Sweetback (SB): Let’s begin by talking a little bit about your background. When did you first begin getting interested in film-making, and how did you first pursue that interest?
Allen Kellogg (AK): My interest in film began very early on. By the sixth grade I was using legos to make stop motion animation films. I’d make lego versions of JAWS or James Bond or my own superhero movies. This was well before the fad of making stop motion movies with legos had happened. I’d like to consider myself a pioneer, but I’ve no way to prove it. My real passion was in acting. Through childhood and on through college I did various shows and attended the conservatory program at The Second City in Cleveland which unfortunately no longer exists. While taking classes at Cleveland State I took an internship opportunity on the film WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD. It was an invaluable lesson and a great opportunity to meet people and see how it’s all done. My passion for acting morphed into this sort of passion for acting, filming, producing. All facets really. I wanted to know it all.
SB: And the usual follow up question is to ask what films – or other popular culture – were the major influences on you during your developing years. Were horror films a strong motivator when you first started getting involved in productions?
AK: JAWS first and foremost. I think Spielberg films overall had a large impact on me. Horror films themselves didn’t really motivate me all that much. As a child I did love the FRIDAY THE 13TH films and of course the EVIL DEAD movies. Though I found them absolutely entertaining, I wouldn’t say they were very strong motivators. What motivates me is wanting to tell a good story. No matter the genre, though romantic comedy may be the lowest on my list unless it’s very well done a-la WHEN HARRY MET SALLY.
SB: Part of the grand horror tradition is taking mainstream elements and twisting them around to alter the audiences expectations. In 7 NIGHTS OF DARKNESS you mash together reality television, found footage, and even Japanese-style ghost films like RINGU. Can you talk a little about how the concept was first conceived, and how naturally it came together?
AK: Sure. I was looking to make the found footage with the found footage actually having something on it. What makes BLAIR WITCH effective is that people thought it was real or at least thought it could be. Part of what helps them out is because you never really see anything. Whether this was done on purpose or was a budgetary decision is anyone’s guess, but in the end it worked perfectly. And by perfectly I mean in the sense that it was perfect for that style of film making. I believe we are now past that stage in the evolution of this genre. No one is going to buy that this is real anymore. That effect no longer works. Still, there are two different scares to be worked out. The seen and the unseen. In the found footage realm, the unseen is always the hit. But that doesn’t scare some people. Some find BLAIR WITCH or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY to be dreadful movies. Some would rather THE RING. So that’s what I did. I built the entire project around those 2 different types of scares. The seen and the unseen. A little something for everyone.
SB: Your IMDB page mentions you starting out as a Production Assistant on some major productions – WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD and AGAINST THE ROPES. Did seeing the scope of these films inform your own film-making? What did you most take away from that experience?
AK: Of course. Every movie you work on you learn something. The biggest thing I can say I took overall from any given movie I’ve ever worked on is organization. Organization is the biggest part for me now on any project. Breaking down the script, organizing what to shoot on what days, making the most effective use of the money you have to get the best production value in order to best enhance the story. To me, that is even more important than the actual production. That is where the shots are planned, that is where every detail is spelled out. And if it is all planned right, you stay in budget and you have yourself what you put down on paper over a month ago.
SB: You worked on the film DREAMING ON CHRISTMAS as an editor, actor and Assistant Director. How did you get involved in that film, and how did it prepare you for your own directorial debut?
AK: I got involved through a producing friend of mine, Liz DuChez and her partner Spencer Jay Kim who now happens to be one of my partners in Post Industrial Pictures. Spence directed that film and is really a brilliant director. He knows what he wants, he knows what the shot is and he expects and accepts nothing less than what he sees in his head. It was my first experience as a 1st AD and taught me a ton. A TON! Again, it was all about organization. When I would run into any sort of trouble I was able to call up a friend of mine, Glen Trotiner who was the 1st AD on WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD who was extremely helpful.
SB: The initial trailer for the film I saw had a slightly different opening blurb which placed the film around 2008, while the final production is supposed to be taking place in 2010. How long was the production schedule on 7 DAYS OF DARKNESS, and was there a particularly long post-production?
AK: Yes yes. The 2008 and 2010 issue. All my fault. At some point I decided to set it in 2010 instead of 2008 and didn’t bother to tell anyone but myself and apparently I didn’t even do that very well as I’ve put both dates on two different trailers. I don’t know why I changed the date, couldn’t tell you. No idea at all. I’ve been waiting for someone to catch that and say something about it. Looks like they finally did. The actual production only took 4 days. Within the next month it was edited and special effect work and audio work was just about done. After that it was just tweaks here and there. The longest part of post-production was simply sending it out to all the distributors and making phone call after phone call.
SB: On that note, the found footage genre – reaching back to CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT – has shown itself to have surprising legs with the continued success of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise and the recent APOLLO 18. What about the sub-genre made it the right choice for your feature debut?
AK: Budget. Budget. Budget. Found footage isn’t a style that I have a passion for per say though I do enjoy it. I simply can’t keep sitting around and waiting for someone to come knock down my door and hand me ten million dollars to go make that big movie I’ve always wanted to. The world doesn’t work that way. You have to start somewhere and at some budget level. That budget level for me was about $5,000. At that budget level, found footage is perfect and really one of the only things you can do.
SB: Perhaps the most impressive aspect of 7 NIGHTS OF DARKNESS, and an element that raises it above most similarly budgeted films, is the quality of the acting. What was the casting process on the film like, and how early did you decide to include yourself among the cast? Do you feel your own acting background gives you an edge while directing?
AK: This is one point that I strongly agree with. At this budget level, it’s hard to get actors other than your friends to step up. Luckily for myself and Spencer, many of our friends are very good actors that are heavily involved in the Cleveland theatre community. Spencer and I pulled from local actors that we both knew. I always knew I’d be part of the cast, just didn’t know for sure as to what role up until about a month before shooting began. I’m sure the acting background gives me an edge from a performance stand point. It’s hard to stay in character and think about the shot at the same time.
SB: The interactions between the characters feels very natural, but also quite off-the-cuff. I’m curious about how much of the dialogue was improvised versus how much was written. Were there various scenarios for the actors to improvise around, or were certain scenes more tightly scripted than others?
AK: There were very few scenes that had any lines at all. One or two here and there. For the most part we worked off an outline. Before beginning any given shot I would sit down with the cast involved, explain the scene before the present shot and what this scene was leading up to. We would then go over how the scene should begin and how the scene should end. Then we’d go over any questions from the cast about the scene or about their character, etc. Most of these actors had some sort of formal training in improv and that helped tremendously.
SB: Aside from writing, directing, editing, acting and producing the film, you also worked on some of the film’s visual effects. Some of the biggest scares in 7 NIGHTS OF DARKNESS come from these minor, effective visual tricks. How did you achieve these moments, and was it something that you knew you wanted when you were filming?
AK: Of course. As I’ve said before, the outline was built around the scares, both the seen and unseen. With the seen I was taking what I knew I could create in editing and what I knew I could pull off. Of course some of the effects also are to make the seen unseen and thus scarier at times.
SB: What sort of equipment was 7 NIGHTS OF DARKNESS filmed on? I think I saw a Canon XL-2 at the start of the film. And what was the film’s budget?
AK: There are two cameras you can see in the film. One is indeed a Canon XL-2 and the other a Sony VX2000. None of these cameras provided any footage. There was only one camera we used and that was the Sony XHA1. The budget was about $5000 and when you only have one camera to shoot a film that is for the most part improvised, getting three different angles can be a bit unnerving at times, especially in the editing room. I found that I would have to edit in my head after each take to make sure everyone’s lines would sink up in the final cut.
SB: With the benefit of hindsight, what were the biggest challenges you had while filming? If you had to do it all again, what aspects would you change?
AK: The challenge is having the location for 4 days and getting all the material you need. For that I had 1st AD Jessica Fleming and Executive Producer Spencer Jay Kim to help me keep organized enough to know what I had and what I still had to get. If there was one thing I would change about the movie it would be the excessive use of the “F” word which I myself use in the movie quite a bit. I remember telling myself to keep an ear and eye out for that but then there were so many other things to try and keep track of, that slipped by me.
SB: Once the film was complete, what was your process for finding distribution? Was the first step to submit it to festivals, or was your instinct to get it in front of as many eyes as possible as quickly as possible?
AK: No. Never went to a single festival. I knew the window may be closing on this style of film making and the DVD market is ever changing. I didn’t want to go to a bunch of festivals, spend more money and wait longer. I started cold calling studios and distributors, pitching the project and sending out screeners. You’d be surprised how many will give you the time of day. Talks with Paramount went the best I would say. It went up to the point where their marketing team just had no idea how to market it. They already had PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 coming out and didn’t really want their own product competing with it. On I went down the list. Eventually I got the help of Mathius Mack Gertz to help me find a home for this puppy and he did with Midnight Releasing. The staff there could not have been easier to deal with both in packaging and marketing the movie.
SB: Obviously marketing and promoting 7 NIGHTS OF DARKNESS is your major focus right now, but what’s coming up next for you and POST INDUSTRIAL PICTURES?
AK: We always have scripts to raise funds for etc. This movie was made, with the help of my partners, by just taking what you’ve already got and doing something with it. We continue to attempt to fund the next project and while we do I am already at work for another script to shoot in the meantime. Now it won’t be as cheap as $5,000 to shoot but I think we have to step it up a bit on each project. Work our way up the ladder the natural way and if something else gets funded while we work on that, great. The script I’m currently writing is indeed another horror but not found footage. We’re talking a who done it with ghosts and gore type of flick.
SB: If anyone reading would like to pick up a copy of 7 NIGHTS OF DARKNESS, or follow your upcoming projects, what’s the best way to do so?
AK: You can go to Netflix and save it to your DVD list. Please go do this. Also it is available on amazon.com. You can keep up to date with it all on the facebook page as well which is located here: http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/7-Nights-of-Darkness/277052165656691
SB: Anything else to plug?
AK: Nope. I’ll let you all know when we begin production on the next thing.
SB: And finally, what advice do you have for your filmmakers who are looking to get their projects off the ground?
AK: 1. Become well rounded. It’s not enough to only know how to act or write or work a camera. You need to learn how movies are made in every aspect. And you need to know more than just production as well. Pre and Post are almost more important. You need to know how to get your film seen and how to talk to distributors and then how to market. You need a plan.
2. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to be a long haul but that’s why you need the initiative to keep going. It’s easy to get bored with something after a while. Don’t let that stop you.
3. You will hit walls. Plow through them. It’s easy to stop and say, “I can’t because of blank”. Don’t present problems, present solutions.
4. Learn. Listen to every bit of advice, even if you don’t agree with it, and take it into consideration.
5. Time is money so plan ahead. Do not just go grab a camera and start shooting.
6. Am I ranting a bit?
SB: Ha! Not at all. Great advice, and thanks for your time Allen.
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