An Interview with Justin Channell – By Brian Morton

Most of the time, as the "bad movie guy," I have to watch bad movies. Now, I don’t complain about it, in fact, I actually enjoy it, but every once in a while you get a movie that you think won’t live up to the expectations; that’s the experience I had with Raising The Stakes. In case you missing last month’s Rogue Cinema where I reviewed Raising The Stakes you should check it out too! But, after having seen this very good movie, I was interested in talking to the brains behind it. Justin Channell joined his friends and formed IWC Films (by the way IWC stands for Idiots With Cameras, which should tell you the attitude that prevails in this movie.) He’s put together a local film festival and still found time to help run Troma’s official fan-run site. Could he be any busier? Well, I got the chance to make Justin just a little bit busier and asked him a few questions about Raising The Stakes as well as a few other things.

Justin ChannellBMG: First, as a big fan of the movie I have to ask what inspired you to make Raising The Stakes?

JC: At my school, a friend of mine discovered that there was a freshman who believed he was a necromancer… which, for those who don’t know (I’m sure there’s plenty… I had to have it explained too) is a sorcerer that keeps the dead from rising. This guy was seriously into it and would tell people about how hard it was to keep down the dead and crazy shit like that. Then one day, I guess he brought a knife to school to stop his friend with multiple personalities from doing something (I can’t remember what exactly it was) and two girls who believed in witchcraft told on him, because necromancers were against their witch beliefs.

That was what topped it off for me. I’m honestly not 100% sure if that last part of the story ever really happened, but it was enough for me to stop and ask, "What the fuck is wrong with these people?!"

I’m a year younger than the rest of the IWC Films regulars. We had been making shorts for years and when their senior year was approaching, I realized that we’d probably end up going our separate ways sometime soon. So I thought it’d be a good idea for us to make a feature film, so we would have something to show for after all those years. I had two vampire scripts that had concepts I really liked. One was about a party being attacked by role-playing nerds who became vampires and the other was a serious story about a guy who becomes a vampire from buying a potion and discovers he doesn’t have the stomach to kill. Taking those two concepts and the wackiness of the local fantasy crowd was what formed the story for Raising The Stakes.

If you’re talking about literal inspiration, I’d say Troma and Trey Parker were probably the biggest inspiration. My friends and I probably couldn’t go for a day without quoting a Trey Parker/Matt Stone production. I actually ended up getting into Troma because of my Trey Parker fandom and honestly, it’s what really got me motivated in filmmaking. I started running a Troma fan site and got to interview all these incredibly cool people that had made films with or distributed by Troma, and learned a lot along the way. Another thing I love about a lot of the movies Troma releases is that they have those underlying social/political statements. That’s what I was really wanting to do with Raising The Stakes: make a comedy that made a statement against both the mob mentality of teens and out-of-hand fantasy lifestyles.

BMG: Since you’re a huge fan, what was it like to actually work with Lloyd Kaufman? And how did you manage to get him involved in RTS?

JC: Working with Lloyd was an absolutely incredible and surreal experience. I had idolized and based a good bit of my filmmaking ethic off of his work, and having him willing to do a scene in my first real film was just incredible. Lloyd is very supportive of his fans that have an interest in making their own damn movies and it shows. I run a small film festival here in Fairmont, WV and last time, three of the four features we screened had Lloyd Kaufman cameos!

But getting back on topic, I had never actually considered putting him in the film, mostly due to the fact we had no way of getting to New York to shoot anything with him. Then one day, my friend Chaz Kangas, who was at NYU, asked me about it and offered to help out. I e-mailed Lloyd about it and he said that the Troma staff could probably shoot it in the next batch of DVD intros. Well, time went on and it seemed like there was never enough time to get it shot (which, if you’re familiar with the overhaul of work they do at Troma, is not surprising). About that time, I saw that Lloyd was going to be in Pittsburgh for a Make Your Own Damn Movie! master class. Zane, TJ, and I ended up going up there for the class and afterwards, I walked up to Lloyd, reminded him who I was, and asked if we could shoot his scenes there. We ended up shooting them right in the back of the classroom after the fans all cleared out, with a small crowd of Pittsburgh film students and filmmakers watching on. It was pretty cool to have them there too, because everyone was throwing in little suggestions and David Silvio (director of Meat For Satan’s Icebox, which was recently released under Troma’s Dogpile95 digital filmmaking label) took some pictures for us. After we wrapped up, I ended up being given the mop of the Toxic Avenger stand-in (who I believe was MFSI music composer Jason English), which Lloyd signed.

When we got back to Fairmont with the footage, suddenly we were legitimate filmmakers. I kid you not. Everyone just thought of us as doing some silly backyard movies before that, but when they heard we had the creator of The Toxic Avenger in it, they started taking us more seriously.

Also, I’ll go ahead and elaborate a bit on Count Gore de Vol (Richard Dyszel), since he was our first cameo:

Zane, Josh, and I had all attended Horrorfind Weekend the year before and got our first taste of Count Gore while he was hosting the costume contest there. When we were thinking of ideas for stuff to shoot at Horrorfind the next summer, we thought it’d be fun to shoot a scene with him, because he was incredibly entertaining and, the most obvious reason, wore a full vampire costume. The week before we were going to the convention, I had no clue what we were going to shoot. I was at my film festival talking with Nick Shomo (who plays Uncle Alex in the film) about vampire films and he was talking about how all vampire characters seem to dress the same. I said "Well, maybe it’s like a union issued uniform" and the idea popped into my head.

Justin and the gang hangin' with Lloyd Kaufman.
Justin and the gang hangin’ with Lloyd Kaufman.

BMG: Do you find yourself more interested in making horror movies or comedies?

JC: For the longest time, I’d write these scripts wanting to make these really serious horror movies. We started to shoot one of them, a zombie short called All Your Fault that I wanted to include in a proposed anthology. After two days of shooting, the whole thing fell apart. No one was having fun and everything just wasn’t working out.

So, when I started writing Raising The Stakes, I knew it had to be comedy. My friends and I all have good senses of humor and pretty decent comedic timing and when we shoot a film for laughs, we all end up having a much better time and it all works out for the better. So, I’d definitely say I’m more interested in making comedies, because we all end up having more fun and that leads to better product.

BMG: Are Steve and Bob in the movie based on people you know or did you just imagine them?

JC: Steve and Bob aren’t really based off of anyone in particular. I guess there’s a bit of Zane, Josh, and I in them though, especially when they’re talking about horror movies.

BMG: How long did it take you to get RTS made?

JC: Seven months. We started in July and wrapped up in January. We had to work around work and school schedules for everyone, so we could only shoot when everyone was available. That’s why early in the film, you see Josh Lively run off screen with short hair and then in the next shot he practically has an afro.

BMG: Was there any ad-libbing on the set or did the actors pretty much stick to the lines as written?

JC: Absolutely. Some scenes in the final film don’t even resemble what’s in the script. Basically, I just explained the scenario to Zane and Josh and went through the dialogue line-by-line. Then, they’d throw in their own stuff, which was usually way funnier than anything I’d written. This went for just about everyone in the film. Hell, we even ended up adding the Chief Cornbread subplot while we were shooting. Originally, there was supposed to be another actor with Ryan Stocking, but we didn’t get it cast in time. So when it came time to shoot those scenes, Zane said "Why don’t we just use that painting?" and I thought it was hilarious.

BMG: What would you have done differently with RTS with a bigger budget?

JC: I think this is pretty obvious… I’d recast Josh Lively and Zane Crosby with Samuel L. Jackson and Chuck Norris.

But seriously, I would probably go about buying a generator or some portable lights. We shot some scenes with only the glow of nearby streetlights, which was a terrible idea. But it was the only way we could shoot the scenes, since we had to way to take light to some of those locations. No one drove early in the shoot, so using headlights was out of the question. I cleaned up the footage the best I could, but the lighting is still the biggest complaint about the movie.

BMG: Is there a sequel in the works? Maybe Steve and Bob want to become another creature?

JC: Other than us joking about having Steve and Bob try to become superheroes, no. However, we’ve toyed around with the idea of a prequel with the origin of Chief Cornbread.

BMG: You seem very familiar with the "geek" lifestyle. Would you care to come out of the proverbial closet about being a geek? Or do you prefer it there in the dark with your comics?

JC: I’m not a geek in the usual sense. I haven’t played any form of role-playing game since I was in grade school and I rarely read comics. However, I’m a pretty hardcore movie geek, especially horror and sci-fi stuff and I spend a lot of time on the internet. Does that qualify?

BMG: What’s next for you, movie-wise? Are you planning another project? If so, can you tell us about it?

JC: Up next is a movie that’s tentatively titled DIE AND LET LIVE. It’s a zombie movie that takes on the absurdity of high school relationships. I wanted to use some of the elements of my never-completed zombie short All Your Fault, which was something I wrote after a really bad relationship, and turn it into a comedy. I’m currently describing it as Return of the Living Dead, meets Degrassi, meets Wet Hot American Summer, meets The Sandlot. We’re shooting it this summer on 24P, so hopefully it’ll turn out decent.

I’m sure that whatever Justin puts his mind to next will be very decent. If you haven’t seen Raising The Stakes yet, you should drop over to http://www.raisingthestakes.co.nr and pick up a copy. It’s a fun movie that’s well worth you time and I look forward to seeing what this young film-maker has up his sleeve for the future.