An Interview with Mark Poole – By Nic Brown

 When Mark Poole decided to independently write, produce and direct a horror/comedy he didn’t do it half-heartedly. Early mornings, late nights, and every weekend went into this labor of love and the result: Dead Moon Rising the film that Fangoria magazine picked as its DVD release of the month for May 2008. Of course he didn’t start with an award winning independent film, he started with an idea. Now his production company, Anubis Digital, has its own production facility, a talented pool of actors (including Women of Horror featured actress Tucky Williams) and big plans for the future of independent film in the Bluegrass state.

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Nic- Mark, the idea of the “zombie movie” isn’t a new one. Where did you get the idea for your own spin on the genre?

Mark- I wanted to put a fresh take on a well-worn genre. The impetus was SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Simon Pegg is a comic genius. I wanted to play with the idea of an outbreak and how "normal" office workers might react to that situation.

In most zombie movies, everyone jumps to grab a gun. So DMR started with the question, "what if someone didn’t grab a gun?" And that led to the logical follow up, "and why wouldn’t he?" So that led to the back story involving the "pants thing” and all the twists in telling that tale. Everything else came from there.

I borrowed the character interaction from HIGH FIDELITY. I like John Cusack’s straight man playing against Jack Black’s cynical sidekick. They were the basis of my two main characters Jim & Nick. I also enjoyed the idea of breaking the fourth wall – letting my main character speak directly to the audience. It’s not done that much and usually only in comedy (like FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, and a few Woody Allen films, for example). It works if you don’t restate the obvious. It can give you insights into the character and the situations that might take too long to setup conventionally.

I love writing comedy. I’ve written a number of short pieces, and I’ve been told I have a good ear for comedic dialog. I was lucky to get Jason Crowe and Mike Seely as the leads in those roles – they developed an on-screen comic dynamic that really went far beyond what was on the page. They came up with in-character ad-libs that had the cast & crew rolling on the floor.

Tucky Williams made my female "Man with No name" character (Vix) a force to be reckoned with. She was a real pro, staying in character even when we weren’t filming, and I think she occasionally scared people.

Gary Williams made the slimy businessman (Dick) into a guy you love to hate. The other characters did a great job, too. I added Jim’s brother because that instantly increases the dramatic tension. You’ve got to have drama in order to keep people on a roller-coaster ride of emotion. I could go on & on, but the take away message is that I wanted to focus more on the people than the threat. I didn’t want the cast to just be zombie-chow. I wanted the audience to give a shit about the people before they got eaten.

Nic- You’ve said you love writing comedy and DMR definitely has its share of laughs. Are you planning to do a comedy feature anytime soon?

Mark- “DEAD MOON RISING 2 – The Series” will be a comedy in an episodic format. It will be more like LOST than GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, in that there is a linear story line. Beloved characters evolve, and some will die, instead of an endless series of gags and no change to the story or the characters.

A series requires an entirely different mindset. I listened to an interview with Josh Whedon (BUFFY, FIREFLY, SERENITY). He said something along the lines of “A movie makes a statement, then gets the hell out of there. A TV Series asks a question, then spends years looking at it from different perspectives.”

There is a lot more groundwork for a series. You’ve got to create a realistic world and people it with engaging characters. It’s got to be internally consistent. We’ve gone back and developed extensive backstories for all the major characters. Then we developed the post-apocalyptic culture, including such details like infrastructure, government and the economy. I wrote the rough draft for DMR in a little under 30 days. We’ve spent twice that just doing the back stories. We’re planning for a long (multi-year) run, and don’t want to leave major plot holes.

All that sounds frickin’ hilarious, right? Just kidding. We did all this to provide a realistic framework to dovetail the comedy into. We don’t want people distracted by the way the world works, or wondering if such-and-such character would “really do that.” With all those details resolved, we can go have some fun with it.

It’s also my first experience of being the head writer and show runner, with a team, versus being a lonely guy writing an isolated script in his underwear. There are pluses and minuses to both. I’m reading “Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979 The Python Years.” If you read between the lines, he expresses the trials of dealing with some people who are really dedicated to the project & the creative process, and others who aren’t. But look what came out of that group – that level of comedic genius is not due to one mind.

A series demands writing collaboration – especially with an ensemble cast. I’ve got people looking out for the interests of specific characters. I love it when the other writers take a character down roads I wouldn’t have even dreamt of. There is an energy that inspires creative thought. Very good stuff.

Nic- So as a series, are you looking for television distribution, or are you planning to do it as a series of DVD “episodes”?

Mark- Television is a possibility, and DMR2 will go out on DVD, but the primary distribution method will be on our website using a flash-based player. Hope to make all episodes available online for free. If you want to download the HD-quality clip to your iPod, AppleTV, or whatever, that will come with a fee in-line with everything else out there. Our goal is to go viral.

The DVD and other physical distribution methods are entering a twilight period. Go to Wal-Mart and look at all the films that are unceremoniously tossed into the $5.00 bin. The DVD will be around for a while, but its days are numbered. Don’t get me started on the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD war – there is no winner. Both camps lost, if you’re talking widespread consumer acceptance. Do you really want to chuck out your entire DVD library and start collecting titles again at $34.99 a pop? I already got burned with that when we went from VHS to DVD. Look at how MP3 file format spelled the demise of the CD, in terms of sales. Internet distribution is the future of our industry. The modern viewer wants instant access, and we intend to serve that desire.

With an episodic format direct to the Internet, we can get more content out there with a shorter turn-around. The fans get to spend more time getting to know their favorite characters, and we get to explore themes a lot deeper than in a single 90-minute film. The ensemble cast of actors gets more individual face time, so they’re very excited about that.

Nic- Your zombies look and act a little differently from the kind that you’d see in a George Romero zombie film. What’s different about them?

Mark- My zombies (I never use that word in the film) are actually infected humans who have regressed or devolved to the point that they become cannibalistic ghouls (similar to 28 DAYS LATER). They are fast moving and ravenous. Also we learn they are hydrophobic and have very bad depth perception, which the characters exploit late in the film.
I hinted on a number of theories on the cause of the outbreak in the opening of DMR. In DEAD MOON RISING 2 – The Series, we’ll learn the actual source of the infection. All I can say is that we brought it on ourselves, so it’s not a space-born virus.

Nic- I understand that you handled the shooting schedules, budgets and everything else yourself using Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. Is that true and if so how did it work out for you?

Mark- I’ve got over 23 years of project management experience. I applied that level of organization to the production scheduling. When you have people who all have day jobs and families, leaving only some weekends and evenings free, you’ve got to be able to quickly reconfigure the shoot day to cover some unforeseen event, like an illness. With the electronic strip board, I could make instant changes to make the next shoot productive, rather than a disaster. We shot every scene within the timeframe I laid out. Maybe not in the original order, but compromise and adaptability are two essential traits to filmmaking.

I also completed the editing before one year from the project start. Talk to anyone involved with Indie film and they’ll tell you how rare that is. I have an actress that we’ve cast for one of the new roles in DMR2. She was surprised to hear a project she shot 3 years ago finally completed. She had written it off. It happens a lot. I didn’t want to do that to my cast & crew.

I can’t imagine shooting without a plan. There are just too many details to juggle to keep in your head, or written in stone. Without the electronic spreadsheets, call sheets, and shot lists, the project could have degraded into chaos.

Nic- What was your biggest challenge in making Dead Moon Rising?

Mark- Editing the film. Cutting down 27 hours of footage from 7000 takes into a 92-minute movie. Then adding back in all the Foley and VFX. I got up every morning at 4 AM, edited for 3 hours, went to work, came home, and edited another 4 hours. Then did it all day Saturday and at least 8 hours Sunday – for 6 solid months. I would have loved to give this task to someone else, but I didn’t know anyone who would do it. It gets so you lose all perspective. You get lost in the mechanics over the art. I finally had a rough-cut test screening for a small number of people, and their feedback was fantastic – in telling me what really sucked. Rather than get pissed off, I went back with fresh energy, and the film is better for it. I can’t say this enough – find someone else to do the actual cutting, and then as director, go in and give that person feedback. You’ll stay saner.

The second largest challenge was getting the first bit of publicity. Zombie films need BIG crowd scenes in order to look good, and at the beginning, we scrambled just to scare up a few friends of the cast & crew. I wrote a bunch of press releases, and sent them out to all the news outlets in our area. Our lucky break came when we got some coverage in our local newspaper (the Courier-Journal). They ran a huge article, with my picture and a shot of a large zombie crowd scene from SHAUN OF THE DEAD. I don’t know why they did that, but I loved the irony.

Overnight I had better than a thousand emails, asking to be added to our mailing list. The article also caught the attention of the radio morning shows, and we did a few of those. I heard from the marketing manager of City Block (a local bar complex), and he wanted to help promote the ending. He helped me get the street closed outside of the bar. They handed out bottled water, and opened the bar on a Saturday morning. That made the big Bikers vs. Zombie scene a huge success. We had at least 1200 people filling a full block – it was fantastic.

The last big challenge was being a coach, rather than just a director. I felt my main job was to give people permission to unleash their creative energy on something they believed in. You don’t do that by barking commands at people. The cast & crew were working for a percentage, but that essentially means they were working for free. Filming in old warehouses was a hot, dirty, and long affair, and there is a lot of stress. The last thing the team needed was an autocrat. I still had final say, but I encouraged input from everyone. When you are invested in something exciting, and feel you have a voice in shaping it – what else could you ask for? These guys and girls were the best. We had a great team dynamic, and that’s no small feat. I had to work hard to make that feel easy. I’m really proud of that.

Nic- It sounds like putting it all together was quite a challenge. Not counting the six months of editing/post production, how long did it take you to film DMR?

Mark- Twenty-eight individual shoot days spread across April until August 2006. A lot of those were 4-5 hour evening shoots. The rest were 12-hour Saturday shoots, and a few Sundays, too. Like I said, the cast & crew all work for a living. We shot around our work schedules. In between shoots, I did all the production planning for the next one. And lots of status & pep emails. Not everyone attached to the film would be on a shoot, so I would give the entire team an update on our progress. I would take time to detail when someone did something extraordinary on the set that day. It took an hour to write each one, but it kept everyone on the same page and feeling part of something great.

Nic- About that ending scene with the big "Biker Vs. Zombie" showdown, I’ve heard that scene may have set a world record is that true?

Mark- DMR is under consideration and verification by a major record accreditation concern. By contract, I can’t divulge their name until they formally release their findings. But it’s looking good. The record would be for the largest zombies vs. humans scene with actual (not digital) extras. We had at least 600 bikers and 600 zombies in costume.

For DEAD MOON RISING 2 – The Series, we are in negotiations with a city to host an event that will be 20 times the size of that scene as a season finale. I’m serious; we are shooting for 25,000 extras and a multi-camera shoot over a couple of days. That’s looking very good right now. Few films can boast having that many extras, unless you’re talking about the classics like CLEOPATRA, TEN COMMANDMENTS, or BEN HUR (unrelated note: the tag line for MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL was “Makes Ben Hur look like an Epic”). Once we have that locked, I’ll be willing to tell you where and when. We’ll have the records guys onsite for that event, so we can get the verification done right away.

Nic- Kentucky isn’t the first place most people think of when you talk about locations for making a movie. What were some of the challenges and benefits that you found working in the Bluegrass state?

Mark- Challenges – Shortage of rental houses for props, equipment, cameras. Shortage of trained support personnel (sound engineers, DP’s, editors, etc.). These could be overcome. We bought or made what we need, and we trained the people.

Benefits – Filmmaking is still a novel experience for us here. The entire town of Louisville, and people from all over the state poured out their support. I was offered locations, props, and equipment for free, because everyone is excited about the prospect of participating in making a film. I got bars, warehouses, parks, a helicopter, stretch limo, bucket truck, four $40,000 custom choppers, another 600 motorcycles, and over 1200 extras for free. Tell me what that would have cost in LA.

I plan to move Anubis Digital Studios into permanent digs in an old warehouse here. We’ll have a permanent greenscreen, and we’ll be able
to do wire-work for stunts. It’ll have a lot of space (several thousand square feet), and the price is a hell of a lot cheaper than anywhere in the big production centers. Keeping the cost down suits the lean & mean times we will all face in independent production.

And we have a wealth of untapped talent. I’ve got folks with years of experience from doing Community Theater. These people are fantastic actors, and are very enthusiastic about filmmaking. Mike Seely (Nick) has over 20 years experience as both theater director and actor. I’ve signed him on as Casting and Artistic Director for my next two series.

Nic- Other than DMR2 The series, are there any other projects we can expect to see from Anubis Digital in the near future?

Mark- Hell yes! Once we get our studio established with DMR2, we plan to launch into REQUIEM FOR THE FALLEN, another series. It’s about a fallen angel who struggles between his own personal redemption, unrequited love, and saving mankind. It will be an ensemble cast of Angels, the Fallen, Demons, and humans. Think LOST meets CONSTANTINE, with a dash of MATRIX tossed in. We have the plot line mapped out from 6 billion years ago up until the end of days (which is sooner than you think). It will be set in the present, but some of the characters have been around for a long time, so we’ll visit some critical events in history from the perspective of these super-human characters. It’s a killer premise, quite unique to anything out there. We will be creating a genre with it’s own internal logic. There will be a lot of great fight scenes, killing, and illicit love affairs. We have a very talented and attractive cast chomping at the bit.

I am lining up wire work (these are winged creatures) and other stunts. We will be assembling a staff of Visual Effects artists to handle all of the 3D and other CG effects.  The only thing holding us back is finding the money and the time. Everything else is easy.

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Web links:

http://www.anubisdigital.com

http://www.deadmoonrisingmovie.com

http://www.myspace.com/deadmoonrisingmovie