An Interview With Jeff Thomas – By Duane L. Martin

Writer, director and star of 13 Seconds, Jeff Thomas.Ok, let’s start off with a little background info on you. What’s your educational background as far as filmmaking and what other film projects have you been involved with?

Well first off Duane let me say that I am thankful for your time and that I appreciate this opportunity. Filmmaking is an arduous business, especially independent cinema, and Rogue Cinema definitely aids and helps directors bring their visions to a mass audience. So I thank you.

As for my education, I thought for sure that I would need to attend USC or UCLA to major in film, but in my senior year of high school I had the opportunity to meet Sam Raimi. Sam was a fantastic source of information and an incredibly great guy. His advice to me was to attend the nearest and most affordable college that offered film, since the basics of film are all the same no matter where you go. This was truly sage advice since I did not wish to move from Michigan to California to go to film school then slowly work my way through the studio system. I was more interested in the independent approach to cinema so the grass roots film school was hand in hand with that notion. I enrolled at the University of Toledo in Ohio, which was twenty minutes from my home. There I studied filmmaking and communications. The reason for two majors was just in case my film career did not take off. Honestly, I have never been involved with any other film project, feature or short. But, my day job is writing and directing television commercials and I have thousands of those to my credit.

Often when a writer gets an idea for a project, he’ll start out with a
general concept and develop it as he writes. What was your original
concept for 13 Seconds and how did the final product differ from your
original concept? Did you find yourself changing things around a lot as
you wrote? And how do you feel the final product compares to your original
concept of the story?

The concept of “13 Seconds” was really born out of necessity. I knew I wanted to make a horror film and I knew I wanted to pay for it myself. I also wanted to give horror fans something different, something they could sink their teeth into. Immediately, I was faced with budgetary restrictions so I drafted a story that I thought would attempt to be a larger picture but still be low budget in execution. This is where the film’s denouement developed from. Essentially I had a twist ending and I worked backwards from there. In the first draft I had nailed all the action, but I believe that all the major thematic material arises in subsequent rewrites. So the script went through two major rewrites and this is where the larger twists came into play. Not a lot changed, but the thematic and sub textual material did widen. There was definitely more and deeper meaning. Oddly enough, the last five pages of the screenplay remained the same through each draft. So in that regard I feel the final product compares quite well to the original concept.

Not a nice night to be out wandering the woods.I often feel that a no matter how good a writer is, can never really make
someone else understand down to the finest detail what his real visions and
concepts of the various characters are. Not only because it’s a personal
thing for the writer, but it would be extremely rare to come across an
actor who has the exact look, personality and other traits that would make
them an ideal choice to bring the writer’s vision to life. While you were
writing this film, did you see yourself in the lead role from the
beginning, or is that something you decided to do later on because you felt
that as the writer, you were best equipped to bring your vision of the
character to life? Also, how closely do you feel the rest of your cast fit
into the concepts you had of the characters as you had written them?

I have always wanted to write, direct, and act. From the very start this is what I had in mind. But you are very correct in your statement about writers. Had I only been interested in directing, I may not have acted in the film. But because so much of your characters are based upon yourself or your own biases or experiences, it becomes easy to know how to interpret and bring that character to life. As for the rest of the cast, I thought every one did a great job. But I have received criticism for this. I directed the actors to have a detached, understated quality in the performances in almost a Bergman or Lynch fashion. This was only to add to the surreal, nightmare like atmosphere of the film and I thought that the cast handled this well.

Speaking of the cast, how was it assembled? Did you hold auditions or were
they pretty much assembled from people you already knew?

Some auditions were held, but since I knew of several actors from my commercial work there were many preconceived ideas of who should fit where.

13 Seconds has a very polished and professional look compared to other
independent horror films. How did the final product visually compare with
the look you intended it to have? What were you the most happy with, and
what do you think could have been done better if you had the chance to do
it again?

Overall I am very pleased with the look of the film. I went to great lengths to give the film a stylistic look of its own. But I wanted this style to also compliment and help propel the narrative. The lighting was so important because it aided in setting the tone but it also helped to establish the academy location as a character itself. I would have to say that I am most pleased with the lighting and frame compositions in terms of the visual quality of the film. Although the framing was mostly static and perhaps framed too tightly and awkwardly for film professors, I felt it really added to the claustrophobic atmosphere. If I could do anything differently, it would be to shoot on 35mm, unfortunately our budget did not allow this.

13 Seconds poster.The creature effects are what really made 13 Seconds stand out visually when compared with other independent horror films. Tell us about your relationship with Malefactor Studios FX and what it was like working with them to make your visions become a reality.

Working with Malefactor was fun, exciting, and easy. Rob Miller, the owner of the company, is a true visual and engineering genius and just happens to be my best friend. Ever since pre-school we had wanted to make a horror film. So it was interesting that I went into directing and he made special effects his career. “13 Seconds” was a difficult shoot because of the high volume of creatures and effects, but Rob was amazing for discovering low budget-high quality solutions to the script. Many times he would read something in the script and tell me I was crazy. I would insist that he think it over and always within 24 hours he had a solution for pulling off the illusion. Plus, our imaginations are so similar and we really compliment each other on the set.

One thing that kind of intrigued me in this film was the gallery with the
constantly changing paintings that depicted the various scenes and horrors
that surrounded the characters. How long did it take to get all those
paintings put together for the film, and who actually did the work on them?

The paintings were always a thorn in my side. I had interviewed hundreds of artists and the prices were always so outrageous. One artist wanted $20,000 and 10% of the film’s overall profits. Plus, I was worried about the turn around time in producing the actual paintings and I knew if I had wanted changes that was going to be an additional hassle. I eventually commissioned an artist for six paintings, but when three were delivered I knew I was in trouble. I wanted the paintings to be surrealistic and creepy in tone, but yet realistic in the depiction of the actual characters. With that in mind, Rob and I decided upon using a digital still camera and Photoshop. This way we could manipulate and create whatever we wanted within the time frame we needed, without the hassle of an artist. Once an image was created, we simply printed it on nine pieces of paper and glued it together. We probably spent about two hours on each painting.

The setting for this film was genuinely creepy in all respects. Where did
you actually shoot this film, and did the interior shots take a lot of
set-up to make them look as creepy as they did, or did a lot of the
interior locations already have a generally creepy look without a lot of
tweaking?

The film was shot at several locations, ranging from a historical location, an actual turn of the century asylum, an actual closed down academy, my house, and several sets that were built in an old karate studio. I will say that the locations did have a genuinely creepy feel, but also that the camera is so forgiving. Additionally, lighting is incredibly important and I did spend a lot of time enhancing the look of the locations. With the lighting I was able to create the atmosphere that tied all the locations together, since if you look closely none of the architecture or time periods match.

One of 13 Seconds' more nightmarish creatures.Something else that really added to the creepiness of this film was the
music. Michael Poland did the music for this film. How closely did you
work with him on it? Did you consult with him heavily on the music
production or was it more of the kind of thing where you said, “Here’s the
film, do your stuff.”

Michael is a truly talented and versatile musician. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to work as closely with him as I would have liked since he is based in Florida. But even with the distance, he was able to capture the essence of the film. The difficult part was when we started to receive invitations from distributors. The music was completed, but the film was not yet scored. Michael had to overnight us the music, and both Rob and I had to work all night to score the film ourselves. But all in all, I think the music perfectly compliments the film.

Most films have at least one story of a day from hell where everything went
totally wrong and or things that happened that were just absolutely hilarious. What were some of your most memorable moments in making this film?

Just one day of hell? I think that describes the entire “13 Seconds” shoot. Because of all the effects, we had so many set backs and complications and unfortunately that just adds to the time on the set. And even more unfortunate than that is the circumstances of the scenes. We had people tied to beds, people under beds, people hanging upside down, people in asylum basements covered in blood and many more lousy circumstances all for hours on end. My cast and crew really hated me at the end. For me the most memorable moment was shooting the ending of the film. To nail the essence of the film, bring all the story tangents together, and create resolution on both sides of the camera was absolutely challenging. It was really something that I had thought about, planned, rehearsed and prayed about for awhile. But whether or not I was successful, I will leave up to the readers of Rogue Cinema.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I have completed a script for a loose follow up to “13 Seconds.” Essentially it takes a few sub textual elements of “13 Seconds” and spins it off with new characters and locations and a new twist ending. Plus, it introduces a new horror icon character that will rival Leatherface and Pinhead. But before that, my agent is shopping around another script of mine to all the major studios. This is a zombie film that will take the living dead into a totally original and bold territory with a wicked twist of an ending that has never been seen before.