Thursday, May 27, 2010

Interview with Andrew Moorman, writer/director of "Sympathy"

I'll keep this short because the following interview is long... Now, before you write off the interview due to its length, I'd just like to say that this is another one of those interviews that I would consider to be 'required reading' for anybody that's considering delving into, what I would call, the indie horror arts.

The best part about this interview is, I read about "Sympathy" when it first came out on DVD a few weeks ago and instantly went out and got it, based on what I had read. Then, I was so blown away that I decided to email the filmmakers. Then, right away, they got back to me. Honestly, the film exceeded my expectation on many levels and I'm even MORE impressed after reading what filmmaker Andrew Moorman had to say. The film is a top-notch indie horror and Moorman gives up a great interview. With that, I'd like to get right to it...

First off, tell us a bit about your film “Sympathy”. What’s it all about?

Taking place entirely in a rundown motel room in the middle of nowhere, Sympathy pits three characters against each other for one long night of lies, deceit & bloody revelations. It's a claustrophobic cat & mouse game and what makes it fun is that everyone in the room thinks they're the cat. I'd call it a suspense thriller, but there are certainly shades of horror. The script was adapted from a stage play called 'Serendipity,' which was an equally down n' dirty effort by playwright Arik Martin that went on to become a critics choice on the Chicago stage. More than anything, though, I want people to know Sympathy is a truly independent film. It has robots, titties, and tons of explosions!

If you don’t mind us asking, what was the budget and how did you secure the financing?

Initially I didn't give away the budget because I didn't want distributors knowing how cheap they could get the damn thing, but now that it's out it's something I'm very proud of revealing: $6,500 was the budget that got us from concept through creation and onto the silver screen. In fairness once the film was acquired for international distribution we had to spend more money on the requisite formalities, legal and such, but our final tally was still less than the catering budget on an episode of Bosom Buddies. Arik, the aforementioned writer & co-producer, was by day a dog walker in Chicago. His K9 tutelage extended to the pet of an investment banker, whom had shown an interest in Arik's artistic endeavors. We invited him out to dinner, pitched the concept and got a check the next day. It was the only thing on this film that was easy. We did paid for the dinner, though. We both made a copy of that check and framed it, while I think the investor forgot he wrote it. It's not a lot of money, but to us at the time it was a fortune of riches. Just the idea that someone would give you money to go make a piece of art, regardless of the amount is a beautiful thing. If you listen to the DVD commentary you'll hear some anecdotes on how we arrived at that budget. Less than scientific.

We’ve always preached that if you want to keep your budget down and production value high, come up with a script that has one location and only a few actors. You nailed that concept. Did you have that in mind when you came up with the idea?

Well the script existed as a play first. This was not a case where we wanted to make a movie, didn't have a lot of money, and came up with an idea to service those parameters. But luckily I had arrived at that same conclusion prior to making a feature film and went searching for the right one. You only get one debut, so I wanted one that allowed my focus to be on the actors & the narrative as those are elements that aren't dictated by budget. I came from a lot of theater as well and those are the elements I enjoy the most. I made a lot of films in college and certainly played the game of trying to forge the scope of something much larger. The budgets for my projects were always nothing, and as a filmmaker you're invariably trying to reach that level that's considered 'professional' by Hollywood standards, but I escaped that trap once I was introduced to independent cinema: the 70's movement in America, the French new wave in the 50's, even film noir of the 40's... it was all about filmmakers embracing their limitations. I decided to do the same.

Let’s talk about the script. The story kept my attention from beginning to end and had all the twists and turns you could ask for. Tell us, what makes a good script and what makes a good horror script?

I'll pass the kudos on to Arik, who deserves the credit for that. Personally I don't differentiate between any genre what make s a good script. For me nothing is as important as the characters. Avatar is a great example of a solid story told in a truly dazzling way that kept me interested & entertained throughout, but why didn't I wake up the next morning thinking about it? Why isn't it Network or Chinatown? Plot can only take you so far. We as audience members have to have great characters - relatable, likable, dislikable, believable… Whatever genre: Charles Foster Kane, Don Corleone, J.J. Gittes, Darth Vader or Jack Torrance, great characters make great scripts. They are our conduit into these worlds. Once you're in, though, it's the way the story unfolds & develops - how it holds your interest. Past character I always look for structure & pace. Are there great scenes? Are they structured in a way that works and does the pace dictate a good ride? I strongly believe in the ol' adage 'You can turn a great script into a bad movie, but you can never turn a bad script into a great movie. If the script sucks the movie sucks, no matter what amount of money or resources they throw at it or how well it's done (see: Michael Bay).

Talk about casting. Not only would your script require good actors, I’m thinking that they better like each other – that’s a lot of time to spend in close quarters. Any lessons learned there?

When you make a film, especially an independent, you're going to war. You have to cast actors that aren't just the best performers for the role but are people you want to go into battle with. Most of the casting is done in that first meeting, the initial vibe, the conversation… you know pretty instantly if that's someone you want to be in the trenches with. Then you can assess their talent and have faith that they'll get there. Getting there is the work, that's my job, but no amount of rehearsal can manufacture the right attitude and soul for this kind'a thing. I was blessed in the casting of this film. What we endured to get this film made... I truly believe there are no 3 people on earth that would have stayed in to the extent Marina, Steven & Aaron did. I tortured them to no end and they always came back the next day, ready for more.

Now, what about the set? It’s a hotel room, but it’s not really… you built it inside a barn. Talk about the decision to do that and how you made it come to life. I found out you did that after the fact, I couldn’t believe it. How much did that cost?

After I read the script I wanted to do this film 'right.' What I mean by right is the way the industry does it. I always knew it was a set because I needed to control every aspect, from design to space and light, but I wanted to do it in a proper sound stage with proper professionals and not have to cut corners or ultimately short change what I felt was a script that deserved a proper treatment. The reality was once we created a budget for doing it that way it was going to be either a long time or never until we got that money. We did give it a go, but got discouraged pretty quickly. At the same time a friend of mine had just fled the city and bought a farm house in a little town in Indiana, about an hour outside Chicago. He sent me a picture of the new digs and I noticed this big, beautiful barn in the backyard. I rang Arik immediately and said, "What would you think about shooting this movie in a barn?" We drove out the next day, pulled down a gravel driveway, slid open the carriage doors and knew instantly this was it. It just felt right. It matched the way we both worked and the way this project was always conceived. I'm a big proponent of providing the actors & myself with as little distractions as possible. You already have to work so hard to consistently suspend your disbelief when making a movie, do as much as you can up front to avoid distractions. When we saw the barn for the first time and the plot of land it resided on we decided there's nothing to do out there but make a movie. Fortunately Arik's dad & brother, as well as Aaron's brother were all carpenters by trade and whipped up a set in no time. It was under a grand if I recall and donated by Arik's dad. You can actually watch a time-lapse of the set being constructed on Sympathy's website. As far as making it come to life - my main objective in the design was to keep it simple. Too many motels in movies look like movie motels. I'm sort of an aficionado of run down motels, as odd as that is, and Arik and I scouted some 50 versions in pre-production. What you learn is that they all look relatively the same, with repeating elements of furniture pieces & layout. So I didn't over-do it. What I concentrated on was texture & color. The wallpaper is like a skin, because I viewed that room as a fourth character. The comforter, sort of the center-piece in the room was blood red. Beyond that I wanted all the furniture and appliances to seem familiar & timeless. Lastly the layout, which most people don't notice, is identical to Room 1 in Psycho.

Now, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what got you in to film?

I can't ever recall a time when I wasn't into film, so I have no idea what initially drew me in. I grew up in a small town in Ohio, a very idyllic upbringing that now feels like something out of Blue Velvet. I went to the cinema my whole life, to the point where my parents would drop me off when they opened and pick me up when they closed. That was my rabbit hole. I'd hop from screen to screen in a theater buried in the basement of a mall. I also used to ride my bike to an art theater, where I was introduced to movies outside the mainstream. My neighbor across the street was a cinefile and had a massive VHS collection that I'd pillage whenever possible. Then my best friend in high school was a movie lover so as soon as we got our driver's license we'd go countless times a week, sneaking in the exit door when a showing was letting out or hibernating in the dollar theater watching all the second runs. It's always been my favorite place in the wold, a cinema, and I've always spent time there, escaping into different worlds. They all feel like home. I've wanted to make movies since I can remember, and have been influenced in some way by thousands of films, directors, writers, actors, cinematographers… Anyone involved in this mystical craft has inspired me in some way.

Film school: yes or no?

No. If you got the money for film school make a movie with it instead. No better education.

What was your goal for “Sympathy”? Was it for accolades? Were you looking to make money? Either way, did you achieve your goals? Any lessons learned that you would pass on to other filmmakers?

If you make a movie for accolades or money, good fucking luck. That sounds like a recipe for disaster. The main goal was to make a feature film, which is pretty damn hard. After that it was to make a good feature film, which is next to impossible. How many people want to make a movie? Of those, how many actually do? And of those that do, how many are actually good? You're facing pretty intimidating odds on all accounts. I wanted to make something I cared about, finish it, and be proud of it when it's done. On those regards Sympathy is an absolute success and artistically I achieved my goals. I'm very proud of the movie. What I would pass on? Film is transparent - it doesn't just project an image, it projects intentions.

Talk about the indie horror film fest circuit. What did you learn from it and is it something that you would recommend to other filmmakers?

I was reinforced on what I already knew going in, which is horror fans are the greatest in the world. I'm not pandering, cause I am one. If you're going to make an indie film and hope that fans accept & embrace it, there's no better genre to be in than horror. It's a community and a family and the fests are like reunions. I'd recommend to other filmmakers to work within this genre and go to as many of these events as you can as no venue or audience will give you as much joy. To stand in the back of a theater or hotel convention hall and watch a hundred like-minded people enjoying your movie is an indescribable rush. I could have traveled that circuit for years and can't wait to do it again. At the same time what I really love about horror fans is you can't bullshit 'em with a terrible movie or they'll eat you. Literally.

Talk about the process of finding distribution. If you could pass on one piece of advice to other indie filmmakers on distribution, what would that be?

It sucks. It's long and arduous and filled with too many formalities. You go from in front of a script to behind to a camera to an editing bay, which are all exhilarating places to be, to suddenly holding a phone to the side of your head for ten hours a day bullshitting with bullshitters and trying to whore your film out to the highest bidder. Things you loved about your movie suddenly become shortcomings and people who've never seen it are criticizing it based on its stats: 'Who produced it? Who stars in it? Who's your picture rep, your PR firm? Never heard of 'em. Dial tone…' And when someone does finally agree to watch it's not in a darkened theater with popcorn & 5.1 surround sound, it's on their laptop at 10:30am with a phone ringing incessantly & Ellen in the background. I desperately wanted the film to be judged on its merits alone. In a perfect world one could say, "Watch my movie. If it sucks, throw it away - if you love it help me get it out to people." If they love it others will, it should be that simple, but it becomes about so many different things. I can't tell you how many times I heard, "We love Sympathy, we just can't market it." Ultimately you have to realize the movie business is exactly that: a business selling movies. Distribution is when you cross that line and enter a whole different realm. That being said you have to understand the business as much as you understand the art or get another career. It's a marvel in its own right. Watch movies about movies (Sunset Blvd., Barton Fink, State & Main, The Player, Swimming With Sharks, The Big Picture, etc…). Do your homework. Read the trades, bookmark BoxOfficeMojo & listen to KCRW's The Business. Read William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Joe Eszterhas' The Devil's Guide to Hollywood. Listen to as many DVD commentaries as you can, particularly those by filmmakers like Sidney Lumet. While we all hate the flawed distribution model that's been created, that sees far too many terrible films made and driven to massive success and far too many great films buried in obscurity or never made at all - it's nothing new and nothing you can change. You certainly aren't the first to face it. But my one piece of advice, having been through it, is that you still can't make your film to sell your film. Don't learn the model then make your movie to fit inside it. The studios invented the model, they spend billions on their movies and they still make flops. Just make the film you want to make then let the rest work itself out. The internet is changing distribution. Every day more people watch cat videos on YouTube than see any movie in theaters. I'm not sure what to make of that and don't endorse the creation of a feature length cat movie, but times are changing and the way people get their content is as well. Just remember why you wanted to make films in the first place and pick your path.

Talk about the indie horror scene, where do you think it is now and where do you see it going?

Technology pushes the arts. Indie films are closer than ever to looking and sounding like studio films and breaking down that wall will allow more indie films to enter the mainstream arena. Horror is still the one genre you can succeed in without a star as well, and the horror community is always amazing at building word of mouth and showing up when they actually squeak one into theaters. Social networking is a big element now and horror is on top of it. It's a really successful genre right now and I don't see that dying anytime soon. It's no longer seasonal either, as many horror films are coming out in February as October now. It's a good time to be a horror movie. Thankfully the J-Horror obsession has dried out. Those were all great originals but not many of the remakes were worth a shit. Personally I'm also glad the torture porn movement is seemingly on its way out. For a while there I started looking around the theater while a girl was being knife raped for two hours and wondering when we'll just resort to paying eight bucks to watch the surgery channel over a screaming track. Like all things it's cyclical and trend-based. Lots of remakes on the way - hard to get excited about that. Where I hope the indie horror scene goes is where it went in the 70s. Let's get inventive & refocus on what fear is. Fear is psychological. Watching a piranha eat someone, in 3D nonetheless, isn't scary. It might be exhilarating to some, but horror should be more than that. Let's tap back into the psyche.

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

Check out the websites:
As far as buying it I think all the standard sites carry it now: Amazon, BestBuy, Barnes & Noble, or you can rent it on Netflix but you won't wanna send it back and that'll just plug up your queue. If you do buy a copy and dig the flick contact me on the website and I'll give you an address to send the cover to. The entire cast, Arik & Myself will autograph it and send it back.

What’s next?

I'm ready to make another movie. I was willing the second Sympathy ended, but hadn't found that next film that I thought would be right. While I was looking or waiting for Hollywood to bequeath me a franchise I co-wrote a very personal film on spec. We've been tinkering with it for some time now but very recently it's finally come together and it's something I think deserves to be made, so off I go on another indie adventure. I don't take it lightly, making movies. I admire filmmakers like Terrence Malick & Stanley Kubrick that only made films they felt deserved to be made. I certainly hope to make more films, but so did Kubrick. He worked on movies for years that never got there. The main thing is I have an unspeakable amount of respect for cinema and vow to uphold it. The new film will be very different and equally as risky. If it works, I look forward to another one of your wonderful reviews. If its doesn't, at least I can say it's mine.

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