An Interview with Dan Donley – By Emily Intravia

Dan Donley has been working behind the camera for over twenty years, building a long resume in the commercial, film, broadcast television and corporate production industries. He made his first feature length film in 2005 with the award winning SHADOWS and now, his psychologically twisted genre film SHELLTER is earning strong reviews and festival buzz for its brutal blend of grisly horror and unique black humor.

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EI: I imagine SHELLTER is heavily inspired by the controversial psychological experiments conducted by Stanley Milgrim. What about those cases did you want to explore in a horror film?

DD: I was a psychology major in college and was always fascinated by the Milgram experiments which were conducted at Yale in the 1960’s.  In this study, Stanley Milgram tried to determine how the Nazis were able to get ordinary people to do horrific things during the Holocaust.  Test subjects volunteered for a psychology experiment about memory, were paired up, and then randomly chosen to be either the Teacher or the Learner.  In actuality, the choice was rigged and the Learner was one of the experimenters, who was wired to a box that delivered electric shocks. The Teacher, the real test subject, was instructed to increasingly shock the Learner for every wrong answer.  The shocking machine was labeled from 1 to 10, mild to lethal.  It was postulated that maybe 1% of the population was sadistic enough to torture and kill another person but the results surprised everyone.  Not only did most of these ordinary people shock the Learner to levels of screaming pain, but a full two-thirds of the test subjects shocked the Learner all the way to the lethal end.  While many people were ‘shocked’ with the results of the experiment, it helped explain the behavior of both the German prison guards and the Sondercommandos, the Jewish workers in the concentration camps.  It’s too easy to condemn their actions and say you would never do such terrible things.  It’s very different to actually be in that situation and have to choose between your morals or death.  That’s the choice the main character and the viewer have to make: How far would you go to stay alive?

EI: Do you think your background in psychology affects the way you approach filmmaking?

DD: I suppose if you spend 6 years in college studying anything subject it effects how you do everything.  But I really don’t think so.  I think it effected the writing more.

EI: Aside from Milgrim, did you base William David Tulin’s doctor character on any other historical or current figure?

DD: My other big influence for SHELLTER was the Stanford Prison experiment, to understand how people react in captivity and to help pick wardrobe for the film. The prisoners wore smocks like patient gowns while the Guards had uniforms of authority, like the Doctor’s smock and the Nurse’s uniforms.

As for a specific person. I always had John Jamelske in the back of my mind when writing the Doctor. You think a guy like this is pretty sick and then you read about someone like Josef Fritzl and you realize SHELLTER is practically a children’s fairly tale. If you put the stuff Josef did in a script no one would buy the premise.

EI: When you’re writing a script that you know you yourself will be making on a limited budget, do you find yourself having to edit the scope based on what you know is realistic to shoot?

DD: In a word, yes. I think it’s a mistake to try and make a high-budget script into a low-budget film. I think you can make a better film if you try and stay within your budget.  I had the Milgram experiment rolling around in my head when I did a commercial shoot on a stage with standing medical sets. I wrote the screenplay with that set in mind.  Of course, it was over a year until I was ready to shoot and I was pleasantly surprised to find the sets were still available. What was a bigger surprise was I found that my recollections of the space were different from the actual sets.  I thought about building my own sets at that point. I think it would have been a little cheaper to construct my own in a warehouse but it was definitely less work to walk into a soundproof studio with all the set dressing and props already on set. We brought in some of our own set dressing and props.  We built a wall to close off the entrance to the studio and made the lobby the Doctor’s office. Next to the medical hallway was a police squad room set. We got rid of the desks, covered the windows with duvatine and that became the operating room.

EI: You are credited as the writer, director, and cinematographer for SHELLTER. How difficult is it to wear so many different hats during production? Do you think of the different responsibilities in tandem or as completely separate duties?

DD: They are separate duties but sometimes it’s simpler to be both Director and the DP.  I think the job of writer is really done when you walk on set. It’s really in the actor’s hands at that point. They have to say the lines and make it work. Although we did re-write some scenes while shooting I think of that more as a collaboration between the director and the actors.  In some ways it’s easier to be both Director and DP because when I block a scene I’m always thinking about where the actors should stand for light.  Before the shoot, we had a prep day where we set the basic down lighting and during the shoot we kicked and keyed with a couple of 1×1 Lightpanels, white cards and blacks for negative fill.  I wanted the lighting to feel very reel. Like the soundtrack, where I didn’t want any music, I didn’t want anything to look lit so it was pretty simple.  What gets complicated is I also operated. Because I’m trying to look at performance, lighting and framing all at the same time while watching for focus, boom shadows and cables in the frame, it’s hard to be Director, DP and operator.  Operating also means I never get to watch the monitor so I rely on people in video village to keep me honest. I’m an operator by trade and to me going hand held with the actors is the purest form of filmmaking. I really feel part of the process, not just documenting something.  One of these days I’m going to have to get the camera off my shoulder and just stand back and watch but that will be with a different type of film.

EI: SHELLTER is such a dark tale, but there are quite a few moments of dark comedy. Were these part of your original screenplay, or did they become more necessary during filming?

DD: I can’t help myself, I’ve got to put in stuff that makes me laugh. What’s embarrassing is there are parts of SHELLTER I laugh all the way through!  I guess the peeing scene is typical. There’s a closed water system in the shelter and Cari is drinking yellow water while Will urinates in the background.  Of course, on set he wasn’t peeing, just standing there so I had to put in the SFX. At first I had him peeing in stops and starts, which was really hilarious. I left a little of that in.  I wrote it as a little break from the horror but in post it seemed out of place, didn’t develop the story and took me out of the movie. I don’t think that scene played at any of the film festivals.  When I went to finalize the film I was going through deleted scenes for the DVD and came across the peeing scene and put it back in. It’s not needed but after watching audiences watch the film it seemed people needed the break.  I’m still not sure if I should have left it in. Audiences react to the film differently. The audience at SHOCKERFEST actually laughed out loud several times in all the right places… and a couple of places not so right! But with most audiences there is little if any laughter. SHELLTER’s pretty serious, pretty intense.

EI: The ‘shelter’ of SHELLTER has such a horrifically cold atmosphere. I can practically hear those fluorescent lights buzzing! How did you go about creating that sort of dirty hospital setting?

DD: You can hear the lights buzzing! You’ve probably realized that there is no music in SHELLTER, except maybe for that irritating “tink, tink, tink” sound. That’s as close to music as it gets.  Instead, I just wanted to build up layers of sound effects. Each room in the shelter has its own base of sound effects and buzzing was definitely one of the layers in a couple of the rooms.  Like I said, we did have a prep day on stage before the shoot began which we used to “dirty” the place. We used sprayers to create blood splats on the walls and messes on the counters. Our Art Director spent days pickling meat in jars and hoping they didn’t explode during the shoot.  And as we shot we left the blood and guts where it hit the walls.

EI: You have quite a game and talented cast that seemed to really attack the material with interesting energy. How did you direct your lead actors to approach their roles? Was there a lot of rehearsal or research done on their parts?

DD: I believe you write with a certain image of the character in your head and then you cast what best fits that image. Sometimes that doesn’t work out for the better.  When I was writing SHELLTER I always pictured the Doctor as an older, more kindly looking gentleman. When Will Tulin came in to audition I thought he was much too young but as soon as he started to say the lines I knew Will was the Doctor.  I don’t audition actors one at a time. On the contrary, I like to get everyone in the room watching each other’s performances. And I always try to audition people who are playing opposite parts together to see how different actors interact.  Later during callbacks I’ll mix and match the actors to see how they play specifically against each other. For example, if two actors are supposed to be boyfriend/girlfriend I want to see if they have that chemistry/naturalness/ease that real couples have.  By the end of callbacks I think the actors have a pretty good idea of what I’m looking for and what their character is all about.  Once I cast I really feel the actors become the characters. I invite them to read the script and suggest any script changes BEFORE shooting begins. Then, I usually like to have a big table read with everyone but that wasn’t the case with SHELLTER just because of the nature of the script.  After the callbacks I was confident that Cari and Will were ready with their characters, but I know they got together on their own to rehearse.  Once on set, I let the actors go through the scene to see what they come up with naturally. It always amazes me how they usually stick very close to the script and tend to find places and stand there.  From there, I’ll start to block and give notes on performance and then we shoot.

EI: Because of its claustrophobic feel, SHELLTER seems like a film that works so well regardless of its budget. How do you think the film would have been different if you were working with a studio and larger budget?

DD: Well, the usual things you think of: Name stars, better and more effects, sets built to order (I wish the lab set had been six feet longer), a writer to polish the script!  And speaking of effects, everything you see in the film was there on set. There aren’t any computer effects, I wanted everything to look organic.  But what money really buys is time. SHELLTER was shot in 10 days and only 7 of those days were on the fallout shelter set. That means we shot the first 12-13 minutes of the film on the first day.  The first day the cast put on wardrobe, walked the sets and rehearsed together. It was the day we set the look and tone of the film and we had to figure several major effects.  As a director, I’m proud to say everyday was scheduled as a ten-hour day and we only went into one hour of OT twice. And the last day we were done an hour early!  The speed at which we were able to work says something about how prepared the cast and crew were. The first day we were discovering the process but by day 3 we were really clicking.  The money would have given me extra time on that first fragile day and more time and people for the stunt scenes.  Except for the last fight, I didn’t want them to look staged. I just wanted a tussle, wrestling around like people really fight, not like in movies. But with more money I could have spent a half day on the early fight scenes with a stunt coordinator instead blowing through them in 12 minutes. That’s the kind of stuff money buys in this type of film.

EI: SHELLTER probably receives some very intense reactions from different audiences. Has there been any feedback that really surprised you?

DD: I made this film for horror fans and I’ve been surprised how much SHELLTER challenges even hard core horror fans.  I’ve had more than one person tell me they had to leave the theater/room just to get a break. They tell me that this is not a bad thing and that it’s been a long time since something has affected them as much. SHELLTER is not a film you “enjoy” as much as “experience”.

EI: What are some of the films and filmmakers that have influenced your work?

DD: I know what my favorite films and filmmakers are but I think what influenced SHELLTER the most is the old “Twilight Zone” TV show and “Outer Limits”, only SHELLTER is just a wee bit more intense.

EI: Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

DD: Yes, I’m working to recoup the budget money for SHELLTER and SHADOWS so please support independent filmmaking and buy the DVD or download the films here or here, and SHADOWS here.  And I’m also working on getting a 1000 friends on my Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/danthecameraman and 1000 Likes on the SHELLTER page at http://www.facebook.com/shellter.  When that happens, I’ll have the fan base to start the next film, which is a vampire film, of sorts. If you’ve seen SHELLTER then you know it won’t be TWILIGHT!