Friday, December 4, 2009

Interview: The Directors of Summer School

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a review for a little indie film called Summer School (see here). In look and feel, it pays homage to 70's and 80's horror fare but with an entirely original story and concept. I called it the Groundhog's Day of horror films but that may give the impression that its a horror comedy (there are however, some good laughs). Instead, what you get is a literal traverse through a horror funhouse with different sub-genres on display during the run time.

So enamored was I with this fun film, that I reached out to the production company with the hopes of being able to interview the director. Well I did, and instead of a director or two, I was graced with the time, insights and humor of four.

Cortez the Killer: Where did the idea for Summer School come from?

Ben Trandem: I initially came up with the idea for Summer School and the character of Charlie during my junior/senior summer of high school. I was taking a government class so I could have an open period for my art work during the normal semester. I was also renting ridiculous amounts of horror VHS tapes from a local mom & pop video store near my house. They had a deal of 10 old releases for $2 on Tuesdays which was just killer. I had been writing another script about zombies and got the idea for an anthology styled film with all the genres I loved but one that actually had a singular character arc throughout. Originally, Summer School was going to be just myself writing and directing it but once I got to college, I met Mike and the rest of the directors (except Lance who I've known since I was 12). I realized as long as I was executive producer, and did the final draft of the script to keep the movie cohesive, they could all have a crack at a piece. Plus, that would really give each different story it's own unique style and if the audience didn't like one genre, there would be another completely different one along in a few minutes. So, I gave out a sheet of most horror sub-genres, a character sheet, a few basic ground rules for the story, and let people pick what they wanted. Then, I arranged their short scripts or wrote the genre they had chosen and set up Charles' arc.

Mike Nelson: I remember when he pitched the idea to me. We were still in college at The Minneapolis College of Art and Design and he had a couple stories written as sections for the film. I remember reading The Cult section part of the film. The idea was loosely based around Ben’s experience at summer school when he was trying to get a class out of the way. He bought and watched 100's of b-horror movies and didn’t get much sleep. So he slept a lot in school. Or something like that. I actually remember the first meeting about the film when Ben, Lance and I wrote down all the sub-genres of horror people could pick from. It was a pretty big list if I remember correctly. Then each director just picked their genre and the stories got written.

Steve Rhoden: The idea was that each of us would write and direct our own segment, as a sort of combination of all our talents, and we would each take a larger role in the whole production:

-Ben would be in charge of the overall story, costuming, digital effects, some practical effects, and some editing.
-Lance would produce
-Mike would be co-cinematographer, sound design, and co-editor
-I would be the head of makeup and some practical effects
-Troy (ed. note: the 5th director of the film) would be co-cinematographer, and gaffer

Lance Hendrickson: Each individual segment has it's own inspiration from each writer and director which I think adds a lot in terms of different styles to the whole project.

CTK: I was going to ask about the main inspiration for the character of Charlie. He definitely resonates with me and is certainly a relatable one. Anything that you would care to add about how the character was fashioned?

Mike: Each director got to give a glimpse of how they’d react to the situation Charlie was in or explore their favorite emotions (fear being the obvious one but not the only). Overall, Charlie's character stays pretty consistent through the piece. This worked out so well because of the writing and the tight knit group we had directing.

Lance: I think a big part of Charlie's attitude and history comes from the bones that Ben gave him, but Simon Wallace (ed. note: the actor who plays Charlie) brought a whole new swagger to the character. I can't think of anyone who would've done a better job.

CTK: The overall look and feel of the film has a very drive-in cinema by way of 70’s flare. Was that a conscious decision among all directors or was it lead by someone in particular?

Ben: Mike and I are big big fans of grindhouse exploitation films. While shooting, we didn't really think to emulate the aesthetic like Tarantino & Rodriguez did with all the scratches and film damage and junk. Although a lot of the genres we touched on are just goofy enough to fall into that realm of exploitation, so we kept the general feel. And our composer Tom Hambleton gave us that funky 70's style opening track.

Mike: I made a conscious choice to make The Hillbilly section of the film a throwback to an action/revenge piece. But through production and in post, I was a huge advocate of giving the entire film an 80’s horror/grindhouse gloss and I think everyone decided it was a good idea. At the time of production back in 2005, I was watching tons of old revenge and horror films from the 70’s and 80’s and was completely smitten by them. But at the same time, I also felt like our limitations, much like the limitations of the grindhouse filmmakers of the 70’s, added to that feel. When it all comes down to it, we made a grindhouse flick with a grindhouse budget.

Lance: Also, Mike and Ben really wanted to get a certain style from the colors and title cards and what not. It was definitely a conscious decision to try to capture that aesthetic.

Steve: It's pretty safe to say that most of us adore 70’s to mid 80’s horror flicks over modern, so overall, our influences definitely played into our segments.

CTK: That leads me into my next question. Tell me a little about each of your influences and how they helped shape each segment that you directed in particular.

Ben: For directors in general, I could go on for pages about American, European and Asian directors that have influenced me, but that could get incredibly boring and pretentious. So, my short list is Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson for biggest influential directors and I'm a huge fan of practical effects wizards like KNB, Rob Bottin and Tom Savini. That being said I'm the only director that tackled multiple sections, so I felt that I should vary my style up a bit per section. The Vampires section is the obvious Raimi/Jackson influence, since I wrote it to be a parody of vampires (considering I wrote the section in 2002 I find it funny I beat the tween vampire craze by a few years) and used the most odd angles and weird camera moves in it. The beginning up until the ruler slaps the desk, the ending, and The Slasher section were more influenced by a slower paced horror like Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, Eli Roth's Cabin Fever or Dario Argento's Suspiria. I felt, in Slasher, Charles is breaking down and the camera (and audience) should start to pull away from him and worry about his friends. He was still the main character but at that point nobody should be rooting for him to succeed. Also, for the beginning of the film, I had to be aware of how Lance was going to shoot The Cult section so it had to move seamlessly so as to not catch people off guard. Which seems to work as most people consider the entire opening as The Cult or that section starting after Charles is hit in the kitchen.

Mike: The Hillbilly section was directly influenced by the survival, rural and revenge films of the 70’s. I really enjoy films where the protagonist has to go to a dark violent place to either defend or stand for something they believe in. Almost to the point where they feel like the bad guy but you are still cheering for them. I wanted to do this with Charles’ character and really have him viciously fight back. The Hillbilly section is at a point in the film where the character is fed up with these 'hallucinations' and he reaches a breaking point. He doesn’t run after he has the chance to get away. He stays to kill and fight back. The obvious example yet a definite influence was John Boorman’s Deliverance. But aside from that, films like They Call Her One Eye, Death Wish, Billy Jack, The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Walking Tall (1973), Mad Max, Race with the Devil, and Duel, to name a few, have all had a major impact on my work as a filmmaker both stylistically and thematically. I feel like the movies of the 70’s era were full of fresh ideas and overwhelming style that nothing prior or after has ever been able to match. Hence, it’s extreme influence.

Steve: I directed The Monster section of the film. Some of my favorite films are The Shining, The Thing, The Candyman, and Hellraiser. They play on paranoia and claustrophobia, which is a little what I went for. I usually would go for artsy and slow, but where my section fit in, I thought it could use some jump cuts and quicker action to keep people interested. I did still manage to fit in some background imagery that takes a few viewings to catch. Every mini-scene has something to look for, whether it be blood on the ceiling, opening lockers, or what not.

Lance: I did The Cult section of the film and most of my influence comes from my theatre background. I felt we needed a section to flesh out the characters and give the whole thing something to care about, so I focused mostly on character development stuff. I also have always really been into the occult and ancient knowledge stuff so that's where the climax comes from.

CTK: Was there at any time during the filming process that the story diverged a little from the script and the cast ad-libbed?

Ben: Plenty of times the directors allowed the actors go off page and just let their characters jabber. Dennis and Steve's (ed. note: they play Charlie's burnout hesher friends) first big conversation about their band was about 9 minutes long originally as it was just actors Lance Hendrickson and Tony Czech just dicking around in character. I think our best ad-lib is Ty Richardson as Officer Klein in The Nazi section when he walks down the hall and says 'Oh tenenbaum'. It makes everything that much odder and creepier like a David Lynch film. There are several other times in the film where we let the actors just be their characters after we got what was on the page. And it really speaks to their talents as thespians that it made the characters feel all the more real. Tony Czech created the entire dialog for when Steve drags Charles up the stairs in The Vampire section and it's incredibly effective. The original script called for him to just grab Charles and toss him down the stairs after saying 'Think happy thoughts'. But the school had an extra floor to it so we exploited that by having Tony ad-lib his way up while carrying Simon. Plus, it made the entire act of throwing him down the stairs that much more brutal.

Mike: The Hillbilly section, for the most part, follows the script right up until the end. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t take some liberties and really let the actors fly and get crazy. The scene in which Charles is assaulted by Henry on the front porch of the shack was always intended to be an uncomfortable and jarring scene, but what Troy McCall (ed. note: he plays Henry) and Simon Wallace gave me was darker and weirder than I could have written. I wasn’t thrilled about how I had written that scene so I gave them key points from my script and told them to run with it. Troy added a lot of strange eccentricities to the character based on things his uncles up in northern Minnesota would say. We spent many nights in our apartment rehearsing different things he could do and when we got out onto location he really nailed it. That's what was so great about the overall process of making the film was that it was so collaborative. We were working with not only talented but creative actors who always gave their own flare to the roles. The scene in which Dennis and Steve goof off in class was almost entirely ad-libbed and was quite a bit longer than what made it into the film. The actors were constantly giving us quirks and extra punches that were just great.

Steve: I also encouraged actors to treat the dialogue as talking points. I would rather they get a feeling for their character and have their language be fluid and meaningful to them. I would say 90% was there, and if the actors felt something, they could always add to it.

CTK: It seems like you had just as many writers as directors. Did that make for a more challenging filmmaking process?

Ben: There was definitely some butting of heads on the film as two of the directors (Mike and Troy) were also the director's of photography. One of them was always on a camera and naturally would have their own artistic idea of how to shoot a scene. As executive producer, I was also constantly trying to keep the stories on track and not be too divergent. Things could get a bit bogged down at times but it always fell on who's section it was to make the final call in terms of scene direction. Beyond the difference in styles of shooting, the entire crew got along very well and we're all good friends to this day.

Mike: I think the most challenging thing was the fact that we are all directors. So even when one person is directing their segment, you still have 4 other people with directing on their minds thinking about how to do the scene. But overall, we worked really well together. The upside about working with a team of directors is that if you had a doubt or were unsure of what to do with something in your segment, there was always someone to help you and collaborate with. Every section has a little bit of all of us in it.

Steve: We knew what we were all going for, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t nervous about how the whole thing would work together. It’s not perfect, but its definitely more cohesive than we thought it would be.

Lance: This project was my first foray into writing/directing and I definitely felt like there were a lot of opinions in the room. Thankfully, we had all worked together at some level or other before so we knew how to make it work. I also feel like because we went into it knowing that each persons segment was their own that they held the reigns on those days. The whole shoot went suprisingly smooth.

CTK: Was the trailer (see below) purposefully cut in such a way as to keep the film’s main plot semi-mysterious? For me, it was total a surprise, one that I greatly enjoyed.

Ben: Both the teaser and the trailer are somewhat misleading as to what exactly is happening in the school. That was deliberate because there is just so much going on that to include everything, Mike and I felt, would be even more confusing then the vague trailer. Also, it's a film with an early twist (being how the stories start) and I hate trailers that give away most or all of the twists in a film before you even see it. Obviously, if this had been a studio release you would have seen the twist for the way each story starts and every single sub-genre blasted at you in a two and a half minute trailer clip.

Mike: If anything we wanted to give you just enough juice to where a viewer would ask, 'What the fuck is going on! I gotta see this thing!' And for the most part, I feel like we’ve got that. I really hate trailers that give you a play-by-play break down of what is going to happen in the film. Marketing may show that it works, but as a movie watcher and a trailer hound, I think it’s a bunch of crap.

Lance: We knew that two minutes wouldn't be enough to explain the film so we tried to catch people with the visuals more than the story, that way when they found the story engrossing they would be pleasantly suprised.

CTK: Shifting gears, what is your favorite decade of horror and why?

Ben: The mid 70s to mid 80s is where the sweet spot of horror is for me. All those gooey, gross and astounding practical effects, the birth of the modern slasher film (Black Christmas 1974), and countless classic horror films come from that time frame. I enjoy a lot of modern horror films, but there is some sort of magic in that age of film that just makes them still watchable to this day.

Mike: 70’s horror. Why? Because I feel like the movies of the 70’s era were full of fresh ideas and overwhelming style that nothing prior or after has ever been able to match. Political correctness was not an issue and the films weren’t afraid to get real. Actors and actresses weren’t always pretty and stories didn’t always have a set code of morals. There were really no rules in general which made several films very surprising at times! Oh and I must not forget, films didn’t have to cut every 2 seconds to hold an audiences attention. Oh yeah, and no CGI. You think they’d ever make Mad Max or Road Warrior like that today? HELL NO!!! You’d get something that looked like Transformers.

Lance: I would have to say the 80's. I have many fond memories of hanging out with my buddy Matt watching all the 80's slashers and just really loving it. They're not like the slashers of today. Back then everything had to be practical so the FX were so much more effective, I think. And I feel like the people were more interesting then, now all the characters are stereotypes trying to be original. If you are writing a stereotype character, embrace that and have fun. Don't take yourself too seriously.

Steve: My favorite decade is 75 through 85. That’s where a lot of the themes were set up that way too many wannabe filmmakers take advantage of, but this is the only time they were really done right because they were done with honesty. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing, Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, all very original ideas, done raw and gritty.
CTK: If you got caught in a similar situation like Charlie’s, what would you have done differently?

Ben: I would have just left the school in the beginning instead of playing basketball as I suck at playing basketball. Plus, shit gets crazy after that. So, good to avoid that stuff ahead of time.

Mike: Well considering escaping the school wouldn’t have done any good in ANY of the dreams, I probably would have hide, gotten chased and when given the opportunity, went Charlie Bronson on anyone’s ass who tried to kill me. Dude it’s a dream! Why not follow in the footsteps of your hero?

Lance: Not save the girl! Lindsey got him in trouble more often than not, I would have left her behind. Seems like an awful lot of work just to impress some chick.

Steve: Not much really. I wouldn’t have worn rollerblades!

CTK: At Planet of Terror, we love and support indie horror. Is there anything in the works that we should look forward to? Any current releases that we should check out?

Ben: I've got a script about a family of serial killers making the festival circuit currently. I'm also working with Mike on a script we'd like to see be our next feature that is like Walking Tall (the Joe Don Baker original) fused with horror. It should be ready to go very soon. Otherwise, the two other scripts I'm working on aren't really in the horror realm.

Mike: Both Ben and I, along with Troy, have a couple other scripts we’re working on currently. We have a couple dramas, a dark comedy, vehicular horror/thriller, a couple post apocalyptic stories, and a children’s book adaptation we are gradually chipping away at. I finished developing a feature film with Marty Doogin Arts called Rough Tender this past weekend. I recently finished a short called Mickey vs. The Snowman with Marty Doogin Arts along with another feature from them entitled Hope. I am shooting an online zombie mini-series with a director in Minneapolis. I am also doing the foley for a feature film out of Chicago called Chicago Overcoat that is definitely one to look for in the near future. In terms of current releases, I am really looking forward to seeing Legion come January.

Lance: Right now I'm in LA trying to find work and building a network. We are hoping that by the end of this year we can start production on a new film. We did Summer School out of our pocket and we all agreed that we won't do that again.

Steve: I turned my focus to my band Green Sweater Society. I only have time for one major hobby that doesn’t pay.

CTK: Thank you all for your time. Best of luck in your future endeavors.

Ben: Thanks again for the kind words on our nano-budgeted horror film.

Steve: It’s great to see that this movie is still getting reviewed and found by true fans such as yourself. It’s no mistake that you saw the copyright as 2006. That’s when we made it. It was only recently put up on NetFlix. Spread the word. It’s not a perfect movie as you know, but I think we’re all proud of it as our first outing.

For more information regarding the film, peep here:

Random CreatureFace Films

Other site reviews:


Cortez the Killer

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


Matt-suzaka said...

Great interview...very candid. I definitely wanna check this movie out. I Love anthology films.

Cortez The Killer said...

Thanks! Definitely support these dudes. Personally, I can't wait to see what they do next.