An Interview with Kevin VanHook – By Brian Morton

 Last month, I got the chance to see the movie, Haunted Prison, and, being that this was to make its premiere on the SciFi Channel, I wasn’t too excited about it. But then I saw it, and I was amazed and impressed, this was, honestly, one of the best low budget horror movies I’ve seen in a long time! After seeing and loving Haunted Prison, I had to touch base with its writer/director Kevin VanHook, who’s been working in the industry in some form for over ten years. Kevin and I talked about the movies, his career from comic books through movies, Haunted Prison and his family, he’s a super nice guy and his movies are excellent!

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BM – Thanks for taking the time, I really appreciate it.

KV – Absolutely no problem.

BM – How did you get started making movies?

KV – I actually transitioned out of writing and drawing comic books for a number of years. That was my background and my passion for a long time, and it’s still something I enjoy. Around 1994, I moved from the east coast to San Diego, with the idea that I could live anywhere at that point, I was under exclusive contract to write, so it didn’t matter where I called home. I spent my time there teaching myself screenwriting and filmmaking and so on, so I formed a studio to create comic book support skills, things like comic book coloring and design, trading card design and toy packaging, that kind of thing, so I had a steady income stream beyond the writing and all the while teaching myself more and learning as much as I could. From there, transitioned that into becoming a visual effects studio because that’s also something I had a fascination with and a passion for, and I used that as a doorway to get into the industry and learn a little bit more from the inside. In 1996, I started work on my first feature, which was called Frost: Portrait Of A Vampire and that took about five years to get made completely, because it was largely self-funded and then, ultimately began raising funds for a project called The Fallen Ones which was a project I had been kicking around for a long time. I had several false starts on The Fallen Ones and then what ended up happening was the company I had merged my studio with was a company called Film Roman, well Film Roman was acquired by IDT, which is the sixth largest telecom in the world and IDT began building IDT Entertainment, which is an entertainment conglomerate made up of animation studios and video distributors and once they acquired Anchor Bay, they needed content. In my case, I had a project waiting and another project that the SciFi Channel was interested in and looking at, which was The Fallen Ones, but I hadn’t been able to make SciFi make the commitment on their own, so The Fallen Ones ended up being the first feature that IDT did. SciFi went ahead and acquired The Fallen Ones, it did really well for them, they acquired my next movie, which was called Voodoo Moon and then made a deal with us to create a slate of films for them which would all be based on my premises and I would either produce or write and direct them.

BM – Being a recovering comic book geek, I have to ask, what comic books did you work on?

KV – I worked in some fashion for most companies, but I’m best known for my work at Valiant Comics. Valiant was a popular company in the early to mid-90s and I created a character there called Bloodshot, that’s probably the character I’m best known for. I also wrote Flash Gordon, the Sunday comic strip for King Features, but I’ve done bits and pieces of inking or penciling for everybody from Dark Horse to Marvel to Image to DC.

BM – So was it hard to transition from doing comic books and visual effects to writing and directing your own movies?

KV – It was a natural progression for me. It was difficult doing it the way I went about it. I didn’t go in saying, alright I want to write a script and sell it, I went in saying, alright, I want to be a filmmaker and wanted to write, direct and edit my own stuff and by the very nature of that it meant I was also raising my own money, which is the single most difficult aspect of filmmaking.

BM – How did you go about raising money?

KV – You throw darts. (laughs) What I’m a firm believer in is, I put my own money where my mouth is. Now some people would say not to, but I’m about to do it on another project, because I want to do a bigger project, but my point is I save up whatever cash I can and I put a short trailer or presentation together to show a proof of concept. I did that with Frost, I did a 16mm trailer, but bear in mind, when I did Frost, I had only done one short and it was eight minutes long and now I was stepping up to try to write, direct and edit a feature and it was a challenging task. Money wise, I was initially going down to road of setting up a corporation, put an offering together and do it all as a public corporation, I spent a lot of money, I wasted a lot of money, I had lawyers and accountants tell me that they had one guy who could do the whole deal, if I just set my budget for around five hundred thousand dollars, they had one guy who could come in and I would be shooting before Christmas, and I heard that fifty times and I would get excited and call my wife and my best friend and tell them, I think we’re going this time and then…nothing. Ultimately, what really made the difference was showing people something, with Frost and The Fallen Ones, I did two and a half minute trailers that showed the idea, because with The Fallen Ones I was trying to get across the idea that I could do a forty two foot giant mummy and not make it silly and with Frost, it was just to show people that I could tell a story and, at least, create interesting images on screen. I don’t do anything the easy way, we built elaborate sets for both of those, carved hieroglyphic stonewalls, but that’s an aspect of filmmaking that I enjoy a lot. Right now, I’m building an elaborate miniature, that’s along the lines of the kind of thing that Peter Jackson does, it’s such a large miniature that they call them big-atures, and I’m going to actually going to composite live action characters within it, just to prove something to myself, as well as potential investors, for a storyline that I want to do where the real environments don’t exist, so it would be somewhat virtual, like 300 or Sin City.

BM – Are you more involved with the effects aspects of your movies because of your background?

KV – Yeah, I think so. If I had gone down another road, at some point I might have been a magician, that was another fascination of mine, slight of hand and illusion and, to me, storytelling is kind of in that same vein and I think I’m drawn to visual effects because of that fascination with magic. I get a kick out of knowing that the only thing you’re seeing on the screen is that wall, it doesn’t extend around the corner, that’s all there is, there’s nothing else there.

BM – Kind of like knowing the secret of the trick.

KV – Yeah, and I get a big kick out of that and that’s why I’ve always been drawn to Harryhausen’s movies, The Seven Voyages Of Sinbad, Jason And The Argonauts and the Star Wars movies.

BM – Do you do most of your effects physically or do you use a lot of CGI?

KV – We do a hybrid. My preference is always to get it in the camera, if you can. We often have to rely on what I refer to as visual effects, meaning post effects done in the computer and that’s what our studio is built upon. That being said, if I can get away with creating it in camera, I would much rather do that. There’s just a realism to those effects and the problem is that, while we’re a visual effects house who’ve worked on I, Robot, Daredevil, Hearts Of War and those kinds of big projects, not counting countless television commercials and things like that, the budget scales are so different. It’s one thing to say, here’s a visual effects job we did on I, Robot and that shot is about half of my entire visual effects budget for an entire film. In the case of an I, Robot, we can sit and work on one shot for three or four weeks with multiple people on it until it’s done, in our case, we’re trying to compete and create our effects on a shoestring budget.

BM – Well, I have to say, the effects in Haunted Prison are top shelf. I would never think of them as done on a shoestring budget. Especially the ghost effects, I was completely blown away by those.

KV – Well, I’m very pleased with them. And when I say shoe string, that’s not to imply that we’re hacking or anything, it’s just that we don’t get to spend the time that we’d love to spend on them. I’m very proud of those ghost effects. Originally, I had wanted to shoot motion control and blue screen, so that we could do repeatable moves and add transparency to the ghosts and that kind of thing, which is more like the effects in The Frighteners, but in adding it up, I ended up saying that I had well over a hundred ghost shots in the movie and it would have quadrupled out effects budget. So, necessity being the mother of invention, we started experimenting and Chad Cole, our effects supervisor and one of my best friends, he sat down and started playing with some test footage that we’d shot and he came up with that really great look.

BM – It’s a really unforgettable look for something on a low budget!

KV – Thank you, I’m very pleased with it. Actually, we’re showing it to some people at one of the studios that we work with from time to time. We get called occasionally to do some emergency fixes on movie trailers that are coming out on Friday (laughs) and we’re showing it to some of those guys and they’re trying to figure a way to incorporate them into their movies.

BM – Now, did you film Haunted Prison in an actual prison or were those sets that you had built?

KV – Technically we shot in one jail and one prison. We shot at Lincoln Heights, which is a county jail that hasn’t been in use since about 1964, I think. And we shot at Sybil Brand Women’s Penitentiary, which was closed for seven or eight years and is about to be opened again. The bulk of the movie was shot at Lincoln Heights, which has a grungier look, it’s older and it’s a pretty nasty place to be, whereas, Sybil Brand is cleaner and had bigger open spaces, but we did art direction to make the match as best we could and Brand has bigger, more open spaces. The cafeteria/mess hall area is at Sybil Brand because nothing like that existed at the other place.

 BM – Alright, I have to ask this question, even though I’m not sure if it’s a sensitive subject or not. You’ve worked with both Gary and Jake Busey. How much is Jake like his dad?

KV – Jake is sane! (laughing) Seriously, Jake is a wonderful actor, well, they both are, aren’t they? But Jake is a truly a gifted actor and it was just wonderful to see his performance unveil. With Gary, the difficulty was that he has a persona, now how much of that is the real deal versus a persona I don’t know, even after working with him as closely as I did! (laughs) I do know that it makes it difficult to get the day done. But Jake was a pleasure to work with and he brought a lot to the party, knowing that his character really is the only character to have a real story arc, descending into madness and I thought he did a wonderful job.

BM – He really did a great job in the movie, it’s just that he looks so much like his dad, comparisons are inevitable.

KV – Absolutely. I have twin sons, they’re fraternal twins so they don’t look that much alike, and one of them favors me quite a bit and Jake came up to my son and I on set one day and said, do you know that not a day goes by that someone doesn’t come up to me and say, do you know how much you look like your dad? And he said that my son and I must understand by we look just alike, but that’s not true, my son is 6’3" and I’m 5’91/2" but we do favor each other.

BM – Would you ever have any interest in doing a film outside the genre?

KV – Yes, absolutely. I’m a storyteller at heart and I would enjoy telling a good story in any genre. My fascination with horror and science fiction is the same thing that drew me to comic books, but I would totally be interested in something else. I feel that Haunted Prison is really the first horror movie that I’ve made, despite the fact that I’ve worked in the genre in my other films, I always tended to think that my movies were marketed as horror films when they were actually action films or suspense films that had supernatural elements. I legitimately try to make a better film each time we go out, and I was pleased what we stepped up with, in terms of horror and gore and things like that in Haunted Prison.

BM – What about directing a movie that you didn’t write?

KV – Again, I’d be open to that, there’s an offer on my table now for a thing that’s a horror anthology that I didn’t write. I would still lean towards taking a pass at it unless it was really bullet proof. One of the things that I enjoy a lot is getting my sense of humor into a project, and with Haunted Prison, I had the good fortune to see it projected with an audience of about two hundred people about a month ago. There’s no better feeling in the world than sitting with an audience that’s legitimately laughing at something that you thought up and was an intentional humorous moment and I was amazed at the response we got when we pushed Ron through the jail cell, it actually got a round of applause from the audience in the middle of the movie, so that was great.

BM – That was an amazing effect, and, it’s the point in the movie where you absolutely hooked me, but you lost my wife. I couldn’t believe how cool that was and she said, yeah, that’s it call me when it’s over.

KV – (laughs) Well, that’s what’s funny. If you were to look at my body of work, there’s a point that you would say, well, he doesn’t push it that far, he tends to do the deaths off screen kind of thing, I played more with idea that it’s the monster that you don’t see that’s just around the corner and in Haunted Prison, I just said, no, this time we’re going to show it. But I really wasn’t trying to out-gross anyone, but I apparently I crossed a threshold where it jumped way up in terms of gore and that kind of horror, for a lot of people, it wasn’t a little amp up, it was a big jump.

BM – It really didn’t seem excessively gory to me, the set pieces I remember the most were the man pushed through the jail cell and the woman who was cut in half.

KV – Well, we did chop up a guy in a license plate cutting machine!

BM – You’re right, that was pretty gruesome, but what I mean is that except for the girl cut in half, I didn’t see an excessive amount of blood.

KV – And that’s still probably my own sensibilities showing through, besides the blood in the scene when we pushed the guy through the prison door, that one I know for a fact that we used about five gallons of blood. (laughs). I don’t perceive it as particularly gory but the overwhelming remark that I’ve seen in reviews and comments about the movie is about the gore. I hear, gorier than I thought you’d see on television, and that’s probably true.

BM – It seemed that you used your effects to shock, rather than just going with tons of blood, which seemed to me to make them more effective.

KV – Well, thank you, I appreciate that. That was the goal and it was my intention to try to not just kill people in the expected way. If you’re going to do this, then let’s come up with a way to kill people
in a way that’s unique to themselves at least. My favorite sequence is probably the girl in the ceiling fan in the shower sequence, although my favorite little moment in the film is Jake talking to the severed head which was one of those things that when I wrote it I was pleased and thought this should be pretty cool and I was hoping we could pull it off, and I think we did.

BM – Well, I have to say, I really enjoyed Haunted Prison and, when they told me that it was a SciFi Channel movie, I was sort of expecting the type of ‘giant bug’ schlocky movie that tends to surface on SciFi.

KV – It’s one of those things that we wrestle with unfortunately. I enjoy working with the guys on the SciFi Channel but at the same time, I’m aware, and they’re aware that they have a reputation and so, it’s one of those things where I’m getting a thicker skin from getting reviews that start with, much better than the usual junk we see on the SciFi Channel. (laughs).

BM – But, it’s films like yours that are changing the SciFi Channel reputation.

KV – Well, that’s the goal and it’s one of those things, dealing with a network and dealing with people who have created a brand of sorts, they’re also having to think through what that is, what is the goal here. Is it to convince people that the schlockier stuff is fun and draw more of that audience or is it to elevate the production values of whatever they do. To me, I’ve been very clear with everyone I’ve worked with from day one, my goal is to make studio films and I want to try to up my game and improve my craft as much as I can.

BM – With doing effects, and writing and directing. If you had to pick one to do, which would it be?

KV – (laughs) I’ve been asked that a before. The problem is that I view writing, directing and editing movies as one task.

BM – Storytelling.

KV – Exactly and that’s my honest answer. But, if I had to pick one for an answer, I’d say directing then. Because it’s at that stage that I’m molding as much of what’s being told as much as possible. Haunted Prison I co-edited, co-wrote and my editor, Matt Steinauer, is a guy who’s been my DP for all my other projects and we’ve worked together for ten years, so he knows my sensibilities, he knows what I was going for and then I did a editing pass to just kind of tighten it up and move some things around, so it felt very much like something that I would have done anyway. Writing wise, I managed to find a writer, Rick Glassman, and I had read a script of his that he was interested in pitching to the SciFi Channel, called Feeder, and Rick came in and as I was reading the script, and it felt very much like something I would have written, right down to how he was forming sentences and things like that. I wrote a very very tight treatment that was a scene by scene breakdown of the movie, and once we got approved by SciFi and our other producers, this was when we still thought we had a chance for a theatrical release, so I brought Rick in and he wrote the first half and I wrote the last half and then I went back and kind of massaged the dialogue to make it feel like it was all written by one person. It worked out very well, this is the only time I’ve collaborated in that way and, this is something I should really let other people say, but I don’t feel like it feels like two people wrote it.

BM – Having seen it, it really doesn’t feel like there were more than one writer, the movie really does flow well.

KV – I appreciate that. It is my scene by scene, what happens to these characters and what their general personalities are like but alot of the movie is his dialogue and personality and pacing. The only thing, once you know it, you might notice that there are a few more laughs in the last half and that’s my sensibility. I start when Hector gets fried and move from there through the shower scene and talking to the head and all of that is mine.

BM – Working with the SciFi Channel as closely as you do, how much input do they have in your movies?

KV – Yes, and that’s grown actually because they’re trying to identify what their demographic is and so they’re having more input now than when I began with them.

BM – Is that hard to take? I mean, have they ever asked you to do something that you really didn’t want to do?

KV – To be frank, yes, because that’s the nature of the business. As a creative person, you want to go down the road you’re going down and I have written professionally for twenty-three years, so I have my own sense of direction of what I’m doing. But the problems I deal with there, are more often than not, aren’t the kinds of things you mentioned, they’re more structural at the beginning. If I go to them with a premise that deals with a certain unusual event, they might latch onto something that to me was peripheral or wasn’t the thing that I thought was cool and that’s more when it’s difficult. When it’s in the script at least, by and large, most of the things that they’re wanting me to do are things that are good for the script but, quite often, I’m also wearing the producers hat. (laughing) Quite literally, I have a hat that says producer on it. It makes it difficult sometimes because I know that if you take this anonymous person that gets chopped in half by a backhoe or something, and turn them into a speaking character, well they just went from being an extra for a hundred and ten bucks a day to a speaking character for six hundred bucks a day. (laughing) And we have to feed him. And if you have them in more than one scene and those scenes are in more than one location, now you’re talking about maybe finding someone who can work for one day and then be available to you maybe a month later, and if you can’t do that, then you might have to make deals where they’re on weekly salaries all because they’re in two scenes. So those kinds of things make it difficult on a filmmaker, we ran into that a little bit on Haunted Prison because I had so many actors and, you know, you do what you can, like maybe we can double this guy if he’s just on his back in this early scene. Actually Ron, the character that gets pushed through the door, was one of those situations where we really only needed him for three days, but I wanted to have him coming in the door of the prison, which was shot early on in the schedule, so when that scene is happening, that’s actually a double. Not that I begrudge him, or any actor, the money, it’s just that it would cost an extra ten grand to just keep him hanging around.

 BM – Would you ever retool a script just because of budgetary concerns?

KV – I have, but not for those kinds of reasons, usually those kinds of things are done earlier on. My things are more in terms of the effects sometimes, pulling it back and it’s usually not that I retool a script and much as it’s how I’ve changed my approach to how I might shoot. Once the train is rolling down the tracks, as far as principle photography is concerned, the only person who can really really save money is me. And the only way I can really do that is to cut days. And I have had to do that a couple of time, where in order to get something I wanted early on, whether it’s a helicopter shot or shooting on a real river with boats, which I did in Slayer, I might have to shoot faster on some days so I can pull up the schedule and lose a day or two at the end because if the cost is fifteen to twenty grand a day just in crew time, ending early could be the substantial savings that we need.

BM – Alright, I’ve held off as long as I can, the movie that you’re planning with the ‘big-atures’, what’s that one about?

KV – The movie with the ‘big-atures’ I can’t really say yet, but the next movie up will also utilize some of the same aspects of this effects test, it’s Sands Of Oblivion, and it’ll use some of that same technology. Sands Of Oblivion deal with the fact that in 1923, Cecil B. DeMille finished shooting his epic version of The Ten Commandments, and when he was finished, he had the sets bulldozed into the sand dunes of the Guadalupe sand dunes on the central California coast where he shot and they’re still there. Now that’s all true, in our storyline we deal with why he did that, it’s a bit of a mystery, it’s only referenced a little bit in one of his biographies. Our story is that there a legitimate Egyptian artifact that housed the spirit of a fallen Egyptian demi-god who’s an avenger and was causing havoc and killing people on the set back in 1923, the prophecy is essentially that you have to hide this artifact from the sun, as it’s related to Ra the sun god, if you hide it from the sun you can get rid of it. Well, since they didn’t know which artifact it was in 1923, they just bulldozed everything to keep it from the sun. Our story opens up in 1923, with a young boy, who’s the son of one of the producers, burying his little time capsule, a little metal box with a Felix The Cat doll and an early trading card and a hardback copy of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, just treasures that he says will be there for thousands of years, and that gives DeMille the idea to bulldoze everything. Now, flash forward to this ninety-year-old man who’s tooling around the dunes with his grandson and a metal detector trying to find his long buried treasure box. And when he does, he also opens a Pandora’s box and brings back this Egyptian demi-god and brings the chaos back.

BM – Now, is that for SciFi again?

KV – Yes, that’s for SciFi.

BM – I look forward to seeing it.

KV – We’re excited about that one, hopefully we’ll be filming by mid-January.

BM – Alright, I ask this of every director I speak with, what’s your advice to someone who wants to make their own movie?

KV – I would say watch as many as you can and practice, get out there and actually shoot something. I would also suggest that they expose themselves to the other disciplines of filmmaking, you might want to be a director but you should understand what the editor is doing, understand with the DP is doing and, one, you might find that one of those other things is what you really want to do and, two, at the very least you’ll be more sensitive to the needs of the other people on your team than you otherwise would be.

BM – That’s great advice and since you’ve been doing it professionally for some time, I think it’s advice that people should pay heed to. Thanks for your time, I really appreciate it and I really enjoyed Haunted Prison and I look forward to Sands Of Oblivion.

KV – Thank you.

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Kevin is one of the nicest guys I’ve had the pleasure to speak with. We spoke for a while after the interview about his family, he has two sons, one is in film school and the other is learning to make his own video games and his wife who works in his effects company too, and the family travels to locations together, and everyone helps out on the movies! If you have the chance you should check out Haunted Prison by going over to Haunted Prison and to learn more about Kevin’s comic books and other projects, you can check out his personal site, Kevin Kevin’s a very talented guy and all of us here at Rogue Cinema wish him nothing but success and we can’t wait to see where he goes next! Thanks again, Kevin.