Awhile back I wrote a review on a new low-budget horror anthology by the name of Volumes of Blood and I was a pretty big fan. I finally got a chance to sit down with the crew for a chat and had a blast doing it! Joining me for this interview were writer/directors P.J. Starks and Nathan Thomas Milliner and stars Kevin Roach and Roni Jonah.
What’s it like making a low budget movie now? They seem to be everywhere, does that make the market more saturated and harder to bust into?
PJ: Making indie films now is easier than when I seriously started seven years ago. Back then I wasn’t as well connected with other talents and artists and I was new to the game as a whole. With every film, you make you learn what not to do the next time. Each project gets easier in some areas, but always comes with their own set of challenges. Each time outta the gate I try to make each project a little bigger and better; so there’s always a new hurdle to jump. Yeah, the market is definitely saturated with a lot of great and terrible films, but that just means the ball is in your court to do something fresh and creative to get noticed. I’ve have friends in Hollywood that will tell you the industry has always been hard to break into, so that hasn’t really changed. What’s changed is coming up with a concept that hasn’t already been done a million times over. If you can do something original in its own right then you have a much better chance of getting your foot in the door.
How did the idea of a horror anthology come up? Anthology is perhaps my favorite of all the sub-genres and I would love to see a resurgence in them, but it’s a very hit or miss sub-genre.
PJ: I produced a short film called Lucky that was made in conjunction through the Unscripted Film School program that I co-created with Jim Blanton. It was written by Todd Martin and directed by Jakob Bilinski and oddly enough it went on to garner some good reviews and screen at festivals across the country. This was entirely unexpected because Jakob and I had many talks about the short being a “throw-away” project. Because of the success of Lucky it made Jim all that more excited about the possibilities with the program and he called on me to come up with something next level. I love anthologies and had wanted to make one for years, but never really got anything off the ground. When Jim told me to come up with a new concept for the Unscripted program I felt this was the perfect opportunity and ran with it. In less than a day, I had the idea for the wrap around story and the title all worked out, pitched it to Jim and the rest is history.
In the same vein, what anthologies are your favorites and did you draw upon any for inspiration?
PJ: Trick ‘r Treat and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie are a couple of my favorite anthologies and I really dug V/H/S 2. I did make a lot of horror movie references in the film with my writing and concepts for some sequences, but the only real anthology that I paid homage to was After Midnight. It’s a great fright flick and one of the lost and forgotten gems of truly good horror anthology cinema, so I wanted to make sure that I showed it some love in the film. I think what inspired me most was how anthologies are handled nowadays. Most modern genre anthology films are just a hodgepodge of random short films that can already be found on YouTube or they have no connection with one another. To me, those kinds of anthologies are cheap ways of making a feature out of a bunch of people’s hard work. With Volumes of Blood, my intentions the entire time were to create stories that, while they’re different in nature, all feel like they’re apart of the same universe. The other writers and directors were on board with this idea and I believe that we were successful in that department.
Filmmaking is long, hard, and often very stressful. Did you find it difficult to keep going once you got started? What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in the process?
PJ: There are always times when you want to throw in the towel, but when you’re a part of something with so much wonderful talent it’s hard to give up. VOB had its fair share of shitty moments, but a lot of what transpired seemed to fall into place most of the time. The Board of Directors at the library had final say on the scripts. From the standpoint of a writer/director it sucked pretty badly because you have your heart set on something you write and when you’re told no it’s a shock to the system, especially when you’re used to having more control. This time around the BOD felt they needed to protect their brand and nixed things we all really wanted in the film. From a producers perspective, I understood why they made these decisions and once I realized that they didn’t touch any of the blood and gore told myself that it was small victories through compromise and we pressed on. For, me the hardest part of the process was being a producer. No one does that job because they want to be liked and I butted heads with several crew members along the way, but in the end we managed to put our creative differences behind us and make the best possible film we could under the given circumstances. It was my job to make sure that this film got made, but without a solid cast and crew there is no way that would have been possible. Everyone attached believed in what we were making and I believed in them, so when the film really started to take shape a lot of the worries and concerns went away. It was an arduous film to make at times, but well worth it in the end.
KR: We were given one night to put together one short film each. Anyone who knows what goes into making a movie knows that there’s always a detailed process to go through. I think in “Encyclopedia Satanica”, our biggest hurdle was the amount of makeup I had to wear. Lisa, our special effects artist, spent well over two hours applying, re-applying, and fixing my makeup throughout the shoot. We also were dealing with our main actress, Kristine, and her severe back pain. She was weeks away from having major surgery and was soldiering on through some intense scenes. In the end, it comes down to patience and perseverance. As actors and film crew, it was vital that we kept our focus on-set, so we could accomplish all of our goals for the evening.
RJ: I don’t know about VOB, but making indie film IS difficult. You do it anyway because you love it. The hardest things to overcome? Yourself, for one. Always trying to make everything perfect, when you just don’t have the budget. Other people. You have to accept that, ultimately, you are the only one who truly cares about your project.
NTM: As a director, if you are thinking “man, this is hard” then you’re maybe not a true director. In my experience, when I am on set, I am rarely thinking about how tired or hungry or thirsty I am or whatever. Chuck Russell once said on the set of A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors that the director is “The Last Man Standing.” A good comparison. All I am thinking about is shooting my movie. I’ve planned and planned and planned for months. This is it. This is what all of the prep work has led to. It’s time to make a movie and it is one of the coolest and most rewarding things there is. Yes, it is tremendously stressful. You have to worry about time, money, safety, if you are getting things you need or forgetting things, if these things will work or transition well in the editing process. There are a million things to worry and think about but if you have worked hard and you know what you want and you know what you are doing and you know you have the best people on your team to get what needs to be done, done…then you just get it done and damn the time and stress. As far as finding it hard to keep going once you get started no. I’ve always been the kind of artist who can’t stop. If I feel the need to stop then something is wrong. Something isn’t working. The art is sucking. But still, you have to move forward and get the job done. You have a whole group of people (especially in the low budget world where pretty much everyone is there for free) and they are depending on you to deliver and they showed up “FOR YOU” so that is a responsibility to each and every one of them to be on your game and be the captain. Full steam ahead. The hardest thing working on Volumes of Blood was the time crunch. We were not given much time at all to make our films. Each director was given an 8-hour window to direct their segment in the library. That’s not 8 hours of filming mind you, that is 8 hours to load in, dress the set, set up, get into make-up and costume, shoot the film, allow for breaks, and clean everything up and be out of the door. Now this was only my third film, and only my second time as director but even I knew based on the script I chose to direct “The Encyclopedia Satanica”, that my script was much longer than all of the other scripts. That all of the other scripts would be a challenge getting shot in 8 hours. Mine would be downright impossible. My film was 24-minutes long. The other films I believe were between 8-15 minutes long. My film also included the most extensive make-up to be applied to an actor throughout the shoot, my lead actress was dealing with a serious spinal injury and soldiered through and we had multiple problems with audio, wardrobe and equipment. Despite all of the issues we were able to shoot 17-minutes of our segment in the first night getting 100 shots in just over 6 hours of filming time. But due to the audio issues, P.J. gave me another night (5 hours which turned into about 4 due to more delays and issues) to shoot the remaining 7 minutes of our film. And then came the major problems with audio in post. Continuity issues because we were having to shoot so fast (a lot of one takes) and a lot of people on set who sadly walked into shots or were standing in shots in the dark where we couldn’t see them on the night. It was a headache for sure. But a total blast as well. The only way we made it through and ended up with a watchable film is because I had such an amazing cast and crew with me. They brought their A-games, worked hard and were the saving grace for a very troubled shooting experience. We are quite proud of it.
Well, we’re all horror fans here so let’s talk genre filmmaking. What tropes are you tired of? Do you think VOB overcame any of those overused cliches?
PJ: I already told you about my annoyance of lazy filmmaking, but I think a lot of what we consider tropes is also what give some horror films their charm. Hollywood remaking films rather than giving new filmmakers with original content a shot is something that I’m truly tired of. There have been some amazing remakes, but the little guys want in on the action as well. When films like Paranormal Activity or It Follows come along it’s a breath of fresh air, but those movies come along far too little. In the end, it’s a business so the dollar wins out every time. In some ways, VOB overcame clichés by poking fun at them or being referential about what they were. We wanted to stay ahead of the curve and in some cases the audience, so we took it upon ourselves to recreate these overused plot devices to our advantage. In some ways we were successful and in others we fell short. No matter your feelings of the outcome I believe that we managed to create something a little different and gave a shot in the arm to the genre.
KR: I think found footage has become a tired genre. Once upon a time, it was unique and bold, but now it has been overdone. There are some exceptions to that, as there have been a few films recently that have breathed new life into found footage story. We didn’t tackle that in VOB, but I think it would have been interesting to try. It would have needed a stellar story and cast to pull it off. The problem with those types of movies is they often lack a good story and superior acting ability.
NTM: I don’t know if there are any tropes I am tired of really. Almost every story ever told pretty much fits into a similar pattern or trope. Joseph Campbell said there is only one true story that everyone keeps retelling. We do see the same things being done over and over but that has more to do with our humanity than a lack of imagination. We are all similar and all share a common bond when it comes to stories and it isn’t that you are just using the same old tropes but it is how you use them that matters. I’d say that almost every genre film you see has at least one shade of vengeance in it. It may be the main plot line or it may just be a secondary plot line but revenge seems to get involved in nearly all stories. The truth is, Volumes of Blood does not overcome any crimes of overusing cliches. The whole movie is based around urban myths and tales with a common thread. There’s nothing really new here and there doesn’t have to be. As Campbell has said, man has been telling the same story over and over since day one. It can all go back to the caveman telling the tribe about how one of them went into the dark and scary world and battled the beast, the unknown, the conflict. What was the conflict? A bear? A sabertooth tiger? The Devil? Finding a job? Paying your bills? Finding a mate? Having kids? Raising kids? Life is a never ending spiral of challenges and fears and battles, some big and some small but like in all stories we are introduced to a conflict, and then we get through it and resolve it or fall victim to it. But life is just the same old three act set up over and over. Stories are nothing different. Volumes of Blood is just good, old fashioned yarn spinning for those who like to sit around the camp fire and tell ghost stories.
The score is as important to horror films as the story is and with the rise of companies like Wax Records and Death Waltz more fans are able to experience a variety of scores. Was having an original score a must for you? Was it difficult?
PJ: Absolutely, music is not only a crucial element in our film but the score even becomes a character of its own at times. Tony McKee was our composer and was tasked with creating a multitude of different tones as well as recreating the feel of certain eras such as 80’s slasher and 70’s grindhouse. Having an original score was imperative and we found a true artist in Tony.
Has the critical response been welcoming? What do you want to say to the people who brush you off as “just another low-budget horror film”?
PJ: Welcoming, very. Unexpected, definitely. I’ve done a few projects, my first of which was a supernatural slasher flick. It got mixed responses, but when they were bad THEY WERE BAD. I honestly expected the same for this film. When the reviews started coming out and they were good or glowing we all thought to ourselves, “Wow, we might be on to something here.” Then they kept coming and kept coming and they stayed positive every time, it was an incredible feeling. It got to the point where some of us responded to a new review like, “another good one? What else is new!? Where are the bad ones!?” (laughs) Getting major kudos from sites like yours was validation for all the hard work, sweat and stress that was put into the film by so many passionate and like minded people. We finally got a quasi-negative review after about forty, but then the next one came out and it was glowing. We are just another low budget film, but the difference is we were a crew of horror fans making a horror film for horror fans and we’ve connected with our audience on many levels. According to the critics we finally made the anthology film that horror fans have been waiting for and that definitely sets us apart.
KR: I’ve been blown away by the response to it! It’s mostly quite positive, and I think people really appreciate what we’ve done here, with the budget we had. I think people ought to give low budget indie films a chance. Too often people think a film isnt a film if it isnt “Hollywood.” A film like VOB, getting out there and getting seen, is showing people that we have some real filmmaking talent here in the midwest. P.J. has been amazing at making sure the film gets seen and gets the publicity it deserves.
RJ: I don’t read the reviews. I just read what PJ says about them. They seem to be mostly positive. To the people who say this is just another low budget horror film. Are you not entertained?
NTM: The reviews for the film have been shocking to say the least. I can’t believe so many people have responded so positively to a very low budgeted film with a lot of novice filmmakers (myself included) with very little money or time and with as we mentioned, very familiar stories just in a different rhythm. That isn’t an insult mind you. I like Volumes of Blood and I am very proud of it. But I think it is safe to say that the response has been a little overwhelming for most of us. This much critical praise only sets a film—especially a horror film—up for ridicule and rejection. In this genre, if everyone is telling the public this movie is awesome you get a whole legion of fans ready to say, “Nu uh!” What I do welcome is the open mindedness that I have seen from the reviewers. What we didn’t realize was that a lot of horror fans have been missing the sense of fun that Volumes of Blood delivers. This movie is fun. No doubt. At times this movie is VERY hilarious. And I think despite the lack of time and money, many of these segments are excellent and I am not surprised when I read praise for any of them. Jakob Bilinski is a hell of a director and his segment “13 After Midnight” is very impressive and funny and tense. Tony McKee’s score on the entire film is awesome. P.J. believed in this film from day one and my god he proved many people wrong. Yes…we are ecstatic that this film is such a hit. Who wouldn’t be? For those people who brush us off as just another low-budget film I understand. A lot of people are so used to being spoon fed high production value and pristine film with flashy images executed by flashy equipment and the highest advancements in computer generation. Watching a movie that obviously had no budget and has a few newbies on and behind the camera can be torture to some viewers. I know, I have been there. But I think Volumes of Blood is an exception and I’m not just saying that because I worked on it. Not because many of my friends worked on it. I’ve sat through a lot of bad low budget horror films and many of them are unwatchable. But VOB is a fun time. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and if the audience doesn’t take us or themselves too seriously then I guarantee you, VOB will make you laugh and you will be happy you gave us 90 minutes of your day. Oddly enough mine isn’t very funny at all. It’s the only serious one.
Now that VOB is doing the festival circuit do you have any hopes for distribution? Who would be your ideal distributor?
PJ: The film is in talks right now for distribution and should be making its way to DVD and VOD in 2016.
What’s next for the cast and crew of VOB?
PJ: I just finished producing The Confession of Fred Krueger for my buddy and cohort Nathan Thomas Milliner who also wrote and directed the short fan film. It’s in post-production now, but the trailer recently dropped to an incredible response. I’m an Executive Producer on a new superhero web series called River City Heroes: Ascendance that is in production now. I’m also in talks with Todd Martin about co-writing a new sci-fi horror concept I have called Unearthlings. Lastly, with the incredible response to the film I’ve already spoken to a bunch of the crew about the inevitable sequel concept I have called Volumes of Blood: Horror Stories.
KR: Most of us are working on our own projects right now. Kristine just had a wonderful short release on the internet called The Pale King. Nathan and I have teamed up again for a Nightmare on Elm Street fan film called The Confession of Fred Krueger, which has amassed a huge following just from the trailer alone. That one will premier at HorrorHound Indianapolis, and be free to view online after. I’m excited for all the future possibilities in the horror genre here in the midwest. I think we have a strong game going, and I can’t wait to see what’s next!
RJ: The Zombie Movie is on its way out. As is another project I’m working on in secret. Working on Jason Crowe’s Deep Freeze. I’m going home (to Portland Oregon) next month to shoot Cemetery People. The list is long. I’ll leave it at that for now. Thank you!
NTM: I just wrapped “The Confession of Fred Krueger” which I produced, wrote and directed. I used many of the people who worked on Volumes of Blood including stars from Satanica, Kevin Roach, and Todd Reynolds. Also returning with me was my DP and editor, DP Bonnell and prop man and location scout and all around helping hand Eric Huskisson who did many things on VOB. P.J. came on as a producer helping me secure locations in Owensboro and helped find props and actors. Lisa Duvall, our make-up artist joined my team. Mike Hall is back taking behind the scenes photos. I also had some new blood on my personal team who all worked on Volumes of Blood but were working with me for the first time, Daniel Hiatt who shot “A Little Pick me Up” and Brad Reinhardt who worked audio on several of the segments. So the Volumes of Blood family is still together and making films as we speak. Confession is set to debut at HorrorHound Weekend Indianapolis the weekend of September 11-13. Like Volumes of Blood’s success, a complete shock to us as well. I will definitely be using a lot of these talented folks on future film projects. When you find talent, like these folks, you try to hold on to them as long as you can.
You can check out the trailer of The Confession of Fred Krueger below!