Sweetback (SB): Thanks for taking some time to talk about your career and EMPRESS VAMPIRE, Phil. Your bio describes your early love for horror and science fiction films. Tell us a little bit about some of your early influences, and about making short films as a kid.
Phil Condit (PC): The film that changed my life was KING KONG. I saw it as a re-release in the 50s in a town exactly like the one in BACK TO THE FUTURE – Rockville Maryland. I must have been between the ages of 7 and 10 and it rocked my world – on many levels. First, I loved the story. Second, I really related to the big hulking misunderstood giant ape. And third, I could feel the process of making the film – piecing together the shots to make a powerful film. I didn’t understand how it all was done, but I knew it was created by man. When I later found out about Ray Harryhausen I knew I wanted to do that!
So when I was 13, I talked my father into buying a Kodak Funsaver 8mm camera for me. The very first thing I shot was a clay dinosaur in my backyard. I animated it by quickly jamming my finger on the shoot button and just as quickly releasing it, so I captured only a couple of frames, then moving the model and repeating the process, ad nauseum. I couldn’t wait for my film to be processed and returned by Kodak. When it finally returned, I dashed it onto my battery powered projector and played it, hoping my experiment had paid off – and it had! In that moment, I became a filmmaker.
I made multiple animated movies after that with both clay models and humans, too. I had a friend sit on his butt like he was driving a car and animated him driving all over the house next door. I had another friend put his arms out like he was an airplane and jump up. I would capture him at the height of his leap so when it was projected he was flying a foot off the ground.
After that I was reading Creepy, Tales from the Crypt, and Mad which inspired me to tell stories. I made MELVIN OF THE APES, based in part on a mad magazine short. My opus was BATRALPH – a takeoff on the already campy Batman TV series – with a cast of 10s (I know it’s not as impressive as 100s, but hey, I was a kid).
SB: After college, you spent over 30 years working on documentaries on psychiatry and behavioral sciences. What were some of your functions on these films, and how did that incredible amount of experience prepare you for tackling your own feature films?
PC: I basically was the resident filmmaker. I started working with other filmmakers, but already knew how to do it. When part of our facility moved to Los Angeles I went along as the primary filmmaker. Our crew consisted of me, a director and a sound man, but I did all the shooting and editing. Eventually, I directed my share as well. I was always pushing the limits of what we could do with film. I love angles and lighting and how you can set a mood with them and used them to underscore the emotions in our documentaries. I also did my share of set design and construction for our educational films. I basically was using all the technical skills necessary to make a feature so the technical transition was an easy one. The rest of the transition wasn’t as smooth. I had to learn from scratch about fundraising (still working on that one), casting, catering, CGI and building a theatrical soundtrack with all the many effects necessary in a horror film.
SB: Your love of low-budget genre films remained while you were working on these documentaries. Did you ever feel restricted by the sort of material you were working on, or was it just enough for a life-long film fan to be working in the industry?
PC: I felt really lucky to be doing what I loved and at the same time, to be helping humanity and people with some horrendous disorders. Some of the films I made were real-life horror films – i.e. imagine being almost unable to move, and then only jerkily, and not have your voice to express yourself. That is the horror of some cases of Dystonia.
And I was able to incorporate some horror movie techniques when we focused on the science behind the diseases. I used my best monster lighting on a rotating shot of a human brain. And I animated several sequences showing how the brain functions differently in some of these disorders. I was able to use my background as an artist and my filmmaker’s sense of time to accomplish the animation. I purposefully made the images dark to imply mystery. So I was challenged creatively enough to be content.
SB: It must have been rather frightening at first when the economic downturn compromised the documentary business. At what point did you decide that you were going to return to your childhood love of making horror films?
PC: When the economic downturn happened, I was operating my own business primarily shooting corporate films (follow the money, don’cha know). When everything crashed, many of my peers went back to school to learn more skills. If I had returned to school it would have been to teach, which I looked into without success. I had created a stock photography collection which was selling well (and is still available on Getty Images) so I had some income coming in. And I tend not to panic, which serves me well as a director and filmmaker, so I stayed calm. But I can’t just do nothing. I have to be creating, working on something.
SB: EMPRESS VAMPIRE originated as a passion project for former model and pornographic actress Ange Maya, who co-wrote the film with you. How did your relationship with Maya begin, and at what point did it become clear that you would be working together in a professional capacity? How is she to work with?
PC: I had answered an ad placed by my future leading lady when she was looking for a cinematographer to help her make some movies. The movies didn’t pan out but when she was contacted to make a feature film starring her as a vampire, she told the producer that I was her cinematographer. Oh goody! Well, that film was a complete scam perpetrated by a creep who just wanted to score with Ange, but we held onto the idea of starring her in a vampire movie. We decided to make our own.
I started writing a script and Ange started re-writing it.
Actually she started bombarding me with ideas to incorporate into the film. Some of them were terrific; I had to talk her out of others. Then I was tasked with trying to weave together her ideas with my plot and have it all make sense.
Ange is one of the brightest people I have ever met. She is as sharp as a unicorn’s horn, and incredibly creative. She has many skills that I don’t have, especially with social media and website building. She choreographed all the dances in the film, too. She also works as hard as I do – a true rarity! Unfortunately, she is also as stubborn as I am. We’ve been at loggerheads several times over many disagreements about casting, plot points, and business practices. But it always worked out for us. The trials only made us a stronger team.
And to be clear, Ange and I only have a professional relationship. Many people think that because of her professional history she must be all over me, but that is hardly the case. My wife certainly wouldn’t approve!
SB: You managed to get an incredible amount of cooperation from actors and production people to make this film happen. Still, the amount of work that Maya and yourself put into making the whole thing happen is just astounding. What ended up being some of your biggest difficulties in getting the film off the ground?
PC: Gathering a talented cast turned out to be incredibly easy. It’s a sad state of affairs in Hollywood where the same actors are hired over and over and fresh new faces have an extremely difficult time being noticed – no matter how towering their talent. And the way actors get work is based a great deal on what they have done before. So it makes sense that if you want to be a lead actor, you need to work as a lead actor. How can you do that if you haven’t done it before? Simple. As Adidas says, “Just Do It”! So very talented actors routinely volunteer to be in no budget features like EMPRESS VAMPIRE. And we offer in return both screen and, more importantly, IMDB credit. That’s the track record they are judged by to get future work.
The crew operated quite similarly. We got our talented Steadi-Cam operator, Paul Gardner, because he didn’t have any feature film credits. He volunteered so he would get the credit and become more viable to Hollywood productions.
Actually getting the film off the ground wasn’t as difficult as I anticipated. The more people who signed on, the more momentum we generated until we were unstoppable. That’s not to say there weren’t problems. Finding a caterer who would feed my cast and crew meals for $2.00-$3.00 a day was a reach. We eventually negotiated that we would pick up the meals and return the trays to make it happen.
Building the sets and set pieces was challenging – it was a lot of work designing and building the throne and dais. The dais actually transformed into the Empress’ tub for that sequence and Trish’s bath, as well. Thank God I had some help when the crew finally came together. My Assistant Director, John Austin, who also played a really tall alien on “Deep Space 9”, had some mad construction skills that helped out immensely. He was also great at adding important touches to the set decoration. He was invaluable.
We did have several defections. A couple of the actors weren’t sufficiently impressed with our minimalist production style and – thinking that we were producing a stinker – left with the lamest excuses: “Excuse me. Between the last scene and now, I got a call that my Dad in New England is really sick and I have to leave to take care of him”. Right. Perfectly plausible. Especially with the look of relief on their face as they bolted out the door.
Another was more predictable. We had an actress playing teenager Trish, who is abducted from a sleepover party and ends up – after being forced to make love to the Empress – being strung up upside down, completely naked, over a tub with Empress in it who was waiting for her blood and entrails. This actress had said she wanted to “push” herself with this role. Well, when push came to shove, she could only get topless and bolted in embarrassment pleading that we never show the footage anywhere. We have a signed release form giving us the right to show it, but I will honor her wishes despite the fact that she cost us an additional complete day of production.
Yes, the production was grueling. I can’t speak for Ange, but I only got about four hours of sleep a night, having to adjust the call times and locations as things changed. And I barely got a chance to wolf down some food while trying to make up for lost ground each day (Just one more insert and the scene will be perfect!). I don’t recommend making a film as a way to diet, but it certainly worked for me.
SB: I have to ask about the two musical sequences in the film. The first is almost a bollywood-style group dance scene, while the second seems straight out of a traditional stage musical. How did the idea of putting these bizarre sequences in the film come about?
PC: We have Ange to thank for coming up with those ideas. Being born and raised in China, she has a different view of what should be in an entertainment film. Referring to Bollywood is a perfect example of why Ange thought we should include them. And I have to confess, it adds a great flavor to the experience of watching the film. I borrowed the intercutting Coppola used in THE COTTON CLUB (during which the scene cuts back and forth between a stage dance number and the slaughter of rival gangsters) to cut between the body-painted vampire dancers and Trish being bathed by the Empress’ topless handmaidens.
The old-school song and dance number is a total hoot. I had told Ange that we might need to cut it out for domestic audiences and only include it in the foreign version. But I must confess when I heard the Tango that our talented composer, Doug Tidstrand, wrote, and the lyrics his wife wrote – I was sold!
Being too close to the film, I will leave it to reviewers such as yourself to pass judgment on whether it works to the betterment of the film or not.
SB: Aside from Maya in the starring role, how did you go about casting the leads? Were the actors able to recognize the sort of tone you were going for?
PC: As I mentioned earlier, the casting was a dream. Yes, we did have our share of total “no-talents” we had to wade through, and even some name actors who thought just because they had a name that we would select them (they auditioned horribly), but we found the gems hiding in the haystack (man, that’s one bungled analogy, but you get my meaning).
I did little direction during the auditions and chose the actors who instinctively knew who the character was and how they needed to perform. It’s a lot easier putting the right person in the role than it is trying to coax someone into being what they are not. Even though that is the actor’s job, I would rather have them work on nuance rather than be struggling with the broad strokes. And being shot on a shoestring didn’t allow for multiple takes to fine tune a performance. They had to be right-on most of the time. There were times when the actors didn’t understand what I was looking for, but it didn’t take much to get them on the right track.
The hardest time I had was choosing Laura Contenescu for the role of Ariana. She is Romanian (born and raised in the shadow of Dracula’s castle no less) and I had her selected for the role of Vampire Elissa, which we later filled with the well endowed Tina Tanzer. I had loved Laura’s Romanian accent as a vampire seductress and hadn’t thought of the role of Laura as being exotic. After all, we already had Garrett Brawith as a Russian vampire hunter. But Ange convinced me that she was the strongest performer for the role. And being from Romania was plausible based on the script, so she was in – and she knocked it out of the park!
There was some trepidation among the actors when it came to the song and dance number since it totally breaks the dramatic flow. I explained to them that it was more like a break from reality, that we were entering a fantasy land for a diversion and would be back on the dramatic right afterwards. They accepted that reasoning and performed excellently.
SB: As someone who has found themselves scrambling to learn software to help provide digital effects for films in the past, I can’t help but sympathize with your post-production plight of having to provide these effects on your own. Talk a little about how intimidating the process was, and what are your thoughts on the final effects as they appear in the film?
PC: Oh boy, what a gauntlet! We initially had a pair of guys who were ready to do the effects for us. They were on set making sure that we did the greenscreen to their liking and suggesting other things that could be done in post. I had wanted to do as many effects as possible practically on set rather than use CGI, but the time was so tight we had to put off some effects to post.
OK, so now the film is shot, the rough-cut is done and it’s time to start adding effects. That’s when my CGI guys suddenly got busy with other projects and no longer had time. Had I seen that coming I would have made time on the set to shoot everything practically. It would have saved me almost a year of learning Adobe After Effects through trial and error and innumerable tutorials. After Effects has a notoriously steep learning curve, but the fact that I was already a professional Photoshop and Premiere user made the task a little bit easier.
I love the way some of the effects turned out – others not so much. I had to accept that I had done them to the best of my ability with the available tools and recognize that I didn’t have the time to learn Maya and Wavefront to do justice to (spoiler alert) the alien worms.
One of the effects I am happiest with, which most people will not even notice is the smoothing of several of my actresses skin. Two of them had acne scaring that would have required so much diffusion on the camera as to render the rest of the scene blurry. So I selectively softened the focus just on their skin in post. You’re welcome, ladies.
SB: Talk a little bit about the process of touring EMPRESS VAMPIRE in festivals and finding distribution. Was this something you had experience with in the past?
PC: That is brick wall I currently find myself at. I had experienced wonderful festival results with my documentaries and early theatrical work, so I was expecting similar results. I can’t count the number of festivals we have entered. We were rejected by so many that I had to take a hard look at the film to see what the problem was. The problem was that it was too damn long – and unlike Ange’s former career, film running time is one arena in which longer isn’t better. It was running at an hour and fifty minutes rather than the preferred 90 minutes. And it slowed down towards the end when everything should be accelerating to the climax. So I got inspired and clipped twenty minutes off the run time. It looks and flows a lot better now.
I have been in, and am scheduled for, festivals now with that alteration. A huge glut of festivals is scheduled for Halloween time (go figure) and we hope to be in a large number of them. I will then invite distributors to screenings at the best festivals and hope that the audience reaction will spur them to open their wallets and sign us up. Failing that, self distribution is becoming more and more feasible with the advent of the numerous digital streaming services. Wish us luck!
SB: The big question has to be: What’s coming up next for Phil Condit? What projects are coming down the pipeline, and is the plan to stick with making genre films?
PC: The best advice I’ve heard is to do what you love – and I love horror movies! Yes, I plan to continue making genre films as long as I am able to hobble onto the set.
I have one script ready to produce titled, GIRL PREY. It is a cross between THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and THE HUNGER GAMES. A group of girls on Spring Break find themselves kidnapped by a band of serial killers who plan on hunting them down, so they must fight for their lives. I have scouted locations in Hawaii and plan to shoot there. I am hoping the script will attract some name talent which will allow for a larger budget.
I have four other scripts in various stages of completion. The most complete is SPAWN. Aliens invade a remote summer college in the guise of super hot women and use the student’s bodies to spawn clones of themselves as the first step of taking over our world. The students must fight against the invaders to survive and save the world.
Another is a semi-sequel to ROSEMARY’S BABY, but if I can’t purchase the rights, I will change it significantly enough to avoid copyright infringement. The premise is that only when the Devil’s spawn spawn together will the anti-Christ walk the earth. The story focuses on Rosemary’s now grown son who was raised by a religious family after she spirited him away from Satan’s followers. He meets the Devil’s daughter who has amnesia and doesn’t remember who she is. They fall hopelessly in love and she gets pregnant. That’s when things start to go south.
The next is a take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which a scientist clones himself, but the clone doesn’t have a soul. Bad things happen.
SB: If readers are interested in picking up a copy of EMPRESS VAMPIRE, or to keep up on what projects you’re currently working on, what would be the best way to do so? (Opportunity to add website links, social networking links, etc.)
PC: I hate to build everybody up and then not offer a payoff, but since we don’t have distribution, the film isn’t available quite yet. I will set up a system on the website to take advance orders for when the film is available. And if we don’t sign a distribution deal this fall, we will begin self-distribution before the Holidays. So keep checking back on the website, EmpressVampire.com.
To see what is happening next and keep track of progress reports check out SickPuppyPictures.com.
SB: Anything else to plug?
PC: If any of your readers happen to need high-quality videos or documentaries or photography you can check out my work at PhilCondit.Com and contact me at Office@PhilCondit.com. I still need to eat!
SB: And, finally, as someone with a wealth of experience who has only just started his directing career, what advice do you have for other first time film-makers?
PC: Basically, just do it! Grab your camera, round up your friends, and convince your family that they would be wise to help you now, while you are still an unknown and accessible.
Important – make a film that you can make. It’s pointless to plan an interstellar sci-fi costume epic if you don’t have access to sci-fi sets, CGI artists, costumes, etc. Assess what and who you do have ready access to and make a film using those locations and those people. I’m not saying don’t dream big, just try to keep your expectations reasonable on your first film. You can go bigger when you have a track record to show your capabilities. Oh, and beware of kids and animals – they never do what you want!
SB: Cheers, Phil.
- [NO-BUDGET NIGHTMARES] PODCAST #80: PLAGA ZOMBIE (1997) - July 25, 2016