Greetings from the Great White North, eh? It’s always a pleasure chatting with you.
You’ve been working in television since the 90’s. Give us a bit of your background. How did you get into films and television?
Well, I grew up going to movies and watching films on television. The classic Universal Studios monster films were my favorites, as well as epic films like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, and ‘Ben Hur’… films that I could get emotionally wrapped up in. And that led to wanting to learn everything I could about films and filmmaking. I became a ‘Saturday Night At The Movies’ junkie. The host, Elwy Yost, had the best interviews with the filmmakers, actors, and technicians during the intermission.
Toby Tyler ran away to join the circus, and I quit pre-med studies to major in cinema at the University of Toronto. At the time Toronto wasn’t a booming film production centre. My first job in the film business was on a nature show, ‘Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness’. I started as an Office P.A. (Production Assistant), running film to and from the lab, answering phones, whatever.
My first day on a professional film set was eye opening. For one establishing shot I had to run 50 yards ahead of Lorne Greene chucking slices of bread to attract ducks and seagulls so they’d land in frame as he walked pensively along the shore. Ah, the glamor of it all…
Soon I became the show’s Production Coordinator. When the season ended I went to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles to study Producing.
For several years I earned a living producing and directing corporate training videos. But, although I was earning a living, what I really wanted to do was work on narrative dramas. So I joined the Directors Guild of Canada and started working as an Assistant Director on TV series, feature films, movies of the week, whatever was filming in Toronto.
Who were some of your idols when you were growing up? And how did they shape your passion for film?
Way too many childhood idols to list here. I idolized everyone from Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy to Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney senior and junior.
I started by idolizing the actors, but the more I learned about filmmaking the more I wanted to learn about the folks behind the scenes and how they created movie magic. I’m talking about people like Universal Studios’ head of make-up, Jack Pierce, and stop motion animation giants like Gordon Willis and Ray Harryhausen. In the days before CGI these guys were whipping up special effects with basic stuff you’d find in a hardware store – and it worked!
Once I started studying film I gravitated to idolizing the writers and directors, the storytellers. Guys like Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Walt Disney, David Lean, and Michael Curtiz. And now I’m in awe of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, and the master of DIY filmmaking Robert Rodriguez.
I think each of my idols shaped my passion for film by creating magic that I could believe in. They touched me emotionally, opened doors to creativity, and made me want to become a cine-magician too.
You wrote and directed an awesome short film ‘The Crypt Club’. Tell us a bit about that.
I worked in the film business for a while to learn as much as I could about it. One thing’s for sure: unless you’re related to a cash-rich producer, the only way you’ll get to direct a film is to make your own film.
So, a friend and I dared each other to come up ideas for a short calling card film. My idea was inspired by an urban legend that dates back to the Middle Ages. I wrote the script for ‘The Crypt Club’ over many months while working on set. The legend’s original story usually ends with the discovery of the body in the cemetery, but I wanted to go further and deal with the aftermath; the consequences of the girls’ actions. It rounded out the story and helped increase the body count.
It took a couple of years for all the pieces to come together because, as my DoP, Walter Pacifico, told me while we were location scouting, “You know, we are not making a short film.
We are making a short feature.” ‘The Crypt Club’ was going to be a pretty ambitious project. We pulled in a lot of favors and got some great discounts. We found our cast here in Toronto, including Alison Pill (‘Milk’, ‘Dear Wendy’, ‘Pieces of April’), Jessica Greco, Kerry Segal, Michele Duquet (‘Kaw’, ‘Earth: Final Conflict’), and the fabulous Hearsella. We shot Super 16mm film because the entire film takes place outdoors at night and there was no digital camera around at that time that could give me the look I wanted.
We shot six nights in mid-November – including 2 nights during a freak snowstorm! I can’t thank the crew enough for staying with the show. I did all the editing on a friend’s tabletop editing system using Adobe Premiere Pro. Nicholas Longstaff created the film’s fantastic music and sound effects. We went back in April for a night of re-shoots and pick-ups, and we had the cast & crew screening in December. So, the film took about 18 months from ‘go’ to completion.
Everyone asks me for the location of the cemetery that we used. Unfortunately, I’m sworn to secrecy. If I reveal the location I’ll end up in it.
‘The Crypt Club’ had an amazing festival run. It screened at over 45 international festivals in North America, South America, the UK, Europe, and Asia. The film earned 18 festival awards, and aired on national television in Canada and Argentina.
At festivals and screenings I’m often asked how we made the film. So, I’ve been gathering production notes, diary entries, script drafts, photos, and more to put together a book about the making of the film called ‘The Crypt Club Chronicle’.
And now, we’ve included ‘The Crypt Club’ on our debut short horror film compilation DVD, ‘AAAAAH!! Indie Horror Hits, Volume 1’.
This being your first venture into doing a film, what are some of the differences between television and film?
In a broad sense, episodic television is a producer’s medium and film is a more of a director’s medium (although the producer still has the final word). In television, the producer sets the tone and carries the show while directors are brought in to shoot individual episodes. Frequently the lead actors have more say than the itinerant directors because they know the characters and have followed the story and character arcs. You’ll often see lead actors become executive or creative producers because they’re given a stake in the show.
The producer knows how much he’s getting paid for each episode and that drives everything. So, if it’s a question of creativity versus budget, budget usually wins and the show is re-written to accommodate the schedule and budget.
In film, the ‘auteur’ theory that credits the director as the key creative vision behind a film is still largely in place. That’s why you’ll see both the producer’s credit (‘a So & So production’) and the director’s proprietary credit (‘a Joe Blow film’, or ‘a film by Joe Blow’).
A film is typically considered a one-off creative project and there’s more attention paid to making it as good as can be. The budget reflects the script and the projected market. In film, the producer knows the cost of his film and has some idea what he can get for it by selling the rights to the film in different territories and markets.
Personally, I prefer working on a film rather than on a television series because everyone’s focused on one project as opposed to a series of similar projects. There’s less grind & burn out on a film because it’s usually a much shorter production schedule than a series.
And then there’s the difference between studio (union) and indie films. Wildly different attitudes prevail. I know several technicians who alternate between union and indie films because they get energized by the enthusiasm on an indie film set.
What were some of the challenges that you faced?
We faced a lot of the same challenges that every indie filmmaker faces. There’s never enough of anything. Never enough time, money, resources, people…
Every department wants more. And it’s their job to get the most that they can – ideally for the benefit of the production. But as a filmmaker you have to make a decision and say, “We’ll make the film with what we’ve got right now, and that’s that.” Then, once everyone knows the project’s boundaries, you get to work making the film that you can make rather than dreaming and moaning about the film that you can’t make. And that focuses energy on practical solutions to problems rather than chasing the impossible dream.
For a short indie film we had an ambitious production, filming night exteriors in the woods. The only way to make it more challenging than that would be to film underwater. Many nights we were short-handed in the grip and electric departments. Managing the logistics while fighting the elements was quite a challenge. When you shoot night exteriors there’s not much you can do once the sun starts peeking over the horizon. You’re pretty much done for the day.
Our biggest unexpected challenge was the weather. On the fifth night of filming a freak snowstorm hit us. Rather than quit, we kept filming – and that made all the difference in the world. We came back in the spring to shoot pick-up shots to contain the snow to one location within the story. The surprising thing is that in all the post-screening Q&A sessions no one ever asks why is there snow on the ground. In fact, some reviewers praised the atmospheric qualities of the location and the weather. Go figure. We almost gave up rather than embrace our biggest challenge.
Most memorable moments on set?
Every single moment is memorable because, hey we’re making a movie! It’s my favorite place to be. The energy from a good cast and crew is inspiring and energizing – and it makes you want to do your best because you see how hard everyone is working to realize your dream. On a personal level my most memorable moment was when my wife, Nancy, brought my dad out to the set. He got to see the energy and passion behind what I do and how everyone works together in turn to make a film. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor. After that night I think he knows I made the right choice.
You have come up with a collection of indie short horror films by different filmmakers called ‘AAAAAH!! Indie Horror Hits, Volume 1’. Tell us a bit of how this came about!
While I was on the festival circuit I talked with a lot of indie filmmakers with short horror films and found we all shared a common concern: “What do you do with your short horror film after its festival run?” Short horror films have a hard time getting picked up because they don’t typically fit a distributor’s catalogue as a high probability sale item. TV won’t usually buy short horror films, and neither will institutions (hospitals, airlines, schools, prisons, etc.).
I thought that it was a real shame that so many fans would never see these great short indie horror films because they screened only at festivals – then disappeared. So why not bring the best of the festivals to the fans?
K-Tel created compilation albums from hit singles so I figured I can do the same with short horror films. As a feature-length compilation DVD I can offer horror film fans real value. And it sure beats watching a tinny-sounding low-res version on YouTube.
I came up with the name, ‘AAAAAH!! Indie Horror Hits’, because a scream translates to every language. And, for practical reasons, it places the DVD at the top of alphabetical lists. It took over two years of searching and pitching to license enough quality films for volume one.
So far, the response from fans and filmmakers alike has been overwhelmingly positive. Fans and reviewers like what we’re putting together.
Most filmmakers appreciate that I’m an indie filmmaker too. I’ve been down the same road, and I share the same concerns for my own work as they do for theirs. That’s why we’re very big on the non-exclusive licensing deal, 50/50 profit participation, and filmmaker ownership. Our filmmakers keep 100% ownership of their films. And they’re free to make other deals or self-distribute if they like. It’s one more way to expand a film’s revenue stream.
What were some of your favorite films featured?
I know this sounds cheesy, but they’re all my favorites. It’s like asking a parent to choose a favorite adopted child. That’s why each of those films is on the DVD.
I screened a lot of films to put together the first volume. Each of these films is great in its own way. First, each film tells a good story. And second, the films don’t overstay their welcome. Each film is different and yet true to itself. They all maximize their resources to create larger than expected experiences. That’s been one of the more common compliments; that several of the short films feel as complete as a feature length film.
I’m really looking forward to seeing what these filmmakers will do next. I know that Kevin Greutert is currently directing ‘SAW 6’ thanks to the producers liking his short film ‘Old Friends’. Christopher Alan Broadstone (‘My Skin!’) is working on his fourth short film, ‘Roseblood’. And, Anthony Falcon (‘The Ninth Entry’) just released his debut feature, ‘99 Pieces’, on DVD.
I was very impressed with this collection. I have watched it about 10 times now! Haha. What is some of the feedback you have received thus far on it?
Wow. Thank you. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on the collection so far, from both horror fans and filmmakers. There are two things that stand out. One is that everyone has a different favorite film, which I think is great. It means we’re on the money as far as giving horror fans something worthwhile. The collection is not just for one tiny group of horror fans.
The other thing is that people watch the collection in different ways. Some folks watch the films one at a time – like taking a shot of indie horror espresso. Other folks settle in, turn down the lights, and watch the all the films at once, like a private mini horror film festival. While I was researching the idea of a short film collection some folks told me that what they love about short horror films is that they can get right into the good stuff. So, the idea of “All Killer – No Filler!” became a major criterion for our selecting films. Each film has to stand on its own as well as work as part of the whole.
Filmmakers like the idea that their pet projects won’t die on a shelf after a brief festival run.
You are currently working on gathering films for Volume 2. Who are some of the filmmakers we can expect to see?
A couple of the filmmakers featured on ‘AAAAAH!! Indie Horror Hits, Volume 1’ sent in more than one film. The cool thing is that their other films are just as good as the one we put on volume one. So they’ll definitely appear on a future volume, but I’m not yet sure which one. And, there are some pretty good entries still coming in. In late April I’ll start mixing and matching films to come up with a solid collection for volume 2. So while I’m not sure whose films will be on volume 2, I will say there will be variety among the killer shorts. And maybe a surprise or two… Stay tuned.
What are your views on the Independent Film market today?
Being an indie filmmaker has never been easy. And today is certainly a challenging time to be an indie filmmaker. Between the availability of pro-sumer video gear and the Internet there has never been more indie material out there. That’s both good and bad.
On the downside it means that supply is vastly greater than demand, so distributors (and exhibitors and broadcasters) can afford to pay less for films. That starts a dangerous downward spiral where distributors win at the expense of the filmmakers.
Streaming and downloading web sites like YouTube capitalize on this trend too. They’re getting tons of free content plus the advertising revenue and contributing filmmakers are getting ‘exposure’. I’m from Canada, and one thing we know is that you can die from exposure. More than ever indie filmmakers have to be both craftspeople and business people.
How do you think it can be improved?
Indie filmmakers have to value what they create and not give it away simply for the sake of ‘exposure’. Instead of posting your films on line for free try posting a great trailer that links to your web site store. If you can draw a crowd to your film the exposure will follow. So work on making and marketing good films for your target audience.
What’s next for you?
Lots of projects in the works. I don’t plan on sleeping until 2012 at the earliest. First, there’s ‘AAAAAH!! Indie Horror Hits, Volume 2’, which is scheduled to come out before Halloween. And then volumes 3, 4, etc.
There’s an archival DVD edition of ‘The Crypt Club’ and the companion ‘making of’ book, ‘The Crypt Club Chronicle’.
I’ve created two filmmaker workshops that I’m updating and polishing. One is called ‘Indie Production Planning – Getting Your Day’, which is about making sure you plan and complete your filming. The other workshop is ‘Secrets of Successful Auditions’, which is great for both actors and directors.
I’ve started work on a secret horror music project with composer Adrian Ellis who created the ‘AAAAAH!! Theme’. I’m also working on a performance video for musician Charlie Roby that I filmed last week. And, of course, there is a feature-length screenplay in the works. Too soon to give out details just yet.
Last, but not least, I’m restoring a 1949 Henney Packard hearse. I’m not a car guy, but I figure it’s different enough from filmmaking to be therapeutic. And I’ll have a really sweet vintage ride. Once it’s back on the road, let me know if you want to take a spin.
Thank you so much love, for talking with us! Anything I can ever do to help out, I am at your service.
Thanks so much. I really appreciate the offer. We indie types need all the support we can get to keep cool new stuff coming…
For more information on Miguel and his films, or to submit a film for a future volume of “AAAAAH!! Indie Horror Hits” please visit:
Interview: Miquel Gallego (Crypt Club Productions)