A screenwriter, director, improv performer, actor, producer, and published fantasy novelist, Joe Davison is involved in virtually every aspect of the entertainment industry. He has starred in such horror films as Unearthed, Timo Rose’s Fearmakers, and Beast, as well as written and acted in 100 Tears and his directorial debut, Experiment 7. Currently in post-production on As Night Falls, Davison continues to look towards the future with his Florida-based studio, Pop Gun Pictures.
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EI: What first sparked your interest in filmmaking?
JD: It started when I was doing a comedy sketch show called The Sidewalk Cracks. We would tape about six sketches over the weekend and edit them throughout the week and air them on Monday nights at 10 O’clock on TCI Cable channel 5. Doing those sketches every week for about four years you learn film making on a small scale. It wasn’t until I got my first role in feature film in 1997. After being on that set in Miami I was hooked. That’s all I wanted to do from there on out.
EI: How does your background in improv comedy influence your style as a filmmaker? Do you allow your actors to improvise on set?
JD: I like to have a loose set. I want people to have fun on our sets and enjoy themselves. Now of course you have to take it seriously when making a film, but I try not restrain actors from going just a little left field with it. I love making horror films. They’re a blast to make. The blood, gore, and scares are great! I try to put comedy in there as well. You need those moments when the audience is so into the film they haven’t been able to breathe for a few minutes. I like to give them a little slack and make them laugh. I feel that improv is the catalyst to lot of surprise moments on film. Those are usually the best takes. When an actor has forgotten that they are acting and they fully react to a scene and suddenly realize what they are saying is ridiculous. That’s when they come to you and say "hey this doesn’t make any sense. Can we change it?" I love those moments.
EI: What drew you to the horror genre?
JD: I started sneaking down to this gas station by house at around the age of ten or eleven. I would get a soda and an issue of Fangoria magazine. I had to hide the Fango’s from my mother, who wasn’t a big horror fan. My dad didn’t care, in fact he would let me stay up late and watch Elvira Mistress of the Dark, or USA Up All Night, for the cheap horror films on the weekends. I would also watch A&Es and evening at the Improv as well. But, horror is where I wanted to be. I found it amazing.
EI: What are some of the challenges filmmakers of horror films face on set?
JD: Most of my biggest issues have been weather. From one extreme to the other. The heat and cold are both very bad for applications such as foam latex or wax. The heat will cause the actor to sweat it off and in the cold stuff sets too fast. Gelatin is ridiculous when it comes to the cold. Instant peanut brittle. Snaps right off. So its a constant reset. Also when an actor has to be stabbed or stuck or shot or wounded in some way the set ups can take up to an hour between shots. It’s a lot of hurry up and wait.
EI: Zombie movies have become one of the most crowded sub genres in cinema. How do you approach such a monster?
JD: I love zombies. They’re such a great characters to play with. I try not to over do them. I want the films to be about the main characters. Zombies are things that just get in the way. But you can really make them the catalyst like Romero does. I really like Diary of Dead. I thought that was a great film. But Shaun of the Dead got it right. I try to take the newer Romero approach. They should be slightly more cognitive and be able to move quicker. Slow zombies are not threatening unless you’re trapped in a bathroom and there’s a hundred of them. So, I really like the faster zombies. I asked the actors in Experiment 7 to portray them like a pack of animals. There’s a leader, and he can give a command and then they all attack. Like a pack of wolves would. But, they’re not necessarily attacking to harm you, they only want to eat. They don’t know any better, so when they’re done playing with their new toy and it’s all broken they simply move onto the next one or one another. I have a zombie film I really really want to do. Some day I suppose. In a few years maybe.
EI: You’ve acted in both Experiment 7 and As Night Falls, the films you directed. Can you describe the process of directing yourself?
JD: It’s hard. because as a director you can watch the monitor and make sure all the elements are there. The actors hit their marks or the action scenes look right. But, when you pull yourself out from behind the camera and into the scene you must rely on your assistant director or producers who are there. Thankfully, I have a super team and they know what to look for and aren’t afraid to tell me to do it again or that my scream looked like a smile or whatever the case may be.
EI: As the writer of your own films, do you find yourself rewriting the script during the filming process?
JD: I tell people there are four versions of a film. The written, the directed, the edited, and the viewed. All are completely different from the next. When writing I imagine a location or I may have a specific place in mind, whatever the case may be. So you about a building with three flours and you only get a building with two floors, or house with back porch and it’s got a front porch. I try to explain to students, when I teach a class on scriptwriting that they can not be in love with their script. Don’t marry it. Because in the end it’s not the person you fell in love with. It changes and molds itself as you film and edit. It becomes something else. And you should the entire process of film making. I often do find myself changing things on set when something isn’t working correctly. Or we feel it needs something more or something less. You can’t be afraid to cut things or add things as you go. It’s part of the process. Let it develop to maturity naturally.
EI: What is your current evaluation of the low budget horror scene at the moment?
JD: I don’t know. That’s hard to say. I think it’s steadily increasing in production value. Top of the line cameras are now becoming affordable to the consumer. So we as film makers can purchase equipment at a much lower price allowing us the opportunity to have more quality footage. So the films are looking better and that lets the audience know that yes, we’re low budget but we can still make a decent film. There are plenty of good film makers out there making low budget horror films. Or simply low budget films in general, and they’re getting better every day. And thankfully for us, the big studios are spending so much time on remakes it leaves all the good material, the pure material, the new material to the independent film maker. So we win.
EI: You’re also responsible for some non-horror works, including award winning documentaries. Do you have to completely adjust the way you work depending on the type of film you’re making, or can you approach a horror in the same way?
JD: Yeah, basically films are all the same. Cast, crew, equipment, locations, and food. But, sometimes it takes a while to tame any beast. Certain things you can’t do the same on a documentary you can on a horror film. When you’re to trying to reexamine someone who’s historical you have to be specific and detailed. Not making it up And if you try to forgo information you will miss things.
EI: You’re a published author with four novels in print. When did you begin writing fiction and how is the process different from screenwriting?
JD: The two styles are very different. When you right a screenplay it’s a lot of CUT TOs and FADE OUTs to help you transition from one scene to the next. When you write a novel you don’t have those luxuries. You have to make the process flow for the reader. It took me almost two years to write my first novel. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t understand it. But, I knew I wanted to write Deaths Campaign, it says a lot about life for me at that time. I’m a huge fantasy geek. Knights, and demons, and witches always get me. Medieval is one of my favorite subjects. So, pushing through the ignorance, I managed to finally understand the process on both the technical and storytelling sides. But, now I think I like the formula for novel writing more so than script writing.
EI: What is your process for novel writing like? Do you work on your fiction at the same time you’re making a film, and if so, do the two works have any influence on one another?
JD: I have two different processes when writing for script and when writing for a novel. In a novel you have a lot more leeway in writing. You disclose more on the page. In a script I try not to get too detailed about a certain location. Example; “INT. Office Bob sits a his paper covered desk. It is messy and unorganized. His phone rings.” Then you can jump down and go into dialogue. You can leave a lot up to the set designer so they can decide if Bob has a cherry desk, or an oak desk, or even an old fashioned metal one. You might find a location that has an office just how you want it. All you have to is clutter it up with paper work.
In a novel I can be as detailed as I want. Example; “Bob was sitting staring at his desk. The coffee stained paperwork hadn’t moved in days. The ashtray was overrunning with used cigarette butts and chewed bubble gum. The smell of nicotine and Hubba Bubba stung his nostrils. His out of date monitor flickered back at him with its green cursor manically blinking at him. Bob could feel the sweat roll down the center of his back. Man is it so hot in this little office he thought. The door opened.”
Or something like that. A novel allows you to give life to inanimate objects. I love that part. You can give personality to somethings. Not that you can’t in a script but that’s just my example.
My mind is always racing. It never stops. Sometimes I simply can’t relax, even if I’m sick. I have to get up and work on my laptop. Especially if and when I’m working on something creative. Even on set, more so on set. You have all these creative minds whirling about as you shoot. Then you get an idea for a story be it script or novel and that’s all I think about for days. Sometimes, it only takes me days to write a script. Once that door is unlocked I’ll stay up for fifteen twenty hours just writing. If I don’t give it life it gnaws at my brain until it physically pounds its way out. So, yes. One work influences the other quiet often. It’s a magical and majestic place, inside my head. So I’ve been told.
EI: Florida isn’t the first place that pops in your head when you think about independent filmmaking. How does your surroundings affect your style and work?
JD: It certainly isn’t. Tampa especially isn’t, not for independent film anyway. Since, it’s known as the 2nd largest porn capital in the world. Go figure. So, when you say you’re a film maker they immediately assume you make porn. Whatever that is. (laughs out loud). But, seriously, it’s pretty easy to get things done here as a film maker. The film commissioners are great, the people are great, and everyone is up for it. It really isn’t that hard to find a location for whatever you’re doing. Sure it might cost something to get it, but you can’t expect someone to give something for free, not all the time anyway. I’m not your typical Florida guy. I’m not a beach comber, well, not during the day anyway, being an Irish/Viking the sun and I don’t get along very well. As far as it affecting film making, it can have a very disastrous effect. We have horrible thunderstorms with terrible, terrible lightning. We have two or three hurricanes every season. And this winter was the worst in years, which was horrible while we were trying film As Night Falls outside for the most. One night it reached 22 degrees. In Florida!!
EI: You’re the founder of the Tampa FIlm Network. Can you describe this organization?
JD: The Tampa Film Network is a wonderful resource for independent film makers. It’s a social network online, but it also has monthly meetings to see who needs what as far their film is concerned. It meant to be there for any film maker that needs help with their project. Help them find equipment, locations, cast, crew, or whatever they may need for free. It now has over two hundred members and is constantly holding classes, seminars, or events to showcase the local film maker. Dan Brienza maintains the organization and does a fantastically amazing job! He has taken it further than I had ever expected. We have recently discussed branching out to Orlando, Miami, and Jacksonville. That will be happening in the next few weeks.
EI: How important is it to have a network of colleagues?
JD: Colleagues and friends will be/and are your life source. Networking is the biggest part of being a film maker. Because you never know when you need a location and so-and-sos uncle just happens to have that said location or car or office building for your film. You meet some crazy people in the business but usually those are the ones you least expect to have what you need and most often do. I often try to get out to social events and network.
EI: I understand you lived and worked in Cambridge for a few years. How did your experience abroad influence your writing?
JD: This is where it all started for me really. I met the lovely people of the Cambridge Film Makers Network; that’s were the (Tampa Network) idea came from. And I wrote my first novel living over there. Visiting the castles, villages, and wilderness was simply amazing. Thousands of years of history literally at your doorstep. Working with the Cambridge Network folks like Carl Homer, Stuart Watkins, Emily Blickem, Alison Mulford, Kate Robinson, and Neill Philips really brought me up a level. It’s been some time and most of us still talk through facebook and all of us are still making movies. Which is such a wonderful feeling. Even across the world you know your friends are making it happen.
EI: What are some of your goals as a filmmaker and for your production company, Pop Gun Pictures?
JD: I plan on taking a turn and pulling myself from acting for the most part and focus on directing and writing. Not entirely but when it comes to my projects. I don’t want to have the weight of acting and directing for much longer. Pop Gun has just joined forces with Crown Productions, and we have a five year plan ahead of ourselves with making feature films. We still plan on producing other companies films and helping on any projects that come our way but for the most part we are concentrating on our productions.
EI: Can you tell us about your current project?
JD: You bet! As Night Falls takes place in rural America. It’s about Elizabeth Croft (Deneen Melody) and her sister Holly Croft (Lily Cardone). They have just moved into a farmhouse with their mother who’s away on business at the moment, and hell is about to break loose. The farmhouse is haunted by two very nasty ghosts, Nelly (Debbie Rochon) and Seymour (Michael Ellison). And they’ll stop at nothing to kill everyone on the property. But, Elizabeth finds a friend in the spirit of their daughter, who they have killed. Her boyfriend Otto (Dwight Cenac) and her brother Charlie (Joe Davison) end up helping a lot too in the process of fighting evil demons. It’s a wild story that has crazy car chase, huge fight scenes, and an attack squad of zombies. It’s just a fun film. I’m hoping people will just go crazy with it and cheer and clap and scream and have a real good time with it.