An Interview WithEric Stanze of Wicked Pixel Cinema
By Ian Jane
Some background information. What made you want to get into filmmaking and what kind of training do you have?
A: My formal training was in television. As far as writing, producing, directing, and editing movies, I’m entirely self-taught. I just started doing it. I made a lot of crappy movies, which taught me how to make movies that were less crappy. I don’t know that I ever had that moment where I decided to get into filmmaking. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid... I think I just started doing it... and then once I was in, I realized that there is really no other place for me.
Who were your primary influences growing up and in your ‘formative years’ and has your appreciation for others’ work changed since you started making movies yourself?
Growing up, I was inspired by Dario Argento, Sam Raimi, and George Romero, mostly. In my 20’s, I started to study William Friedkin, Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, and Mario Bava. More recently, I’ve been inspired by Michael Mann, Darren Aronofsky, Steven Soderbergh, and Jean Rollin.
I’m sure that making movies for the last fifteen years has had some influence on my appreciation (or lack thereof) for movies I watch. These days, knowing what an uphill battle it is to make an independently financed movie, I tend to appreciate the lower budget stuff. And seeing really shitty Hollywood films that cost 80 million bucks just infuriates me.
I enjoy low-budget flicks like Jim Van Bebber’s movies, or indie films with a little more money behind them, like Jim Jarmusch's DEAD MAN or MYSTERY TRAIN. When there is a flaw in the film, a rough spot, I glide over it because I understand what it’s like to shoot on a debilitating budget. But when I see crap like ELECTRA or THE MUMMY or THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS or ALONE IN THE DARK or some other Hollywood money pit, I can’t enjoy any aspect of it... because I know how much money was poured in to create such lackluster results. It’s not that I hate all movies with a big budget behind them. James Cameron makes big budget movies and I enjoy his films. I just cringe when I see millions of dollars wasted on bad movies.
Your first notable feature was the ambitious independent project, Savage Harvest, which you both directed and wrote and made in 1994. Where’d the inspiration come from for this one and how do you feel about it in retrospective?
My initial inspiration for SAVAGE HARVEST was a lot of local (Missouri) ghost stories that were tied to the Trail Of Tears. This was the jumping off point. The movie evolved into something very different compared to what I started with. I started with creepy ghost stuff and ended up with an EVIL DEAD inspired gorefest. Which is cool... that was the direction I instinctively went in and I really enjoyed making that kind of movie.
In retrospect, I feel SAVAGE HARVEST sucks. But I felt SAVAGE HARVEST sucked as soon as I was done making it. For years following its completion, I hated the movie and I hated myself for being the talentless hack who made the movie. But after a few years, I grew to appreciate SAVAGE HARVEST more. It was not the awesome, scary, kick-ass, action-packed movie I tried to make. But it found a fan base, and today I appreciate what that fan base sees in SAVAGE HARVEST. It is a fun, campy, splashy b-movie. So... I still think I was an idiot kid who had no business making movies when I made SAVAGE HARVEST. But I’ve learned to not hate the movie (or myself) anymore.
How did the formation of Wicked Pixel Cinema come about and why? Financial convenience? Accessible team and crew members?
If the spotlight is directly on me for too long I become very uncomfortable. Giving my team a name helped take the spotlight off me. It was a way of acknowledging that a team made the movie – not just one guy in the director position. That was the main reason.
Savage Harvest is said to be the foundation that Wicked Pixel was built on and you followed that one up with the twisted and trippy Ice From The Sun. With the upcoming Image releases of these early Wicked Pixel films, what special edition features can fans look forward to checking out on the DVDs?
Well, the ICE FROM THE SUN release is a whoppin’ two disc set. In addition to a slew of smaller bonus features, this release sports the feature-length documentary directed by Todd Tevlin and Jason Christ: ON THIN ICE, The Making Of ICE FROM THE SUN. There are also new commentary tracks that turned out very nice, I think. There is a teaser trailer on this release for my current production, DEADWOOD PARK. This is the first sneak peek at DEADWOOD PARK we’ve released to the public.
The new Image release of SCRAPBOOK has a new documentary featurette. There are two other features on this disc that I think are pretty damn cool. One is a deleted scene that has never been seen anywhere else before. Also, there is something called the Shower Cam Featurette which is an assembly of raw footage that gives you a unique “fly on the wall” look at the making of SCRAPBOOK.
Image Entertainment’s release of SAVAGE HARVEST contains two new commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes footage, a music video, and stills gallery. Also on the DVD is the preview trailer for our upcoming sequel, SAVAGE HARVEST 2: OCTOBER BLOOD.
Wicked Pixel is more than just your work though; other directors contribute to the stable of titles over there as well. What are some of your comrade’s stand out titles and why?
Well, actually, the only guys who have directed features here are me and Jason Christ. I’m not comfortable giving anybody and everybody director reigns on Wicked Pixel Cinema movies.
Jason Christ studied hard for many years and independently built up an impressive director’s resume before he approached me about directing a Wicked Pixel Cinema movie. If I’m going to continue pushing Wicked Pixel Cinema on to bigger and better things, I have to be cautious about who fills the big positions, like director, producer, editor, or cinematographer. I have to be as cautious as I was when deciding if it was appropriate for SAVAGE HARVEST 2 to enter production with Jason directing. I can’t just be handing movies out like candy to everyone who has a cool idea for a flick.
Besides, while I don’t mind taking a break and letting Jason take on the stress of helming a motion picture, I did get into this business to be a director. I spent my time learning the craft and building Wicked Pixel Cinema into what it is today. I sure as shit don’t make a decent living at this... so my only reward for all my labor and sacrifice is that I get to do what I want to do, which is be a director. So, it is only under very specific, rare circumstances that I’d have motivation to ask others to direct.
But it isn’t like everyone here is clamoring to direct. Most of the Wicked Pixel people have fallen in love with other aspects of making movies. Jeremy Wallace, for example, has focused his energies on being a producer. And he is basically the best producer on the planet, in my opinion, so focusing his energies there certainly paid off for him. Others here want to focus on writing, or production design, or acting, or lighting, or audio. It takes many talents to bring a movie together and I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who are as serious about, say, location sound recording, as I am about directing and editing.
Just a side note, while on the subject of people wanting to be movie directors... and me not wanting to hand Wicked Pixel movies out like candy: There is an alarming trend in micro-budget cinema worldwide: anybody who can push the “record” button on their camcorder is suddenly a “director” (which makes me feel like a doofus for actually studying the craft of film directing for so many years!) This trend of people becoming “instant directors” without having earned it is the reason why so many micro-budget flicks are unwatchable (including my own early projects). I strongly recommend you try directing a few features with no money and no decent equipment. This is GREAT education. But too many guys shoot their first backyard camcorder attempt with expectations of Sundance Film Fest and a distribution deal with Lion’s Gate or Miramax. Not only is this very naïve, it makes you miss the purpose of your first few movies... to LEARN how to be a better director.
How does Wicked Pixel Cinema differ from the Sub Rosa Extreme material that you’re often associated with, and how did the Sub Rosa Extreme banner come to be?
Wicked Pixel Cinema is OUR movies. We choose the projects that will be produced. We set our schedules and our budget levels. We decide what distribution routes to take. I own the finished movies. The movies are very personal to us.
Sub Rosa Extreme flicks are movies we were commissioned to make. We were producing Sub Rosa Extreme product for someone else, not ourselves. Usually, the projects were assigned to us (we didn’t choose the story or content). We don’t own the finished movies. We created Sub Rosa Extreme movies for the money. When not enough people buy ICE FROM THE SUN, we gotta keep the rent paid somehow.
Overall, the Sub Rosa Extreme line was a positive thing for me. I did learn a lot making all those movies. They continue to make us money. But most fulfilling was the concept that we were actually keeping the bills paid by making movies. Sub Rosa Extreme kept us from having to do corporate video or shoot hundreds of weddings.
Ron Bonk, the man who created Sub Rosa Extreme, approached me circa 2001 with the opportunity to use my skills as a producer to make us both some extra income. After a shaky start, the Extreme line did begin to produce some healthy profits. However, I started out executive producing five movies a year... and by 2003, the Sub Rosa Extreme workload had just about demolished me. It was just too much. So I put the breaks on and refocused my attention to Wicked Pixel Cinema. The Sub Rosa Extreme line is now retired, though Ron and I do occasionally collaborate on a quickie exploitation/horror flick, just to keep some cash coming in (the new stuff is going to be released under the banner “SRS Extreme”).
Are we ever going to see DVD releases of The Scare Game or The Fine Art (which is rumored to feature a riveting performance from the extremely sexy Jeremy Wallace), your two earliest features?
Despite how fucking HOT Jeremy looks in THE FINE ART, there has not been enough interest in those movies to motivate DVD releases. However, there is now a deal in the works for THE SCARE GAME and THE FINE ART to be released as two of the movies in a four-pack horror DVD set. (No commentaries or anything fun like that.)
Because people are starting to ask about THE SCARE GAME and THE FINE ART more and more, we MAY put them out on DVD properly in 2006, complete with commentaries and bonus features. Really, the biggest thing keeping me from re-releasing those movies on DVD is the fact that they are so awful! I just don’t have much motivation to shove them back to the public again.
In 2000, you directed the late Tommy Biondo and the lovely Emily Haack in the notorious Scrapbook. The basis for this film, probably your best known work so far, comes from a true story. How much of the film is based on fact?
I’d say 80 percent of the movie is based on fact, but the movie’s plot is a composite of multiple events. Those two specific characters and that specific story never really happened.
Tom spent many years in research before we made SCRAPBOOK. He took numerous actual, but disparate, events and serial killers that he’d read about and kinda crammed them all down into one story.
Were there any problems with the performers in terms of content in shooting the film? Did anyone involved in the production feel that it went too far?
No. The entire cast and crew were all on the same page from day one. There was never a problem and everyone handled that difficult content like pros.
Part of what makes Scrapbook so intense, aside from the performances, is the claustrophic feel that the film has. A lot of this comes from the cinematography, and a lot of it comes from the sets. How did the Wicked Pixel team set out getting the rights to shoot on the locations used, and was there a specific look you were going for in terms of the camera work?
The main location in SCRAPBOOK, Leonard’s farm, is a major character in the story. If that location didn’t look right, the movie would certainly have suffered. For the exteriors and the barn, we shot on a farm in mid-Missouri that we had used as a location on ICE FROM THE SUN. Jeremy was still in contact with the property owners, so he put in a call and asked if we could shoot there for two days.
The interiors were shot at a separate location, about three hours drive from where we shot the exteriors. Jeremy knew some people who owned an old trailer home. The home had been abandoned for a few years and the owners were planning to tear it down. Jeremy asked the owners if they would let us shoot inside the old trailer home. The owners post-poned the destruction of the home, giving Tom a couple of months to create all the sets in it, plus another month for us to shoot there. I think the home was torn down just a few weeks after we wrapped.
I did have a very specific look in mind for SCRAPBOOK’s visual style. It was extremely hot when we shot SCRAPBOOK. I wanted that heat to come across in the movie’s visuals. That’s why all the exteriors are so blown out. I didn’t want a lot of pretty blue skies. I wanted a lot of white in the exterior shots to give the feeling of a blistering sun blazing down.
For the interior lighting, I mostly just wanted it to feel awkward. I figured most of the light inside would come from light fixtures in various states of disrepair. So I wanted the light to be uncomfortably bright in many spots, while other parts of the house just fell away into darkness.
As far as camera work goes, I went hand held for a lot of the intense stuff. That’s an obvious choice, as hand held always puts more tension and energy into the shot. There are some odd angles in the movie where I was trying to punch up the insanity of the situation. But for the most part, the visual style of SCRAPBOOK is rather restrained. SAVAGE HARVEST had a lot of crazy shots, and ICE FROM THE SUN was overflowing with artsy fartsy shots and unconventional post-production techniques. But SCRAPBOOK needed to be shot in a more conservative style. For much of the movie, I kept the camera on the sticks and held a fairly simple frame. I figured the audience would have a stronger connection to the emotions of the characters if I didn’t filter it with an absorbing visual style. I very much wanted the audience to feel Clara’s anguish... not be thinking about how cool the movie looks.
Another thing I did in SCRAPBOOK was use a lot of zoom in and zoom out shots. I almost never use zooms. But I used them constantly in SCRAPBOOK because zooming in or out feels, to me, like television camera work (which is why I dislike using zooms when I’m shooting a movie). To me, this television style of shooting is very familiar and comfortable for most viewers. For example, we are used to seeing the slow zoom in on the girl’s face during her angry speech on a soap opera... I liked the idea of using this familiar technique to present to the viewer a startlingly unfamiliar level of emotion and intensity.
You followed up Scrapbook with the fast and nasty I Spit On Your Corpse, I Piss On Your Grave, and once again cast Emily Haack in a role that almost reverses what she went through in the earlier film. Your crew had a little problem in terms of some of the effects work and how some of the locals interpreted it. What was the deal there?
We spent a day shooting gore effects for the movie. At the end of the day, we put all the body parts and gore into trash bags, which were then tossed into a dumpster behind the building.
The next morning, a dumpster-diver or nosy neighbor rooted through the dumpster, tore open our trash bags, and called the police to report the human remains they’d discovered.
By 9 a.m. my building was being searched by homicide detectives.
By 10 a.m. the cops, homicide detectives, and I were all having a good laugh over the whole thing. But I had to explain myself to the St. Louis medical examiner... who arrived on the scene with absolutely no sense of humor about the situation.
By noon the next day, the story had been picked up by the Associated Press. My dumpster incident made over 300 newspapers in the U.S. The AP did a phone interview with me which was broadcast on almost every news radio station in the country. Nearing the end of the day, the story was being reported on by nearly every local TV news station in the country. By nightfall, the story was broadcast around the globe by CNN.
I Spit was another one that you wrote as well. Where’d you get the ideas from for this one? Was it simply a tribute to some of the more notorious rape/revenge films, a cheap and dirty little movie meant to appeal to perverts with a broomstick fetish like me? Or were you going for some thing deeper and how do you feel about the results?
SPIT was one of those Sub Rosa Extreme movies that Ron Bonk asked us to make. At his request, I wrote a 70’s style rape-revenge exploitation movie that was far less controversial and harsh than what we ended up making. The original script had no graphic gore, no sex, and only a minimum of nudity. Originally, SPIT was a LOT less depraved. In my original script, there was no shittin’ on the floor, no lit cigarettes burning anyone’s penis, and no broom handle.
I forget at what stage the French investors got involved (they may have been there from the beginning – my memory is a bit foggy). But investors in France offered us a decent amount of money for the French territory distribution rights, payable up front (before we even started shooting). The catch was that they had written some material that they wanted us to work into the movie. And that’s where all the most nasty stuff in SPIT comes from. The French asked for more sex, more graphic violence, defecation, etc. In some cases, they wrote out in script form the scenes they wanted to see us shoot.
Because I tied everything together with the final screenplay, I kept the writer credit. But I’d say about half of I SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE, I PISS ON YOUR GRAVE was actually written by these investors in France.
Ron Bonk delivered to me the “requests” of the French investors. He told me how much money was being offered. And Ron gave me the option to say “no” if I felt uncomfortable adding all these new layers of wickedness to the movie.
I really didn’t have any moral issues with the new content requests. I figured that making this movie is my job, so I should do what I’m asked to do by the guys signing the checks. Besides, I’m a big Joe D’Amato fan, so the sick shit requested by the French wasn’t all that shocking to me. I enjoyed the idea of doing a flick that D’Amato would be proud of! So I was in. But I still needed to talk to my cast.
I explained to Emily and the actors playing her victims what the French wanted. I asked them to take 24 hours to decide if they wanted to be a part of this or not. Remember, nobody on this movie got paid (not even me... all the money we made on the movie went into paying bills and making loan and equipment payments at Wicked Pixel Cinema and Thrill Ride Media, my post-production company). When you ask unpaid actors to get naked, get beat up, have contact with each other’s naughty parts, and/or roll around in fake shit, you are asking a LOT. So I expected at least some of them to politely decline. None of them did.
And nobody in the cast needed 24 hours to decide. Almost immediately, everyone decided that making a movie this sick and disgusting would be a challenge... and a whole lot of fun. Emily was the most enthusiastic. She really got into the spirit of the piece... it was, in fact, her suggestion to take the “broom handle scene” to the level we took it. Now THAT is an actress dedicated to the part she is playing!
Looking at SPIT now, I know it could have been a better movie. Parts of the movie are disappointing to me. I have issues with the pacing and other aspects of how the movie plays out. Post-production on SPIT began right around September 11, 2001. It was the first project I was to edit using Thrill Ride Media’s brand new editing gear which was being flown in from various places around the country. Because 9/11 grounded all planes in the U.S., my editing gear sat for a long while at various airports around the country.
By the time I finally received all the equipment and got it all up and running, I was VERY behind schedule in SPIT’s post-production. I started editing the movie in 15 to 20 hour shifts until I was too exhausted to keep that kind of schedule up.
In the end, I really needed to fine cut that movie for another week or two. But I was eager to deliver on time (and not fall behind on the other thousand projects I was juggling at the time). So I know the flaws I see in SPIT are a result of a very rushed post-production. Ron Bonk has offered me the opportunity to release a director’s cut in 2006... but I don’t know yet if that’s gonna happen.
Recently you co-wrote and co-directed China White Serpentine, a departure of sorts from some of the more exploitative movies you’ve made in the past and a notably more experimental movie almost in the vein of some of Jess Franco’s more personal films. How did this collaboration come to be and how was it sharing the director’s chair with someone?
When CHINA WHITE SERPENTINE started pre-production, my schedule was overwhelming, yet I had become very attached to the CHINA WHITE project. I didn’t want to give up directing it, even though I didn’t really have the time to direct it.
Robin’s schedule was crazy at the time too. Before I asked her to direct with me, we had already collaborated on the script. When it came time to shoot, Robin took over directing when I was too exhausted to properly focus on the shoot. And when Robin was too exhausted, or when she couldn’t be there at all, I ran the show. It was more like tag-team directing than it was co-directing.
I don’t really like the idea of two directors on one movie. I don’t think I want to do it again. It happened on CHINA WHITE because of our circumstances at the time - not because I really wanted a directing partner. But Robin was an absolute joy to collaborate with. Making CHINA WHITE with her was very much a positive experience for me. And I know she made it a better movie than it would have been if I had tried to do it on my own.
Do you see your work evolving in the kind of direction that China White Serpentine took you – that sort of surrealist art house horror – or will you continue to focus on more accessible fare like the more traditional horror movies you’ve made?
My current project DEADWOOD PARK is my biggest movie to date. It is very much in the category of accessible, traditional horror. But I don’t really see my future work evolving in any one specific direction. I enjoy trying new things and taking new risks. I like making movies that are very different from one another.
You’ve had your hand in a few different aspects of production for both Wicked Pixel and Sub Rosa Extreme titles over the years. You’ve helped to executive produce films like Buzz Saw and The Undertow, and you’ve helped edit other people’s films like Insaniac and Last House On Hell Street. You’ve also acted and written for other directors’ films. Which aspect of the filmmaking process appeals to you most, and which the least? Why?
What appeals to me the most is directing. My second passion is editing. If I had to give everything else up and just be a director and an editor, I’d be okay with that.
I’m not sure what appeals to me the least. I like doing all of it. But directing is where I feel most comfortable and where I think my skills are sharpest.
The only part of this whole process I don’t enjoy is the distribution, packaging, marketing, and deal-making part that follows the completion of a movie. Doing this stuff is part of my job, but I get burnt out on it very quickly. When you write a movie, then direct it, then edit it, you may have lived with that movie for years. When the distribution contracts and all the marketing stuff comes up after the movie is finished, I’m pretty much sick of the movie. Lucky for me, Jeremy is becoming quite good at that stuff. He takes a lot of pressure off me, giving me more time and energy to do my job as a director/editor.
Savage Harvest 2: October Blood is coming out soon. This time out the directorial duties are handled by Jason Christ. How much involvement did you have in this sequel to your 1994 film?
I approved the script. I acted in the movie. I helped Jason with certain aspects of production like scheduling and contracts. I am now helping Jason edit the movie. I wanted to be more involved than I was, but once again my schedule was absolutely back-breaking. So a more close collaboration with Mr. Christ will have to wait for a future project. But HARVEST 2 was in very good hands with Jason at the helm. I think he’s made a kick-ass horror movie.
You’re currently in post production on Deadwood Park, the highest budgeted Wicked Pixel film to date. Tell us about the basis for this film and what fans can expect when it’s completed.
DEADWOOD PARK is the story of a town that essentially withered and died while enduring a child murderer’s killing spree. The murders ended in 1979 and the killer was never caught. Francis Richardson was the last child killed by the unknown maniac. His surviving twin brother, Jake Richardson, returns to his childhood home town. Due to his murdered twin, Jake has a strange connection to the spirits of the murdered children. Jake soon finds himself digging into the town’s bizarre, blood-soaked past.
I wanted to make a scary, creepy, atmospheric ghost story horror movie. DEADWOOD PARK is influenced by horror films of the 70’s and early 80’s, as well as Mario Bava’s gothic MASK OF SATAN. This isn’t BOOGEYMAN, with rapid-fire jump cuts, shrieking sound design, and hyperactive CGI blobs. I usually prefer my horror movies paced a little less maniacally. THE EXORCIST, THE CHANGELING, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, and MASK OF SATAN are all examples of what I consider very smart, very well executed horror films. These films greatly inspired me. DEADWOOD PARK is the movie the twelve-year-old in me wants to watch on Halloween.
How did the shoot go and what kind of hurdles did the cast and crew have to overcome to get principal photography wrapped?
DEADWOOD PARK was a huge production. There were MANY hurdles to jump, from hurricanes destroying one of our main shooting locations in North Carolina, to inbred hillbilly interference while shooting in Arkansas. Fortunately, my crew kicked ass and the team of producers I worked with were smart, driven, and dedicated... so when disasters happened, we solved the problems, charged forward, and continued making the movie. I have to give Jeremy most of the credit there. He wisely took on the bulk of the production problem-solving so I could focus more on being a director, thereby insuring that DEADWOOD PARK was on the best possible artistic path. Jeremy is a pro. He bailed DEADWOOD PARK out of a crisis many times. I think a lot of lesser producers would have crumbled under the pressure. But Jeremy ignored his ulcers and kicked ass to get the job done.
What’s next for you after Deadwood Park is completed?
There is nothing set in stone after DEADWOOD PARK. But we have MANY options as to what we could do next. I meet with Jeremy Wallace and Jason Christ in about a month to try to whittle down those options. But I also plan to stay flexible so we can jump on any unforeseen opportunity that may come our way after DEADWOOD PARK. But right now, the future is unclear... and that’s kind of exciting.
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