Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Interview With Mark Steensland, Director of "The Ugly File"

I'm going to make a bold statement... and here it is: There's a big, bright, lucrative future for short form film. There, I said it. Now, I say this because five years ago, even less than five years ago, the only people watching short films were really just film academics, festival goers and movie dorks. Today is a different story - everyone watches short films, but they don't really know it... in fact, chances are, while you're trying to waste time today, you'll see some sort of short film. Our devices, such as our BlackBerry's, iPhone's, PSP's, mp3 players, netbooks... are all designed for you to watch small snippets of entertainment. So, the audience is rapidly growing accustomed to watching short films AND the devices we use to watch entertainment are rapidly growing more accustomed to showing it. All we have to wait for is that gap to fill in, which would be how we distribute it and how we make money off it. However, the fact remains that we're building towards it. Bright future, I'm telling you. Watch for it.

So, while the media companies and gadget makers figure out the logistics on distribution and how to make you pay for it, we need to figure out how to up the ante on quality. The problem is, any group of drunks with a camcorder and a laptop can make a short film and ( to take from "The Simpsons") you're going to get a lot of short films called "Football in the Groin" that are basically just 30 seconds of footballs in the groin. On the flip side of the coint, at its best, a short can have all the elements of a feature and more, as shorts can exist on a punchline or a reveal alone... and a feature can't. Take Mark Steensland's "The Ugly File", for example. It's an extremely well crafted 10 minute short, based on a short story. The premise behind it is simple (and I won't ruin it), but it's pieced together perfectly in a way that jabs you, somewhat grotesquely, at the end. It's shot well, it's acted well and the minimal effects that they do use fit in seamlessly. It's a great, shining example of what a short horror film should be and it's something that other short form filmmakers can aspire to. So, if you get the chance to check it out, I highly suggest you do. Until then, you can check out Mark's other award winning shorts on his site or read this interview with him, where he discusses them, "The Ugly File", his thoughts on the scene and what he's up to next...

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

My first movie memory, believe it or not, is going to see “Rosemary’s Baby” at the drive-in when I was four years old. Now I know you’re thinking: “What kind of parents take a four year old to that movie?” But in fairness to them, I was supposed to be sleeping in the back of the family station wagon. Only I wasn’t. I was awake and listening to everything. And when they got to the part where the doctor announced that the baby had been born on June 28, I sat bolt upright and said proudly, “That’s MY birthday!” And my whole family – my mom and dad and three older brothers – all looked at me with expressions that said “That explains everything.” Then, when I was six, my father died. And after a year or so, my mother started letting other men court her. One of them was the manager of a movie theater. And so we got to go to the movies all the time for free. And I saw tons of stuff that I’m quite sure I shouldn’t have. I remember seeing “The Legend of Hell House” and Elizabeth Taylor in “Nightwatch,” and they scared me and I loved it. When they took me to see “Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion,” I simply had no interest. Then when I was nine, I saw Brian De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise.” And that movie absolutely knocked me out. I went to see it over and over again. Remember, this is back in the days when “The Wizard of Oz” only played once a year on TV. Then I saw John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and I started reading "Fangoria." And I think the final straw, so to speak, was seeing Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” at age 15. I read the “American Cinematographer” article on the making of the film and I simply knew that’s what I had to do. I’ve been doing it ever since.

Film school: Yes or no?

I’ve always thought this question is wide open enough to go two ways. Either you’re asking if I attended film school. Or you could be asking if I think film schools are worthwhile. Let me answer both. First of all, yes, I went to film school. Three times, in fact. And I actually transferred a couple of times during my undergraduate work, so I’ve attended five different colleges as a film student. I have three degrees total. A B.A. in Film Studies (theory, history and criticism) from the University of California at Santa Barbara. I also have an M.F.A. in screenwriting from Chapman University in Orange, California and an M.A. in English with a creative writing concentration from California State University at Sacramento. On top of all that, my current day job is teaching film production and screenwriting at Penn State University. Hopefully you’ve gathered from all this that I do think education is very important. When I first started teaching, I jokingly told friends of mine that I was doing my part to stem the tide of bad movies. And I still really hope that I can convince film students that there’s more to cinema than Transformers 2. I’ve had some success with that.

Tell us a bit about your short film “The Ugly File”

“The Ugly File” is based on a short story by a great writer named Ed Gorman. I think he’s maybe most well-known for his mysteries, but he’s written westerns and horror stories and all kinds of other stuff, including non-fiction about his friend Dean Koontz. I didn’t know until recently that Ed had based the idea on a real woman whose story is similar to the one in the film.

One of the things that I really liked about the film was that it preyed on a common fear, which is really the root of all horror – exploiting our fears. Talk about how you came up with and developed the idea.

Because it is based on a short story, the development process was first to adapt the story into a screenplay. My writing partner, Rick Hautala, always takes the first stab. And he tries to stay as close to the original story as possible. I always strive for that when adapting. I don’t like to change things unless we have to for a specific reason. So once Rick has that draft, we ask ourselves what works and what doesn’t as a script. In the case of “The Ugly File,” there was a whole section that was delivered as a memory, and so we had to figure out how to make that present and linear. Again, we go through one draft at a time, manipulating these pieces until we feel it works as a script. Now, once the script is done, then I go through a process where I begin to think of it as a film and I make further revisions based on how I plan to shoot things. The last part of the process is the bringing together of all the elements for production. And very often, extra layers get added at the last moment. For instance, there’s a moment early in the film where the photographer sees a baby doll on the front porch of the house he’s visiting. This was something I thought of on the morning of that shoot and I quickly put those elements together and worked it into the film. Hopefully, it seems seamless – like something that was always there. But really, I think, it’s a great example of what David Mamet talks about in “On Directing Film,” where you reap the benefits of proper planning.

I feel you did a great job of setting the story up, then withholding key information until the very end… which, of course, keeps the audience’s attention until the credits roll. Did this come out when you wrote the film, in pre-production, in production or in the post-production process?

I’m really glad you asked that question, because I do think it’s one of the things in the film about which I’m most pleased. I don’t want to give anything away, but basically the film operates on a three-stage reveal. And in the original short story, the first stage of the reveal was explicit. And when we were first scripting our adaptation, I planned to remain faithful to that. But then I realized that the audience would be so profoundly affected by the first reveal that they wouldn’t be able to recover in time to follow what was going on next. And since this is a short film – and only ten minutes at that – I knew I couldn’t afford the time. So then I started thinking about holding back on the first reveal and letting it happen later. In that position, it becomes this double-whammy up against the third reveal that really impacts the audience. So it really developed along with the film. Something else you might find interesting is that I had a completely different idea for how to obscure the baby in the early scene, but it wasn’t working. The method we used – the shot with the photographer’s elbow – emerged on set and was actually an accident. I love those moments. They are so incredibly exciting. And so satisfying when they work well.

Tell us about some of the hurdles you overcame to get the film done and what advice would you pass on to other up-and-coming filmmakers that are just starting out?

Frankly the biggest hurdle on this short were the special effects. I’ve got a super-talented make-up artist who works with me. His name is “Monster” Mark Kosobucki. He just graduated from the Tom Savini make-up school. And Mark was working on the baby design with me for a long time. It finally got so complicated that I decided to shoot everything in such a way that the effects could be done later as an insert shot. So then we actually built a complete baby design and shot it and I cut it into the movie and I knew immediately that it didn’t work. It was wrong for a number of reasons. So I called Mark and I told him that we had to start over. So we scrapped everything and started from scratch. The film was almost completely done for nearly a year – except for that single shot. So that was very distressing. The biggest lesson I learned from all this is that I now consider what is going to be absolutely the most difficult thing about the film. And then I start with that. And if that can’t be achieved, then I won’t proceed. When I first started “The Ugly File,” I knew the baby was going to be tough, but I told myself, “We’ll figure it out,” and then went on and shot the whole movie. The thing is, the whole movie hinges on that one shot and there was quite a long time there when I believed that I might not be able to get a shot that would work the way I wanted it to and the movie would have to be scrapped. So now I work backwards.

“The Ugly File” is screening at various festivals. Talk a bit about the festival circuit. Do you think it’s something that every filmmaker should consider doing?

This is a double-edged sword. For one thing, I’ve read over and over again that the festival circuit is like a democracy. If you get in enough festivals, your work will be seen and you will get your break. And I think that may be less true these days as the competition gets crazier and crazier. Don’t get me wrong: getting into festivals is important. But I think the really important part about the experience is seeing your films with an audience. Part of the problem with the digital revolution is that when YouTube is your movie theater, then you miss out on the audience dynamic. And as a filmmaker, you absolutely must understand the audience. To me, that’s the biggest dividing line between amateurs and professionals. I was amazed as I screened some of my earlier shorts for audiences and watched them react the same way every time to the same thing. In some cases, it was exactly what I wanted, but in other cases, it was not. So now I find myself, right from the start, during the writing phase, hyper-aware of how this is going to play with the audience. I consider as carefully as I can what effect I’m trying to achieve and how I can best go about achieving that. So believe me when I say that watching your films with a few hundred strangers in the dark is worth much more than asking your friends what they think.

You’ve made various short films… are you building towards making a feature? Have your short films opened any doors and/or advanced your career?

I’ve already made two feature films. The first is a fairly obscure crime drama called “The Last Way Out.” Troma has the rights to it right now and they’ve only ever put it out on VHS. It was made a couple of years before DVD was introduced. It’s gotten mostly good reviews. I think it could stand to have ten or fifteen minutes cut out of it, but I’m mostly satisfied with it. I made it for $10,000 total. So there are a number of things that suffered because of that. But I did it and I made my money back before I sold it to Troma, so that’s good. It was a great experience overall. My second feature was made for even less money. It’s a documentary called “The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick.” And this movie is absolutely loathed by large numbers of people. I’ve read some incredibly vicious reviews. But I think what most people don’t understand is how little cooperation I got in making the movie. The estate wouldn’t give us any permission to use anything of Phil’s. Several important people refused to talk to me. Movie studios wouldn’t allow clips to be used. And on and on and on. I decided to make the movie anyway and I’m very glad I did. We’ve had a lot of success with it and there’s not much that tests an artist’s self-confidence like reading the kinds of eviscerations I continue to get over the film. And not everyone hates it, by the way. There are people who got what I was trying to do and I think understood the film for what it was. Now I’m really hoping to get another feature off the ground. I’ve got a lot of ideas. We’ll see what sticks.

Talk about the indie horror scene and indie horror filmmaking. Where do you feel it’s at now and where do you see it going?

The whole indie filmmaking scene is, I think, crazier than it’s ever been. Thanks to what’s happened with technology, anyone with a camcorder can make a movie. Unfortunately, that means anyone with a camcorder can make a movie. But I think a lot of people simply don’t take the time to really attend to the craft side of things. And I’m not just talking about lighting and composition and sound and music. I’m especially referring to the ability to tell a story. Far too often, I think this is the least understood and least developed part of a lot of indie films. More so in the horror genre, I think. A lot of filmmakers seem quite content to make films that are simply cobbled together from bits of other films. I don’t have any time for that kind of thing. One of the reasons I don’t make more films is because I’m really looking for something as totally unique as I can get. And the reason I look to short stories for source material is because I can see if they are good stories first and foremost. Out of the last five short films I’ve made, four were based on existing ideas by well-known authors. It’s much more challenging to go through the trouble of getting the rights to do that, but I believe it really pays off. The bad news is that on the festival circuit, for instance, every movie looks the same before it’s seen. Right? Every DVD might contain the greatest movie ever made. But you can’t know until you watch it. So now, instead of competing with maybe 100 films like you did in the old days before camcorders, you’re competing with 500 films or more. Most of which are not very well made, but they clog up the system, if you understand what I mean. All that said, I think good films will still earn their place. It just might take longer.

Where can people check out “The Ugly File” and your other films? What’s next for you? Do you have any more projects in the works?

I make it a policy to allow my current films only to screen on the festival circuit until they’re done. After that, they may end up on-line. That’s where “Peekers” is right now. We played in 26 film festivals over the last year. I’m very proud of the fact that I opened for Dario Argento’s “Mother of Tears” when it screened at Fantasporto in Portugal. We earned a total of six awards. And now you can watch it on its own Web site which is called playwithme.tv Many of my other shorts are on my personal Web site, which is called marksteensland.com. And there’s a bunch of stuff floating around YouTube. There were plans for a DVD compilation at one point, but the distributor sort of let the ball drop and so I don’t know what’s going on with that now. I’ve sold a Web series to Electric Farm Entertainment, which is the company behind “Gemini Division” starring Rosario Dawson. We’re still writing the series, but I’ve got high hopes for it. I’ve got a number of screenplays out to various producers and studios. One is called “Animosity,” and it’s based on a soon-to-be-published novel by a brilliant young writer named James Newman. The story is about a horror author who discovers the body of a little girl who has been murdered. His neighbors begin to think he had something to do with the crime and they take justice into their own hands. It’s a lot like that old episode of the Twilight Zone, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” And that’s what I really love about it. My latest screenplay is called “The Devil’s Church,” and it’s based on a real church here in Pennsylvania where they say you can race the devil. If you win, you get whatever you want. If you lose, you die at sunrise. The script is about four college guys who decide to give it a try. We’ll see what happens with those.

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