Monday, October 26, 2009

Interview: Will Devokees, Director -- Macabre Medicine

About 6 months ago, I made a MySpace page for this here interwebs blog (hey, we never claim to be up-to-date and totally hip to the new trends in networking). It hasn't done squat by way of driving incremental web traffic but in my search for all things horror, I came across some of the finest in movie poster art that I'd seen in quite some time. Who knew the link would take me to the page of an aspiring filmmaker who has a healthy love for all things horror? Needless to say, I fell for the indie produced film immediately after watching the trailer.

At the ripe age of 20, Will Devokees is in the process of completing the finishing touches on a film which pays homage to grindhouse cinema and exploitation fare. Completely financed by himself, and taking many a bump, bruise, and beating along the way, he and his group composed of directors, editors, actors, accountants and yes, his grandmother, have helped provide invaluable support in bringing his vision to life. All while working for free.

I recently spoke to Will about the film making process, his love of the horror genre, and his disappointment with not being able to get ahold of Norm MacDonald for a role he specifically wrote for him. Instead, he had to settle for Pittsburgh, PA's finest Norm MacDonald impersonator.

Cortez The Killer: Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from, where do you live?

Will Devokees: My name is Will Hartman. I'm changing my last name to Devokees. There are too many Will Hartman's in Hollywood. I don't really want to go to Hollywood though. I want to stay independent. Anyways, I'm originally from Delaware. Had a lot of problems with my childhood but that story will probably be told in my book which will be published in about 20 years. Probably turned into a CBS movie or premiered on Lifetime. I currently live in Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania and I'm attending The Tom Savini School of Special Effects at the Douglas Education Center. I'm working with some great instructors such as Jerry Gergely (X-Files, Silence of the Lambs), Will Ritter (Pirates of The Caribbean, Van Helsing), Shawn Ronzio (Snakes on a Plane, House of 1,000 Corpses) all great guys that know their shit.

CTK: That is awesome. I had no idea that a Tom Savini School of Special Effects existed before checking out your Facebook profile (by the way, I was totally not stalking you). That's like going to a Rob Halford or Bruce Dickinson school for heavy metal singing.

Will: The cool thing about going to a school like that is that you learn directly from the pros in that field. Everyone always asks me 'Why didn't you go to the Art Institute?' Everyone at the Tom Savini School has worked in the industry. All of them started off their basement like me, completely self-taught. I have so much respect for these guys. Starting off in their own shops, being self-taught. Because I've done it and I'm still in the process of doing it.

CTK: That's great. Totally DIY, right?

Will: Exactly.

CTK: How is Tom Savini in 'real life?' I've never met him. He seems like a pretty laid back guy, a nerdy dude who really loves and has a passion for what he does.

Will: You'll hear stories on YouTube and I think they are just attention grabbers. I can only talk about my own experience. Tom is fucking awesome. Great guy, a total dream come true to not only meet him but study at his school. I met him for the first time at a convention awhile back and he let me take stuff off of his table for free. He said I paid enough to get in here. A total kickass guy, he genuinely loves what he does. If you are into special effects, definitely look into this school. It's fucking awesome.

CTK: Shifting gears, tell me what got you into horror movies? Tell me about some of your earliest horror movie memories, growing up as a kid. And how it lead into your current passion.

Will: Well I remember being shown horror movies by my father at a young age. I think the earliest memories were films like Night of The Living Dead and Halloween. And I remember being absolutely scared shitless, but at the same time, all I could think about was wanting more. I loved this rush, this feeling of being afraid of the dark. That's about the same time that this creative switch flipped on inside of me and I thought I'd love to get into acting. And then my grandmother told me people actually get paid to do this. But in Delaware, there aren't too many places to act. There is one theater in Georgetown and that's it. So I started to act and direct my own shitty little films that I would make with my friends. We made terrible movies on VHS and high-8. After awhile, I realized, man, these things fucking suck. They're shot poorly without professional actors or special effects. So what I did was rent horror films and take notes. I'd just rent movies, study them and learn about things like camera angles, and that lead to one of my first 'newer' films, shot first person. A thriller type. It was still pretty bad but I then realized I needed to learn about things like editing. Linear and non-linear editing is what I learned how to do next. Then I started getting into directing and special effects, really learning what goes into the skill and craft of making a film. And when it came to the special effects, it was things like me and my friend sitting around in my kitchen, mixing jelly, red food coloring, and some toothpaste, putting it into a glove and shooting it with a pellet gun.

Back when I started, the internet wasn't as big as it is now so I had to experiment. And I started meeting other like-minded people like Ben Bostaph (who plays the main character in the film). We then formed our own film group and me and Ben started to work hand in hand on our current film, Macabre Medicine. Its really been him and me along with my buddies Matt Oken (producer and actor), Josh Lynch (actor and editor) and Adam Clifton. All of these guys have stood by my side throughout the film making process and have been just as committed as I am to making a kick-ass film. All of these guys have brought their skills to the table, acting, directing, editing and also accounting. Its hard enough just getting equipment to make my shitty-ass movie, but when you don't have the talent, and I'm lucky that I do, thats when things get tough.

CTK: Sounds like you have a great support system to carry you through what I'm sure is a difficult and trying process. From what it sounds like, Macabre Medicine is kind of like the culmination of your early experimentations, after your light bulb went off and you explored what it actually takes to get a film done, and getting into more of a professional feel with better directing, editing, and special effects.

Will: Well here's the story about the infamous Macabre Medicine, the film that has been in production for over 2 years. Everyone (well at least cast and crew) have been asking me when are we finally going to get this thing done. And honestly I don't want to rush it. I am going to take my time and give people what they want. Its not a scary film by any stretch but I can promise its going to be a fun film you will watch with friends, drink some beers, made by a dude who probably won't ever work again.

But it all started out as a high school project. Me, Josh and Adam went to see Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse because I am a huge fan of exploitation films. And it was so much fun. And I said that I would love to do something like this for a school project.

I was taking a media broadcasting class, learning how to edit properly from all of my teachers (he names Gary Connelly, Bryan Denbrook, and Tony Borato as being particularly helpful and influential) in addition to how to film a movie properly.

So I had this project for class and I wanted to shoot an exploitation double feature (like Grindhouse) with the first film being Macabre Medicine. I was hoping the school would help me with funds but they wouldn't back it because of its gory and graphic content. So I said I need to find a way to do this myself. I began shooting it with a 160 camera because it was all I could afford at the time, never anticipating that it would turn into what it is today. I revisited some of my favorite exploitation films and re-studied them and even though Macabre Medicine has a 'modern' feel, we've worked really hard to give it that old school charm. I mean we use cellphones and drive Hyundai Elantras which weren't around in the 70's.

I didn't get any backing, had to use all of this shitty equipment and I bought a computer just for which eventually bottomed out. On top of that, the school caught wind of me continuing down the path and tried to shut me down. But I kept on, shooting things by myself, and I HAD to show the teachers something. Me and Ben shot something with his brother one night and my teachers were amazed. Its actually the intro to the film.

CTK: So you previewed the film with the opening shot. What happened after that?

Will: Gary basically said just go with it. And if other faculty members say anything about it, I've basically got your back. When premiere time came around, I was not done, nowhere near complete. I showed the opening credits and sequence, and it made one of the teachers throw up.

CTK: Mission accomplished right there.

Will: Exactly. We had a few other teachers also in attendance and it made me happy. #1, I did my job and made a person throw up and #2, a math teacher came up to me and said 'Man, that feels exactly like an exploitation film. You had the music and everything else.' He shook my hand and I couldn't have been happier.

CTK: Right on. Like John Waters says, if people aren't rolling or puking in the aisles, then I'm basically not doing my job.

Will: Exactly. That's one thing I love about special effects, working hours and hours to make this mask or sculpture just to rip it off of someone's face. I love seeing these creations come to life that I mold. But anyways. So I went forward, continued to make the film, and, hopefully, it'll be completed soon. And maybe I'll make enough money to buy better equipment and make my next one.

CTK: The main reason why I contacted you was because of not only your MySpace Films page, but because of the videos you posted on YouTube. I said to myself 'Now that's a kid that knows what he's doing. He obviously has a healthy respect for the source material and his effects are better than most folks who have ten times the budget.'

Will: Thanks!

CTK: Are you financing this all yourself?

Will: Yes. I am financing this all by myself. I went to Walmart, doctors, dentists.....

CTK: Doctors and dentists?

Will: Yeah. I remembered reading that Sam Raimi went to doctors and dentists asking for money to help fund his first film. Because, well, they have all the money in the world.

CTK: That's a brilliant idea!

Will: I guess NOT because it didn't fucking work! No one wanted to back a horror film. Maybe if it was a comedy or something. I don't know. I'm literally scraping for every last penny now to finish this damn thing.

If you can get past the fact that I pretty much shot all of this myself, with primitive equipment and with cheap effects, you will find that its a really fun movie and not meant to be taken seriously.

CTK: Well that's what got me hooked. Just by watching the trailer (see below) it definitely harkens back to that time period and how those films were shot. Not to mention, the poster art evoked images of Reanimator, one of my favorite films. And overall, the film has that nostalgic and charming grindhouse-y feel to it.

Will: Right on. We actually thought about making the character of Heyward West a cousin of Herbert West but we didn't want to get sued. Reanimator was a huge influence on us. Hopefully fans get the connection and our little homage to the film. And the poster, that was all Ben and Photoshop. I can't even open Photoshop properly.

After the film process stalled, I met a couple of guys through YouTube, Shawn C. Phillips and MJ Kelley who had their own show called Don and Murph. They were looking into getting into horror films and along with Ben, I showed them what I had so far. They loved it and went crazy. They asked my why I hadn't finished and I told them I had no more money and I didn't believe anyone would want to see it.

After, they continued to encourage me and I actually sat down and started writing more every night. And I came up with a finished script and just kind of worked from there. And I continued scraping money. I'll tell you what though. This damn movie is cursed. Every camera we've had has either broken or had problems with it. And of course, money has always been an issue.

But we have a lot of good people associated with this, no one famous, I'm not trying to make anyone famous. I don't care if it sells. For us, it will be a memory of a time with friends. Despite all of this, I'm excited and can't wait to get it done.

CTK: So where are you at in the process now?

Will: We are almost done. A couple more death and dialogue scenes to complete. We started when I lived in Delaware and then I moved to PA. That's really been the main hold up. Shots are being done in Delaware and hopefully we can wrap things up soon. I know the cast is getting restless. I'm tired of the travel back and forth, blowing out tires, and not making any money. I might not make back the thousands I've invested.

CTK: You never know. Before our interview, we were emailing back and forth about Paranormal Activity. That was made in my hometown of San Diego in a week for about $12,000. And now its set to break all kinds of records. You never know.

Will: Well there you go. Macabre Medicine, shot in about 3 years, just a bit under $20,000, maybe there's hope.

CTK: Well you already have a big fan in me. So that's one person who's buying a ticket.

Will: (laughs)

CTK: What else has been difficult about the film making process that maybe you didn't anticipate or foresee?

Will: Well I wrote this one particular character and had Norm MacDonald in mind to play the role.

CTK: No kidding?

Will: Yeah. I figured the dude isn't currently geting any work and I love his stuff. The guy's funny. I'm a huge fan. I tried emailing him and he probably thought 'Who the fuck is this kid?' So instead, we got the best Norm MacDonald impersonator in Pittsburgh. And he plays the role to a T and has one of the goriest deaths in the film.

CTK: Good stuff!

Will: Procrastination is probably the other biggest thing. I'm a lazy guy. But balancing school and work has been difficult.

CTK: So getting back to the movie itself, tell me more about what you wanted to do with the style of film that you were paying homage to.

Will: One thing I wanted to do with the film was show things that I've never seen before, that people have never seen before. This character, Heyward West, moves to town and is very reclusive and can't relate to normal people. In his attempts to better understand people, he takes on gruesome anatomy experiments. He's not studying verbatim or out of a textbook, he's mainly just playing with people's bodies to establish some sort of connection.

There is a scene where he cuts a guys arm open and starts playing with his tendons. I had never seen anything like it before. And another in which we shove a coat hanger down a woman's throat.

CTK: Wow, that sounds gnarly.
What do you dislike the most about modern horror films?

Will: I don't like CGI. Period. There's a debate going on whether or not makeup and special effects artists will have jobs in the future. I certainly hope not. Personally, I think people are tired of CGI. I think its swinging the other way back. People like more practical effects.

Have you seen Quarantine?

CTK: Yes. Excellent film.

Will: That's a film I love. No CGI and simple.

CTK: Have you seen the original Spanish version, [Rec]?

Will: No, but I want to.

CTK: I actually think its grittier and more grainy in the way the film is shot. Overall, I think its a more effective film.

Will: Awesome. That's what I hope to achieve with Macabre Medicine. Its grainy and we've worked hard to bring a more 'real' by way of cheap feel to it. If that makes sense.

CTK: Slow and lumbering zombies or fast and rabid?

Will: I actually like a combination of the two. I have a script idea for a zombie flick that incorporates both types.

*Insert random vouch for by Will's roommate here*

Roommate Matt: The thing about Will is he is completely out of his mind but when he gets on the set, he flips a switch and knows exactly what it is he wants to get out of his cast and crew. His imagination is set free and his script comes to life.

CTK: Thanks for that additional, random bit of insight.

Roommate Matt: No problem.

CTK: Getting back to the main impetus behind Macabre Medicine, you had mentioned seeing Tarantino's Grindhouse and also being a fan of that genre and style of horror. What are some of your favorite horror films from that genre?

Will: My favorite film from that genre, hands down, is Cannibal Holocaust. I love everything about it. How it was shot. How it obviously inspired films like Blair Witch. I like the idea of something so low budget and it relying on something else to sell it. Namely blood, sex and gore.

People also ask me what my favorite horror movie monster is and hands down, its werewolves.

CTK: Have you seen Dog Soldiers?

Will: No.

CTK: You need to get on that. In my humble opinion, its the best werewolf movie ever made. Overall, I think its a genre that has a lot of room for improvement.

Will: Yeah. Films like The Howling and Wolfen are alright but not great.

CTK: Silver Bullet was pretty good.

Will: I agree there. I'll fight people who don't like it.

CTK: What's fucking cooler than a kid in a suped-up wheelchair fighting werewolves?

Will: Totally. I was hoping you'd ask me if I had the chance to remake any film, what would it be?

CTK: (Laughs) Alright, which film would you remake?

Will: I'd remake Phantasm or Pumpkinhead. I'd do it and do it right. Both films could use an update and I wouldn't make either one Prom Night 2008.

CTK: That film was terrible.

Will: Guaranteed both remakes wouldn't be PG-13. And I wouldn't cast overly good looking people. I like to have normal looking people in my films.

CTK: Drag Me To Hell wasn't a bad PG-13 horror film.

-- Dead silence --

CTK: You didn't like it?

Will: It was alright. Personally I thought it was overhyped and not marketed correctly

CTK: Really?

Will: Yeah, they hyped it up to be this super scary, super gory Evil Dead-type flick. The thing that disappointed me the most was the overuse of CGI. Completely overdone. The CGI slime coming out of a woman's mouth? Come on. That was not needed. Your Sam Raimi for crying out loud!

CTK: So, realistically, when do you hope to have everything wrapped up and a premiere scheduled?

Will: Definitely December, 2009. I'm indentifying places in the Pittsburgh area, nothing final yet but I'm hoping for early December with a DVD coming at the end of December.

CTK: Let me know anything else I can do to help spread the word. I'm already a huge fan.

Will: Thanks!

CTK: Closing question. If someone where to come to you and say 'Horror movies, what is this racket? I'm kind of interested. What five movies should I watch?'

Will: Pretty Woman, Ghost....No. But seriously. #1, Last House on the Left -- the remake. Its brutal and the acting is so much better than the original. The original had unnecessary characters. The father in the new version is so much better. The original was gorier but this version was far more brutal and intense. The rape scene was far more disturbing. And the way the film was shot and how the tension was built lead to it being more effective. Its now one of my all-time favorite horror movies.

CTK: Agreed. I think its better than the original because of everything you just described.

Will: #2 horror film is definitely Cannibal Holocaust. #3 is Day of the Dead.

CTK: Better than Dawn of the Dead?

Will: Fuck yeah. The characterizations were better, the zombies looked more realistic and the gore was better.

CTK: OK, so that's 3.

Will: I know everyone says Halloween.

CTK: But that's no reason to not include it. What if this person had never seen a horror film?

Will: What is this kid, a feral child or something? OK, Halloween then. As for my #5, I'd say any indie horror film, shitty or not. There is always something that can be taken away from a horror film, regardless if its good or not.

CTK: Any closing advice to young filmmakers?

Will: My advice to young filmmakers would be to build or write something each week. Get a camera, a tripod or in my case, steal it from your grandma. Use steady and unique camera angles. Study movies, any movies and special effects. Play with stuff. All of the best things I've ever created was through experimenting. Everything I found online or bought in stores sucked. Come up with your own concoctions. And meet people that like the same things that you do.

CTK: Right on. Thanks for your time Will. I had a blast. Good luck with finishing the film. We'll be in touch.

Will: Thanks! And folks, feel free to check me out and contact me if you have any questions about what I'm doing or if you have questions about making films. I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Contact Info:


Check out Macabre Medicine's MySpace page here and view the trailer below. Look for more updates regarding the film exclusively at Planet of Terror.

Cortez the Killer

HorrorBlips: vote it up!

For the unadulterated, unedited version of the interview, see link to the MP3 file below:

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Josh Trett said...

Very inspiring and defiantly interesting interview. Looking forward to it. I'm pretty sure Norm MacDonald was a fool to turn down this film!

TNT said...

Great interview. Brings light to present and future fans. Keep up the good work. Best of luck!

Devokees said...

Great interview! Can't wait for the audio to be uploaded! And thanks for the support from those who posted, I highly appreciate it!!

Ben B. said...

Pretty cool interview there. It's been a fun and sometimes frustrating (especially for Will) film to work on. I love it though. I can't wait until it's done.

A. Clifton said...

This is awesome Billy! Yes when all is said and done, I see us having one big sigh and A LOTTA laughs! Here's to you man.