Friday, June 11, 2010

Interview with Bill Houser and Jim Knutelski, the guys behind "Hidden"

I'm seriously considering writing a book... granted, I wouldn't have to do much work on it. We've done over 200 interviews on Dead Harvey and most of them are just collecting dust somewhere in cyber-space. I'm thinking that I'll write some sort of commentary or a loose story around the indie horror world, then work in all these interviews. It would be a sort of like "The Indie Horror World As Seen By Indie Horror Filmmakers" or something like that. Okay, I'd have to work on the title... but would you pick that up? I would. Anyhow, once again, we have a great interview for you today. This is one is from Bill Houser and Jim Knutelski, the guys behind the upcoming micro-budget horror, "Hidden".

We spoke with Bill a while back, when he had just finished up a short film called "Martin Gimbley's Escape". You can read that interview by clicking here. He used that short to hone his skills, get some practice, then he was going to tackle a feature. Well, here we are, about a year and a half later, and that feature length film is finished. The film is a massive step up from their previous effort and it's a real achievement. What struck me most about the film was just how ambitious it was. They didn't let a grandiose plot, multiple characters and weaving story lines hold them back. They did a great job of holding the idea together and delivering a well crafted, well executed feature length film. My hat's off to them for sure, the film is something to be proud of.

Now, the interview is long. Real long... but I'm going to post the whole thing, as I think there's a lot of advice in here that new filmmakers can use. If you're one of those filmmakers that's just armed with a camera, an idea and unwavering resolve, you should read this from beginning to end. However, before we get to the interview, I'm going to embed the trailer.

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

JIM: On the surface it’s a story about what can go wrong with a competitive geocaching event when the sponsor may not have had the best intentions when planning the event.

BILL: The deeper story is about family secrets and betrayals. I like to think that it’s a classical Greek tragedy wrapped up in the skin of a slasher flick. Of course as the writer my view may be slightly warped. Ultimately, we were trying to capture the spirit of the late 70’s and early 80’s slasher films. The genre movies from that era, unlike most of the crap that tried to copy them in later years, actually had very suspenseful core stories.

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

JIM: The budget is what we (Bill and I - executive producers) could afford to spend over the 12 week shoot. Meaning that there was no financing other than what we could put into the film with personal finances - checking, savings, credit cards, etc. You can become very creative on a low budget film when you need to. "Ummm honey, I need to buy that rock climbing equipment that I have always wanted - I'm not planning on rock climbing any time soon, but we will probably need it for stunts during the shoot." Use your imagination on how these conversations ended up. Let’s just say that we were nowhere near the industry standard on a low budget film, the entire cost was well under 6 figures.

BILL: We learned a lot about where we could get away with cutting cost and where you really shouldn’t. Also, had we paid for people to do all the post production stuff we did ourselves we would have ended up paying this project off for the next thirty years..

You primarily shot outdoors, which is great. Nature makes some great sets, which tends to be a bonus when you’re on a limited budget. Really, the setting made the film. It was basically a character itself. Talk about your locations, how you picked them, where they were...

JIM: The film was shot entirely in northeast Missouri and east central Illinois. We selected locations based on what we needed according to screenplay, what we knew we could get within a short distance, what was FREE, and what did not require legal documents to proceed with production of the film.

BILL: From the writing stage on we had hoped that we could make the film look bigger by using a variety of settings. We didn’t want this to just be another film ‘out in the woods’, it was important that each of the scenes had a distinctive image. As you said, their own character. The Waterfall, The Cliff, The Caves…each one with its own purpose and feeling.

JIM: The waterfall was a challenge. We scouted a few before settling on the one we used. Finding a cliff around here is simple. Finding a cliff you can throw your lead actress off of without hurting her is another thing. Our cast were all troopers and did all of their own stunts. Convincing Ellen Hinch (Trish Garrett) that the climbing harness would hold her was a hurdle. Apologizing for the bruises she had after 3 or 4 takes and bouncing off the rock face while tied to a rope was another, but it’s easier to beg for forgiveness than to get permission. "Hey you’re already bruised up now - why not just finish up this shoot and not have to go through this again."

Having said that, shooting outdoors can pose a lot of problems. Limited access to electricity, tough to set up the camera, bad lighting… talk about some of the hurdles and lessons learned from filming outdoors.

BILL: Weather was probably the single biggest issue. It turned what was suppose to be a 20 day shoot into a 40 day shoot. I can’t tell you how many times we got everything and everybody on location only to watch a lovely sunny day turn into hurricane conditions. Nothing to do, but pack everything up and send everybody home.

Beyond this we did struggle with a lot of the technical issues you mentioned, partly because of the conditions, and partly because of our inexperience in working outdoors.

JIM: Sound was one of the big ones. Although several of the locations "look" secluded they were not. Try getting everyone set and ready to shoot, only to realize that the diesel machinery just started up for the day and will be warming up for the next 15 minutes, or the highway 50 yards away has an abundance of choppers riding by this particular day, or that the neighbor next door is mowing the lawn. It can be very frustrating when it is out of your control.

BILL: I’ll never shoot near running water again. If you haven’t experienced this you can’t imagine the sound issues it causes. The sound changes with every different mic move making it nearly impossible to analysis and edit in post. Leaving you with the options of leaving the background sound as is or trying to dub all the dialogue in post. Either way the overall quality suffers.

JIM: We also had issues with power for equipment. We had one shoot that was an "all nighter" and we thought we came prepared with lighting and power. The power system failed about 30 minutes into the shoot and we improvised with flashlights and any other light we could find for the rest of the night- the shoot must go on. Always have plan B, C, D for equipment because Murphy's Law is still alive and well.

BILL: And to make things worse that night we were a couple hundred yards up the side of a cliff. It was truly dangerous, and Jerry Irick (Tiny Hunsaker) has the scars to prove it.

We also got a special visit from the ‘Boys in Blue’ that night. Try explaining why you have a girl tied up and dangling off a cliff at 2:00 am to a couple cops…big fun.

JIM: Yeah, even though we were on private property and had permission to shoot, that doesn’t keep the neighbors from complaining to local law enforcement when they hear a woman screaming bloody murder.

BILL: It was a pretty brutal shoot for everybody. I know I didn’t even think about going out into nature for the next six months.

JIM: As a matter of fact, after completion of the shooting, we made a pact that our next project would be 100 percent indoors where we would have much more control over the environment. That was several months ago and we are now probably dumb enough to go back to the great outdoors for our next production.

You had a lot of characters and did a great job of creating separate identities and storylines. Talk about the casting process and how you managed so many actors.

BILL: Well, I went in knowing I was writing a less than incredibly original script. I know that a lot of writers won’t admit that straight out, but it was very much part of the plan for this movie right from the start. We were making an 80’s style slasher film, people that like the genre have a general understanding of what these films are about. So, knowing the nature of the story, I wanted to create an eclectic cast of characters. I wanted characters that fell into broad stereo-types that everyone would understand, but still felt like real people. One thing that works well on an independent film that doesn’t generally happen on bigger pictures is that the script was actually adjusted in several ways after the cast was on board. We already had the pattern for the characters, but then we custom fit it to the actors.

JIM: We had a normal casting call and had a good response which meant a decent pool to choose from for leading roles. As far as the smaller parts, if you were willing, you probably got some part in the film. The crew was also thrown in front of the camera when the need arose. The entire crew performed some sort of double duty during the shoot.

BILL: As far as directing the actors, we worked a lot on some core acting skills prior to filming. Okay, really just one core idea, “Stop acting”. Above all, I wanted them to understand that the characters I had written were now their property. That I had handed off the characters to them, and they were responsible for truly bringing them to life. Part of that included allowing a liberal interpretation of the screenplay. This approach worked amazingly well with several of the actors, but less with others. Considering the experience level of the cast, I was sincerely pleased with the work that they did. I’m looking forward to working with many of them again in the future.

So, last time we talked to you, you had just finished up a short film, “Martin Gimbley’s Escape”. Did anything come of the film or did you do exactly what you said you were going to do and use it as a learning experience to go off and make this feature?

JIM: It was an excellent learning tool for the feature. It did fairly well on the internet and at one point had several thousand hits. We are including it as a bonus short on the DVD. It could become a full length feature in the future, or a longer short. We still like the story.

BILL: We learned a strange lesson about finding an audience from Martin Gimbley’s Escape, it was barely noticed on YouTube or any USA based site, but was lifted off of YouTube and posted on a German horror site where it clocked a ton of hits. I’ve gotten e-mails in Japanese from people that watched on Japanese language sites we never even knew existed. Overall though, it was training, but like Jim said Martin may return in the future to tell the rest of his story.

Talk about the differences in making a short and a feature. Any key bits of advice that you would give to a filmmaker that’s thinking of moving on from short films?

JIM: The feature film was a larger monster by necessity: more cast, more crew, and a logistical nightmare compared to the short: setting up locations for several weekends of shooting instead of one or two, feeding people, transportation, setting up several locations, scheduling, technical issues, etc. Plan, plan, plan and write everything down. Find people that are "go getters" and can make wine from water on 30 seconds notice while keeping the director and cinematographer from killing an actor/actress on any given day. Get a variety of people to work with that are from different backgrounds. You never know when someone's obscure experience or skill will come in handy in the middle of a shoot.

BILL: It was exhausting. Still, my advice would be to not waste your time doing five or six shorts, and jump in there and make a feature. Making shorts is like playing in a tee-ball league and comparing it to major league baseball…not even the same game. In my opinion, completing a weak feature is still light-years ahead of making a decent short.

Part of my issue with making a bunch of shorts is that, as I mentioned in the previous interview with Dead Harvey, too many of the shorts I see are scenes not complete stories. I’m sure other people feel differently, and that’s cool. I just figure if your goal is to do feature films…then do feature films. Do the best you can with what you have. You get the opportunity to do a better treatment of a story in the future, fine…do it again. That’s essentially what happened with Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, and if you count the promo short they made before the first movie they made that film three times.

What’s your goal for “Hidden”? Is for accolades, are you looking to make money or are you just looking to get a feature under your belt?

JIM: When we started we had a specific goal, earn enough to finance the next project. As the process went on we started thinking about other issues like how this first film establishes the identity of Confusion Films, and what else can we learn from the process of distributing this film.

BILL: As with the short, we couldn’t care less about festivals or awards. We just want to get out to the indie horror fans in the most reasonable and convenient way we can. Let the people who understand what’s involved in making truly independent films like ours decide what they think about it.

JIM: You always hope for the best and that you made something that people enjoy watching. Then they will remember you and hopefully be receptive of your next project. We have a large list of lessons learned, a few we covered earlier. After this shoot, we plan to implement a few key ideas that will give our productions some needed technical improvement. We know that we were not perfect on this shoot, but we also feel that it is a quality product that is worth your time to watch. We have screened the completed production and received some very favorable comments, including yours.

BILL: From the start we understood that this film was not going to be our masterpiece. It was part of a plan we had to get to where we wanted to be by our third production, and I truly believe we’re on target to meet our personal goals for the quality of our films. This one is good, horror fans will enjoy it…be ready for the next one.

How are you going to approach distribution with “Hidden”?

JIM: We have a few different approaches to consider: Conventional, web, or a combination of them. We are definitely leaning toward web based distribution – direct download for a fee. There may also be distribution of DVDs, but due to the cost of media, packaging, and shipping, it is the least favorable option. Our goal is to keep the retail cost of "Hidden" and, any other productions we complete, low - just like the production costs. Why should the customer have to pay for distribution if we can find a creative way to cut the cost?

BILL: The bottom line is we didn’t spend 20 million, and don’t need to make 200 million to please our shareholders. Fairly positive that we will be looking at a very low priced direct download to own option directly from us. We’re still looking at the numbers, but it is very possible that we’re talking $2 to $3 downloads in a format that the customers can burn to DVD, transfer to their personal media device, or whatever. We’re also looking into some other options that were suggested by DEAD HARVEY…because once again you guys prove that you actually give a shit about independent filmmakers. At any rate, the film should be available this summer.

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

BILL: Our website:
The trailer is up on the site, and getting heavy circulation around FaceBook. We haven’t started our media push yet, but it is coming. We should have a webpage devoted strictly to HIDDEN up in the next week. DVDs and the downloads we were talking about should all be available by August…you know there’s a Friday the 13th in August. There might just be an incredibly low priced download available that night. Maybe we’ll make it only for those people with the secret DEAD HARVEY password.

What’s next?

BILL: Well, ironically after I said what I did about shorts, our next project is a feature length film composed of shorter individual story segments inside of a wrap-around story. Basically like the Creep Show movies. I recently started collecting all the old Creepy, Eerie, and Vamperilla comic magazines and the stories for this feature were heavily inspired by the tone of those stories. Of course, we’re bringing the action up to the intensity level that the modern horror audience expects. Right now the working title is Penny Dreadfuls.

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