Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What Indie Horror Is All About: An Interview With Phil Messerer, Writer/Director of "Thicker Than Water"

Every once in a while, I'm privileged enough to check out an indie horror film that reaffirms my love for indie horror... and the film we're going to discuss is one of them. It's not that I don't see a lot of good films, it's just that if I had to break out and classify all the indie horror that I watch, you could break it into five parts, four of which would be fairly equal and make up around 99% of the films. Those four parts are: the stuff that, save for family members and friends of the filmmakers, almost everyone would consider pure crap; then there's the stuff that indie horror filmmakers and fans would consider to be watchable, but most other people would think is crap; you've got the the stuff that most people would consider watchable and indie horror fans would consider to be good and, finally; there's the stuff that most people would consider decent and indie horror guys would be considered great. The fifth, and rarest category, would be the stand out films. Stuff that I think everyone would be entertained by. Stuff that, when people ask me if I've seen anything good, I recommend. Stuff like "Thicker Than Water".

Phil Messerer's "Thicker Than Water" is what indie horror is all about. The acting is top-notch, the effects are perfect (not too over the top, yet very effective), the story is great and you're drawn in at the beginning and asking for more at the end. The story is far bigger than the film, as it's like you're dropped into this small subsection of the world that's been created. It's a film that fires on all cylinders and it's just done really damn well... I'm not alone in thinking that, either. The film won multiple awards (9, I think) from multiple festivals. We had the distinct pleasure of discussing the film with Messerer and he gives an interview that I definitely think you should read.

By the way, I obviously highly recommend the film, so if you want to go to the films Amazon page, here's a link

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

My influences. Hmmm. I am very heavily influenced by Aussie flicks, actually. I know, most people don't even know what the hell I'm talking about. But I lived in Sydney for 8 years in the 90s, went to college there, kind of grew up there. And I was exposed to a very unique brand of cinema which was really just taking off there. A few of the films made it overseas, most notably Muriel's Wedding and Priscilla and a little indie (I mean, they're all indies - there's really no film industry worth speaking of) called Strictly Ballroom. Strictly Ballroom, remains, to this day, my greatest influence. It's really the mother of the film style, a sort of larger than life, in your face, make fun of everything, especially yourself sort of film style. Funnily enough I think it has its origins in horror, in a little New Zealand flick called Dead Alive. So I'm kind of bringing it around full circle.

But I was born in Russia. Moscow. 1974. Cold War days. My family broke out in 81 after several years of struggle as political dissidents. I was seven years old at the time. My father was a radio personality. My mother, a famous academician. Once they applied to leave the country, they lost their membership to the Communist Party, kind of like a social security card. They basically lost all rights as citizens. My mother kept us afloat with one of the few private businesses in Moscow, an English class for little kids held in our apartment. We quickly went to the forefront of the Anti-Government movement. My mother made a lot of noise. She had connections overseas. We were constantly harassed by the KGB. After several years she was either going to be shipped to a Gulag or exiled, as we prayed to be the case. Our prayers were answered. On May 14th, 1981, after a thorough strip search, we boarded a plane headed for the West. We arrived in New York on July 7th, which for me has always been the real Independence day. Three days after everyone else, I'm barbecuing and lighting cherry bombs. People think I'm insane.

I grew up poor, in a Domincan Manhattan neighborhood (Washington Heights). Around the corner was a little RKO movie theater that only showed horror and martial arts movies. They couldn't care less about age restrictions so I never missed a flick. My mom was pretty eccentric. She liked horror films. Cheesy ones. I was always kind of dumbfounded at this great scholar, psychologist digging the same crap I was. She and I went to every horror film together. My sister, on the other hand, can't stand horror but loves martial arts flicks and I watched all those with her. To this day, my sister still hasn't seen my film. Anyway, my mom died of cancer about ten years ago. She had dragged us across three continents in search of a better life for her offspring. I was too young to really appreciate her then. Thicker Than Water is a tribute to her and to Moms everywhere who would kill or die for their children.

Film school: yes or no?

Fuck film school! Film school's for rich kids. And they're not going to teach you anything you can't learn at Blockbuster. If you have the money, make your own film. There's your film school!

Tell us a bit about “The Vampire Diaries: Thicker Than Water”

Well, first off, it's got nothing to do with teeny romance, so if that's your kick, go sparkle somewhere else. It's a dark comedy and if you have a twisted sense of humor, if your friends elbow you for snickering in Sunday School, then this is your cup of tea. No pun intended. You have to watch the film to get that one. I've always been a bit of a trouble-maker. Maybe rebellion is ingrained in me from those days as a Soviet Dissident. Thicker Than Water is a knock on all things supposedly righteous. I think our society stinks of hypocrisy. So my film kind of throws all their precious values back in their face. Sure, it's an angry little film. I was angry when I wrote it. My wife had just left me. I just try to separate the bullshit from the truth. Don't know how well I do it, but at least I'm shedding some light on the Emperor's new clothes. Oh, and it's about vampires.

Obviously there’s an idea here that’s far bigger than the one film. Tell us about where the idea came from and how you developed it.

Now we get to the nitty gritty. Yes! Yes! Yes! There is so much more to come! I'm redefining vampires here. That whole mythos is as stale as yesterday's rye bread. And Thicker Than Water is only the tip of the iceberg. Okay, (SPOILER ALERT) my vampires are not made, they're born. They are a species, not some walking undead. There is absolutely NOTHING supernatural about them. I explain everything scientifically. They breed, amongst themselves or with humans, and their offspring are human. For their first 16 years. Then they die and are reborn as vampires. Only thing is, vampires cannot care for their young. They may eat them! So, like the cuckoo bird, they place their children in the nests of unsuspecting human families. Such a family is The Baxters. Rearing a vampire without even knowing it. That's where the story begins. Part 2 will reveal a lot more. There's practically a revelation in every scene. The whole myth was just begging for make-over. But I like to think that I kept the essence alive. I think Bram Stoker would be pleased. That is why I am especially honored to be screening at the first every Bram Stoker film festival in Whitby, England this fall. It is being held by a descendant of Bram's. Dacre Stoker. How cool is that?!!!

The vampires themselves are inspired by nature. In particular, snakes. Part 2 is entitled, The Serpent Queen. My vampires are almost reptilian. Their fangs are like those of a viper, extending from the roofs of their mouths and injecting a neuro-toxin with every bite. The victims are paralyzed. Only their eyeballs roll around in utter panic and terror. Like I said, go look for romance somewhere else.

As far as the Baxters are concerned, well, that's my family. Lara, the Goth, the rebel, is me. Helen, the goody-two shoes is my sister, Alice (the horror-phobe). Mom is Mom. My parents were divorced. And Raymond, the son, is that wild card. In our case it was my grandmother, who we dragged out of bed to go live in another country. Raymond is a pivotal character. He says little but without him the house of cards just collapses. It's hard to explain but in a lot of ways, Raymond is the key to the film's success. I know they're archetypes. But there's a reason that archetypes are archetypes. Because we identify with them. They are exaggerations of ourselves.

But the very seedling is the theme of maternal love. This sounds cheesy but when I was a kid my mother always told me there was nothing I could do that would make her stop loving me. That's a bold fucking statement! What if I came home a vampire and needed 'human sacrifices'? Huh, mom? What then? Well, my film is what then.

What was the budget for the film and how did you go about financing it?

Where there's a will, there's a relative. A few years after my mother died, she got a court settlement from an old lawsuit. Isn't that always the way life works? The money went to her kids. The official budget is $200,000. But what's money? This took three years out of my life. It was a commitment the likes of which I don't think I'll ever make again. It's one of those once in a lifetime shots that you take and depending on its success, decides what you're going to do with the rest of your life. I want to make movies. It's all or nothing for me. Yeah, it's micro-budget. We cut every corner we could. But whatever. If the fact that I was able to achieve with 200 grand what Hollywood can't do with 200 million (ei. - make a decent vampire flick), is a bad thing - then I'm guilty.

There was a lot that stood out in this film; from the gore, to the acting, to the story… you really put together a top-notch indie film. I’m assuming that you’ll have talked about developing the story in question 4, so let’s talk about the acting. You had great performances… where did you get your actors and talk about your directing style.

I auditioned. There are a lot of hungry, young, talented actors in New York. Probably more-so than L.A. At least you don't have to pay them in N.Y. And believe me, you'll need to save every penny. I found three incredible young actresses to play the leads. Jo Jo Hristova, who plays Mom was actually only 32 years old - a year younger than Michael Strelow who plays her son. So we're talking some serious caliber acting here. Jo Jo is a highly accomplished actress in Bulgaria and she brought this old school European technique that just blew us all away. First off, in life she is the bubbliest, happiest, most energetic little thing you ever did see. She talks a million miles an hour is always beaming like the sun just refuses to stop shining on her. Meanwhile, her character, Mom, is this morose, jaded, Orthodox Christian thirty years her senior. I asked her at the audition if she had any kids. She said, "No. But I have a mother." Yeah, she has some looks, boy, make you run off with your tale between your legs. The part wasn't originally intended for an immigrant but I think Jo Jo's accent added immensely to, if nothing else, the 'substance' of the role. Europeans just feel old. There's something old about them. Her dialogue is pretty bare so a lot of her character is unspoken. In the hands of a lesser actress, it might have been a disaster. But she made it her own. I think it's a performance for the ages.

The other two ladies are Eilis Cahill and Devon Dionne, both powerhouses in their own right. Devon, the vampire is hot, like Jessica Simpson hot. But she can act! She's also a dancer and brought this incredible physicality to the role. Eilis plays Lara, the Goth. I modeled the character after Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. She tells the story. She's hot too, but in a sexy brooding kind of way. I think all three will be huge stars. And I can say I discovered them! How cool is that?!

You also had some great effects. Talk about some of your favorites and tell us how they were put together.

We had some fun with it. It was never going to be an fx driven movie but it had to have some, so we put real effort into what we did have. Randall Leddy was the fx guy. He's a make-up genius. Both Devon and Jo Jo sat in the make-up chair (usually the toilet bowl) for two hours each before every shoot. On an indie set this can actually be a blessing because it's an extra four hours to get ready. The best and most complicated is probably the face peel. I wanted to see what a face really looks like without skin. Randall basically built the skinless face over a skull and then it somehow had to fit the actor's countenance which he created by smearing the actor's face with this white shit. It was tres complicated. I tried to stay out of it as much as possible. I was just in the corner, constantly demanding "More Blood!" You should really ask Randall about this stuff. But yeah, it came out great. One of the best facepeels in cinematic history if you ask me.

I also want to acknowledge the work of Randall's brother Dustin Leddy (my co-producer) - these two guys are the next Coens. As well as Michael Gongora, my own personal Mike Schank (American Movie reference) and the incredible etchings created by Rostislav Spitkovsky. These are the guys you want to be in the trenches with.

Not only did you screen at a bunch of festivals, you won a few awards. Talk about the festival circuit. Has it opened any doors and/or furthered your career? Is it something that you would recommend to other indie filmmakers?

Here's what I've learned. After you make a movie, you have build its pedigree. A pedigree is something that you need in order for a distributor to even consider your film. Now you can start building this pedigree before you shoot a single frame. By casting a star. Even if it's a small role, just stick their face right in the middle of the poster. Stars get distribution. Get more than one, you're practically assured. I had no stars. So for me, a pedigree meant festivals and press. Now I learned the hard way that press should come before festivals because festivals love free press. If you have press, you have a lot of power. But what did I know about promotion? I was a filmmaker. Then I thought, what the hell did I know about filmmaking before I tried that? So now I'm a master viral marketeer. The film's gotten over 50 great reviews and I have a veritable army ready to spread any bit of news I give them. For example, Vampfest is having a trailer contest on youtube. Within a day I had twenty publications telling people to go and vote for our flick. Which reminds me: (Ted's note: it's currently winning)

Vote Thicker Than Water! 5 stars all the way!

Must get press! If you believe in your product, get some reviews. And don't listen to that whiny asshole who says that nobody should see your film till it's distributed. Nobody's going to see his film EVER! Get it out there. Create a buzz. I now have distributors calling me! But I'm holding off. At least for a couple of months. Once you get to the money side of things, it's a seedy business. There are a couple more fests in our festival season. Let me enjoy the art of it for a minute. Then I'll let the vultures fight over the carcass.

As far as festivals, they're like summer camp for filmmakers. Loads of fun. Get drunk and talk about movies all night long. That's what we film geeks live for. But in terms of getting discovered, don't get your hopes up. Just hope you can get some people to come to your screening. My opinion is that all festivals should be free. Who the hell's going to pay 12 bucks to see some indie shit? Reediculous! Get a couple of awards to stick on your DVD box and be out. I've heard of people submitting to a hundred festivals (Me!). Wrong! Big waste of money. But there's nothing like the press. You might spend three grand on a festival, what with airfare, accommodation, promotion and booze for the afterparty in your hotel room. And still less people will know about your flick than if you spent a buck on postage to the right film critic.

Talk about distribution. What lessons have you learned and what would you pass on to other indie filmmakers?

I think I just answered that.

Talk about the indie horror scene. Where do you think it is now and where do you think it’s going?

I think it has nowhere to go but up. Horror needs to evolve. It needs to become more relevant, more substantial. Horror seems to go by a different set of rules than the rest of cinema. It's like character and story don't apply. So there's a great deal of room for improvement. I see horror flicks winning Oscars. Why not? Silence of the Lambs was pretty scary. There's already a move towards it. I like what Del Toro is doing. And the Japanese. Women are finally becoming acknowledged as a genuine demographic. You know, it's important to keep your roots, to maintain that mischievous heritage that is this genre's birthright, but we must also expand our horrorizons. I like the effect that science fiction has had on the genre. It's made it more real, and more frightening. What's the first thing you say to yourself when you're scared at the movies? "It's only a movie! It's only a movie!" The best kind of horror, for me, is the kind that can happen to you on the way home from the theater.

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

What’s next?

Part 2.

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