Far from a traditional slasher film, Scott Phillips’ CROWBAR is a visually rich and consistently interesting horror piece that rarely betrays its low budget origins. Scott was good enough to DAILY GRINDHOUSE about how his feature-length debut came together, and what he’s working on next.
Sweetback (SB): Let’s talk a bit about your background. Your bio says that you’ve always had an interest in photography and filmmaking, but when did it first start to develop? Was there a specific moment or film which made you think “this is what I want to do”?
Scott Phillips (SP): I don’t know if there was a specific moment where I thought “This is what I want to do”, but I do remember watching THE EVIL DEAD and thinking “Wow, I think I could do that”. THE EVIL DEAD is obviously a classic, but I began watching a lot of bad low budget horror films and thinking how I would have done it differently to make it better. I guess I was in my late 20s when I really thought I could put something together that was just as good or better than a lot of the crap I was seeing back then.
SB: It sounds like you’ve had an interest in genre films since the beginning. You worked on a zombie project, and had a lot of success with your short film SLAY BOTTLE . What were some of the inspirations for your early work, and what about horror films peaked your interest?
SP: Horror has always been a welcoming genre for new talent. A lot of great filmmakers have cut their teeth and learned a lot by starting with a horror film. It’s a very forgiving genre with a built in audience. If you make a horror film, chances are people will watch it. If you make a good horror film, a lot of people are going to watch it. That being said, these days there are a lot of horror fans that want very specific things in the films they watch. Namely blood and boobs. I wanted to make a film that was an homage to the horror films that I grew up on. Films like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE SHINING, PSYCHO. Films that scared the crap out of me. But, when you go back and watch those films, you’ll find that there’s not a lot of blood or boobs. The scary part of those films is the atmosphere created by the filmmaker, the sound, the editing, the mise-en-scene. Go back and watch the original Tobe Hooper TCM and see how much of the violence is actually shown, and how much is implied off screen. That’s the kind of film I wanted to make when we started working on CROWBAR.
SB: You also worked as DP and editor on the sword and sandal film GRONK, THE BLADE. Can you speak a little bit about your experiences on that film? Was it working on that film that convinced you that you could successfully make a feature?
SP: GRONK was a good time and I’m glad I did it, but I think what really convinced me that I could make a feature film was just watching so many bad movies. With a service like Netflix, you can literally see thousands of movies that you would’ve never come across, even at your local art house movie store. I would watch movie after movie where the lighting was awful or the cinematography was crap or the film was so poorly edited that you couldn’t follow anything that was going on. Now, some people have said the same things about CROWBAR, but it was while watching all these films that I thought I just need to take my time, get a good team together, and I know we can come up with something so much better.
SB: Let’s talk about CROWBAR. The original script was written in 2006, but production wouldn’t begin until 2009. How did the script evolve over that three years? And what were some of your major inspirations when originally writing it?
SP: I think the script went through 25 or 26 different versions until I had something that resembled a coherent storyline. I was working a full time job so I would work on it in my spare time. The original story had more characters and more locations, but I knew since I was financing the film myself that I would have to cut it down to fit the budget. During the three years I was writing it, I would show it to my wife and get her impression, then give it to Kurt Richter my DP, get his notes, then back to the computer to change things. Then show it to Mr. Anonymous, one of our producers, to see what he thought. So based on all these notes I would change things and rearrange the story until finally I had a working script that we all thought we could pull off.
SB: What is most striking about the film is its visual style. From camerawork, to lighting, to editing, this is a film that doesn’t reveal its low-budget origins. You obviously worked closely with Kurt Richter, your DP. What does he bring to the table? And what were some of the biggest challenges you faced on achieving this slick look?
SP: Kurt Richter is an amazing cinematographer. Before we even started shooting, we both sat down and storyboarded the entire film. There isn’t a single shot in the movie that wasn’t planned months in advance. Since we both like a lot of the same movies, we spoke the same language when it came to cinematography. We knew framing and blocking would be important, but we both knew how important lighting was going to be in a film like this. When you’re trying to create an atmosphere in a horror film, chiaroscuro is so important. Shadows play such an huge role in creating the right feeling in the audience and Kurt really knew how to create with light. Camera movement was also a high priority. We didn’t want unmotivated camera moves just for the sake of moving the camera. If the camera was going to move, there had to be a reason for it. Kurt and I both understood this concept and he really executed well. I think the biggest challenge in achieving the look of the film was just the time it took to set up each shot. I think in a lot of low budget films, it’s a run and gun situation. We didn’t want to do that with CROWBAR. We felt that if we were going to do this we needed to do it right. And if that means that we need an hour to set up this shot while one of the actors freezes to death on the cold cement floor in my garage, then so be it. We weren’t going to compromise the one thing we had total control over.
SB: The CROWBAR website mentions that the film was shot over a nine month period. What were the reasons for the long production period? Was it a matter of availability? Working around schedules?
SP: The cast and crew on CROWBAR worked on the film for free. Everyone. We all had full time jobs, and some of us have families. When you do a film like this with an all volunteer group, you make compromises with the scheduling. In a perfect world I’d shoot it in 30 days and be done with it, but there was no way to do that with everyone’s schedule being so crazy.
SB: I’ll admit that I went into the film expecting it to be a rather traditional slasher film. Instead, it has a much more surreal, almost Twilight Zone feel, and the stylish photography and mystery elements evokes the Italian Giallo films. Were any of these intentional reference points?
SP: I never saw CROWBAR as a slasher film. I don’t think the crew did either. We wanted to make more of a thriller/horror film with elements of the traditional slasher. References to the original HALLOWEEN, or PSYCHO. I was watching films by Argento at the time (OPERA) and there are some similarities to his visual style as well as to the french fantastique genre. Although the Giallo films generally have more extended murder sequences with a lot more blood, I wanted to stay away from the excessive gore, and focus more on the stylish camerawork and musical arrangements. I think it really gives CROWBAR a unique feel while trying to hide it’s relatively small budget.
SB: I was really struck by CROWBAR’s soundtrack and sound editing. Compared to most of the low-budget films I encounter, there was obviously a lot of time and attention paid to making the sound design as effective as possible. Can you speak a little about what sound designer Aaron Doughan brought to the table, as well as how you achieved such a varied and impressive musical soundtrack on a low budget?
SP: Aaron worked really hard to get the best audio possible. We wanted to capture the best audio possible on set so we wouldn’t have to do a lot of voiceover work. And for the most part Aaron did a great job. I think there are only 4 or 5 lines in the whole film that we had to loop. The music was a challenge. I wanted to use all original music played with live instruments but the time constraints just wouldn’t allow it. However, I did find a wonderful composer named Crystal Frost who ended up writing several pieces of important music for the film. After meeting with her and telling her what kind of feel we wanted for the soundtrack, she really nailed it in the studio. She brought in a small ensemble of players and ended up recording a lot of the music for the film with real instruments. I think it gives the film a more raw, earthy feel to hear real voices, and real violins. There’s something about it that can’t be explained but just feels right. Luckily Aaron owns recording studio and engineered all the sessions with the musicians. It was time consuming but the end product was well worth it.
SB: You make great use of some locations in this film, particularly the woods strewn with leaves which is featured in the opening credits and a few times throughout. Can you talk a little bit about this location? Was it something you always planned to use?
SP: The filbert orchard was planned from the very start to play a major role in the film. We wanted to use it as a transition point between reality and what might be considered a dream world or altered reality. When Veronica enters the orchard and comes out the other side, the movie really changes. Near the end when Alex and Veronica are running through it, (spoiler alert) things happen. Aaron Doughan actually took me to see it while I was writing the script and when I saw it I knew we had to make use of the trees. It’s actually a park in Springfield Oregon and we had to stop shooting several times because it’s a popular place to walk your dog.
SB: Let’s hear a little bit about the casting process. My experience has been that even on professional looking low-budget productions, that often it’s the acting that most obviously betrays the film’s budget. In your case you put together a group of experienced actors that were comfortable looking in front of the camera. How did you go about assembling them?
SP: The casting on this film was really, really fun and frustrating at the same time. Our original intent was that since we had no money to pay these people, let’s just find the best local people who are willing to do his for free. We placed an add on craigslist and within a few days we had over one hundred people saying they wanted to audition. We ended up auditioning everyone over a three day weekend and by the end we were exhausted. We had put in the ad that this was a no pay gig but several people didn’t read that far and got upset when we actually told them. We were called unprofessional and insulting and several other names. So after going over everyone on tape, we realized that most of the people auditioning were from Portland which is a two hour drive from Eugene. But we thought if they were willing to make the drive and not get paid then why not cast them. All we wanted were the best actors we could find. We narrowed our choice for the leads down to three guys and three girls, called them back for another audition and had them all read a scene with each other to see who had the best chemistry. After that it was clear that Michael Ray Clark and Natasha Timpani were our two leads. They were so great over the months of shooting. Never a complaint and extremely professional. It was Natasha’s first real gig and she knocked it out of the park. Freezing cold, covered in blood, nothing fazed her. She was awesome. And Michael Ray was the ultimate professional. He’s been in big time films like TRAINING DAY and was always ready to go. Those two really made the movie what it is.
SB: How about the casting of the older Wendell Graves? This character has such a distinct, hulking look with his welding mask/apron/crowbar combo. Was it difficult to find someone to envelop that role?
SP: Not when your younger brother is 6’4″. Kevin George is an aspiring actor with several credits to his name, but he wanted to do something that would really challenge himself as far as raw emotion. Anyone can walk around in a mask and hold a crowbar, but to really embody the character and project an aura of fear without saying a word is really difficult. Kevin came through for us big time and it’s only a matter of time before you start seeing his name appear in more and more films.
SB: What are your feelings on the final product? What aspects of the film are your most impressed with?
SP: Overall I like the film. It was my first effort and all I wanted to do is produce the best product with the resources we had. Since I feel we did that, I’m pleased. Now that being said there are some things I would like to go back and fix but for the most part the film plays out exactly how we had envisioned it from the start. I think the things that impresses me most is that we didn’t kill each other during production. The hours can be long and the winter in Oregon can be cold. Combine cold and no money and a lot of times that spells disaster but the cast and crew did an amazing job and I’ll forever be thankful to them for making this film a reality.
SB: After post-production, what were your next steps? Did you submit your film to festivals, or did you immediately start looking for distribution? How did you end up getting involved with Chemical Burn Entertainment?
SP: We did submit to a few festivals, mostly the ones with free entry fees. We literally had no money after production so nobody had the cash for the outrageous entry fees that some festivals charge. We were rejected from a few made it into a few but nothing really came of it. I came across Chemical Burn Entertainment on line while looking for distribution and sent them a screener. They said they’d love to work with us and that was pretty much it.
SB: What else should we be expecting from Over The Line Films in the future? Any upcoming projects that you want to hint at?
SP: We do have a new script in development at the moment. I’ll probably be working with Kurt Richter again so you can bet that the film will look amazing. Nothing I can really talk about just yet but we hope to start the preproduction phase sometime next year. Once we get things rolling you can bet I’ll let you know more details.
SB: If people want to view or purchase a copy of CROWBAR or your other projects, what would be the best way for them to do so?
SP: http://www.chemicalburn.org/ is the best way to pick up our new film CROWBAR. I do have a few limited edition copies left on Ebay as well.
If you want to pick up one of those there are only a few left and we’ll even autograph them for you if you want.
We also have an overtheline youtube page at to stay up to date with all our projects
SB: And if they want to keep up on you, as well as your current and future work, what’s the best way?
SP: Crowbar has a Facebook page and most of the current news for our productions are listed there. Check it out at:
SB: Anything else you would like to promote?
SP: Your local art house cinema. Hollywood films are great but small budget personal films will always win in the realm of cinema.
SB: And, finally, any advice for your filmmakers trying to make genre films on limited budgets?
SP: People will tell you your script sucks, your ideas suck, your movie sucks, you don’t have any money, there’s no way you can pull this off. And they may be right, but what sucks even worse is regret. Don’t shelf your film because someone else told you you shouldn’t waste your time on it. Would you rather watch your movie in your head for the next 20 years? Or would you rather have a DVD that you worked your ass off to finish. The people who tell you not to make your movie are distractions. But you are a filmmaker.
SB: Thanks for talking to us, Scott.
SP: Thanks for the time Sweetback, I really appreciate it.
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