Sweetback (SB): A CERTAIN KIND OF MONSTER is deathly serious – no pun intended. Considering that many of your earlier short films take a more comedic bent (link to funnyordie page), was this a conscious decision to branch out into different territory?
Mike Moring (MM): I don’t really think there was a conscious decision to make something that was a “departure” or anything like that, no. I think my ongoing approach to filmmaking has always been to actively explore all different types of stories and genres. I enjoy challenging myself, and part of that is trying to tell different types of stories and employing different techniques. I’ve made comedies, I’ve made dramas, I’ve dabbled in artsy-fartsy black-and-white silent films. I have nothing against storytellers or filmmakers who do it, but I just have a difficult time imagining myself working exclusively within the confines of a certain genre; I feel like I would just get bored, or maybe start retreading familiar ground too easily. At this point, I just felt it was time to make a horror; I felt like I had a good horror tale to tell. It’s definitely different than anything I’ve done previously, but I don’t think it ever really felt to me like I was branching out—I was just making my next movie, and it happened to be a horror.
SB: Let’s explore your background a bit. Small city Ontario isn’t exactly a film-making hotbed. Where did your interest in directing develop, and what are some of the biggest difficulties you’ve run into when trying to make professional looking productions on a limited budget?
MM: I’m pretty sure my interest in filmmaking began when my grandmother gave me a copy of TERMINATOR 2 as a gift on my fourth birthday. It’s the oddest thing. I remember my Grandma expressing hesitation about giving me an R rated movie on my birthday when I was a teenager. But for some reason, when I was only four years old, she didn’t seem to think it was troubling at all. Misguided or not, it turned out to be one of the things that likely shaped my life. Thankfully it didn’t turn me into a violent lunatic. Instead, I was just fascinated by the special effects. I wanted to be the person who did that; the person who somehow brought these crazy fantasies to life. That same grandmother was, during my childhood, the only person in my family who had a camcorder. Whenever she came to visit, she’d barely make it through the door before I’d lunge for the camcorder and started shooting. I was probably just pacing around, capturing endless unwatchable footage of my cat or something… but in my head I was making a movie. Eventually I graduated from filming my cat to making movies with my friends. Personally, I think there’s a good argument to be made that I never graduated from that phase.
In terms of difficulties, the biggest difficulty has always been just finding people who are willing to commit to a project without the promise of riches. Working on no-budget films means you’re pretty much at the mercy of your actors and their often hectic schedules. You can’t expect people to take time off work to help you make your silly little pictures, so you have to be patient and wait for everybody’s schedules to align. It can be maddening, but it’s an unavoidable part of making films when you have no money and you’re working with non-professional actors. Especially if you’re aiming to make something that’s ambitious and doesn’t look like it’s a no-budget film. That’s the biggest difficulty.
SB: A CERTAIN KIND OF MONSTER uses two very recognizable pieces of music, to great effect. Did you pursue the licensing rights to the songs, or did you figure that the impact of the music was more important than the difficulties it mean mean for distribution?
MM: It’s sort-of a combination of both. When writing the script, the song “House of the Rising Sun” immediately struck me as perfect for that particular scene: It’s one of those songs that’s just been around so long, history seems to have forgotten who actually wrote it. (Or maybe the song exists as a paradox a la “Johnny B. Goode” in BACK TO THE FUTURE; like some cocky time traveler delivered it to the past.) I think the mysterious origins of the song, in addition to the obvious lyrical relevance, were perfect for the story and the character of Beth. An added bonus for a traditional song, of course, is that nobody really owns it. The plan is to replace the Joan Baez version that we used when we shot, and that is heard in the version currently online, with a new recording by a local artist. There are other songs in this initial cut that just seemed like perfect tracks at the time. For the purpose of film festival submissions, however, those tracks will be replaced with either original music or affordable music.
SB: Being a regular viewer of low-budget productions, what most struck my about A CERTAIN KIND OF MONSTER was the quality of the acting, particularly Jen Barrow’s brave performance. What was the casting process like, and was it difficult finding an actress who would take such chances on a young filmmaker?
MM: I actually met Jen while working at a call centre. We sat next to each other and would commiserate, between calls, about how insufferable our job was. Anybody who’s worked at a call centre will probably be eager to confirm that the job is basically just getting paid to endure verbal abuse all day. I think — in Peterborough, anyway — it’s also become a rite of passage for young artists; you can’t officially declare yourself a suffering artist until you’ve put in your time in at least one call centre — bonus points rewarded to those who have suffered through several. In any event, before we started working together I’m not sure Jen had really done any acting at all, aside from maybe high school plays or something. Basically, I didn’t really know Jen as an actor, but as this girl I knew who seemed to read a lot of horror and fantasy novels. I remember one night just thinking ‘aloud’ via Facebook that I was entertaining the notion of working on a horror film, and Jen commented that she’d love to be involved. I was like, “If I’m going to write this thing, it’s going to be extremely violent and sexually explicit, bordering on gratuity.” She was like, “Hell yes, I’m in!” So the role was actually written with her in mind.
The initial script that I wrote was for a much bigger, more ambitious film (for which I unsuccessfully applied for grant funding). The film that exists now actually came about because, while we were waiting to hear back about the possibility of getting some sweet, sweet grant money, I wanted to shoot a sorta ‘test’ film. I figured I’d put together a simpler (i.e. more affordable) version and we’d shoot that on the cheap. Basically, it was a test for myself — to see if I could shoot and cut something that worked as a horror film — and also a really elaborate screen test for Jen, who was enthusiastic, but hadn’t really done anything like this before. It was this insane idea to shoot a screen test that, if successful, would actually stand alone as a finished film, but could also be used as an advertisement for potential future installments.
I’d say if the film is judged as an elaborate screen test, it’s pretty outstanding. I was certainly optimistic that Jen could do it — even with almost no prior experience in front of the camera — but I was consistently blown away by her. I honestly think that those who watch the film will be watching one of the bravest performances they’ll see in any film they see this year, or maybe any other. Her commitment was uncanny. The boundaries for the film — in terms of how far we were going to push it, and how much we would ultimately show — were defined with her input, and as you can see from the final product, she was insistent on throwing caution to the wind and just taking it as far as we could (or as far as we needed to achieve the effects we were going for).
Ultimately, I think if there was any feeling of “this is a big risk,” it was probably mutual. The production was really one big corny trust exercise (y’know, those exercises you always did in high school drama class where you close your eyes and let yourself fall, trusting that your partner won’t just let you hit the floor like a sack of potatoes?). I think Jen knew that I was devoting myself to this project, and that I was trusting her with a very complex and demanding role, even though she was inexperienced as an actor. I think she respected that, and wanted to prove that she could pull it off. Simultaneously, I think she was trusting that I wouldn’t put her in any dangerous situation, and that her comfort would always be top priority. I think we both acknowledged the risks we were taking with each other, and that led to a sort of mutual respect and trust. Thankfully, it didn’t turn out to be a horrible, crippling mistake for either of us. I hope.
Josh and I have known each other for about a decade now. We met on the first day of high school, and I’m pretty sure by our first weekend away from classes, we were running around with a camcorder making our own silly horror flicks—I use horror loosely. We both bonded over our mutual love for indie horror flicks — I think we fancied ourselves as a budding Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell sorta pair. We continued to collaborate on fun film projects throughout high school, but my interest in horror subsided for a while. But when I sat down to write this flick, almost ten years after the last cinematic bloodbath of our adolescence, he immediately came to mind. It almost felt like if I didn’t ask Josh to do it, it would’ve been some sort of betrayal, not just to Josh but to myself. Thankfully, despite already being committed to a full time job, he totally leapt at the opportunity. And he also nails it — he portrays the character with this perfect amount of ambiguity; you’re never quite sure whether he’s creep or a sweetheart.
SB: Considering that you have a track record of successful shorts at this point, was it difficult getting funding for A CERTAIN KIND OF MONSTER? Are you currently submitting the short to festivals? What’s the eventual hope for the project?
MM: Despite the fact that it evolved considerably from merely being a cheapie version of our original concept, this film was made for almost no money. I’m terrible at keeping track of such things, but the closest estimate I could give for the total budget of the film would be somewhere between six and seven hundred dollars. Four hundred of which were spent on those black sclera contact lenses. Those were specially ordered from a special effects company based in Hawaii. Another hundred bucks or so was for renting strobe lights. The rest might as well have been nickels and dimes unearthed from beneath my couch cushions and was used just to keep tape in the camera. All the blood effects were engineered with inexpensive materials you can pick up at Home Depot if you’ve got a couple bucks.
Nobody working on the film — neither in front of, nor behind the camera — made a single cent. This was, to me, the truest form of independent filmmaking. We were just a bunch of borderline psychopaths devoting ourselves to an idea we loved, sacrificing our time and efforts for nothing more than the satisfaction of coming out the other end with an awesome picture. For all the unpleasantness you can see on screen, the actors endured everything without making a penny.
Once I’ve made the adjustments I have to make to the soundtrack, I do intend to submit to as many horror film festivals as I can afford. If you, or any readers, have any suggestions, I’d be thrilled to hear ’em.
SB: The film ends with a rather surprising promise that it’s “To be continued..” Will we be seeing a continuation in the near future, or are you looking at other projects first?
MM: We had such a great time working on the film, and everybody involved has been so thrilled by the finished product, that I think the general consensus is that we’d like to pursue telling the full, bigger story even without having the benefit of financing behind us. This means that we’ll have to continue making sacrifices, being paid nothing, and working on it only on those rare occasions when all our schedules align… but I think there’s still a lot of great ideas, and a lot more story to be told with A CERTAIN KIND OF MONSTER. The plan right now is to modify that original script and ultimately present A CERTAIN KIND OF MONSTER as a web mini-series over the course of 2013. The short film that we can watch now may eventually be the prologue to a story that will be told in a number of installments — some of which take place before the events in this film, and some that take place after…
In the meantime, I always have a lot of items on my plate. Right now I’m also working on a comedy webseries called JOBLESS. It’s been gestating for a while and I think it’s developing into something really, really funny. We’ve already started shooting and so far we’re excited by what we’ve got. It’s co-created by a frequent collaborator of mine, Adam Martignetti, who did the sound and the score for MONSTER. We look forward to premiering the series later this year.
SB: For viewers looking to check out your past work, or keep up on future projects, what would be the best way to do so?
MM: There are many ways to keep informed about my projects. I have a Facebook page, which is http://www.facebook.com/dementedlens. I would encourage everybody to join that if they want to keep posted on coming projects. It’s also a great way to get in touch. I’m also on Twitter: @mikemoring. I can also be reached through e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
SB: Anything else to plug?
MM: I think I’ve probably sufficiently plugged everything I currently have to plug… but I will say that readers of Daily Grindhouse can check out A CERTAIN KIND OF MONSTER by going to http://vimeo.com/52354154 and entering the password: dailygrindhouse .
SB: Thanks so much for your time, Mike. Before we finish up, is there any advice you have for young or inexperienced directors who are working on limited budgets?
MM: I think the best advice I could give to young directors who are working with a limited budget is just to not let yourself be discouraged. Embrace what you do have at your disposal instead of dwelling on a lack of resources or funding. I think oftentimes a person’s budgetary limitations (i.e. I make films financed by earnings from a part time job at the mall) can lead to real creative ingenuity. When you can’t solve a problem by just pitching money at it, it forces you to become creative and resourceful; it forces you to come up with an exciting, original approach to telling your story.
Or at least that’s what I’m hoping. If anybody has any better advice for a young filmmaker working on a limited budget, I would love to hear it. Seriously. Please. Help me.
- [NO-BUDGET NIGHTMARES] PODCAST #80: PLAGA ZOMBIE (1997) - July 25, 2016