An Interview with P.J. Starks – By Duane L. Martin

A few years ago, I reviewed P.J. Starks’ first film, Hallow’s Eve: Slaughter on Second Street. It was quite an achievement for the first time film maker. Now, he’s back with a new short called A Mind Beside Itself, which was a night and day difference in both style and production quality from his previous film. In this interview, I asked P.J. how it all came together, and what elements made all the difference in how it turned out.

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DLM: It’s been a few years since we last talked, so let’s start, as I always do, by having you tell everyone a little about yourself and your background.

PJS: I’ve been interested in films and how they were made since I can remember. After my first feature length attempt in 2001 I obtained a job at a local not for profit tv station. For the past decade I’ve been working as a videographer/editor as well as in charge of special projects. In 2007 I and my good friend, and eventual Producer, Rodney Newton teamed up to create the indie horror flick Hallows Eve: Slaughter on Second Street, which premiered on Halloween night in 2008. Ever since then it’s been a constant ride that keeps getting better and better.

DLM: Hallow’s Eve: Slaughter on Second Street was my first experience with you as a film maker back in 2008. What were some of the biggest lessons you learned from the production of that film that made you a better film maker?

PJS: We went into the film with a moto,"know your limits." Nevertheless, we did indie filmmaking in reverse. Instead of making a short with a few characters, we aimed out sights on a 98 minute special fx laden spletter fest with nearly two dozen characters. Bad idea! After shooting for 5 days a week over the course of 2 months I came away with a new found respect for that moto. The other lesson I learned was to make sure that when you make a deal, whether it be with a business or individual, you secure everything in writing. Vocal agreements that end in a hand shake mean nothing! We learned that lesson the hard way. If someone has the chance to back out on their comittment, they will no matter what it cost you in the end.

DLM: Three years is a long time between films. What were you up to between Hallow’s Eve and A Mind Beside itself?

PJS: It’s absolutely incredible what can happen over the course of 3 years. Immediately following the success of Hallows Eve, Rodney and myself were asked to help David Breckman (writer/producer/director Monk and SNL) with his short film Murder In Kentucky during the 2009 International Mystery Writers Festival. I received a Co-Producer credit as well as helping co-edit the first assembly of the film.

A year later in the summer of 2010 we worked with Lee Goldberg (writer/producer Diagnosis Murder, The Glades and Psych) on his directorial debut film Remaindered, of which I was Director of Photography and Co-Editor. Goldberg’s film premiered in San Francisco in October 2010 to rave reviews from television and film legends. Right before that I wrote and directed my passion project A Mind Beside Itself, a psychological romance. Following Lee’s film I worked as Associate Producer on Reality for an Indiana filmmaker, the film is currently in post production. Next I’ll be working with two Henderson, KY filmmakers Neil Kellen on his fan film Batman: Metaphors and Lewis D. Chaney’s Eidolon as editor for both.

DLM: How long did it take you and co-writer Rodney Newton to develop the script for A Mind Beside Itself before you were happy enough with it to go forward with the production, and did it change at all during the whole production process, or did you stick with what you had?
PJS: In July of 2009 we knew that the next project had to be a step up. We discussed everthing that both fans and critics hated about our previous effort, going forward with every intention of making the next project better in every way. Rodney suggested that we go with a concept that I’d been sitting on for nearly 5 years. A psychological romance that lended itself to being a short, rather than a feature. After discussing the idea, I immediately went back and spent the next week writing the script. Rodney and I looked over the first draft and then sent it to David Breckman where he offered his help as a script doctor of sorts. However, when he contacted me he had no changes and only one suggestion. This also lead to one of the most amazing compliments I’ve ever recieved as a writer. David told me,"what you managed to write in one draft, most writers hope to accomplish in three." It was very validating.

The only major change the film took was literally a week before we started shooting. Going in I had a specific vision for how it needed to be shot and how the story needed to be executed visually. A right I reserved as the eventual editor. While the cast and crew were happy with the project as is, I had this feeling that something was missing. Then one day I created an additional story line that really beefed up the psychological elements. I revealed the major addition during the final production meeting to varied responses. However, I knew it was what I wanted and it didn’t actually mess with the original integrity of the story. So we went ahead with it. I honestly feel the film is more rounded out now because of it as does everyone else involved.

DLM: The story in this film is rather chopped and vague until it’s all cleared up at the very end. How difficult was it to write a story that wasn’t too vague, yet was just vague enough to keep the viewer guessing as to what was really going on?

PJS: It wasn’t as difficult as you might believe. I think time has a lot to do with that. I had been working on and tweaking the idea for almost 5 years. So when I finally sat down to write the script. a majority of the story structure had already been meticulously thought out. The hard part came later when I added the extra story line. Working around the original elements of the plot to add in more psychological nuances and somehow unalter what had already been written.

DLM: What was your budget for this film, and how did it compare to the budget for Hallow’s Eve?

PJS: Because it was a short the budget was only about half of what was spent to make Hallows Eve. Our first movie was micro-budget, only around $1000 to make. A drop in a hat for most film companies, but the difference between eating and starving for us. Going into AMBI with the same idea of "making better" I knew I’d need financial help. So I found some Producers that would be willing to spend a little cash. On HE the budget was alloted for special fx. For this the money was spent on travel, wardrobe and props that were specifically needed for set pieces or the "nuances".

DLM: Quality-wise, this film was a big step up from Hallow’s Eve. Visual quality, camera work, editing and sound all saw huge improvements over your previous film. In fact, I’ve never seen such a huge jump in technical prowess between two films. What happened in between these two films that allowed you to step things up to that degree?

PJS: After making our own film and having garnered tons of local press, there was a groundswell of interest in what we were trying to accomplish in our community. Dozens of other indie filmmakers from the region poured out of the wood work. After meeting many of these individuals I began the process of finding out who possessed what skill and what equipment. Then placed said filmmakers into the roles that I required to help create my vision. I wasn’t going to settle this time around, I was going to do it right or I wasn’t going to do it at all.

DLM: Tell us about the cast. How did you go about casting the film, and how long did the process take? Did you have any difficulties in finding just the right people for the parts?

PJS: Casting the role of Maya was easy. Rodney introduced me to Lori Rosas who runs a talent agency out of Evansville, IN. Lori and I hit it off right away. It was an instant chemistry, the kind you might have with a brother or sister. Lori came aboard the project as Casting Director, however, truth be told I had my eye on Lori for the female role. Rodney had made the suggestion to cast her as such and the more I thought about it, I knew he was right. Lori has the type of experience and talent that any indie filmmaker dreams about. She was a real asset and aside from myself, the second longest crew member to be apart of the project. Lori loved the script and because of that stuck with the project no matter what. I can’t thank her enough for her support and undying passion for AMBI.

After a long hiatus, where the original Tristan had to be let go due to ill advised personal choices, I called upon Eric Sax. Eric orginally auditioned for another role in a comedy we were working on called Holy Spirits. Eric has an insane natural ability when it comes to his craft. I didn’t even audition Eric, I knew he would own the role. I think his performance speaks for itself. About two weeks before we started shooting Eric was forced to move back to New Jersey, where he grew up and currently resides. Again I thought I would have to put the project on hold. Eric decided to stay with the project and drive from NJ to indiana based off the strength of the script. Eric is an amazing talent and a truly unique find. Tristan Ashling wouldn’t be the same character without Eric in the role. I honestly feel the film would’ve suffered without him.

Timothy Scott Norris was in my mind as The Business Man during the whole writing process. I had promised him a role a year before and made good on that. He did a fantastic job and I thank him greatly for what he gave to the film. Chelsea Gentry’s character wasn’t in the original scipt, she came into the project late in the game. Nevertheless she’s a gorgeous and talented actress. She stepped on set last minute and nailed the role, absolutely nailed it. Chelsea was a real asset on screen and behind the camera as well.

DLM: How long did the production take overall, from start to finish? Did you manage to produce it in the timeframe you originally planned for it?
PJS: In a word, NO. The original production date was slated for November of 2009. After losing a lead it was pushed back to the summer of 2010. At first it was disconcerting but ultimately allowed for a little more pre-production work and the addition of the new plot points. Overall the process was a 19 month labor of love and I couldn’t be more happy or proud of the way it turned out.

DLM: What were some of your biggest difficulties in getting this film made, and what aspects of it actually went easier than you thought they would?

PJS: Finding locations and replacing the male lead were the only real set backs. But once they were nailed down it was smooth sailing. The only reason the production went so smoothly was because of the amazing crew I had helping me along the way. From Neil Kellen the Director of Photograhy to Lewis D. Chaney the Head Lighting Tech (that would eventually snag a 1st AD credit). My amazingly supportive wife Katrina took on the role of Production Manager as well as an Executive Producer, she was extremely organized and kept me on task. Laura Ambrose was amazing with the Hair & Make-up, which was the first time I really had this available to me. All the Production Assistant were a blessing, I don’t know how I ever made movies without them. Because of all these insanely talented and passionate people I was able to literally create the film I had envisioned. Watching the movie now amazes me, because it’s like the images were taken right out of my minds eye. I just came up with the concept. Rodney and I fleshed out the story. But the real backbone of the movie is everyone infront of and behind the camera.

DLM: Just as Hallow’s Eve was a learning experience, I’m sure there were lessons learned from this one as well. What did you learn from making this film that’ll make things easier for you when it comes time to make your next one?

PJS: When you’re passionate about something like film, espcially indie films, you’re drawn to others of the same mind set. You want to help and you want to network with them. I was very lucky to make several new friends and contacts like Lewis and Neil where we instantly clicked. It makes life on set more fun when you feel like you’re surrounded by family rather than someone waiting for a pay check. You know they’re there because they want to be, not because they have to be. Making sure you have the right people is crucial. Next is Production Assistants. Because of these guys I finally knew what it felt like to truly direct and do nothing else. Thank you all so much for allowing me the opportunity.

DLM: So what are your plans for the film? Have you sent it out to any film festivals yet?

PJS: As far as festivals are concerned, the film is currently in consideration for the SF: San Francisco Shorts Festival and the Chicago United Film Fest. I’m about to send it to nearly a dozen more. Locally my plans are to continue getting reviews, getting the film exposure and using it to promote what were bringing to our community here in Owensboro, KY. I’ve even discussed promoting a double feature with Jakob Balinski, another regional filmmaker, showing A Mind Beside itself and his new short Obsolescence. Rodney and I are huge on continued education and we’re going to keep doing everything we can to expand our mission and create awareness of the indie filmmaking movement that’s happening right now.

DLM: Have you thought about what you’re going to do next? Do you have anything in the works yet, or are you just taking a break to focus on this film for a while?

PJS: There’s no such thing as a break. Rodney and I are working on several projects now aside from my helping other local filmmakers with their projects. One is a benefit screening of Hallows Eve to tale place in October of 2011. Another project deals directly with the local colleges in the area, however, I can’t say much more than that. I’ve got another short film in the works called Grave Judgement as well as about a dozen concepts I’m working into script form. Three of which have already been written; a horror anthology entitled Devils Night and two other shorts Romance of the Dead and The Transmission. Things are very busy in our little part of the world.

DLM: Is there any way people can see A Mind Beside Itself if they don’t have the chance to see it at a festival or a local screening?

PJS: I haven’t decided on a DVD release date yet. There’s also a chance I will make the film available through the official website for a nominal fee. Things are still up in the air. Honestly I’m more focused on sending A Mind Beside Itself to festivals at the moment.

DLM: Lastly, what, in your opinion, are the biggest problems faced by independent film makers today, and how can those problems be overcome, if at all?

PJS: The biggest problem I know of is talking and not doing. At one time I talked about the movies I was going to make, but I was always too lazy to actually set my sights higher. Not enough money or no equipment is no excuse to let your dreams die. If you want to make your movie then it’s up to you to start finding out who else is doing it. Networking is the key. Find indie filmmakers in your area and pitch in. Team up with the right people, that’s how I got to where I am now with several professional productions under my belt and a myriad of opportunities right around the corner. The lesson here is, if I can do it, anyone can.