Low Budget Horror Filmmaking 101: An Interview With Writer-Director James Felix Mckenney, Part 2

A continuation of my interview with writer-director James Felix McKenney, who’s about to start production on his latest film, “The Girl from Mars,” with “NCIS” star, Pauley Perrette (Abby Sciuto).  A real “low-budget filmmaking 101” course from a man who realized that sometimes, if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.  McKenney also discusses special effects on a budget, financing and distribution and his ability to cast horror icons in his film (hint: try asking!)

RHT:  So Jim, the Scareflix series is touted as “a slate of ultra low budget films designed to exploit hungry new talent and inspire resourceful filmmakers to produce quality work through seat-of-the-pants ingenuity.” So how does a filmmaker get considered for Scareflix, and how do the Scareflix films differ from regular Glass Eye Pix offerings and The Dark Sky Films flicks?

JFM: I think they differ because they aren’t Larry’s own films that he’s made, nor are they the sort of art/indie films that he’s often been a producer on.

I don’t work directly for the company anymore, so I don’t know whether or not Glass Eye Pix is producing any more ScareFlix, but in the past, it always happened rather organically. Ti West was Larry’s intern at one point, and that’s how he ended making THE ROOST, TRIGGER MAN, etc. Graham Reznick was the sound designer on several ScareFlix before he made I CAN SEE YOU and Glenn McQuaid (I SELL THE DEAD) started doing titles and FX on the films after he was introduced to us all at the wrap party for THE OFF SEASON by Brenda Cooney who played the ghost in that film.

James is currently in post-production on Hypothermia,starring Michael Rooker (most recently seen as Merle in the AMC hit The Walking Dead). The film was shot in upstate New York in the winter of 2010, when a record-making amount of snow dumped on their pristine, iced-over lake that they had been shooting on for weeks. Trucks, snowplows and crew members with brooms worked to get it back to the clear, shiny ice they had shot on previously to protect continuity, given that the film is supposed to take place in just one day. Ah, the joys of low-budget filmmaking and stories set in the dead of winter.

RHT: So tell us about Hypothermiaand getting to work with Michael Rooker? (check out the slideshow at left for photos from the film)

JFM: HYPOTHERMIA is an old-fashioned monster movie that’s best described as “THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON on ice!” It’s easily the most straightforward, mainstream movie that I’ve directed.

Rooker is every bit the character that you’d expect him to be. He’s got an insane amount of energy and never sits still. He loves the intense, emotional scenes and really throws himself into them. And he’s incredibly physical, which was a huge asset while making this movie out on the frozen lake for very little money.

The night before I was heading to the location in upstate New York, I was talking to Mike on the phone when he asked me, “So this part where I fall in the water, is there some kind of studio up there with an indoor pool that we’re doing this in? How are you making the ice indoors?” I was in shock, because the producer who was in charge of casting had never told him that he was expected to put on a wet suit and go into the actual freezing water out on the lake! That should have been the FIRST thing communicated to a 55-year old actor when offering him the part, but it didn’t happen. I profusely apologized to Rooker and told him what the plan was. This was three days before we were to start shooting and I thought, “This is it. He’s going to bail on us.” Mike was quiet for a few moments while he digested what I had told him and then responded “Ah, what the hell? It’s just a little water.” Amazing! Not many actors would be that easy-going about something like that.

When the day came to do the stunt, he did it several times! He was super into it and the scene looks fantastic in the finished film.

RHT: You’ve managed to cast some of the real cult icons of the horror genre, including the fantastic Angus Scrimm (Phantasm), Debbie Rochon (see IMDB for her 194 films!), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) and Reggie Bannister (Phantasm). What was the process in getting these actors in your films, and had Angus and Reggie seen each other since Phantasm?(they appear together in McKenney’s Satan Hates You).

JFM: If there’s a part in the film that isn’t a perfect fit for one of our regular or local actors, I just start looking for people whose work I am a fan of. When we were doing THE OFF SEASON, it turned out that Angus was going to be on the East Coast for a convention, so we figured it wouldn’t hurt to see if he’d be up to working with us while he was in the area. Tony Timpone from Fangoria (possibly the nicest man in the world) put us in touch with Angus’ agent. Angus had never been to Maine before where we were filming, so he took the role once we negotiated his salary and agreed to get him a lobster dinner. We’ve been friends ever since.

I was acquainted with Debbie from the NYC horror scene and her work for ” Fangoria. ” She’s awesome. A real professional. Michael Berryman we got through his agent, and he was a lot of fun. A super-smart guy with a great sense of humor.

Reggie I got to know through Angus. They have been friends for decades and see each other fairly regularly, I believe. He’s another amazing guy. Just so laid back, but really attentive to his work.

RHT:  Your film “Satan Hates You” has more than a little “wink wink” to the Christian scare films of the 70’s and 80’s (Christian scare films were over-the-top, badly acted attempts at scaring youth into doing the “right thing” and avoiding sin with cheesy-special-effects laden subject matter like abortion and drugs). What about those films inspired you to make that movie?

JFM: I love all sorts of low-budget films made outside of New York or Hollywood — exploitation films from Florida, traffic safety films from Ohio or whatever. You just get such a unique, unpolished and honest point of view from these little low budget productions without the sort of jaded “professionalism” of the “big city”. Some of the Christian films are really well-made and scary like “A THIEF IN THE NIGHT” or the short film “STALKED,” while others are just so amateurish and bizarre, like “THE BURNING HELL” or “IF FOOTMEN TIRE YOU, WHAT WILL HORSES DO?” that you can’t help but love them.

Along with the Christian comic tracts of Jack Chick, I was really inspired by these movies, but I didn’t want to make an imitation of one, because the originals already exist, nor did I want to parody them. I just wanted to make our own version, and I’ve been thrilled at how well it have been received.

RHT: Many of your scripts seem to pay homage to films of the past in one way or another, and we’ve discussed our love of 70’s and 80’s horror. What are your feelings on modern-day films, like the Sawseries, and especially the use (and perhaps overuse) of CGI special effects? Would you prefer a return to the Stan Winston days of hands-on SFX?

JFM: I’d say I’m probably more of a 60’s and 70’s guy, so I’m a full decade behind you!

I don’t see a ton of modern day horror films. I liked the first SAW movie and I think I may have made it up to SAW 3 or 4, but I lost interest even before that. I’m kind of a sucker for the “found footage” kind of films like BLAIR WITCH, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and the last few minutes of REC, because they have (or simulate) the kind of rawness that I appreciate. But I understand how they don’t work for everybody because of the slow pacing and the fact that it’s hard for a movie that is made for so little money to live up to the expectations of modern audiences, especially when there is so much hype surrounding them.

CGI is fine when used properly, although I think they work better in sci-fi or fantasy films rather than a horror movie that’s set in the real world. I prefer hand-made FX, and we use them in all of our films because I feel that somebody needs to keep that tradition alive, and they are just so much more fun to work with.

RHT: What are some tips and tricks on getting the most out of special effects on a low budget?

JFM: Lots and lots of blood! You can hide any flaws in an effect with tons of the red stuff.

Also, don’t feel that you need to show too much for too long. Keep the mystery, keep things in the shadows. With AUTOMATONS we got away with tons of stuff we normally couldn’t have because we were working in black & white with a seriously degraded image.

RHT: Do you enjoy the “seat-of-your-pants” method that comes with ultra-low and low budget filmmaking, or would you like to work with a gazillion dollar budget?

JFM: I prefer the no-nonsense, low budget way of working. I don’t mind making compromises because there isn’t enough money. That just inspires you to come up with more creative solutions. I’ll take that any day over making compromises because some idiot producer or executive just doesn’t “get it.”

I’d like to find a happy medium where we have as much creative control as possible while having enough money to buy the time to get things right. By that I mean always getting all of the coverage we need and the freedom to do more that two or three takes of every shot. We hope to hit this magical combination with our next film, THE GIRL FROM MARS.

RHT: How hard is it to get distribution and financing for low-budget horror these days, and what’s your advice to struggling filmmakers?

JFM: It’s very hard. I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to make all of these movies and get them released. The thing that is really crushing is that for every hour I spend actually making a film, I spend 30 or more trying to raise money, get it into festivals, find distribution, etc. I’m a filmmaker, not a businessman, so this is the one aspect of the job I really can’t stand, but what can you do? That’s the way it is.

Sadly, I don’t have a lot of advice. I haven’t done it yet, but raising money through something like Kickstarter seems like a better bet at the moment than the old traditional sources.

As for distribution, it’s tough out there right now. It’s easy to get your film seen, but extremely difficult to make your money back doing so. Most indie film folks who get their movies released through a distributor still end up losing their shirt. The downside to the digital filmmaking revolution is that there are just so many movies out there now that distributors aren’t paying even close to what they were ten years ago.

RHT: What do you think of the use of YouTube as a device for marketing and financing, such as shooting teaser trailers? What about other social networking sites?

JFM: I’m the wrong person to ask because I’ve been lucky enough to be so busy that I’ve never had the time to explore all of the possibilities that these sites have to offer.

Although our company MonsterPants has a presence on Facebook, and we have a Twitter account for our upcoming film THE GIRL FROM MARS @marsgirlmovie — both of which are maintained by my producing partner Lisa Wisely — I don’t personally use any social networking sites.

People ask me all the time how I’m able to juggle so many projects and how I can write a full-length screenplay in five days and the answer is right there — I don’t let myself get distracted. I don’t use Twitter or Facebook, I don’t spend my time in forums chatting with other film people or reading blogs on what others are doing. I’m a writer and filmmaker first and foremost, so I need to spend my time actually doing those things, not talking online about doing them.

Now when you’re movie is finished, and you need to promote it, that’s a different matter. There’s no such thing as a bad way to let people know about your film. Just keep in mind how much time it takes to make your Facebook and Twitter campaign interesting and successful. But if you’re just a one or two-person operation and there’s still work to be done, I think it’s best to keep the distractions and excuses for procrastination to a minimum.

RHT: So for a question on today’s films, what are you thoughts on all the remakes permeating the cinema these days, and are there any films you’d like to remake?

JFM: Going back to almost the beginning of narrative cinema, there have always been remakes. But they were usually motivated by some advancement of technology; remaking a silent movie when sound came along or re-doing an old black and white film for an audience accustomed to watching things in color.

In the case of something like John Carpenter’s THE THING or Cronenberg’s THE FLY, aside from the black & white/color thing, the remake was completely justified because the original films were made during a time when the pacing was much slower, and the acting style was less naturalistic than what audiences in the 1980’s were used to.

But now that Hollywood is re-making films from the 1970’s and 80’s where the sensibility is the same as any good contemporary movie, and you can watch the originals on home video at anytime, it’s just cashing in on a brand without any regard to artistic merit whatsoever. These sorts of remakes don’t really interest me. As a rule, most of my favorite movies were made before 1983 anyway, so I don’t feel any need to see what the dumbed-down 21st century version of a 1970’s classic is going to be like.

I generally just want to make films based on my own original stories, but I do have two movies in mind that I would be interested in re-making if somebody came along with an offer and the money to make it happen. They are both horror films, one is an old MGM title and the other is an American International cheapie that doesn’t quite live up to the promise made by its title and poster. They aren’t exactly “dream projects,” but if the opportunity came up, they could be fun to do.

RHT: Tell usabout the latest project you’re about to start shooting, The Girl from Mars!

JFM: THE GIRL FROM MARS is a science fiction/romance about a guy who meets the girl of his dreams, who claims to be from another planet. I wrote the film specifically for actress Pauley Perrett,e and we were thrilled when she told us how much she loved the script.

I had written a story for her about a year earlier. It was a very dark and gory horror film in the vein of early Clive Barker stories with some Lovecraftian elements. But it was so grim, it just didn’t seem right for Pauley. The free-spirited and generous gal she plays in MARS celebrates what makes Pauley so special, and I think that’s going to make the movie a lot of fun for audiences.

The film is also a nice little breather for me after making HYPOTHERMIA as it’s all character and dialog-driven, so the effects aren’t dominating the production. I’ll be back to gore and monsters and robots soon enough though!

RHT : Pauley Perrette and Max Brooks (author of the bestseller ” World War Z ” and son of legendary director, Mel Brooks) both had cameos in ” Satan Hates You ” and both will appear in ” The Girl From Mars. ” How did you meet them and convince them to be in your films!?

JFM: Pauley is an old friend of my producing partner, Lisa Wisely. We both met her through Pauley’s best friend, Darren Greenblatt, who has been a huge help in getting THE GIRL FROM MARS off the ground. She loved the script, and we were in business!

Max is an old friend of mine who I met when he started dating his wife, Michelle Kholos, who I went to college with. He and I hit it off right away because we’re both big nerds who can spend hours talking about zombies, Bigfoot, Star Trek and King Kong.

He’s been amazing as far a promoting my films during interviews and appearances where he’s supposed to be talking about his own work! He’s gone above and beyond in that regard. It was because of this level of support that he’s given me that I figured I’d ask him to do a couple of cameos in our films, and he’s been very generous with his time.

RHT: So the biggest question of all, for any struggling or first-time filmmakers out there: Are you actually doing this for a living? As in, have you progressed to the point of making enough money as a filmmaker to sustain you?

JFM: I was a full-time employee of Glass Eye Pix for eight years, so thanks to Larry’s generosity, I was able to support myself working on my, and other people’s, films. Since deciding to strike out on my own last October, I’ve been getting by doing some little freelance writing, directing and editing gigs along with some graphic design work while we wait for the money to come in for the next feature. Operating at these lower budget levels certainly doesn’t mean champagne and caviar, but it can be enough to get by on as long as you’re able to keep working.

R HT: So what’s in the pipeline for James Felix McKenney?

JFM: Filming on THE GIRL FROM MARS is right around the corner. We just need to confirm a few things before we lock in our start date and then we can get to work.

After that, we’ve got seven projects in various stages of development: There’s a dark fantasy film in the “Twilight Zone” tradition called WORLD’S FAIR that I was gearing up to make when the offer to do HYPOTHERMIA came along. Then we have another rural monster movie that Max Brooks prodded me into writing (no, it’s not a zombie movie!). We have a couple of other horror movies lined up as well as two science fiction movies and some other “mystery” projects.

Even I don’t know which one will end up going into production first. It’s always the same story, it all comes down to raising the money. Even low budget films cost something to make!

If you missed it, be sure to read part 1 of my Low Budget Filmmaking 101 interview with James Felix McKenney.

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