An Interview with Eric Stanze – By Josh Samford

Eric Stanze is one of the few names to come out in the past few years with the indie horror scene that has stuck in the minds of horror fans and hobbyists. Due to his imaginitive style and lack of fear in tackling even the most morbid of situations in his films. Beginning with his introductory horror Savage Harvest to his most recent Deadwood Park, Stanze always carries his own style within his films and has evolved greatly throughout his career. Any horror geek reading this right now likely already knows a good bit about Stanze and his crew at Wicked Pixel, but for those unfamiliar let this interview be an introduction. I was lucky enough to get Eric to answer some questions and what can you say but the guy is an interesting person… with a great speaking voice!

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 JS: For those not familiar with your history, can you explain a bit of your background in cinema and how you started off your career as a filmmaker?

ES: Two of my student projects, a feature I made in high school and a feature I made in college, were picked up for distribution in the early 90’s. It was at this point that I thought I might have a shot at making movies as a career instead of it just being a hobby.

My college education focused on television, not filmmaking. College gave me a wealth of experience in the basics of lighting, audio, editing, and such, but as far as writing and directing feature films, I’m self-taught. And still learning.

JS: SAVAGE HARVEST was your first feature correct? It seems heavily influenced by the horror films of the 80s, but is heavy with a deep mythos not usually seen in most low budget horrors. Is this something that was intentional or something that simply reflects your own style?

ES: Yes, SAVAGE HARVEST was my first non-student feature. And it is definitely a product of the many 80’s horror flicks I enjoyed growing up! Lots of Raimi-style camerawork and buckets of gore.

The deep mythology on display in SAVAGE HARVEST is there because, when I write, I like to do research, and then use that research to broaden the story beyond what is actually on screen. This, of course, can create a very dense narrative, which can be good or bad, depending on the execution. Being an inexperienced kid when I wrote SAVAGE HARVEST, I did not design my screenplay around the backstory very well, in my opinion. But I think the hard-core SAVAGE HARVEST fans out there are probably more into the spilling entrails and gushing blood than they are into my screenplay. Which stands to reason.

My more recent work is moving away from the dense narratives and multi-level backstories, however. I’m finding a better balance, writing more lean, without going so lean that there’s no story at all. I think my writing is improving, partly because I learn from my mistakes, but also because I used to let a lot distract me when I was writing. These days, I lock myself away when I write and make everyone leave me alone. My writing has improved tremendously from this.

JS: ICE FROM THE SUN came after that, and after watching it I just have to ask – are you by chance a fan of Shinya Tsukamoto (director of TETSUO: THE IRON MAN, TOKYO FIST, BULLET BALLET)? If not, were there any films that helped to inspire the mayhem on celluloid you were looking to create?

ES: I love TETSUO, but I actually saw it for the first time after I completed ICE FROM THE SUN. Visually, ICE FROM THE SUN was more influenced by music video imagery of the time, and by experimental films I got into during my college days.

JS: What goals did you have for ICE? With the visual flare and style of that film, do you think it helped you expand as a filmmaker?

ES: I wrote ICE FROM THE SUN so long ago, my specific goals have somewhat faded in my memory. I think mostly I just wanted to do something that was original and something that I thought would kick ass.

ICE helped me grow as a filmmaker because it was very unique and not easily categorized. I wasn’t making a horror film or a drama or a fantasy film. I was just making ICE FROM THE SUN. So I was free to do whatever I wanted. In terms of execution of the movie, I was probably too young and inexperienced to fully exploit that freedom, but having so much room to move around taught me a lot. One big thing it taught me was that too much pre-planning can be destructive. I learned through the mistakes I made on ICE to be more open and find a good balance between pre-planning and spontaneity. First, you’ll catch more unexpected opportunities as they come your way. Second, you’ll be brave enough to stray from your original plans when you see something isn’t quite working out the way you envisioned it would.

I think much more than SAVAGE HARVEST did, ICE FROM THE SUN put me on the map, so to speak. Because it was so different and refreshingly aggressive, it struck a chord with fans of indie horror. It wasn’t what people expected. . . and that was a good thing.

JS: SCRAPBOOK is a film that proves that sometimes simplicity can be more powerful than over-complexity. Was it a very hard film to make?

ES: Logistically, SCRAPBOOK was rather easy to make. We shot it in only 13 days, and that was plenty of time. I didn’t feel rushed at all. Most of the movie was shot at a single location, making the production pretty simple to coordinate.

The leading actors, Tom Biondo and Emily Haack, were completely dedicated. They had no difficulty reaching the levels of intensity I required. They didn’t build up to a scene – they just dove in head first. So that kept things moving along efficiently.

The only difficulties on SCRAPBOOK emerged from the blurry line between reality and the fiction we were creating.

When we were shooting a rape scene, for example, with Emily screaming and crying, it was hard to witness. It seemed so real that some crew members couldn’t take it and were turning their heads so they wouldn’t have to watch. The dark energy this kind of thing created on set was unbearable, starting with day one of shooting.

Also, because we used what I call "method production design" very little of what you see in the serial killer’s home is fake. Real food was thrown all over the house days before we shot, so all the rotting food you see is not only real, it was there the entire time we were shooting.

Adding to our discomfort (and the pungent odor of the set) was the fact that we shot in the hottest part of the summer with no air conditioning in the house. So we were broiling, pouring sweat, and surrounded by rotting food. There were fruit flies everywhere. For one scene at the beginning of the shoot, Tom actually pissed all over Emily and the cot she was on. We never washed the cot, so for the rest of the shoot it was there, urine stained and smelling bad. It was disgusting. I know all this helped the movie, but it was unpleasant, to say the least.

I’m glad I went through it, but I don’t think I would intentionally put myself and my cast and crew in those working conditions again. SCRAPBOOK was a project for the younger, more reckless versions of ourselves.

Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, they say. I think we’re all a lot stronger, having endured the SCRAPBOOK shoot.

JS: With that film having essentially two characters the whole time, were there a lot of rehearsals between Emily and Tommy?

ES: There were no rehearsals at all. Aside from two or three scripted scenes, the whole movie was ad-libbed.

We had a story outline, and there were specific goals for each scene. We scheduled the shoot around the outline, so we always knew what we were going to shoot that day, but the specifics of dialog and how Tom and Em would interact were never discussed until camera was ready to roll.

Sometimes during a take, I would just let the camera roll as I told Tom and Em to go in new, unexpected directions. Without dropping character, they’d switch gears and take the scene somewhere else. Some takes went on like this for half an hour, exploring various levels of the scene. Maybe only thirty seconds of a thirty minute take ended up in the movie, but we got those thirty seconds by trusting each other and forging ahead into uncharted areas.

Also, before some scenes, I’d give Em and Tom direction separately, without the other one hearing. Very often, when camera started to roll and I called action, Tom and Em knew exactly what to do – but they had no idea what the other one was going to do!

It was a pretty cool experience, making a movie using these techniques and directing actors in this way. But it worked because Tom and Em were very good at what they were doing. Trying these techniques with less talented actors would have been a disaster.

 JS: I SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE, I PISS ON YOUR GRAVE has one of those titles that sort of jumps out at you. How did that film come about, and are you a big fan of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE?

ES: Yes, I am indeed a fan of I SPIT ON OUR GRAVE. But that’s not exactly why I made I SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE, I PISS ON YOUR GRAVE.

I was commissioned to make SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE for production companies in New York, the UK, and in France. I was essentially a producer/director for hire, making a movie for someone else. I was working for Ron Bonk, and he was pulling money in from these other companies in the UK and France to pay us to make this movie. So, at its core, this movie was a much-needed paycheck.

Ron came up with the title, I SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE, I PISS ON YOUR GRAVE, obviously grabbing at fans of the Zarchi film. Though not entirely ethical, titling an exploitation picture after another, already-established film is quite common amongst exploitation movie producers, as many grindhouse fans already know. I always disliked the title, but Ron’s idea for the title probably made the movie much more profitable.

I was actually producing a whole series of no-budget films for Ron Bonk for about three years (2001 through 2003). For those three years, I really worked my ass off. I didn’t personally direct many of the movies I made for him (only SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE and CHINA WHITE SERPENTINE) but at times, there would be as many as five movies, all shooting at once, that I was the producer on. It really kicked my ass.

 As my exhaustion grew and my sanity dwindled, I continued producing these flicks for as long as I could. I never put any of the money from these movies into my own pocket. I put all the profits into my company, Wicked Pixel Cinema, and used that cash to pay my company’s bills and move things forward. This eventually gave Wicked Pixel Cinema the financial momentum to complete SAVAGE HARVEST 2: OCTOBER BLOOD and greenlight DEADWOOD PARK.

On the positive side, SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE is to date, the most profitable thing I’ve ever produced. And, thankfully, it was not just a cash cow for me. It served other purposes too.

I like many different kinds of movies, from classy dramas to nasty, gritty, exploitation grindhouse flicks. (I’m a huge fan of both Kubrick and Joe D’Amato, to give you an idea of how wide-ranging my tastes are.) I had never made a nasty exploitation movie, so I really embraced the opportunity when SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE was offered to me. All of us making the movie really got into the "fuck you" spirit of the thing, and we all had a lot of fun on the shoot, believe it or not.

Also, that project came along at a point in my life when I had a LOT of pent-up anger and frustration. There were a lot of vicious thoughts going through my head. I just vented it all into that movie. It was great therapy. Probably kept me from throwing myself off a cliff.

On the negative side, SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE was extremely rushed, both in production and post-production. We only had eight days to shoot the movie. Of those eight days, I only had Emily Haack, the lead actress, for three days! Then, in post-production, I was, at one point, editing in back-to-back eighteen-hour shifts trying to meet the deadline. Due to all of this, SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE is not a well-executed movie. I’m glad I had the experience of making it, but I really wish I’d had the time to do it right.

Ron recently gave me a great opportunity. He let me go back to the movie and give it a lot more post-production attention. He released my new cut as "The Official Director’s Version" of I SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE, I PISS ON YOUR GRAVE.

When a movie is originally produced under such limiting circumstances, giving it an overhaul won’t completely bring the quality up to where it should be. Once you’ve lost it, you’ll never get it back. But "The Official Director’s Version" is a huge improvement over the original release, so I’m glad Ron let me do it.

JS: DEADWOOD PARK is your latest released work, and in my opinion, one of your best. The film looks fantastic and packs a ton of atmosphere. How do you think you approached this film differently than your previous films, when creating this methodical pace and the dark contrasting visuals?

ES: DEADWOOD PARK was inspired by older horror films that had more gothic atmosphere and suspense than contemporary horror films have. THE CHANGELING and Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY were both big influences. I just wanted the experience of telling an epic story, soaking the movie in dread and spooky atmosphere, and doing it all with ingenuity and hard work in place of a Hollywood studio budget.

The biggest difference, for me as a director, between DEADWOOD PARK and my past movies was how long I had to maintain my concentration. It was the longest and most complex shoot of my career. It was difficult to tune out distractions and remain focused on maintaining DEADWOOD PARK’s atmosphere for such a long shooting schedule. Because of the look I was going for, I knew small mistakes would have major impact on the tone of the movie. Thankfully, I was able to keep my head in the game enough to pull off a creepy, poetic, atmospheric horror movie.

 JS: What do you think the future of Wicked Pixel is, and where do you see it carrying you all?

ES: Wicked Pixel Cinema will continue doing everything we’ve been doing, but progressing to higher levels.

When I entered this industry, I started with absolutely nothing. No money, no formal filmmaking education, no industry contacts whatsoever, and no mentor to guide me through all this. Even though we still have financial problems at Wicked Pixel Cinema, and even though everything still feels like an uphill battle, I also know I can’t even see where I started anymore because of how far I’ve come. I try to focus on that progress and not dwell on the disappointments.

I’m very dedicated to what I do. Making movies is my full time job. In fact, making movies is my whole life. It’s what I was put on the planet to do. Plus, I have an amazing, hard working, dedicated team backing me up. This includes my producing partner, Jeremy Wallace, who is one of the most reliable and driven guys I’ve ever known.

Soon, I feel, others in this industry who can help us get up to that next level – and who recognize these attributes we possess – will step forward and pour some fuel into this machine.

JS: What is on the plate of Eric Stanze right now?

ES: I’ve just finished two screenplays. One is a big sci-fi, post-apocalyptic horror movie called BUTCHER’S MOON. The other one I wrote with Jaso
Christ. It’s called SEIZURE and it’s a lean, mean, go-for-the-throat horror movie. Very vicious. It’s our backlash to all the safe PG-13 "horror" being pumped into theaters today. True horror fans should love it.

I don’t know exactly what movie we’ll make next, though SEIZURE is the most likely candidate. It all depends on the guys writing the checks, though.

JS: Any plans on acting in a large role again like in SAVAGE HARVEST II?

ES: I would love to do that again. Though it is not my primary agenda, I’ll always have enthusiasm for acting in movies. But because I’m focused on advancing my directing career, and because my schedule is so jam-packed, the planets would have to align in some magical way for me to take a big acting part again soon.

JS: Also, having listened to several of your commentary tracks – I have to ask, have you ever done any radio work? Great pipes man!

ES: Thanks! Actually, I have done some voice over work here and there. I’ve never been properly trained, so I’m sure I couldn’t make a career out of it. But I was a voice actor in a radio commercial for an adult toy store once. I also did the voice of a cow for the pilot of a children’s show that never saw the light of day. I was a radio weatherman’s voice in STRAWBERRY SPRING, a short film adaptation of the Stephen King story, but I don’t think that ever got released anywhere.

All the interesting voice acting work does illustrate a point. No, I’m not rich and famous like Eli Roth or Robert Rodriquez. The big Hollywood studios aren’t banging my door down to offer me millions of dollars. My non-glamorous day-to-day workload still includes dealing with distribution hassles and cash flow problems.

But life does not suck. I’m lucky because I get to experience so many different, interesting things. It’s the best job perk you can have: Life experience.

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We would like to thank Eric for taking time out for this interview and thank Jason Christ along with all the good people at Wicked Pixel Cinema for being so helpful and bringing us here at Rogue Cinema into their little world. If you haven’t seen any of Eric Stanze’s work, get right on that!