Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Interview: Writer/Director Seve Schelenz, Skew

When I say the words 'found footage', some of you might be instantly turned off. Even the most diehard of horror fiends will quickly scoff. So when I say that Skew is worth your time and attention, it isn't paint-by-numbers and it will melt your brain with its humdinger of an ending, well, I hope I've made you stand up and take notice.  Once you peel back the layers, you'll see it's not the typical type of film seen within the sub-genre. And make no mistake, it has plenty of scares which will induce anxiety within the viewer. In fact, I'll put them up against the likes of Paranormal Activity and recent independent productions like The Tunnel.

The film itself features a trio of young kids who take a road trip out to a friend's wedding. Before you can say 'Haven't we seen this movie before?', one of the young men who's chosen to document the whole affair begins to see weird images through the lens of his video camera. Distorted faces are sported by seemingly normal people. If that wasn't enough, everything he turns his lens to meets an untimely demise.

I recently had an opportunity to interview writer/director Seve Schelenz. We talked about the idea behind the film, why it isn't your prototypical found footage flick, and what to expect next from the filmmaker. As you'll see, he's highly engaging and he actually encourages viewers to reach out to him to discuss the film.

Planet of Terror: What brought about the idea behind Skew?  It’s obviously influenced by the found footage style of filmmaking.  But the idea and philosophy behind it is wholly unique.

Seve Schelenz: In 2004 I put some thought into creating my first feature film.  The one roadblock that seemed to always come up was budget.  I’d seen so many independent films that tried to be bigger than they could actually afford to be - essentially trying to look like a Hollywood film within a shoestring budget.  I really felt these movies didn’t work in their attempt and the quality of the film removed me from the cinematic experience, therefore displacing me from the story and characters.  During the summer of the same year, a few days before a road trip with two other friends, the idea finally hit me.  How do I get around shooting a low budget film that will still be accepted by the audience? With a video camera in hand for our road trip, the film’s concept instantly came to mind.  I furiously wrote the first draft of the feature during the four days of the trip.  Six months and a few drafts later, I completed the final version of the film.  Years before Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, and Diary of the Dead were even thoughts in Hollywood producers’ minds, I looked to The Blair Witch Project for inspiration.  It had been five years since this style of found footage film had been successfully created and I thought it was time for another one.  The big difference was I didn’t want to be a copycat and make something that had already been done.  So instead of using the camera as a gimmick, as most found footage films tend to do, I decided to go another direction.  Without giving any spoilers away, let’s just say that once you’ve seen Skew you’ll quickly realize it’s unlike any other found footage film you’ve seen.  The reason why?  Because it’s not actually a found footage film at all.  It’s actually a narrative feature that happens to be filmed in POV style from the video camera of one of the characters.  Have fun, look for the clues and maybe you’ll figure it out.

POT: The end of the film sits with the viewer for a while and the ambiguity of it could be a challenge for some viewers.  Without giving anything away, is there more than one interpretation or is there really only one way you see the film concluding?

Seve: This is a fantastic question.  Upon finishing the first draft of Skew I had two endings in mind for the film.  I wrestled with them both until deciding upon the one I thought would be best suited for this film.  Not only did I not want the typical ending the viewer would guess or had seen in so many other horror films, but I wanted to give proper respect to the audience and make Skew a thinking man’s film.  Since completing the film and sending it out into the festival circuit I have had a few moments where I catch myself thinking, “Wait a second, what about this kind of ending?  Or this?”  Yet, I inevitably go back to the one that exists in the film now and realize it was the best choice.  As a writer I think it’s important to know every aspect of your story and be accountable for it.  There are obviously many films where the writer has left the story hanging in the final scene to let the audience make up its own mind in regards to the outcome.  Sometimes these films work and sometimes they fall pretty flat.  In terms of Skew, I know exactly how it ends.  There’s no ambiguity or question in my mind as to the fate of our hero.  Now having said that, the ending does open itself up to a few interpretations and I did leave it up to the viewer to decide how they feel it ends.  Yet if you take all the clues that are presented to you in the film you will come up with the conclusion.  On a related note, I have had the great opportunity of personally screening Skew at several festivals.  One of the little treats I have done at these venues is give the audience insight as to what my version of the ending entails.  If any of your readers absolutely need to know, they are more than welcome to contact me through YouTube or IMDb and I will answer any questions they have.

POT: Another question about the ending, I applaud you for it as it’s not neatly tied up in a nice bow and again, it's something that will sit with the viewer for a while.  Were you at all concerned with something that could be perceived as open-ended?

Seve: As mentioned, I debated about the ending of Skew for a while.  I know that North American audiences are very accustomed to a certain formula or close-booked ending to a film.  It seems like it’s so important for us as viewers/readers to know how something finishes otherwise we don’t feel satisfied.  I think we need to break this pattern sometimes and learn that not everything has to end the same formulaic way.  When written well, a story should not only take its audience along a journey but also allow them to think and piece things together on their own.  We shouldn’t always be spoon-feed or told how to think. Otherwise every film follows the same formula and how boring and predictable is that?

POT: Boring and predictable indeed. So how has the film been received thus far?

Seve: Skew has been a real passion film for me.  Written in 2004, shot in 2005, and finally completed in 2010. The film has been six years in the making.  Upon completion of Skew I screened the film with a sales agent who, once the credits rolled, turned to me and said, “This is a slam dunk sale!”  I was pretty excited to hear that news.  A few weeks later, he was headed to the AFM (American Film Market) to hopefully line up the sales.  Well, one week before AFM a little film entitled Paranormal Activity premiered and took the weekend as the highest grossing low budget horror film in history.  We figured this was great news, as it would help to garner attention for Skew.  Well, the opposite happened.  Every production company and their grandmother had “found footage” horror trailers of films that didn’t even exist at the Market and by the time distributors arrived at our table they didn’t want to hear any more about this type of film – even though ours was complete and ready to be bought!  So Skew sat in limbo for almost six months before its world premiere at A Night of Horror International Film Festival in Australia.  From there it gained a little momentum and buzz as it started hitting some festivals in North America.  Nine months later Skew has been burning up the festival circuit by premiering in 40 festivals.  This combined with a sale to Netflix in the U.S. and DVD sales in Germany have given Skew a great run so far.  We’ve also had some great reviews on the film and you can check them out on the IMDb site.

POT: Tell me about your filmmaking influences, past, present or both.

Seve: I am very fortunate to have grown up in the 70s and 80s.  These two decades are filled with some of the greatest films ever:  Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Terminator, Jaws and Back To The Future are just a few that have had a huge impact on me.  The writers and directors connected to these films have been a big influence in my life.  Spielberg, Cameron, and Zemeckis are fantastic directors who know how to tell a story through film.  When it comes to horror, hands down the best writer/director out there has to be John Carpenter.  Halloween and The Thing are two of the best horror films ever made.  The pacing and anticipation in these films add an incredible element of horror that is very rarely successfully done in Hollywood horror movies today.  For me, story is the number one element to a successful film.  I seem to gravitate towards films that take the time to provide a good narrative and a great payoff.  Rosemary’s Baby, The Sixth Sense, and The Exorcist are great examples of these kinds of films.

POT: You could relate to all 3 characters and without their honest interactions the film would not have been as successful as it was.  How important was their believability within the context of the story?

Seve: Writing a POV or “found footage” script is quite different than writing the standard narrative film.  The area where it differs the most is in the dialogue.  In a traditional narrative film you typically bypass the standard greetings and jump to the chase.  Dialogue flows between characters without hesitation, repetition or stuttering.  We are so accustomed to characters saying the perfect line or performing the perfect action, essentially cutting through the fat.  In a found footage film you look to create a truly real life experience by trying to represent how we would really speak and react to a situation.   As a result, we mumble, talk over each other, overreact, use extensive slang and commit constant grammatical errors. The trick in creating a good POV film is finding the right balance between authenticity and story pacing.  In Skew, there was very little adlib.  The dialogue not only had to be delivered as it was written but also in a tone that would reflect the situation.  This was very important to propel the story forward and reveal tidbits of information to the audience in order to piece the puzzle together.  I worked with my three main actors—Robert Scattergood, Richard Olak and Amber Lewis—to create the proper feel for the film and they delivered stellar performances to back this up.  The cast for Skew definitely deserves so much credit for making the film what it is.

POT: How did you create the fantastic effects that served as the basis for some of the scares?  I'm thinking about the police interrogation room and the roadside abandoned gas station in particular.

Seve: While writing Skew, I had an opportunity to confer with the visual effects supervisor over the script.  We would talk about what my intentions were for certain scenes and if the effect would be a practical or computer generated one.  I had certain ideas of how scenes would play out and where the big or subtle scares would happen.  Once the shots were locked down, it was really in the supervisor’s hands to create this magic.  It was truly amazing to watch the first steps of these effects come together on set.  For one particular shot we had our actor run on a stripped down tread mill in front of a green screen.  As I watched this on set, I had an understanding of how this was going to be put together but was really curious to see the final product.  Once the visual effects artists got their hands on the footage, I was astounded at what the fully created shot looked like.  I have received nothing but compliments on how the effects look and you really have to look no further than the amazing talents of the supervisor and artists who worked with me on Skew.

POT: Any upcoming projects you'd like to mention?  Anything we should keep our eyes peeled for?

Seve: The festival run for Skew is coming to its tail end right now.  After so many festivals it’s now time to focus on the sale of the film.  I had so much fun working on Skew that I couldn’t wait to get started on the next one.  Yet, with all film projects, it takes a lot of time to prepare yourself for the beginning stages of a new film and right now we are still working on a script.  Once this is locked down, we’ll move into pre-production – which I feel is the most important stage of filmmaking.  This is the best place to work out every issue before you go into production.  The worst thing is to be unprepared while you’re on set.  Trust me, you deal with enough surprises once you start shooting; you don’t need any more, especially ones that can be dealt with in pre-production. So, the next film is looking to be another horror but this time it will be a little more traditional in terms of style.  What does that mean?  Let’s just say that I’ve been there and done that for POV at this stage.  It’s time to release a few psychotic killers and scare the hell out of everyone.

POT: Sounds great! Well thank you kindly for your time. Best of luck in the future and I hope Skew continues to gain the recognition and notoriety it deserves.

Seve: Thank you for taking the time to interview me.  Without fantastic sites like Planet of Terror, horror fans wouldn’t have the opportunity to hear about independent films like Skew.  Your enthusiastic effort to review films like mine and post interviews with the filmmakers is exactly what we need to get the word out there.  Please keep up the great work and let the bloodletting continue!

Skew is currently available via Netflix and can be viewed via its streaming feature:  http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Skew/70209219?trkid=2361637

Cortez the Killer

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