Thursday, September 9, 2010

Interview with Todd Miro, writer/director of the short film "Enter The Dark"

I'm going to reiterate and clarify something that we, at Dead Harvey, preach to lots of indie filmmakers... and that is, make your film fit the medium. What I mean is, if you're shooting on 35mm or HD with great lenses and light kits, the world is your oyster. Do what you want, you paid for it. However, as you move down the trough, as far as equipment, budget and cameras... you need to be a bit more creative when it comes to telling your story. The best example of what I mean is features being shot on basic DV. When you're shooting on a basic digital video camera, you really need to make the concept fit the medium. "Paranormal Activity", "Blair Witch Project" and, recently, "Meadowoods". (By the way, watch for an interview with the "Meadowoods" guys soon!) are all examples of great, successful films that shot on basic digital video. They're generally shot in 1st person style and justify the footage being shot on low-budget DV by claiming that it's found footage or a home video that's edited by one of the characters. What that does is create a suspension of disbelief that engages the viewer and makes what they're watching believable. Now, imagine the opposite... how effective would your suspension of disbelief be if you, say, tried to shoot "Laurence of Arabia" on a handicam in your backyard? Not good. Moral of the story? Think about your concept and how you want to shoot it, make sure it all matches up.

Todd Miro, the writer/director of the short film "Enter the Dark", did exactly what I'm talking about. However, he twists it around a bit by expertly weaving back and forth between two mediums. One, an HD camera with great lenses that gives a polished, professional look and, two, a handicam that gives that gritty, creepy 1st person feel. The story evolves from a guy that's invited his friend over to help him film some of the paranormal activity that's going on in his house. The film then takes a few dark and creepy turns, all before it's twisted and surprising ending. All I can say is, the 1st person, shot on DV stuff is as creepy as anything in "Paranormal Activity" and the rest helps craft the story perfectly. It's a great short, engaging until the end and the twist ending really will catch you off guard. We had the chance to talk with Miro about the film...

Tell us about “Enter the Dark”, what’s it all about?

Enter the Dark is a short horror movie that I wrote, directed and edited that tells the story of two good friends who are led on a paranormal adventure of EVPs, apparitions and a mysterious talking children's book. By the end of the evening it becomes clear that things were not what they had expected. It took about six months to shoot in my own house (much to my wife's great displeasure).

One thing I found out quickly is how complex it is to produce even a simple short movie such as this. We all have full-time jobs and families, so the scheduling was a nightmare. I had a small crew, only two actors and had one location (my house), and it still took six months to find the nights when we could all get together. Having backup crew was a must, so when my DP, Rob Weiner couldn't shoot, I had my buddy Eduardo Silva step in. Both did an amazing job. The best thing about this experience was being able to work with a cast and crew made up of my friends - my actors, Rob Sandusky and Charles Yoakum were absolute troopers - I've known those guys since the 7th grade. Having people like Kristin Nelder there doing whatever was necessary - from rigging lights to making script suggestions made all the difference - everyone pitched in. Seeing Rob Weiner working alongside his son Ben, and watching him hand down his expert knowledge of sound recording - those kinds of things make all the hassles worthwhile.

If you don’t mind us asking, what was the budget and how did you secure financing?

The budget was roughly $2,000 - mostly for pizza, beer, Oreos and lens rentals. I own my own edit suite, my DP, Rob Weiner, donated all his gear and everyone worked for free so those were our only expenses. I financed the movie myself - with the help of my wife of course!

You flipped between two different cameras – one for the 1st person shots and one for the rest. Both looked great, what cameras were you using?

The main camera was a Canon 7D with fast lenses - a 50mm 1.4 prime and a 17-55mm 2.8 zoom. This incredible camera allows you to shoot full HD video (1920x1080) at 24fps with beautiful 35mm lenses and depth of field for around $2,000. This allows for a very convincing film-look at a bargain price. The second camera, our POV cam, was a Sony HDR-CX12 with the infrared NightShot turned on. The camera was setup with a wide-angle lens, and an additional IR light.

The amazing thing about this shoot was that the entire movie (except for the opening scene) was lit with only a flashlight. Ben Weiner, our sound recordist had this high-powered LED flashlight and it gave off so much light we quickly realized that was all we needed. I wanted to have a very naturalistic look and also wanted the blacks to drop off to absolute darkness and this one flashlight gave us that look - depending on where you bounced the light you could have a wash of light, rim light, harsh shadows or silhouettes.

The other thing to consider is that my actors, Rob & Charles, actually lit most of the movie, since they were carrying the flashlight in each scene. So, not only were they delivering their lines and worrying about blocking for each take, but they had to remember to bounce the light where it looked the best. Otherwise, the image was just mud. Oh yeah, and they also shot the majority of the POV shots as well. Geez, those guys deserve a friggin medal!

Most of your effects were practical effects, but it did look like you used a bit of cgi. What program did you use and how were they created? I’m thinking of the ghost in the doorway, mostly.

Yes, I wanted to try to do physical effects as much as possible. I just felt that the organic nature of them lent themselves better to the style of this movie. Plus it was fun to do all the rigging and run around like a stunt coordinator or something. The only CGI in the movie is in the hallway scene where they see the apparition. For that, first I shot Rob doing a bunch of different takes of walking across the camera's field of view. Then I picked the best one, brought that into After Effects, rotoscoped it and added some filters to break up the shape a bit.

The film was genuinely creepy. Talk about creating that creepy tone.

Thanks - that is definitely what I was going for! My writing process was pretty simple - I would lay in bed at night and think about the scariest thing that could happen to me right at that moment. Obviously, this led to many sleepless nights! Then I looked at those ideas and picked the ones that I thought I could actually pull off. I also watched tons and tons of scary movies, trying to analyze what made each scene work. There are obvious homages to famous scenes in my movie - I'll leave it for the viewers to pick them out.

One issue I had with writing these scenes was that I actually had to reign myself in. If I made them too scary then my character Rob, who's there to help his buddy out, would just naturally say, "Eff this... I'm outta here!" And then my movie would just end. I kept thinking about that old Eddie Murphy joke:

In the Amityville Horror the ghost told them to get out of the house. White people stayed in there. Now that's a hint and a half for your ass. A ghost say get the f*&# out, I would just tip the f&*% out the door.

I would've been in the house saying: "Oh baby this is beautiful. We got a chandelier hanging up here, kids outside playing. Its a beautiful neighborhood. We ain't got nuttin to worry, I really love it this is really nice."


"Too bad we can't stay, baby !"

You obviously pulled from “Paranormal Activity” a lot, however you throw all similarities out the window with your ending. Now, did you start with the ending in mind or did that twist come to you later?

Actually, the idea for this movie came to me way before PA was produced. I always loved Blair Witch Project and wondered why no one had ever done another POV horror film - it seemed so obvious. So, I started tinkering with an idea of a guy videotaping mysterious things going on in his house. Of course, I never actually did anything with this idea. Then REC and Cloverfield and PA all came out and I thought, "You doofus! You sat on a good idea and now it's too late - it's already been done." After I picked my shattered soul off the ground I decided to pursue my idea anyway. During the final writing process, I intentionally avoided watching PA because I didn't want to be influenced by it. I only saw it once my script had been written. Then I tweaked it a bit to avoid comparisons, but I knew they would be inevitable.

As for the ending, I knew all along that the paranormal activities would only be one element to this movie. I myself am not particularly scared by conventional ghost stories - they usually unfold more like mysteries than horror films - if you can discover the mystery of who died here, and why, then you can send the entity on its way and all will be well. For me, true horror has to say something more - something about the state of mankind, or the nature of true evil. Movies like Se7en and The Ring do this for me, and that was more the tone I wanted at the end of my movie.

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

I have been making movies since I was ten years old - my buddies and I running around with my Super-8 camera doing Monty Python ripoffs, and me making stop-motion claymation epics in the tradition of Ray Harryhausen. The movies that influenced me the most are Alien, The Shining and the Excorcist - those for me are the Big Three. My literary influences would be Stephen King, Clive Barker, and especially, H.P. Lovecraft.

Film school: yes or no?

Yes. I pretty much knew I wanted to work in the biz since I was ten or so, so it was an obvious choice for me. I attended San Francisco State University and got my film degree and then got into the real world and got my first job...

In a bookstore.

I quickly realized that this business had little to do with a degree and hustled my way into internships and eventually became a partner in a video editing facility. From there I became a freelance editor working on documentaries, corporate videos, commercials and eventually, back to independent filmmaking. My first foray into indie filmmaking was editing Elisabeth Fies' cult-thriller, The Commune, which has received lots of great buzz and recently got onto Netflix. This gave me the confidence to write and direct my first short movie - and that's where Enter the Dark came in.

Even though my film degree did not lead directly to any work, I know I rely on the depth of knowledge it gave my every single day. To be able to think critically about cinema, and understand the language of film is invaluable.

Talk about your goals behind making “Enter the Dark”. Is it for accolades, for a reel, for festivals?

To be honest, I really just wanted to finally finish something of my own. As an online editor, I have overseen so many other people's projects to fruition. It is my job to take their fragile visions, give them final form, and send them off into the world. That is rewarding in and of itself, but I knew it was time for me to step up and see if I could do the same.

Hopefully, Enter the Dark will run in the festival circuit for a while and then it will be available for download.

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

The indie horror scene is very vibrant right now. There are so many festivals, blogs, websites and dedicated fans. With the availability of such great equipment at such a low cost, anyone who wants to, can now make a movie. That is both a blessing and a curse. Just because anyone can have access to Microsoft Word, that does not make them a writer. And just because anyone can have access to a camera and Final Cut Pro, that does not make them a filmmaker. There will be a tremendous glut of bad stuff out there and a few hidden gems. Finding those gems will be more and more difficult. Hopefully more and more beginners will focus less on the latest cool gear, or trying to copy the latest Saw movie and will strive to learn their craft - especially story. Those who understand how to tell an engaging story in new and exciting ways will succeed and lead a new vision of horror into the future.

Where can people check your film out?

Enter the Dark premieres at the Chicago Horror Film Festival, Sunday, Sept. 26 at 9:20pm. We are excited to screen on closing night, right before the final feature. Actor Charles Yoakum and I will be attending so we hope to see you there.

It has also been entered into many other film festivals including Screamfest, New York City Horror Film Festival, Sacramento Horror Film Festival and SXSW, so please visit for updates and for more info on the movie.

What’s next?

Well, I love the short story, Smoke Ghost by Fritz Leiber and would love to adapt that for the screen. I'm also working on a script influenced by Lovecraft's The Whisperer in Darkness which updates it while keeping the core themes.

If I can get the financing, I also have a couple of ideas of how to turn Enter the Dark into a feature-length film.

I also plan on getting some well-needed sleep. In my house. Without thinking about scary scenes anymore.

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