Friday, April 30, 2010

Interview: The Makers of 'Blood On The Highway'

The interview train keeps on rolling this week. I posted a trailer and a news update a couple weeks back about a film that I first saw in 2008 at the Dallas AFI Film Festival. My buddy and I (being the horror geeks we are) immediately honed in on the news of it being the only horror film accepted into the festival last year. Combined with the fact that it was filmed in our own backyard, we felt compelled to check out this indie vampire comedy romp. We're glad that we did.

I've said it many times before that, by and large, I am not a huge fan of the vampire sub-genre. I find most films to be uninteresting, except for the mighty few that attempt to do something different. The fact that this film does and pulls it off with sheer comedic genius, well kids, I can only say that if you check out the film, you are guaranteed to have a rollicking good time.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing both Writer/Director Blair Rowan and Producer/Director Barak Epstein (left and right respectively in the picture above). They talked about the concepts for their film, their feelings for the vampire sub-genre as a whole and about the film's challenges in getting a distribution deal.

Cortez the Killer: Were did the idea for Blood on The Highway come from? Blair, you mentioned that the process started when you were 16. Tell me about what jump started it and inspired you. Barak, as both producer and director, what elements did you add to the mix from Blair’s original screenplay?

Blair Rowan: It’s kind of hard for me to clearly remember why I started writing the screenplay because frankly, I’ve never really been a big fan of vampire movies. One of my closest friends, John Poole, was pretty obsessed with vampires during middle school and high school though, and I know that’s got a lot to do with it because we actually wrote the role of Bone (played by actor Deva George) around his personality (he’s a little more socially adjusted than Bone though). Whatever the hell my reasons were, I wrote about the first quarter of it when I was sixteen, mostly during downtime while working behind the concession stand of the Inwood movie theater. I was really into John Waters at the time and the original concept of the film was a lot more intentionally campy, although the biggest inspiration on it at that time was the Doom Generation (which is still really evident). I’ve always been a comedy nerd and the combination of excessive gore and dirty jokes just really appealed to me.

The dirty jokes really moved to the forefront when Chris Gardner took on the task of co-writing it with me. We picked the script back up when we were 18 and pounded out a complete draft with the intention of shooting it with a group of friends on whatever video camera we could find. In other words, we had no idea how to make a fucking movie.

Barak read over the script during that time period and it somehow stuck out enough in his memory that he asked us if we’d be willing to spit out another draft of it as a possible follow-up to his last movie, Prison-A-Go-Go. That was back in 2003, and Chris and I spent the next six years pounding out a countless number of drafts, each one getting progressively more immature and raunchier than the last. We basically spent ten years trying to one up each other on pussy and dick jokes and that somehow became a movie. Ohhhhh, wasted youth.

Barak Epstein: I don’t think I added anything too specific in the way of story/dialogue, other than to cut things out that were gonna be too expensive. In one early draft of the script there were a lot of things that morphed and flew into the sky and lots of things that exploded. For example, I asked Blair and Chris, instead of them actually having exploding land mines on the ranch, why don’t they just talk about wanting land mines? Then they can have bear traps instead. The great thing about bear traps is that you only need to find one actual bear trap as a prop, all the rest can be sound fx!


CTK: I got a huge kick out of the vampires in the film kind of playing into the hillbilly stereotype of people from the south. But the thing that really tickled my pickle was the idea that they weren’t necessarily just dumb, stupid, hicks, but completely inept vampires that had no idea how to be one (i.e. use their powers). Tell me about the idea for that vampiric quality or lack thereof.

BR: Apart from one or two of the vampires, we actually weren’t even really trying to play up the hillbilly aspect. We just wanted them to be dudes. Just regular dudes. Not so bright, sure, but normal dudes nonetheless. One of the things that’s always bugged the shit out of me about most vampire movies is that no matter who gets bitten, they’re automatically these hyper-sexualized and powerful creatures and they know exactly how to use all of their powers. It takes most of us five to ten years just to figure out everything that goes into being a normal human adult, but all of a sudden these fuckers can fly and shape-shift? That annoys the piss out of me. So Chris and I basically approached our vampires with that attitude. What would happen if this tiny Texas town full of normal, simple people suddenly got turned into mystical monsters over night? They probably wouldn’t be very good at it.

CTK: Tell me about the film as well as your filmmaker influences.

BR: I like Barak’s description of the movie as an 'Action-Comedy-Horror-Extravaganza.' He’s better than I am at hitting all of the selling points in a concise manner. The only thing really missing from his summation there is 'and there’s boobs in it!'

The movie is definitely more of a raunchy comedy than anything else. We’ve hopefully got enough splatter and gore to keep the horror aficionado interested, but we never intended to really make a straight-up horror movie nor did we even try to add any frightening elements. Even the few shock cues that are in the movie are supposed to be jokes. More than anything, we set out to make a loving satire of horror movies, the same way Hot Fuzz is a loving send-up of action flicks or Wet Hot American Summer is of 80’s camp movies. We were really careful not to tread into the route of parody like Scary Movie does, and instead wanted it to be a fully original storyline with original characters, but everything about the plot and the characters is still poking fun at horror movie formulas and archetypes. Nearly every plot contrivance and 'badass' one-liner in the movie is meant to be a throwaway joke, like Bone just can’t say something cool without it falling on deaf ears or someone else saying something to ruin it somehow. One of the most obvious examples of our throwaway approach is the whole setup and payoff of Old Zeke’s character, and even the main monster at the end of the movie. We were just basically making fun of the same things that we’ve seen over and over again in horror movies, and sometimes we were even making fun of our own low-budget limited effects (but don’t get me wrong. Josh Fread and Mike Brower did a kick-ass job with the effects).

As far as filmmaker influences go, I don’t think it’s evident in the slightest with this movie, but the Coen Brothers and Terry Gilliam are at the top of my list. The influences that are a little more clearly demonstrated are Sam Raimi and early Peter Jackson, but I actually think the most obvious influence you can see in the movie is Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Horror movies aside, the finished movie feels more like a live-action episode of South Park than anything else I can think of.

BE: Ditto to a lot of this stuff. Some of my hero’s are Sam Arkoff, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, John Landis, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen & David Cronenberg. And to double back on Trey Parker – listening to the drunken audio commentary on Cannibal: The Musical, which was made by those guys while in college on spring break, inspired me to make my first feature Cornman: American Vegetable Hero while I was still in college.


CTK: There is a sort of Darkness: The Vampire Version vibe that runs throughout the film, especially the interactions between the friends and the rock n’ roll feel of it. Have you both seen the film and did you draw any inspiration from it?

BR: This is actually somehow the first time I’ve even heard of the movie (although after a quick internet search, I do clearly remember seeing an ad for it in Fangoria when I was a teenager). I just watched the trailer for it on YouTube and it looks fucking nuts. I’ve gotta hunt it down, just for the gore effects alone.

CTK: You really should. The ending in particular is pretty epic.

BE: Ive never heard of it either! Does that make us posers or the opposite? There was a review written years ago about my movie, Prison-A-Go-Go!, where the reviewer wanted to know why I had stolen so much stuff from Eddie Romero’s The Twilight People, which is a movie I hadn’t seen. I went back and watched it and realized that I did 'borrow' a lot from it somehow. So to answer your question- yes we stole much of Blood on The Highway from Darkness!

CTK: Definitely NOT posers. Your film is totally unique and original.

Please tell me that actor Deva George (who plays Bone in the film) really has that killer Black Flag tattoo on his right arm in real life. I will be forever crushed if he does not.

BR: I CRUSH YOUR LIFE!!! Nope, sorry, dude. All of the tattoos were fake. Deva and I actually spent the entire night before our first day of shooting hunting down a Kinkos that would print out the transparencies he designed. We luckily found one around two in the morning where the employees were lazy enough to not give a shit if we destroyed their machinery printing materials it wasn’t meant to handle.

CTK: Which decade of horror produced better films? The 70’s or 80’s?

BR: Damn, that’s a tough question. The 70’s definitely reshaped the genre into a more relentless and visceral beast by pushing the boundaries to new levels of excess, both in subject matter and gore effects. Whether it was from the horrific imagery from Vietnam being broadcast on the local news or just the freewheeling hippie bullshit permeating the nation, the MPAA actually seemed to pay attention to the culture around them for the first time ever. They finally realized adults were capable of watching movies with severely adult content and in turn gave filmmakers the freedom to pursue new levels of creative and disturbing imagery. So we can thank the era of Free Love for giving us the image of a little girl vomiting on her mother while masturbating with a crucifix.
So, sure, the 70’s produced all of these groundbreaking and iconic horror films like The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and the Dead series, but it was also a turning point for box office revenue and the studio’s business model. With all of the blockbusters that came out of the 70’s, the studios got even more money hungry than they already were and proceeded to slowly back away from any potentially innovative films in favor of the safe bet. And there you have the 80’s. Sequels, sequels, sequels. And if they weren’t making sequels, they were making half-assed imitations of the already proven and lucrative franchises. They followed the fine print from the evil book, The Reaganomicon, to a tee.

So in terms of which decade contributed more to the genre as we know it today, I’ve gotta say the 70’s. But, despite all of the unoriginal dreck that was being mindlessly pumped out of the studio system, the eighties also managed to give us some of the most original and brilliant horror films ever made, mostly from independent filmmakers, such as Re-Animator and Evil Dead 1 & 2, and even a few that squeaked out of the studios like The Thing and An American Werewolf in London. And I have such boundless love for those movies alone that on a personal level, I’ve gotta choose the 80’s over the 70’s. I’ve got more respect for the 70’s, but that greedy yuppie whore we call the 80’s also had her upsides.

BE: I have to also go with the 80’s for the technical quality of some of the good horror stuff. Near Dark, Street Trash, The Howling, Clive Barker, anything Cronenberg. But the 70’s Drive-in B-movie scene was definitely more fun. Long live the drive-in!


CTK: As mentioned, I first saw your film at the Dallas AFI Film Festival back in 2008 and I have been following the film’s progress via your website for what seems like a long time. Tell me about your challenges in getting this thing into the hands of a distributor and the challenges of being an indie filmmaker altogether.

BR: As far as getting it into the hands of a distributor, that was all Barak. The most difficult part of that for me was just trying to be patient and remaining optimistic about it. It definitely felt like it was never going to happen for a while there, but Barak never gave up and did an amazing job and I couldn’t be happier with the way things worked out.

As with most independent filmmakers, the biggest challenge that we really faced was simply getting the funding together to shoot the damn thing. There were many teasing moments over the years between when Barak asked us to pick the script back up and when we finally went into production, quite a few close calls from potential investors who would then lose interest for whatever reason. There was one guy in particular who was pretty much set to fund nearly the entire movie, but he was convinced that it wasn’t marketable enough and basically wanted us to cut all of the vampire’s jokes and make them scary instead. He just didn’t get the joke of the entire movie and pretty much wanted us to turn it into what it’s poking fun at and thank Christ we didn’t, because without the humor, it would just feel like one of those awful made for Syfy horror movies. And Barak is really the one to thank for making that decision. He already owned all the rights to the script and that was before he asked me to come on board as co-director, so he could have just gone ahead and chopped out the comedy and gone with this guy, but he was ballsy enough to make the potentially less profitable decision and retain the comedy. Y’know, it’s always wise to hear out any potential investor’s suggested revisions for your movie and to consider the possibilities, but in the long run, you’ve just gotta go with your gut. Don’t make the compromise if it’s going to sacrifice the story you know that it’s supposed to be. Especially since once they put their money in, it’s their movie, and you’re obligated to go with whatever changes they want. We were lucky enough to have an executive producer, Robert Bell, who believed in the script and was willing to go with whatever call that Barak and Chris and I thought was best for the movie.

BE: We’ve actually had a US distributor for about a year now, which was about a year after we started our festival run. (we screened at about 20 fests) Our original deal, with Lightning Entertainment, was a VOD deal for TV with a 12-18 month 'hold' on DVD. The movie premiered on cable TV via VOD last September and had a pretty healthy run through December. There are still some lingering VOD runs in the works, but the DVD stars aligned at the right time to get the DVD release that weve got (June 29th via E1 Entertainment). Blood on The Highway is also available right now in Germany, (where its known as Legion der Vampire), and soon will be available in France.


CTK: True or False. The vampire sub-genre of horror happens to be one of the most boring and uninteresting. –Refraining from using a terrible pun

BR: True. As I already mentioned, I can’t stand most vampire movies or TV shows. They’re just not my thing. I know that a lot of people have a lot of love for the standard vampire mythos and I don’t want to take a dump on anyone’s parade, so I’ll refrain from going into detail why I don’t really care for them. The handful of vampire storylines that I’ve really enjoyed were the few that broke away from the obvious clichés to do their own thing like From Dusk Till Dawn, Near Dark, Let the Right One In, or even the Buffy TV show (and I’m not just saying that because Nicholas Brendon is in our movie, honestly).
I will say this, though. If you’re a devout fan of brooding, goth/Eurotrash, erotic vampire storylines, Blood on The Highway is probably not the movie for you.

BE: Im gonna say false for some of the same reasons Blair said true. If you look at From Dusk Till Dawn, Near Dark, Let the Right One In, Buffy, Fright Night, Romero’s Martin, Ferrara’s The Addiction, Fessenden’s Habit any many others you’ll see a wide range of different kinds of good vampire films. They exist and continue to get made, you sometimes just have to a dig a bit deeper to find them.


CTK: Good points Barack. I loved Fessenden's Habit. So weird yet original. But by and large, I still think the sub-genre sucks. There I said it.

Who came up with those awesomely offensive one liners? It took awhile for me to register the autistic/NAMBLA comment (see here for more info).

BR: As I said earlier, Chris and I spent way too much of our time coming up with those. Our writing process was basically just trying to make each other laugh or cringe. I have no idea who was responsible for whatever individual line, but I will say that if it’s particularly offensive, then it was most likely Chris’ brain baby. There’s hardly any adlibbing in the movie itself, but a fair chunk of Roy’s dialog, particularly in the pool scene with Sam and the hallway scene with Carrie, was Chris spitting out whatever vile things he could think of on-set.

CTK: Absolutely brilliant and among some of my favorite one liners in all of moviedom. No joke.

Any upcoming projects that we should be on the lookout for?

BR: I don’t have anything as immediately available as Barak and Clay Liford (our Cinematographer) do with their movie Earthling, which is currently screening at festivals, but Chris and I have a few projects in the works. We’re currently putting the finishing touches on a short film that Chris wrote and I directed entitled Narcissism & Me and we’re hoping to play some festivals with it in the next year. Apart from that, we’ve been laboring over a new feature screenplay called The Bad, which is a straight comedy without the horror elements about the world’s most oblivious band. It’s kind of a road trip movie with this band taking an epically disastrous mini-tour across the state of Texas, playing some of the most demeaning and terrifying small town 'venues' you can imagine. And if you enjoyed the song Who’s Gonna Kill (All These Fuckin’ Vampires) from Blood on The Highway, then you’ll likely get a kick out of the music in store for this one. Hopefully it won’t take us another ten years just to complete the fucking screenplay. Other than that, Chris and I have also been trying to get back to our sketch comedy roots and be a little more prolific with video sketch output. We’re hoping to have a website set up sometime in the next few months, most likely under the name of Cold Heartless Corporate Productions, so keep an eye out for that if you’re looking to quell your hunger for more raunchy and blood soaked humor and only have a few minutes to do it.

BE: Check out Earthling on the festival circuit! We’ve got London Sci-Fi, Maryland and Santa Cruz coming up with a few more we’ll be able to announce soon. Check out http://www.everythingcomesfromthewater.com/ and facebook.com/earthlingmovie. And while youre poking people on FB, link us up at facebook.com/bloodonthehighway. Also, if you like Blood On The Highway it will really help us out if you write about it and rate it on Amazon and IMDB, and blogs like Planet of Terror! Tell your friends!

CTK: Most righteous dudes, thank you for your time. Best of luck to you in the future.

BR: Thanks so much again for interviewing us!

For more information regarding Blood on The Highway, check out the film's website: http://www.bloodonthehighway.com/

To pre-order the film via Amazon.com, clicky here. And it will also be available via NetFlix on June 29th.

Cortez the Killer

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