The hard thing about doing these series of post on the topic of found footage film making is finding quality films to that stand out from the crowd and film makers with an interesting story to tell. After all is said and done this is a blog dedicated to film making and each post should advance our film making knowledge. I know that for many of us the dream of becoming a film maker not only began with seeing that one film that we wanted to know how it was done, but watching or reading an interview with the person behind the camera. For me listening to my favorite film maker Hitchcock talk about film making was at times a bit overwhelming. He is one of those visual geniuses that saw the world in a way that Mozart heard music. Amazing to witness their work, but impossible to chase. In the end it was Sam Raimi who I could relate to and believe that hey I could do what he was doing. Hell, I wanted to make movies like Evil Dead.
What I am saying is that I hope that you guys through these interviews find a film maker or two that inspires you to just go out and do it.
The next interview is with Mark Atkins, the film maker behind 9-12-13. You can find his website for Minds Eye Productions by clicking here. If you would like to rate the film on IMDb you can visit the page by clicking here.
Q) The first question has to be what is 9-12-13 about?
a) '9-12-13' is about an egomaniacal wannabe horror filmmaker trying to cash in on the found-footage genre by making a movie set in the 1980s and shot on Hi8 to gain fame and a reputation as a 'master of horror.'
Unfortunately for him and his ragtag cast and crew, they bump into a group of drug runners in the woods - one of whom has a fierce loyalty to his ringleader brother and has a taste for murder. With the cast and crew becoming corpses, the filmmaker sees another option besides fight or flight.
He will make his masterpiece after all - with the killer as his new star.
Q) The found footage film has slowly and steadily carved out a place for itself as a true genre of film making during the last few years. Why did you choose found footage as the genre of your film and what has to change if found footage films are going to be see real growth as a genre?
a) I've been a fan of the genre since before 'The Blair Witch Project.' I remember finding a crummy quality VHS of 'Cannibal Holocaust' at my local video store as a kid and watching it on a Saturday afternoon with a friend and, while not fooled by the format, loved the possibilities of it.
Beside that, I saw the third 'Paranormal Actvivity' film and was blown away on how badly they dropped the ball. That film was set in the 80's and it was OBVIOUSLY shot on HD. I was thrilled with the idea of a found-footage story being told on the old analog VHS-C, 8mm, Hi8 or even Digital 8 format - what better way to establish your film's 80's flavour and setting?
Needless to say, I left the movie pretty anry and I immediately started to think on how to make an interesting found-footage story without reusing too many of the tropes that have risen from it. AND to shoot it on analog.
Q) You did an interesting twist on the film within a film plot. I guess that the question has to be about the script. This story is clearly more plot driven than the average found footage film. How much of the story was down on paper before you started to shoot and how much did the cast get to improvise during the shoot?
a) After setting myself on making a found-footage project, I really wanted to do something different from the others I've seen. Strangely enough, I went back to 'Cannibal Holocaust' for inspiration. Just because I was making a story in a particular genre doesn't mean that I can't tell a tale that I wouldn't be interested in making. That movie is about a group of people watching the footage that the audience was viewing, so I thought I would take it to, what was to me, the next logical step. Instead of having what was effectively two different movies married together, I would just have two different stories being told at the same time. The trick was how to keep the storytelling device (the camera) the same between the two. And I also wanted to do it without supernatural plot devices. No haunted cameras or possessed cassette tapes or any 'hand-wave' excuses.
So, once the story outline as written and the beats were in place, I quickly decided to not have any written dialogue. All of the lines in the movie are improvised by the cast following my direction that I laid out in a scene-by-scene 'blueprint.' I felt that having a polished script would make the performances too clean and would take away that raw vibe that a real-life situation would offer.
Q) Night time shooting is a task even on a big budget film. On the low to micro budget film that due to the fact that it is found footage and cannot use standard film lighting it ends up falling in to one of two camps. Hopelessly under lit or sadly over lit (the film Area 407). How did you deal with the problem of lighting?
a) To keep with the more realistic slant I wanted to give the story, I made the decision that less is more. All the lighting is from natural sources - to a point. I knew that I wanted to shoot predominantly at night and the story would not lend itself to being anywhere near street lights, buildings or other electrical sources of light. That left very, very few options, so flashlights were the obvious choice.
The second question was how to use them. You could light a scene with flashlights located from behind the camera, but I really, really, really wouldn't recommend it. So, I decided to use them as a prop for the actors to use. They would light the scene and the flashlight would serve as a believable item their characters would use in the situation they were in. The only problem is that the flashlights were only great for effect lighting and the odd fill, rim or spot lighting tasks. That's when the question led back to what would the key light source be?
The answer was the camera. It was the only constant in the entire story, so why would it not be the main source of light in a found-footage movie? It was also important that it wasn't a big, professional light that I just mounted on the camera. For the effect to be successful, I felt that it had to be just the on-board camera light. After a lot of testing in different weather and lighting conditions and understanding the limitations of the light sources and the camera, the lighting scheme worked out really well so that's what we went with.
9-12-13 from Mark Atkins on Vimeo.
Q) The question of how do I record quality sound is usually not tackled until a film maker has gone through the trial and error of shooting a film or two. How did you manage to record quality sound? What did you learn from the experience?
a) I'm a cinematographer by training, but even I would say that without quality sound, nothing can save you. I decided to use this philosophy and do the complete opposite. I used story and character to dictate how I would light, so I did the same with how I would record sound. Everything you hear is from the on-board camera mic. I didn't think that the character of the director would give a damn about good quality technical skills, so that's the motivation I used.
Obviously, there was a lot of testing of the audio on the camera ( a LOT more than with the lighting) and after figuring out the microphone's effective range and how wide the spread was in picking up effective dialogue, the rest fell into place.
Q) I have found that too many low budget film makers fall in love with the newest Dslr camera and end up overlooking the fact that they need to match the camera to the situation. You went for a grainy look to the film. What camera did you use and is that the camera that you wanted to use?
a) Again, I let the characters and the story dictate the technical aspects and if the story was about a guy wanting to make a movie set in the 80's, then by God, I was going to use a camera from the 80's! I could have used an HD camcorder or DSLR, but then I would have had to spend a bunch of time and effort in post-production to make every frame look like it was from an old camcorder. So, I went to a few garage sales and bought an old Hi8 camcorder that had the video light I wanted. Best $40 I ever spent.
There is a line in the movie where the director character explains that the timecode, date and battery displays on the screen change every time you turn the camera on and not to worry about it, well - that was a real thing. After a couple of days of filming, I felt the need to explain why the time and date on the display kept changing on the screen, otherwise the audience would be removed from the story and just think that the real filmmakers didn't know how to use their camera. Every time I turned the camera on, the display would change values and I could NOT turn off the display. It would turn off sometimes, but then reappear at random times. That was something that wasn't in my control, so I put it in the story. Ironically, no one but me noticed or just didn't care about that fact.
Q) You have a pretty solid cast. Where did you get them?
a) Friends and friends of friends. I didn't want professional actors because of the unpolished feel I was going for and I wanted to keep the project on the down-low for the promotional campaign I wanted to experiment with. Luke Morrissey, who plays the ringleader of the drug runners, was a friend of a friend and through him I was able to hire the two actresses Jordyn and Jamie and one of the drug runners, Tom Mason. My buddy Sean, who plays the youngest of the drug runners, was a friend and co-worker. Matt Matthiason, the lead actor of the movie in the movie, had worked at a magazine show I briefly was a part of and Spiro Zinis, the serial killer, is a friend. Alex, the camera man character, is another local filmmaker and he was awesome.
I had a good friend of mine cast as the character of the director, but he fell through with only a couple of weeks until shooting and I put the word out for anyone who could come in last minute, but no one could commit. With no other option, I had to play the part. Like almost the entire cast, this was the first time I ever acted. It was difficult to pull double duty being director both in front and behind the camera (technically triple duty - I was also the serial killer behind the camera), but it was a terrific learning experience.
Q) How long did it take to shoot the film?
a) Three days for principal photography and another two for pick up shots. The last scene's location was the hardest to find, but luckily a friend of mine, Andy, allowed me to use his shop. In the end, I actually made him a character behind the camera, too. You have to use all the resources you have, sometimes!
Q) There are a lot of 80's horror film references in the film. The director in the film mentions my
favorite scream queen of all time (also the most underrated) Linnea Quigley. What are some of the films that you admire?
a) I grew up watching everything I could get my hands on, regardless of genre. When I hit about nine or ten is when I really started to get into horror flicks and most of the ones that shaped me were from the 80's, so Quigley, Brinke Stevens, Jamie Lee Curtis and Barbara Crampton were in the movies that I loved.
As for the films that I admire, my favourite film of all time is 'Dr. Strangelove,' so I'm a big Kubrick fan ('The Shining' is my favourite horror movie). I love John Carpenter's work, especially 'The Thing,' 'Big Trouble in Little China,' 'Prince of Darkness' and 'In the Mouth of Madness.' I could go on and on about Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Peckinpah and Scorcese, but the films I admire from the past few years or so are 'The Fall' by Tarsem Singh, any film by Park Chan-wook, 'The Innkeepers' by Ti West, 'Lovely Molly' by Eduardo Sanchez, 'Goon' by Michael Dowse and 'Tyrannosaur' by Paddy Considine. Again, there's a lot, lot more that I could mention.
Q) You have directed a feature before. Which was more difficult to direct. The narrative
feature or the found footage film?
a) '9-12-13' was the easiest by far, but for a number of reasons. Unlike my feature debut, 'Mind's Eye,' I had a smaller budget ($700 vs $10,000), which meant that I had fewer locations, fewer cast and crew and a LOT more freedom. I have to switch up scene orders on the fly? No problem. I'm not getting the performance I want out of an actor or myself? Instant re-takes. Setting up or taking down shots? Minutes instead of hours. It was more like summer camp with my friends than anything else.
That being said, there's nothing quite like working with trained (and paid) professionals making their jobs look easy and, thus, making your movie look and sound like a million bucks. I love the different disciplines that come together to make a script into a film. I love collaboration and teamwork and the feeling of people believing in you and your crazy ideas and you believing in them and their crazy ideas. Thirty people stuffed into a hot set at 3am is one of the worst hells to be in, but it's one that I absolutely, positively love to be in. It brings out the best and the worst in people and ideas and I'm addicted to it.
There's definitely pluses and minuses on both sides, but it depends on the story you are telling and how you want to tell it.
Q) Any projects in the near future?
a) I'm currently working on a sci-fi feature film script about alternate dimensions, hallucinogenic drugs and the meaning of life. I'm planning to shoot a trailer for that this Summer and start the crowd-funding campaign in the Fall of this year.
Q) Any advice that you wish that you had been given when you were starting out as a film maker?
a) Ask questions and be humble. Learn everything you can about how to make a story. Keep yourself educated on what's going on around you. Don't be afraid to listen to suggestions from anyone - they are sometimes better ideas than your own. Surround yourself with people who make you challenge yourself.
With all this in mind, however, keep this advice closest to your heart: this is your story. Do NOT let anyone else tell you otherwise. Spielberg can't make Kubrick movies, Picasso can't paint Monet paintings and no one on Earth can make your story but you. So make it the best story you can and you will regret nothing.
Thank you for agreeing to do this interview Mark. If you guys would like to see his feature film
Mind's Eye you can see it on Vimeo by clicking here.
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