Thursday, February 19, 2009

Interview with John Birmingham, writer/director of "Crazy Animal"

I'll admit that I grew up on Troma films. Well, I grew up on a lot of films, but Troma was definitely a huge influence. I remember rushing out to rent "The Toxic Avenger", "Class of Nuke 'Em High", "Surf Nazi's Must Die", "Troma's War" and on and on... I mean, Toxie and his buddy's were classics. What card carrying fan of indie horror doesn't know "The Toxic Avenger"? Do you remember "The Toxic Avenger" animated series? I do... I even own a copy of Lloyd's book, "Make Your Own Damn Movie" and the film that was spawned by it, "Terror Firmer". Yes, right here, right now. I'll say it. I'm proud to say I am a fan of Troma.

Troma was formed in 1974 by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz and, if you've ever watched a Troma film, you'd know that because I think they've used the same low-budget opening since then. Now, although they were formed in 1974, they really didn't become the Troma that you and I know until they came out with "The Toxic Avenger" in 1984. Prior to that, they were pumping out raunchy sex comedies like "The First Turn On" and "Squeeze Play". Troma had a few bombs and some troubled financial times, but in the last few years, they've redefined themselves and they're back in a good place. Recently, they've come out with "Poultryguiest: Night of the Chicken Dead", they do the Tromadance Festival every year, they're making "The Toxic Avenger" into a Broadway musical and Lloyd's in so many low-budget horror movies, it's impossible to count... in fact, he's also in the film that we're about to discuss, "Crazy Animal", which is actually being released by Troma.

"Crazy Animal" is written and directed by John Birmingham and he, too, was obviously raised on Troma. Like I said in the last paragraph, Lloyd Kaufman, himself, actually makes a cameo in the film, along with Ron Jeremy and Brinke Stevens. The film embodies everything that you'd expect from a quality Troma film; it has lots of boobs, it has some gore, some musical scenes, some scenes that will make you a little uncomfortable and it also has a great story, great acting and it's really well put together. If you're into classic Troma films (and if you're into indie horror, chances are you are), you'll thoroughly enjoy "Crazy Animal". We had the chance to discuss the film with John Birmingham, the writer and director...

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

My influences were not necessarily film or movies. I was influenced by the great artists like Dali and philosophers like Aristotle and Plato and maybe very deep, articulate writers, when I was starting into college (community college, albeit, but...). And earlier I was always into music, rock stars and stuff, Jane's Addiction, Glenn Danzig and punk and stuff growing up, and even classical like Mozart or Tchaikovsky, really brilliant stuff. I played guitar, drums and more recently got into singing and acting, so that is what I want to do with my movies, make a true work of art, a timeless work of art that says something or has a message. Not necessarily a big movie fan, but some movies are brilliant, and I love the work of any good filmmaker, more especially Peter Medak, Stanley Kubrick, ones who still hang onto a real side of life, not a censored version, because life gets real, it gets out of hand and crazy, and I feel it should not be censored for the screen, if there is sex, it should show something (as long as it is not gratuitous, lol).

Film School: Yes or No?

Yeah, I made this as my graduate thesis film at Chapman University. I was privileged to go there. Schwarzeneggar, Spielberg, plenty of these types were on campus while I was attending back in about 2004/2005. The school is well connected, a dreamlike, amazing unparallelled experience going there, it was a real film school by every definition, and I got in while I was still relatively young, so I would suggest going if you can...

Where did you get the idea for "Crazy Animal"?

I wanted to play a glam rocker, really become one, so I put a lot of validation behind why I was a glam rocker, using that as a guise to reel in unsuspecting young white males who typically idolize rockers at some point in their lives... once they are fascinated by my character, I tie them up against their will to sing to them cheesy glam rock ballads to get them to confess to their crimes... haha... I tried to make it meaningful as possible but at the same time funny and an overall fun, entertaining experience.

What was the approx budget and how did you secure financing?

Wow, that is a tough one... I will just be truthful here... I was making this movie in L.A. and it was done legit with permits and everything, paid the actors, even shot some of it in Panavision 35mm (albeit I ran out of money and had to shoot some by myself with my own DV camera)... but every semester I was on partial scholarship and I would get I think $8000 or $4000 cash, can't remember, and all of it went to the budget of the movie. The rest I got my mom who was a real estate agent to give me chunks of a few thousand at a time... she really put herself out for me, and she will never do it again. She loves me a lot, but it sort of drained her a bit and I can never do that again (my next movie I funded through my own hard earned money....) but this one was like half me, half my mom... it was about $80,000.

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

We shot using a Panasonic DVX-100 camera in 24p mode for most of it. And also some on some sort of Panavision 35mm motion picture camera, real movie film. The shoot was on and off for like a year, we'd shoot a few days at a time, and all the actors had to come back in their same clothes and hairstyles, haha.

The story was surprisingly in-depth, something you rarely see in an indie comedy/horror. Talk about the screenwriting process and how you put the story together.

I just took a long time and wrote the script out as best I could. At one point, since I was trying to get in acting mode, I tried to hire a writer to write it for me, but he was sort of out there and came up with a 400 page screenplay (equates to 400 minutes), so I had to fire him before he got paid, unfortunately, he didn't know what he was doing at all. It is sad, but somewhere out there is a long 400 page manuscript of jibber jabber called "Crazy Animal"

I was also surprised at how well defined and believable the characters were… there were some veteran actors in the film, including: Lloyd Kaufman, Ron Jeremy and Brinke Stevens. However, most were amateurs and you got great performances out of them. Talk about your directing style.

Well, yeah, I guess you could call them amateurs, but one of them was a former Miss Norway, placed 11th in the Miss Universe pageant, Lene Pedersen, and some of the others have landed sizable roles on tv shows recently, like beautiful model Maria Zyrianova and the african american girl Anise Fuller, and the kid in the movie who played Henry has done a lot of national commercials. They were all L.A. actors with different levels of experience.

My directing style was really just letting them read the lines and be emotional and if something seemed off then call them on it. Really, there is not much to directing, its a lot of fun, its a matter of getting to be able to direct something and hiring all those other crew members to allow you to be the director... on this tiny budget, I was doing Production Design and basically everything, physically producing it all, crazy by Hollywood standards, they would have shot this for 6 million at least. But really, Directing is a lot of fun, I have been studying it and doing it, filmmaking full time for over 11 years.

Talk about being both a major role in the film, plus directing. How did you juggle that?

That was really tricky on such a low budget. But I learned how to do it and did it on my second movie too, The Vampires of Zanzibar (, just finished editing it all myself. The hardest part I would say is getting time to memorize lines and then keeping in shape while you are physically producing the thing running around wearing all these hats.... if it is just directing and starring in something together, no big deal, I have that down... but what made it crazy was that on such a low budget I had to like arrange everything else, I was the only producer of the whole thing and doing set design and stuff a little in between it all, it was a little too munch, which is why I can't do that crap again... our next movie is hirer budget, my third feature film, we are figuring out ways to get investors now, which is the proper way to make a feature film and to really make a valuable product, I believe. But you have to start somewhere, which is why I made movies without a few hundred thousand or a couple of million dollars at that point.

One of the things that I found very interesting was the very serious topic of rape being juxtaposed into comedy. Castration, murder and even cannibalism can work well in horror/comedy, but rape can get sensitive. I'm just wondering if you thought about that or if it was done on purpose. Then again, Troma is an obvious influence and for Troma, nothing is too sensitive!

Yeah, that was my view that maybe the juxtaposition was a little harsh, but that was an afterthought... I originally figured... hey, when they mix killing and blood and boobs all together and comedy in movies frequently in horror movies, it is almost standard, I figured tackling the issue of rape was the same sort of thing, but a couple of people have said it may be too harsh. just two people, you and one other person mentioned it in an imdb comment. But for Troma, you are right, if you see Poultrygeist you will see that nothing is too harsh for them it seems... I mean, it gets literally scatalogical in Poultrygeist, like, feces flying all over the walls, coating the walls like buckets of diarrhea... I thought it was too much myself... but they have a message in that as well, so I think Crazy Animal is the perfect DVD release with Troma cause it is like another Poultrygeist without the feces, chickens and extras.

Music was another big thing in the film and it worked well, especially with your character, Ricky. Talk about creating music for film and the process involved.

Ummm, I just wrote some songs and played all the music, recorded my voice and mixed it and produced the music all myself. I have played music since childhood, so it is something I have always wanted to do... so it was a pretty fun experience... it just gets difficult on a budget cause you have to do it all yourself. Like, I had to physically mix it all myself, every little detail of the sound and sound design and everything on that movie. Which is why I am taking a long time away from that to concentrate now on just acting and music, my real ambition now, moreover music...

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.

It was hard to do as being just a student, but a great learning experience and getting used to acting and filmmaking at the same time. I learned a lot. I learned to always have a monitor on set (even a simple TV), then you can be in front of camera, even operate camera if you want to or had to.

Did you enter "Crazy Animal" into any of the festivals? If so, how did it do and is the festival circuit something that every indie horror filmmaker should consider doing?

I just got into a couple of festivals, Tromadance 2006 in the Secret Screenings section and this one in Virginia right in my town. So, no, I didn't think it was a festival type of film, but my new one I am going the festival route for sure... I think if it is horror, you should for sure go to horror festivals if you have a decent product... try to win some awards, distributors will really, really take you more seriously with awards.

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?

I wrote to every distributor in existence, some gave offers, but no money upfront, like Troma did. I went with them because I figured they were the best match for the movie. The best thing to do is to have a major screening in L.A. and invite distributors or sales reps to it, try to have something fun for them to go to, instead of watching it on a tiny screen, no fun in that and the movie usually looks worse small, or creates a smaller impression.

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

You can buy it at and maybe other stores soon... it is available to buy now at Amazon, but release date is officially March 31, 2009.

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

I think someone create something truly amazing if they take the time to first of all make a brilliant, brilliant script... I tried my best with Crazy Animal, but don't feel it was an Oscar worthy type of script or a really deep, deep, cool ultimate cool script that changed the world for the better a bit, which is what I want to write in the future. And I think if you have a taste of real greatness in your indie movie in the script first of all, then you have a chance at better things. If you consistently make great, genius product that not many others can provide, you will find a lot of money and work in Hollywood, the studios will hire you themselves to make your movies if you prove yourself like the guy did with Cabin Fever for example. Just get a decent budget together, and moreover the script.

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

Yeah, my third feature film, a secret subject matter... gay comedy... but funny for everybody, by no mean a "gay" movie... and my second movie I just finished all post production, its a vampire comedy, The Vampires of Zanzibar. Look it up, the trailer is up on Myspace and on the website, it is truly a great product. Thanks!!!!


Anonymous said...

Great interview John...I've seen Crazy Animal & it is a great movie, well worth adding to your collection !! said...

For my part everybody ought to glance at this.