Writer/director/producer Ryan Nicholson burst onto the film stage with 2004’s Torched, a gruesome rape/revenge short. Since then, he has written and directed three more extreme horror films, each topping the last one in outrageous violence and black comedy. Cary Conley, another fan of extreme horror, recently interviewed Ryan about his filmmaking experiences, his influences, what he loves and hates about making films, and how to deal with those hateful comments on Internet message boards.
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CC: Ryan, you have an extensive list of makeup and special effects credits stretching back 15 years. What first got you interested in movies and special effects?
RN: My Father, Roy Nicholson, was a huge fan of horror and sci-fi movies back in the day. I remember he took me to see David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” and I freaked out! He was a fan of the original “Fly” so it’s like full circle because now I take my son, Taylor, to see remakes of movies I saw when I was younger like “My Bloody Valentine” and “Friday the 13th.” My interest in horror movies led me to do special effects, as I saw it a way into making movies. But I always wanted to make my own stuff.
CC: You are clearly a horror and exploitation fan. What filmmakers and films have most influenced you?
RN: Italian horror was a big influence and still is. David Cronenberg, David Lynch, John Waters and Abel Ferrara’s work was big for me. Certain movies just stick with you…”I Spit On Your Grave”, “Ms. 45” and “Street Trash” were very well-worn VHS tapes in my collection, as was “Bad Taste”, “Zombie” and “Driller Killer”. I also fell in love with the work of Joe D’Amato and Jess Franco at a young age, along with Umberto Lenzi, Lucio Fulci and Ruggero Deodato. American directors like John Carpenter, Tobe Hoober, and Wes Craven are huge inspirations as well.
CC: Why did you decide to make the move to directing films?
RN: I felt that I was always more interested in the mechanics of film-making and that my goal was to be the machine rather than a part of the machine. I wrote many songs for a couple of different bands I had when I was younger and writing is more of a creative outlet for me than make-up ever was. Actually coming up with shots and sequences came pretty natural after being on numerous film sets. Directing actors and working with all the different departments to achieve something good is just damned cool.
CC: You wrote, directed and produced all of your pictures. Which of these three aspects of filmmaking do you like the best, and why?
RN: All three of those elements are rolled into one on any of my movies. Dealing with little money means being very creative. When I write, I know what is feasible and what’s not. Financially, I try to keep things within some sort of reach. Producing is the most stressful job for sure because it involves budgeting money and stretching the dollar. I’d rather have someone else deal with that aspect and I try to delegate most producer duties to my partners.
CC: Your movies tend to be extreme in nature, both in the depiction of sex and nudity as well as with your use of violence and gore. What interests you about extreme cinema?
RN: I like the taboo nature of these movies. I can’t stand it when filmmakers cut away from showing the “goods” and in our business, the goods are sex and violence. Certain images have stuck with me and left an impact. Like the scene in “Deliverance” when Ned Beatty gets assaulted. I was thinking, ”He’s not going to do that! No way!” and then it happened. And the scene in “Re-Animator” with the infamous severed head between the legs. It takes more balls than brains to show things viewers will take offense to. Balls say, “Fuck it, show everything in a close-up,” but the brains say, “You’re cutting your distribution down 75 percent! Are you crazy!?”
CC: Has the content of your films made it easier or more difficult to find distribution?
RN: Most distributors shy away from our content because certain big rental outlets won’t stock it because of that said content. The upside is that the distributors we go with know the audience very well and promote our movies the right way.
CC: I know some of your films have been released in both unrated and R-rated forms. I’m interested to know what kind of relationship you have with the MPAA. Did you make precuts to the films or just send them an uncut version and let them make suggestions?
RN: The only movie of mine that received an official MPAA rating was “Live Feed”. This was because MTI, the distributor, has a good relationship with Blockbuster in the USA and Blockbuster needed an R-rating. Thankfully, MTI released two versions of the movie. My other films have been released Unrated in North America simply because there would be no way to appease the MPAA. In other countries, specifically Germany, they release two versions of all of my stuff but the cut versions are quite short, so the end credits run really slow for a real long time to top out at 80 minutes. My movies don’t just have frames trimmed, they have entire scenes removed! The censors are very heavy-handed with my stuff. To be honest, it doesn’t bother me because the audience that knows me knows they can find the uncut versions fairly readily.
CC: Gutterballs has a very long and brutal rape scene. As uncomfortable as that scene may be for the viewer, it must also be pretty uncomfortable for everyone involved in putting it on film. How did you deal with filming this scene in a way that would put everyone at ease?
RN: It was tough to film. The bowling alley didn’t know we would be filming a rape scene. I sold it more as a “fight” to them. But in the end, one of the owners of the alley came up and was like, “Wow, that scene was very well done.” I guess he had watched a live feed from a security camera! The actors had trouble unleashing on our first attempt so we reshot the entire scene and it worked very well. Candice Lewald, the victim, was very good at keeping her composure. The villains were all very good as well. It was tough for all of us.
CC: Working in independent films, I’m sure you are faced with many challenges. What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in making and marketing your films?
RN: I think blowing your load to make the movie and then having very-little-to-no money left to market the movie, to even shop it properly to distributors is our biggest challenge. The first couple of movies, “Live Feed” and “Gutterballs”, took awhile to get out. Word of mouth takes time and that is really the best marketing, but it’s not overnight. Now, with our fourth feature “Star Vehicle” coming out, people know to look for it. It took four movies to get noticed—and that’s okay–Rome wasn’t built in a day. Finding a reliable cast and crew is also tough when people make as little as 50 bucks to 100 bucks a day. It’s tough for people to commit to three weeks of low pay. I’ve been lucky thus far with my regulars but I’d like to be able to afford to pay everyone what they’re really worth one day. I’m sure they’d like it too!
CC: I’ve read quite a few reviews for each of your films as well as the message boards on IMDb. The criticism has sometimes been savage. How did you learn to deal with the criticism—or do you ever learn to deal with it?
RN: At first I was very insulted, sad and then angry. I called out a few critics and got into verbal sparring with them. They bait you. I learned fast and hard not to fall for it because a filmmaker cannot win that argument. When you make a movie, you have to accept the negative comments and reviews. I grew a thick skin after “Live Feed”, which was very poorly received. I still think it’s a solid effort, all things considered. When “Gutterballs” came out, I responded to negativity with positive feedback. Like “You hated it, well maybe you’ll give my next one a chance, if not, thanks for your feedback anyhow.” I learned to appreciate all reviews and even get a kick out of the really scathing ones because the writing can be very creative! I remember when Rue Morgue reviewed “Live Feed”. It wasn’t positive and I was crushed because I love that magazine and its contributors. I went on the boards and called them out and I lost an all-out war of words which I think caused them to overlook my second feature, “Gutterballs”. Almost everyone reviewed that film, but they didn’t comment on it. I let it be and kept buying Rue Morgue anyways. I actually bought a recent issue and the reviewer that didn’t like “Live Feed” reviewed my last movie “Hanger” and give it a positive review. It was a pleasant surprise to say the least. I think that you can’t force something down someone’s throat. If they choose to discover it, so be it. That is the way of ultra low-budget film-making.
CC: I’ve also noticed that you are one of the few filmmakers—even of independent features—that take the time to read the message boards and engage both fans and critics in dialogue. Why do you take the time to do this, and do you feel like it helps those who are critical of your films?
RN: I’m a horror fan at heart and I’ve been lucky to have certain filmmakers respond to me and the questions or praise I may have had for them. It’s very important to treat your fans as your family because in horror, we are one big family. I count on my viewers to buy my movies so I can make more for them. Interacting with my audience is the best way to find out what they like, don’t like, and to find out what they’d like to see. My audience and I share the same tastes in movies. I consider my viewers to be my friends because certain viewers are damned cool and have indeed become my support group when I’m so critically raped. I’ve met some awesome people and hope to continue to do so. Anyone can get in touch with me and shoot the shit about anything. I’m easy.
CC: I’ve seen all three of your features now, and it seems to me that they all have a great deal of humor to them, albeit a sometimes dark and politically incorrect sense of humor. How important do you think humor is when dealing with the extreme subject matter you work with?
RN: Humor is what gets us through the sadistic violence. I’m not a mean-spirited person. I consider myself level-headed and a good person. I’m the kind of guy that will stop on the highway and help a woman fix a flat tire, not rape and murder that person! There’s nothing wrong with make believe violence and/or violent fantasies if they stay fantasies. When you have trouble deciphering fantasy from reality, then it’s time to seek professional help. The humor in my movies is really how I view everything in life. The world is so fucked up you need to find the humor in it to get by.
CC: I guess a case in point would be films such as Cannibal Holocaust, In a Glass Cage, or even Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. These three films are so bleak, so nihilistic, and so humorless as to really be pretty grueling for the viewer to watch. But I found myself laughing—sometimes in disbelief—at some of the offensive comments your characters made or some of the situations within the film, even though I was also disgusted. Was this your intention?
RN: It’s true…some scenes are so violent, you can’t help but laugh at the cruelty because it helps you know that you are still human and not totally fucked up. My intention is to take viewers back to these kinds of movies, the movies we loved in the 70’s and 80’s. But put my own spin on it. You can’t take these movies seriously, they’re too unbelievable. I’m speaking about my own stuff. It’s violent fantasy horror.
CC: I think that all of your films have generally had fairly high production values and better-than-average acting than many indie films, especially low-budget horror films. What kind of budgets have you worked with on your three features? Do you have any money-saving tips for other aspiring filmmakers who may be reading this?
RN: Thanks for that kind comment! We try very hard to make our shot-on-video movies look good on your TV set. We don’t do all that film look bullshit, we simply do hours on end of color correction to bring out the vibrant look and bring a certain quality to our stuff. I will be going back to “Live Feed” to get that look. It was almost there but “Gutterballs” and “Hanger” really captured what I’m going for. Cartoony elements. “Live Feed” will look fantastic once we treat it with what we’ve learned since. A new soundtrack and edit will help as well. The shooting budgets have been generally the same. I usually go into a film with about 25 thousand for FX pre-production and wardrobe…and then another 50K to 100K for shooting. Post-production is expensive with budgets ranging from 25 K to 50K for post, when dealing with picture edit, sound edit, mastering, etc., and finally marketing monies which all depend on how extensive you want to extend yourself. For instance, “Live Feed” and “Gutterballs” both had the North American Coast to Coast Fangoria Weekend of Horrors tours. This wasn’t cheap for us. We went to three or four cities for each movie and each city would generally put us out minimum 5k for expenses. Then you have merchandise you need created to give away, which isn’t cheap. I remember printing up hundreds of full color “Live Feed” t-shirts and giving them out at these Fangoria shows, forget the fact that printing each shirt was expensive, shipping the shirts there was costly, too. Add website construction on top of this and P and A expenses on top of this and your marketing costs can easily reach five figures.
My advice to filmmakers is Do NOT BORROW MONEY unless you are fully prepared to pay it back or ruin friendships. I’ve been paying back one loan for 20 K and it’s killing me, taking a long time to get it down when my movies aren’t giving me the return I expected. I also have a smaller loan for 10 K . One of my longtime friends and contributors put 8000 dollars into one of my movies and because I simply couldn’t make the minimum payment on time, he told me to go piss up a rope and refuses to talk to me, choosing to pay that loan back himself than be affiliated with me. Things don’t always go as planned in this business and it’s tough to lose a friend over money issues. I’m very open about my costs of film-making. But again, heed my warning…do not borrow money unless you want to pay it back from your day to day job. If you make that commitment, be prepared to live broke until you can break even. I’m not well-off by any means and I put myself in the poorhouse to make cool shit for others to enjoy, but that is the path I’ve chosen. I still have a day job teaching FX, which is pretty cool because the school I teach at also offers acting programs. I can check out new talent and it’s at our disposal if need be. Another thing to remember is that getting a deal is great. You’re all excited, your movie will be released to the public, etc., but you need to know that the distributors will also take everything the movie makes first, to pay back their costs to market the movie, pressing up the dvd’s, etc. So be prepared to wait until their costs are paid off before you see monies that go towards paying your own costs down it’s a long, hard road.
CC: Clearly you are influenced by exploitation subgenres that many of us know and love, such as the slasher film and the rape-revenge film. But as a writer, after you come up with a basic idea you want to work with, do you have a specific process that you use to flesh out the storyline?
RN: Once I have an idea, I expand on it like writing a play. I devise three acts and within those acts, chapters basically. I then flesh out a screenplay. I’ve had many treatments go by the wayside because I came up with something more interesting. I do go back to some of these ideas. Some I shelve. I like to see elements from some of these other ideas incorporated into stuff I’m filming. The slasher formula is pretty simple. The most fun I have is writing the death scenes because that’s where we excel. I’m proud of that fact. I don’t claim to be a well-versed writer, but I do hold claim to some very kickass murder sequences.
CC: There’s not really a question here, but I have to say that while both Live Feed and Gutterballs had many “gross-out” moments, I must say that Hanger was even over-the-top for you! It seemed like you threw in every vile and disgusting set piece you could think of. It had me both cringing and holding my bladder because I was laughing so hard. I could almost feel the sense of glee you must have had while filming. Do you have any comments about this observation?
RN: I was fuming at the world when I wrote “Hanger”. Many people were pissing in my cereal so it’s a big fuck-you-with-a-cherry-on-top kind of film. I loved shooting the movie. It was very challenging with all of the make-ups. Time wise, it was brutally long days but the cast and crew were up for it and pulled through. It’s an odd movie that plays out more like an adult comic book. That movie we shot in sequence for the most part and the weather was cold, snowing…you can see the snow falling in some of the junkyard scenes, but we get away with it because it looks like ash from the fires burning. We actually have a prequel comic in the works and you can preview the first few pages on the “Hanger” page at www.plotdigger.com.
CC: With Live Feed you created, for lack of a better description, a film in the “torture porn” subgenre; Gutterballs was a throwback to the heyday of slasher films as well as a rape-revenge vehicle; and your latest film, Hanger, was really a straight up revenge film. What’s up next for Ryan Nicholson?
RN: We have “Star Vehicle” coming out this Spring. It’s an outdoors revenge kind of thing with some twists in it. It has some of the best production value we’ve had. We upgraded to true Hi-Def cameras and the resolution is fantastic. I think the main character, “Don Cardini,” played most awesomely by Plotdigger regular Dan Ellis, is a very likable character. This is different than most of what I’ve written because Plotdigger Films don’t have super likable characters. This isn’t intentional; it just works itself out that way. “Star Vehicle” changes that up and you really root for “Don” when he snaps and goes bonkers! We also have a high-school slasher flick we’re shooting in the summer called “Famine.” It’s a nod to school slasher flicks with some very creative kill stuff…it’s a whodunit type of movie with a giallo vibe. After that, I really want to shoot “Gutterballs 2: Balls Deep”. The script is done and it’s a fun ride. It’s similar to the original in the depravity department. I’d shoot it sooner but I need more time to let people discover the first one. It is still building an audience and there’s many people left to discover it. I have a few original stories that I’d like to do as well, but making movies takes time and money. And you need both at once. “Live Feed” will be re-released at some point with a new capture, edit and sound. I really like that movie and feel that it needs to be seen again in a different light. It deserves a second chance in my opinion.