I had the opportunity to chat with Jerry Janda Jr. (writer, actor and producer) this month about his upcoming Lovecraftian(ish) film, BLACK WAKE; his film, PAINKILLER (one of my personal faves); his start in the indie film business and a TON of other stuff. As a lifelong horror fan, Jerry Janda got his first taste of independent filmmaking during the production of BAGGAGE in 2013. This led him to work on his on films and believe me, he’s come far. So listen up, because Janda has a lot to tell you (and it’s all wicked interesting!).
MML: So you’re currently working in independent film – it seems you only started in that field a couple of years ago. What did you do before and what led you to the indie film scene?
JJ: What I did before is pretty much what I do now — I work in marketing communications. That may not sound terribly exciting, but I do get to write and edit for a living. I’m lucky that I’ve pretty much always held writing and editing jobs — for trade magazines, for university newspapers, for large corporations — because I love to do those things.
I’m happy that I’ve been able to pursue a career where I can write, but if I had my druthers, I’d write fiction and scripts for a living. But those are my hobbies right now, as I can’t pay the bills with that sort of writing.
I got into the indie film scene when I donated to the crowd-funding for a Rob Dimension film called BAGGAGE. I was going to be an extra in one of the scenes, but a few days before the shoot, the guy who played Rob’s boss had to drop out. Rob offered me the part. It was only a couple lines, but I had such a great deal of fun doing it. Plus, as a genre fan, it was a cool learning experience to witness how an indie horror film is put together. It gave me my first taste.
Through BAGGAGE, I got to meet guys like Jeremiah Kipp and Jeff Gould. Both of them played a huge role in my first short, PAINKILLER. In fact, it was BAGGAGE that inspired me to take a crack at making my own short. I have Rob to thank for that. He’s been a friend and mentor for years.
MML: As a lifelong horror fan, what’s your favorite horror film AND who’s your favorite monster/killer? (I’m mildly obsessed with NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET…)
JJ: That’s like asking me to name my favorite child! I love so many films. As far as favorites go, I guess I’d say THE THING — although if you asked me the same question tomorrow, I might change my mind. I think THE SHINING is the scariest film I’ve ever seen though. HALLOWEEN III is one of the most underrated films and another personal favorite.
For favorite killer, I really loved what Mads Mikkelsen did with the Hannibal character. I was never crazy about Anthony Hopkins’ take on the role — I felt it was a bit derivative of what Brian Cox did in MANHUNTER. At times, Hopkins was overly campy. But Mikkelsen gave us a deadly serious and believable Hannibal — one who was truly frightening. The performance was never tongue in cheek — unless, as a cannibal, he happened to be eating someone’s tongue. A pity that the show got cancelled, but the third season did start pretty weak. And I say that as a fan.
Going back to HALLOWEEN III, Conal Cochran — played by Dan O’Herlihy — is one of my favorite villains ever. The speech he gives about the true nature of Halloween — Samhain — is absolutely unsettling. And, like Hannibal, he takes a cold amusement in manipulating and killing.
Hmm…guys in suits who murder with an almost bored pleasure. I’m sensing a pattern…
MML: You wrote PAINKILLER, which is by far one of my favorite short films EVER, because it deals with such a relevant and difficult topic that needs more conversation about it to find better solutions. What led you to write PAINKILLER? And why did you go with body horror instead of, say, a regular drama?
JJ: First, thanks for your kind words about PAINKILLER. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
The inspiration came, I suppose, from my own personal experiences. I had herniated discs in my neck twice — once in 2008, then again in 201l. Both times I required fusion surgery. Anyone who has suffered nerve pain knows how horrible it is. You just can’t get relief because the pressure on the nerves is constant, so the pain is constant. During those periods of my life, I was taking a lot of painkillers to get through the day — before the surgery and during the recovery.
I don’t want to act like I was a major addict who was trying to score pills off the street. I was never that bad. But I did develop a dependency for a bit — and I developed a tolerance, as people do with opioids, so you end up taking more and more. When I finally got off the pills, I went through withdrawal. It’s awful.
So a big part of the film comes from that — the real-life horrors of chronic pain and addiction. But there are other elements in there as well. For example, addictions aren’t limited to substances. You can be addicted to anything — even people. So I also wanted to delve into the co-dependency of toxic relationships and the sexuality that goes along with it. There are several relationships in the film, and none of them ends pleasantly.
I think of the film as allegorical. If people enjoy it as a creature feature or a flick about a mad scientist or whatever, that’s great — as long as they enjoy it! But, deep down, I was also trying to say something about pain and addiction. As you pointed out in your question, pain management is a big issue that needs a better solution. The scientists in the movie truly want to address the medical community’s inclination to treat pain with pills, an approach that causes its own form of pain. They have the best intentions at heart with their alternative to pain medication, but best intentions are a surefire way to pave a road to hell. No pun intended.
I don’t think a drama would have had the same punch or created the same sense of uneasiness. Body horror was a convenient way for me to tackle all the subjects I hoped to cover, while also packaging everything in a disturbing story. I like stories that leave themselves open to interpretation, and I hope PAINKILLER has depth worthy of audience exploration. More than anything though, I just want people to watch the film and think it’s good.
There’s also a more pragmatic reason why I didn’t write a drama. I’m a horror fan, so I wanted to do a horror movie.
MML: It seems you split your time pretty equally between writing, producing and acting. Is there one you prefer over the other?
JJ: I really enjoy acting — I always have, going back to when I was a kid — but it’s not my strength. I have no delusions of pursuing a career in acting. But whenever I get a chance to get in front of the camera, I welcome it.
Storytelling is a lifelong love of mine, and writing is probably where my skills lie. But it can be a mentally grueling process — just trying to find the ideas, the words, the structure. It’s like you have to wrestle the story to life. Still, when you write something and it comes out well, it’s such a uniquely positive accomplishment.
As for producing, it’s not a lot of fun — especially when you’re paying out of pocket and trying to manage difficult people on set. You get to write the checks and fire people. It’s not glamorous. To be honest, I’m not sure if my personality lends itself well to producing, although producing PAINKILLER did teach me a lot and, in some ways, made me a stronger person. I put up with treatment during that production that I won’t tolerate anymore.
As an aside, I started doing micro-shorts because I also want to try directing — on a small scale, of course. I want to learn everything I can about the art of film-making, because I love it, but I also recognize my limitations. I look at every project as a valuable opportunity for on-the-job training.
MML: Your latest film, DITCH, is a micro-short. Describe that film-making style in a micro-short way.
JJ: Producing PAINKILLER was financially, emotionally, and mentally draining. For a time, I thought I was one and done — that I would never want to do another indie film. But then I decided to try micro-shorts — relatively inexpensive films that don’t require weeks to shoot with huge crews, but still provide an outlet for creativity. I reached out to Jeff Gould, the cinematographer and editor on PAINKILLER, because he’s a true pro I wanted to work with again. Fortunately for me, Jeff was receptive, and we began to make plans. DITCH was our first micro-short, and we were partners on the film. I wrote it, he shot and edited it, and we co-directed and -produced it.
The challenge of a micro-short is making a big impact in little time. For a writer and filmmaker, however, it’s also an opportunity to test yourself. Can you tell a good story quickly or deliver something with emotional impact? And can you make a slick product when you don’t have funds to dip into?
With a micro-short, there is no room for fluff or fat. You need to keep the pace tight, yet also hook the audience. I think we managed to do just that with DITCH. I think it’s effective, and it doesn’t feel like — or look like — a no-budget film.
MML: What is DITCH about and why did you choose that subject for your first micro?
JJ: It’s the story of a mother who is fretting over her daughter, who is out past her curfew. I thought it might be interesting to try to toy with the old familiar mom cliché — when you’re out late, and you come home, and she’s angry and yells, “I thought you were dead in a ditch!” I also wanted to go with an idea that I knew wouldn’t require big bucks to pull off.
Since the film is only three minutes, I wanted to create a sense of tension with very little dialogue — all leading up to the film’s punchline. But I also wanted to leave the final moment open to audience interpretation. Is the daughter telling the truth? Or is a darker secret involved? As I said earlier, I love films that give the viewers something to think about.
MML: You’re also currently in production on your first feature, BLACK WAKE, that you wrote, that is a throwback to Lovecraft, correct? What can you tell us about it?
JJ: The idea almost began as a joke. Jeremiah Kipp, the director of BAGGAGE and PAINKILLER, was on a radio show and he said that found footage was his least favorite genre as a filmmaker. That got me thinking, “Can I write a found-footage film that might appeal to Jeremiah?” I have a ton of respect for Jeremiah, so I thought it might provide a chance to work together again.
There was one problem: I knew I wanted to do a found-footage film, but I had no ideas!
Inspiration hit me while I was watching a video of a horsehair worm coming out of a praying mantis. As best as I can explain as a layperson with no scientific background: Horsehair worms are parasites that take over certain types of insects and make the insects thirsty, to drive the insects to water where they’ll drown and the worms will exit to continue their life and breeding cycle. That’s seriously creepy. And I began to wonder, “What if there were a larger version that infected humans and drove them to water?”
I liked the idea, but I didn’t want to do a parasite film with predominant body-horror elements. After PAINKILLER, I didn’t want to be a one-trick pony. So I wanted to give the worms a more complex, terrifying motivation. But, again, I was stuck — until I was on vacation, sitting on the beach, staring out at the ocean. I’m a huge Lovecraft fan, and I thought of Cthulhu out there in R’yleh deep beneath the waves, biding his time. That’s when the lightbulb went off. I started kicking around the idea of tying the worms into some monstrous alien intelligence. I didn’t want to rip off Lovecraft, however. I wanted “The Call of Cthulhu” influences to show — the insanity, the cultists, the unspeakable horror, and even my own version of the Necronomicon — but I didn’t want to do a film about Cthulhu. So BLACK WAKE is more of my own spin on a Lovecraft tale — one that I hope would somehow fit into the vibe of the Cthulhu mythos without ripping it off.
I think the format of found footage lends itself well to the story. We watch a scientist piece together video evidence to try to figure out what’s causing a series of mysterious deaths. She’s also reading a book — a bundle of mismatched pages crammed with ramblings and illustrations — written by a crazed homeless man who proclaims himself a prophet. The book is called THE SEAS FROM WHENCE THEY CAME — which was also the original name of the script, by the way — and as the book passes hands in the film, it spreads madness.
Since I had written the script with Jeremiah in mind, I sent it to him. He liked it and shared it with a New York-based producer and agent named Carlos Keyes, who wanted to make the film. Carlos has been great to work with. He sent notes about the script, so I revised and added stuff based on his requests. The nice thing is that Carlos gave me leeway in how I ran with the requests. For example, he might ask me to add another scene with a particular character, then left it to me to pitch what that scene could be. So I still had a great deal of creative flexibility, for which I am grateful. Best of all, the film had a real budget, so the movie got additional scenes that I never could have afforded if I had produced myself. It was wonderful to have that kind of freedom. With Carlos’ involvement, it became a much better script.
The film stars a talented Brazilian actress named Nana Gouvea. I believe this is her first English-language film, and I think she’s going to turn a lot of heads in the lead role as the scientist. The film co-stars Eric Roberts and Tom Sizemore. It’s kind of surreal saying that. I never would have dreamed I would write something that would be turned into a film with Eric Roberts and Tom Sizemore.
Oh, and I make a cameo as a cop. Fingers crossed that I don’t end up on the cutting-room floor.
MML: What’s next on the horizon for you?
JJ: I have a whole series of micro-shorts planned out. If I do enough of them, I might release them on an anthology DVD. For now, they’ll be free. My primary goal is to get people to watch. I’m happy to say that DITCH has nearly nine-hundred views. Maybe this interview will help push it over a thousand!
I hope to shoot the majority of micro-shorts with Jeff Gould, but not all of my stories interest him, so I’m also looking to branch out and work with other people.
I’m currently talking to Sanj Surati and John Iwasz — the mad geniuses behind the hilarious horror comedies SPAMMER and ZOMBIE CASSEROLE — about doing a samurai ghost story that I wrote. Those guys are fantastic — we get together every month or two for dinner, beer, and film conversation — and it would be a thrill to work with them on a project.
I co-wrote a script called RAPT with Russ Hackett, who appears in DITCH and is also a frequent supporter of Rob Dimension’s work. Tom Ryan — whose award-winning film FACES is making the festival rounds — is on board to direct. That should be really cool.
I’m also working on a very twisted story for an anthology series that a Seattle-based director is hoping to do. And I would love to finish a horror comedy I’ve been writing with Rob in mind. Considering his influence on me, it would be an honor to do something with him.
More than anything, I want to write horror stories that are diverse, to allow me to exercise different types of creativity.
MML: Any words of advice for aspiring writers/actors/producers?
JJ: For starters, I’ll repeat some advice that Rob Dimension gave years ago. He said, “People ask me how they can become an indie filmmaker too. My advice is just to go for it.” I’m paraphrasing — I hope I’m doing his actual quote justice. I had PAINKILLER in my head when I saw that advice from Rob, and it got me off my butt to write it.
For writers, I would advise that you write for you, not with an audience in mind. Make sure that you’re pleased with the story and it’s a tale you want to tell. I wrote a script called PAST PRESENT shortly after PAINKILLER wrapped, and I can’t find anyone who wants to make it. But I’m OK with that because I’m happy with what I wrote.
On the other hand, if you sell a script, be prepared for compromises — especially if you want to sell more scripts. Directors and producers will do whatever they think is best to make the best possible film. It’s rare that a finished film matches what was written initially. Heck, the original script for APOCALYPSE NOW — written by the great John Milius — isn’t exactly what you see when you watch Coppola’s masterpiece. Before you get discouraged, remember that change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I said before, the script for BLACK WAKE evolved from what I had first written, but I think it improved with each subsequent draft.
For actors, it’s important to keep in mind that at this level of indie filmmaking, you’re likely not going to get paid — or get paid much. But the experience can be invaluable, so show up on set like this is the most important job of your life. That can pay dividends in the long run. Kelly Rae LeGault — who was the lead in PAINKILLER — is a great example of what I mean. Kelly gave everything and then some for that role — literally blood, sweat, and tears. It wasn’t an easy part; it was incredibly demanding physically and emotionally. But Kelly was a trooper. She never complained. The end result is amazing. And I hope that her talent, along with her work ethic, has led to other things. She’s done quite a bit since PAINKILLER — including an important role in BLACK WAKE.
The bottom line is — if you show up on set with an ego or don’t take the film seriously, you’re hurting the movie. You’re also killing your reputation. Word of mouth is everything, especially in a tight circle like indie horror.
For producers — particularly if you’re producing a film that you wrote — you need to be firm. Collaboration is key on set, especially when you’re surrounded by professionals who know more than you do, but don’t be afraid to express strong opinions. As Rob Dimension once told me: “Your film is like your baby. No one is going to love it as much as you do.” So it’s important to get what you want.
I would add that you should manage your finances carefully. PAINKILLER was my first film, and I had a tendency to throw money at problems to fix them, and, not surprisingly, that cost me. If you’re planning to fund the film through Kickstarter or something, you need to determine whether you have a maximum budget. Unexpected expenses will pop up, and you need to know from the start how much more you’re willing to pay.
Finally, if there’s a jerk on set, get him to adjust his attitude or get rid of him. The wrong personality can be poison. Sometimes it may be better to stop production for a bit to find the right people. Moving forward with the wrong people is a miserable experience.
I should point out that all of my advice for producers comes from my own mistakes.
MML: Anything else you’d like to tell us about?
JJ: One of the best things about making independent films is that I’ve been able to connect with so many cool like-minded people who are passionate about the horror genre too. I’ve met reviewers, podcasters, festival programmers, performers, directors, writers — you name it. If I hadn’t done PAINKILLER, for example, I wouldn’t be fortunate enough to be talking to you right now. That means a lot to me.
Thanks to PAINKILLER, I’ve made many new friends, and for that reason alone, I’m glad I did the film. But not everyone feels the same way. I think filmmakers sometimes get caught up in their own projects and see other filmmakers as competitors. They look at other people in indie horror in terms of what they can provide. I think that’s short-sighted. I think of indie horror as family. Supporting indie horror means supporting more than your own stuff. People I’ve met are happy for my successes, and I celebrate theirs as well.
That feeling of camaraderie, in turn, can lead to collaboration built upon mutual respect. I’ve already mentioned a bunch of people who became friends and who are now working with me on projects. That is so gratifying. I can reach out to friends to ask if they’d like to do something with me, and they know they can call on me if they need help as well. People are sending me micro-scripts now and asking to work with me. But I don’t let that go to my head — at least I hope it doesn’t come across that way. I think my enthusiasm about projects comes across as arrogance sometimes. Just look at how I blabbed on and one for this interview! But, trust me, I know I’m still a novice. I’m still learning, I’m still relatively new, and I get excited whenever I get involved with something.
So many doors have opened in surprising ways, and I don’t take that for granted. For example, I am now doing a podcast called Weekday Matinee on the Supernaughts network with Scott Colbert. Scott had me as a guest on his Imaginarium podcast to talk about a couple of my projects, we had a good rapport, so we decided to do our own show where we talk about films. It’s a blast and PAINKILLER made it possible.
On the film side, PAINKILER helped me get in touch with Ed Fisk and his wife, Lisa, who does impressive makeup and special effects. She has a company called Rotton Kandy that’s just unbelievable. I like Lisa’s work, Ed and she liked PAINKILER, and I hoped we could so something together. So I asked Lisa if she could do the makeup for DITCH, she agreed, and the outcome blew me away. And that all came about because of mutual admiration — through making contacts and building friendships.
To give a few more recent examples: Rob Dimension cast me in MORTIMOR TROMBLAY, a surreal Lynchian comedy, and that was so much fun. A filmmaker named Mario Melillo gave me a role in THE S.P.I.E.S. FILES, a Web series that he’s filming. I was one of many familiar faces on set the day of Mario’s shoot, and that goes to prove my point about the close-knit community within indie horror. While we are on the subject, many familiar faces from the tri-state horror scene make cameo appearances in BLACK WAKE too.
One last example, and then I promise to shut up. Sanj Surati and John Iwasz asked me to play a victim in a grindhouse trailer they’re shooting. So, in a few weeks, I’ll either get stabbed or set on fire.
How cool is that?