A few years ago, I came across a film, Ice from the Sun
directed by Eric Stanze, a Missouri based filmmaker. What impressed me immediately was the ambitious reach of the filmmaker, on what had to have been a miniscule budget. As I watched, I realized this was not like most micro-budgeted features. There was depth to this production, depth rarely found in films with a hundred times the operating revenue. The story is inventive, well written, and despite low production value, engrossing in a manner most Hollywood productions fail to achieve.
In 2000, Eric again popped up on the scene with his film Scrapbook
. This one instantly received acclaim for its brutal and unflinching look at the ordeal suffered by one woman at the hands of a lunatic. I wrongly assumed the film to be no more than another torture picture. It would be a couple of years before I put my prejudice aside and actually watched the film. How ignorant my assumptions had been. Scrapbook
is nothing short of a revelation. Instead of being another lame excuse to frame some badly conceived torture set pieces, Scrapbook
removed all of the stereotypical tripe. I was captivated, disturbed, and genuinely moved by the performances of the leads, Emily Haack and Tommy Biondo who took the film to highs and lows the likes of which are rarely achieved.
I began to keep a watchful eye for any other endeavors that I could locate from this group of Missouri filmmakers. These folks were not just making entertaining horror films, nor were they simply pushing the envelope to the next level, they were burning the fucker completely and coming at things from a completely new perspective. Please take a few moments to read what Eric has to say about filmmaking and the creative process in general; a process that makes his films stand out among the sea of independent releases.
Director Eric Stanze has taken a few moments to climb into the Boxx and talk to our very own Ragman about movies and the art of making them. Check this out.
- In 1999 you shot your second independent feature, Ice from the Sun. This film would have been difficult to shoot even for a studio backed production, yet you chose to make it on your own. Why such an ambitious endeavor right out of the gate?
I didn't really consider Ice From the Sun
ambitious at the time. I'd just made Savage Harvest
which was my first professional production, and it came with a lot of growing pains. Savage Harvest
was an exploration of what I could do in this industry, but not much of an exploration artistically. It's a fun movie, full of gore and crazy camerawork, but when I made it, I didn't really have my own voice as a filmmaker yet. I wanted Ice From the Sun
, for better or for worse, to have my own voice - to have my unique fingerprint on it. I took a lot of chances in that movie artistically because I didn't want it to be just another horror movie. I wanted it to be an Eric Stanze movie. Despite its flaws, it got me a lot of attention, primarily because it was so unique - so it was definitely a good choice to make the film that way.
Also, for many years, I really, truly hated Savage Harvest. I just thought I'd done a terrible job on the movie and I was very eager to prove I could do better. So that was another motivation of mine, going into Ice From the Sun.
- Lack of funds is not a deterrent for you when you decide to make a film, but what areas of a film do you feel are most likely to suffer from improper funding?
Well, every area suffers. The writing wings are clipped as you are constantly cutting cool stuff out of the screenplay because you don't have the money to do it. Plus, when the writer or writers are not getting paid, the quality of the script suffers because the writing is always rushed and jammed into your schedule with a hundred other things that you gotta do at the same time to make money.
The settings, the wardrobe, the props, lighting and camera gear - all of it is threatened when funding is weak.
However, some of the most interesting aspects of an indie film rise from creative maneuvering around budgetary restrictions. Sometimes that actor who you cast because they were the best you could get cheap or free delivers a powerhouse performance. Sometimes, the frustration of not being able to purchase what you want, drives you to hunt it down for free, and that tenacity is often rewarded by a great location or prop that is better than what you would have purchased if the budget were there. The trick is, don't let a low budget put you in a mind-set of half-assing it. A little extra work and enthusiasm will overcome lack of funding and, at times, give you something extremely special that money can't buy.
- If given the opportunity to throw endless amounts of cash at any production, would you consider going back and re-shooting any of the films you have already shot, or would you prefer to keep moving on and leave the past behind you?
I don't tend to look back much. Making a movie really burns me out by the end of it all and I have little enthusiasm for a project after I've moved on to the next one. Plus, a few months after each movie is released, all I see are the mistakes I made - and I become very focused on proving I can do better with the next movie I direct. The idea of re-making any of my movies, even though it could mean fixing flaws, just feels too much like losing ground. I prefer to leave the past in the past and focus on today and the future. Plus, I have more movies in my head that I'd like to make than I could ever do in one lifetime, so I'm not likely to squander any of these years re-making old stuff. On the other hand, you mention endless amounts of cash... If the right dollar amount was thrown my way, I'm sure I'd be influenced to re-make an old movie of mine. Poverty sucks.
- When you are writing a screenplay, do you write parts with specific actors in mind, or are casting decisions only made after auditions?
It is a combination of both, even when it comes to the leads. Also, I enjoy an even mix of new faces and old allies in my cast when I make a movie. I think there is an energy that comes from such a mix that I would not have if everyone in the cast were strangers to me, or if everyone in the cast were old friends of mine.
- Do you lock yourself away when you are writing until the screenplay is finished, or do you work on other aspects of pre-production at the same time? And what are your reasons for doing one as opposed to the other?
For as long as I can get away with it, I lock myself away, turn off the phone, and try to focus on writing and nothing else. However, I'm not just the writer. I'm also a director, producer, and owner of the production company. Eventually, I have to step away from the screenplay and address pre-production issues and do my job in running Wicked Pixel Cinema. It can be difficult, trying to juggle all these responsibilities and still be creative and write an engaging, well-thought-out screenplay.
- Tommy Biondo, who starred in your film Scrapbook, was an integral part of your creative process until his death. His performance was phenomenal. Would you take a few moments and tell us about what he brought to your friendship, your creative process and your film or is it too early to talk about him?
No, I don't mind talking about Tom at all. As a friend he was a great source of support. He always encouraged me to be as artistic and daring as I wanted to be in my filmmaking pursuits. He was definitely a "do what you want to do" kind of artist, not a "do what will get your movie into Best Buy" kind of artist, and that was the right attitude to have. It was very motivating to have a friend like that backing you up. Scrapbook
was all about taking risks, and it was great having Tom by my side, a partner in that mindset. Creatively we worked very well together. Scrapbook
was a very difficult and uncomfortable shoot, but my collaboration with Tom on that movie was thoroughly enjoyable.
He was also a great friend outside of the filmmaking arena. Very protective. Always available to talk over coffee if I just needed to vent about something. My life changed dramatically when Tom passed away.
- In addition to writing and directing, you frequently act as well. Is this something you do simply because you enjoy it or is it often out of necessity?
It's both - I enjoy it and it is sometimes out of necessity. On Deadwood Park
, instead of taking an acting part, I kept myself on standby, in case of emergency. Sure enough, due to a last minute re-write, a character had to be added and we had no time to cast anyone new for it. So I played the part.
On something like Savage Harvest 2: October Blood
, I'm involved primarily to play a lead part, and I make it my top priority. On that particular movie, I was very happy to be playing a lead, but my schedule at that time was ridiculous. I was killing myself, not sleeping, just pushing myself way too hard while that movie was shooting - so then I was in a constant panic that I was not focusing enough on my job as an actor. I was always worried that I was fucking it all up. In the end, it turned out fine, but I look forward to playing a lead part in a movie again someday, and being able to shed most of those distractions and focus primarily on creating a character.
- Is there one area of production that is your favorite, and if so what is it and why? And to make things balanced, is there one that is your least favorite?
I feel most at home on set, directing. However, I am also extremely comfortable in the editing phase as well. I used to dread the writing process somewhat, because I knew it was there that I was weakest. But in recent years, I think I've improved a lot as a writer and I now really enjoy that phase of making a movie too.
The part I like the least is the marketing. By the time the movie is released, I'm exhausted - a burnt out fucking mess, and it is very difficult to go out in public, smile, and tell everyone how exciting the new movie is. I may still be enthusiastic about the movie, but I'm so worn out by that point that I function poorly as the spokesperson. Also, doing that sort of thing puts me in the spotlight, and I become very uncomfortable if I'm in the spotlight too long. I really am in this industry to experience the process of making movies. I'm in it to collaborate with people I like and like working with. I'm not in it because I love attention. So when I'm a guest at a convention, or doing a Q & A or something, it feels awkward. I'd rather the movie get the attention, not me.
However, calling attention to yourself is how your movies get noticed - and it's how you build a career. And definitely, when I'm feeling worn down, some positive attention and encouragement from either a peer or a fan does me a lot of good. So it's not like I want to be a hermit, living in some dark cave, cut off from all other human beings.
I have to admit that when it comes to marketing myself and these movies, I rely on the guidance, intelligence, effort, and support of my team a lot. They do an amazing job of making the marking phase as easy on me as possible.
- Do you plan to continue shooting your features in and around Missouri or would you like to try different locales if the funds were available to you, and why one over the other?
I'm definitely not chained to St. Louis. I'm ready to shoot wherever a project takes me. I'm ready to relocate if there is a long-term professional benefit to it.
Shooting in Missouri has its positive points, mostly because it is so easy to operate under the radar here. It is also relatively cheap to shoot here. And I have met and worked with some amazing people who live in this area. I don't dislike making movies here. But there are a lot of annoying things about working in and around St. Louis too, so getting away from here, either for one film, or to make a permanent move, would be fine with me.
- Given the ambitiousness of some of the films that you've already produced, it's hard to imagine anything being out of your scope of possibilities, however is there something you would love to shoot but you feel you're not quite ready for yet? And what makes you not ready to tackle it?
Personally, as a director, I feel I can tackle anything. I've been making movies for twenty years, and with that kind of experience, I feel prepared to handle whatever gets thrown my way. However, while I may be ready to handle certain more ambitious projects as a director, the budgets on those movies will need to increase beyond what I'm used to dealing with.
Most of the time, when I want to make something, and I'm told that I can't do it with the budget I have, my response is "I can do whatever I want - it is just a question of how I do it." But for my sanity, my team's comfort, and for the overall quality of the finished movie, there are a couple of projects I've written that I'd need to have a more substantial budget for.
Butcher's Moon is something that I wrote that I am still very enthusiastic about, but it would require a major jump up in budget. Also, years ago, I wrote a science-fiction screenplay called Tempest of the Dawn. It needs a pretty major re-write, but the basic premise is still fascinating to me, and if I had the right budget, I'd love to bring that project to life some day. I co-wrote a movie called Seizure with Jason Christ, and while it isn't on an epic scale, it does have a lot of action and special effects in it. With a proper budget, we could make that movie something very interesting that would also be a huge horror-fan crowd-pleaser.
- On an night off, when you can simply sit home and watch whatever you want, what are some of the things that might be on your viewing schedule?
I watch an extremely wide variety of movies, from big-budget Hollywood films to ultra-low-budget underground flicks. I probably watch more horror movies than anything else, but I also watch a lot of documentaries, serious dramas, and sleazy exploitation films. In recent years, I've really gotten into 70's "road films" like Two Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point. I'll even watch the occasional comedy.
My viewing habits probably shift a bit every few months, so I'll list - to the best of my memory - the last fifteen movies I've watched as of this interview (at the end of May, 2009). Some were first time viewings, and some were repeated viewings.
At the theater: The new J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie. On DVD: Michael Crichton's Coma. The brutal new French horror film Martyrs. Lucio Fulci's Zombie. Ryan Nicholson's Live Feed. The Marx Brothers' Go West. David Cronenberg's Rabid. Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko. Silip, directed by Elwood Perez. Exposed, with Christina Lindberg. The "8 Films To Die For" entry Mulberry Street. David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The Blob, with Steve McQueen. The Third Man with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton. And the restored version of the Orson Welles film, Touch of Evil.
I also recently re-watched the excellent 1970's British documentary The World at War. It's something like 23 hours long, so for a while, I'd watch one episode every couple of nights before I went to bed.
- As fiercely independent as you are, is there a fantasy project that could entice you to pack it up and move to Hollywood i.e. a Rings Trilogy or any great work of literature that you feel has never been done justice?
Actually, it wouldn't take much to make me pack it up and move to Hollywood. I've visited and worked out there before, and I actually really like it on the west coast. It wouldn't take a Rings-sized project to entice me - I'd go to work in Hollywood for just about any project that made it worth my while.
Being "fiercely independent" is, I guess, just part of my personality - and I don't think a big Hollywood budget would kill that part of me. I'd make the situation work for me, and actually try to use the bigger budget to make a better movie. Even if I ended up making some brain-dead mainstream piece of crap, I'd just collect my fat paycheck and then go do something real.
- To keep things interesting, at least for us, our Wild Card question: If you were not making films, let's say for argument's sake films didn't exist, what would you likely be doing in order to satisfy your creative drive?
Maybe I'd design amusement park rides. I'd specialize in combination roller coaster / dark ride creations. I'd also make a horror-themed log flume ride. That'd be cool.
Or maybe I'd write novels. For some reason, I think I'd write fifteen or twenty failures, and then bust out with some extremely successful novels that would make me a millionaire. I'd do a lot of research, so the writing process would be very slow. I wouldn't become that millionaire until I was around 50.
See, even in my hypothetical life, success only comes after an extremely long period of sacrifice and suffering.
Eric has directed nine features and I recommend that you take the time find them. Check out the man's work. Whether it is his first feature Savage Harvest
, a demonic monster movie, I Spit on Your Corpse, I Piss on Your Grave
, a brutal revenge picture, or his eerie and quietly compelling ghost story Deadwood Park
, you will not be disappointed. I think you will be surprised to see what can be done with a small budget and a hell of a lot of drive!
Eric is the President of Wicked Pixel Cinema
and their latest feature Ratline
is about to be released. Don't get left behind, check out the future of horror film now!