An Interview with Robert Thompson – By Cary Conley

After reviewing the short film Inferno last month, I recently took some time to talk to first-time director Robert Thompson about the film. We talk about the trials and tribulations of indie filmmaking, the very personal religious beliefs that led Thompson to create Inferno, and the upcoming showing of the film at Louisville’s Fright Night Film Fest.

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Cary Conley: Robert, introduce yourself to Rogue readers. What is your background in film? How did you become interested in creating films?

Robert Thompson: When I saw “Jaws” for the first time, I wanted to be a marine biologist. Sharks fascinated me from that moment forward, but I ended up falling out of love with the idea. But the movie certainly left a lasting impression. So then I realized that it was the idea of the movie that I loved, and I wanted to learn how to make that happen…how they made a fake shark, or how the cameras worked, and that’s when I fell in love with film. The Grandfather of Summer Blockbusters was my initial inspiration. I never went to school for film; I went for business management. It boiled down to being about sixty grand cheaper. So I started taking any job I could get on film sets. I knew that I wanted to direct, but I’ve always felt a good leader needs to lead by example. I figured if I learned every job on set, I’d know what I was asking people to do one day. That was about ten years ago, and it all finally came to fruition with “Inferno”.

CC: Tell us a little about your production company, Fresh Slate Pictures.

RT: Fresh Slate Pictures was recently filed as an LLC. It was the culmination of several years of equipment hoarding and planning. We are a legitimate company, and we do things like wedding videos, music videos, et cetera. But our passion is in projects like “Inferno”. We need to operate on a professional level to be able to get people behind these projects, and Fresh Slate Pictures was a way to make that happen.

CC: Which directors have influenced you the most? Are there any particular films–besides Jaws– that made you want to make movies?

RT: Easily have to go with Joss Whedon and James Cameron. Growing up, “Terminator 2” and “Buffy” were such a huge part of my childhood, and my life, that they really did sort of shape a lot of how I film, how I carry myself as a filmmaker, and what goals I want to achieve. They both do a lot for causes they believe in, and that inspires me as well. Along with the aforementioned movies, “Jurassic Park” definitely ranks up there with movies I find inspiring from my childhood. I would certainly attribute my desire to make “Popcorn Flicks” to these types of movies and directors.

CC: How did you come up with the idea for Inferno, a morality play about a selfish egomaniac who comes face-to-face with the Devil himself?

RT: The idea was spawned from issues I was having with religion at the time. I grew up in a conservative Christian home, and while church wasn’t forced on me, it was definitely recommended. As I got older though, as many people do, I began questioning things. At the point in my life I wrote this script, I had come to the personal realization that there is a God, and that I believe in him. Thus, there must be a Devil because all things in the universe need a counter-balance. But I wasn’t a fan of organized religion anymore. I think many churches do wonderful things for people and they offer a great place to go for people who need moral guidance, but I just couldn’t be into it any longer. I was also taking issue with “Christian” friends who were going out, spreading venom and hatred against other people for their beliefs and the way they lived, but would say it was okay, because it was “for Jesus”. I got tired of hearing that just because someone believed in Jesus, they’d go to Heaven. I don’t believe it works that way, and many people are, in fact, destined for Hell. This was my way of expressing that.

CC: Aside from a lack of money, which many indie filmmakers suffer from, what other challenges did you face during the production of Inferno? Any lessons you learned that you can apply to future projects?

RT: Oh there are many! I’ll share just one instance, though. We originally scheduled three days of filming, and the first two went fairly well. Our third day was a Sunday. The day before that, my father was actually admitted to the hospital. His kidneys failed and it didn’t look good for him. In fact, the doctors told us to say our “good-byes” and to start making plans, et cetera, and I probably should have taken this as an omen, but I was determined to be on set and to keep things going, so Sunday remained for filming. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. It was truly a day from Hell. Finally, I looked at the producer on the project, Cara Digate, and I told her that some of the people there that day had to go. We ended up having two more days of filming after that, and they went extraordinarily well. Lessons learned? Always have food and WATER on set. Dehydration is not to be taken lightly. No matter how small your budget is, feed your cast/crew and make sure they stay hydrated; understand that your project is only YOUR priority. Not a single person other than you, working on your non-funded, low-budget movie, holds the movie as highly as you do, so be patient with the people you work with. Aside from that, if you want to direct, be a good leader. I can’t stress this enough. Don’t just wear the title. Know what you’re doing, know how to inspire and most importantly, be willing to do yourself, what you ask others to do. Never expect more out of those you’re working with, than you expect out of yourself.

CC: On your website for Fresh Slate Pictures, you make mention of some people who perhaps were not as passionate about filmmaking as they thought they might be, especially when the conditions were less than favorable. Without naming anyone in particular, can you enlighten us on this situation? How were you able to continue making the film?

RT: It’s hard to tell any stories without naming names or instances, but I will try to clarify in a general sense what I meant. Ultimately, what I’ve learned in about a decade of working on sets is that the majority of people who show up on any given set, don’t want to “go pro” in this line of work. They don’t take it seriously; there is no passion. If you want to be a filmmaker in Hollywood, making big-budget films, you can be. But be prepared to work. So many times, people show up on set and they think it’s cool, “Oh, I’m making a movie, tee hee.” Yes, we are making a movie, but making a movie is hard work. It’s hot, it’s long hours, people start to smell after a while. It’s not FUN very often. And people learn this the hard way. I make movies because I love it. I love entertaining people. THAT makes it fun; the work itself is very hard, strenuous, and exhausting. So to any potential filmmakers, if you’re getting into it, just thinking you’re going to have fun and that it’ll be a breeze: I recommend clown college instead.

CC: Eric Hulen does a particularly fine job of playing the egomaniacal character of David Marquette. Where did you find him?

RT: Well, first I have to say that ALL of the actors did well given the circumstances that “Inferno” was made in. Kayla Crance is an exceptional young actress who takes her craft seriously; Adrienne Gossman was a very lucky find, and did well for this being her first acting experience. Jon Hoch is nothing like Vincent. So for him to step out of his comfort zone so much, he did very well. As far as Eric is concerned, he actually auditioned for a feature-length we were going to be filming before this (which fell through because of someone as mentioned above), and when it didn’t work out, I offered him this role instead. He did very well, and is an impressive young actor who I think has a great future ahead if he keeps his eyes on the proverbial “prize”.

CC: While there are plenty of weird angles and other great film techniques, I was particularly impressed with the change in color palettes between David’s life and his death and subsequent visit to Hell. Talk a little about this aesthetic choice and why you made this choice. Any symbolism here?

RT: People attribute fire and brimstone to Hell. My whole thing, again with religion, this is all imagery. I believe the more logical and probable Hell is created not by Satan, but by our own actions here on earth. Our fears, insecurities, doubts and negative actions against others are tallied and when we check out, our soul spends eternity in that “Hell” that we’ve created for ourselves. I wanted to give his “Hell” this kind of feel. It’s not hot, but the pressure of his sin makes him feel exhausted and burned out. A basement was the perfect setting for someone so conceited and self-indulgent. He thought he had the world in the palm of his hand – but all of that false power amounted to a dark room where he’s left with himself. That’s the other thing too, that I did purposely. He talks a lot. Some people simply like to hear the sound of their own voice, no matter the nonsense they spew. He’s that kind of person. Even in Hell, he’s still running his mouth when he gets the chance. It’s not until the very end, until the last three seconds of film, that something finally gets him to shut up.

CC: Inferno has already played at its first film festival, Evansville, Indiana’s MayDay Film Fest. How was the film received?

RT: To be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure how it was received at the festival specifically. I was stuck at home with my mother being in the hospital (notice a pattern here?) and our DP, Ryan Woebbeking, stayed home to lovingly take care for his sick wife. So we didn’t have anyone there to view it with an audience, but from my understanding, the festival as a whole went very, very well. Kristine Farley and the others who run MayDay put on a fantastic festival, and I hope that next year we will be able to attend with something else, and actually participate.

CC: I know you were unfortunately unable to attend the MayDay Film Fest, but Inferno’s second festival appearance will be in late June at Louisville, Kentucky’s Fright Night Film Fest. How stoked are you about attending this event? Is Inferno up for any awards, or are you just trying to get your work seen?

RT: I wouldn’t miss Fright Night for anything, man! That’s my vacation. I’m years overdue for one. Great company, our movie is in the Fest, great guests lined up for it. What more could a guy ask for? I feel honored and appreciate every single person that watches anything I direct. I do what I do to entertain fans, and I love every second of it. But to be accepted into such a reputable genre Fest, with so many other great films, it’s mind-blowing. Of course, it’s not the Oscars but – these people know horror, action and fantasy. That they see something in this movie good enough to make it a part of their line-up, that’s a huge accomplishment to me, and I know to the rest of the cast and crew as well. To say I’m stoked to attend Fright Night is an understatement. More than anything, I’m stoked to meet James Marsters (that’s Spike for all you Buffy fans). I’m a huge fan of the guy, and yes, I plan on asking him to attend “Inferno” when it plays — I’ll let you know how that goes!

CC: Now that Inferno is making the festival rounds, do you have any other projects in the works? It seems I’ve heard something about a zombie apocalypse approaching….

RT: You may have heard something about that. Fresh Slate Pictures, LLC’s next project is “Aftermath”. My desire with this project was to take something that was popular right now (zombies) and try to add something to it that no one had ever really seen before. This was actually conceptualized about a year ago now, when “Inferno” was still in production. We just started filming this weekend, and it’s gone exceptionally well so far. Maggie Dye, my new partner, is an incredible make-up artist, photographer, and actress, she’s truly unique and amazing, and is an incredible asset to this project, and will be to many projects we do for years to come. You may even be interviewing her as a director, down the road. Toss in Ryan as our DP again for the unique camera work and we have a main crew that can produce something special. Our main cast, which includes Maggie, but also stars Ben Roney, Annie Robinson, Darius Devontaye Green, Brandon Benz and Dustin Lawson are all stellar actors and actresses. Several of them are extremely passionate about this business and I expect you will hear their names more after reading this interview. “Aftermath” though, is not just a zombie horror concept. It is sci-fi, action, horror, fantasy. It’s everything you could possibly want, and the goal is that at the very end of it, we give the audience a shock that has them begging for more. It’s drawn a lot of comparisons by people who know the story to “Cabin in the Woods”, in that, you’re going along thinking you’re watching this by-the-numbers ride and then BAM – it takes an incredibly different turn, and that’s what we wanted to do. I’m personally not going to complain at all if a project I’m making is compared to something Joss Whedon had part in.

CC: Inferno was your very first film. Do you have any last words or advice for aspiring filmmakers who might be thinking about making a movie?

RT: If any aspiring young filmmaker ever happens across this, I do have a few words of wisdom. You know, I grew up poor, with average parents, an only child, and was bullied daily. Heck, I was even homeless there for a span in my early teens. I tell you this because, today, though I’m not getting paid a whole lot right now, I’m pursuing my dream every single day. I get to get up every morning knowing that I’m doing what I love to do. I spent ten years working on the set of any project that would take me (90% of those projects never even finished filming), but I did it so I could learn what I couldn’t afford to go to school and learn. If you have a dream, you chase after it. Being successful and doing what you love to do requires a lot from you. Sacrifice is mandatory for success, but it’s worth it in the end, if it’s what you really want. People are always going to tell you that it’s a waste of time, that you’re going to fail or that someone else is better than you are. You will lose countless hours of sleep, you will cry and sweat and yes, even bleed, for every project you make, but it’s worth it. Don’t accept mediocrity and don’t accept other people’s negativity. Fight for what you want in life. Right now, I’m about as much of a “nobody director” as anyone else, but my very first directorial debut is playing in one of the biggest festivals in the country and a lot of the negativity I listened to for years has suddenly turned to whispers. This is what I live for and, if you feel the same way, pursue it with every ounce of who you are.