Bubble Boy

I was reading the Wild Hunt post today and the following quote really resonated with me: 

“The Pagan and polytheist corners of the internet foster conversations that require so much context as to be nearly unintelligible to outsiders.”

And it got me to thinking about my filmmaking choices over the last several years, and how this was a consistent criticism that I received in the past, and yet praised for it in recent times. On older films, key among them Voodoo Cowboys, I struggled to create a film that engaged the subject matter I wanted to deal with (vodoun and zombie apocalypse) in a very detailed and (other than the zombies) realistic way. If it wasn’t for my cinematographer Leo Smith constantly asking what I thought were silly questions (they weren’t) I would have forged ahead with a 60-70 page script that required the viewer to do all of the heavy lifting with regards to prior knowledge of voodoo religion & hoodoo sorcery. Thanks to Leo the script ended up being about 120 pages once I’d explained at least the basic concepts, and yet when the film was finished there were still so many vodoun pre-requisites of understanding for the audience that many people only barely scratched the surface of the story, and as a result viewers rejected the film as just another bad movie. 

Today I am enjoying a very different, in fact opposite, reaction from general viewers. The film Ember Days is a complex soup of myths ranging from Fallen Angels & Nephilim, to Greek Gods, to the Faerie Courts, all of them interwoven and in conflict. This was a 45 page script, with very little in the way of exposition about who these mythic entities were, and only marginal exposition about what their motivations were, and yet the general audience for the film not only understands the story but loves it. 

The difference between the two films is that I tried to present Voodoo Cowboys to a broad ‘over-culture’ audience, and with Ember Days we specifically presented it as “by pagans for pagans”.  Reading the above blog post really hammered home the realization that my problem with Voodoo Cowboys was presenting the film outside of the pagan bubble, and the success of Ember Days has been due in a large part to presenting it within the bubble. 

What this seems to imply for me as a filmmaker is that when I have a story to tell, it is part of my job to determine whether or not it belongs inside or outside the bubble. And I agree with the author of the Wild Hunt post, in that I’m not sure what the bubble means for us pagan folk going forward, though for now I am rather happy to have identity and success within it. 

Pulp Occult Detectives

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I don’t normally approve of the “compile & repackage public domain works” approach to publishing. Seriously, how many more HP Lovecraft compilations do we really need? It makes me think of these kinds of books as the literary version of those cheap 50 film DVD packs you can buy at Wal-Mart. However, every now and then my snarky attitudes are thrown a curve ball, and projects like “Pulp Occult Detectives” comes around. These books are all $0.99 on Amazon Kindle and I have to say, I’m excited and happy about having purchased all of them. Yes I know, I was taken in by the flashy and awesome artwork displayed above… (even that is cheap knock off style, because for each volume they just change the color of the same ding-dang image, cheap bastards)… but I had to! The authors they were compiling & re-packaging aren’t the usual suspects (HP and Robert E. Howard for example), and after some wikipedia research I admit that I was hooked, so picked them up. Granted, its easy to sell me pulp fiction, I’m a sucker for it (raised on Conan & Cthulhu), but I think this is one of those instances where the cheap knock-off publishing tactic has actually done some good. 

Check them out on Amazon

Obsessed. With. Zombies.

I love zombies.

As kids we got the wits scared out of us, in the most fun way, by the Night of the Living Dead. Even as a kid, it was shocking in a very primal way to see essentially “people as monsters”, because let’s face it the makeup in those first few Romero films were some eye-shadow and tatty clothes. Something was triggered deep in the recesses of our minds, a fascination with “surviving the night” as it were, and like many children do we started playing out our own scenarios. Seeing the dark 80’s comedy Return of the Living Dead set in concrete our love of zombies, and instead of playing GI Joe, Civil War, or Cowboys & Indians we started playing our own zombie survival games.

They are the perfect enemy. They look like people, so that plays into our natural fear of mobs. They are a somewhat unstoppable force of nature, so we get that natural disaster vibe going. They are (often) cannibals, and we really don’t like getting eaten. And their bites will turn victims into zombies, so there’s some epidemiology there too, with a smattering of disease/plague fear. Also its socially sanctioned murder, since zombies are basically just people. All great backdrops for exploring the human drama, which is at the core of all the “good” zombie movies and books.

Zombies really are the cheapest monsters to have in a film, other than extremely clever ways of portraying ghosts, so needless to say zombie films have been around for a long time, and they aren’t going to go away. Granted, while zombies are the cheapest monsters, and thus a metric ton of movies both at the low budget and hollywood level have been made, they are pretty tough to actually do “right”. I used to work at a low budget horror dvd distribution company, and trust me, everyone with a cheap camera and a few friends has made a trashy zombie movie, myself included. Most of them suck, especially because the zombies suck (it takes a real actor to portray a truly badass zombie, contrary to popular indie filmmaker belief), but even then I just can’t not watch them. Obsessed. With. Zombies. They may pass from the limelight from time to time, but like the relentless shambling hordes they portray, zombie films will just keep coming. Same for books and especially video games. I have certainly played my part in contributing to the ever-expanding glut of zombie media. To date I’ve made two of my own crappy zombie films (Johnny Sunshine: Maximum Violence and Voodoo Cowboys) and written three short zombie novels, two under my own name (Relentless and Gladiators vs Zombies) and one under my Edward Teach pseudonym (Zombie Jesus). I’ve got four more zombie writing projects in various stages of completion. Obviously I’m both a creator in the genre and also one of its most rabid fans.

The point of this post is that I am enjoying the zombie genre being a mainstream thing right now. Being a kid in the 80’s and 90’s meant that “being a nerd” was grounds for schoolyard fist fights and ostracism, but now we have hipsters and nerds-as-the-cool-kids in our mainstream culture & media. The same is happening with zombies, where manufacturers of hardware and ammo are slapping bio-hazard symbols on their products and Wal-Mart sells cheap “zombie hunter” t-shirts (I bought one, its cheap and awesome), zombies are now kitsch and I’m loving it. The Walking Dead is of course an incredible show, and it tickles me that its so wildly successful now, where in years past there was no way the networks would put something that violent or visceral on television. Not only is it approved for television, it is easily the most successful show in television history, you can have a multi-screen viewing experience, watch a fancy talk show after the episode, and then the whole series in black & white reruns. These days you’re weird if you aren’t into a television show about freaking zombies! Weirdos are the ones who don’t like zombie media! How’s that for a slice of fried gold? Video games like Dead Island and Left 4 Dead are high end and super fun, which is a long way from the old board game I have called “Maul of America”. Will this time pass? Of course. The Walking Dead will either end gloriously in the next season, or it will drag on for season after season (because it makes money) until it sucks and then doesn’t make money any more. Eventually zombies will fall away from the mainstream and go back to their sub-culture roots, where they will wait patiently for the next media cycle. Its good to be a zombie fan right now, to be one of the cool kids who knows which Walking Dead character I most resemble, to have a zombie outbreak escape plan, and to have my own creative projects be mainstream for once.

Aim for the head.

The Day After and the Days To Come

Wikipedia defines the word “career” as a person’s journey through learning, work, and other aspects of life, while the Oxford Dictionary defines it similarly as the course or progress through life (or a distinct portion of life).

I find that especially encouraging today, the idea that a career isn’t just your work, its also your life, the learning process… a journey unto the whole person. Taken from that perspective, I can say with resounding happiness that my Career as a Storyteller is going rather well. I have worked for many years to gain the experience, comrades, battle scars, and perspective that I enjoy today. The film Ember Days was released on DVD yesterday, and has been met with a strong positive response. The journey of that film is far from over, though I feel that yesterday was a powerful start. People believe in this movie, with all of its flaws and all of its awesomeness, the whole epic melodrama. I am moved by this, to see my tribe and my community support the film and the people who worked to make it happen. Success is about so much more than money, though for the first time in my career as a storyteller, there is money present in the mix. Though I take much personal fulfillment in the simple acts of working as an artisan storyteller, be it as an author or filmmaker, there is a tangible measure of progress in the packing & shipping of DVDs to people who cared enough about the project to pay for a copy. It emboldens me to dare to dream of the next community funded & created film project, a transformative journey story we are presently calling ‘Werewood’, and I find myself filled with confidence and renewed determination to keep carrying the fire that filled us all during the Ember Days.

Confessions from the Writer/Director

This is a re-post of a “filmmaker’s confessional” that is available on the Ember Days film site. I wanted to post it here for your reading pleasure. 

 

Ember Days: A “Pagan Epic” On The Cheap

In the summer of 2010, I was riding through the misty mountains of the Olympic Peninsula with SJ Tucker. We were on our way to explore the driftwood beaches of La Push. I was already overwhelmed with the beauty of the landscape, and then the song “Come Down”, by Ginger Doss, started playing through the speakers. I found myself daydreaming-in-cinema about a group of faeries called The Wild Hunt chasing a lone warrior through these primordial forests. Then as the song continued, I started to wonder why they would chase one of their own, and it came to me that he was possessed by the spirit of a fallen angel. The song finished and our adventure continued, but the daydream images stayed in my mind. The seeds of a story had been planted, and over the next several months I articulated the story as the shooting script for the film ‘Ember Days’. I then was fortunate enough to be offered $30,000 of private financing to create the film.

For most people, $30,000 is a significant amount of money. You can do lots of things with 30K, but you might be surprised to learn how dramatically the power of that money changes when it is translated into a film production budget. (For example, 30K is basically the “toilet paper budget” of most Hollywood movies you’ve seen. Or, to think of it differently, the salary of a single crew member.) If I had made the attempt to shoot a small commercial, a music video, or perhaps a short film, employing only working professionals for the cast & crew, then the $30,000 would have been an appropriate budget. However, I wanted to make a feature film, and I wanted to make it without creative compromises (even if that meant that I’d have to make a great many technical & financial compromises). If I were to take the script to Hollywood and attempt to arrange financing through distribution & production companies, they would have rejected the project due to its complex story, presentation of a multi-layered reality, and the blending of myths from a variety of cultures. Hollywood wants “point A to point B” sorts of films, that are easy to understand in any language, and that are easy to sell through the use of buzz words, celebrity actors, and parroting existing film trends. If grindhouse action movies and teen sex comedies are IN this year, then don’t bother bringing anything that doesn’t fit perfectly into one of those two genres.

There are positive elements and negative ones when you strike out on your own to make a micro-budget film. I don’t mean “indie film” or “low budget”, since low budget films (according to the Screen Actors Guild) still have budgets ranging from $1,000,000 to $5,000,000. Most people who even attempt feature films with budgets under $250,000 (what Hollywood calls micro-budget) do not typically attempt to create myth-blending fantasy/action films like Ember Days, much less with only $30,000. They stay within the comfort zone of things like spoofs, or comedy, or single-location-thrillers. As such, I get that it was crazy for me to think that I could pull off this kind of movie on such a tremendously, laughably, abyssmally micro-budget. The truth of it is that I am a storyteller, and this was the story I needed to tell at that time, so I would have attempted to make this movie with two dollars, a flashlight, and a cellphone camera if that’s all that was available. Crazy or not, this movie was going to happen.

Enter Sherry Kirk. She was a retired non-commissioned officer (first sergeant) who had created an intentional community space called ‘Sidhehaven’ in the small town of Yelm, Washington. I had stayed there over the summer and fallen in love with the place, and we had talked at length about my filmmaking plans for Ember Days. Sherry was intrigued and offered the use of the property for the film. Let me just say it was the key reason we ever completed the shoot. The house is a 3bd/2ba building, with a cozy front porch, hot-tub, woodshop (we converted it into sleeping quarters w/cots for the more hardy cast & crew), and a canvas & wood dome dwelling called a yome. There are forests, train tracks, and even Mt. Rainier all within easy driving distance. It was perfect. Did I mention that it was called Sidhehaven? For those of you who don’t know the word ‘sidhe’ is another word for faerie, which is a big part of the Ember Days story, so I was feeling the touch of fate I think.

Because we did not have a professional grade budget for shooting a feature film, we had to do things very differently than most professional films, in fact we had to throw the “professional film” book out the window and invent our own filmmaking process. That’s what happens when you don’t have enough money to pay for a cool movie, you have to get creative and find other ways to get the story created. This film was made possible by the Washington community, primarily artists, pagans, and performers. The majority of our cast were non-professional actors who put their hearts & souls into the movie, and the few professional actors on the cast brought just as much heart to the project, as they certainly weren’t being paid professional wages. We had help from not only the local pagan & arts community, but also the Seattle Film Commission, the Thurston County Film Commission, and the City of Olympia for our locations (lots of love for the WA film commissions, who despite our tiny budget, treated us with enthusiasm and respect), and believe me we had some cool locations that we never could have afforded to just ‘rent’ on our own. This epic-on-the-cheap tells a story that spans from pristine forests to swanky condos to immaculate offices to gritty urban decay. By the gods, it even snowed on the exact shooting day in which the scene would have been made all the better for it.

Overall the experience on set was different than most ‘professional’ shoots, in that people were working on Ember Days for the love of the story and the love of making art. We crammed dozens of people into the house, the woodshop, into travel trailers, the yome, and some even stayed home and commuted to our set every day. Most people were unpaid volunteers on the project (I certainly was), and those few who were paid only received a pittance. On a professional set, everyone shows up for the paycheck. Even if they love their jobs, they’d walk off the project the first time a check bounced. On our film, people were there because they wanted to help create the story, to share in the glory of its telling, and see something truly unique enter the world.

Even though this film suffered some blows in technical quality due to its micro-micro budget (primarily audio), it is still extremely cool to know that we, as a community of people who just didn’t give a damn about the limitations, made it happen. Every single time you make a movie, you learn a tremendous amount of new stuff. And employing all I learned from the making this movie, my pagan epic on the cheap, I would totally, impossibly, do it again.