Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Interview with Sean Dillon & Curtis Krick of "The Craving"

I've been watching indie horror for a long time, long before I started up this site and long before I went to film school. I've always been a horror fan and, looking back, I've always had a thing for the obscure, low-budget films. Little did I know that Lloyd Kaufman, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson were all laying the foundation for what we're seeing today, I just thought they made kick ass films. It took balls and a lot of luck to get an indie horror done back then. However, when DV became a viable option for filmmakers and the PC became a sufficient editing system, the fuse was lit and now we're on the verge of the explosion. The explosion being the hundreds, possibly thousands, of indie horror filmmakers who are gearing up to make their dreams into reality. There are, of course, a few downsides to this explosion. The main one is that there's a lot of sub-par films being grouped with a lot of really good films and those good films can get a bit lost. Now, I'm not sure if "The Craving" is 'lost', but it certainly deserves more attention than it received.

"The Craving", produced by Sean Dillon, Jason Kehler and Curtis Krick, directed by Sean Dillon, is, to me, a shining example of what low-budget, indie horror filmmaking CAN be. It's as sharp, well written and suspenseful as any Hollywood film with a budget 100 times the size... and it's FAR more original. It's an example of what can happen when a group of talented guys get together, take their project seriously and work with what they have. Definitely check out the film and, if you're an indie horror filmmaker, definitely give this interview a read.

First off, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what brought you into the world of indie horror filmmaking?

Sean Dillon: I studied English and Theatre in college. After graduation I went to work for a few years at a film and TV production company with an overall deal at a big studio, where my work was mostly in the development phase (reading scripts, helping to develop stories, etc.). I got a chance to work in production on a couple of TV movies, and learned a little more about the filmmaking world. I then went to grad school and got my M.F.A. in theatrical directing. It was at grad school at Purdue where I first met Curtis Krick and Jason Kehler, my fellow co-founders of Biscuits & Gravy Productions. It was then that I began my long collaboration with Curtis, which has included many theatre and film projects. Curtis and I have made many short films together, and we decided that it was time to tackle a feature-length project.

We love film of all kinds, but don't really think of ourselves as filmmakers in a particular genre. Our friend (and associate producer) Brandon Lane shared his enthusiasm for horror films, and after midnight showings of Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" films, we were inspired to think more seriously about attempting a horror film as a first feature project. Curtis, Jason Kehler and I started developing the project. As much as anything else, we were inspired to create something for horror fans, who are enthusiastic, smart and discerning, but are not unforgiving of films with good ideas but with budgetary limitations. We knew we wouldn't be able to spend a lot of money, but we thought we could be creative and work hard enough to create something that horror fans would appreciate. In developing the story, we wanted to include some of the recognizable elements of the genre, as well as to create some surprises.

Curtis Krick: I grew up on the opposite side of the country from Sean, but once we met in grad school we realized we shared a remarkably great deal in common in terms of frames of reference. We really hit it off from the very beginning and have been collaborating ever since. I would say that if anyone were looking to glean something from our experience it should really be the power of a solid collaborative relationship. If you're able to find someone with whom you can really communicate and share a vision, someone who can pick up the slack when you begin to falter, who can give you the support when you need it and keep you from walking into a minefield with good, honest criticism, you don't just double your potential, you increase it exponentially.

Film School: Yes or No?

SD: "The Craving" was my film school. Curtis and I did study theatrical directing formally, but I never took any classes in filmmaking. I did gain some familiarity with some aspects of filmmaking from my day jobs at film studios, which were pretty much office jobs. Because Curtis and I shared an interest in film and a common vocabulary from our theatre studies, we talked about how to begin making films. We came to the conclusion that an investment in owning the means of production might be as valuable to us as an investment in film school, so we bought a decent digital camera and editing equipment. Curtis, Jason and I worked together on a series of
short films in our own way, creating projects for ourselves that would develop specific skills. We all had terminal degrees in theatre, so we really didn't feel like starting school all over again. We also had a certain level of confidence in our abilities to tell a story, and thought we would have the discipline to teach ourselves what we needed to know about the medium.

CK: My biggest concern about film school and my prejudice in favor of the theater background that Sean and I share comes down to working with actors. I don't know how much emphasis that gets in film school, but I know that our training in directing for the stage helped us develop an appreciation for the actor's craft as well as a set of tools for developing a performance with them. I fear that gets short shrift in film school (though I may be mistaken).

How did you go about securing financing for "The Craving" and what was the approx budget?

SD: We producers financed the movie out of pocket. We really did think of the project as a sort of film school, so the personal investment was justified. As the project developed, friends and family members helped with finances to some degree, but the biggest contribution to our budget was sweat equity. The cast and crew worked for no money up front, and made it possible for the film to be made. Having said that, there were certain unavoidable costs in making a film in the middle of the desert, and keeping the cast and crew alive in a place that was 25 miles from the nearest gas station, and 75 miles to the nearest town of any size.

I honestly don't know if I could come up with a really meaningful budget figure in terms of a dollar amount. I don't want to seem secretive or cagey about this, but I think that discussing a dollar figure is misleading. I could say that the approximate budget was $20 to 25 thousand, but a lot of people worked for very little or no money to make that happen. The whole crew placed their faith in the project, even when they knew they might not make a dime. Jason Kehler, Brandon Lane and Tripp Eldridge worked to do everything we needed in every crew position without giving themselves a break. Curtis and I put in a lot of time in pre- and post-production without paying ourselves at all. The excellent creature design and fabrication was accomplished for an impossibly small amount of money because Erin Draney and Aubrey Jensen put themselves into it without reservation, and worked tirelessly on it until they were proud of their work. My remarkable wife Anne, who had never before camped in her life, cooked meals for a dozen people on a propane stove, then did dishes without running water, every night for more than two weeks and still hasn't asked to be paid. I think we got a lot of value for our money, and we believe it looks like we spent more than we did.

CK: One of the amazing things was that once we decided to do this, others came forward and said they wanted to contribute as well, unsolicited. One of our friends said he really wanted to fly out and be a part of the shoot, but he just couldn't get the time off from work; so he contributed the $200 he would have spent on a plane ticket.

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

SD: We shot on mini-DV format using a Canon XL-2 camera, and edited using Adobe Premiere on a PC platform. The total principal photography schedule was 16 days, with one day off in the middle of the schedule. That meant 15 days of sleeping on the desert floor in tents, with no running water, no electricity, no radio or TV... total isolation. Due to availabilities and other issues, we shot completely out of sequence, and because we couldn't afford a dedicated script supervisor or continuity person, we had to be really focused to make sure we got all the footage we needed. Fortunately, we got everything we needed in those two weeks. Many months into editing the footage, Curtis and I decided that we'd like to have a few extra shots to make things a bit clearer, so we picked up a few shots on our own. The additional photography is probably less than fifteen seconds of the finished film.

Theres a certain plot twist in there that I thought was unbelievably original (the addictive smell of the creature) and I'd love to know if that was the starting point for the whole idea or if that was added later so, talk about where the whole idea came from.

SD: I remember thinking about the strong odor being an element in several mythic creature stories, and we thought that might be a great way to signal the creature's presence. We then developed the idea that the creature's odor be intoxicating and addictive, which might create some interesting complications in the story, mixing attraction with fear, undermining trust, messing with the group dynamic, etc. Curtis found a way of really making that an important part of the story, and writing it in a compelling way.

CK: I'll give Sean total credit for that great idea. He deserves it.

The creature was very Cthulhu like for me, was that an inspiration? Also, it's seen numerous times, but never really in its entirety. It was all very effective talk about the process in creating the creature effects.

SD: We never discussed Cthulhu (I've always thought of Cthulhu as being more of a squidlike cephalopod, though the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival award statuette depicted alongside your interview with Jeff Palmer bears a striking resemblance to our creature). We approached the choice of our creature systematically. In the very earliest stages of development, we discussed what kind of force the characters would face. We talked about major categories of forces of evil: humans, supernatural forces, and monsters. We were intrigued by monsters and pursued that line of thought. In considering well-known mythic monsters (Bigfoot, Yeti, Chupacabra, Loch Ness Monster, Jackalope, etc.) we wanted something elusive, yet aggressive and scary. We were already talking about the desert environment, the vast isolation of it, so I guess our creature is influenced by the chupacabra lore more than other creature stories. Curtis is really responsible for shaping the story and characters, and he wrote the requirements and initial vision of the creature into the script. When Erin Draney came on board as the creature designer, we shared our concept with her, and she took it from there. With the help of Aubrey Jensen, Erin designed and sculpted the creature, then developed the makeup for our creature performer, Naama Chezar. Erin and Aubrey first made a full-body suit with a pull-on latex mask that could be put on and taken off quickly, which we used for the silhouette, distant, or fast-moving shots of the creature. They also did very detailed and meticulous makeup, which we used for longer takes and close-ups. The detail makeup took about 10 hours to apply. Keep in mind that the makeup team worked in a tent or a picture vehicle with no running water or electricity, and youll understand why we scheduled all of the creature's beauty shots for a single night of shooting.

For some scenes, there was a lot of implied gore where, in other scenes, there was very graphic gore. Talk about the decision to show some things and not show other things. Was it a creative choice?

SD: Our approach to the suspense of the story was influenced by films like "Jaws," where showing the creature was less suspenseful than the implication of the creature's presence. Of course we wanted the creature to be powerful and terrifying, and we felt like we needed some level of blood and gore to demonstrate that power and to satisfy our genre audience's expectation for a certain amount of graphically violent imagery. Ultimately, we decided to strike a balance and show the gore only when we felt it was most compelling for both the onscreen characters and the audience. I think the real power of those scenes comes from a character's reaction to the gore rather than the gore itself.

CK: We were very conscious about trying to balance being respectful of what the genre required while also upsetting genre expectations in ways that would be exciting and satisfying for the audience. It seemed like a pretty natural evolution in developing the story to ratchet up the gore as the movie progressed and the situation for the characters grew more dire. Whether we were explicit or not, we wanted to approach each scene with an eye toward creating images that were as powerful and memorable as we could manage. We had a great make-up effects team that was up to the challenges we presented them; but we were also convinced that more often than not, audience members' imaginations were the most valuable tool at our disposal. So the trick was to craft things so that we gave folks what they wanted, but also got them to fill in the blanks we left with their own horrifying details.

The backdrop and set are perfect, talk about how you lined that all up.

SD: Once the script was written, the scenic requirements of the location were very specific. We knew we wanted a desert landscape without large-scale vegetation. We wanted a place where you could see for miles in every direction, and where there was nowhere to hide. Curtis' story employed a contrast in the vastness of the desert and the claustrophobic confinement of the small shack, which we intended to build when we found the right desert terrain to work in. Curtis and I scouted locations all over Southern California, looking for just the right combination of factors of remoteness, accessibility, panoramic vistas, lack of man-made features, etc. Our strategy was to look for land for sale on the internet, where we could see photos of the land and have some idea who owned and controlled the property. While scouting a few of these possible locations, we ended up driving through a desert wilderness area with the right terrain and no power lines, structures, or other undesirables features as far as the eye could see. It was quite remote, but accessible. Then we saw a "for sale" sign with a realtor's number, and we took it down to make contact with the owner. We weren't sure where the exact boundaries of the property were, but, as you can see in the film, the landscape is pretty consistent. I contacted the realtor and got a map to the property so we could investigate further.

Here's the eerie part of the story: Jason and Curtis were on a car trip to Atlanta, and took the opportunity to visit the site and get a good look at it. For those of you readers who haven't seen the film, the characters get lost on a shortcut and see a makeshift shack in the desert. Well, Curtis and Jason were trying to find this plot of land, and the road disappeared.

Exactly as Curtis had already written in the script, they drove off-road across open desert and found an abandoned creepy shack. I think they were both exhilarated and a little disturbed by the experience. Apart from a little set dressing, the shack was exactly as it appears in the film. We made arrangements through the realtor and went to work.

The location was ideal in terms of its visual impact, but it meant we had a lot of work to do in pre-production. Since the nearest lodging was 75 miles away, we had to camp at the location. There was no running water for about 25 miles, so we had to fill a pillow tank with hundreds of gallons of water, making supply runs with a 200 gallon tank in a pickup. We had to plan for every contingency, because we knew that if we needed anything, production would have to shut down while someone drove 150 miles round trip. Only one of our fifteen shooting days was in the "town" location, when we essentially rented the whole place for a day.

I thought the acting was great, talk about your directing style.

SD: First, we knew that casting was really important. Get a good group of actors and 90% of your work is done; get a not-so-good group of actors and 10% of your work is done. Because we were working on video, we weren't concerned with the expense of film stock. Though we were on a tight schedule, we usually had time to give the actors several takes in each setup, so they felt they could do their best work. In that atmosphere, they really felt supported in digging deep and approaching their work with seriousness and care. Respect for their work is what we could offer the actors instead of money, and we were committed to creating an atmosphere of teamwork in production. We wanted it to be fun, but we wanted the work to be taken seriously. It's important to note that although I'm credited with directing, that it was really a collaboration between Curtis and myself. The actors quickly gained confidence in our tag-team style because we didn't give them conflicting choices, and never argued or disagreed on set.

CK: Everyone in our cast was very strong (with the possible exception of that crazy old guy in the cabin) and, as Sean says, careful casting paid us great dividends. I remember being struck by the need to encourage all of the actors to slow certain actions down, dividing them into clear beats. I think everyone was conscious of maintaining the urgency of things like running away from a blood-sucking, gut-eating monster. With an eye toward what we would later need in the editing room, I remember often encouraging the actors to take their clear moments to experience things before reacting to them while still maintaining that intensity. This gave us wide latitude to craft the story beats the film needed when assembling all the pieces later.

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.

SD: Developing the story was a lot of fun, and Curtis was very diligent about writing the script. For me, that normally difficult phase of production was actually pleasant; not just because someone else was doing most of the work, but because we took the time to get just what we wanted, and because we knew we weren't then going to have to sell the script, but we were going to make the movie. But we didn't settle for our first ideas. As producers, we were demanding of what we wanted to shoot, and were considerate of what our production limitations would be. I'd say the hardest part for us was really taking care of pre-production. With full-time jobs to contend with, we worked every weekend and evening to outfit the production, knowing that it all had to be in place on the first day on location because there would be no local resources in the desert. Our first day of shooting, we were exhausted. Once we got into production, we were energized by the tireless work of the whole company. If we didn't have the positive attitude from every member of the cast and crew, we could not have made the movie.

I guess my advice would be to take care in preparation. Take as much time as you need to get a script that you are really happy with, and think carefully about how you are going to accomplish everything. Next, surround yourself with only as many people as you will need to get the job done, and see to it that they have everything that they need before you start.

Realize that one of the things they need is your respect and encouragement. Creating a positive atmosphere won't just get you through your project; it will give you a chance to put together your next project.

Don't hurry your post-production, and don't ignore how important sound is to a picture. In our case, we did the sound on our own for many months and locked the picture before we found a talented sound designer and editor, Josh Eckberg, who made a tremendous contribution to the film by building the sound design from the ground up.

CK: I think Sean's right when he talks about preparation. Solid preparation lets you minimize your exposure. That's how you set up a situation in which you can learn and grow and get to do it again. It's impossible to eliminate all risks, but if you can minimize them - i.e. don't get in too far over your head financially - then you can take creative risks and you will inevitably grow as a person through the experience; and if you grow as a person, you will grow as a filmmaker. I believe every one of the people involved in "The Craving" had an amazing experience in the desert; and when it came time to leave, we all felt that even if the film was never completed, it would still have been worth it. Lucky for us the film was completed.

Did you enter festivals? If so, how did it do? Talk about the festival circuit is it something that every indie horror filmmaker should consider doing?

SD: We submitted to several strategically chosen festivals, be we didn't have any takers. I can't really talk about the festival circuit because we haven't been there. In hindsight, we probably should have spent more time working the festival angles, but it gets discouraging after a while.

Tell us about the process of finding distribution. How did that go and what insight could you pass on to other filmmakers who are looking for distribution?

SD: The process of finding distribution can be very frustrating. It's hard to get the right people to watch your film, much less act as a champion. We had a professional producer's rep for a very short time who wanted to take on the task of seeking distribution for a percentage, but ended up wasting everyone's time and not returning calls. A few people made efforts on our behalf, but with no result. Finally, we got a response to an e-mail that had been sent a year and a half before. After all that time, a new acquisitions director was clearing up his predecessor's old correspondence and contacted us. We sent a new screener, the company saw something they liked, and we made a deal. The advice for people seeking distribution is to know what the distributors will want before you seek distribution. Take lots of production stills. Produce a sound track with music and effects only, so that you are able to seek foreign distribution. Make sure all of your rights to music and images are cleared. Then be prepared to do the work yourself. Nobody will be a better representative for the film than the filmmakers whose passion got the film made in the first place. Take help where you can get it, but be your film's champion.

CK: Perseverance pays off. It took phone calls from us to get the distributor to go back and look at their notes on our film and then they realized, "Oh, yeah - we want to distribute that." Otherwise we might have gotten lost in the shuffle.

Where can people find out more about "The Craving" or, better yet, buy a copy?

SD: "The Craving" is available through a number of online retailers, and can also be ordered direct from the distributor, Brain Damage Films. It is also available for rental on Netflix. We produced a few behind-the-scenes featurettes, as well as a couple of audio commentary tracks with the cast and filmmakers that are included on the DVD and provide some insight into the making of the film.

Talk about the indie horror genre. Where do you feel it is now and where do you see it going?

SD: I'm no expert, so I'm not the best person to give you the facts. But I do have an opinion. The rise of digital filmmaking has meant that indie horror has never been easier to make than it is today. There has also been an explosion in electronic delivery media, so there's an awful lot of material out there. Unfortunately, there's also lot that's awful. It seems that a lot of ultra-low budget filmmakers that would have been discouraged years ago are no longer discouraged. This is a double-edged sword. Some of the great little films that get made now wouldn't have had a chance to get made before. Some of the terrible and amateurish films wouldn't have gotten made either (you'll find people to put "The Craving" in either category, by the way). I don't know that this is any more true about horror than any other genre, but there does seem to be an idea held by some that if they just get enough blood and gore on screen that they'll find some people to watch it. I'm not judging, but I'm guessing that audiences will tire of gore for gore's sake sooner than they'll tire of a well-told, suspenseful story.

CK: It's exciting to see so many different subgenres burgeoning and so many different ideas being explored. Of course it's necessary to wade through a lot of dross to find something you really like - that's just the downside, perhaps, of the democratization of the means of production. But when you do find something you really connect with it's often very personally satisfying because it's something you would never have seen come from a big studio unwilling to take such a risk because they have too much to lose.

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

SD: We have just completed our second feature film, a romantic comedy mockumentary called "Something Blue." No horror here, but plenty of indie. The film is the story of two young people, Terry and Susan, and the events that lead up to their wedding. Susan comes from a upper-middle class white family, and Terry comes from a working-class Polar-American family. While Terry's blue skin and Antarctic cultural traditions are not a problem for Susan, the two families may have trouble seeing eye to eye. We're in the process of submitting to festivals now. Fingers crossed.

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