Friday, November 21, 2008

Interview with Chris Penney, writer/director of "Return of the Curse"

The more I talk to indie filmmakers, the more I find out how similar we all are. Similar in mentality, similar in influences and similar in what we want to accomplish. Obviously, there's more than enough differences in things like political views and opinions on other random shit to go around, but we, as indie-horror filmmakers, do share some common threads. Such as... How many of us sat in our seats, mouths agape, during the opening of the original Star Wars when the Star Destroyer flew over our heads? How many of us saw Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, Chucky, Pinhead, Leatherface or even Hannibal Lecter for the first time and thought, "Fuck, yeah"? How many of us sat in our garages or basements with our Dad's new video camera and shot film after film, experimenting and being enthralled with what we could create? How many of us thought to ourselves, at one point or another, "Before I die, I WILL make a feature length film." That one thing is something we all share, that desire to make feature films; some as writers, some as producers, most as directors. Whether you're from an upper-class Beverly Hills family or from a blue-collar farm in Kansas, that desire and interest is something that I share with you and you share with all of these other indie filmmakers... and chances are, at one point or another, I'm betting that someone told you that you're going to fail. For most of us, that only strengthens our resolve.

It certainly strengthened Chris Penney's resolve. Penney's film, "Return of the Curse" is, in some ways, your typical low-no budget indie horror film and, by that, I mean it's shot on DV, edited at home and had a low, low budget. However, in other ways, it's anything but typical and, by that, I mean it's a very well crafted indie horror that works without a lot of the elements that horror movies seem to require, such as loads of blood or tons of nudity with a hot, young cast. (no offense to the cast of "Return of the Curse"!) The film relies mostly on it's story, which is slowly revealed in a well-crafted script that'll hold you until the end. That goes without mentioning its sharp editing and transitions, which must have taken forever to plan and execute. Having said all that, the most important thing is, it's a great entry into the indie horror film genre that Penney can be extremely proud of and has us anxiously waiting to see what he comes up with next. We had the opportunity to talk with him about the film...

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

I am from Grand Rapids, Michigan. I work as a corporate drone by day for a major health care organization. During nights and weekends I open up my creative process and work developing independent films with my wife, Amy. As far as horror movies, I have a general dislike for slasher and gore hore; however, I am really moved by dark horror movies like John Carpenters’ In the Mouth of Madness, the original Nightmare on Elm Street, the Ring and any other well done, non predictable dark films. My favorite movie of all time is Pulp Fiction followed by Platoon and Mulholland Drive. I really enjoy comedy as well and will eventually produce a comedy, probably on the lines of Office Space or something similar as I live in that environment. My influences are many; however, I strive to be as much of me as I can be.

Film School: Yes or No?

After the fact, yeah. I went to Compass Film Academy. Compass Christian Film Academy, where my horror films weren’t quite accepted by the other students. In fact, I was really brushed aside. I think it was either the difference in age, or maybe the difference in beliefs. Either way, I really don’t believe that six months there taught me any more than I’ve learned from my own personal experiences and trial and error; just basically earning my education from the University of Life. You can learn the rules all you want, but without life experience, it doesn’t do you much good.

Tell us about “Return of the Curse”, where did the idea come from and what made you actually get out there and do it?

It’s the sequel to the movie, “Sleep Disorder”, which was rooted in the true paranormal activity that goes on at Nunica Cemetery. I got into the idea of hauntings and contacted Nicole Bray from the West Michigan Ghost Hunter’s Society, which is a widely- known organization in the Midwestern United States and known world- wide in the paranormal community. She’d hooked me up with a guy named Johnny Reb, who is a hard- core Civil War historian and owns the haunted mansion, Landon House, which is right outside of Burketsville, Maryland, where the Blair Witch Project was filmed. From that experience, the seed for “Sleep Disorder” was planted. “Return of the Curse” follows the lives of the people after that part of the story ends. Initially, I had no intent on making a sequel, but I’d learned a lot from making “Disorder”, and the ideas just poured in from that point. The momentum was there, and went with it.

What was the approximate budget for the film and how did you secure financing?

There was no budget at all for this film, aside from what was, literally, left over from my paycheck after paying bills, etc. The entire crew/cast (one- in- the- same) chipped in where they could, and I would estimate that we’d spent, collectively, roughly two grand on it, including posters and other promotional materials. We literally flew by the seat of our pants, and financial security was not a word in our language. We did it on our own, and believed that even if the film didn’t make a sale, the experience would propel us creatively and technically, further toward the next film.

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

The film was shot with three different cameras, all Sony VX-2100. Most of the time we ran two, but rarely did use three at once. I have recently upgraded to a Sony HVR-V1U. Very nice picture. I use Sony Vegas to edit with some FX programs like Boris FX, Adobe After Effects, New Blue FX and Magic Bullet.

For me, what stood out was the story and how well it was put together on screen. Now, to do that, you need two things: a good script and do a TON of pre-production. So, this is a two part question… Talk about the screenwriting process, how do you go about crafting a script and talk about the pre-production process, how important is it and what kinds of things do you do to make sure you get all the coverage you need??

I have a very unorthodox process that does not follow conventional wisdom. Film school tried to teach me that I had to have a well defined script with a solid story with a series of events that happen at certain times that was set within a precisely gauged template. They also told me that storyboards are critical to success and I would surely fail without following the “Hollywood” process. I have never been able to follow the “Hollywood” process. Generally, I get an idea and shoot some footage and try to adapt a story to the footage. This is generally what needs to happen to start my creative process. As I begin to come up with an idea, I then write a script that evolves during the production process. I usually get to the point of obsession and think of the story constantly. Yes, the pre-production process is important, however, I just have to do what works for me as an artist. Planning and diagrams and rehearsals are helpful and necessary, but the spontaneous process will trump this every time.

You got some great performances out of, what I’m going to assume are, non-professional actors. A stand out for me was Russ Fithen acting all sketchy and insane… talk about directing amateur actors.

Basically, I gave them the template, the script, the outline. I gave them the latitude to be creative within the parameters of what we, collectively, had discussed about the scene. It’s a catch-22 when it comes to trying to be the director and cinematographer, so learning to trust the actors who were involved in a scene proved to be a key element to making the scene successful. Myself, I do not perform to my fullest potential with very specific directions, and try to encourage the same element of self- expression and creativity with the actors. Oftentimes, the ad-libbing takes over, specifically toward the end of the film, and the scenes unfold with words and feelings that are completely organic to the actors who are not just acting, but become one with the scenario. This worked well for all of us.

I loved the cut-away sequences, like the B&W warped head with the blood, as well as the fake infomercial. Were these always in the script or were they afterthoughts that were added later?

The infomercial was an idea from the very beginning, because I wanted to add a comedic element to the film. The B&W with the blood was a late-night, spur-of-the-moment thing, which ended up being one of the few truly gory shots in the movie. We came up with most of our ideas in that fashion; just talking about it and then saying, “Let’s just do it.”

What were some of your biggest hurdles in getting the film finished?

Technical problems, no-show crew/cast members, scheduling problems due to the fact that we’d all had full-time jobs. I also took a lot of crap from people who thought I wasn’t skilled enough to enter the film production market. My boss once told me I would never be anything other than a hobby videographer. I also was told by an experienced film guy that belonged to the West Michigan Film and Video Alliance the I had no business producing films as I would only embarrass myself. This stuff only fuels my fire and makes me work harder. I will prove them all wrong!

Did you hit the festivals with it? If so, how did it do? Is the festival circuit something that you would recommend to other filmmakers?

No, the timing was off for the film festivals that I had known of in our area, and though we’d attempted to make these deadlines, it was found that the “Independent” Film Festival in Saugatuck did not really cater, nor welcome the truly Independent films (one symposium I’d sat in on at the festival stated that their budget was seven million dollars). I’d entered “Sleep Disorder” to the same festival the year before and received no response from them, whatsoever. I thought that odd, given the fact that the local-art community in Grand Rapids represents themselves as being most supportive of all local artists. As it turns out, there are limitations that go along with that whole idea. There are limitations within this conservative community, individuals who judge the quality of a work of art by “whether or not they would hang it above their couch in the living room”. I’d love to find a film festival where the true, out-of-pocket filmmakers could show their films in a constructive, almost conference, where filmmakers such as myself could talk about our films in a casual setting and learn from the techniques and experiences. No big names or money involved.

Talk about distribution. What was the process like for you? Any advice that you’d pass on to other filmmakers looking for distribution?

Distribution is something that we all strive for, to share what we have created with others. My first three movies played at a local movie theater. With “Return of the Curse”, I put the movie on Indie Flix and Create Space in hopes of selling enough copies to finance an upgrade in equipment. Unfortunately, after two years my total profit has been about $20.00. I did send a screener copy to Brain Damage. They were interested and are now distributing this film. Since “Return of The Curse” was released in October, it will be a while before I see how it does; however, I have not set any unrealistic expectations. It would be awesome to recover my investment and have the ability to purchase more equipment. I just hope to keep on doing what I am doing.

Talk about the indie horror scene. What do you think about where it’s at now and where do you see it going?

I have seen a fair amount of indie horror films. Some have been very good, others not. It seems to be dominated by slasher, gore- type films. This is OK, but I think the non- film person assumes when I say that I do indie horror films that I am producing gore. I also see a trend where higher budget, major movies are taking over and pushing the true indie artist aside. Again, I will mention the film festivals. Our closest film festival is the Waterfront Film Fest in Saugatuck Michigan. I submitted my first film to them with a promotion kit and several follow up phone calls. I’d assumed, since we were local, we would have a shot. Unfortunately, they did not return or calls or follow up with us in any way, shape or form. When attending this local film festival, we were shocked to discover that the majority of films, although independent, were large- budget productions with major name actors.

Where can people find out more about “Return of the Curse” or, better yet, buy a copy?

Return of the Curse is available on line at Netflix, Blockbuster, Best Buy, Barnes and Noble and most major retailers that deal in online movies. Copies are also available on Indie Flix and Amazon.

What’s next for you? Any new projects in the works?

Today, I’ve just completed a 36- hour render of a movie I’ve just completed. It is my first high- def project, titled “The Basement”. This movie represents a major turning- point in my film career. It is a very dark movie; however, it is much more artistic than anything I have done in the past. It was by far my most difficult project as we’d lost two hi- def cameras and had a total hard- drive crash. We’d also lost several of the key actors that had worked with us in the past. Unfortunately, we’d lost actors that were already cast in this movie in major roles. But...this forced us to be more creative and we’d finished the entire film with the three remaining cast/crew members, Nate Fennema, myself and my beautiful and talented wife, Amy.

I am going to focus on the promotion of this film as I believe it is my best and I am very proud of it.

After taking some time off, I think I am going to do some documentary work, as I am really into animal rights. Following this, I might start my first comedy or, if I get a wild idea, I might do another horror movie. We will see.

1 comment:

JLo said...

WOW, GREAT interview, inspiring to the rest of us getting our ventures off the ground. I've worked with Chris, his vision, determination and professionalism are remarkable. He's also an "every man", not pretentious about his art, extremely approachable. Break a leg Chris & Amy!