Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Dead Harvey Interviews Erik Soulliard, writer/director of "The Creek"

When indie horror filmmakers set out to make their film, a lot of them rely on gore, nudity and comedy to make up for their lack of budget. And, I really don't have anything against that, it just happens to be the way it is and, quite personally, I like it. However, every once in a while I'll come across an indie horror that relys on story, "The Creek" is one of those films. It's definitely a horror, as it's filled with tense moments, there's a fair share of gore and there's a menacing ghost, but what drew me into the film was its really well done story. The film is about six friends who are forced back together by the ghost of their deceased buddy, but when they head up to woods, which happens to be where that buddy died, people start dying. So, is it the ghost, is it one of them or is it because they returned to "The Creek"? It's written, produced, edited and directed by Erik Soulliard and Dead Harvey had the opportunity to ask him about the film... it's a lengthy interview, but he offers some great advice, insight and stories.

First off, tell us about yourself as a filmmaker. Who are your influences? What’s your directing style like?

I am originally from Lebanon, Pa. After college I moved to the NYC metro area in early 2000. Once in the city, I started to establish myself as an actor doing a lot of student and independent film. The city is great for student and independent projects, unfortunately, most never get completed and about 5% ever see the light of day. I began to write screenplays in college and continued writing afterwards. I met a lot of talented people on many of the shoots I was on as an actor. After years of working on other people’s projects I decided to do my own short. This way I could guarantee that the project would get finished. I contacted the people I worked with in the past such as Jason Contino and we collaborated on my short Interrogation. After this Jason moved on to his own feature. He and his production partner on that project tapped me for a sizeable part in their film The Murder Game. Working with Jason has always been a fun experience so when it came time to shoot The Creek I immediately got in touch with him. I also was fortunate enough to bring in James Hollenbaugh, an old classmate from Millersville, as my AD. We only knew each other peripherally from school but quickly hit it off on The Creek. Both Jim and Jason brought a great deal of production experience and resources to the film. I know I’m drifting from the question but what The Creek became and my style of direction was strongly influenced by both Jason and Jim and I felt as though it was important to recognize the both of them before moving on.

My directing style is very collaborative. I did have a full storyboard done before the shoot. We followed it very closely and it was invaluable when shooting on such a tight schedule. However, there were many times when Jason would set a frame and say, “Take a look at this.” Frequently, his on-set instincts were on the money and we would grab his shot in place of the storyboard shot and or get both. His shots often won out in the edit room. Jim also had a great deal of influence on the shoot. As my AD Jim was my eyes behind the camera while I was in front of it. We would frequently talk about the scene ahead of time so he knew what I was after. If he felt we weren’t getting there or saw something that I couldn’t due to being in the scene he would always call me over and we’d review it. Film lends itself to collaboration very easily and I feel we all had a great experience on set because everyone was contributing. Working this way is great when everyone is on the same page. Luckily for me my DP and AD worked well together and when it was time for an executive decision both understood that as Director it was my call and immediately rallied behind the new course of action.

My influences are almost embarrassing because everything they have accomplished is so much greater than what we did on this tiny film. I am a big fan of Tim Burton, Alfred Hitchcock, and David Fincher to name a few. Each varies greatly from the other but each has a unique vision and style that I admire. We obviously weren’t trying to imitate any one person’s style.

Film School: Yes or No?

Sort of. I do have a BS in Broadcasting from Millersville University so in some ways it was related. It was far from a film program but it did give me the fundamental skills to write scripts and I was first exposed to non-linear editing there.

Where did the idea for “The Creek” come from and what made you actually get off your ass and go make it?

Well, the “what made you actually get off your ass and go make it” question I discussed in the first answer. I’ve always loved film and although acting was my main focus for many years I’ve always been interested in filmmaking as a whole. Once I got more experience on sets and started editing and writing more I realized that I could combine all my interests. Now, this isn’t always the best thing because it’s hard to focus on any one area when you’re doing so much but it’s been a great learning experience. I don’t regret doing so much on The Creek but I have figured out all the areas that I need someone better than myself to handle on the next project. I’ve also fought through the jobs that I now know I definitely don’t want to do the next time. On The Creek I had to wear many hats out of necessity but from that I now have a much greater understanding of the process.

The idea for The Creek came from a mixture of things. The first thought was that I wanted to do something in the thriller/horror genre. The second thought was that for my first feature I didn’t want to go too far out of the box and sort of “out unique” myself. The third thought was to figure out what assets we had at our disposal to utilize.

I went with thriller/horror because it’s such a great genre with great fans and I love that you’re not always stuck in reality. The supernatural is always something fun to work with and many of my other scripts have an element of the supernatural to them so it wasn’t a stretch. My interests lean more toward thriller than horror and that is clearly reflected in the movie.

When I say I didn’t want to go too far out of the box I mean that my other writings tend to be far less straight-forward. My short Interrogation leaned far more toward experimental because it mixed multiple genres. I feel strongly that I mixed quite a few genres with The Creek as well but I think it is much more straight-forward. I did go into The Creek with a firm belief that you can make a thriller/horror and still mix some drama in it. Granted, The Creek is in no way high art but I do feel the complex relationships between the characters is much greater than the usual offering in a normal horror film. I’ve always felt that the characters coming back together after five years and how they are reacting to that is more of the story than the actual ghost and people dying. I’ve gotten reviews where people completely get that aspect of the film and I’ve gotten reviews where they only see the horror. Either way I’m happy as long as they like the film.

The overall idea of The Creek was to make something that I personally liked but at the same time make something that had the potential to get out into mainstream outlets.

The third component was what we had available as pertaining to locations, housing for actors, etc. I sat down and made a list of possible locations we could get for free. I also considered availability of help and support from friends and family who I knew would graciously volunteer services to us. I also had a strong desire to shoot in PA around my hometown. I think that the variety of landscapes and locations in PA are amazing and I knew I wanted to work with crew from that area.

How did you go about securing financing and what was the approx budget?

Securing finances was the big obstacle in doing the film. I did feel that there were avenues of possible investors for the film but these would have been friends and family. Seeing that this was our first feature and it was going to be ultra low budget, we were very concerned with going this route. At the time of shooting I knew people who had also done their own feature projects but no one had been financially successful. We were very concerned that the added pressure of financing with money from such close personal ties would be too much. Also, the strong possibility of financial failure for the project made this just too risky. My wife and I had a long conversation about all these things and decided to take the financial responsibility ourselves. Thanks to a then booming housing market we were able to secure a home equity loan for the film. Keeping within the tradition of independent film we did end up also having one family investor for a small portion of our budget. We tried to turn it down but in the end we appreciated the support and it did allow us those few extra equipment perks we greatly needed. In the end the support of family and friends in non-monetary ways was also amazing. Our primary locations were donated by close friends and their family. Our food was supplied by alternating family members each week of shooting. Even our housing for our out of town actors and crew were supplied by family. It’s safe to say that this shoot could not have occurred without all of this help and was just as important as any investors. Without this help our budget would have increased by at least 25%.

I tend to keep the budget of the film under wraps. I believe once or twice I’ve slipped but I don’t like to give figures. People tend to have expectations either good or bad when they know the budget. In some ways it’s good because we can surprise them but in some ways it biases the audience. I will say that it was less than a new Volkswagen, which Volkswagen I won’t say.

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

We shot on the DVX100 B in 24P.

Our shoot was an 18-day shoot that ran Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for six weeks. Each week everyone on the cast and crew worked their day jobs or at least half of them and then came to set and shot from 7pm until 6am. Thursday nights were tough to say the least. I would leave my job in NYC at noon, take the train to NJ, meet our two actresses from NYC in NJ at 2pm and then drive to PA. We’d arrive at about 6pm, have an hour to get settled before reporting to set at 7pm, then work until sunrise Friday morning.

What struck me the most about the film was the story. There was a great hook, then… all of a sudden, it was like “Shoot to Kill”, where you have a group of people in the woods, you know one of them is the killer, you just don’t know who. Tell us about the process of writing the script…

Thanks for the compliment on the story! Glad you mentioned the early hook. I really wanted to have that quick unexpected event to pull people in early. Again, we didn’t have a big budget so I wanted to grab people’s attention as soon as possible.

I talked a little about how the locations affected the script earlier so I won’t bore you with that again. I really enjoyed writing a script about six people coming back together after a horrible accident. I had one review that summarized the movie as a mix between The Big Chill and The Grudge. I was really happy with that comparison. On one level I really wanted to have that underlying tension/suspense that The Grudge had while at the same time I hoped people would enjoy the drama between these six mostly ex-friends. I think most people transition through different groups of friends throughout their lives, particularly between early teens and thirties. Every group of friends I ever had contained those typical character types. Inside the group there is always that struggle of conflicting personalities but usually there is that one person who keeps everyone together. In this case that person is gone so when they come back together it’s sort of a no-holds-barred kind of experience. There is no more need for tolerance or niceties. I’m a dialogue person so I really enjoyed writing those scenes where everyone’s true colors come out.

Next, tell us how you went about accomplishing the ghost effect. I thought it was great, very believable.

First and foremost I believe that ghosts MUST BE translucent. You just can’t have a solid ghost. I’ve seen people do it but it never works for me. We did test shooting early on and decided that plate shots were our best option. A plate shot works great as long as you don’t have camera movement. Of course bigger budget films can afford equipment which allows this but we did not.

My second concern was make-up. I had high expectations for this and we knew of an amazing make-up artist named Sandy Andrle (sandyandrle.com) so I knew she’d knock it out of the park. Sandy and I talked and she had some great ideas to give our ghost a unique look. The make-up took about two hours but it was well worth it.

Once we had a final cut of the film I passed the ghost footage on to Justin Harrell and Michael George for the final touch. They worked in After Effects to give the Ghost a light glow so as to bring in a more ethereal feel to him.

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.

The biggest hurdle is having good people to work with and enough of them. We had a small crew but we had a good crew. We hired the people you need to really give it a professional look and sound. A lot of independent producers try to get away without a sound man, a gaffer, professional lighting or make-up. The majority of our budget went to professional lighting equipment and experienced people who knew the jobs we needed them for. Granted, no one is huge in the industry at this point but everyone had worked in their positions prior to this shoot and had marketable experience. Everyone brought something to the table.

The second thing I highly recommend is organization. Many of the shoots I’ve been on have fallen prey to their own lack of organization. We spent a good amount of time making sure we had as much ready in pre-production as possible. Obviously you’re going to hit things along the way you didn’t expect, it wouldn’t be a movie if you didn’t, but being prepared ahead of time allows those things to be manageable.

After it was all said and done, what would you have done differently?

There’s a ton of things I would have done differently if I could have but the truth is it all required more money and more time and we had none of both. There are of course little things here and there like some shots I would maybe get a little different but overall I’m very happy with the end results given our resources.

There’s just such a big difference in the way you have to shoot when your budget is so low. Honestly for anyone to even say we made a movie is a compliment even if they hated it. If you ask the general public how much a low budget movie costs you’re going to get an answer in the millions. To filmmakers like myself that would be a dream! If you give a world class chef a can of spam, a loaf of bread, and ketchup you don’t expect him to be able to make a meal let alone a good one. Filmmakers on this level are doing just that. I feel as though we made a meal and a pretty good one. Now how good it is is up to the individual audience. So far we appear to be falling somewhere between fast food and a cheap sit-down restaurant. I’m more than happy with that.

Talk about the festival circuit. What did you learn? And what can you pass on to other filmmakers who’ve finished an indie horror and want to enter it into festivals?

We entered into a good number of festivals and ended up playing in five during the fall of 2007, one this spring, and another coming up in September 2008. So we managed to get in a total of seven with the highlight being our win of Best Feature Horror at the Illinois International Film Festival. We decided to enter festivals and then after we played in them, start looking for distribution. In retrospect, we should have entered festivals and immediately started looking for distribution. The festival process from submission to actually playing is long and drawn out. That time could have been used better to start our search for distribution. We felt that we’d do the festival circuit first and hopefully get some attention from distributors but that isn’t necessarily the case at this level.

Before I go ahead I’d like to say that we were ECSTATIC for every festival we landed. You have to understand that first and foremost! There’s a TON of films that never get into any festivals. So we are very pleased with our run. BUT here again the budget comes into play. We do have some actors with experience but we do not have “Name” actors. That is a big thing when it comes to the bigger festivals where distributors are attending. Is it possible to have no names in your film and play a big festival? Of course it is and people will name those few films that had the perfect hook or the marketing that did it. The truth is that’s the 1%. If you don’t have a “name” in your film it is very very very hard to get accepted into LARGE mainstream festivals. There are so many movies out there with the resources to shoot on film or high end HD and the ability to attach a name or two. I mean seriously, is a festival going to take our little film over some 500k-1million dollar movie that was shot on 35mm and has two sitcom stars from the 80’s and the guy who played in one of the most memorable horror films of all time? No way! Is that film better than ours? Depends on who you talk to but probably not. But that’s the way the business works. That’s what we found out ourselves and also what other filmmakers we’ve met have said.
So what I’m trying to pass on is keep your expectations in check. Don’t get me wrong, spend some money and send to the BIG festivals if you can. You might be the 1% but realize it might not happen so send to that weird little horror festival in the middle of nowhere too. Those festivals can be your best friend! Also, those festivals are getting hundreds of submissions so be proud if they accept you. Again, most films don’t play anywhere.

What about distribution? How’s that going? Are there any lessons that you would pass on to other indie filmmakers who’ve just finished a film?

We have signed distribution with a great company called Indie-Pictures (indie-pictures.com). Our street date is October 28th 2008 and you can pre-order the film now from the Indie-Pictures Coming Soon page.

My main advice for distribution is do your homework. We were offered multiple deals but many of them we found out were with less than reputable companies. Don’t get me wrong, they had a great website, they said all the right things, the contracts looked great but once I started contacting filmmakers whose films were released through them I found the true story. Independent filmmakers are amazing when it comes to helping each other out. Every time we received an offer I would hit IMDB and look up all the films they’ve put out. From there I’d track down directors and producers from those films and start emailing. Within two days I’d have enough feedback to know which way I wanted to go. Always remember that other independent filmmakers are your best friends when it comes to distribution.

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

The Creek will be in most major DVD outlets on October 28th, 2008. You can find out all the current info on The Creek at thecreekmovie.com. I already mentioned where you can pre-order but because I’m a whore so I’ll say it again. Visit indie-pictures.com, go to their catalogue page and click on coming soon or go here. We should be hitting the Indie-Pictures homepage in September. I believe we just got listed on Amazon.com but they don’t have our full listing yet. Type in The Creek + Erik Soulliard and it’ll take you right there and you can bypass all the Dawson’s Creek DVD’s. Thanks in advance to everyone who picks up a copy!!!

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

We do have a couple other scripts written but there’s one in particular we are looking to do next titled 12 Bells. We have a starter website up for that at 12bellsmovie.com. We’re really excited about 12 Bells. It’s going to be a big step up from The Creek. As you’d expect, the budget is going up and we’re planning on attaching a couple names. Currently we’re in the very early stages of pre-production and are looking for investors to fill out our budget.

Thanks again for the interview! We’re very excited to be featured on Dead Harvey!

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