Interview: Jay Woelfel (Closed for the Season)

How did you get into filmmaking?

One winter in Ohio it was so cold for so long that me and a friend decided to use my Dad’s old 8mm – not even super 8 – camera to do a Star Trek parody stop motion animation film. Turned out the camera was half broken, but I guess the results weren’t so bad that it scared either of us away. My friend has been a news cameraman and editor ever since. Filmmaking – though the use of the word film is at this point only a symbolic word as the film in filmmaking has all but vanished – is a combination of bits and pieces of all the arts, crafts and some other less savory skills that you’d also need on “reality” TV shows. I prefer the bits of all arts and crafts. If, for example, you are a dancer, well that’s pretty much what you’ll get to do, as a filmmaker you can use dance in a film, etc. Making movies can take and give you many things from almost any direction you care to imagine.

Your latest film, Closed for the Season, is out now on DVD. How does that feel?

DVD is now only part of the way a film is released; soon it won’t even be the largest way it gets out there. Other things used to be to feel left out that you didn’t get a theatrical release. But now those theatrical windows are so short it’s at times hard to know or perhaps care if something came out in a theater first or not. So with VOD and all that happening for Closed for the Season at the same time it feels like a larger release than previous films I’ve done have gotten. It’s all over the place much more quickly. I’m happy it’s on DVD in a nice form with extras. That’s still something DVD does best: you get the film plus what one producer of DVDs called a “scrap book” for the film. I think our DVD lets you see what it was like to make the film without too much hype getting in the way of real information and experience. This film is meant to put you in the park; the extras put you there outside the film story and into the making of story and the history of this pretty unique abandoned park.

I know that it’s been a long road for the film. I first saw it at Monster-Mania back in March of 2010. Tell me about the premiere from your perspective and what the film has gone through since then.

Digital video – I’ll call it as the names of the formats and elements “filmmakers” will largely use from here on out – moves and changes so fast that post-production has to race to catch up. We shot the film on 4k resolution, the best that the camera system, the RED, had to offer at the time. But in post nothing could really work very well with the 4K resolution so we down-converted, then for some stuff we up-converted, then we side-converted. You import, you export, you buy more hard drives, as you’re doing all this your software is getting updated. And guess what? Sometimes this all doesn’t go perfectly and none of it happened instantly.

Not to get too technical, as I may already have, but all this takes computer time and can potentially create problems. Like your CGI FX looking totally different than the rest of the film – which ours did; all the colors and brightness were totally off when we got them cut into the movie or suddenly knock the film out of sync with it’s 5.1 stereo sound mix. So you have to be patient and persistent beyond perhaps the limits of what even patient and persistent person working in film is used to. You have to get used to fixing and problem knowing you’ll have to re-fix it and re-fix it and that a few things will slip by you no matter how hard you try.

What this meant with Monster-Mania premier is that it turned into a work-in-progress showing. Even the weather was bad so the elements arrived right at show time, which meant we went on over 30 minutes late for our first big screening and were showing something none of us had even had time to watch from start to finish. It was a nightmare unlike any I’d had when awake before at a premiere.

Despite all this we still have a good-sized crowd watch the whole film and seemed into it. That night, as we had another screening the next afternoon, producer Jay Ellison and I did some additional color correcting on the movie, replaced the sound mix with a new one and then had the computer rendering all night to have a much better version to show the next afternoon. That showing went off on time and got really good response to a “sold out” crowd.

Monster-Mania had premiered a previous film of mine, Ghost Lake, and that had sold out crowd too. I highly recommend the convention. The fans there really show up to see the films screened, and this is not the case at any other convention and many film festivals that I’ve been to over the years. The feedback I got there helped me refine the movie and make it better with some re-editing after that. So I apologize to those who saw it at Monster-Mania, because I don’t show work that isn’t finished, but the accident that caused that to happen made it a much better finished film on down the line.

How did the distribution deal with MTI come about?

I had three sales reps who wanted the film. Our sales rep is Artist View Entertainment. I went with them because they liked that the film was different from the usual horror films they get. They recently told me they still get 3 to 5 horror films a week that are virtually identical poorly made no name slasher-in-the-woods/people-tied-up-and-tortured-in-chairs movies. Their main sales rep there had also been the main salesman for my earlier film, Unseen Evil. So those are the reasons they have this film rather than the other sales reps that wanted it. MTI releases many of their films and also seem enthusiastic about the film’s own personality and also were willing to work with, instead of against us, the producers, in terms of getting extras on the DVD and sending out screeners, etc.

You recently had a party to celebrate the release. How was that?

That was back in the town where we shot the film in Ohio. Now to explain that quickly, the main industry in that town was the amusement park, Chippewa Lake Park. It was open for 100 years and has been closed for 30 years since then. Thousands of people came to it every year over all those years. It was a huge part of that community, and when it closed it was devastating economically. But the other thing to think about is this wasn’t a coalmine or a car maker plant; it’s a family-run, lakeside amusement park. So that’s another kind of pain altogether and fonder memories still. Of course, since it closed, 30 years of vandalism were unleashed. So most everyone there has a story about the park and we had people come to buy the film who actually worked at the park itself. It was cool to meet those people. We showed the film there about a year ago when it was finished. This time we were there to sell the finished film with some of the cast and crew there to sign copies. It was a home field-type experience. The park is 95 percent torn down now, so this film is the last real record of it, which I knew it would be while making it.

Where did the idea for the picture – about a girl trapped in an abandoned amusement park – come from?

Partly from a process of elimination; I knew I was not going to remake Carnival of Souls, though I guess I knew I wasn’t going to pretend it didn’t exist either. The fact that we meet our main character inside a wrecked car is almost exactly the way we leave our main character in Carnival of Souls. One thing I also wanted to do that that film had not done was tie the whole story more directly to the abandoned park; to tell the park’s story through the characters. There were lots of stories about Chippewa Lake Park and lots of stories that everyone has about amusement parks in general. A lot of these seem to somehow involve first love or at least first interest in girls. One of my first dates was going to Cedar Point in Ohio, a park that helped put Chippewa out of business. So I got the girl lead from Carnival and the idea of first love, which means got to be a boy there and of course the park itself needs a spokesman, and that’d be a multipurpose carney. He’s glad you’re there but part of what he seems to like to is tease and torment you, anything he can do to keep you there. And why is he doing that? What does the park want?

There started to be common experiences to work into the story. Damian Maffei, who plays James, told me several stories that pretty much went into the film word for word the way he told them to me. The thing that struck me was that all these stories were still alive at Chippewa since the rides were still there. The stories still had a reality element because that Ferris wheel was still there now, though it had a tree growing through the middle of it. It was a victim of and defied time all at once. So the idea of a kid falling through a small tree in the park and the tree and the kid growing up together into adulthood came to me early on. The physical elements in the park demanded to be shown. The movie for the characters is a voyage through the park to try to escape. If you’re into the movie discovering the rides and hearing all the stories is the fun of it. One early review said the movie was Alice in Wonderland goes to hell. That’s pretty much dead on correct.

What was it like filming at an actual abandoned amusement park?

A key thing was that we were, to a large degree, living the movie. We were exploring and trapped in the park along with the characters. It was immersive. There weren’t a ton of distractions. We all stayed very near the park, so it was our whole world for the time of shooting. There was no power. We borrowed golf carts to help get around the 100 acres inside. Most days we shot at two different locations in the park, so when we broke for lunch ideally we’d eat and be sort of moving to locale number 2 for the second half of the day. We also frequently shot both day and night scenes on the same day. So it was a lot of work setting up and tearing down almost everything twice a day. There were still vandals at the park, so we couldn’t leave much there, we did have a painting done for the film stolen from the funhouse before we got to shoot it. We had people working on all sides of the park at once, people cutting down trees, building sets, and shooting all in different corners at certain times. It was a rather cold and rainy August, which led to us going about 2 days over schedule, but I’ll take that over what can be brutal heat back there. We heard some strange things in the woods, saw some enormous insects, the house the actors stayed in was the source of strange noises and our own ghost stories. We tried hard to do justice to the place, but being there with us is the only way to really know that place. It was fun to breath life into the ruins but it was a lot of work. It was a fun shoot by and large; everyone knew this was a once in a lifetime adventure. Having the actors live together in their own house was valuable. They rehearsed together and got to know and like each other in ways that don’t happen when you have your own separate trailers and can go home to your “normal” life each day. I think a lot of the movie for them seemed like real experience. They could use their imagination to lead to the fantasy elements of the story. Rather than have to pretend they were in an old park, they were in an old park. I also enjoyed walking my way out of the park at the end of each day’s shooting, usually in the darkness, frequently carrying the wooden clown prop Marischa Slusarski made for the film. I’d get lost sometimes and find myself on the wrong end of things and turn around to come across other lost crew members or refuse a ride from someone. I wanted to be there too. It was Chippewa’s last fun summer. Let me just add that the producer, Jay Ellison, is from the area, so he worked with people he’d known since he was born at times and hired friends from his whole life too. You don’t get to go back to your hometown and make a feature film very often.

How was it working with Joe Unger of A Nightmare on Elm Street fame?

Joe’s also in Leatherface and was in but was cut out of Escape from New York and mostly cut out of but still in Road House. So those are all movies with fan followings that are still growing. I had been an editor on a film Joe was a lead in and I had tried to get Joe into my film Iron Thunder in 1997. I knew him just well enough to get him the script first before then passing on to work out the deal with his agent, which was the producer’s not my job or his job for that matter. That’s a value to the agent producer thing is that is a separate element than actually working together on the movie. One thing you have to learn as a director is that you have to direct. You get these actors you admire from other work and there is a temptation to just sit there and enjoy and respect their performance like you are watching a movie they are in. You are not; you are making a movie with them. So I find myself on the first day we worked together asking Joe to “wiggle his butt” in the putt putt golf scene as he lines up a shot. This is a rather personal thing to ask someone you just met to do on camera. Joe did it and it was funny and totally right. He said, “I can’t believe you got me to do that.” At the end of that first long, uneven day, Joe came up to me and said how much he enjoyed working with me. That was a great thing for him to do, not just because it was a compliment but it was a sort of debriefing for us both to know how to work together.

The scene where Joe first appear on stage with the clown band kind of blew everyone away, the way he burst out there. I gave him a broken piece of the stage to use to smack this cymbal with and he said, “When I saw you set that cymbal up I knew exactly what you were going to ask me to do.” I mean that’s the kind of unity you need with an actor. Joe was very much into the other actors as well in terms of support and being there sometimes when he wasn’t working just to sort of see the other elements. All the actors on this film were very good and different to work with, and let me say that Aimee and Damian I knew very well and those parts were written with them in mind, with their type of phrasing.

Joe’s got great actors eyes, sort of big and expressive. He was the right man for the job and the right job. He said one day, “You know, it took ten years for us to finally work together, but I think it was worth it.” I didn’t mention that Joe’s dad was a carney, so that brought a sincere interest in the past and in carnivals that added depth to the part. Joe said his character was sort of like the American Indian, trying to stand up for his history in the face of it vanishing and also in terms of having a spiritual connection with his territory.

You’re no stranger to working with horror veterans; your 2009 effort Live Evil starred Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree, among others. What was he like to work with?

The unpleasant part to working with any actor who you’d call a name actor is that they have agents and managers, which is great for them, just not so great for you on the producer side of things. You have to somehow get through or past these people to reach the actor you want to work with. Years ago I worked with Patrick Stewart and his agent almost cost him the job. More recently I did lose Jeffrey Combs over a last minute price hike from the agent. My point here is sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Or it boils down to running out of time; whoever signs first sometimes gets the job, while the negotiations continue with some other actor.

Ken’s agent wasn’t that tough to deal with, but I’ve found myself constantly having to remind a frustrated producer why we are “fighting” with the agent and not to let that negotiation process taint your feelings for the actor. Now I got Ken involved in Live Evil because I knew him from a previous film that didn’t get made that he and I were to work together on, and through from some shared friends, people like Joe Unger and Jeff Burr. So as the deal was worked out, Ken would talk to me sort of off the record and ask how things were going. I worked for free the time that Ken worked on Live Evil because the producers wouldn’t match the price gap negotiated with the agent and my salary filled that gap. So I proved with money my conviction that Ken was the guy to get and we got him. He’s very good to work with. He likes to get it right. He likes to do things he hasn’t gotten to do before. He’s a real actor’s actor, Ken is, and has lots of great stories about movies and about life too. I hope we get to make the movie we almost made and met on in the first place, Dark Between the Stars. Ken has been among those trying to raise the money to make it. So on his side if he likes a project he’ll fight to get it made too. As a fan of these guys, guys like Tim Thomerson, it’s also great when your work with them leads to knowing them as people too, getting friendly with these guys you used to sort of worship as a fan on the big screen.

Back in 2002 you directed Trancers 6, the last film in the series. Is there any chance for a Trancers 7?

There was talk last year of them doing a film to be called Trancers 7: Deth in Asia. It was to be shot, as almost all of Full Moon’s recent films were at the time, in China. But the writer, Brian Muir, died. I’m not sure if he completed the script or not. It’s too bad, and Brian seemed excited about the script. For those who don’t know, Brian wrote many things but perhaps is best know is the first Critters film. He struggled with cancer for many years but still kept working right up until his untimely end. I’ve heard very little about Trancers 7 recently. Tim Thomerson was intended to be in it. For the record, Full Moon’s intention was to have him in Trancers 6 as little as possible, mostly because they felt Tim would be too expensive, as he proved to be among other reasons. My film Live Evil with Tim is the type film I wanted to make out of Trancers 6. Actually, Full Moon’s sales rep wanted Full Moon to release Live Evil, but that didn’t happen. Who knows though, China is still there…

A glance at your resume reveals that you do it all; writing, directing, editing, composing, a bit of acting and more. Do you have a preference?

As I said, film is a little about a lot of things. I’m a director first, though it’s almost impossible to direct three or four films a year, where as a composer I’ve done that a couple of times. So IMDB lists me as a composer first, because I have the most credits as that. I took 2 years of acting classes way back when, which helped later on but was not ever a career path.

Editing I enjoy doing as I have helped a number of directors with less experience than I had at the time – like the short film Bronx Cheers that got nominated for a best short film Oscar for director Raymond DeFelitta – make the films what they wanted them to be. So as an editor I’m certainly on the director’s side. There is a thing in LA called an editor’s assembly. The idea is that that the editor, on their own, is allowed to edit the whole film to sort of see what happens. I think that’s a waste of time; the director and editor should be in there the whole time. It’s the director’s movie not the editor’s.

Composing, well, I love music film music and other kinds. That can be the most expressive element of working in a film above all the rest. The composer always composes a score that belongs to the greatest movie ever made. You are composing a score for the perfect movie, though you do have to deal with the patterns and timings of the editing, which can sort of screw you up right there. You are always trying to score the movie they tried to make. I don’t know if that makes sense to a non-film composer, but there it is.

The director orchestrates all the other elements, including the writing. I have had stand-alone fiction published, which is interesting because fiction editors refuse to let you do the types of things that film producer frequently demand you do. Stand-alone fiction is more complicated and less formulaic than film scripts on all levels. Anyway, I am a writer but I’m serving the director when I do both. Oddly, then, I guess I’d say if I can’t direct a certain film I’d rather compose the music for it. I don’t suggest that anyone do all the things I’ve done on one film. That usually doesn’t turn out so well, history has shown. But I have done all these things for myself and for others at separate times; it’s good exercise. You learn from editing someone else’s movie, for example. I hope I get to do various tasks for various people in various genres. As a director, I’ve been the most typecast, I suppose.

As someone who has been working in the genre for over two decades now, what’s your take on the current horror industry? Is it easier to make a movie now or back then?

“Yikes” is my current take on it, in a good and a bad way. The only time it’s easy to get a movie made is when it’s someone else’s movie. Those always seem to happen quickly and easily because you aren’t there day and night sweating it out. There are times when horror is “in” or when some new consumer format comes along that is so hungry for product that almost anyone with an ounce of skill can get work. I missed out on the big video boom of the 1980’s and almost missed out of the horror boom that crashed about 1990 as well. Right now, with “cheap” release formats online and with “free” rip offs almost everywhere, it is very tough to get a movie made or make money back on one that you did make.

Another thing currently is we are not in the “age” of the director; the auteur era ain’t around at the moment. Look at these big big movies with these “who is that?” reaction you get when the director credit come up. Marvel Comics is more important than anyone who directs a Marvel Comics movie. And on the start up lower end, directors probably are getting paid less than ever. If you worked for the C unit at RKO in the 1940’s you’d get a bigger pay check then you will now working, say, on a film that runs on the Syfy channel.

Product, I’d say is how films are looked at now more than ever, the amount of product you create and own is the goal of the people who fund movies, art or more importantly, I think the concepts of skill and craft aren’t being rewarded or sought out as a needed element when making a film. Then again, the good “yikes” may well be that if you can make a quality film it can stand out from the mass of product if people pay attention. A theatrical release means less and less all the time. There is also the always promise of being able to self-distribute your films straight to your audience online. We’ll see. No one will ever tell you all this was easy and they’d always be telling you the truth. And horror movies can die, but we all know anyone and anything can return from the grave and they usually do. It’s a genre with a fan base that never dies too.

Do you have any upcoming projects we should be on the look out for?

I went back to Ohio eight weeks after we finished Closed for the Season to make a script I’d written originally in the 1980’s into a film called Season of Darkness. Columbus is my hometown, so it was fun to make a real movie there. We had more money than we had for Closed for the Season, so we shot on 35mm film and will have a film print as part of our final movie. Richard Hatch, Tiffany Shepis, Tim Thomerson and one of the first actors I ever worked with, Nick Baldasare, star in a movie about a man who knows he is insane who escapes to find the real world is more insane than the asylum he escaped from. It’s about owning up to your own self in the face of literally faceless supernatural horrors and insanity. Like Closed for the Season, Season of Darkness creates its own mythology and that’s great to create your own rules rather than play with someone else’s. It’s a wild ride. That movie could be my best film. Then again, that’s not for me to say, but it’s a gory and mind bending film. There are trailers for it on YouTube. The film should start to play some festivals next year.

Do you have any closing remarks?

Can we put everyone who reviews movies under some fake name and says things like “I could make a better movie with a camcorder” or “This is the worst movie ever made” into a time machine and put them on the Titanic in 3rd class so they can freeze to death and leave us all alone? Oh, and can we make a little extra room in the freezing Atlantic for all those bootleg streaming downloading sites? The film industry really hasn’t found a way to stop the free fall economic loss that’s happening with bootlegging. With the decreasing existences of DVDs, movies are just becoming an icon on your desktop somewhere and really seem to be worth as little as that. The recent strikes did nothing to pay out fair amounts for even legitimate streaming and downloaded versions of movies. And this hurts even more because the industry as a whole got drunk off the previous unheard of size of profits that the DVD brought to them and now exists in a bitter hangover state that is sickening. Really, it’s not funny anymore, and death is really too good for most of these folks, but it’ll do, pig, it’ll do.

But all good thoughts for those fans who continue to be interested in going on the type of rides that Closed for the Season and Season of Darkness try to take you on. These are films that I’m proud to say you won’t know what to expect as they move along, but if you are into them they do hang together and attempt to scare and amuse and arouse curiosity in things I don’t see every film doing. I’ve said before, horror movies are real movies and can be about all kinds of things. That’s what I like about them, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to make a few more of. Closed for the Season is out there in many places, so seek it out if you want to journey with us through the tangled history of what was and what is a 130-year old, abandoned amusement park and what it really wants from us to let us escape from it.

Interview: Jay Woelfel (Closed for the Season)

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