THE ASSIGNMENT: WITCHES TALISMAN (and, yes, the missing apostrophe is part of the title) is a trip of a movie. Whether it’s a good trip or a bad trip is certainly up for debate. Viewing it can be a thoroughly frustrating experience, with the constant stream of filters, incomprehensible dialogue, hypnotic effects and confusing storytelling creating a sort of headache-inducing collage. If the cursed tape from THE RING was an actual film, I imagine it looking something like this. Still, it’s a true original, and I’m extremely curious to hear the response when it’s brought to DVD by Cult Movie Mania. The director, writer, star and editor Kelly Helen Thompson took some time to talk about her influences, having to shoot the same film twice, and how she responds to criticism.
Doug Tilley (DT): Very soon THE ASSIGNMENT: WITCHES TALISMAN will be accessible by a much larger audience than previously. How would you describe it to a prospective buyer? Even one who might be generally unfamiliar with low-budget movies?
Kelly Helen Thompson (KHT): It’s a story about the Apocalypse. This girl is doing this college assignment and brings forth this evil entity by mistake. Basically a game of cat and mouse, because he needs her to open the portal. She needs the amulet to open up the portal. Because the amulet has all the power in it. And it’s kind of like a little bit of an adventure. Her and her best friend get caught up in it. And she comes across.. there’s a priest and a witch, and they come across them. And the witch and the priest have been waiting over a 100 years for this event to occur.
The original screenplay was written while I was in college, which is why I call it the Assignment.
DT: Oh! Ok. It makes sense then that one of the characters – the one played by you – is a college student in the movie.
KHT: Yes. I tried to get a girl to play Cassie, but nobody wanted to do it. So I just took it upon myself and said fine. Ok.
DT: Have you always had a lot of interest in the supernatural or movies about the supernatural?
KHT: Yes. I was a big fan of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and SUPERNATURAL, the show. The attempt with THE ASSIGNMENT was to make the worst film.. ever. And that’s what I was trying to do. And, instead, it kind of backfired a little bit I guess. *laughs* Because people liked it. And it was the story, I think. I held onto the screenplay for a good while, and it was performed on stage before it was even in a film. I did it for college and it was a screenwriting class. It was only 15 pages long originally, and I just continued to write it, and got a co-writer – Jarrod Huffman. We both worked on it. And then another movie company wanted to make a movie out of it, but it never really progressed. That didn’t happen with that company.
So I told everybody about it, and they thought it sounded like a fun film. But, yeah. Shelby (McIntyre) saw it at Joel Wynkoop’s house, because Joel is in it. And Joel is a friend of mine. And I told him about it, and he said he would do anything for me. And I was like.. ok. Good. So I had him jump in there and Shelby was at his house and saw it, and he asked who was responsible for this and Joel said it was Kelly Thompson. And then he called me up and I was scared. *laughs*
I thought I had done something wrong. Because I had heard of his reputation that he was very particular on the independent films that he watched. So, I actually got word of these guys at the same time through John Miller, because John Miller saw it and he liked it. He thought it was really good. There were some technical difficulties. It was the first thing that I did, but I got through it. And people still like it.
It’s an apocalyptic kind of comedy. It’s making fun of horror, I think. That’s really what it is.
KHT: It was 80 pages long. That’s how long the script was, and some stuff was cut out for filming purposes. Yeah, we kind of did it ourselves. I called it my experiment. And I met some of these people. Bob Fraizer jumped in there, and I had never met him before this. And this was before AMERIKAN HOLOCAUST was filmed, too.
DT: Now, the first thing that someone is going to notice when they watch this movie is that it has a really distinctive visual style. When you were writing it, did you have that style in mind? Or did that come together once you found yourself in the position of having to piece it together?
KHT: It was something that I just found myself doing during the process because it just seemed to work. And I did a lot of stage shows and one thing we always did – and I was always trained to do – was you continue no matter what. You keep it going. No matter what kind of difficulty you come across in an type of show. You look for what works, and that seemed to be the best thing to do at the time.
It flowed with the film itself, because it was so trippy. This girl keeps having these dreams. She keeps getting knocked out, and she’s under the influence of drugs and alcohol, so she’s not the likely hero. She doesn’t want anything to do with it. She tries to walk away at first, but she’s kind of pushed into this position where she has to do something.
DT: I think that’s something that you see in things like Buffy, where you have sort of a reluctant hero at first, who is kind of pushed into this position. And sort of has to accept this and embrace that in order to – in this case – combat evil.
KHT: I always figured that if the person was ever pushed into that type of position, they wouldn’t really want it. The average Joe would pretty much walk away. That’s the position I was in when I wrote it, and I wanted a hero that wasn’t all noble and self-righteous. Somebody who was just an average person with some flaws, and has those gray areas. I’ve always found the villains to be more interesting than the heroes a lot of the times in a film, because you can identify with the villains a lot of the time more than the hero. Because of the imperfections of the villain and such.
DT: So, you have an acting background. It’s something you’ve been doing for a few years now. How much of what you’ve learned on the sets you’ve acted on did you bring to directing this movie?
KHT: The process was kind of a learning experience. I had kind of just been a body, and now I was the one telling people what to do. And I had to snap into that mode. Because I was in charge. I had to switch modes. And Ivan Petric, he helped a little bit. Brian Jones, he stepped up. And they coached me on how things worked and lighting and things like that, because I hadn’t done that before. As far as cameras and sound and all that.
DT: So, did you find it difficult to direct actors with a little bit more experience like Joel Wynkoop or Bob Glazier. When you have people like that on set who have worked in a lot of productions, is there an intimidation factor there? Even if you had worked with Joel before?
KHT: Yes, I knew him before hand. We worked with each other a Busch Gardens. And I did one of the episodes of THE OTHER SIDE with him. Actually, two episodes. And we were friends. We’d known each other for a little while, and I work with his wife Cathy, too. So, when I asked him for help he jumped in. So that’s how that happened. He’s very, very good about showing up on the set. Very professional.
KHT: I had a problem with one person who was three hours late. And he held pretty much everyone up, and I felt kind of bad for everyone there.
DT: You had an advantage of having a fairly small cast, and you being the central part of it. Luckily, I guess, you didn’t have to wait for a lot of other people, since you were doing so many of the jobs.
KHT: Since it was written for stage originally, there was only a certain amount of people in it. So, it was pretty easy to fill those. The character who played Oliver never acted before, and the guy that played the priest never acted either. So, they looked the part and they were friends of mine and willing to do it, so I thought let’s see what they can do. Abi Burgess is a professional actress. She does stage acting. She had never done a film before. So, it was a new experience for her, but she was a professional. She knows how to play. Bob Glazier and Joel.. they weren’t intimidating at all, actually. I liked them, and I just don’t get intimidated by more experienced actors. Even going to a convention. Talking to television stars.. They are just people. Even though I’m not on their level.
DT: How long was the filming process? Was it over a period of weeks, or were there gaps in between?
KHT: There was a month gap because Abi Burgess had to go on tour with a band, and then she had to come back. And then we did shoot the whole thing the first time around. Actually, we shot twice. When the computer crashed and everything was down, we had to reshoot some of the footage. We shot it all, and then we had to wait a month for her to come back so we could reshoot it. And once it was shot, I immediately went ahead with editing, and I had Omar Roman helping me with that until my computer was fixed. And then I finished off the editing, because he did some of it and I did the rest of it.
DT: So, from the beginning of the first time you filmed the movie to the end of the second time, about how long was that?
KHT: Six months. The whole process took six months. It was very short, and then I showed it to a few people to see what they thought. Most people really liked it. They thought it was really good. I showed it to a few professionals who also made films. Ken Anthony in the area.. he makes films. It kind of got around in this circle. The word got out and people were watching it, and then I aired it online a few years ago. A few people saw it, and they liked it. They thought it touched on a lot of nerdy genres. Some references to some video games and things like that. People were able to pick up. I had to add the sword fight in there, because in any good film there has to be a sword fight. But we made it terrible on purpose. It is the way it is because that’s how I told them to do it.
DT: The way that this film is structured and designed, I think there’s going to be a certain audience who will accept it and take to it. But there will always be people who just don’t get it. Their reactions may be harshly negative. How do you react towards people who are very critical towards the film?
KHT: I let it bounce off, because people are entitled to their own opinion. Whatever they think of it. The only complaint I’ve ever really heard thus far is the sound. Some people can’t hear it as well, but that’s the only complaint that people have so far. That’s pretty good, in my opinion, because I tried to do what I could with the sound. I suppose eventually we could do a remastered version. We used a lot of Renaissance music and things. I got a little carried away with some of the animation, because I was just having way too much fun.
The negative criticism. I guess people are entitled to the things that they want. If somebody did say something, I’d probably agree with them. “Yes, you have a good point”. And not take it too much to heart. There’s no need to.
DT: The reason I ask is that because now that it will be distributed on a wider level, there really is a ravenous audience for low-budget films. “Amateur films”. They want to see something different and unique. If they go out on Facebook or Twitter or on their blog or website and are particularly harsh, is that something you just take in stride?
KHT: If they do say that? Let ’em. Even if somebody says this is the worst thing I’ve seen in my entire life.. That will sell it. That will get people wondering about what they are talking about. If they start complaining on Twitter, I’ll try and think of some sort of smart alec remark and sneak into the conversation. And answer their questions about why this or why that.
DT: Those sort of extreme responses are often what sells a movie. Something in the middle just doesn’t mean anything. But when you have an extreme response, that’s what gets people curious.
KHT: The people who have viewed have said that they never would have thought anything like this could come out of somebody’s mind. I just have a very broad imagination. I always thought it’s not really about anything that’s a story. If the story holds true, then it’s going to carry. I kept thinking back to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. That whole thing was terribly shot. The sound was not very good either. Yet, somehow the story.. It was the first type of.. I think.. Right?
DT: In terms of found footage style?
KHT: Yeah. Found footage style. Was it the first? BLAIR WITCH?
DT: It was the one that certainly struck a chord as that genre. There are other movies you could have referred to as that. There’s a movie called MAN BITES DOG, and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is sort of like that. But it’s certainly the one that made that genre take off.
KHT: And I think it was the story that carried that. It wasn’t necessarily anything else. And it boomed for those guys. And they don’t have to work another day in their life if they don’t want to. So it’s not exactly like that, though. I got tired of looking at the same old thing over and over and over again. I said, well I’m going to try something that nobody ever does. And it’s a little risky, and some people may like it and some people won’t. I didn’t think anybody would ever really take notice of it. I thought it would be good to have another IMDB credit, and for everyone. And everybody was pretty appreciative towards that. A lot of people go after those credits. And I wanted to see if I could try and do it. The whole goal was to make it happen before 2012. Finish it.. the post and everything and that was my goal December 21st, 2012. Because supposedly we were all supposed to die anyway.
DT: You’re very lucky. Because not only did we not die, but a lot of people now have an opportunity to see the movie.
KHT: I was a little nervous at the premiere. It was shown at a theater. The first one and the second one. The second one hasn’t been released yet. I wanted to do something to explain the first one. It had to be done. Everything’s explained in the second one about what happened in the first.
DT: That’s a good topic to investigate just a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit about A2: THE ANOMALY. What it’s about. Obviously it’s an explanation of the first one, but did you use a lot of what you learned on the first to improve certain aspects of the sequel?
KHT: Yes. I had a different computer program that I was using, and it was more advanced and so the effects look a lot better. And the dialogue and the story carry a little more. There’s a little more of a one-liner, comedic type references and things like that. But basically everything that’s in the first one, she did it wrong. So she has to do everything all over again, because she did it wrong. She wasn’t supposed to save the world, she was supposed to destroy it.
The second one is about the quest to destroy the world to set back the balance of nature. Because in this dimension it was supposed to be destroyed. Cause we’re working with several dimensions.
DT: Do you see A2 as being the end of that story? Or, could there be more to tell in the future?
KHT: There could be, but it would be beating a dead horse.
DT: You could explain the second one with a third one.
KHT: *laughs* That’s true. That’s very true. I was asked to do a third one, but since I had been working on the first two for two years straight – because it took a year post-production for A2, because they were so much more advanced. But I wanted to keep that imperfection that A1 had as well. Keep it true to that. And that’s what Cult Movie Mania were pressing for, too. They thought the first one was so extraordinary that there had to be a second one. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. The first one just drops your jaw, and the whole point was that I was just trying to keep people’s attention. Because a lot of times in the middle of your film people kind of lose interest, so keeping everything going and going and going seems to work really well as far as at least acting. So I just used acting skills to make a film, and what I learned as far as working with people in general and just how we work.
DT: So, ASSIGNMENT:WITCHES TALISMAN is going to be available in November?
KHT: It’s out for pre-order right now. So it is available now.
DT: But ships in November?
KHT: Yeah, it ships in early November.
DT: Now that you’ve gone through the process of directing two full movies back-to-front, start-to-finish. What advice would you have for a female director who is looking to direct their first feature?
KHT: Do something completely different that will blow their socks off and nobody would ever think of possibly doing. Just because you’re a female doesn’t mean you can’t go up against the males. There’s that audience, too. There should be more females doing it. They should be encouraged that they can achieve something like this.
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