My background as a filmmaker is a crooked road. Even though I knew I wanted to tell visual stories ever since I was a kid, I took a long time to get to it. I sang in bands, I got a Masters degree in costume design, I wrote short stories. For a while I was a personal assistant to a New Zealand director. Then I wrote instructions for a basketball equipment manufacturer, all while moving from Washington D.C to Boulder, CO to Los Angeles to Nebraska.
But finally I found a group of like minded filmmakers and started making shorts. My first short was titled "Valhalla of the Dolls". It was a three minute stop-motion extravaganza about the afterlife of a doll killed in battle. I explored the three minute format pretty deeply with "Happy Fun Song", "The Life of Riley", "The Deadly Bridal Shower" and The Devil and the One Eyed Man".
Then I started making longer shorts. "The Mysterious Castle", was first. About fifteen minutes long, it was about three girls exploring in the woods who find a castle, a fairy and a bad monster. After that, "Go Lightly", another 15 minute short about a wicked man who dies and is given a chance to redeem himself. Or is he? Cue dramatic music!
Sometime in the mid 2000's I gathered all my filmmaking friends together and we made the longest short yet. A thirty five minute horror fantasy called "Chaos and Fortune". Everyone took a week off of work to shoot it and it was on that project that I was really introduced to what producing a longer format was like. Wow, what a heady blend of power and stress. It was like a caffeine-nicotine smoothie with a dash of paranoia for spice. I couldn't wait to do it again.
I write almost all the scripts that I direct and I think that makes the projects easier to produce and bring to fruition. I always start with trying to create strong relationships between characters because I love to read and my favorite books are the ones where the emotional motivations of the characters organically drive the plot.
Now I have a day job as a local commercial producer, where I script, shoot, edit and create motion graphics. After work and on weekends I write, direct and produce horror movies. It makes me feel like Romero when he was making "Night of the Living Dead" and doing ad agency work in Pittsburg. Awesome!
Q: Why decide to do a horror movie for your first feature?
The production company I belong to, Unfiltered Entertainment, Inc., had done the research. They knew that genre films were more likely to get distribution even without name actors. And of those genres the three that were the hottest were Christian, Gay and Horror. (Someday I hope to make a Christian Gay Horror film. I already have an idea for it, but that's a tangent, I won't go down that road right now.) As a company we didn't have the community connections necessary to really do the Christian or Gay genres right so we decided to start with Horror.
Around the time we started working on horror movie ideas, I picked up a movie at Blockbuster called "Fear of Clowns". It was super lo-fi and low budget and there it was, on the shelf at Blockbuster, just like a "real" movie. I told my co-producers at Unfiltered that if "Fear of Clowns" could get a distribution deal that I was completely sure we could do the same. So I think I need to send a shout out to "Fear of Clowns" and also "Roost", now that I'm thinking about it. Thanks guys, for giving us a goal to reach and the belief that we could do it. "Wake the Witch" would have been a long time coming otherwise.
Q: How did the idea for WAKE THE WITCH come about? To be honest I didn't really see the Japanese influence--but I did see the BLAIR WITCH and THE FOURTH KIND influences...
The idea for "Wake the Witch" came about totally on the fly. Each Unfiltered producer was supposed to be working on a horror script. I was slogging my way through a synopsis that included alien spiders, the Masonic order, human slavery and the Nebraska State Capitol. As I typed the last sentence in the synopsis I thought, "there is no way IN HELL that we will get a budget to make this all happen in a cool way." So I sat in front of my laptop wondering what I could write that we could make.
I had just recently seen "Kairo" and "Whispering Corridors" and was blown away by the shooting style (so few close ups, even for more intimate moments, and the use of actor movement to create different framing). I was intrigued by the slower pace, the emotional connections between the characters and the way the horror was built from almost mundane events.
I started thinking, "If we use that shooting style inside of cool local locations with interesting production elements that I can actually access (unlike the state capitol and alien spiders), it could be pretty interesting."
Here in Lincoln, NE we have a long strip of forest called Wilderness Park that runs parallel to the city. It's been there since Lincoln was founded and has folded a lot of the city's history into its dark heart over those hundred plus years. I knew I could easily shoot in Wilderness Park and just like that, the idea for "Wake the Witch" literally appeared in my head, fully formed. I wrote the synopsis in two weeks and the script in four.
I can see where the "Blair Witch" connection comes from. Shooting in the woods during the day is a great way to get accessible and cool production value for almost nothing. It hurts to have "The Fourth Kind" referenced in relation to "Wake the Witch" (insert smiley emoticon here). But after giving it some thought, okay, I can see it. And hell, Milla was in it so now I actually feel flattered. Thank you, Gravedigger.
Q: How did you go about casting your actors? At first I wasn't too sure about Stefanie Tapio as Deb, but she quickly grew on me...I thought Martin Kenna was great as the brother.
We held auditions in Omaha and Lincoln to find actors for the main roles. Omaha plays host to a lot more low-budget films than might be expected. So there are quite a few good actors there. Many of the actors from "Wake the Witch" had moved to Los Angeles by the time we had our premiere - Rachel Lien and Brian McClure, among others.
Stefanie Tapio showed up about midway through our Omaha auditions. We had seen a couple of girls we thought might work but no one who had really nailed it. One of the sides was a portion of the ending scene and when Stefanie read it I got chills. And tears in my eyes. She had a different look and take on the character too. Not your typical blond bimbo heroine or your badass tough girl. That immediately put her into the top three.
After auditions we held "open" callbacks, where all the actors that are reading for the same part get to see their competition in action. As a director I like open callbacks because it gives me a sense of how the actors work under pressure, how they interact with each other as an ensemble, and how they look together.
Everyone did an amazing job at callbacks and when we watched the video we had a hard time making decisions for some of the roles. Ultimately I loved Stefanie's interpretation of "Deb" and thought her look was unique. Mark was actually a shoo-in for the brother. It's a complicated role, requiring a lot of depth, and we were really happy to find an actor that could bring that role to life.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of directing a low-budget movie?
The most challenging aspect of directing a low-budget movie is that you can't JUST be the director. By the nature of low-budget you have to wear many hats. In Unfiltered we give production responsibilities to each producer based on what their unique superpowers are. One of my superpowers is organization, which means I do AD and PA work as well as directing. Without cash money to pay someone to be responsible and show up EVERY SHOOT DAY I end up being the first person to arrive and make coffee and put out breakfast, and also the last person to leave and make sure everything is locked up and off. It's pretty tiring. I'm not complaining though. I f-ing love the process.
Q: What's your favorite scene in the film and why?
I have A LOT of favorite scenes in "Wake the Witch", many of which I can't mention because of spoilers, but I think one of my favorite scenes that I can discuss is the one where Deb and Karen are lost in the woods. I love the visuals, how the woods are beautiful at first and then become more and more creepy. I love the discussion about the old chains they find on the path; writing that dialogue was really fun. And I like the interactions between the two characters; one very practical and one very spontaneous.
Q: How long did it take to complete the movie, from day one of shooting to the final edit?
We started shooting in August of 2008 and finished principal photography in late November. We only shot on weekends though, so that was really only about 24 days. After that it was a year of editing, many screenings for hand picked groups that gave excellent critiques, finding our composer James Oliva, building the audio world of effects and environment, creating the VFX and tweaking all the tiny details. Our premiere was in early November of 2009 and we got picked up for Video on Demand distribution in February of 2010.
Q: Will you be directing another horror movie?
Yes. Yes, I will be directing another horror movie. In fact, I just finished directing it! It was a damn good time too. This one is influenced by the Italian Giallo films from the 1970's and early 80's. Check out www.bloodritesmovie.com for pics and a short synopsis.