Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Interview with Patrick Johnson, writer/director of "She's Crushed"

Every once in a while, I'll watch an indie horror that keeps me going, makes me search for the next one. Do you know what I mean? It's like one good shot in a shitty golf game or that one cute, flirty girl in a sea of bitches. It's like a nod from the gods, telling you... don't worry, you're on the right track. For me, that was what it felt like after watching Patrick Johnson's "She's Crushed".

First up, if you're an indie horror filmmaker or an aspiring indie horror filmmaker, you have to check this film out. It starts out, well, exactly where you'd expect it to start out and then it steadily takes you to a whole other level that is, simply, what indie horror is all about. I don't want to say much more, as I want to get to the interview. I'm thrilled to have been able to talk with Patrick and he delivered an in depth and kick-ass interview that you have to read. If you want to buy the film or read more on it, here's a LINK to it's Amazon page or... just keep reading.

Tell us about your film, “She’s Crushed”

This is going to sound like pretentious bullshit, but here it is. To me, She's Crushed is a film about the effects of violence, obsession, and the idea of commitment being skewed to the extreme.

The character Ray is a guy who has profited all his adult life from violence—first as a soldier, then as an insurance adjuster. He profits from violence but at a distance. In the military, he was a sniper killing from a safe distance; then, as an insurance adjuster, he arrives after the active violence has occurred, again seeing it from a safe distance.

Then along comes Tara. She's Ray's polar opposite. She over-commits, and as a direct victim of violence herself, she brings violence as up close and personal to Ray as it can get. Tara has no problems committing herself 100% to someone. I don't think she is an evil person. She is really just a product of a horrible upbringing in which problems were resolved with violence. She kills for a specific purpose; not because she enjoys killing, but because she knows no other way of dealing with life. She is very actively involved in violence unlike Ray. She is also good at it, so she relishes in it a bit…as a low self-esteem type of reinforcement more than actual enjoyment.

I thought it was interesting to show that even though Ray has military training and has killed before, these skills prove useless against a skinny girl—a fact that frustrates many viewers. Tara uses social conceptions against Ray which is something you hear a lot about in real life cases of girls stalking guys. Guys have a really hard time finding sympathy when they complain that a girl is hassling them. We as a society tend to underestimate women as adversaries. Which is really a big mistake. Women have an intense focus.

Some critics condemn this film for its intense brutality and graphic violence. I argue that violence is supposed to be repulsive and it's actually more irresponsible to sexualize or glorify it. You definitely feel the effects of the violence in this film. It's not sexy or cool. It's ugly and intense and makes you want no part of it. The film can be a bit emotionally exhausting for even the hardest of horror fans. I don't think it's a nihilistic film despite the ending, but it is definitely dark.

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

The budget was low. It was complete shit. I think we kicked ass considering the budget, but we had to make a lot of compromises, many of which were time constraints. I would have liked to have had two more weeks of shooting. We secured financing based on two previous projects "SideFx" and "Freaked".

Okay, I love the ‘woman scorned’ premise. I think it’s something that seems plausible, which makes it that much scarier. Having said that, it’s not an overly new concept, but you definitely take it to another level. Talk about where you got the idea from and how you developed it.

The idea was born out of the scene in the parking garage. That scene in real life would be hard to get out of. A guy with a violent history and a military background is going to have a hard time convincing people he is the victim of a 115-pound chick with her shirt ripped open. If you make the wrong choice it's going to end badly and there is no turning back once you do make a choice. That got me thinking about violence and how society deals with it. Then from a storytelling standpoint, I wanted to avoid making killing people cool or sexy. Death and violence is neither and tends to smell like shit. Literally.

The gore is unreal and it was done so well. Which was your favorite effect and how was it achieved?

I think a lot of the gore in the film is intense due to tone and scale rather than actual blood and guts. You see a lot sicker stuff on CSI these days. What I mean by tone and scale is that we kept the scenes very realistic and not too Hollywood. The gore was small, too. We did things that people could relate to. Simple basic stuff you could wrap your brain around. We didn't skin a person and wear their skin or lop off a head and have it still talking. Who can relate to that stuff? It's out of our scope of understanding (I hope) but small things that deal with eyes, fingers or feet…we can all sort of imagine how that might feel.

That being said, my favorite effect was the head-drilling scene. It was pretty low tech. We went to Fiesta, a Hispanic grocery store, and bought two pig heads. “Dos cabezas del cerdo" I think. We then loaded a coring drill bit with a condom filled with fake blood, brought the camera in tight, and drilled the pig head. As the drill bit went into the skull, the condom broke and spewed blood around the pig head. It was some nasty looking shit even on set. A pig's skin looks scary like human skin. It spun and wrinkled just like a human’s skin would I suppose. Oh I think we also put make-up on the pigs head so it would match Keith's skin tone. Jokes were flying that night I tell ya. We did it live on set, not as an insert later. So the entire crew got to witness the horror.

You also did a great job in casting; both Natalie Dickinson and Henrik Norlen were perfect. Talk about the casting process and how you got them involved.

I met Henrik in Sweden while working on another project. We wanted to work together again and this seemed like a great fit. He had a very innocent likable quality I knew Ray needed. Plus he's a stellar actor. I met Natalie working on Freaked. She has a go-for-it attitude in which she holds nothing back. For a girl as petite and delicate as she is when you meet her, she is willing to just let herself get raw. She does not worry about looking stupid or pretty she just gives you everything she's got. She is a stellar actor as well and never complained about anything I asked her to do. All the actors really did a great job and gave 100% to the film which was awesome.

The film had a great look and feel and never did I feel like I was watching a low-budget film. What do you think made your film stand above the rest and what advice would you give other filmmakers who are trying to avoid a low-budget look.
This is a hard question to answer since I was also the cinematographer as well as the director. I just tried to make it look as close to what I imagined in my head given the constraints we had with time and budget. I leaned to light fast with as few lights as possible. Our entire camera and lighting team/department consisted of Jay Cerra and David Taffet and me. We didn't have a lot of lights (I think a total of six) but we used the hell out of them. I really think that great acting helps a film avoid the low budget look as much as anything. I did try to achieve the look I wanted even when it seemed impractical within the time we had, and Jay was always ready to plop down dolly track at a moment’s notice. He never complained. He just got us set up. And Chad Breshears, our producer, wore several hats and was also willing to lend a hand wherever and whenever it was needed. So, I would add a great crew that knows how to work under extreme conditions without complaint as a ‘must’ to getting the look you want.

Now, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what got you in to film?

I started in fine art and slowly moved toward film. I did a lot of CD artwork with bands, and then I went on tour with a band doing a live video art-type thing, shooting projections onto a screen behind them while they performed. Combining video and music was really addictive. From that moment on I knew I had to do something with moving images and sound. My film influences tend to be from hard genre films. Everything from Sci-fi to comedy, action, and horror. I loved it. I was lucky growing up. My father controlled the TV, so I had to watch all these old interesting movies. I didn't have SpongeBob or Nickelodeon; I had Sergio Leone, John Ford, Kubrick, and Coppola on the TV. There was also a great old dollar movie theater near my house that for some reason screened all these old wonderful films every week—a really odd assortment of double features they managed to get the prints of. I saw everything from the Warriors to The Exorcist in one weekend to Mad Max and A Clockwork Orange the next, plus the full Friday the Thirteenth series as well as Halloween. It was awesome to see these films in a theatrical setting. It also gave me a great film education since I would go and watch movies every weekend no matter what was showing.

Film school: yes or no?

No, I didn't go to film school. I made the equally financially ignorant choice of getting a Fine Art degree.

When you set out to make “She’s Crushed”, what was the goal? Was it to make money, were you trying to open doors, get into festivals… and did you accomplish what you set out to do? Looking back, is there anything that you’d do differently?

I really wanted to take the carnage to a new level almost to say to people... "Okay you wanted to see it, so here it is! I'm thinking you got this movie for a reason. It's not like you picked up ‘She's Crushed’ thinking you were getting ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’!” In a couple of scenes I thought the audience would get, I was being sarcastic and having a laugh. I may have been wrong on that. I never thought the film was going to be a huge financial success. It was too niche for that. I just wanted to play with the genre and see how much fun we could have making the slasher type movie I would love to see. I was never under the illusion it would play well at festivals either. It was just too dark and intense for most festivals. We did get into a few festivals and the audiences went nuts. It's definitely a movie you need to see on the big screen. People walk out of screenings stunned and exhausted emotionally. It's like a sick roller coaster ride. You want to look away but it sucks you in. I think we accomplished what we set out to do. We wanted to push the envelope and cause a reaction in audiences. Unfortunately, that can alienate a lot of people. I mean, if I had a dime for every person that told me I was sick and need psychiatric help, I’d be rich! It's only a movie people! I didn't do anything that hasn't been done before; I just showed it in a different perspective that haunts people. But shouldn't that be the point of violence? The one thing I would do differently would be to allow more time in shooting. If we would have had at least two more weeks we could have done a much better job at defining the nuances of the characters and the story. Also it took us too long to finish the post production of the film. It should have been released two years ago.

You created a viral video of Natalie Dickinson, portraying her character “Tara”, on the YouTube channel “TaraIsCrushed”. Where did that idea come from and was it a successful in marketing the film?

The idea for the YouTube channel came about right after we shot the film. I was doing pick-up shots like the scene in the bathroom when Tara is looking for work. I thought how interesting it was to see her just being frustrated by everyday shit that didn't really have anything to do with the plot directly. I figured a modern, savvy girl like Tara would definitely make video blogs. She's got a ton of issues and seeks attention. What better place for a sociopath than a public stage like YouTube? I would say it was very successful. It created an awareness of the character and built up a pretty good audience of great fans.

Talk about the process of finding distribution. If you could pass on one piece of advice to other indie filmmakers on distribution, what would that be?

I had a relationship with the distributor of my last film, SideFx, so I went to them with the idea before we shot the film. It was just a matter of delivering what we said we would do. My advice to any filmmaker would be to talk to distributors about your idea before you start filming. It will give you a general sense of the marketplace. If your film can't find any interest at this stage chances are good it won't find much interest once it's complete. That's not to say you should not make the film anyway because you never know what the market will be like in the year it takes to complete the film, but at least you will have a general idea of what to expect. At the very least you can start thinking of alternative ways to reach your intended audience.

Talk about the indie horror scene, where do you think it is now and where do you see it going?

I think the indie horror scene is the same as it has always been. You got people who think it's a quick and dirty way to make and sell a film, and you have people who love the genre and have a vision of a film they would like to see. I've read a lot of scripts and seen films by people who don't even really like horror films. They just think it's an easy genre to break into the film business with. There are also those people who are obsessed with the gore aspects and just want to play with fake blood and latex. Then there are the filmmakers who are tormented by an idea of something that scares them, and they just have to make the movie to try and purge it from their subconscious…people who love the genre and are inspired to put their mark on it. As for where do I see it going? I think we are going to see more films about loss of control and systemic hard-to-define evil rather than serial killers or zombies.

Where can people find out more about “She’s Crushed” or get their hands on a copy?

Welcome to our website and of course YouTube channel taraiscrushed.

What’s next for you?

We just wrapped a teen comedy in the vein of Risky Business. I am also working on a horror comedy about a demon-killing alcoholic priest who is also the lead singer in a punk band. A new kind of hero!

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