You would be forgiven for expecting a viewing of THE CRAWLSPACE to likely be a painful experience. A young and inexperienced director. Almost no crew. The action almost entirely taking place in a single, cramped location. It takes a unique talent to make something out of these extreme limitations. Director Chris Schwartz of Red Glass Films somehow made what should have been a disaster a surprisingly watchable success. Chris was good enough to sit down and talk a little bit about the making of THE CRAWLSPACE, his interesting vision for a production company, and how his work has developed since its release.
Sweetback: Hello there, Chris! Thanks for taking the time to speak to us at DG.
Chris Schwartz: Thanks for the opportunity!
SB: Let’s begin at the beginning. What were the first films that you remember blowing you away and making you want to get involved in filmmaking? And how did you first find ways to pursue it?
CS: Start at the beginning? That’s a new concept for us film-makers. Ha ha. I actually had an interesting start in film, because I wasn’t interested in making films to begin with. At that time, I wanted to be a special effects artist and nothing more. But the beginning erupted (quite literally) when they were building a new development in the neighborhood next to mine – with LOTS of dynamite. Back when you’re 11 years old, this IS the coolest thing ever. So we’d go watch them frack the ground every week and it just so happened that my parents had an old consumer hi-8 video camera that I grabbed one day to record the event. Once I showed everyone my “dailies,” I got some ooohhhsss and ahhhhs and I was hooked. I wanted to create something that stirred emotion in people. It was, in its own way, kind-of powerful to affect people with something I made (even if it was a piece of junk).
So I grabbed my neighborhood friends and much like all garage bands form, the garage studio was born. We spent most of our afternoons and weekends filming army guys and Lego wars. Everything seemed to blossom out from there as I began to experiment with different techniques and styles. But as far as being blown away by films that I had been watching at the time, I really wasn’t. I was definitely inspired, but not blown away by those films; which mostly consisted of HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH horror movie marathons on cable.
SB: How did the idea for THE CRAWLSPACE come together? There are definite echoes of the SAW franchise, but you also play it much more naturally and realistically.
CS: The idea really came out of “what’s feasible, that can I do by myself, at home, with a very personal story (to implement a lot of POV shots) that I can integrate a handheld-style of film making and still look decent?” And that’s the first thing that came out off the top of my head that I really thought was feasible. I think a major mistake in most indie film-making is shooting an effect, scene, or entire film that’s way out of scope, just because you think it will be cool. For some reason it never turns out that cool; at least for me. I try to steer away from that as much as possible, but yes I made that mistake a lot in the past. Now, I try to take the time to test the waters before filming a scene where 10 men jump from a helicopter, guns blazing, while being attacked by giant, mutant, zombie worms all for $3 worth of FX and costume money.
People do often compare it to SAW, but the funny story is that the principal photography for the crawlspace was completed in May of 2004, about 4 months before SAW was released. This probably had a big impact on the distribution company picking it up in December of that same year. Then it sat around for a year or so before the distribution company could package it with 5 other films, because of its short run-time.
SB: The most striking thing about THE CRAWLSPACE is that it’s about as close to one-man-band filmmaking as I’ve ever seen. It gives a whole new meaning to “independent”. Were you always planning on making it with you filling all of the major behind-the-scenes roles?
CS: Not really…. I basically filled those roles out of necessity and my frustration with the lack of enthusiasm of my friends to make a “feature” film. By the end of high-school, those pie in the sky filmmaking dreams were so far away from girls and college that they really didn’t care about films anymore and they wanted to live in the real world while I continued to chase my dreams. But it wasn’t about being rich and all that for me. All I really wanted to do was make a feature and if I had to do everything myself, I would.. and I did.
SB: Part of what makes the film work, and where many low-budget productions falter, is the music. Can you tell us a little bit about composing the soundtrack?
CS: All of the music was composed on my guitar with a Boss Multi-FX pedal… and a cheap $8 Wall-Mart mic set 3” from my amp. I didn’t have access to anything stock and I had always wanted to be in a band, so with my rustic recording equipment and a computer, I figured I’d try it. It was simple enough. I would just run the film without sound, hit record on my PC and start messing around with notes until I found something that fit the scene. It was really a struggle to keep the volume consistent, but it’s not the worst film soundtrack by far.
SB: How big was the actual Crawlspace set? It definitely looked like a cramped place to shoot.
CS: It actually wasn’t too crowded in there – especially without a crew. I think the crawlspace was maybe 20’ by 10’ before the iron I-beam and then another smaller area of about 12’ by 12’ behind it. There was definitely enough floor-space, but the 4.5’ of headspace made it a bit straining to shoot in and really limited your angles. It also explains why I still walk around with a hunch-back.
SB: How long was production? And what were some of the major challenges during filming?
CS: Total production ended up being pretty short. I filmed it for 3 days straight trying to keep continuity and all. Then there was post-production for about 4 weeks. I think the hardest part was keeping continuity when I was setting up the camera myself, hitting record, and then running back to my former position and acting out that take. It’s really hard to direct, act, and film a scene all by yourself, especially while trying to keep a mental picture of where the frame ends and not being able to see what the camera’s recording. I was only able to get my brother to agree to come down and film the very few moving shots that weren’t within my reach of the camera. Everything else I filmed alone, including the close-ups, which were filmed with me holding the camera, one-arm stretched out. If you’ve ever seen SURVIVORMAN with Les Stroud, that’s how I did it, except I had no lav microphone, so I had to record all my on-screen dialog with the on-camera microphone.
SB: Once the film was finished, how did you initially go about marketing it?
CS: I didn’t really do much marketing on it. I basically went to the video store and picked out the most generic-looking indie film I could find and then found that distributor’s contact info online and sent it over. It was never really meant to be a distributed film, more-so of a “hey, this is what I can do with nothing, now give me money” type thing, but apparently they liked it enough to compete with whatever else they were receiving at the time.
SB: With a few years of emotional distance, what are your thoughts on THE CRAWLSPACE? Is there anything you would change if given the opportunity?
CS: I usually laugh when I think about it now. As with any artist, you develop a style and technique over time, and when I did this movie, I was still VERY much in my experimental stage (I’m actually still in it 6 years later). I don’t think I would change anything about it though. It is a testament to what can be done with literally nothing and I’m pretty proud of it, even if it sucks compared to any “film standards.” Obviously, it could’ve been better even with no money.
The only thing I would consider doing is a remake, but since that kind of film has been done to death, I don’t think I’ll invest my time into something like that without a plot-line that offers something completely new to the genre.
SB: Can you talk a little about the idea behind Red Glass Films? It’s definitely a unique concept to run a film company as charitable organization.
CS: Well for me, making films is more about the art than the money. Money is great while making a film, but I think once it’s done, it’s done. That’s generally how a job works. You get paid to do your job, and that’s it and if you do your job well, you might climb the ladder and make more next time. But that’s all I would expect from a film. The rest is excess and if anyone should benefit off society’s addiction to entertainment, it should be society, not some producer who wants a 50 room mansion and 10 Lamborghinis in CA. There’s a point where that just becomes too much. So that’s some of the general feelings behind what I stand for and why I chose to make RGF a more than “just another production company.”
SB: What are some of the projects you’ve been working on since the release of THE CRAWLSPACE?
CS: Well, we’ve made 3 other crappy feature films since THE CRAWLSPACE, all of which I would call “learning experiences and practice” while other people just call them the worst films ever made. Once again, our biggest budget tops out at $540. After realizing that we just didn’t have the talent, budget, or time to continue making train-wreck films, we started to focus on creating high-concept short-films for fun. Meanwhile, I’ve been pumping endless funds from freelancing and fund-raising into cameras and equipment to get us to where we are now. Our most recent short-films have been getting more positive feedback than any of our features did, and it looks like we’re probably going to brave another no-budget feature in a few months as well…and see if we can put all this practice and technique into a semi-decent film.
SB: If someone wanted to see THE CRAWLSPACE or your other works, what would be the best way to do so?
CS: Anyone can access any of our material through http://redglassfilms.com
SB: What’s coming up for you and Red Glass Films in the future?
CS: We’ve just “hired” on a new producer recently, whose main job is to take the coordinating burden off of me so that I can focus more on direction. He’s also a great writer, so we’re going to co-create some new films. We’ve also purchased some brand new equipment as well, so I’m hoping all of that will translate into some new low-budget pieces that actually look kind-of budgeted. Currently we’re working on another set of short films, a new Human Strain episode, and a new feature that’s a psychological thriller called SHATTER. We’re putting out a new short film about every-other month, so if you like our style check back every-so often and see what’s new.
SB: Any advice to young filmmakers who are just starting out and looking to get involved in making and distributing their own films?
CS: I could write books and books on film-making. Not that I’m any authority or anything, but I’ve made and studied enough films to know where I’m lacking technically and almost anything could be fixed with time and money. As far as the artistic aspect, it’s all subjective. Once you hit a certain quality-mark, everything else in your film will be judged on personal opinion. But to start out, I would recommend making a 5-minute film 10 times. And yes, the SAME 5-minute film. Each round let people comment on it and compare it to some Hollywood films and see where you’re lacking. Then go back and make that same 5-minute film again, but make some changes in the set, angles, acting, sound, etc.. See how long it takes you before you have a first-rate short film. By the time you’re done, you might even have developed some kind of style that you really like. Or maybe you noticed that your first instinct was the best and your subsequent takes got progressively worse as you tried to think through it.
Beyond that, all I can really say is; don’t give up. Oh, and go read those books on film-making that I’m writing. Haha. Actually, there are some really good books on film-making and distributing films you should read if you’re really thinking about jumping into this.
SB: Anything else to plug?
CS: If you’ve enjoyed any of THE HUMAN STRAIN, keep an eye out for clips from our THE HUMAN STRAIN: REANIMATED episode. It’s a reprise episode and we’re going ALL-OUT to film this as a high-concept short-film. It should be pretty cool…just envision 300 with guns and zombies instead of Spartans and Persians.
SB: Sounds awesome! Thanks for talking to us, Chris.
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