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Jay Woelfel
Horror Interview by The Gravedigger

Q: I was first familiar with your BEYOND DREAM'S DOOR and the first THINGS movie... what got you interested in independent filmmaking?

BEYOND DREAM'S DOOR was the last thing I directed in Ohio and THINGS was the first thing I directed in Los Angeles. With the release of Ghost Lake and screenings of it at conventions and festivals and such, I've found more and more fans of Beyond Dream's Door. These are people who know me from that film. As part of that process I've re-mastered the film from my unreleased director's cut version into a DVD that's full of extras and all ready to go to market. I've found, so far that some distributors still think it's over the heads of horror audience. As a part of that audience I find that to be offensive. I heard this when the film was made originally though it did well for itself commercially and the rights reverted back to me a few years ago. I've found the usual Catch 22's of life and the film business. It's so far, proved to be, depending on who I've talked to, either too well known or too little known for a distributor to bite on in. What they want is new product or old product that has "stars" in it or ones that are so bad they can sell it as camp or exploitation. I don't claim this unique to my film, as a fan there are films I'd love to be able to get on DVD, but what you tend to get is release after release of accepted classics and the latest lame but violent or bloody or better yet naked bloody and violent drive in films or yesteryear or of this year. Anyway, getting the film re-released has become something of a hobby between new things.

As to getting started in independent films in general, rather than specifically about one first feature film, I grew up, like most people-though maybe not the majority of people in the film business - in a place where if you wanted to make films you made them yourself. In Columbus Ohio there was no film industry. I started making films as I started to outgrow simple play. A good friend of mine and a cousin used to build houses and things out of blocks and play with GI JOES, which by the way let me still say are not dolls, and these other, well things, we called them Rock Men that were painted rocks. Anyway as I outgrew those things they became my "actors" for my first films.

I was just keeping my imagination and creativity alive as a hobby. Eventually I showed some of these films and was told I should try filmmaking as a career and went to film school at Ohio State and so on and so on. I did not start making films to make them as a career or to get famous or all that malarkey. I know it's been said that imagination belongs largely to the young. Many people grow up and substitute other things for imagination, I think perhaps that's too bad for them. Imagination is largely misunderstood by critics of "the arts" they think if you make scary films you must be a scary guy. There is no one to one relationship between what you create and who you are, imagination is a factory that produces product that results from the raw and disparate bits of everything that goes into it-personal experiences, things you watch or read, the way you feel at a certain point can turn a horrible tragic event into a comedy for example.

I got started perhaps because that old 8mm camera was lying around our house and my father and grandfather were into photography so I grew up around it and tried it. I should also add that I was a fan of movies and eventually a sort of first generation Star Trek and later strangely an ED Wood fan. Wood's films seemed like they were made of some different planet than most other films. Music also I think helped lead me to films because I liked orchestral music and the only and most widely available forum and expression of that type of music is in films. I started collecting film music almost at the same time that I started making films.

Q: What was the best and what was the worst movie you've worked on (as a director)?

That's a loaded gun of a question, and the gun is pointed right at my own head. I don't know that it's up to the filmmaker to decide which films he/she makes are the best or the worst. It certainly isn't up to us which ones get chosen to be your best or worst by others. It's seductively easy as well to take all the credit on the ones people like and deflect the blame on the duds. Though it's certainly more fashionable nowadays to speak loud and long about films you think suck than it is to go out on a limb and say this film is terrific. Something else that is important to remember as a filmmaker and as an audience is that the experience of making a movie influences what the people who made it think of it. Some of the toughest or worst shoots I've been on have resulted in films I think are strong, though you don't need to be miserable to make a good movie either. I've made films that people have told me are their favorites and I've made films I've been told are the worst films ever made. My rule is that every film made will be someone in the world's favorite film and someone else's worst. I don't want to rain on their parade with my thoughts. I will say that two things I wish were widely available of mine that aren't currently are my first film Beyond Dream's Door, and my Titanic Documentary. Ghost Lake has gotten the widest release of anything I've been involved with and I'm glad that is the case.

Q: How did THE UNSEEN and IRON THUNDER, both starring Richard Hatch (Battlestar Galactica), come about?

The late Don (Hell Comes to Frogtown) Jackson had set himself up, Tanya York of York Entertainment was somehow also involved, with a boiler room type group that raised money to make films. They came to hate Jackson and the producer of Things, Dave Sterling, was trying to ingratiate himself with them. He found them some little video features to release and I helped out editing a trailer reel for them of their films. Dave I think wanted some bigger directors who I knew, but I convinced him to let me go in there and pitch them ideas first. I remembered advice that, legend has it, Lon Chaney told Boris Karloff and that Karloff told to Christopher Lee. The advice is that in order to get started in this business you need to find something that no one else can or will do and then do it. That was the case here, could we make decent films for an indecently small price? I felt that my Ohio based do it from nothing background gave me an advantage in this case.

We ended up with a two-film deal based on two treatments. Though our budgets were lower than what they had been giving Jackson. I'd gladly tell you what the budgets were but frankly I have no idea. We did however have enough to, and I insisted that we shoot on film not video. This deal was really the best deal I'm managed to get since moving to Los Angeles. Your first deal is, like this one, usually one that is sort of half dead already so you're job is to keep its heart beating. Ultimately both films got made and actually did well for the company.

Those films were Iron Thunder and Unseen. There were many ups and downs to making those films with long periods of no money stopping all work. This company wanted some names in their films. Sterling met Richard Hatch at a convention. Hatch liked the script, which at the time was about half written, and I think insisted on meeting me before agreeing to be in a film. Hatch also wanted to do his Battlestar trailer and wanted to learn how to do indie work. He, Richard, ended up using many of my guys to make his trailer and since he was the producer he didn't need Dave to produce. (Though he did us Johnnie Young who he felt and who did the real producing on Unseen and Iron Thunder-meaning the real day to day boots on the ground work that is what all producers were when the credit was created) I don't think Sterling ever forgave Richard or I for making the Battlestar trailer without him. It's a hazard to being a producer-you don't own the crews of actors you work with and other producers want to gobble you up and they can feel left out of left behind. "Hey, you got that job because you worked for me first!" It's one of the cold hard facts of life.

Q: I thought UNSEEN was quite well done, a good old-fashioned monster movie, and I enjoyed, IRON THUNDER, though it seemed over-ambitious, considering all the effects with the tank had to be miniatures...

Yeah, I like monster movies, but I always insist the monsters not just be dumb animals but have motivations and reasons for what they do. I guess I want them to be characters just like the humans in the films. I prefer horror films that have supernatural elements. Iron Thunder I'd say was equally inspired by Sam Fuller and Rod Serling, I still think it's one of my best scripts and is the type of Science Fiction film you just don't seen made very often. It was sold as an action film rather than confuse buyers who think, or who are assumed to think, that Science fiction means Darth Vader and space battles.

Unseen took nearly, maybe even more than, 3 years to get finished. It was a long rough ride to keep the faith in the film. Once it was done several people told me they were surprised at how well it turned out, as they didn't think much of it as we went along. That was the problem. There was no monster to see on set and we used a fair amount of hand held camera. From a distance the whole movie just looked like nothing. I knew it could be something but was the only one who could see the movie in his head and stuck it out through a fair amount of unpleasantness. It's always true that the director can be the only one who has any faith in the film because it is in his head, but on Unseen it was stuck up there for longer than in your usual film and the nature of an invisible monster movie and the years literally passing by...

It was worth sticking out but also I suppose was also kind of the last straw for me in some ways too.

As to Iron Thunder I'd always personally rather see a film, or I guess in this case, make a film that tries hard or too hard than one that doesn't try at all. When I see a film that runs 90 minutes or less it almost always has 6 to 8 minutes of credits or more. I know I've been duped as an audience member. 90 minutes is what is generally considered by buyers to be shortest length that a film can be and be considered a feature so the makers just padded out their credits since they couldn't be bothered to actually make a full feature's worth of movie. Most of these movies are really unwatchable at any length I will immediately admit.

IRON THUNDER was not in fact all miniatures. We built a full size tank top and turret. Some production scuffles resulted in the full-scale version not being used as much as we could have because no one would agree to drive the trunk to drive it up to the desert and pull it around. With reshooting, that never happened-and rarely does on low budget films, the miniatures could have been even better than they were. I know it seems old school now to use miniatures, but my question to you is are those miniatures really any worse or less convincing than the uneven and downright poor CGI tanks and monsters and spaceships that over populate too many low budget and high budget films now? Now we even get CGI blood and CGI gun blasts. Is there no end to it?

Ironically some of the best stuff in Iron Thunder the investors thought was so good that it must have been CGI. I said, no that shot's so good because we didn't use CGI.

By the time Unseen was finally being finished, Iron Thunder was done first though both films were in various stages of post production at the same time, there was a push to put more CGI into it than was originally intended. Again there are shots in there that could easily be fixed or should be tweaked but we were out of time and money. In fact one of the FX guy did extra shots for free, at my coaxing, to help fix up sections the distributor wanted worked on. I think some people who think the CG is bad in the film don't understand that the monster is supposed to always be translucent.

Fun fact: A film with lots of even bad CGI in it will be considered to be higher budget than one that does not have any.

Q: How was it working with Hatch? You went on to work on his BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: THE SECOND COMING. What do you think of Sci-Fi Channel's new Galactica series?

I enjoyed working with and getting to know Richard. I found he really wanted to play things he hadn't been allowed to when he was the "hunk of the month" during his early career. He did good work in both those films and I learned through getting to know him how to direct him well, if I can say that, too late I already did. People ask me, because of the Battlestar trailer, if I'm working on the new show. So far the answer to that is no though I have met with the producers. Oddly I also worked some with new show cast member, Tricia Helfer on a film that has yet to be made but was in pre-production. I may soon go to Canada to direct a film that has a number of crewmembers from the new show. Perhaps at some point I'll reach a critical mass moment and get to work on the show myself. I've liked what I've seen of the new show but have not been a regular viewer. I have a stack of them that I keep meaning to get around to watching but haven't. The trend with all TV nowadays is to have what amounts to almost one long continuing episode as a series, so I tend to not start something unless I've been in on it from the beginning.

By the way, there was criticism of the trailer we made (before it was actually finished and seen) as being a rogue idea and all of that. Other cast members of the original series didn't want to participate for fear it would ruin their chances of being in a new series of movie that was made. Please take note that the only original cast member to be on the new series is Hatch. The reason largely, the trailer we made. Here's another thing, several of our FX people on the trailer have major FX positions of the current series. They deserve to have the work, but do you think they directed those FX shots all by themselves in the trailer?

Q: What did you think of ALIEN 3000, the "sequel" to THE UNSEEN?

I was surprised at how much footage from Unseen ended up in the sequel. It's I think the only movie I've seen where a new actor has flashbacks to their character being played by another actor in a movie. Does this stuff even make sense if you haven't seen the first film? George Lazenby never had Sean Connery flashbacks in his Bond film, for example. My educated guess is that the type of problems that hindered my film completely attacked this one. The first film was less ambitious in scope and I think that helped make it more consistent than the sequel. I also think that UNSEEN is probably the best-acted film I've done and the acting in the sequel is all over the map. I turned down directing the sequel a number of times. I'd already spent 3 years trying to finish the first one and thought I'd already made my best Unseen film. The director Jeff Leroy though can always be counted on to do some, usually lots, or miniature explosions in his films and there are some good ones here. He did the best he could with the film.

Q: Tell us a Dave Sterling story... everyone who has worked with him always has some anecdote...

I went to a screening where someone asked the producer Max Rosenberg to talk about William Friedkin who had directed THE BIRTHDAY PARTY for him. Rosenberg said; "There are laws regarding libel and slander prevent me for saying anything about William Friedkin."

I don't know why I think of that in regards to your question. Dave is unstoppable however. On THINGS we had this shoot at a sort of nightclub near his apartment. He taped bands that played there and said he had something like 1,500 bands on tape. As a perk he got to watch the shows for free. His idea was that he'd sell the tapes to the bands, which occasionally worked out for him, people who liked the show could buy a tape of it or the band members themselves could. This was an idea he had before he started doing like 4 movies a year, which came about after Things got finished and did well. To this day he's still trying to figure out if he can get these band tapes released somehow. So he's tried all kinds of things, a good producer characteristic.

Anyway there was a high wall separating the parking lot from the complex of apartments where he lived. We'd shot most of the film in his one room apartment right there. It's really late at night and I'm in the parking lot and see this dark shape sort of slither over the wall and drop head first and awkwardly to the ground and into the bushes-though that description doesn't do the moment justice. A few seconds later, Dave emerges from the bushes. Rather than walk to the street to get to the club he went over the wall to get there. The makeup guy on the show, Mike Tristano, told me he was freaked out seeing Dave during this earlier in the evening and thought it was some creature but not a human being.

I will say that if you're new in LA, Dave is your guy to go to get a low low budget feature made and released. You'll learn a lot.

Q: You also tend to edit the movies you direct-do you prefer to do it this way or is it easier having someone else edit the film?

Though I have worked as an editor for others I'd rather not edit my own films. I have however a good relationship with Jon Ammon who has co-cut my last three films and that double team arrangement I find beneficial and would like that arrangement to continue. There is a thing in LA where the editor is allowed or expected to do an Editor's assembly of the film without the director even being involved. I've had poor results with this method. The problem is that the producers see this cut sometimes before you've even seen it. They decide then and there, in part, if the movie is good or not and if they decide the movie is a loser then there goes extra money you need for music etc. Also you then have to undo whatever assumptions the editor had on the material and some editors can get defensive about their solutions to the problems that arise when you cut stuff together. I know as an editor that you work hard to make some cut work, you finally do, and then the director comes in and says, Oh, we rewrote the whole scene and re-shot it don't cut that at all. You want to murder the world at moments like that.

I find this to be unhelpful. I prefer, as an editor or as a director working with an editor, to be there together as the first scenes are edited. After a few days of this type of interaction you find that you both know what kinds of cuts to make and which performance takes work for the common goal of this particular film. At that point you can leave the editor alone and most times what they come up with will be very close to the final version and to what you had in mind. I have cut my own films by myself and find the end results to be satisfactory, but mentally it can be tough to be alone in there with the material at first.

With non-linear editing the post production process can be so fast now that it is expected to be. So much rests on the editors now that used to be shared by many sound editors and FX people. It's now expected that the editing staff do these temp FX and matting and a very complicated "temp" mix. There's so little time left to actually edit the film that if your editor isn't in sync with you things will just never be right. If you are the editor or are there with them every day it's so important. I've had a few films cut or recut by others without me and those cuts are bad. I do shoot in a way that is also intended to be put together a certain way, partly because I can think as an editor, and if you put the set number of puzzle pieces together wrong you end up with pieces that don't fit and holes all over the place. It's important to be involved with the editing, even though as a director you are rarely paid to be there.

Q: You've composed music for a few Rolfe Kanefsky directed movies. How do you know Rolfe?

I met him through director Jeff Burr. Rolfe was looking in part to get distribution for his first film. I helped get it some screenings that helped lead to it getting distributed. It's nice when you can help someone else, since in life and in film you're always needing and rarely getting the type of help you need when you need it if ever! We became friends, as we were both, at the time, new to LA and trying to get started here. Later on he needed a James Bond type of song for a movie he was doing. I got inspired stayed up all night and wrote and sung one. He presented it to the producer and I got the job of scoring the whole film. I was doing five other things at the time and brought in a composer I'd met through Christopher Young named Chris Farrell to work with me. I've recently been too busy to work on Rolfe's last couple of films as a composer so Chris has done them. If all relationships in life worked out like this we'd all want to live forever.

Q: Your most recent movie is GHOST LAKE, which received a wide distribution through such chains as Blockbuster. It's different from some of your earlier films, probably more similar to BEYOND DREAM'S DOOR in that it's more of a character driven piece, not as "exploitive" as the Sterling produced movies. Is this more of the direction you are headed towards in future productions?

Thanks for noticing, though I don't know that the Sterling produced movies I did are necessarily typical of his output or that he is to be blamed or credited with what I'd guess are my "work for hire" jobs in general that I've had as director or writer or composer for a number of different producers. Exploitation is used to sell all movies and usually distorts what the movie is about; it's a function of marketing that sometimes, maybe even frequently, also affects what's in the actual film. More and more of the time, all movies are driven by what the market supposedly wants. In this past week, for example I've heard from two different distributors (one low budget one high budget) who regularly acquire or produce horror films that they now only want "torture" movies like Saw and Hostel. That is now what they think a horror film is. Even if you like these particular films, and I liked things about both of them, is that all you as an audience member want a horror film to be?

The films can get "dumbed" down or as Joe Dante says Pasteurized. Ghost Lake being self-generated and produced by my own company I formed with producer Johnnie Young, wasn't dumbed down or pasteurized as much because it was more or less created and finished and then sold.

The original title was THE EMPTY LAKE, that became GHOST LAKE, which is an example of what I'm saying can happen from the ground up on movies that have constant pressure and input from all sides. Given all this we should be surprised and grateful that anything made is ever any good rather than angry when they aren't.

Being that Ghost Lake is, I guess, striving to be something different and definitely something story driven, I suppose it could be said to be avoiding perhaps more commercial or exploitable elements. The bottom line is that it has done better than other, supposedly more exploitable movies I've done. That says something that I find encouraging.

I've been asked to do a sequel and wouldn't totally rule that out but certainly want to do something different first at least. I certainly try to make anything I do more character related. If the people are better the story will be better. That I think is true if you're making a sophisticated movie or if you're just showing the heads coming off as the blood spurts around.

Look I like all kinds of books, films, music and would like to be able to make anything I think it valid. Sometimes that might seem "artsy" sometimes more bloody. I'd like to make something that has worth when judged on merits that aren't all immediately put, or forced onto it, by what is the worth of a dollar someone will hopefully spend to buy it or watch it.

I always try to do something I haven't seen done to death already, and that I haven't already done to death, no matter what that is and would love to continue to make films, when they occur to me, that are more like Ghost Lake whatever those many elements may mean.

I think the best way to make films is to make the film, finish it to the best of your ability and fulfilling the goals you had in making it and then, and only then, taking it out to be "picked up" and distributed. That was the case with Ghost Lake and with Beyond Dream's Door. There was no release date hanging over the films until very late in the game. Ghost Lake actually had almost nothing, other than the title, changed for the distributor. Beyond Dream's Door, in the DVD version when it comes out, is also the way those of us who made the movie wanted and intended it to be. Ghost Lake's basic premise was conceived at the end of making Beyond Dream's Door so there are some specific counterpoints. Ghost Lake is my reaction to Beyond Dream's Door to talk about it in as few a words as possible.

You have to on some level keep connected to what is selling and more importantly make a good movie. You aren't just making movies for yourself to enjoy or understand; not with the large amounts of money even a small movie takes to make. Or if you want to make some film that will only appeal to people with three legs who speak Esperanto then great. You just have to make it on a budget small enough to at least return your, or your investor's, money. Why should you care about this? Because if you can at least get the money back or hopefully make a few dollars then you can make another film. The more films you make the better you will be as a filmmaker that's why.

Q: Do you have any upcoming projects we can look out for?

Ghost Lake's good release has lead to several offers to direct other people's material. It looks like the first of these will take me to Canada to make a film that is a very darkly funny film with a bizarre and horrific ending called A MILLION TO ONE.

I'm just finishing up producing a music video for a CD that's doing pretty well right now called Evil and Dangerous Men, from a song by Rick Moses. I came in and directed 15 minutes of reshooting for a film called THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE DRIVE. It's a horror film in which Lance Henrickson appears. It's based on a supposedly true like haunting of a house near where Sharon Tate and the rest were killed by Charlie Manson's family. I'm also just finishing up music on a new Jeff Leroy movie currently called ALIEN HOLOCAUST. I'm also in that film briefly playing a director who is like James Cameron.

I'm doing a short version of HAMLET that Bowling Green University in Ohio is helping to produce. It will be the first time I've gone back to Ohio to make a film since Beyond Dream's Door and is a project I'm doing with that film's lead actor, Nick Baldasare. It's almost a one-man show with manikins and surreal elements. I'm very much looking forward to that because as you can tell it's not something you certainly get to do every day.

There is also the very Lovecraftian film, DARK BETWEEN THE STARS, that almost happened a year ago that has Ken Foree, Aimee Brooks and Corin Nemic attached to it that may well get made.

All these have web sites you can look up to find out more about them and while I'm at it let me say to also check in at the YOUNG WOLF PRODUCTIONS.COM website to see what we come up with next on our own so to speak. I hope it will continue to be a busy year on all fronts.

And in parting, to come full circle, if you're a fan of Beyond Dream's Door contact the DVD distributor of your choice and tell them you want to see it released. I'm sure it will find a home, but every bit helps, every filmmaker will tell you that.

find information about Jay Woelfel at imdb.com find horror stuff by Jay Woelfel

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