An Interview with Michael A. Hoffman – By Emily Intravia

Michael A. Hoffman started making micro-budget films in southern Florida, developing a cult following in 2001 with the horror anthology Scary Tales and following it up with a sequel that starred genre favorites Felissa Rose, Robert D’Zar, and Joseph Estevez, . He’s since gone on to become an IATSE editor and head the film and TV department of Bongiovi Entertainment while also wearing just about every hat a man can in the film business, serving as a director, producer, writer, editor, and camera operator throughout the industry. His latest film, ROT: Reunion of Terror, was described as “the perfect ‘80s slasher” in last month’s issue of Rogue Cinema and is available for rental and purchase March 9th.

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EI: How exactly did you become a filmmaker?

MH: You know; that’s a great question. LOL. I don’t still quite think I’m one yet – but am getting closer. I guess I was able to work on features from living years on the road; going without sleep and being a vagabond; my partner, Meghan, and myself luckily fell into some projects and had the opportunities to make some low budget films.

EI: What drew you to the horror genre? Were you a lifelong fan, or was it the prime starting point for filmmaking on a low budget?

MH: Growing up my mom was a huge horror junkie – so she introduced me to the world of Elvira and Joe Bob Briggs. I knew right then and there that was the genre I enjoyed watching most. Since those days; I’ve collected rare and hard to find horror flicks and z grade movies from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. I mean; my girlfriend and I just purchased a new home – and the first thing we had to do was wall mount shelves to hold our collection. It’s huge. I could literally open a mom and pop video store. We have everything from Amicus/Hammer to "Blood Freak" to "Hide and Go Shriek".

EI: I understand you’re a trained pianist with a serious interest in music. Do you oversee the scoring of your films?

MH: Absolutely. But the piano skills are probably lacking right now. My keyboard’s been away in storage for a few years now – so I’m pretty rusty. I actually scored the first micro-budget films I directed; "Scary Tales" parts 1 and 2. But; as I now run the HD studio for Bongiovi Entertainment (the guys who produced music for movies like "Step Up" and practically invented The Ramones and Talking Heads); the film scoring process has become much more detailed. When we have a picture lock; or close to it; the guys there bring in a small group of musicians (violin, cello, drums, guitar, etc) and we all work on a re-occurring underlying melody/theme for the film’s score. Then I’ll display the film on a monitor and do my best to explain exactly what I need while they freestyle to my (usually confusing) direction.

EI: How does your experience as an editor contribute to your approach to directing?

MH: Unfortunately; when you have 12 days to get a movie in the can (or less) and one camera; everything. I literally have to cut the scene in my head first and shoot just what I need for the edit. I worked a show a while ago where the director got every scene in full takes; after the actors blew only a line or two – so; basically – there’d be 5 takes in a row of the same angles – in full – and very little coverage. Honestly; you just can’t do that. At some point you either need to pick up those shots in sections and if you don’t have story boards just know what you are going to use in post of each angle. If not – you’ll end up days and days behind (which is exactly what happened with that film) and rushing the good stuff (action or horror, etc.). Of course; that’s something you learn as you progress in directing features (it took me a while to figure that one out myself).

EI: Where do you fall in the CGI vs Practical Effects debate in the horror community?

MH: I’ve only used CGI to be campy in micro-budget stuff I’d done when I was younger. Everything financed by producers has been practical effects. I actually can’t stand CGI gore work because, unfortunately, you can always almost tell when it’s being used – especially on a small budget. Hell – even on a larger film; take for instance the new "Rambo" – great bloody movie – but waaay too much CGI, you know? In my opinion; if you notice the effect is animated, it detracts you from the scene a lot more than weak prosthetic work (and sometimes shoddy make-up effects work are the fun part of watching low budget horror).

EI: Do you find it more or less challenging to direct a script you haven’t written?

MH: Probably more – because I’m so close with the project; I literally may end up shooting something that just works for me – not the audience – or have things in the film that only I can see. On scripts like "ROT" there were a group of writers (4 of us are credited); and basically I’m the last guy who comes in and says – "we can afford to do that" or "we won’t have time for that" and has to tweak things to a shooting budget/schedule so I’m a little distanced.

EI: I see that you’re writing a script for Corbin Bernsen to direct and star in called "The Clown" First, can it possible be as amazing as I hope and second, as a writer, do you approach the screenplay differently knowing you won’t be taking it to the screen yourself?

MH: You know; I should write Corbin about that project. It’s been coming up a lot lately in conversations. Honestly; Meghan Jones (my co-writer) and myself ended up working exactly from his notes; so writing that was pretty easy – actually easier as we weren’t writing for the usual budgetary limitations attached to our films. It’s a great story – in the Stephen King tradition. I know a large group of people worked on that script before us – so; I’m curious as to when (if ever) he hits the screen with it – how much or our script he’s going to end up using. It’s been a while since I’ve spoken with him, so I’d love to know the status there.

EI: I see that you have a camera operator credit for ROT. Is is difficult to still direct actors when you’re so involved with the technical aspects of filmmaking?

MH: Yes. Actually; it’s difficult to direct actors period on a shoot like "ROT". Basically; when you’re working on those types of shooting constraints; without prep and rehearsals; you really have no time to block or work with the actors period. It’s kind of – as you shoot – you see what you don’t like about their performance and tweak it as you go; as opposed to spending months in prep working out deliveries. That movie was put together 2 weeks before I was flown in to LA to direct it; and I only met the actors and saw the locations the day before we started shooting(!). So; for down and dirty shows like that – I’d prefer not to operate (although it would have been nice to have a preview monitor so I could watch what the camera was seeing – but that’s a whole other issue there!).

EI: A lot of low budget horror seems to just give up when it comes to actually scaring the audience and go instead for self-aware laughs. How do you think a horror movies in 2010 should treat it’s audience?

MH: I think there’s two types of horror films and it depends on your budget. Honestly; in this day in age – most people have seen everything when it comes to the genre; so "scaring people" isn’t as easy as it sounds when they’re so desensitized. I actually love campy horror flicks; but over the top in their ridiculousness; not self-referential (which is what campy horror films seem to do – even stuff like "Zombieland" gets its laughs from jokes on a cameo). I do think there are still scary films out there; like "Session 9′; but it comes from atmosphere – which is what I tried to load "ROT" with. But, honestly; I love horror comedies – and wish there were more. Flicks like "My Best Friend’s a Vampire" and "Army of Darkness" are some of my faves.

EI: How do you think your style as a filmmaker has evolved since your first short film?

MH: That’s another good question. I don’t know how I can answer that one. I guess; I’ve really started enjoying Giallo and realized I like (if I can) to move my stories along without dialogue; or to start you in the middle of a scene and let the viewer decipher why the people are there – and what they’re doing. In fact – the opening 10 minutes of "Reunion of Terror" don’t feature any spoken lines. Also; I think it’s my editorial style that’s adjusted. It took a long time to become a guilded editor in the union (I was recently accepted into the local 700 IATSE – Los Angeles) – so that’s great. I think there’s less than 2,000 (that aren’t assistant editors) in there with me! I also realized; that I really enjoy making absurdly funny things – as opposed to necessarily scary; and if you are doing something scary – that setting the tone and mood from the surrounding locations is a must. I spent hours shooting b-roll for "ROT" of foliage; the surrounding locations and more; and in post – I found them to really set the mood as there was something haunting about the California desert.

EI: Who and what are some of your biggest influences as a filmmaker?

MH: Probably cheesy movies from the 70’s and 80’s. I mean; stuff like "Slumber Party Massacre" and Jim Wynorski movies. There’s a certain charm to filmmakers who know their demographic; hit it; and then keep their target audience happy. I’m still trying to figure out how to do that – LOL – but am trying to get closer. I can definitely see the problems in my own work and am always trying to improve.

EI: You’ve had a diverse career in all fields of indie cinema and seem to be to a point where you’re making the films you want to make. Any advice for young filmmakers just getting started?

MH: I’d say – never give up. One day – I’d love to write a book; but am probably not successful enough to do so yet. LOL. I’ve been ripped off; screwed over – and have burned half the bridges I’ve driven across. Had to learn some tough lessons and fallen into some hard situations – some I created and others I didn’t. I think it’s all part of the learning curve. Like anything; if you do get into the movies – it is a business. So, once you’re financed – don’t be surprised if your film is cut to shreds by the producers; or the crew thinks you’re a schmuck; or the money people entrust creative control to someone who runs the project into the ground. I’ve been through all of those. BUT – if you can survive all of it – you can end up really happy. I mean; through all of my struggles I know have a great crew; great friends; a full time job as an editor I really enjoy; and so much more. Oh – and like everyone – I’m honestly still waiting to make the film I’d like to make. In fact; I’d love to shoot a micro-budget project that we – as a team – are in control of.

EI: Can you tell us about your next project?

MH: Right now; I’m local producer on the St. Louis Cardinals commercials (not too exciting I know – but it’s my 3rd year in a row) – LOL. Aside from that; I just got off a movie called "Beware" directed by Jason Daly. I headed the 2nd unit camera department and was the assistant editor/Red One DIT. That one may take a while to check out as it’s just entering post – but I’d keep an eye on that one. Jason had to direct the film in 2 languages (as there’s a Spanish and English); so it was a challenge having a translator on-set. For projects to check out now; "ROT: REUNION OF TERROR" comes out on March 9th; it’s kind an American take on the Giallo with a revenge back-story. I think a lot of critics have been mixed (from just rent it to love it) as it’s not really a slasher movie; but my take on the 70’s revenge themes. It comes out on March 9th and I’d say to at least give it a shot. I know there’s a lot of slasher films flooding the market – but we really went back to mixing the pacing of "Prom Night" with the death styles of Italian cinema (with less splatter) of over-the-top ending of drive in movies. Also; I was the assistant editor on a really cool flick called "Forget Me Not" which features Cody Linley and Carly Schroeder. That’s a really solid horror film – kind of "Final Destination" meets "The Ring". I was also hired on to two other projects; one’s a little unusual; it’s a television pilot for a gay-themed series; which would be interesting. No – it’s not horror. My girlfriend and I have been working with the creator to try and walk the fine line so it appeals to all demographics before they shoot. The other is a comedy-horror feature that I can’t really disclose anything on yet; but if it happens – it has cult written all over it. Actually; sometimes my favorite projects aren’t films at all. I directed a small micro-budget commercial for a JVC radio that my company manufactured with them. The slogan was "Bring the recording studio into your car" – and, honestly – I think that’s my favorite thing I’ve done in a long time. It was made with friends – and the producers were hands free and let us run with it. If you’d like a chuckle – it sits here: http://www.vimeo.com/3165172