Q: What would you say was the most influential thing that made you want to make independent horror movies?
That's a difficult question to answer because I don't think there is any one reason I could give. Movies in and of themselves were my first love-all types, budgets and genres. It was this love that took me to film school and kept me there even when the technical aspects of filmmaking frustrated me beyond description. I was starting my senior year at Pittsburgh Filmmakers when the world fell in love with both Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. Every other student was writing and shooting either a violent hit man comedy or an improvisational and raunchy "slice of life". I realized that I wanted to do anything other than one of those, so ended up shooting an homage-cum-rip-off of Robert Wise's The Haunting that I titled Tenants. It was also the first "real" production Amy Lynn Best and I had produced together.
A few months after I graduated, I started submitting the short to festivals and one of the first to give it any sort of attention was Ron Bonk's B-Movie Film Festival and he ended up choosing the movie for an anthology he was putting together. Through Ron I met a huge variety of independent filmmakers whose works I was only tenuously familiar-since the wild-and-wooly internet was still in moderate infancy-like Mr. Lindenmuth (whose Addicted to Murder was a big influence on our first feature), Scooter McCrae (Shatter Dead), JR Bookwalter (The Dead Next Door), Mike Legge (Cutthroats), and a vast number of others.
Around this time, Amy and our partner and effects artist, Bill Homan, were going back and forth over our so-called future. A lot of my classmates were making the move out to L.A. and just as quickly returning with only a couple of P.A. credits to their name. I had no interest in getting coffee for someone slightly higher on the ladder on a movie I couldn't care less about and just feeding the Hollywood machine. The mid- to late-90s was the "Era of the Independent". Pittsburgh was riding the success of movies shot in the city like Silence of the Lambs and Sudden Death, hoping to become "Hollywood on the Mon" (i.e. the Monongahela River). It seemed like a ridiculous idea to move to the other side of the country to become a cog. We returned to Pittsburgh Filmmakers, got a membership, which got us access to all of their 16mm film equipment, and with the support of all of the above and, especially, Debbie Rochon, we started production on our own feature film, a horror-mystery called (then) Necromaniac (later The Resurrection Game). Ten years later, I'm still refining it-the adventure of finishing this thing is a movie in and of itself-but we had complete control over the project. We called the shots and we won or lost based on the decisions we made. We weren't at the mercy of anyone else. I still think it was the perfect choice for us.
And for the last ten years, we've met hundreds of other indie filmmakers who made the same decision and battled the same problems of budget, distribution, crazy fans and loud-mouthed critics. And while few of us are household names today, we're still making the movies we want to make for a core network of people who want to see them. It's still-and probably should be-underground but it's usually very satisfying. That's not rationalization; it's honesty.
Q: I really enjoyed SPLATTER MOVIE. I tend to hate "making a movie within making a movie" films but it was surprising, entertaining and had a great payoff. How did you come up with that premise?
Amy was invited to co-direct a horror short with Devi Snively (Raven Gets a Life) and Jane Rose (Heading Home) called I Spit on Eli Roth. Devi had made the acquaintance of an effects artist named Midian Crosby who landed the Hundred Acres Manor haunted attraction in South Park, PA, for the location. On the first day of shooting, Amy and I wound up arriving earlier than the rest of the cast and crew and got to wander around the place by ourselves for about an hour or so, creeping ourselves out by touring a mile-long haunted house in virtual darkness. We both decided on the spot that we wanted to shoot something there ourselves.
A slasher movie was the obvious choice, but we'd made a slasher parody in '96 called Severe Injuries and didn't particularly want to repeat ourselves. But we were also doing a lot of essays and interviews about the world of independent, low budget horror and thought it would be fun to sort of explore that world as well. But we're also not that fond of movie-within-a-movie clichés, and realized doing so might force us into a Blair Witch box. Still, the ideas were swirling and I just started banging out the script one afternoon. What came out was the mirror-within-a-mirror structure of a film crew shooting a movie about a film crew shooting a movie, etc., and the actual film would be the DVD documentary. Things sliding in and out of reality and into "filmic reality" actually came as a surprise during the writing process and I liked playing with those scenes. The payoff came during casting-I didn't have an ending when we started selecting our cast and things clicked into place after the first couple of "yes" answers. Debbie agreed to appear without seeing a single page of the script, largely because she's become one of our best friends since we've never abandoned her or allowed her to be seriously injured on a set. The mixture of meta-fiction and straight-forward, non-fancy style really appealed to us and helped us make something done a thousand times before very much our own.
Shooting, however, took its own set of left turns as the haunt was under construction for the upcoming season, so we'd shoot in a room on Saturday and return Sunday to discover that room either remodeled or, in one case, removed by the crew overnight. That made for a lot of thinking on our feet, reordering or ad libbing some scenes, rewriting on the fly, etc. But it all served to strengthen the story we were trying to tell, sometimes in very surprising ways.
Q: I also thought the casting was right on, particularly Tom Sullivan as one of the "real life" people involved in the movie. How do you go about getting your cast?
My friend Bill Hahner once asked me the same thing. For one scene in Severe Injuries, Bill was on all fours, in his boxer shorts, while Lilith Stabs rested her feet on his back. "How do you do this?" he asked both Amy and me. "How do you get your friends to drive an hour to do these ridiculous things for your movies?" And the truth is: we have no idea. All we usually do is ask. If the actor quotes us a price, we try to meet their requirements. In any event, we treat all of our performers like family and, most importantly, we feed our crew. Feeding your crew goes a long way, especially if you're only paying expenses (or not even that). We don't yell or scream at people-you have no right if they're working for you as a favor. Casting has gotten easier over the years because we've built up a reputation as honest people who run easy-going sets. But even at the beginning, it was usually just a matter of asking. Sometimes you have to put casting notices in local papers (which are generally free-Craig's List has made that much easier), but that often leads to the ever-painful audition process. Fortunately, we have a lot of other local filmmakers who love auditioning people, so sometimes we can sit in on those and swipe head shots. That makes things a lot easier, especially if the actors don't know they're auditioning for two sets of producers.
Over the years, though, we've assembled a large and very talented family who can step in and assume a variety of roles. If you look at the main actors in both A Feast of Flesh and our upcoming Demon Divas and the Lanes of Damnation, you'll see them playing very different characters and excelling in both films. One of the best things about the independent film world is there is no shortage of talent. You just have to base your decisions on who is best for the role, rather than who would bring the most star power to the film.
Q: You've written eight movies since your first, RESURRECTION GAME. How different is it writing something that you'll know you'll produce as opposed to something you're writing for someone else (DEAD MEN WALKING, THE SCREENING)
Both Dead Men Walking and The Screening were huge lessons for me. I pitched Dead Men Walking to the Asylum with a single sentence "zombies in a prison". I was bullshitting through an email session and I came up with the idea on the fly. I didn't have a script or even a premise for it beyond the slug. Of course, that's the one they wanted to see. I banged out the first draft in three days, and three more drafts over the course of a couple of months, trying to adhere to their notes and changes, while still trying to keep it in line with the range of what I knew their budgets were and how far those budgets went in California. At one point they wanted a "big ending". So I wrote in a scene where the military blows up the prison at the end. And up until shooting time, that was the ending they were going to use. While this wasn't my first work-for-hire script, it was the first one that, ultimately, would get made.
However, because we moved from script to production so quickly, I fooled myself into thinking that the script I wrote would be the movie that got made. I never once considered the idea that the director would do his own "polish" on the script in one night, changing set pieces, the ending, etc. The night before shooting was to commence, the producer called me to ask if I'd mind sharing screenwriting credit with the director, who felt entitled to that credit as well considering all the work he'd done. I asked to see the shooting script and was outraged to see all the changes-my heroine was now no longer the prison psychologist but was now a CDC agent responsible for the zombie MacGuffin virus; my weak-willed Chicano gang-banger anti-hero was now a wise-cracking cat burglar. Most egregious of all, to my mind, was that he changed the manner of the disease transference (prison rape), which was the only innovation I felt I'd actually brought to the admittedly dumb story. But because this was my first work-for-hire to be produced, the egotistical anger I felt was righteous and entitled and I refused to share the credit. As it turns out, the producer didn't care one way or another and when the movie shows up on the Sci-Fi Channel, my name is the only one listed under "Written by". So anything I don't like about the movie is now, by virtue of that credit, is my fault. I had forgotten the public movie-going rule: "If the movie is a success, it's to the director's credit; if it fails, it's the screenwriter's fault". My egotistical outburst also cost me any opportunity to work with the company again in the future. The movie isn't bad by any means, it just wasn't the movie I'd written. I'd forgotten William Goldman's axioms: "Nobody knows anything" and "The Writer will always be unhappy". I took the money, I had no right to bitch.
Around this time, I was starting work on The Screening, which at the time was called 24 Frames per Slaughter and was being written in mind for a very low budget. I was still stinging at the Dead Men Walking changes-how dare they anyway??-and went into this project thinking, "these guys are all my friends. This will be just like running our own show." Which, of course, was another bout of idiocy on my part because, frankly, I wasn't producing, I wasn't directing, I was making none of the choices in the production and the guys running the show were too nice to tell me to shut up and back down. Unfortunately, they were also too busy to really discuss what movie they wanted to make. I did five drafts of what I thought would make a good movie, but as their budget and resources grew, they realized, particularly the director, that they wanted to make something entirely different. Again, when Cameron Romero did his director's polish, he changed a great deal, shifting characters and even characters' names around, to sculpt it into the movie he thought would make for better viewing. And, once again, I lost my shit, got into a screaming match with a guy who had been a friend to me and to whom I'd been a friend, and we ended up falling out completely. The filming of The Screening turned out to be a learning experience for a lot of people, cast and crew and executives, one that broke up more friendships than just mine and Cameron's. But sometimes that happens.
What I've taken away from all of this, and it's something I have tried to keep in mind, though old habits are hard to break, is that making movies at any level is next to impossible. The more egos you have clashing behind the scenes, the closer the movie gets to "completely impossible". I've also learned that communication is essential and that it will invariably break down the closer you get to production. If you have any issues with your actors, your execs, your writers, your directors, whoever, iron them the fuck out before you get to set. I've seen actors and crew fired in the worst possible way in the middle of production-I've even been one of those people- causing headaches and bad feelings all around. Making movies, particularly at the no- to low-budget level, should be a fun experience. Back-breaking work, but, in the end, enjoyable, or why the hell do it? When they say "leave your ego at the door", seriously and by all means do it. Because, ultimately, it's just a movie. Come the apocalypse, the chances are remote that the cockroaches will be erecting a statue in your honor because of a zombie movie you wrote/directed/produced/whatever. Sometimes the biggest success is emerging from a production with your sanity and your friendships intact. You can avoid losing friends/time/money by just forcing your ego shut up.
And for other writers out there about to make the same mistakes, here's one more William Goldman rule: "The writer always gets fired." There's no shame in it. In the end, you're just fueling the vehicle; the director and producer decide the make and model.
Q: Your wife, Amy Lynn Best, directs the movies. Husband/wife teams can be a tricky thing, so how do you two make it work?
The last couple of productions, we've been alternating between directing and producing, trying to emulate the dynamic of the Coen Brothers. She's a million times better at working with actors while I'm far more interested in the script and working with the crew. We split the duties of composition and blocking-I almost always defer to her, even when I'm directing, because she usually has a better eye for that sort of thing. It's not always perfect-we get tired and angry and sometimes the "marriage" winds up on set, but we do our best to keep our own tension away from the cast. But when it comes right down to it, Amy makes it happen. I write the script and figure out cool things to do, but she figures out where to get the money, how to schedule, when to bring in who and for how much. When her name is under "Producer", she's earned every letter of that credit. I can't even pretend I do a tenth of the pre-production work she does. She's even her own A.D. on set because it's usually quicker for her to do what she needs to be done rather than try to explain it to someone else. We've never been able to hire a professional Assistant Director, so we tag team each other and things tend to get done. It leads to a lot of running around back and forth-which really sucks when you're also acting-but it's the best way we've found so far. Again, working with a lot of "family" helps, too, because even the actors will anticipate our needs. Cast will schlep cable without being asked, crew will take extra roles to fill the frame. The "multiple hats" cliché is always in full force and very seldom will anyone grumble or bitch. Well, I will, but that's another of the hats I wear: "bastard".
Q: If there was something that you could write, that was not limited by any sort of budget, what would it be?
Actually, I already wrote it. A few years ago, we had a producer lined up to finance a mid-five figure, multi-character epic called Doomtown, which was to be a Lovecraftian comedy with a number of mid-level A-minus list actors, a lot of names in the horror community. The producer, of course, turned out to be a fraud and the back-up plans fell through as well. My dream of a light-hearted Nightbreed that begins with the end of the world fizzled away almost overnight.
Q: Which do you prefer-- writing, editing or producing?
In all honesty, I prefer writing first then editing second. I dislike virtually everything about actual production. Amy loves production and seems to jones for it after a while, but I can't wait to finish up so I can start putting all the pieces together. I'm really the only one who can tolerate my company 24/7, so maybe that's why I prefer the solitary aspects of scripting and editing. Producing I'm nearly worthless at, as I explained above. But I love the act of creating the story and I love the process of sculpting it frame by frame afterwards. The two processes are tactile to me. Everything in between is just stress and work and commitment and fear of disappointing everyone helping us.
Q: What is the weirdest/most surreal thing that ever happened on a set you were on?
Two instances come to mind. On one of our first shooting days for The Resurrection Game, a dozen of us took a trip to a private cemetery in Moraine State Park to do a satirical zombie-themed commercial. The entire crew, including Amy and I, wound up as zombies in the scene by the end of the shoot to pad it out and all of a sudden a car-load of teenagers drove up. Every single one of us is covered in blood and make-up, Don Yockey has a knife sticking out of his chest and the kids don't bat an eye. "We heard this place was haunted," one said. "Did you see any ghosts? We wanna see some ghosts." They never once asked us what we were doing or why we were there. They were far more interested in seeing ghosts. On a bright sunny day.
The second thing that pops into my head happened on Demon Divas, and it was something along the same lines. We're shooting in the Halls' gorgeous bowling alley, in between the "strip bowling" scene and the Divas' Demonic reveal: Tabatha, Tara and Rachelle are in their underwear, Amy, Brinke, Debbie, Robin and Lilith all have horns and veiny arms, the Halls are running around trying to get food ready to feed us, and in walks a mother and her two kids-13-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son, ignoring the "Closed For Filming" sign on the door. They stride right up to the counter and demand to book their son's birthday party, in September, at that very moment. Bob Hall, who has a real "give a shit" attitude, shrugs, opens his appointment book, asks a half-clad Rachelle to grab a pen from the other counter for him, then proceeds to fill the woman's request. Again, never once do they ask what's happening, but the woman seems completely appalled that these were the types of people Bob and Sandy let into their bowling alley-strippers and demons, the nerve!
A runner up is another Res Game story. A den mother for a local Girl Scout troop saw an interview with Amy in the paper and asked if the girls could visit our set one day, for an "arts" merit badge. Amy arranged for them all-girls and mothers-to play zombies in one of the opening scenes. That's what I was talking about when it comes to Amy and producing. It wouldn't have even occurred to me to do something that ballsy. (And the girls made it into the final cut, too!)
Q: On the imdb.com you are listed as Mike Watt 1 (of 5). How did you manage that?
Well, now that I revisit it, I see that both (I) and (IV) are both me for some reason. (IV) is just special thanks for Project: Valkyrie, which I helped promote, and Live and Let Die, which … I didn't do anything on save not physically hindering Justin Channell from making it, I guess. As far as being number one on the list, we created our IMDb pages in 1998, back when it was more or less fanatic-run and they didn't care if your movie was reviewed, in production, could be seen, bought, or ignored. It was just a matter of trying to take advantage of any free resource we could. We also had early Wikipedia entries, thanks to a friend in the industry, but they were deleted somewhere along the line (a long story in and of itself). If you notice, however, on my primary IMDb page, the photos at the top are of the more famous Mike Watt, the bassist. Neither of us have ever been able to get them taken down, so we endure.
Q: What's next on the production slate?
I'm wrapping up the final edit of Demon Divas and the Lanes of Damnation, a fun little '80s throwback starring Amy, Brinke Stevens, Debbie, Robyn Griggs and Lilith Stabs, set in a bowling alley. I just got the final score from Mars of Deadhouse Music, but I have a lot of audio replacement ahead of me due to some technical difficulties on set. This was the ultimate family film and every single person involved is to be thanked for bringing it to life in just six days-not only the above but Nikki McCrae, Sofiya Smirnova, Aaron Bernard, Henrique Couto, Gary Ashley, Rachelle Williams, Stephanie Bertoni, Jeff Waltrowski, Tabatha Carrick, Michael Barton, the guys at DiggerFilm in Montreal (Steve, Simon and Hugo) for all the production work, Lorena Cintron, Eric Molinaris and his platoon of effects students and especially Bob and Sandy Hall, owners of King Lanes in Kittanning, and Tara and David Cooper, who became producers on the very first day of production.
We're gearing up to shoot a straight, non-horror comedy currently titled Exit Stage Left this summer, but the economy and our current job situations will determine whether that will come to light sooner or later. We just need a break from special effects for a while, particularly because our lead Eric Molinaris found more work in Atlanta and Don Bumgarner is busy with his own projects in PA. Still, we hope to accomplish something this year.
Q: How can people contact you/check on the movies?
The usual ways: happycloudpictures.com, amylynnbest.net and mike-watt.net - we also have individual Myspace and Facebook pages. I have a couple of books available on Amazon.com (including the Splatter Movie Illustrated Screenplay). Two anthologies we contributed to, Brinke's Tales of Horror and Countess Bathoria's Graveyard Tales should be available soon. And, of course, Sirens of Cinema Magazine should have a special issue or two coming out this year as well. We're really, really hard to avoid. You actually have to work hard to not find us these days.