An Interview with Justin Paul Ritter – By Brian Morton

 After attending the Chicago Weekend Of Horrors, I found myself knee deep in movies that I wanted to see, one of them was a movie that I had read about for a couple of months in a couple of different places, Katiebird*Certifiable Crazy Person (a review of the movie appears in this very issue of RC!). Well, in Chi-Town, I had the chance to meet the writer/director of Katiebird, Justin Paul Ritter and was so impressed with the movie that I went out and bought it, just to see it again! When someone puts their heart and soul into a movie, I’ve always thought that you can tell, and it really did show with Katiebird, from the story, through the actors, everyone seemed to be giving their top shelf performances, which makes Katiebird one of the best movies that I’ve seen in a long time! Well, since I had the chance to meet with Justin Paul Ritter, the passionate young man who wrote and directed Katiebird*Certifiable Crazy Person, and he was a warm and engaging guy, I thought that it might be nice to introduce you to this up and coming young filmmaker .

BM – How did you get started in film making?

JPR – I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember…playing with action figures and creating scenarios probably served as the genesis…writing and illustrating children’s’ books starting around 8 years old is also part of it…but what really pushed me into filmmaking? hmm…a combination of things…I guess I’d have to partially credit Fangoria magazine…I’ve loved horror films from a very young age, and Fangoria was a great resource for information not only about the movies, but how they were getting made that made the reality of filmmaking as a career something I was at least aware of…more directly, I would credit movies like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, both of which were shot near my hometown in Connecticut and had a lot of people talking – though I was much too young to see the movies at the time, I was aware that they existed and that they were made right there in good ol’ CT…I would also have to credit VICTOR MILLER, the original creator of FRIDAY 13TH – he lived in my town and was one of our few celebrities; the fact that Miller was in my town and responsible for creating one of the biggest horror franchises on the planet resonated deep inside and filled me with the powerful knowledge that regardless of where you come from, it can be done…this knowledge led me to begin making video shorts during high school, and those shorts won me scholarships to college – Emerson College in Boston, to be exact…but I didn’t stay at Emerson long…there just wasn’t enough happening in that place and I felt like I needed to get to Los Angeles to really be in the game…so I transferred to Loyola Marymount University for about a year before landing an internship at the Roger Corman Studio in Venice Beach – and once I had a taste of the professional world, film school just seemed invalid…so…hmmm…guess that more or less answers it, right 😀 hehee…

BM – How about, the obvious, what gave you the idea for Katiebird?

JPR – The idea for KatieBird came to me without any forethought…I was sitting at my computer, staring at the screen, sick in my heart over the prospect of trying to make something from less than nothing – then it just started falling out of my head…the story was coming too quickly to even recall the process…there was no structuring, no planning, no charts or diagrams…there was just a story filling the pages with startling urgency…I felt like I needed to push it out of me before it left me permanently infected with the raw anger that was fueling it…I didn’t even know that KatieBird was going to be a killer until it got to that point…

BM – Why use the ‘fractured’ look (the many small pictures on the screen at the same time) for the film?

JPR – There are many reasons for this…the initial seed for the idea came from technical considerations…we had started out in pre-production thinking we’d be limited to shooting the movie on Mini-DV…with that in mind, I was concerned that the image quality and color range were going to be very low, especially if we wanted to master to HD for final delivery to festivals and distribution prospects; my plan to lessen the quality concerns was to place multiple DV images inside of a larger HD sized frame, thereby preserving the pixel-for-pixel resolution of the original material and protecting the movie from the inevitable softening that would occur if we had t o blow up the standard DV for mastering…fortunately, as things progressed in pre-production we found ourselves with access to a Sony F900 HDCam unit, making my technical concerns obsolete – but by this time I had already gotten deep into the storyboarding process and was completely in love with the aesthetic being created in my head by the usage of multiple images…not only did the multi-paneling provide me with a tremendous amount of creative fun, but it would also prove to be a great tool for illustrating the fractured psyche that overwhelms the personalities of KatieBird, her father and even the victims to a certain degree…

BM – In the doc on the DVD, Movies NOT Excuses, your producer mentions that you have several ideas for the sequel to Katiebird. Since the first one has become pretty successful, do you feel any pressure about making a sequel?

JPR – I don’t really feel any pressure to make a sequel right away…there is a script for the sequel which covers KatieBird’s college years and her near brush with Heavy Metal stardom; it is called, "KatieBird 2: Chip Off The Ol’ Blade"…but KatieBird has been such an overwhelming experience in so many ways, that I’ll be very happy to move on to something else for awhile…my plan is to wait until Nicole Jarvis, the actress who portrayed the littlest Katie, is old enough to play college age – then we’ll make the movie and let her carry on with what she started in the original…

 BM – Alright, I know you’ve probably answered this one a hundred times, but, for our readers, tell us about the road to Katiebird. How did you get your start and end up writing, directing and producing Katiebird yourself?

JPR – we already started the answer to this, so lets pick up where we left off…working at Roger Corman Studio in Venice Beach…those were really great days…I had so much fun and met some of the greatest people…but despite all the opportunities given and taken at that place, I could never stop reminding myself or anyone around me that my purpose for coming to Los Angeles was to write and direct movies…many folks thought I was too outspoken and should just be more patient, but ultimately, speaking my mind and being true to myself won out when I was granted the job of Script Doctor for some of the smaller movies coming through the studio…I would get paid microscopic money and go credit less on the title pages, but at least I was working as a professional writer! The problem was that I had never really written something I didn’t believe in before, so sitting down to "polish" some hack job stripper flick was extremely draining emotionally…and after doing a few of these, I had really hit my limit…I was just totally overwhelmed with my frustration at the situation…I mean, here we are at a self-contained studio with equipment, stages, cast, crew, cash and distribution deals in place, but all we would ever make were sleazy D grade movies…so when I was working on my last assignment for them, I hit writer’s block for the first and only time in my life so far – I just had run out of ideas for making strippers compelling, at least within the guidelines they had so strictly set for all their movies…so with time running out and only two days left to hand in the script, I trashed their file and started hammering the keys with a rage filled attack that would later become KatieBird…I honestly had no idea what I was writing or where I was going with the story – all I knew was that I was writing for myself and that I would probably get fired for it…and I was correct…the script was a brutally violent and aggressive piece with outrageous prose and wild sexual content…within a couple hours of turning it in, my phone was ringing off the hook with people "waiting in line" to fire me…after that, I moved on to a studio job at MGM as a producer’s assistant, which lead to a more or less successful career doing things that I never wanted to do…after about 7 years of that, I knew the time had come to either make a movie or admit that I was just another one of those guys that will never get it done…so I pulled together all my resources, called everyone on my support team and found the courage and the confidence to make KatieBird…as to why I chose that movie when I could have picked from a dozen other scripts lying on my shelf? well…that is a whole different chapter 😉


BM – Let’s talk for a minute about Movies NOT Excuses, this is one of the most inspirational things I’ve seen in years, and you’re obviously speaking from your heart on it, yet you say you’ve gotten a lot of negative feedback about it. What kind of feedback have you gotten? And why do you think anyone would react negatively to such a motivational piece of film?

JPR – well…first of all, I’m really stoked that you had such a strong reaction to the material…that means a lot to me and the others that believed in the message…but to answer your question…there has been a tremendous amount of positive feedback from people that have felt inspired by the message behind Movies NOT Excuses…we’ve gotten letters from dozens of people thanking us for giving them the push they needed or giving credence to philosophies that they already allow to drive them in their lives…but there have also been a few people that feel absolutely attacked by the piece…one guy actually said that I am a "perfect example of everything that is wrong with America today"; he claimed that I am spitting on the American working class and have zero respect for people who work to feed their families…in that particular case, I think the guy just didn’t get it…obviously, I am not above working for a living, as demonstrated by the position I hold as a $7/hour video store clerk to feed my wife and pay our rent…but his reaction was the only one that went in that direction…typically, the negative reactions are from people that just don’t like to be called out…I mean, who wants to be reminded that the reason for their failure is their own lack of determination to succeed? It is most clear when you read in a review and the writer starts out with something like, "as a fellow filmmaker, I am highly insulted by the demeaning message behind Movies NOT Excuses" – but is it really demeaning? of course not…it is just a plain simple fact illustrated in a theatrical way for maximum impact…if you want to achieve a goal, work at it!!! I’m truly sorry if some people have their feelings hurt by the piece, but I wouldn’t change a thing for any reason, because there are people like you that really see what we were trying to do and will use the message as fuel to brighten their fire…

BM – One of my favorite characters in the movies is Katiebird’s ‘Daddy’, any plans to expand on his story in the sequel? Or maybe a prequel just about him?

JPR – I would love to make a movie called, "Mad Merl", which would cover the early years that lead him to his first kill…of course, they are making a similar movie about HANNIBAL LECTOR right now called, "Young Hannibal", but I think their backgrounds are so different, that the pair of movies would serve as great contrasting titles to hold in any true horror fan’s collection…I’ve only thought very briefly about what this story would be and how to really flesh it out, but Lee Perkins did such an excellent job of bringing this character to life and has brought so much critical attention to the character that a dedicated story to Merl could be a real probability if the success of the original KatieBird continues…as for expanding the character in the sequel…well…"Chip Off The Ol’ Blade" has some really interesting roads for Merl to travel, and really exposes him to the world in a way that he has never experienced before; when the time comes to make this movie, whether it be sooner or later, fans of Merl will be very happy to see how he battles "empty nest syndrome"…

BM – How about a couple of your standard dumb questions: What movie inspired you to become a film maker?

JPR – as mentioned earlier, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and FRIDAY 13TH really inspired me and filled me with the knowledge that anybody from anywhere has an honest chance at making it in the film business…but creatively, it would be hard to narrow in on a specific title…most of the movies that really influence my work today were things that I didn’t even discover until after I had already committed to the idea of being a writer/director…but in general I think that horror movies at large are to blame for my initial desire to enter the business 😛 when I was growing up, I would watch anything and everything horror related that I could get my hands on…constantly consuming them…horror movies and heavy metal music…just couldn’t get enough…my love for the dark aesthetic really drives my work…but…uhm…did I answer this question? hehee…

BM – If you could work with any actor working today, who would it be and why?

JPR – wow…this is a big question…there are so many great actors doing so many different things…I guess it would depend on which project we were talking about…but…to name a few that I really admire and would be proud to work with…Sean Penn; this guy is a real chameleon, with the ability to become someone completely new for every role – molding him into a completely unrecognizable character would be awesome fun…Forest Whitaker; it is hard to explain what I love about his work, but there is just a real depth of soul that emanates from him – I think he is someone that I could push to really move people with his performance…Mickey Rourke; ever since seeing RUMBLE FISH about ten years ago, I’ve been dying to work with this guy – I know that he had a few bad years with some pretty questionable movies, but his charisma is undeniable…Dakota Fanning; good child actors are so rare, and with Fanning, it seems like the qualifier "child" is somewhat demeaning, because her ability is so intense – this is an actor that I would push as far as the parents allowed, like JODY FOSTER in TAXI DRIVER, but even further…and speaking of which, Jody Foster; her career is remarkable and her talent shines in even the worst roles – I’d love an opportunity to really pull the dark side out of her in a way that nobody has ever done before…Gena Rowlands; the work she did with John Cassavettes has been a tremendous creative influence on me – as a director, I’m not quite sure what I could bring to such a deep and emotional actress, but I’d be blown away just have a chance to see her breath life into one of my characters…so…uhm…there are many others, but I’ll just quickly list a few more…Michael Madsen, Perminder Nagra, Michelle Rodriguez, Dennis Hopper, Giovannei Ribisi, Catherine Keener, John C. Reilly, and don’t be too surprised when I say Vin Diesel and The Rock…hehee…man…this list could go on…bu
…I wanna’ answer a few more questions, so I’ll stop here for now…but first…I just want to thank all the amazing talented performers that have inspired and entertained me for so long…whether you are on this list or not, thank you…


 BM – I’ve read you say that you made Katiebird because it was "the one script I had that was safe to sacrifice". What other scripts do you have floating around? And, out of all of them, which one is your personal ‘dream project’?

JPR – ahhh…well…I’ve got many screenplays, surprisingly few of which are horror movies…I’ll try to give a brief chronology of some of the ones that mean the most to me…so…starting with the first screenplay I ever wrote…it is a fantasy horror epic that could be described as THE MATRIX meets TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE; I’m not going to print the title here, because the inspiration came from an actual legend than millions of people are familiar with, and if I print it here, someone will search it out and rush it to the market place before I get my chance…the second screenplay I ever wrote is for an animated feature that would take place in Spain during the late 1800’s; again, I’m afraid to give too much detail, because it is high concept and would be easy to steal…the third screenplay I wrote is for an animated SCI-FI Thriller that would cost insane amounts of money to make, but would be really stylish and exciting…the fourth screenplay, if you don’t count the professional rewrites, was KATIEBIRD…the fifth screenplay was a very dark character ensemble piece that was actually produced with devastatingly poor results – this was a beautiful story and if I can ever find a way to get the script rights back, I’ll try to direct this movie on my own…the sixth screenplay was a HARDCORE BIKER MOVIE; I answered an ad in the variety and after submitting my first screenplay as a sample, they hired me for $1200 to write this thing – it was eventually produced, but fraudulently by a thieving producer that stole the script, changed the name and never gave any credit to me or the people that had paid me to write it…the seventh script I wrote is a surreal character study about two brothers, a Magician and a Preacher, living in Las Vegas and leading disparate lives…the eighth screenplay is a trilogy of stories that interconnect to tell one bigger tale – it is based on three classic Gothic stories including TELL TALE HEART and MARKHEIM…the ninth screenplay is a semi-autobiographical piece about a man wishing to reinvent himself and lead the simple life – but what he quickly realizes is that simplicity is much more complicated than ever imagined…the tenth screenplay is a supernatural thriller about a young woman driven to homicidal insanity by ghostly visions that no one else can see…the eleventh screenplay is a classic creature-feature which will eventually be created as the world’s first CG animated horror movie…beyond these, there are a few others that just aren’t worth mentioning for one reason or another…but of the ones listed, the piece that means the most to me is the first script I ever wrote…fantasy horror epic…that project has driven me for almost two decades, and will be a tremendous landmark in my life when I finally put it on the screen…

BM – I’m suggesting that all the readers out there get the Katiebird DVD, if only see the Movie NOT Excuse doc on it, but what advice to you offer to anyone out here who wants to become a filmmaker?

JPR – my advice to people trying to get into a creative industry would be to consider it very carefully first…be sure it is what you want to do, because it won’t be easy and it won’t be financially rewarding unless you prove to be very successful at it…I can’t tell you how many people I know who’ve given either music or movies or fine arts a try, but then give up somewhere along the line and find themselves struggling to make a new start in a new career where things are more secure…as outsiders to the industry, it is easy to look at the bizness and think about how great it must be to work on a movie set or something, but those people don’t realize that movie sets operate a minimum of 12 hours a day, sometimes 6 or 7 days a week , with incredibly high tension all around and very little energy left over to have a "normal" life…and that goes for everyone, not just the creative heads…if giving up any semblance of a normal social life does not sound good to you, then you better run…and if you are trying to be a director or writer or producer, then you better get comfortable with the idea of being broke for a good solid decade or more…I mean, sure, there are the rare examples of people who just break into the biz and live the big dream right out of college or through personal connections or as recognition for a stunning piece of independent work made on the cheap – but typically, true success in the business only comes through a long disciplined investment of time and energy…so…though there is a ton of other advice I could give, and would be happy to share if anyone wants to contact me directly with specific questions, the first piece of critical advice is to be sure of what you want before you blow a big chunk of your life chasing it…

Sound advice from someone who’s been there, thanks Justin. If you get the chance to pick up the DVD of Katiebird*Certifiable Crazy Person, I highly recommend it, and if you can’t find it anywhere else, try running over to Katiebird The Movie.com and checking it out for yourself. I think we’re going to see great things from Justin who’s a hard worker and a talented guy, which, as we all know, is a very formidable combination! Good Luck Justin and keep in touch with us here at Rogue Cinema.