Seve Schelenz’s new thriller Skew is a haunting road trip into ghostly found footage territory, currently making its own journey through independent film festivals across the world. The writer/director hails from Nova Scotia with a BFA from York University in Toronto before he moved on to work as an editor. Schelenz is the founder of Sleep Apnea Productions Inc., a production company with two comedy series, Great Scott!!…television that bothers you, and Stand Up on Whistler Mountain to its credit. Now touring with Skew, Schelenz also works as an editor and colorist while developing new film and television projects.
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EI: Where did the initial inspiration for SKEW come from?
SS: Two days before an actual road trip with some friends, the idea suddenly hit me. How do I shoot a feature film on a small budget yet have the audience accept the quality of the footage for what it’s worth? By having the film shot through the lens of the main character’s video camera, I felt I would be forgiven for what many low budget independent films suffer from: lack of video quality. The initial draft of the script was written in the four days while on my own road trip. Five new drafts and one year later, we began principle photography on the film. The Blair Witch Project was the inspiration behind the style for Skew. At the time I was writing Skew, it had been over five years since Blair Witch hit the theatres and I felt there was room for a horror film with a fresh new spin on the found-footage idea.
EI: Your characters have a very natural style of dialogue. Was this scripted or did you allow your actors to improvise?
SS: Skew was scripted from start to finish. All the scenes deliver information through the dialogue that was important for the advancement of the story. Several times throughout the film I drop hints and other important information that not only build to the dramatic conclusion of the film, but also offer reasons behind certain character reactions or story development. Much time was spent in rehearsals to go over the dialogue with the actors. With this full preparation I had the opportunity to allow the actors to improvise in the odd take or scene when I knew we already had a good version in the can. This allowed me to play a little more in the editing room if I wanted to try a different delivery by the cast.
EI: What was it about the found footage genre that appealed to you as a filmmaker?
SS: We all have that one film that scared us as a kid. Mine was John Carpenter’s Halloween. It frightened the hell out of me and I remember not being able to sleep that night. Friday the 13th also did its trick on me but after a while, the sequels became a parody of themselves and the scares just don’t exist anymore. After a fairly dead period in horror, I felt Scream had the potential to bring it back into fashion again. But, once again the copycats and sequels hit and the scares faded away. The found-footage genre seemed to bring that extra element of horror back into play. The main reason it hit home for me is quite simply its realistic feel. The idea of no lights, no music, no dolly shots. Because it felt like it was something anyone could have shot during their vacation or on Christmas holidays, I bought into the realism of the whole thing and that makes it much more scarier.
EI: SKEW’s visual effects, including the titular ‘skewing’ of doomed characters, are quite unsettling. Did you experiment with different techniques to get this effect?
SS: My visual effects supervisor and I discussed the look of this early on in the filmmaking process. The word that was used not only in the character’s dialogue of the film but also in my own description in terms of the look was “blotchy.” I was hoping for an effect likened to a digital videotape being rewound. This creates multiple square pixilations on the screen that thematically fit the feel of Skew. Running with this idea, we had one of our visual effects artists create a few different versions of this effect before deciding on the final one. I should add here that the overall feel to the effects of Skew was definitely inspired by Japanese horror.
EI: Nearly all of the actual camerawork is done by one of your lead actors. What are some of the challenges and benefits of working in that style?
SS: Once the script was finished, one of the first questions I had was whether to have a DOP shoot the film and add the voice of Simon in post, or have an actor operate the camera with some technical help off to the side. In the end, I decided that we would probably get better performances from the actors if they were to play off one another. This decision definitely pays off in my mind as Robert Scattergood (who plays Simon Lacey) not only had great chemistry with the other actors, but he brought life to the camera itself. After rehearsals were complete and before the first day of the shoot, I gave Scattergood a crash course on the camera and let him walk around for about an hour with it. Since the story called for the camera being newly acquired by Simon, I wanted him to have minimal contact with it before principal photography began. I knew Scattergood would become more comfortable with the camera as the shoot went along and working closely with him, it was clear that this plan of attack was working out quite well.
EI: How do you think SKEW might have been different had it been filmed with a larger budget?
SS: This is a very interesting question. I would like to think that a larger budget would not have affected the final look of Skew. Other than the obvious fact that certain aspects of the film may have been completed faster with more money on hand, the look and feel of Skew is exactly how I hoped it would come together. There was originally an additional opening scene that had to be removed due to budgetary concerns with visual effects, but in hindsight this scene would not and has not been missed by the audience. There was also discussion for a bookended scene to be added to the beginning and ending of Skew to give it a slicker Hollywood feel. If a budget was there, I’m sure we would have shot this scene and potentially had it in the final version of the film. Thankfully it never happened.
EI: You began filming SKEW some time before the juggernaut success of Paranormal Activity. How did that film’s reception affect SKEW’s completion and release?
SS: Having written Skew in 2004 and gone to production in 2005, Skew began its inception some time before many of the other found-footage films like Cloverfield, Quarantine, and Paranormal Activity came to life. Skew took over five years to finish and upon its completion, the film was brought to a well-known film market to explore its distribution opportunities. Well, it turns out that the weekend before that market, Paranormal Activity opened to incredible success and everyone and their grandma had a new found-footage film they were flogging. In truth, the majority of these flogged films were not complete, written, or even fully conceptualized at the time. Everyone was going for the quick buck and trying to jump on the bandwagon of Paranormal Activity’s success. What should have possibly been a great opportunity for Skew now that distributors would be looking for this style of film, turned out to be a large disadvantage as most distributors were overloaded with these pitches. To even be one of the few filmmakers with an actual complete feature didn’t seem to matter at the time. So I had to play the game of patience and hope that the strong story of Skew itself would eventually generate buzz when the time came. With Skew’s recent acceptance into multiple festivals, its nominations and an award win, plus the great reviews it’s been receiving, distributors are now starting to take notice.
EI: You’ve made the decision not to use viral marketing like Twitter and Facebook to promote SKEW. What inspired that decision and how has it influenced SKEW’s journey?
SS: Personally I’m not a big fan of Facebook or Twitter. I much prefer my own viral marketing…it’s called Facetime – where you actually meet with someone face to face and talk. People spend way too much time in front of their computer already (I am one of the guilty ones), so to spend that much more time on social networking tools like Facebook doesn’t really interest me. Now having said that, I do understand the strength of using that tool to promote your product. It’s actually free advertising and there are probably a boatload of people out there who would love to hear all about it on Facebook or Twitter. So I may be missing out on that faction of the market. But I wanted to approach the promotion of this film the old fashioned way – word of mouth (well I guess with a little help with e-mail as well). So far I feel it’s been going well. Do I think I’ll follow the same route for the next film? No, there’s too much at stake here. But let me tell you, I won’t be the one updating the films status on a daily basis.
EI: SKEW has been having a great festival run. What is the general reaction to the film? Is there anything about watching the film with a theatrical audience that surprises you?
SS: Yes, I’m so happy for the great run Skew has been having on the festival circuit so far. I am very honored to be chosen by some of these great festivals and am really happy they’ve taken a chance on my film. What I find interesting is that half the festivals that have accepted Skew are not even horror-themed. I take that as a large compliment to the film as I would hope the story itself is being selected over just the blood and horror. The general audience reaction has been quite positive. I have always described Skew as a “thinking man’s film.” You really have to pay attention from start to finish so you don’t miss anything, including the twist of an ending. I had the great opportunity to be a part of some Q&A sessions following the screening of my film at select festivals, and I am surprised and quite pleased at how attentive audiences have been with the story. It’s even more fun to explain parts of the film to the viewers that may have missed something. I love catching that moment of realization on their face when they finally understand a particular action or line of dialogue they originally didn’t catch. It truly is amazing when I hear an audience member remark that they would like to see the film again to catch what they may have missed the first time.
EI: What are some of the films that inspired you to become a director?
SS: Wow, growing up there were so many amazing films. Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Terminator, Star Wars (the originals) just to name a few. These all had great directors, and more importantly great storytellers involved in them. I feel like my generation of moviegoers were spoiled with such amazing films. When I hit university, Tarantino had a huge influence on me. His storytelling, development of characters, and use of timeline manipulation really intrigued me. Not to mention how he killed off characters in a cool way. I am also a big fan of early M. Night Shyamalan – and let me clarify that by specifically referring to The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Shyamalan developed a sense of anticipation in his first two features that really grabbed my attention. In the end, it’s the story that I’m most interested in and it’s that relationship between the screenwriter and the director that really makes or breaks a film. Ultimately you cannot have a good film without a good script and more often than not I find directors who have either written it or had a large influence in the screenwriting process tell the best stories.
EI: Where and when can readers expect to see SKEW in their nearest theater or video store?
SS: Skew will continue its festival run for a while before a distributor picks it up for further releasing. The best way to see the film is at your local festival. Since premiering at seven other festivals, including ones in Australia, Hawaii, and New Jersey, Skew will be shown from July 22-24 at the Fright Night Film Festival in Kentucky, July 26 at the Manhattan Film Festival and August 26 at the San Antonio Horrific Film Festival to name a few. Keep posted to our YouTube site for the most up-to-date information on screening venues: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_f7kmL4wAIo.
EI: Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
SS: I have several feature film and television projects in the works right now. Two of them that seem to be at the forefront are a larger horror feature (not of the found-footage genre) and a suspense thriller-kidnapping feature with a major twist. At this time both features are in line to be the next project so we’ll see where we’re at when the final scripts are locked. In the meantime, I am still early on in Skew’s festival run and I plan to enjoy the ride while I can.