Last month I had the pleasure of reviewing Christopher R. Mihm’s latest retro b-movie, House of Ghosts. This was a bit of a departure for Christopher, as previously he had been focusing on creating classic style b-movies in the mutant and sci-fi genres. His latest film pays homage to the William Castle style ghost story, complete with its own theater gimmick. I always look forward to Christopher’s films, because he’s one of a VERY few people out there right now making this style of films, and he’s one of an even smaller number of film makers who are actually really good at it.
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DLM – Let’s start out by having you tell us a little about yourself and your background as a film maker.
CRM – After a lifetime of wanting to but never having enough motivation, I officially began making movies in 2005. In 2004, my 13-year-old stepdaughter was diagnosed with bone cancer (of which, she is 100% cured almost seven years later!), I decided it was time to finally get moving on realizing my own dreams because, after all, if a healthy, athletic 13 year old kid could be diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease, I, as an overweight 30-year-old, could easily be next! So, shaken out of my complacency, I sat down and wrote the screenplay for my first film, “The Monster of Phantom Lake.” Driven to finally make a “real movie,” I plowed through and completed it within about six months. The following spring, I held a premiere at The Heights Theatre on the outskirts of Minneapolis, MN to a raucous and excited audience. The film quickly garnered many positive reviews and screened in many events and film festivals across the world. Completely addicted to the experience, I decided I had to keep making movies, no matter what the cost! Thus, here I am seven years later with seven features under my belt and another in the works.
DLM – Back when you first started making films, was it your intention to stick to strictly retro, b-movie style films, or was that something you just sort of stuck with because you enjoyed it?
CRM – I made my first film as a tribute to my late father. Growing up he and I would bond by watching those cheesy old movies together. He passed away in 2000 from a rare form of stomach cancer and had been on my mind quite a bit when my step-daughter was diagnosed just four years later. I felt like I wanted to make a movie that my dad would have loved and one he and I would have enjoyed watching together. This is where “The Monster of Phantom Lake” came from. After releasing it, I had the opportunity to screen it at a drive-in in Wisconsin. Seeing it up on that giant drive-in screen was transcendent! Experiencing my cheesy 1950s-style B-movie at a drive-in is one of the greatest moments of my life because it was THE perfect place to see it. I literally rank that experience up there with the births of my children! During that screening I had an epiphany and decided I didn’t want to do anything other than these retro-style features.
DLM – When it came to writing your latest film, House of Ghosts, you took a bit of a different direction from your other films, in that this one is more of a William Castle style ghost story rather than a monster or sci-fi type film like you’ve made in the past. What inspired you to go in this direction this time around, and is it a style and genre you’d like to re-visit again in the future?
CRM – After making six films, I decided I wanted to branch out A LITTLE. Not very much, obviously, since “House of Ghosts” very much fits in with my other work. After doing sci-fi/monster pictures for so long, I wanted to try something that was a little more straight horror. I figured it would allow me to stretch my filmmaking and screenwriting skills in a new direction while staying within my chosen style. As a fan of the films (and gimmicks) of William Castle, it was the perfect way to start branching out by paying homage to the master!
Lastly, it is a style and genre I will revisit in the future. I very much enjoyed it and I think it gave me the courage to branch out in other ways as well. For instance, my next film “The Giant Spider” is my first attempt at a “giant bug” film. I also have plans to make a sort of western film next year!
DLM – I noticed that in this film you had a lot of inside jokes that related to your previous films. Did you have a difficult time fitting those in so that they’d be funny for people who got the references, while still keeping it amusing enough for people who didn’t?
CRM – In the very beginning, I decided I wanted all my films to be standalone stories while simultaneously existing in the same “universe.” Basically, it’s built in such a way that characters, locations, family lines, products, bad-pseudo-science, etc. from one film may appear in another or be mentioned or directly referenced. In this way, it ties all of my films together BUT, they can all be enjoyed one at a time, completely separate from the others. As I add more films to the library, it’s getting harder and harder to include “inside stuff” without alienating folks who may not be familiar with all of the films. In “House of Ghosts” there are many inside references but I don’t think they’re so heavy-handed as to take away from someone’s enjoyment of the final film.
(It should be mentioned that a fan of the films came up with the term “Mihmiverse” as a shortcut to refer to the universe of my films. It, along with the term “Mihmivites” to describe the fans themselves, have since stuck and become synonymous with my work!)
DLM – You have a "stable" of actors that you tend to go to for each of your films. while throwing new and different people into the mix now and then. Tell us about some of the cast members that have become familiar faces in your films, and the benefits to having reliable cast members to work with from film to film.
CRM – The greatest benefit of using the same actors over and over is the shorthand we end up having with each other. I know their strengths and they know how I need and want things done. They know what to expect and where to take things and I can trust their instincts to create great performances. This also makes the actual process of shooting one of these films smoother and much more relaxed.
There are so many great actors that have been added to the “stable” that it’s hard to name just a few! Instead, I’ll list the ones that immediately come to mind and say this about all of them: they are all my dear friends, are dedicated, easy and fun to work with, and are extremely talented (and would be a marvelous addition to ANY project)—Mike Cook, Sid Korpi, Shannon McDonough, Daniel R. Sjerven, Jim Norgard, Justen Overlander, Stephanie Mihm, Michael Kaiser, Catherine Hansen, Mark Haider, and Anthony Kaczor. (If I forgot anybody, I apologize profusely!) Also, there are a couple behind-the-scenes folks that I have to mention, specifically Mitch Gonzales (my go-to guy for monster designs and special effects) and Cherie “Rhuby” Gallinati, my lighting and production designer and the only person who can ever get away with telling me “no!”
DLM – What were some of the aspects of this film that you feel came out particularly well, and are there any aspects of it that, looking back on it, you’d have done differently?
CRM – I think we achieved the right atmosphere and level of escalation we were going for. I think the script is solid and the “scares” we got were very close to how I imagined them. I am actually quite proud of the finished product and wouldn’t change much. There are small things I would change that really wouldn’t affect the overall film that much. I struggled with my William Castle-esque intro and wish I could have shortened it a little but, it’s fine for what it is. Some of the special effects weren’t QUITE as special as I was imagining and I really wish we could have gotten actual snow. I live in Minnesota and I wrote a blizzard into my script not knowing that last winter would have one of the lowest snowfall amounts on record! So to answer the question, the changes would be minimal things that in all honesty, would only ever be big enough to bother my own perfectionist sensibilities!
DLM – Tell us about the ghosts in this film. Who made the costumes for them?
CRM – There are really only two ghosts that required their own special costumes. (SPOILER ALERT!) One is the “Angel of Death,” a skeletal creature with, as I called them, “Loki horns” coming out of its head. It wears a simple monk-like black robe that was created by costumer Carol Eade. The creature’s mask and skeletal hands are latex creations made by the uber-talented artist and special effects expert Mitch Gonzales. Mitch also did some cool zombie ghost make-up that appears later in the film.
The other ghost was a callback to a previous film that required us to pull out an old costume that had been in storage for quite a few years! That costume was created by me and two of my kids!
DLM – There’s a scene where one of your cast is in the basement and is attacked by a bunch of spiders. How hard was that scene to shoot and how difficult was it to move the spiders around the way you wanted to?
CRM – Special effects wise, that one was a lot easier to do than I thought it would be. During that scene, the character’s flashlight keeps failing so it made editing different effects shots together much smoother because we end up with short periods of complete darkness. For some shots, we used spirit gum to attach spiders to the actor and for others, we tossed cheap plastic spiders at him while simultaneously using lots of clear fishing line to add the illusion of webs and movement. All things considered, I think it turned out much better (and much cheesier) than we originally anticipated. The “spider attack” is one of my favorite scenes in the finished film!
DLM – One of the things that I noted in my review that was done particularly well in this film was the use of light and shadow, and this was particularly important in the scenes with the ghosts, and the scene with the spiders. How difficult was it to get the lighting just right in these scenes. Was it really time consuming to get it to look the way you wanted, or did it come together fairly quickly?
CRM – This is entirely on the shoulders of lighting designer Cherie “Rhuby” Gallinati. She and I have been friends for many years and she’s not only talented as hell but REALLY gets what it is I need and want. She’s done many theater productions over the years and when she read the script she basically said, “I got this.” I know her inspiration for the film was actually the hard and harsh shadows of film noir. From the beginning, she told me what she needed by way of supplies and I just got out of her way to do what she does best! The final result is 100% her and I could not be any happier with what she was able to achieve! AND, the best part about it is that she works very quickly and efficiently, so it really didn’t cut into our shoot times much at all!
DLM – What was the most difficult scene for you to shoot in this film?
CRM – The hardest scene to shoot involved the first time one of the characters (played by Stephanie Mihm) sees the ghost of her deceased son. In this scene, the spirit keeps appearing in different parts of a hallway in front of or behind Stephanie’s character while the ghost’s face is shrouded in shadow the entire time. It was extremely difficult to get the lighting in that scene JUST RIGHT to hide the actor’s face while still maintaining the tension and moodiness of the setting.
DLM – One of the things I’ve always loved about your films is the selection of music you use. Where do you find all this great old music, and how time consuming of a process is it to pick out just the right selections?
CRM – All of the music I use is old public domain library or royalty free stuff. At the beginning of the editing process I find about five or six big pieces and extract any usable audio. Then during the editing process, I add music at the same time I put together the video—sometimes even editing a scene to the cues in the music. It can add a little extra editing time but it allows me to synch things in such a way that the music becomes almost a secondary character in the film.
DLM – Did you make any technical advancements in this film, like new equipment, new software, etc… that you feel improved your production quality over your previous films?
CRM – Aside from using real theater lights and a “real” lighting designer, the big change was upgrading my camera to HD. In the past I filmed everything on a Panasonic DVX100a, which is a standard-definition 24p camera. For “House of Ghosts,” I purchased a new Panasonic HMC150 AVCCAM. I believe the difference in the way it looks speaks for itself!
DLM – This film, like previous releases, has English subtitles, which are a really fun part of the experience and shouldn’t be missed. It also includes both a language track and subtitles in Esperanto. What language is Esperanto exactly? Who speaks it and what made you want to include it in your films?
CRM – Esperanto was created in the late 19th century and is the most widely spoken constructed language. I’d go into the whole background of it but it’d be much easier to point you to the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esperanto!
Basically Esperanto was started as a language that was supposed to be very easy-to-learn and used for “peaceful, diplomatic purposes.” In the 1950s, the language was quite popular among sci-fi and monster fans with Forrest J. Ackerman (who created the seminal classic-movie magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland) being a big fan and speaker. When I wrote my previous film “Attack of the Moon Zombies,” the action takes place on an international moon base in the 1970s (as imagined from the 1950s). During pre-production, a friend suggested that from a 1950s sci-fi perspective, an international science station would absolutely REQUIRE that all crew members know Esperanto to allow communication. I liked the idea quite a bit so I found an organization of Esperanto speakers and asked them to translate a few signs and the base’s motto that was to appear on the all the characters’ mission patches. One thing led to another and they volunteered to translate the entire script AND record an audio track for it. Seeing no negatives, I gladly accepted. “Moon Zombies” has since been very well received in the Esperanto community and the translation team was excited by the prospect of doing more – thus, we ended up with Esperanto subtitles and spoken audio on the “House of Ghosts” DVD—and I love it!
DLM – I noticed that the dialogue in the film is re-recorded and dubbed in rather than using the live recorded sound. While it makes the sound quality of the dialogue excellent, does it create any significant sync problems or delays from a production standpoint when you do it that way?
CRM – I do that purposely just for consistency. I find it quite difficult to capture dialogue live, especially when using the bare-minimum crews as I do. After so many films, I have my audio process down to a bit of a science and it doesn’t really FEEL like it adds that much time to the creation of the film simply because it’s more or less a standard part of how I do things. I just add spoken audio the same way I add music—at the same time I edit the video. And yes, it CAN occasionally create synch problems. But, since it’s digital, I can do a lot to minimize that and, if I absolutely can’t get something to line up right, it just forces me to cut away to something else in the visuals!
DLM – What are your plans for House of Ghosts? Are you going to send it around to various festivals before you put it out there for sale, or are you planning to self distribute it right away?
CRM – I make my films specifically for DVD. I release them the same day I hold the premiere. I had a distribution deal early in my filmmaking career but it really didn’t turn out so well! So, I self-distribute all my films because it’s the only way I’ve been able to make any kind of money back from my investments into producing them. I do send them out to various festivals and events but, those can be hit or miss. A lot of times, I try to set up events directly with other promoters, theaters or live horror hosts.
DLM – You premiered this film to a live audience. Tell us about that evening and how it all went. How was the film received?
CRM – Every year I hold a premiere of my latest film at a local theater that is the longest continuously running movie theater in the Twin Cities—it goes back to the silent era! Every year the profile of this event has been rising. The premiere for “House of Ghosts” sold out the 400 seat theater six weeks in advance! That was definitely a first! Because this film is a tribute to William Castle, we included some extra “shenanigans” to add extra oomph to the experience. We had a faux doctor and nurse on hand in case anyone died, had a planted woman “freak out,” did a pseudo-Emergo thing with a walking skeleton and rained plastic spiders on the heads of theater goers. All in all, the night was a smashing success and the film has been very well received!
DLM – Your next film is The Giant Spider. Can you tell us anything about it, without giving too much away, and do you have any idea when you’re going to be starting production on it?
CRM – It’s a coming of age story about a boy and his dog. Actually, it’s not but that’s what we sarcastically tell people when they ask. “The Giant Spider,” oddly enough (more sarcasm), is about a gargantuan arachnid that is making its way toward a small town. On the way, it stops off to eat people. Meanwhile, a group of scientists, a newspaper reporter, his fiancee, and an army general try to stop it! It’s a very straightforward script and, if I can pull it off, will most likely be my most ambitious and biggest “blockbuster!” We’ve already been in pre-production for at least a month and we’ll be shooting the first scenes in the middle of July!
DLM – Tell everyone where they can find out about your films and purchase copies for themselves.
CRM – Visit my website at www.sainteuphoria.com, the online home of the films of Christopher R. Mihm! There you can view clips and trailers and purchase DVDs, posters and other collectibles AND play a special custom-made Infocom-style text adventure game set in the Mihmiverse I created specifically for the site! (You can find it under “Danny Johnson and the Lucky Coin” in the “Special Features” section!)
DLM – Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we wrap this up?
CRM – My films are funded almost entirely by the fans. If you’re at all interested in contributing, we offer associate producer credits for only $55. For every credit you buy, you get your name in the end credits, 5 copies of the finished DVD to share with family and friends, two tickets to the premiere, and a beautiful, frame-able signed certificate stating your involvement in the associate producer program! AP credits can be purchased in the merchandise section of my website. Thanks!