Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Interview with Jason Morris, Writer/Director of "Hell House: The Book of Samiel"

I usually ramble on about stuff that's bouncing around in my head, but I've got nothing today. Actually, I'd really like to talk about what Brad and I are working on, but we're really not at any stage where we have anything to say... We're working on this project right now that went from idea to writing to pre-production to production to post-production to finished project back to the writing stage, then back further to the idea stage... It's all good, but it's kind of like giving birth to an ass backwards Benjamin Buttons - one who starts normal, ages, then decides to age backwards right before he dies. I'll explain in some post in the future, once we can talk more about it. This is the life of the indie scene, though. As I say, you just have to keep throwing shit at the wall and see what sticks. Then, just work the shit that sticks... until it falls. Then keep throwing. You know, one day, something will stick for good and, well, you're in and you can quit your day job. I guess. I don't know, I haven't got to that stage. I'll let you know when I do.

As I mentioned yesterday, today we have an interview with Jason Morris, the writer/director of "Hell House: The Book of Samiel", which just came out on DVD yesterday. The film does have an original take on the age-old haunted house story, where a teen girl and her lover were murdered ten years prior to when the film takes place and their ghosts now haunt the house, but I don't really want to get into the plot. I know my readers... and the reason you should check this flick out is because of how ambitious it is. The idea is big and Morris delivers. Not only does it have the obigatory T&A, violence and scares, but it's ambitious with it's shots, effects and characters. As a low-budget horror film, it definitely stands out... and you should check it out.

Morris offers up a long interview, but... as usual, if you're an indie filmmaker, you're definitely going to want to give it a read. There's some great stuff in there.

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

I got into filmmaking in a strange roundabout way; I had to take this class in school called Designing Careers, where you had to pick an occupation you wanted to study in prep for the future. At the time I was a comic book artist, at least I wanted to be and I had created a series with my cousin Michael, I would write and draw and he would write, ink and letter. We sold them at school for a buck twenty five. Anyway, I discovered, via the schools database that becoming a comic book artist was near impossible to obtain, I was determined and didn’t care, but the teacher made me pick two more options I might be interested in "just in case" loads of optimism huh? So I did and came across “movie director”, that sounds interesting, I thought, my Aunt had always told me (and for the life of me I never understood why or knew who the hell she was talking about(at the time) that she thought I would be like another Spielberg. I was young and not really into movies other than the normal viewer experience. So I looked into it and I was instantly hooked. Every aspect of movie making excited me. Instantly I started researching colleges, and keep in mind this is back in ’93 right before everything really blew up and became affordable and easily accessible, before anyone really knew who Kevin Smith or Robert Rodriguez or Tarrantino was. So that was it I started making these little terrible films and eventually graduated into making slightly less terrible features. As far as influences, there are so many things that have made an impression on me. My father watched a lot of westerns and cop shows like Bonanza and Berretta, so there is a certain amount of the cowboy in white and murder mystery story telling floating around in my head but the biggest most profound impressions came from three movies I was forced to watch as a child (plus many more but these are the ones that really stuck), and don’t laugh I was young, Fright Night scared me to death I remember covering my eyes and screaming out load, “April Fool’s Day” super intriguing to me, it was this horror mystery/psychological story that took an innocent holiday and fucked it up for me, I know a lot of holidays where fucked with in the ‘80’s but this was my first viewing of them, and although I know its one of the more bastard films of the 80’s that people don’t really care about, I don’t care I like it and thought, even to this day it was well done. Last but not least the mother of horror for me will and always will be The Evil Dead, my cousin and my sister sat me down and didn’t tell me what they were putting on and holy shit did that movie fuck me up, I think I was way too young to see that one, looking back on it but I am so glad I did, I cannot thank my evil cousin and sister enough for subjecting my virgin eyes to my first horror film. Then of course there was the Elm Streets and Friday movies was particularly nice because my name is Jason, but then there were the schlocky movies I loved too like Slumber Party Massacre and Nail Gun Massacre, a little bit of good old Toxie, loved USA Up All Night. Anyway I could go on forever…

Film school: Yes or No?

Yes, regretfully yes and then again there are certain disciplines that can be taught at film school that I think today’s filmmakers really need to learn, I won’t go into here but let’s just say that a lot of today’s young filmmakers have unwarranted egos and think a bit too highly of their work. I have a mentality that I will always be learning, no matter what and I feel like any producer or director or writer, no matter how good they get or how far they come up in the industry there is always a learning curve otherwise the top players would always be on top but obviously they are not, the industry is always shifting and we have to try and predict that with our work, I’m not talking about sacrifice of creativity but let’s face it if you want to do this for a living you have to think about your audience and predict what they want to see, you can’t possible hit every time and you may never hit. This is partially why I have shifted a lot of my focus on distribution and producing, you have to learn how and where these films are going to get to market, learn the back end process and the front end will become so much easier.

Tell us a bit about “Hell House: The Book of Samiel”

I think Hell House is a cool little film that has a good mix of horror, supernatural and character psychology traits. I wanted to do something that was easy quick and paid homage to the great 80’s films I loved. It didn’t really turn out that way on the whole but there are some glimpses or the original concept and feeling I wanted to convey. The basic story is a group of kids that are board with their small town life and check out local haunts. They come across the Shively House a local legend because of a series of murders that have taken place over the years, and they camp out for the night. A little of the old sex drugs and possession come into play and the next thing you know the demons of hell are trying to break out. We wanted to touch upon some real issues in the movie, things teens go through but we didn’t want to get to serious, we still wanted the movie to be fun but not be too mellow dramatic so I hope that comes off alright. That’s one of the cool things that I love about the genera is that you can have these real world issues and this deep character development without it being too heavy, people can relate to these people because well their pretty much a group of normal teenage kids with normal teenage problems (demons aside of course).

The film was based on a short story that you wrote. Talk about the short story and how you adapted it into a feature idea.

Not many people even notice that it was based on a short story and this is the first time someone has ever brought it up, so thank you for that, but I didn’t write the short story! Back in 2005 I had finished up my first film Millennium Apocalypse and I was on the search for another project before MA was finished with post. I wanted to do something simple that could be shot in less than a month and would cost next to nothing. I found an aspiring writer named Josh Whiles who wanted to give us a shot at this short story idea he had rolling around in his head, he pitched it to me and I liked the simple idea and said go for it. He sent me a few drafts and I liked the concept enough but I don’t think it ever reached past page 30. I added about another 30 pages and decided I was way over my head as a writer and kind of dropped the project for a while to finish up post of MA. About a year later I picked it back up itching to do another feature and started developing it with my business partner Jeremia Draper. We fleshed out a lot of stuff but still was not completely happy with the cookie cutter horror flick so I enlisted the help of William Martin, someone whom I worked with previously on MA and became good friends with, William is an award winning play write and had written and produced several plays so I listened to a few ideas he had and let him run with it. That was good and bad. The first draft I received from him was again thirty pages…but it was thirty pages of the first scene. He was writing a book. Albeit a very detailed and intriguing book but not exactly the format we needed to move forward, so we ended up bringing on Colby Heyer and Jennifer Brugman to help organize and trim the fat of William’s expansive work. By the time we had something workable the script was about 200 pages and was really an epic. We were now dealing with completely un-conventional horror movie that spanned 30 years. So I think a lot of the confusion some people have with the final film has to do with a lot of the concepts and ideas that ended up getting cut out, sometimes we get a little close to our projects and there are things that we know about the film and forget to take an objective look at the material through the eyes of the viewer. So as to where we trimmed the movie into a workable 120 page script a lot of the exposition and explanation was trimmed a bit too much, all of the concepts are still there but not as spoon feed as some might like their horror to be. I’m not saying it’s a thinking man’s horror film but there are subtleties that if you miss them you might easily get confused on some of the sub plots. And each of these sub plots are vital and extremely necessary, you see Hell House was built from a gigantic concept of several sequels each with a different demon and each with a different setting with mostly a different cast. So if you read the synopsis for the movie it really is a reflection of the bigger picture and a connection for things to come. Even pieces of the website have small hints of additional back story not in the film but add to the richness of the overall concept.

I thought you did a great job of mixing effects with different looks and feels throughout the film. Talk about your visual style and how you approach shooting a scene. Are you all about pre-production or does a lot of it came on the fly, while you’re in production?

This is sort of a tough question, I think style really is developed over a long amount of time and many productions, I don’t think HH is really a telling example of my style, I think there are hints of style in the production that will carry over to what I do in the future but I try to approach every project with fresh eyes as far as storytelling and visual interpretation of the material. However I was very conscious of what would be considered passable. I knew there would be sacrifices and I knew some ideas and concepts would get tossed out the window on the spot. That is just a tragedy of filmmaking on a budget. This movie ended up being such a high concept picture that we stretched every dollar and every second of time to the max, and that’s were a great producer (Jeremia Draper) and AD (Vert Wright) come into play, I spent a lot of my time learning the concept of producing but I knew I needed someone to pick up that role for me so I could focus on other things, Jeremia stepped in early on and did a fantastic job. We set up the production with a 3 month pre-production phase and that was all inclusive, casting crewing, all of the script re-working I spoke of, location scouting, ect..ect..ect.., the production itself was scheduled at 19 days and post we aimed for 3 months but never held ourselves to it because all of the post work was in house with the exception of the final audio mix and 5.1 and some of the special effects. To get back to you question though, for the most part the way I approach a scene is pretty much how I approach everything in life, I like to hit the hard stuff first so we can all be relieved and have fun the rest of the time. For instance if we are shooting an emotional scene I’m not going to wait to the end to do it we are shooting that first and we are really going to dig into it, I won’t allow running over time or budget and having to sacrifice something important when at all possible. As far as the visual style of individual scenes I try and look at them individually, for instance the flash back sequences throughout the film, we are dealing with 3 different time periods and each one of them need to have their own visual look for several different reasons, first we need to be able to differentiate between the time periods, if they all looked similar the audience would have a hard time understanding where we are. There are a lot of elements in these flash back scenes that make them work, some of the best acting in the film takes place here, this allows the back story to feel believable and real, where the main story takes place mostly with these kids, they can act like jackass’s and generally do stupid things and get away with it in the audiences eye, but when we see something real something that has already taken place we need to believe its real in order to sell the story and move things along. To every detail from the set dressing of the same sets in different time periods to the period wardrobe the audience can get a sense of the different periods taking place, and I felt at the time that this would be enough to allow the audience to grasp the timeline and put things into place, looking back things could be explained a bit more for clarification but over all I think things turned out effectively. So early on I knew I want to treat the final flash back scenes with some sort of color grading or effect if you will, and the overall finished scenes are mainly a culmination of experimentation. But on set you have to start out with some kind of interpretation of the material whether it be a shot list or story boards, or set design or particular acting techniques to direct the talent with but you also have to understand that the final scene rarely ends up being assembled how it was intended, and that is the beauty of editing and post production. There were several time however that lent itself to on the fly compositions and direction. Sometimes no matter how much you plan, things just don’t work out, like a camera breaks down or parts of a camera crane go missing or stupid things like someone breaks into one of the picture cars so now you have a car that is supposed to appear on camera with a slashed convertible top, so now it appears with the top down in every scene, little stuff but it does effect things and the mentality of people on the set. I remember a scene where Sheila, who plays Dani, is covered in blood and has just been possessed, is coming down the stairs to seduce Paul, played by Michael Carlisi, first rehearsal was perfect we even shot it, then we realized we had not applied the fake blood to the actress, we applied the blood and from then on out every take was terrible it just was no longer working, I am still extremely unhappy with the scene as it is now but we had to keep it for continuity, even now there is a bit of disjointedness due to other scenes surrounding that one that had to be cut for similar reasons. It’s a constant challenge but it’s exciting and fulfilling when things do work out and things come together nicely.

One of the things that really stood out was the house itself. It was absolutely perfect for the film. Did you have access to the house before and write the idea around it or did you find it after the fact?

We found the house after the fact, early on in the script process the house was just some suburban home, we were trying to make things simple remember? But this monster just kept growing and we quickly realized this house had to be fantastic. I had seen this movie “Dead and Breakfast” a couple years before directed by Mathew Lutwyler(SP?), I picked it up because it featured a small role from an actor I really admire, Vincent Ventresca (The Invisible Man), good funny movie with a great cast, but the house they shot it in was fantastic. Incidentally the house was located very nearby and Jeremia found out where it was and contact the Livermore Film Commission and got us the location, I figured we could pull off using the same house in our film because in our movie the house much more of a character and even though Mathew’s movie was called Dead and Breakfast which heavily implies the character of the house as well, the movie did not really feature the house other than just a setting. I’ll tell you this though it was exhilarating shooting in that house not only because of the genuine charm of the old Victorian but having just known all of the great actors that had shot in the same house was great, I was thrilled to know that David Carridine lounged around where we poured buckets of blood, hell there was even residual blood left over from their shoot, Jessica (Sasha) swore the walls were bleeding but we concluded it was just sloppy seconds. The owners of the house were great to work with and let us do just about everything we wanted in that house, it was fantastic. I remember after principal photography ended and we needed to go back and get some pickup shots the large palm tree thingies in front of the house had been removed so we had to find branches laying around and use them to fill the scene as if they were still there. The craziest things happen that you just cannot plan for.

CG effects can seem a bit jarring and out of place on low-budget films, but you did a great job, I thought they worked really well. What program did you use and talk about your favorite effect, how was it done?

Well thank you, that’s much appreciated. I wish I shared your enthusiasm for the fx. Don’t get me wrong I think some of them are absolutely great for our budget but you know how it is, we are our own worst critics. A bunch of apps were used including, after affects, partical illusions, 3dmax, lightwave, maya, and a bunch of plugins, magic bullet sapphire and others I can’t remember. Way before we even started shooting we hired on Nathan Mater and Nathan Hammack to design the CG effects for the movie, NM got started right away on designing what was going to be a CG opening scene with Theadora, yes that whole scene with here flipping the cards and the camera flying out of the house through the window and up to the Victorian house was all going to be CGI, however when we got on set we came up with a creative way to move the camera to get what we wanted and NM was able to pretty much invisibly match the CG with the footage we shot. There are about 4 scenes in this movie that I think are really fantastic and this is one of them. Later on in the film when the Gate Keeper, as he was named in the script but later named Adam, played brilliantly by our co-writer William Martin, sticks a screwdriver into his ear to “stop the noise” this scene was done by NH. He did a great job taking our live shots and mixing them with pictures he took of the screw driver and compositing them together and adding the residual blood and mixing it with the blood fx on set, done by Alicia Ramos. Now when we get into some of the cheesier fx like the electrical storm from Theadora that supposedly closes the gate to hell at the end of the movie, this stuff was done by me after we lost NM to a higher paying job after we went over schedule and over budget on his contract, but hey these are the sacrifices right, it was either can the movie and wait for more money or dive it and pretend you know what you’re doing. I figured with the rest of the fx working well for the most part maybe the audience will forgive that cheesier aspects of the movie.

Did you screen at any festivals? If so, how did it do? What are your thoughts on the indie horror festival circuit?

I have never really bought into the festival route at all, I mean we ran a fest. For a few years but with my own stuff I guess I was just too critical and thought it wouldn’t really do well or if I put it out there and it did not do well that that’s kind of the end of the filmmaking career, but I have learned so much since then and having started my own distribution company, running a festival, producing other peoples projects, that I think in the future as I and my team and I grow that we will certainly start trying to get our stuff into fest and be more pro-active about it. As far as the Indie Horror Fest circuit goes, I thinks it’s a pretty good scene, I think there is a lot of creative talent out there that is not fully realized either because of lack of knowledge or access to financing or the crazy suedo internet critics that are all trying to be Aint it Cool and bash any and everything that comes out of the Indie realm that doesn’t resemble a Hollywood film even though these Hollywood films they claim to hate, but I think we as filmmakers need to try and be a bit more careful with the films we make and make sure we know who our audience is. Horror isn’t all about blood and guts and that doesn’t mean you have to play it safe either, there are plenty of ways to express horror and I think the further and further indies push that envelope and it is accepted by the festival viewers the more and more Hollywood will notice and accept horror for more than a quick buck at the box office because in retrospect to the horror craze of the past few years, a quick buck for the studios is really what drives it all, nothing ingenious has really turned up, nothing terribly inventive has peeked its head in a long time, of course there are exceptions such as The Orphanage and a handful of others but over all I truly think that the indie world dictates Hollywood more so then Hollywood dictating the indies.

Talk about distribution. What lessons have you learned and if you could pass on one word of advice to other indie filmmakers, what would it be?

This is a gigantic question that I should prob. Write a book about it but since I’m really nobody at the moment I suppose I will have to hold off, lol. Look, its like this, if you really want to make movies for a living and I assume anyone reading this does…WANT to, then pay attention to everything and everyone around you, subscribe to the trade mags, Hollywood reporter and variety ect, video business and home media retailing, these mags are the life line to what distributors are buying selling and looking for. You need to know this before you make your movie, but once you know you need to hurry up because this info changes on a daily basis. High concept, great script, good acting is what matters among a plethora of other factors but with these you can never go wrong. Distribution is having a hard time with the current economy particularly for the indie sales. It will eventually break and things will grow strong again but who knows what genre will be hot then. Stay focused on the prize which is more than just making a good movie, you need to think about the end result, who, when and where is going to see this? Know these answers before you shoot, know your audience, know your outlets, and don’t you ever think the movie is over when your done shooting or done with post or even if you get a distribution deal, you still need to push push push, make people aware of the movie, utilize the social network groups, utilize your family and friends, I don’t care how tired they are of you and your childish movie making dream, ask them again to tell a friend or buy a copy or check out your website or watch the trailer, eventually it will get your film in touch with your audience. The biggest problem I see with filmmakers is that they think there movie is so good that Lions Gate or Weinstein will pick it up when in fact they prob don’t even know that Weinstein is having a hard time staying afloat and that Lions Gate had drastically cut back on buying horror, they don’t read enough, they do not keep their ear to the ground and know what’s next and they MUST do this. They need to stop being pre-Madonna’s and thinking they are the next tarantino or Rodriguez, give me a break, these were lucky breaks that happen…well almost never, think about the thousands of films made a year, now think about how many newbie wander boys/girls turn up with the hot next thing a year, your talking literally 1000’s to 1, be prepared to be turned down, and yes let it affect you let it eat at you and then let it drive you to make a better movie, those not strong enough will fall to the wayside and become lawyers or work at burger king but the ones that can take it and not crumble will be the next tarantino…or they will die trying, artists we are a crazy bunch…

Talk about the indie horror scene. Where do you think it is now and where do you think its going?

I talked about this a bit above, but I really think Hollywood is following the indies more so then the other way around, I mean they look at it as a cash cow, would you ever in a million years have guessed all of these remakes would come about and by none other than the Hollywood’s cookie cutter action hack. Its all about money always has been always will be, my issue is with the fans, we are such fans of all of these movies, and we bash the Hollywood movies but then what do we do, we turn on the indies and bash them too, pick a fucking side god damn it, support the devil or join us! People want to talk shit about all of the Saw movies popping up but come on you are the ones making it happen, you keep going to see them, and I am not saying they are bad movies, these are the Friday the 13th of the current generation I think that’s fantastic, but don’t bite the hand that feeds, these are technically indie films that have paved a way for you to make your films, bash the Hollywood remakes if you will how can they have everything possible at their fucking disposal and still fuck it up? Where is the scene going from here, where it always goes once its hot again, it dies a quiet death, and then in a decade it will reemerge fresh and new to a whole new group of horror fans that are looking for something new. Just remember history repeats itself.

Where can people find out more about “Hell House: The Book of Samiel” or, better yet, buy a copy?

The easiest way to get a copy is to pre-order it at or shoot me an email,, you can also save it to your Netflix queue and find it in retail stores, and if you can’t find it ask to order it. You can also take a look at the official HH site at:

What’s next for you?

Right now we have two really exciting projects we are working on, the first one that I am really excited about it called “After Dark” which Reggie Bannister (Phantasm) will be starring in, you can find it on imdb. And the other one is called “Through the Night” which is written by Edward Martin III, and the script has already won some awards, this is a cool werewolf movie with a fresh twist, think Dog Soldiers crossed with Aliens. Besides that we are always working on looking for funding and shooting little projects, most notably “Consequence” which I Produced and wrote and Robert Carrera directed, which has already won awards (you can find it on the Hell House dvd when it drops), and a funny little short movie called The Bailout, written by Jim Meyer (Blood Money) and Directed by Vert Write.

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