Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and your company...
JEFF: I studied Film and Broadcast Communications at the University of Toledo in Ohio where I earned my Bachelor of Arts degree. From my college days to the present I have owned Rainstorm Productions. Originally I started Rainstorm with the intent of making movies. I knew at the time I could not afford to shoot on film, so I decided to utilize video. As a way to pay for college and a means to afford much bigger video equipment I started shooting weddings in the Detroit area. My business became very successful at this since we were employing filmmaking techniques to the wedding industry. The wedding gigs eventually lead to larger corporate and industrial clients. Upon graduation I found there was a steady list of clients for Rainstorm so I dedicated more time to expanding that business. Within a year or so we were tackling broadcast assignments and focusing mostly on commercials and infomercials. During this time I felt that I was losing focus on why I originally started the business. Coincidentally, Rainstorm had begun using high-end digital video and we had just installed an Avid Media Composer. However, I wanted to keep the broadcast business separate from my cinematic endeavors. After completing the first draft of the "13 Seconds" script, I formed an LLC with my business partner Greg LeCompte; the resulting business entity was Ravencroft Cinema Productions.
Q: Why did you decide to make a horror movie?
JEFF: The reason for deciding to make a horror movie was solely for two specific challenges.
Traditionally avant-garde, experimental, or offbeat dramatic films tend to be the rave at the most popular festivals, but these films seem to have no longevity. Often festival darlings fail or come up short at the box office. Horror movies, on the other hand, have loyal followers that often elevate certain quality movies to cult status, something that films in any other genre rarely achieve.
So, how does one attempt to make a quality horror movie? This is where I had to challenge myself with making a movie of substance and making a movie of style.
In preparing for the first challenge I realized a daunting fact: how does one stand side by side with many landmark and classic horror films? Compound this task with a limited budget that would be produced on independent means and this situation almost becomes more terrifying than any filmed horrors. However, this first challenge was not necessarily a budgetary one. I remembered back to my analog video editing days. There was a saying that said "garbage in, garbage out," meaning that every link in a chain must be of the highest quality. In the video business it meant if you started out with a lesser quality camera then your finished edited master would suffer as well. Movie making is a chain as well, with the first link being the most important. For horror films to succeed they must be subversive, entertaining, scary, and above all else, tell a compelling tale. The highest budget in the world cannot save a picture that fails to meet the aforementioned criteria. For me, writing, rewriting, and rewriting became mandatory in tackling this challenge of substance. Even though I did not have a major Hollywood budget, I wanted to compete with larger films in terms of storytelling.
With the narrative structure of "13 Seconds" in place, the next challenge was as equally steep. The next problem was quite simply, how do you tell a compelling story in a compelling fashion? In dramatic movies, directors point their cameras at their actors and the dialogue mostly propels the narrative. This may be a simplistic overview, but it does highlight what is essentially a situation that does pale in comparison to the issues facing a horror film director. Creating suspense, building tension, delivering scares, and completely creeping an audience out are large tasks indeed. Incorporating action scenes that propel the narrative without stopping it dead in its tracks complicates this matter even further. At this point, the issue of style is ever so important. Style directly effects everything at work within the frame and how that composition impacts the audience. Without style a film cannot have vision, and without vision a film is at best mediocre.
Q: The effects are pretty extensive and work quite well. What part of the budget went towards effects and how was it dealing with that end of things?
JEFF: Dealing with special effects was a grueling challenge, but it was a necessary evil. As with most horror movies, the special effects of "13 Seconds" played a crucial role. I have always been disappointed by films that are little more than elaborate showcases for special effects. I had much more in mind for "13 Seconds." Ideally, I relied on the effects for two purposes. First of all, the effects were integral to the narrative structure. To move from one plot point to the next, I employed action scenes that incorporated effects that would visually twist the audience around to keep them from guessing the surprise ending. The clues that hinted at the ending were often manifesting within effects sequences.
Secondly, as an issue of style, I relied on the effects to aid in the maintenance of atmosphere. From very early on, I always envisioned the effects to be very fast moving, realistic, and brutal; qualities that I hoped would be equal to the movie's overall tone. "13 Seconds" also needed a surreal, nightmarish quality that could uphold its narrative structure. The effects played into this notion, helping to establish a certain onscreen reality.
Due to the importance of the aforementioned issues, an ample portion of the movie's overall budget was allotted for special effects. For me, this was something I did not want to underbudget. Cheap effects meant a cheap movie. To heighten the impact of the ending, the entire tone, which is drastically aided by the effects, had to be relentlessly realistic. Hand in hand with this issue was the fact that "13 Seconds" was structured to work from visceral, violent shocks to more psychological, surreal terror. Because of this, it was important to start the movie with strong special effects that would effectively make the point that sometimes the most horrifying things are the most psychological and spiritual of issues.
Q: What of your influences are reflected in 13 SECONDS?
JEFF: Influences are always important in formulating a particular style and there are many in "13 Seconds." From director Steven Spielberg I learned that no matter what, filmmaking is storytelling. Even when we were spilling blood by the bucket loads I never lost sight of the fact that every scene works as a link to the story's conclusion. Without a story, there is no film. As I related earlier, movie making is essentially substance (the narrative) and style (how you tell the story). One director that heavily influenced me that is on the opposite end of the Spielbergian narrative spectrum is Dario Argento. Perhaps one of the modern cinema's greatest stylists, Argento is a master at the use of lighting, color, set design, and camera placement. Another director that heavily influenced me was Roger Corman. Corman always presented a good tale, told in an entertaining fashion with a decent hook or gimmick that never bored his audience. During every step of "13 Seconds" I never lost sight of the fact that this is entertainment, and should be as fast moving and fun for the audience as possible.
Q: In addition to directing you're also the lead character. Did you find it difficult to act and direct at the same time or did it make the production easier?
JEFF: Acting and directing is always a mixed blessing. It is great in a sense that you know for sure that your lead will always be there on time, prepared, and ready to go. Other actors often relate to you better as a director if they know you are an actor as well. I think both positions compliment each other perfectly and the two should be intertwined. On the other hand it is more work, more work, and more work. I couldn't tell you how much I appreciated showing up on-set or on-location without make-up and costume. No matter what though, I enjoy doing both. As a writer, I see it as a natural extension to direct. And as a director, I see it as a natural extension to act.
Q: How did you get your cast and crew.
JEFF: Having been involved in video production for so long allowed me to become aquatinted with numerous individuals that were interested in movie making. Many of the cast I had worked with before on commercials in the Detroit area. The crew was composed of many people that had worked in that capacity with me on other shoots. One of the movie's biggest assets was Rob Miller of Malefactor Studios EFX. Rob is an award winning master sculptor that has had his work prominently featured in Amazing Figure Magazine and on-line at Gremlins in the Garage. His work has also been on nationally syndicated television. Fortunately, Rob is also a childhood friend of mine. From as early as I can recall, the two of us have always wanted to make movies and collaborating on "13 Seconds" finally fulfilled that.
Q: How long did 13 SECONDS take to complete, from when you were first making it until you finished editing it.
JEFF: "13 Seconds" had a very interesting arc in terms of production. The female lead of Kara was almost impossible to cast. Before finding April Cole who ultimately played the role, we had four other actresses who did not work out. This was tough since much of our shooting was on-location and we had to re-rent and go back and re-shoot everything on each location after one actress would leave. It will make a great feature on the DVD though: pick your favorite Kara. However, once all casting was permanently in place shooting took one year. Post-production editing, adr, scoring and everything else added an additional six months.
Movie making is definitely an arduous process that ultimately culminates in other individuals deciding whether you were successful or not in meeting your challenges. I think "13 Seconds" succeeds in telling a good story in an entertaining, scary, and stylish fashion. But, I challenge you to find out for yourself.