Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Interview With Rick Popko, Co-writer/Co-Director of "RetarDEAD"

If I was a betting man... and I am, I'd be willing to bet that almost all indie filmmakers can be categorized in one of two ways... (1) You went to film school, but are not currently in a professional position to make films, so you take what resources are available to you to put something together OR (2) You never went to film school, but you love film and want to try your hand at filmmaking. Now, whichever category you fall into, I'm also willing to bet that alcohol was involved when you came up with the idea to make your film... and, hey, that's not a bad thing! Lord knows the best ideas are spawned from debaucherous nights. I really believe that, too. If you sit down and over think your project and think like a Hollywood executive, you're doomed. Forget about it, you can't compete. You don't have the budget, resources or talent pool. However, the booze soaked mind doesn't care about audiences, it doesn't care about metrics or what "sells" or what's "hip" or even where it's going to get it's next beer from. It just thinks shit is funny... and that way of thinking can create great indie horror films. What is it that they say about poets? They're just drinkers with writing problems...

Now, if you haven't seen the indie horror classic, "Monsturd", you need to check it out. It came out in 2003, I believe, and was directed by Rick Popko and Dan West. It's about a serial killer who mutates into a poop monster... and there's NO WAY that they came up with that idea when they were sober. No way. Well, Rick and Dan are back with "RetarDEAD" and it's all that "Monsturd" is and more. It's gory, it's hilarious, it's entertaining and, well, it's everything that you would want from a film with the title "RetarDEAD". I don't know how else to put that. Anyhow, we had the opportunity to discuss the film with Rick and he offers up an interview that should be required reading for up-and-coming or wannabe indie filmmakers. There's piles of good information in there and I highly recommend that you give it a read.

First, though, if you're interested, here's links to their pages on Amazon: "
Monsturd" and "Retardead".

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

My name is Rick Popko, I’m 41, I live in San Francisco, and I do public relations for a number Silicon Valley tech companies... When I’m not doing that, I’m a husband and a dad to two wonderful girls… Oh, and in my free time, I like to produce crazy indie exploitation movies… As far as my influences, they’re all over the place… Peter Jackson (Dead Alive), George Romero (Dawn of the Dead), John Waters (Polyester), Sam Raimi (Evil Dead 2), Martin Scorsese (After Hours), Mark Pirro (Nudist Colony of the Dead) and many others.

Dan and I have been shooting crazy horror/comedy shorts for years (You can see a few of our rudimentary early works at -- enter 4321 Films in the search box). In between the sketch work, we wrote a number of screenplays, which no one in Hollywood would read. Then we got our hands on a Canon GL-1. The first miniDV camera with “Frame” mode (meaning it shoots 30 frames per second progressive, i.e., non-interlaced). As we were testing it, Dan exclaimed “We can make a movie with that!” Then, one day, we rented “Jack Frost” (the horror movie version) and said, “Heck, if this guy can make a movie about a killer snowman and get it in video stores around the country, then why couldn’t we make one about a giant shit monster?” And “Monsturd” was born.

Film school: yes or no?

I graduated from San Francisco State with a B.A. in Film. Did I get a lot out of it? No… For people who are thinking about going to film school, you’re only going to get out of it what you put in. Film school is a good place to network with other people who are into the same thing as you. I didn’t bother getting anyone’s contact info while I was there. But, if you do it right, and you stay in touch with everyone after school, you should be able to wrangle up any kind of crew to help you shoot whatever project you want to make. If you think film school’s your ticket into Hollywood, you’re sadly mistaken.

Tell us about “RetarDEAD”

It’s probably not a surprise to hear that RetarDEAD was born from the title. One night Dan and I were having beers together and he said, “Okay, I’ve got a movie idea for you. I don’t know what it’s about yet… It’s just the title… It’s called ‘Special Dead.’” I thought that was a clever title and then added, “So, they’re RetarDEAD.” Dan laughed and said, “Wait, I like that one better.”

From that, Dan and I brainstormed a ton of scenarios, none of which were flying with us. And then it dawned on us. What if we made it a direct sequel to “Monsturd?” Toss in a “Flowers for Algernon”-like subplot, a serial pervert, Jello Biafra, a real-life zombie dance troupe (The Living Dead Girlz), and second unit zombie kill scenes contributed by indie filmmakers around the country, shake that all up and you’ve pretty much got RetarDEAD.

This film is the follow up to “Monsturd”, which was an awesome film, by the way. Was the idea for “RetarDEAD” there from the beginning or did it come after completion of “Monsturd”?

Thanks for the kind words. “Monsturd” came out better than it had any right being. Things just sort of fell into place for us on that movie. As mentioned above, “RetarDEAD” was spawned from the title. Originally, we weren’t planning on making any type of sequel to “Monsturd.”… Wait, I should backtrack on that a little. Actually Dan had a germ of an idea for “Monsturd 2.”… I think it was because he liked the tagline he thought up… “Endangered Feces.” Anyway, we both agreed that we had run the poop joke into the ground, and there wasn’t really anything new we could bring to the table. We came up with a number of ideas we wanted to shoot next, including one about cannibalistic undertakers, but neither of us could ever give 100% buy-in to the projects we were coming up with. It wasn’t until we started hashing “RetarDEAD” out and turned it into the sequel to “Monsturd,” that be both bought into the project.

Without question, it’s an over-the-top film… but I’d expect nothing less from the makers of “Monsturd”. There’s a wicked villain, there’s a dance sequence, tons of blood and guts and it’s hilarious AND, on top of all that, it really, really works. I find that to be successful with this particular sub-genre, you need to go further than you think. More blood, more slapstick, etc. Talk about what you think it takes to make a successful gore/comedy like this?

I hate to quote an Apple ad, but the truth is, you really have to think different. There’s a lot of competition out there right now for eyeballs. Not only is the DVD market saturated with ancient Hollywood dreck (and remakes of the old dreck), but indie distributors are crowding the market with stuff that’s even worse! If you’re reading this and you’re an independent filmmaker, do something that’s a little different… off the wall… If you’re going to make another “killer in the woods” movie, think of something you can do that will take your movie to the next level… Maybe the killer is a dwarf transvestite… Maybe instead of the movie taking place in the woods, it takes place in a big-top circus… And the killer is one of the people from the freak show.

The other suggestion I have for filmmakers is to not cut corners on your production. Just because you don’t have a budget doesn’t mean your movie has to look like it. If you’re resourceful, you can make your $1,000 look like a million. Think of locations that have production value. Just because you have a garage available to you, doesn’t mean you have to shoot your whole movie there. Go out and find cool-looking locations to film at. And lastly, don’t pull your punches. If you’re shooting a low-budget horror movie, don’t cut away when someone is about to get killed. That’s the mark of an amateur. I can forgive a lot when I’m watching an indie movie (the stilted line delivery, the poor shot composition, the bad audio), but when I see a kill scene that doesn’t deliver the goods, I get bloody annoyed.

When you’re doing gore, you gotta deliver… and you guys definitely did that. Talk about some of your favorite effects and how you created them.

Most of the budget on RetarDEAD went to special makeup effects. We used Ed Martinez (who did the effects for the 80s zombie flick “The Dead Pit.”) If I had to only pick one effect, I would say the scene where we tore the school’s principal in half. That was pretty elaborate. We actually built the basement set in my garage (where the principal gets attacked), and we built a replica of the set on our soundstage. The set’s floor in the soundstage was raised up a foot and a half, and we cut a hole in the middle of it for our actor to slide into up to his waist. Michael Allen, our actor playing the principal, actually had to have his body cast. Our make-up artist used that to make his lower torso appliance.

On the night of the effect, Michael had to climb into the hole and get made up for more than two hours (meaning no bathroom breaks). And, because of our miniscule budget, we only had one chance to get the shot right. On most H-Wood shoots, the make-up artists prepares to do the effect at least three times in case something goes wrong. Because of this, we actually had two cameras running during the take. Overall, I think the effect came out great. The only downside was that all of the blood that flowed ran right into the hole Michael was situated in and ended up ruining my carpet.

I saw that it screened at a few festivals. How was it received? Also, tell us what you think about the horror festival circuit… is it something that other indie horror filmmakers should get involved with?

RetarDEAD has been received pretty well at the festivals we’ve screened it at. The people who turn out for these things are pretty die hard horror fans, and I think they appreciated the fact that we brought something a little different to the table. As far as the horror circuit goes, I’ve been amazed at how cool everyone is… I had this perception (or should I say misperception) that hard core horror fans would be a scary bunch of people. But it turns out that everyone I’ve encountered, even the scary-looking ones, are actually some of the nicest and most respectful people I’ve ever met.

Are film festivals the right way to go? The thing about film festivals is that they’re a good place to get attention for your film if your film is having a hard time standing out on its own. Film festivals can lend some legitimacy to your project. Honestly, we didn’t really need to take the film festival route. We actually had a couple of distributors who were pretty much willing to sign the movie sight unseen thanks to the notoriety of “Monsturd.” Still, I can’t deny that it’s fun to see your flick screened in a real movie theater that’s packed full of a bunch of drunken gore hounds.

Talk about the process of distribution. What can you pass on to other filmmakers about the process of getting a film distributed.

Expect to get screwed on your first movie… And maybe your second and third, too… We signed Monsturd with an outfit called Dead Alive. They sold 4,000 copies of the movie into Blockbuster and then promptly went out of business. Never saw a dime. We got our rights back and signed with Elite Entertainment. They had Monsturd for three years and, again, we never saw a dime. We then signed with Brain Damaged Films and they at least gave us some money for International sales.

Are we gettin’ rich off this? Hell no! If I’m not mistaken, I think we’ve probably earned about $4,000 for Monsturd to date.

A couple of tips for wannabe filmmakers:

1. Know that contracts are negotiable. If you get someone who’s interested in your movie and they give you a contract, it isn’t the end-all-be-all. You can add in there whatever you want.

2. Never sign away your movie. Know that you are licensing your movie to them. And that license should never go for more than 5 years. If the distributor hasn’t done everything they can for you in 5 years, then nothing else will happen to it while it’s in their possession. When you get your rights back, you can approach another distributor with your flick.

3. While the tools are in place to self distribute your stuff, it’s really a pain in the ass. We tried to self distribute “RetarDEAD” at first, and it ended up being too much work. If you go this route, you had better be prepared to make it a full time job… Plus you better have some capital to make the initial copies and glossy ad slicks. Plus, there are a number of outlets who won’t even talk to you unless you’ve got some reputable sub-distributor in place.

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

I liken the indie horror scene to the early days of desktop publishing. You remember the “zine” craze? Everyone with a computer and a copy of Illustrator suddenly fancied themselves a publisher. How much of the stuff that came out of that era was any good? Not much. I’m sorry to say that I’m seeing the same thing with today’s “indie” horror film scene. That’s not to say there aren’t some talented people out there, but they’re getting buried underneath tsunami of shit. Just because you have a DV camcorder, a computer and a software editor doesn’t automatically make you a feature filmmaker. Ultimately, I like to believe that the cream ultimately rises to the top. The people who love it will continue to do it and they’ll get better and better over time. I have no doubt that we’ll see the next Sam Raimi rise up through the ranks of micro-budget horror.

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

Our Website is RetarDEAD is available on Amazon and Film Baby (note: Film Baby still has a few copies of the original pressing of RetarDEAD. This includes our original cover AND an original soundtrack CD. And it’s limited edition. We only made 400 copies of this version and when they’re gone… They’re gone.

What’s next? Any more projects in the works?

Dan and I are currently drafting a script about an Alien that crash lands in Butte County… It will be a direct sequel to “Monsturd” and “RetarDEAD.”

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