An Interview with Lance Weiler – By Brian Morton

In case you haven’t noticed, the digital age is upon us! Our music is digital, most of the information you use (including this very magazine) is digital and soon, theatres will be digital, it’s inevitable. One of the people who’ve been out there on the front lines of this digital revolution is Lance Weiler. Lance and his partner, Stefan Avalos, fired the first shot by putting out the now cult classic movie, The Last Broadcast, a movie that Lance describes as the ‘first desktop movie’, and featuring a storyline that predated The Blair Witch Project by two years!!! Now, Lance is showcasing his new movie, Head Trauma, a dark tale of murder, haunted houses and madness. When I got the chance to speak to Lance I had to jump at it, to get to ask a guy who Wired Magazine called ‘one of 25 people helping to reinvent entertainment’ about the industry, working digitally and where he thinks the industry is going.

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 BM – Hey, Lance, good to catch up with you, thanks for taking the time.

LW – No problem, it’s totally cool.

BM – I think you probably know the first question, I feel that I have to ask…

LW – Is this the Blair Witch question?

BM – (laughing) Yeah, I have to ask.

LW – No problem, go ahead and ask your version of the question.

BM – Alright, here goes, your movie, The Last Broadcast, predated Blair Witch by two years, but it was totally ignored. Did that offend you?

LW – When I look back on that period, the great thing about life is that, on looking back, the misery of certain things disappear. Hindsight is always 20/20, in some ways, when all that was happening, we felt like we were in a parallel universe, which was a bit bizarre, but in the end, it worked out really well and a lot of that had to do with the fan base standing by the movie and letting other people know that it existed. But today, we don’t have any ill will towards anyone in terms of all that.

BM – But The Last Broadcast is such a superior movie to Blair Witch, that didn’t bother you?

LW – In the end, you know, I think what’s great about those two movies is, you know, there’s the same number of letters in Kennedy’s name as in Lincoln’s name and it becomes this conspiracy thing that lives online. We’ve met those guys in passing and I wish them the best with their careers. Both films have their merits and however somebody wants to fall, whether they want to draw comparisons or not, it doesn’t make a difference as long as over the course of time The Last Broadcast stands up and people enjoy it and turn other people on to it, then that’s a great place to be. In terms of The Blair Witch, it was kind of a bizarre experience it felt like a Twilight Zone episode or something to us, quite literally we had spent two years promoting it and had made some really amazing innovations with that film, it’s one of the first desk top feature films, it was made for 900 bucks, it was the first movie ever to be released digitally without any celluloid, so it had a lot of significance and then out of all that time of trying to let people know about it, within the course of that whole thing with The Blair Witch Project, quite literally more people knew about our film than in two years of legitimately trying to push it. We felt like we were thrown into the storyline that we were trying to comment on and people were running stories with quotes that we never said and there were reports that we were going to sue them and it really felt like we were in a version of our own movie, it was very bizarre. But in the end it all worked out, TLB is in 26 countries around the world, there’s nothing like seeing your movie dubbed in Japanese and I’m really glad with the way we went with it. So, I think what’s great about it, is because we turned down studio offers we still own it and we were able to release it on September 26th, the same day that Head Trauma came out, as a special edition DVD, it’s been remastered, it’s got all kinds of new bonus stuff, it’s a really nice package and I’m really excited about it because it’s a two disc set and it’s just full of stuff, you know. It’s really good if someone is interested in the process of making a movie, the behind the scenes stuff it’s really a great package.

BM – Wired Magazine called you "one of the 25 people who are changing the face of entertainment". Is that a hard title to live up to?

LW – You know, I think it was really cool that they recognized that. They recognized that before we ever did the satellite release of the movie that was more because of the way we made the film. I think in a lot of ways I think that the way we made that film was revolutionary and I think that Wired recognizing that was really cool and, if anything, I have such a love of technology, it can drive you nuts at times but it can be such an amazing thing in terms of what I’m doing. If I look at the way we got The Last Broadcast out there, that’s just incredible, but then if I look at the way I’ve been able to develop this next film, Head Trauma, and marketing it and promoting it and building an audience for it and using the internet in some pretty innovative ways, I hope that I’m living up to what they said about me, I mean, it’s a tall order but I feel like I’m, at least, trying to change it and do my own thing, you know I’m doing a DIY distribution of the movie for the most part. I’ve done the theatrical booking on my own, I booked 15 screens on my own, that’s one of the largest distributions that I know of of an independent film and a number of those are done all digitally. I’m working with this new prototype that’s like this crazy briefcase that I carry with me that has all kinds of inputs, in and out and I can run HD off of it and do surround sound so I’m still very much pushing the technology when I can and some of the technology has become so much more pervasive and so much easier to use in a lot of ways that I’m doing a lot right now with the promotion of the movie, right now. If you haven’t had the chance to check it out, check out Head Trauma Radio, what I did was, about six months ago, I created a little flash player and it’s pretty cool because I can just update it with a play list through a simple script and I can update it via my cell phone. So what I do is, when I’m out on the road, I give updates, an audio blog of sorts, but because I’m all about the ’embed it, spread it’ stuff, I made it in a way that people can take the code for it and put it in their own pages. A couple of weeks ago when I started to "broadcast" from it, I didn’t know how many people would be listening and what ended up happening was I started getting emails from Norway, Germany and all over the United States where people had taken it or had heard it somewhere and had started listening and then emailed me questions and I started answering those questions online, so I’m, in terms of technology, always looking for ways that I can find cost effective ways to not only get a story out, but promote and to turn people on to it.

BM – You’re pretty heavy into the technology, is that your background?

LW – No, I just have a love for it. What I’m really interested in is the idea that there’s theatrical screens, there’s television screens, there’s computer screens and I’m a fan of telling stories and if I can use all those screens to tell a story then I’m way that. Technology is great because it allows me to live where I live, which is outside of Philadelphia, I don’t live in New York or L.A. and I’m still able to make my own work and get it to an audience not only here in the United States but overseas as well and that’s just very cool.

BM – Would you ever take a tech step backwards and do a movie on old-fashioned film?

LW – Yeah, I definitely would. I have an extensive production background. I was a camera assistant and a camera operator for years, I was in the union, actually, for about seven years and I was an assistant to people like Darius Khondji who shot Se7en and Delicatessen and I worked with Harris Savides who shot Last Days and Fincher’s new film, Zodiac Killer, so I worked with some really great AFC guys and I learned a ton from them and I was pretty much trained to become a DP (Director Of Photography) but I always had a love of writing and directing, so I would just take my money from that stuff and put it into making my own films but I left all that in 1999 when we started doing stuff with The Last Broadcast and started to have some success with the self distribution of that.

BM – So, you’re not a ‘tech snob’.

LW – No, I’m a fan of anything that helps communicate a message in a cost effective way so you can try to make enough noise so that somebody notices that something exists. With over twenty thousand feature films made last year, it’s not so much the revolution that we were at the forefront of in ’96 or ’97 with the making of The Last Broadcast, it’s now really about, okay great you’ve made a film but how is anybody going to see it and how do you turn that into the ability to make more films.

BM – In Head Trauma, the house itself is a character in the film. Was it hard to find a house that worked for your purposes?

LW – Yes, it was. A friend of mine, who’s family had a hunting cabin in the Pocono’s, and I had gone into the Pocono’s a bunch of times as a kid growing up, it’s not that far from where we live, and I was always really interested in that area and thought it would be great to shoot something up there. So when I came up with this idea, I was talking with my friend John Stephanic, who’s a co-producer of the film and he said you’ve got to go to Scranton, I think we can find what we’re looking for there. And sure enough, we scouted about sixty abandoned houses, Scranton had a boom, at one point Scranton was one of the richest cities in the world and then, when the mines closed, it lost a good part of it’s population, so what ended up happening was the city lost about seventy five thousand people at one point. So there were a lot of abandoned buildings and they were going through a whole revitalization of the city and we just hit it at the right time and we got to go and look at about sixty abandoned structures. Some of them were so disgusting, disturbing, and creepy, you’d go in and there’d be blood soaked carpets and splatter on walls, there were needles and bullet casings and, literally, rooms full of human feces. But, what’s always amazing about places like that is that they have a life of their own. A lot of the actual stuff that’s in the movie is stuff that was within the house already, so the art director/production designer, Jennifer Nasal, brought in a bunch of stuff and just mixed it in with things that were already there. But the things that are there in the film, are things that she went through, found, sorted out and then used to basically dress the house. You know, when I went into those abandoned places, the thing that was the most striking was how apocalyptic they felt and how you were seeing these time capsules of these people and it wasn’t always pleasant. The one we shot in had a real history, a woman had died in the house and it had a really weird feeling, that place. It definitely was creepy, you wouldn’t want to be the last person locking it up and having to move through the whole place by yourself. It was just a huge house and part of he windows on the third floor were actually painted black when we went in there, so there were people who were living in there, you know, squatting, and nobody knew they were in there. So, there was always a danger of being in the place if you were there by yourself because we never knew if somebody was going to come back to it or what state it would be in when we went back to it because we didn’t know if someone was living in it when we chose it.

BM – Was it hard shooting the movie in that kind of environment?

LW – Yes, it was very hard, for a lot of reason. You take away power, you take away running water, you take away all those amenities that make it easy to shoot somewhere and then you combine that with, like, the house we shot in didn’t smell as bad as some of the ones we looked at, it smelled, but not as bad! But, you have that kind of environment and you’re in there for sixteen hours a day and it can be grinding!

BM – There was no power in the house at all? The city wouldn’t turn power back on for you?

LW – Well, we had a box that was outside. You know, I’m always asked the question, why is there a light on outside the house, in the movie, but there’s no power in the house, well, the city runs a box so they can have a light in front of the house so they can illuminate the house and what happens is, skilled squatters cut into that line and bring power into the house, so we were allowed to use that box.

 BM – Now, some of the elements of Head Trauma, like the girl with the dark hair that hides her face and several other elements of the movie, have the feel of Asian horror movies. Was that done intentionally?

LW – I definitely have a respect for Asian horror. I think, in a lot of ways, some of the things I like about Asian horror really stem from early 70s psychological horror. When I think about movies like The Tenet or Repulsion or even a movie like Knife In The Water, even though the setting is different, the same tensions are there, or even a movie like Don’t Look Now by Nicholas Roeg and some of those things are carried over into atmospheric horror like the way Asian or J Horror of the last couple of years have been. They take those elements and combine them with their own ghost stories and mythology, which is really interesting. I’ve been to Japan, probably four different times, I’ve worked there extensively, when The Last Broadcast came out, we had a huge release there and traveled all over and I really love that culture. They have a lot of great stuff there, not only great movies, they have great anime, they have great comics, they have great fiction so I think there are some really interesting things happening there so, yeah, some of the elements of Head Trauma are inspired by that as well as being inspired by things that I think inspired some of that Japanese horror stuff, like those Polanski or Nicholas Roeg films that I mentioned.

BM – Now, in The Last Broadcast, you played a role and co-directed, but in Head Trauma, you’re exclusively behind the camera, which do you prefer?

LW – On The Last Broadcast, we really put ourselves in front of the camera out of necessity, we knew that we would show up and work cheap, so it was two less actors to have to worry about, but it’s hard to say if I’ll ever put myself on screen again or not because I do really like being behind the camera, but it’s good to know what it’s like to be in front of it as well, because I think it helps to inform the work overall so that when you’re behind the camera you can relate, you know what it’s like to be out there in front of it. But I think for the most part, I’ll stay behind the camera.

BM – In Head Trauma, Vince Mola, who plays George, when I saw some of the behind the scenes stuff, Vince transforms and all but disappears into the character of George, it’s amazing! How much of that came from your direction and how much do you attribute to his being a great actor?

LW – I think that it’s a combination. First and foremost, Vince and I have a previous relationship, we’ve worked on other projects together, mainly short stuff, but when I wrote George, I wrote him with Vince in mind and Vince was going through a really hard time in his life so I felt that if I could tap into some of that, not to sound selfish
r mean spirited in any way, but if I can tap into some of that and he can have this cathartic release around what he’s going through that it might make for an interesting character, it might make for an interesting place. I was definitely asking him to go somewhere very dark at a point where his life was very dark. But I have to hand it to him, you saw what he looks like normally, he literally transformed himself and was like that or probably over a year for me in order for us to finish the film. It was very taxing for him, I grew a beard in solidarity with him, it was kind of a mercy beard, but I have to say, he really went the distance and I was always really interested in creating a character that in some ways harkens back to 70s cinema where you have every day people that would be the leads of these movies and somewhere along the way that got lost, especially within horror films and they got into a formula where they were all good looking people who were just slasher bait and I thought it would be interesting to take the character of George and go somewhere that would be difficult for both of us and just see what we could get out of it. So, I think that the performance is a mixture of the two of us collaborating and trusting each other that created this weird character of George Walker. And I think it’s interesting because you don’t see this in contemporary horror and I think it kind of cool that you don’t know where you stand with George, at moments you’re repulsed by him and at others you’re sympathetic with him.

BM – But I never felt like I could take my eyes off of him.

LW – And hopefully that creates a good complex character that people will wonder about where this guy’s been and what’s his story so that in the end that’s the ultimate question that’s answered.

BM – And, I have to admit, being a fan of horror, I kind of expected something was coming at the end of the film, but what happened wasn’t near what I expected! Head Trauma is brilliant written and performed, you should be very proud.

LW – Well, thank you.

BM – I have to admit that I didn’t want to like George but because he and the other characters in the film seem real, you’re drawn into the movie.

LW – That was the idea, I wanted to make it feel like it was set in a neighborhood that was in transition, I wanted to do the casting the way I wanted to do it which it really great, in terms of control over the project, it would never have been cast the way I cast it if it had been done through other sources.

BM – What’s next for you?

LW – Right now, I’m working on what will become, effectively, my trilogy of lost in the woods. (laughs) My next film in the trilogy, and that’s just me making fun of myself, but I always try to find some little autobiographical piece that I can find and then I work geographically from an area and then I fill in the characters into it and then kind of build out from there. The next story takes place along the Appalachian trail, I had done a good part of the Appalachian trail in Maine and New Hampshire and Vermont and I was gone for about six or seven weeks and one part of the trail is very difficult, it’s about a ten or twelve day stint called The Wilderness and it’s really difficult, it’s very remote and I had some issues getting through all of it, I had to dump some of my food at the beginning because I was too heavy and then I lost some stuff while I was fording a river and I just barely made it out, so that puts you into a weird head space, so I’d like to do something around a group that goes into an environment like that and what happens as things start to fall apart so that’s kind of the next storyline. And there’s a mixture of other elements that’ll come into it, but it’ll be a psychological horror film.

BM – What would you tell someone who told you that they wanted to make a movie?

LW – I’d tell them to write as much as they can, because that’s probably the easiest step. Not to rush themselves through the process, a lot of times you can feel this incredible urge that if you don’t go, it might never happen so I’d say just take you time but it is a balance. You don’t want to be writing forever and never make your movie but you want to have it written to the point that you feel good about it, run it by some actors, do some table reads so as people read it you can hear what it sounds like. Pick up a camera and make films with your friends, even if their shorts or just scenes. Watch a lot of movies and try to get a sense for what movies are like. There’s a rich history of cinema that I think a lot of people miss out on, they don’t watch enough film, they get caught up in certain things and there’s a lot of potential out there. I’d say just go with your gut, there are going to be a lot of nay Sayers, everybody always has issues, so go with what your gut says and take risks and I think you’ll come out in a good place.

BM – What movies influenced you?

LW – God, there’s so many. Actually some experimental films and documentaries are some of the most influential films for me. Documentaries like Titicut Follies by Frederick Wiseman, Grey Gardens by the Maysles Brothers, Salesman by the Maysles Brothers, High School by Frederick Wiseman, Dog Star Man by Stan Brakhage, Scorpio Rising by Kenneth Anger, in addition to other things, like weird Hammer movies, the films of Russ Meyers, especially Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, I’ve seen that film so many times! Some of the Roger Corman schlock which is actually really great both in terms of some of the earlier ones into stuff like Piranha and things like that. And then people like Bergman and Kurosawa, I’m all over the place.

BM – Wow! You’re incredibly well rounded, but that’s probably good so that you’re not tied to one particular genre.

LW – Yeah. And I’m also a big fan of that period of Polanski from Knife In The Water up until Chinatown, just phenomenal films and really great movies. And I love The Conversation by Coppola, probably that and Apocalypse Now are my two favorite films by him and then some old French films, I could go on and on.

BM – Wow! Anybody out there right now that you think is really doing something interesting?

LW – I think Christopher Nolan makes really interesting films, even when he’s doing big budgeted stuff, I’m always interested to see what he makes. For a while there I was really interested in M. Night Shyamalan’s stuff, I’d like to see him move away from the genre and do something different. The Sixth Sense was really a phenomenal film, it really was a brilliant movie but I’d like to see him move in a different direction. American Astronaut, have you ever seen that?

BM – No, I’ve heard the title but I’ve never seen the movie.

LW – That’s a pretty cool movie, very very bizarre film. There’s a new Jack Smith documentary by Mary Jordan called Flaming Creatures, I think, it’s about Jack Smith, he was a huge influence on Andy Warhol, that’s a really cool documentary. There are so many people doing new things, I just saw Brick, that was kind of interesting in terms of how stylized it was dialogue-wise and it was an interesting twist, I saw a lot of references to film noir in it and it’s set in high school and I saw a lot of references to westerns in it, I thought that was kind of cool.

 BM – What about actors, anybody out there you’re dying to work with?

LW – Oh God, I’d love to work with Gary Oldman, that would be phenomenal. There are so many actors I’d love to work with, that’s a long list (laughing). I tend to like a lot of the character actors. There are some guys who I will never, unfortunately get to work with, because they’ve passed away, that I would have loved to have worked with.

BM – Off the top of your head, who’s one actor that you would have loved to put in one of your movies?

LW – Warren Oates.

BM – He’s a favorite of mine too, I just watched Race With The Devil.

LW – I love that movie. Warren Oates just exudes manhood and he looks like he smells of bourbon so somebody like him would be great to work with. Or Steve McQueen would have been great or if you keep going back there are just all kinds of guys I would have loved to work with.

BM – Alright, not to try to stir up any trouble, but is there anybody out there right now, and you watch their movies and you think, how is this guy getting work?

LW – (laughs) Yeah, there are quite a few, but I think we probably know who they are already! (laughing) BM – We’ll leave it at that.

LW – But you know, who am I to judge, at the end of the day, I feel like the luckiest guy on Earth, to get to make movies and to get to make a living at that, I feel…you know, pinch me man!

BM – Well, I have to say that the movies that you’re putting out there aren’t just the cutting edge of technology, they’re actually really good movies! Not to keep beating the same drum, when I saw The Last Broadcast, after seeing The Blair Witch Project, I was actually angry for you! I felt like you were not only ripped off, but ripped off by a far inferior movie!

LW – Well, thank you but it’s kind of like what my Mom would always say to me. She’d say, look there’s two types of people, there’s sprinters and there’s long distance runners and you’re a long distance runner. It’s about a long career, it’s not about one moment. And I said, you know what, that’s good advice.

BM – It is good advice and it’s a great way to end our talk. Thanks again for taking the time, I really appreciate it and good luck with Head Trauma!

LW – Thank you.

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So, there you have it, Lance Weiler is one of the most well rounded film makers I’ve spoken to in a long time, his extensive knowledge of film and of the technology behind it, not to mention two great movies back to back, I think, assures him a place in cinematic history! We ended our talk with me telling him again how much I really enjoyed Head Trauma and him wishing that he could clone me for more reviews, although I think cloning me might not be one of his better ideas!! If you’d like to see Head Trauma for yourself, head over to Lance’s site, at Head Trauma, besides the movie, you’ll find Lance’s Head Trauma radio that he mentioned and I think it’s just a really cool site. We here at Rogue Cinema wish Lance the best of luck and we look forward to talking to him in the future.