Sweetback (SB): Let’s begin by taking a trip in the way-back machine. How does an interest in Physical Anthropology evolve into a career writing, editing and directing horror films?
Dayna Noffke (DN): Let’s just say that it’s been a long and winding journey. Fifteen year old me – even 25 year old me – could not have imagined an older version of herself making movies. I will say that movies, and horror in particular, have been a constant in my life since childhood. Horror movies genuinely scared the hell out of me but I still sought them out. I was a kid when the TV ad for the Anthony Hopkins film, MAGIC, came out. That ventriloquist dummy did it to me every time. I’d run and hide behind the console television, then peek around the corner so that my eyes were about four inches away from the screen. Then I’d scream and return to my spot behind the television – and I loved it. Go figure.
Fast forward about fifteen years. I was returning to college after a six year ‘losing and finding myself’ hiatus. One survey course in anthropology and I was hooked – monkeys, science, psychology, forensics – in one discipline? Couldn’t get any more interesting from my standpoint. My study of physical anthropology (primarily forensic anthropology and skeletal ID, and later paleoprimatology) was a natural extension of my interest in human nature. Anthropologists view humankind from a holistic standpoint – how people function both individually and in groups, subcultures and societies, then further extends that study to include human biology.
Though I didn’t end up working in the field of anthropology (not many do), I’m grateful for the experience and the knowledge I gained during that time. In particular, I had the chance to take gross anatomy and to work with a human cadaver in dissection lab. It was truly an amazing thing and I don’t mean that in a gory or exploitative way. Scientifically, I found it terribly interesting but at a deeper level, I was humbled by these human beings whose last act was to donate their bodies for the benefit of others. I spent a lot of time in that environment thinking about death and of the relationship between body and soul. My upcoming short film, THE DEADENING, is a direct product of my experiences there.
SB: I’m hoping we get a chance to cover your career in detail in the future, but I’d like to focus on your recent short films. I was lucky enough to interview the wonderful Andrew N. Shearer from GONZORIFFIC a while back, who was the cinematographer on your slasher short MOUSE.How did you two happen to come together, and what influence did Andrew have on the look and feel of the final product?
DN: For several years, my husband and I hosted a weekly ‘bad movie night’ at our house. Eventually, a few of the attendees and myself developed an idea for a parody of fifties anti-Communist propaganda films. The script sat around for quite some time until I ran into Andrew at a roller derby event in 2006. We’d always been on the periphery of each others’ friend groups but never really talked much. On that night, we discussed my script and he told me that if I ever decided to follow through and make the film, he would help. I’m not sure what stopped me from pursuing it at that time. Looking back it seems that I didn’t even know that someone with no money, who didn’t go to film school and hadn’t ever learned to use a camera, could actually MAKE a movie.
Nearly four years passed and in that time, I was fortunate to meet a number of low and no budget filmmakers, writers and actors who convinced me, via their own projects, that it was possible. In 2009, true to his word, Andrew signed on as cinematographer for my debut movie, SAFETY FIRST. He was amazing to work with and gave me the opportunity to learn, rather than just taking the reigns – which certainly would have been easier and faster for him. Since that time, we’ve worked on several films together. I recently appeared in one of his films MAE OF THE DEAD. He’s in the same town and he’s offered me a lot of help and advice through the years, in addition to shooting both MOUSE and SAFETY FIRST for me.
The version of MOUSE that is now available online is a re-invention of an earlier film, a mostly-improv piece that we made on the fly with only a bare bones script on hand – no shot list, no storyboards. Just grabbed a few friends and headed into a friend’s backyard with a few bottles of fake blood. The first MOUSE was not much more than a shaky, handheld experiment but there was something about it that resonated with its limited audience. The cast and I felt that the end result was a very unique, if not technically proficient, movie and that it deserved more attention.
I edited the screenplay, adding several more scenes – including those that take place at night – and more action. Andrew volunteered to film it after seeing the original and he was, again, great to have on board. Not only is he incredibly easy to work with, he understood the look that I was going for and was able to capture the feel of an eighties slasher film without turning it into an empty homage. I didn’t have to do much directing in terms of cinematography and was able to focus more on the actors. Andrew also helped with the editing. He got me a great rough cut in about a fifth of the time it would have taken me. From there, all I had to do was fine tune a bit, add in the sound effects, score and titles. So, to answer the question, Andrew’s participation absolutely influenced the final product and I’m happy for that.
SB: Unlike most slasher films, MOUSE focuses entirely on a group of females – reminiscent (on a very base level) of Neil Marshall’s THE DESCENT. How did the initial concept come about, and how did it evolve through the film’s development?
DN: It’s interesting that you mention THE DESCENT, as I consider it to be one of the best horror films of the past decade. It works so well because, in addition to the creep factor of being isolated in a dark and foreign place, there’s an underlying terror – the divisiveness and jealousy that lies just beneath the veneer of civility in the women’s relationships. I am a big fan of slasher movies and have done a lot of reading on women in horror film and the victim archetype. Because it’s one of my favorite genres, it was an obvious choice but I always knew that, in my version, the killer would be a female. I’d originally considered writing the story with some sort of revenge scenario that would involve male victims but I quickly realized that is was very difficult for me to establish believable male characters and to create any kind of meaningful relationship between them. It was a natural thing for me to write for female characters and once I started the screenplay it came to me very easily. When I watch the film now, I am more aware of the ways that it differs from the l male-aggressor/female-victim type of slasher movies. Even in the short space of twelve minutes, you have a chance to know the characters and to know them. Whether you love or hate them is irrelevant. If you can get people to be invested in the story, it’s a success.
SB: Since there’s only a very short amount of time to develop the characters, MOUSE required actresses with strong personalities. What was the casting process like?
DN: At the risk of sounding like a total hack – there was no casting process to speak of. The first MOUSE was shot on a whim with several female friends, some of whom had acted before and some who hadn’t. Their individual personalities, amazing attitudes and willingness to try new things made made for a very cohesive and supportive group dynamic. All of the original cast members agreed to revise their roles in the second MOUSE shoot though, ultimately, two of them dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. Kitty and Mandy came in as replacements during the second shoot and were both amazing additions. Perhaps I’m just lucky to have so many beautiful, confident female friends with the kinds of personalities that can carry a movie. I can live with that.
SB: With so many unique personalities on set, what sort of difficulties did you run into when shooting? How long was your shooting schedule?
DN: The actors are all real-life friends and many of them have played, or been involved in, roller derby together so the friendship and the understanding of how to work with each other was there. Each of them are naturally expressive so it was less a matter of getting them comfortable in front of the camera than of dealing with the technical issues of blocking and volume, understanding where to be in relation to the camera, that sort of thing. Chelsea has been involved in theater for years so there was also the adjustment of going from stage to camera. She takes direction wonderfully and you can see what a great job she did, particularly because her role was both dialogue-heavy and physical.
There were several times that I asked the actors to just talk to each other, unscripted, and shot extra coverage; a lot of that ended up in the movie. For example, when the group is walking down the hill to the campsite and they’re making jokes, that’s all them – no script. Having individual relationships with each of the members of the cast prior to shooting really helped with casting and with I believe that it shows on screen as the number one thing that people compliment MOUSE on is the dialogue and the naturalistic acting.
There are always difficulties on set and problems to solve but I’ll take technical challenges and difficulties over personal conflict and drama any day of the week.
In fact, the only problem that I really encountered in terms of the group dynamic was that it was easy for us to get off-task between takes. The actors would start talking and laughing and before I knew it I would be laughing too and have to make a concerted effort to reign it back in. There were a few times that it became obvious that some of us just needed a break because we just couldn’t get ‘on task.’ There are far worse problems to have and we still managed to get it shot on a fairly tight schedule.
Our biggest technical challenge on MOUSE was the nighttime lighting. We didn’t want it to look as if the cast members were standing under a streetlight yet we needed the audience to be able to see their expressions. We ended up using nothing more than a flashlight, Coleman LED camping lanterns and small saucer lights – didn’t have to plug in a single thing! I’m pretty good at improvising and Andrew’s even better because he’s been at it a lot longer. His light kit is like McGyver meets Ikea. It might look a bit odd but he always makes it work.
The bulk of MOUSE was shot in one 9 hour day. We filmed in December so it was cool during the day and freezing by sundown. I had the actors take turns going into the house to warm up. I know that lying on the cold ground covered in blood couldn’t have been too comfortable but they handled it well. A week after that shoot, we spent two hours at my house shooting the scenes that take place on the porch and in the car – along with the infamous deer head scene.
SB: You’ve recently changed your production company from HeadsWillRoll Productions to Tilt A Whirl Productions. What prompted the change, and does it represent achange in your philosophy towards film-making?
DN: I chose the name HeadsWillRoll just before filming my first movie. At that time, it hadn’t even occurred to me that I would write or direct another, so the name was representative of that particular film and I was happy with that. However, as it became obvious that there were more movies in store for me, I wanted a name that would convey the feel of my movies rather than a certain type or genre of film. Tilt A Whirl’s a good representation of my own personality and directing style and how that translates into what shows up on the screen. I tend to like handheld shots and a lot of action and have a rather quick editing style. It’s my goal to make memorable movies that entertain.
SB: PICNIC is a shorter piece, but also a bit more personal since it’s co-directed by one of your daughters, and stars another. How was the film devised, and what was it like having the family involved on a shoot?
DN: Picnic is unique in that it was conceived, written and filmed within a two hour period. My older daughter (15) helps out as a PA on my shoots and has been interested off and on in making a film of her own. But (as teenagers often do) she’d get distracted by something else and it never quite happened. One night during dinner, discussion turned to movies and what kind of project she would like to get involved in. We decided to film something that evening, just for fun. It was a great creative challenge because we had to come up with a project that could be executed using only what – and who – we had on hand.
We asked my younger daughter, who is four, if she’d like to act in a movie and she enthusiastically accepted. I grabbed the first creepy thing I could find (our zombie garden gnome), a handful of porcelain dolls and my iPhone and headed out to the backyard. Knowing that we’d only have a few minutes with the little one, we had to move fast. My older daughter directed her while I filmed. The entire shoot lasted less than twenty minutes and I edited it together that night. Voila! Instant film.
Having my daughter work as a PA on my films has been a uniquely rewarding experience. It’s rare that a parent gets to spend so much time with his or her teenage child doing something that they both enjoy and I’m grateful for that.
It was a little strange watching my younger daughter fall over dead in Picnic but at the same time I can look at it knowing that we were laughing and had a good time filming it. She loves watching herself and points out that she was “just pretending” to be dead. I have to wonder what her preschool teachers think when she talks about what we do for fun at home.
SB: What projects are coming up for Tilt A Whirl Productions? Is there a full-length feature in your future, or do you prefer to stick to shorts?
DN: I’ve enjoyed making every short film that I’ve done but the format has been more a matter of necessity than a conscious choice. Shorts require less in the way of resources and because we can typically finish the shoot in one or two days, I don’t have to worry about actors moving away or cutting off all of their hair or the like. Another advantage of filming shorts is that I can work on more than one thing at a time. It keeps me busy and the ideas and the screenplays usually come to me quickly. I’m currently in pre-production on a horror anthology feature and the process seems to take forever. So much planning, fundraising, a lot more goes into it.
That said, I love writing feature screenplays. The longer format gives me more time to develop the characters which is, by far, my favorite part of the process.
SB: What other projects are you currently involved with? Anything else to promote?
DN: We are in heavy pre-production mode on our upcoming feature, TALES FROM MORNINGVIEW CEMETERY, which I am producing. It’s a classic-style horror anthology featuring the work of five directors – myself included – and is hosted by amazing Atlanta horror host Shane Morton aka Professor Morte. We feel very fortunate to have him on board and to have secured Jessica Gallant as our cinematographer for all five of the movie segments. A lot of modern low-budget anthology movies suffer from a lack of continuity as far as video quality and style. When each director works completely independently, you might have four different cameras being used and different sound levels, etc. Each director in Morningview has his or her own unique vision, but we are pulling them together into a cohesive whole.
You can check out our promo video, featuring the one and only Professor Morte at: http://www.indiegogo.com/morningviewcemetery. We’re also pre-selling DVDs to fund the shoot and they can be ordered at the same site.
My other upcoming (feature) projects are just screenplays right now, waiting for the right time to be realized. It’s inevitable that in the meantime I’ll make a few shorts because I can’t stand to be without a project for too long. Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of doing something more ‘supernatural’, possibly a stop motion film with dolls.
SB: Again, thanks so much for your time, Dayna. I’d like to end by asking you what advice do you have for new filmmakers trying to get their projects off the ground?
DN: Do it! A lack of commitment and follow through are what kills would-be movies and would-be moviemakers. People love to talk about making a movie but only the smallest percentage of them actually go on to do it. Perhaps 2% of the world has an idea for a film. Of those, a small number will write a script and even less will finish it. Of the ones that finish a script, most won’t actually shoot the film. At some point you have to commit to it, knowing that it may not be perfect but that you will learn from it. Just showing up makes you a rock star as far as I’m concerned.
Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity to make your movie. Films like TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and CLERKS would never have gotten made if Tobe Hooper or Kevin Smith had spent all their time worrying about getting the most expensive special effects artist or that perfect location. Instead they invested their time where it counts – in writing a great story and bringing it to life.
Surround yourself with positive people; don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek out help. I’ve found most low or no budget filmmakers are very giving with their time and knowledge. Build relationships with others who are doing what you want to do – if you are genuinely interested in what others are working on and willing to help out on their projects, they’ll do the same. The good news is that enthusiasm and positivity are contagious.
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