Tartarus is a kind of a change of direction for you as it was considerably more serious and psychological than your previous films. What was it like for you to make this change and how satisfied were you with the final product?
I can see how this appears as a change in direction, but really, all these ideas and films are floating around in the ether of my mind, and I just happened to pull this one down. You’re right, the tone and feel of “Tartarus” is different than what I’ve done before, but shifting into that frame of mind to film this required no conscious changes. I’m very satisfied with the results. I would have liked to have spent another year shooting and re-shooting, but that’s not practical, and it also doesn’t fit with my goals. So I have to let the film go and live it’s own life.
Juan Fernandez did a really great job in the lead role as a scumbag who really didn’t care about anyone or anything but himself. Where’d you find him and will you be working with him again in future projects?
I met Juan when I was casting for “Suburban Sasquatch”. Juan played the role of Steve Parker in that film, and the day we were shooting a scene where Bigfoot attacks him in the police car I thought, man, this guy is really good – I mean, he picks up the cues and really knows what I want out of a scene without me having to over-explain it, and he hits the mark well. Right then I knew he’d be in my next project, no matter what it was. I discussed the idea about “Tartarus” with him right after “Suburban Sasquatch” premiered and he was really gung-ho about it. That gave me a big advantage in writing the film – I knew what he could pull off in terms of believability and emoting, and the fact that he’s so willing to go that extra length was what allowed me to write a lot more freely for this film. Mary and I joke around that as wild as we can write it, “Juan will do it!” That is, no matter how outrageous the scene or action is, I can always rely on having Juan there to act it out! There’s a lot of flexibility in that. That allows me as both a writer and director to get the most I can out of my vision. As far as future plans for Juan, you’ll see him in “Zombies By Design” doing more outrageous stunts. He’s an excellent actor, and I really see good things for him, so I think the question should be “will Juan work with ME again in the future?” We’ve made a deal that whoever makes it “big” first has to bring the other one along!
There were a few new faces in Tartarus. Who were these people and where did you find them? Were they just friends of yours or did you actually do a casting for the roles?
The casting was no more extensive than for my last movie. While its nice and fun to bring friends and family into the films, I also gain a lot as a filmmaker when I bring in new people. It challenges me, and I learn in the process. Lori McKeown (Johns wife in “Tartarus”) was in “Suburban Sasquatch” briefly as a homeowner whose house is wrecked by Bigfoot. She was more than eager to jump into this role and did a great job. Sarah Lakshmi is new to acting, and had a great look and feel about her that we thought really captured the character. And let me tell you that was not an easy roll to play! Michelle Hanna was also seen in “Suburban Sasquatch” as a wife to the police chief, and “Tartarus” was a bigger role this time around. You’ll see Michelle in a much bigger role in the upcoming “Zombies By Design”. Actors interested in indie films are around everywhere, and the net is a good resource as well as local colleges. There are several on-line groups also for posting for submissions that you can find with easy searches.
You yourself had a considerably large role in this film as the guy in charge of the souls in Tartarus, and also as a cop in one of the scenes. How do you feel you do as an actor, and do you enjoy doing it?
I’ll admit there are times I enjoy doing the acting but for the most part it really doesn’t appeal to me. I would much rather be behind the camera, making artistic decisions. The advantage of me playing the role, however, is that I can get as close as possible to what I see for the character. Every actor will interpret a line, or story, or scene, and portray it in the manner they see fit. For me, I can manifest the exact essence of what I envisioned, regardless of what I even wrote for the script. As far as this particular role went, it’s always a blast working with Dave Weldon and Juan, and let me say there was a lot of laughter when we were shooting some of these scenes! As far as how good my acting skills are? Well, I’d say they are adequate. If I thought I would do a bad job I would have held up the film until I found someone else who could do better. The ultimate goal is that the film shouldn’t suffer as a result.
In Tartarus there’s a "torture table", for lack of a better word, where the main character is often strapped down and probed and tortured on it. It looks like a normal table that was spray foamed and painted. My question is, how did the table hold up during filming with all the abuse it got? Did you have to keep fixing it up or did the spray foam work out pretty well?
That thing was heavy. Don’t let me fool you – it was a thick wood table with a ceramic top, and lugging it around to the different locations was quite a bit of an effort! It held up surprisingly well considering Juan was basically doing backflips on the thing! When we had to start re-shoots and additional production I was really worried that it would collapse or wouldn’t make it but we had it go all the way through. Taking it in and out of the car would occasionally rip off pieces of the foam and some of the silicone, but that was the only damage that occurred, and it didn’t require any fixing up during shooting. Paint flecks were perpetually stuck to Juans back so I had to shoot around that for some shots! The construction took about 3 weeks, and it was made with a potent mix of spray foam, paint, car molding, spackle, and silicone. I gave Juan the table at the end of production of the film as a gift. He’s probably eating dinner on it right now.
You use a lot of CGI in your films that you do yourself. How hard is it to direct around the CGI work and to make your actors understand how they’re supposed to react to things they can’t see at the time?
Before I shot “Fungicide” I had a good idea for my limitations on CGI (computer generated imagery) and knew how to shoot around it. So by the time I shot “Tartarus” I was knowledgeable enough to know exactly where my limitations were. And directing people depends on the script and your ability to “sell” them the idea of this alternate reality. Primarily Juan was the only one involved with CGI in this movie, and he has no problem whatsoever selling the idea that he’s interacting with these characters/environments. He picked up the concepts very quickly, and understood the actual physical space limitations that defined the interaction. For example, early in the film, Juans character is chased by a UFO. When it passes by him, very close to his head, we had to make sure we got the angles, actions and his physical motions synched up well. We did it in only two takes, which saved us a lot of time.
Tartarus had considerably more CGI in it than your previous films. How long did it take you to complete the CGI, and did the sheer amount of work push back your release schedule more than you had originally planned?
It had little impact on the schedule since I knew from the outset how much it was going to take. It took a little over 120 hours to complete the CGI work for the film, but didn’t affect the films release date. I pushed that back because when I finished the original draft of the film, I had Dave Weldon, Juan and Mary take an early look to get some feedback. I was very surprised that they enjoyed it so much, and the overall feeling was that the film could even stand to have more added. So I wrote some additional scenes and we shot them in late December 2004. Even though I wanted the film done in 2004, I don’t sweat any release dates since I’m not on anyone’s schedule but my own. I can keep tweaking a film until I’m ready to let it go. There was a point in early February 2005 where I realized that I was starting to spend a lot of time fixing and changing small things, and that it probably wouldn’t be beneficial to keep working on it. At some point you begin to stray from the original ideas and you don’t want to go too far.
How do you feel your CGI work has improved since you started? Are you happy with the progression of the quality of it?
I definitely see huge improvements in some areas, but in many others I’m lacking and/or just going to stagnate. I’ve neared the apex of my abilities in that regard, and am going to be limited in scope in some ways in the future. Overall I’m happy, but I definitely want more – more quality, more realism, and even less reliance on using CGI unless I absolutely have to. For me though, it’s a huge cost savings by doing it myself, and it also allows me to create alternative realities and improve scenes that would otherwise be impossible. “Zombies By Design” is supposed to have a lot less CGI, but of course, it will be critical for some shots that are just otherwise impractical for me to complete. There will be a leap in quality of CGI between “Tartarus” and “Zombies By Design” as well.
There were some advanced editing techniques used in this film that you hadn’t used previously. How do you feel your skills as an editor have improved over your last few films?
Editing can truly change a film – both in meaning and intention, so it’s crucial that you know your goal before you even begin that process. I can see great improvements in my editing even between “Suburban Sasquatch” and this film, but there is plenty of room for improvement. “Tartarus” also allowed me to do a lot of strange edits that “Fungicide” and “Suburban Sasquatch” would not allow – simply because of the pace and types of those other films. Likewise, “Zombies By Design” will also be different from anything else I’d done. These are large canvases for me to work with; I can create and change with large cuts and swipes as I see fit. The trouble is choosing which final edit is the one you believe is the right one.
What type of equipment changes did you make between your previous film, Suburban Sasquatch, and Tartarus? I noticed the quality of the video seemed much better and it looked like it was shot in true widescreen.
I upgraded to a 3-chip mini-DV camera, a necessary step as this film required some very intense color shots. It was not shot in anamorphic widescreen – this is still a 4:3 chip in the camera so it’s compressed during shooting and uncompressed later. I’m very fortunate that the technology has allowed me to show my vision this way. And with each successive film I’m learning what works and what doesn’t – what improves quality and what degrades it. So that goes into consideration for the script and for the shooting.
You have another film in the works right now called Zombies By Design. Tell us a little about that one and how it’s coming along. Also, when can we expect to see it?
Mary co-wrote this one with me, and we had a lot of laughs putting it together. She’s written more for this film than any other, and she’s been active in the co-production, and that’s been a great weight taken off my shoulders. This allows me to get a lot more creative, as I have someone active in the edit and review process. The film is in the same vein as “Fungicide”, as in a comedy-horror kind of film. Let’s just say that we’re taking a stab at the current reality-tv-soaked-brainless-humanoid-culture that’s running rampant. Right now I hope to have a trailer out by Halloween 2005, and I’m expecting an early-to-mid 2006 release.
You’ve scored some distribution deals for your films, including your movie Fungicide being released in a 4-pack from Brentwood. What tips could you give the other indie filmmakers out there when it comes to negotiating a deal and how to go about getting one in the first place?
Like any negotiation, you have to go in knowing what you want first. Since the distribution and marketing of films is a wholly different arena than filmmaking, you need to educate yourself first and understand what a distributor will want and what you can expect to receive in terms of deals, offers or responses. “Fungicide” getting sold was a great surprise, and it’s great to hear about it’s continuing success. I’m hoping for the same with “Suburban Sasquatch”, since I’ve recently made a deal for that film as well. But getting the deal depends greatly on the type and quality of the film, the amount of press, any reviews and/or public showings of the film, and any film festival
reviews or attention. And sometimes it’s just plain luck.
Do you find it easier and find yourself in a better bargaining position in new distribution deals now that you’ve gotten a couple of films out there and distributed?
That mostly depends on the film itself – if a distributor believes that it’s a sellable film, regardless of what you may think of it, that will definitely put you in a better position. I find it easier now than I did two years ago, mostly because I’m more educated about the process and of course because the films are finding markets. But will that apply in 4 years if I have a romance or drama available? I don’t know. That will remain to be seen. Since making a distribution deal is not my ultimate goal, though, I’ll tell you it won’t stop me from making films or keep me awake at night.
Has the fact that you’re scoring some distribution deals now changed the way you approach your filmmaking?
No. The deals are wonderful, incredible gifts and I couldn’t thank God enough that they’ve come my way, mostly because it’s wonderful encouragement as an artist and filmmaker. But I’m not filming to get the deals. These films are just excuses to get my writing out there, to get my stories told. I’m not going to run off and make a movie because I think it will get distributed. Right now I have the luxury to be as free as I want, and I’m happy with that
Is there anything else youd like to talk about before we wrap this up?
As an artist, you’re only going to exist if you’re art is seen by others. And It’s people like you, Duane, and Rogue Cinema, that are a great encouragement and value to filmmakers. Yes, you do this for the love of it, which is why I make my films, but it also allows me to have a different voice, and also allows me to improve h both through your reviews and the introspection that comes from an interview. So thank you, for all that you do in helping myself and those around me in these films, reach our goals!