I’m not even really talking about talent, I’m talking about heart. Anybody that can finish a film has talent. It isn’t easy at all to see a movie through start to finish. My hat is off to them. But you can tell when a filmmaker is doing something from their heart, something they are passionate about and that is exciting to watch.

As for where it is going, that’s hard to call. I think we are a crossroads here. We are in the beginning of the digital age and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. I hope that it leads to more daring, bloody, scary and challenging horror films. I’m ready to see ‘em.

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

My brother is currently finishing up a second draft of what will be our next film. It’s a crime thriller with a crazy unstoppable killer. Sort of like what would happen if you threw Jason Voorhees into Reservoir Dogs. Should be a bloody blast.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

plz could any one tell me how can i get Graham Ratliff email or any contact details because ther is abig mistake in the movie " growing out 2009"
mohamed : teacher of math egypt
with my bestwishes