Recently I had a chance to not only get to know indie filmmaker Dave Wascavage, but to interview him as well. He’s a super nice guy and he’s got a lot of fun ideas crawling around in that wacky brain of his. Here’s what he had to say…
Was there one particular turning point in your life where you said, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to make my own movies. I’m just gonna get all the stuff together and finally do it!”
Well, there was no singular point with a lightbulb going off over my head that made me realize that I wanted to do this. It’s always been a dream of mine. I do remember when I was seven setting up the goal of filmmaking, as well as writing novels. I never questioned that I would do it, it was only a matter of when. I started making short films in 1987 when my parents gave me a camcorder as a gift. I think they were just exhausted from my hyperspatial-ADD-energetic-imaginative behavior and thought this would keep me occupied! From there the films just started getting bigger. I finished writing a novel in 1996 but it took two years to complete, and the audience was very limited. So films came back into the focus of my creative activities. Then I just zeroed in a bit more on making better and longer films. I judged my next steps based on how well each film was relieved. Even though “Revenge of the Earth Chomping…” is not a film in the sense of how I categorize my other work, when I had a party for 15 people to premier it and they enjoyed it, I realized that my efforts were paying off for entertaining a small group of people. Hey I’m not looking for an award, but if I got 15 people to laugh, well that’s great! Next thing you know I’m doing full length films and I end up here! But a lot of this has to do with technical achievements as well. I was always a very into computers and programming, and learning more and more software and hardware just led me to digital editing. They were just barriers that needed to be broken. It seems that with every challenge I’m presented I get a big thrill out of conquering it. Film making is really just breaking down many, many challenges and compiling the best work you can.
What kind of stuff did you do right off the bat to experiment with when you first started doing your own movies?
I’ve always been cost-conscious, so immediately I wanted to make do with what I had around me. I mean, who wouldn’t want to do full life sized creatures and huge space battles? I wanted to, but knew my limitations. And I’d have to curtail my writing to meet that. So from 1987 through 1995 the films were limited to available equipment, ambient lighting and lots of toys. That’s what I had at my fingertips. I never questioned buying props since I didn’t think they would add much production value and thought that I’d be wasting money! And then that means other creative parts would have to be restricted too, like music and acting. But that forces you to be imaginative. Long before the word “loop” became a common household name, I was taking soundtracks and cutting 1 to 2 second pieces of sound, altering the pitch/speed and creating a good 40 second soundtrack by continually playing that piece over and over. While this seems quaint today, it was a huge achievement for me 16 years ago! Also I had to start trying different things with lighting, and angles and mirrors. Since I was doing this while pursuing an engineering degree, it left me no time to research or read books or attend filmmaking class to open up myself to others who had made similar discoveries or experiences. There were just too many things going on in my life to get it all together. So you have to basically rely on your imagination to open up the world around you. Water pistol? Hey that’s a gun. Vacuum cleaner power cord? That turns into a lasso really easily. At some point you start realizing that by layering as many small improvements as you can, your product gets better and better. When I wrote “Revenge of the Earth Chomping…”, I realized there were a lot of technical challenges that I wouldn’t be able to conquer with the Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) that I was just learning, but by using CGI I could create so much more than I’d ever done before. I was going to make that film with a model train set, kind of a throwback to my earlier films, but I thought live material might work – I’d never tried it, so it’s a chance to learn. To complete the film I started to invest a little bit of money to see what the effect would be on the end product. It would be nice to be able to do huge lumbering rubber creatures and lots of blood and goo, but that’s a lot of money, time and investments. That can be prohibitive to creating a film on a low budget. A lot of people bash CGI since they think that it looks poor or that they blame the filmmaker instead of going a route to have better costumes. I’d rather think that it’s better to get a vision on screen using what tools and talents you have, as opposed to letting a story languish in a vault somewhere hoping to someday beg an f/x guy to make a costume at a discount. At some point, maybe I will be able to afford that f/x guy, but right now I’m able to get my vision into film, which is better than the majority of dreamers.
You and your wife Mary write these films together. What’s it like writing with her, and do you ever have times where you each want to go in totally opposite directions with things?
We have a really great relationship, so there really has never been any butting of heads when it comes to creativity. That’s partially due to mutual respect, and trying to think about what works best when it comes to a film. But it’s tough for me in one aspect. I’ve been writing films and stories and drawing for over 18 years and to have someone come in to work with the project was really different – it was kinda weird. I never had to fully explain to anyone all the myriad visions that I have in my warped little mind, so it took some effort at first. When I wrote the “Revenge of the Earth Chomping…” I thought it was the best script I’d done, and the longest, but I thought it needed something more. That’s when I asked Mary if she wanted to get involved, seeing as how she used to like my short films, to see what she could add. We do a lot of things together anyway, so she did the screenplay for a few scenes and touched up the dialogue. She really did a good job. When I was ready to do my next film, Mary was much more into it and wanted to be in on it from the ground up. So “Fungicide” would require much more collaboration. We came up with the concept over dinner one night (actually the night after “Revenge of the Earth Chomping…” premiered) and started tossing ideas back and forth. There are scenes that Mary just took on her own to write, which really excelled. For example, she wrote the scene where Silas, Titus and Jackson sit and share a beer. The characters are so over the top in their eagerness to discuss the social minutia of beer drinking that your really caught off guard wondering if this type of thing can occur in a bed and breakfast with strangers like these! And it just lives so well on screen. I had doubts that Dave Weldon could pull off some of those lines but I remember Mary saying “C’mon, it’s Dave! Think of him saying it!” so I was sold. But when it comes to differences of opinion, we will usually give enough explanation and description to see who has the best idea. That can be tough. For me it’s difficult, since I visualize things so greatly and so far in advance – for anyone to suggest anything different than those visions is like blasphemy! But wisdom means being able to do what’s right for the project. Sometimes that means sacrifice. As an example, Mary wasn’t too keen on Jade’s line in Fungicide where she’s going to kick some of the mushrooms asses, but I was really, really for it. I did my best sell job, but she still didn’t like it. We agreed that when we shot the scene we’d try it both ways. As it turned out, we felt that the line worked well. It can be a very scary proposition when you’ve taken a vision and started developing it and someone wants to change part of it. It’s important to learn why the change takes place, and what it means for the characters and the story. Even though I wrote my next film, “Suburban Sasquatch” without Mary, I still had her give some editorial feedback and suggestions. It’s just a part of doing things together, as a couple. That was a story that I really wanted to see meet my vision for. But “Fungicide” would have been nowhere near as good as it was unless we had worked together to put that dual creativity into it.
You’ve done your own computer graphics for your films, what software are you using and what kind of a computer are you doing the renders on?
I use Cool 3d, 3D Studio Max, Premiere and a variety of photo editing tools. Software is very critical, and a lot of it comes down to personal choice. I happened to pick up 3d Studio Max very quickly, partially due to my experience with Computer Aided Design (CAD) from my engineering background. I’m never going to learn all that it can do for me, I just know enough to be dangerous! As far as the hardware (computers) goes, I build my own systems. Every PC on the market I’d examine would never meet the specs of what I wanted, as well as being bloated with crap software and be so overpriced. Why should I buy a PC riddled with spyware and useless junk that fills up the registry and slows the system down? I’d rather design a system and make it work for me- for video editing. Saves a lot of money too.
How long does it take generally to work out your graphics for each film? Do you just get it in your head what you want to do and then go for it or do you experiment a lot and go through a long process of alterations until you hit on something you like?
Well, that varies from project-to-project as well as for scene to scene. Very little of “Revenge of the Earth Chompers…” was storyboarded. I was just learning CGI so I knew that I could basically do what I want, however limited it was. I kept trying different shots and angles and there was always something neat to try, but you can’t put everything in. I had to trash a lot. I always have the visual in my head, but sometimes it changes by the time it hits the screen. As long as I meet the intent of the story, then I’m happy. It took me over 5 months to do the CGI for that film and it was very intensive at times, with the PC rendering for over 12 hours at times! I knew I reached my limit for rendering capacity and speed, and ended up burning out a hard drive and video card in the process. “Fungicide” was much more planned. There were specific shots for the CGI that I knew I would have to learn between when we shot the film and I started post production. The battle where you see Jade, Titus and Wang fighting mushrooms at the same time was visualized way back when the script was written. But I should also say that there are times you stumble on things. You start manipulating the characters (in this case, the mushrooms) and start finding neat little tricks to do. Like having the car run over some mushrooms and having them spurt mushroom blood all over the place. The best advice I can give is never settle for something if you can afford it, both in terms of time and money. I could still be working on “Fungicide” today, tweaking and adding and changing, but where will that get me? I still have a lot more stories to do. But you can see the difference and experience growth between “Revenge of the Earth Chomping…” and “Fungicide”. And that growth is exponential when compared with “Suburban Sasquatch”. It’s really pleasing to have people not recognize some CGI shots or events. That tells people you can fool them every now and then. There was a lot of CGI in “Suburban Sasquatch” but it’s a lot more subtle when compared to a film like “Fungicide”. The bar for CGI quality had been raised and I knew I had to meet that challenge!
In Fungicide there’s a bit more interaction between the live actors and the graphics. How tedious of a process was it to put those scenes together?
I still have neck cramps from leaning over the keyboard and moving keyframes and animation for 8 hours straight! It was tedious and tiring but I loved every damned minute of it. You have to look at these projects from the point of view of what you want to do with your time – I never said I don’t want to do this because of how long it takes me and that I’d rather play video games. Who wants to sit in front of a computer all day moving small objects, re-doing work, and risking people being overly-critical of it? That can be discouraging. But you need to focus and make it a goal of yours. Yes, it was very time consuming. Very, very intricate work in trying to make things look convincing. And it’s not like “Fungicide” is state of the art or anything, or even very convincing in terms of what you see in even the worst of some films! But the goal wasn’t to make it uber-realistic; it was to make a fun, bizarre movie that people could have a good time with. Most graphic design students could probably blow me away with a lot of things. But that can’t be a barrier to the work. You’ve got to keep working at it as long as you can until you reach your goal, whatever that may be. When a scene is being shot, you have to know in advance what will make your work easier or harder when it comes to editing and CGI. I had to make sure the actors didn’t violate certain rules for me when they fought the CGI mushrooms. When Wang (Wes Miller) pulls a smaller mushroom out of the drivers seat of a car, I had to make sure that the timing was short, and this hands were held a certain way, and he turned the right direction to make it look halfway decent. The biggest challenge with “Fungicide” was the big battle sequence. There are a lot of timing issues that needed to be conquered. I think another cool aspect is that when I shot the film, the actors would look at me like I was crazy when I’d say “Ok, now these big mushrooms are attacking you from here and here and here. Then fight them like you’re boxing.” But, I loved it all since there is a really great moment when you see it done and you get a kick out of having people watch it. If your in it for the money, or you sit there, working and think to yourself “I’m gonna get the bling bling for doing this!” you might as well stop. Make the effort to do the scenes that will please you since you’ll be spending a lot of time putting it together. As my skills improve, that will make it easier on the actors since I will be able to give them more flexibility and capability to work with the environment I’ve set up.
How did it come about that you got your parents to act in your films? What was their reaction when you first asked them to do it?
I have great parents and great friends! They’re all very supportive. For my parents, I basically needed to roles filled and asked for their help. That’s all it took. They have always been behind me in my endeavors, and are willing to help out. And I think they get a kick out of watching these films. Remember, they’ve seen me progress over the past 17 years in terms of quality. It’s not like their jaws dropped and hit the floor when I asked them. I bet a part of them think “Okay, it’s just another one of Dave’s wacky things here…”. But the films have progressed now to where their audience is not just limited to a few people who are polite enough to watch it, but an ever-growing audience of people. Now they’re seeing these films premiere with crowds of 150 people in small theater settings. I’m sure their proud of this and happy as well. The fact that the film trailers are being seen in countries around the world is pretty cool to my parents and to me as well. I’m just glad I can share that excitement with them. They want to do what helps me, and I greatly appreciate that. In fact I had my dad construct a steadicam mount device that was used for shots of “Fungicide”, and he’s just built a camera dolly and track system for me to get smooth motion shots too. I also figured he needs something to do now that he’s retired! And my Mom’s roles have increased also; she not only has a big role in “Suburban Sasquatch” but she’s putting her singing talent into the closing song of the movie. And my friends are very supportive as well. I like involving them not just because I think they’d do a good job, but because I think they’d have fun in the process as well. Ask anyone from the “Fungicide” cast if they had a good time and they’ll say they had a great time. But don’t quote me on that. I’m guessing they are not going to read this so I can probably get away with it. Are you going to print this part? Jeez, maybe you shouldn’t ask them!
Have you asked anyone else you know to be in your films that just flat out refused because they didn’t feel comfortable being on camera?
Oh sure. That’s happened with “Suburban Sasquatch”. And that’s going to happen. You have to learn not how to push people. I think I come off as being very persuasive, but not to the point where I will push and push and push to get what I want. If someone doesn’t want to do it I won’t push them; but I will give a thorough explanation so they know what to expect will happen with the film when it’s done. A lot of people are not comfortable on camera, for a variety of reasons. You have to respect that. No one expected “Fungicide” to get the attention it’s getting – that includes the sales and audience. In fact, even though I prepared people that the film could be distributed, it was still a bit of a surprise when the sale went through. I mean, it took us all a little by surprise. Am I prepared to accept that I may be on an advertisement in Thailand? I guess so. You’ve got to be prepared for that, and you have to get people aware of that possibility. But on the other hand, you’ve got to keep those fears and concerns and thoughts of sales away because all it takes is to meet just ONE person who likes your film, and then it becomes magic. I met one such person at a convention earlier this year. Dave Weldon and I signed his copy of “Fungicide”, and he was so enthusiastic about the movie he held a “Fungicide” party for his friends and made matching “Fungicide” beer cans. I made a point to tell him thanks for making me feel so good – and I even invited him and his girlfriend to the “Suburban Sasquatch” premiere. I keep in touch with him still, because that’s something that will stay with me the rest of my life. In fact, his enthusiasm made the entire cast feel good. I thought so much of him that every now and then I send him a few secret news tidbits on upcoming films that no one else knows about…
Fungicide has this goofy looking mushroom hand puppet that in my opinion was the most awesome thing in the film. It was absolutely hilarious. Who made that, who’s hand was in it, and how did you manage to get through shooting the scenes with it without absolutely busting up every time?
Puppet? What puppet? Ha ha! Yeah that puppet was a blast. It took me about 2 days to build, and I made a lot of design drawings for how this thing was going to work. I mean I can visualize this stuff but making it reality can be a real challenge. When I was about 75% done, I thought I would pass it by Mary to see what she thought. I got the best reaction – she came in from work took one look at it and laughed for 5 minutes nonstop! She said that was the turning point for the film. It was right then that I knew that the film would have a good visual hook to it, and would only strengthen the script and the characters. For the majority of scenes I was operating the puppet, sometimes holding the camera at the same time (it’s not like we had a crew or anything). Mary also did some scenes controlling it. And talk about laughing! I’m the one who held up a lot of shots because I couldn’t hold it in during production! I really laugh a lot in life anyway, so you’d think I’d never finish this film because here I’m laughing so much while making it. And you can see from the outtakes there are parts of this where I just kept cracking up. We all did. C’mon, that puppet is freaking funny! But you have to learn to focus, and with our tight shooting schedule I couldn’t keep wrecking scenes by laughing all the time. There was the scene where Silas (played by Dave Weldon) is reading to the puppet while sitting on the edge of the bed. I was under the covers, operating the puppet as Dave read his lines. Well poor Dave did that so well and we shot it 4 times, and every time I kept giggling and laughing and Dave was able to keep his composure. If you watch the final take closely you can see the bed shaking – that’s me under the covers and my body is shaking so bad holding the laughter in! And that was the best take! And when we shot the scene where Dave Bonavita beats off the puppet, well he was really hitting it hard. Now Dave Bonavita’s not a small guy, he’s got a lot of strength. So he let loose on that thing! I needed a rest after that shot, since my hand felt like it went through a cement mixer, with my fingers bashed up into a ball! But it was worth it since it looks great on film.
There was also a man-sized mushroom suit in the film. Who made that one, who was in it and what kind of problems did you encounter while trying to do the fighting scenes and what not while working with the outfit?
The full size costume took me half as much time to make as the puppet. That’s mostly since there is no mouth to articulate, and the larger scale allowed me some flexibility in the design stage. I was happy with it in general, but I wished I could have spent more time and money on it before principle photography started. But, you’ve got to learn to cut and run when you need to. I think everyone got to spend some time in that costume, but Dave Weldon did most of the big battle scene wearing it. He did a great job despite the lack of ability to see. And swinging around heavy sticks can be dangerous if you don’t plan out the sequence correctly. Well, that and the fact that we shot it at 9am on a Sunday after being up till 1:30 am the night before. The big problem was the costume kept ripping bigger and bigger, and I kept patching it up with duct tape. It was getting ridiculous at one point, but you can only do so much. The best thing you can do is laugh a little, and learn from it. There was one shot, when I was spraying Wang (played by Wes Miller) from the mushroom. I was in the costume and just kind of spraying everywhere. I couldn’t see him and had to direct from within the costume. It was basically just do your best and shoot in the air. The head was really big too. It stopped me from getting into some rooms in the house!
What kind of equipment and software and such do you use in the making of your films? Like what kind of camera, what audio equipment, what editing software do you use etc…?
I used a digital8 camcorder for “Revenge…”, “Fungicide” and “Suburban Sasquatch”. The digital8 format allowed me to use my existing tapes and did not require me to buy more equipment, so I was able to keep the costs low. The quality isn’t as good as I would have liked, but sometimes you have to use what you have! For “Fungicide” and “Suburban Sasquatch” I used Adobe Premiere. A really great tool for editing and the better I got with it, the faster I was able to edit “Suburban Sasquatch”. Since I really don’t care for the “video” look of things, I process all the footage to have a softer, film like quality. I really dig it. It changes the feel of the film as you watch it – gives it a much more theatrical presence. Now I’ve upgraded to a professional mini-dv 3 chip camcorder, and am already seeing the huge quality improvements. I’m now able to do the coloring and details I’d only dreamed of doing just a few years ago.
You have a new movie coming out soon called Suburban Sasquatch. Tell us about it.
I’ve always thought Bigfoot was great – both mysterious and yet familiar in some way, and I never saw a film that really brought him to life – that gave him the purpose and history he deserved, and tied his Native American relationship in with modern mythology. So I started researching Native American myth, folklore and history, and developed an intricate plot on how it has relevance in todays world. The story needed some great action and depth, so I created some fantastic characters that really evolve in the film. I wanted to make the Sasquatch more than some hairy “thing” that is seen in the woods – I wanted him to have a purpose, desires, lust, and powers that were not previously known. This makes for one formidable foe. Bigfoot is rampaging through a small town, and the police seem powerless to stop him. Only a lone Native American warrior woman seems to hold the key to this creature, and if she doesn’t stop it in time, there could be untold deaths! I wanted to do a serious horror film, and really “blow the budget” so to speak. I originally wanted this film to take 3 movies to fully explain and have a huge mythology to follow, and make them really deep with layers to be examined. It took me 2 months to write, and then 3 more months of tweaking and changes. It has been my most challenging and rewarding effort. I got a cast of great actors and actresses, and unlike the free spirit feel of “Fungicide”, we ended up with a solid, professional film here. It’s exceeded my expectation, and I’m extremely happy with it. I was confident enough to premiere it in a theater setting, and have gotten very favorable compliments on it. I didn’t want a repeat of the humor in “Fungicide”, but I can’t say the film is without it’s jokes here and there. I put a lot of myself in this film. Every character represents a part of me, and that makes this a very personal story. And this is a lot more commercial of a product also. My website traffic for Troubledmoonfilms.com has been through the roof with the announcement of this film, with over 10,000 downloads of the “Suburban Sasquatch” trailer alone! I’m glad to say that the DVD mastering is going well, with the street date set for August 28th for the DVD. It will be available in single disc and double-disc editions. I’m glad to be at this point with the film, but when I wrote the script, I found it was too big for one film. So I designed this as the first part of a trilogy, and already have the others mostly written. Maybe someday I’ll be able to finish the next two.
Does this film have all the same people returning who appeared in your first two films?
At first, I didn’t want to ask the same people to be in this one, since I would feel like I’m using them, but I was actually approached and asked when they could be involved! You literally see acting improvements in all the people who were in this film, as well as great contributions from other new cast members that really pushed this production forward. But I also wanted a big body count for this film, so I had to bring in a lot more people! It also makes me a better filmmaker, as I get experience with more and more actors. I was fortunate enough to have some great new blood added: Sue Lynn Sanchez, a model in the New York and Philly area was perfect for the lead character. She nailed the character right on. Bill Ushler, a local Delaware and Philadelphia based actor does a great job. And Juan Fernandez, also based in Philly, does a great job with his character and the relationship with Dave Bonavita’s character. This cast was not only great on-screen, but was great to work with.
What do you have in the pipeline after Suburban Sasquatch?
I don’t think I’m going to take a break for a while. I’m currently shooting a horror film called “Tartarus” that stars Juan Fernandez, whom I worked with in “Suburban Sasquatch” – the guy is amazing. I’ve also got Michelle Hanna, Dave Weldon, and Sarah Kost in this one. Troy Stephen Sanders (who was the Editor in “Suburban Sasquatch”) is going to do all the gore and make-up effects and take a small role as well. I’m really pushing the envelope in terms of what I can do for this film. At the same time, Mary and I are finishing up the script for a zombie movie we are going to shoot in August and September this year. That film will take me till early next year to finish. As far as 2005, I am not at liberty to say what will be made, but Mary and I have started discussing ideas for a very special sequel…
Do you have any advice for budding filmmakers who are looking to make their first film?
Set your goal, that’s the first key to being successful. If your goal is an Oscar, then you’ve got to get to Hollywood and play that game. If your goal is to just have fun, then go for it. But with each film, I set a goal long before pen goes to paper, so I know if the product will be successful to me or not. And that’s what matters. And learn to experiment. Try to make your own rules. Dont be afraid to try something different, but don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work out. There will be plenty of opportunity to learn from everything that you do, so dont be disappointed if you keep making films and still think you don’t know it all. I find a big thrill in taking a risk with a variety of writing, shot angles, effects, actors…you name it. But that means I’m also a target when something fails – criticism can easily put you off or slow you down. Move beyond that by making sure you fullfill the vision that you want to see done.
Are you going to be going to any conventions in the near future or is there anything else exciting happening in your life that you’d like to mention before we wrap this up?
I’m lined up for Monster Mania in Cherry Hill New Jersey on the weekend of August 27 through 29. A few cast members from “Fungicide” will be there to sign copies, and I will be selling “Suburban Sasquqatch” as well. Feel free to stop by and pick up a couple hundred copies! In addition, there’s a video game convention in Reading PA on September 11th, and there’s Fangoria in New Jersey in October. And “Fungicide” still has a lot of steam. I’ve donated it to the west coast Vietnam Veterans society, and there is a standing offer to give a few copies for free to our military as donations. I’ve also donated a copy to the Walter Reed Memorial Hospital in Washington DC, providing entertainment for soldiers and veterans. The “Fungicide” cast may be invited to the hospital to allow patients to meet and greet the cast, and maybe do a live commentary on the film. That would be a really big honor.
If you want to find out more about Dave Wascavage and what Trouble Moon’s current projects are, then you can check out the Troubled Moon Films website.