Wednesday, February 13, 2008

INDIEFEST08: POP SKULLThe Evening Class Interview With Producers Peter and E.L. Katz

I'm not sure which was more disturbing: catching Adam Wingard's Pop Skull at SF IndieFest or hooking up with the film's producers for a luncheon interview in San Francisco's notorious Tenderloin. I braced myself and hooked up with brothers Peter and Evan Katz at AR Roi Noodles where duck noodle soup calmed my fears. Peter produced, and Evan produced, co-wrote, and starred as one of the bloody ghosts in the film.

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Michael Guillén: My Twitch colleague Todd Brown caught Pop Skull at the 2007 AFI Fest and cited it as "a textbook example of what you can do on a budget if you're smart enough"; that "budget" being $2,000, which Todd likewise noted "wouldn't buy the coffee on a typical Hollywood movie." Did you tell yourselves, "Okay, we have $2,000. Let's make a movie!" Was that a budget you graphed out at the outset?

Evan L. Katz: We got our equipment rentals for free. We didn't expect to have anything. We weren't paying anybody. The $2,000 was just gas. We didn't break down, "This is how much we're going to spend." We were naïve. We thought, "We won't spend anything. We're just going to make this movie basically throwing a couple of bucks here and there." We wanted to make a go at that. $2,000—even that—was more than we thought we were going to spend.

Guillén: So you had free equipment, free labor….

Peter Katz: And our director's amazing. Adam Wingard knows how to do almost all the technical aspects of the shooting, the editing, the lighting; he's really talented. He's like a tech guy but he also directs it.

Guillén: So you saved costs because you had a director who knew what he was doing; you had unknown actors who delivered nuanced performances; and yet the movie looks like you've poured a lot more than $2,000 into it. The stroboscopic special effects alone are accomplished.

Evan L. Katz: All that stuff Adam did sitting at his laptop for months on end, piecing it together frame by frame. If we had hired an editor to do that in post and said, "This is what we want and this is what we're envisioning", to get that right we would have probably had to pay that guy a fortune. But Adam's a perfectionist and he would sit there and go through it. He labored through all this footage. We shot so many hours of footage, we could have made four movies. He really had to fashion it with some kind of cohesive narrative. There were a lot of options.

Peter Katz: Adam explores it. He keeps the camera rolling. He explores the scene from all the different possibilities. He says as a director shooting on video it's silly to cut cut cut; it's not like it's film that costs tons of money per minute. He shoots on video and he keeps it going and then—when he goes through the video tapes in the editing room—he has a million choices.

Guillén: In your role as producers, what was your strategic involvement? You got the film into AFI, which was a great move, and then you went to Rome with it?

Peter Katz: Yes, we went to Rome with it. It's in Berlin right now being marketed in their film market by Wild Bunch who is selling our movie.

Evan L. Katz: The strategy from the beginning was that we realized with a movie this small we needed to align ourselves with the right people. We knew we needed to get into the horror websites, even though this movie has a lot more crossover appeal to indie offbeat non-genre. We knew we needed to get the buzz out starting from the horror side of it and that other people would take notice of it if they wanted. We got it into Bloody Disgusting; Brad Miska there was the first person championing it. That was really cool. That really helped. Then other people started to take notice.

Peter Katz: Variety.

Guillén: Robert Koehler gave you a supportive review.

Evan L. Katz: Variety got involved after we actually played a festival.

Peter Katz: Through AFI.

Evan L. Katz: That was a really good review. We started off by having to get a couple of good reviews. Then we had to release a trailer online. Then we started having sales companies approaching us, like Wild Bunch, and we were like, "Okay, yeah." We got partnered up with them. Then we started getting more reviews.

Guillén: So Wild Bunch approached you based upon your festival screenings?

Evan L. Katz: Pre-festival screenings.

Peter Katz: Wild Bunch approached us about the trailer. Wild Bunch saw the really good review on Bloody Disgusting and then they saw the trailer. The trailer grabbed them. They had a positive response. From there they contacted us about possible representation in foreign territories.

Evan L. Katz: First we had to show them the screener.

Guillén: So if a young filmmaker with no budget reads this interview, would you recommend their placing the trailer as a first strategic move?

Evan L. Katz: Before we did the trailer, we waited to get a couple of reviews. We got Stephen Susco, the writer of The Grudge, to check it out so that we could have a quote for the trailer. You need to know who your audience is and which people they might respect and see if you can get them to align themselves with the movie. If you can get a good quote or a blurb, people will take extra notice. If you're going to pick up a horror paperback and if you see some of your other favorite authors at the top saying, "Check this out. It's the next Clive Barker or the next Stephen King!"—you'll give it a chance vs. the one that you don't know where it's coming from, there's no point of reference. Especially if you have something as weird as Pop Skull, you need to come at people with some things that people can recognize or else they'll just say, "What the hell is this?"

Peter Katz: It's about trust. People already trust Susco because he made The Grudge. They say, "I enjoyed that movie" and they have their trust in him; but, this is a new prize. You need to be able to latch this to some kind of foundation or else it's going to float in the abyss and no one's going to notice it.

Evan L. Katz: It's an experimental weird movie with no names and no car explosions….

Guillén: But with the possibility of an epileptic seizure at any moment! Susco wrote: "Unlike any horror film you've ever seen—and ever WILL see—Pop Skull is a must-see." That's a strong endorsement from the writer of The Grudge, which in itself is a story about a house, an environment, wherein something horrible happened in the past and a vengeful demonic spirit remains and gathers power at the site of the crime. Was the thematic similarity with Pop Skull why you approached Susco?

Evan L. Katz: There is definitely a certain J-horror style to the hauntings in Pop Skull—there's certainly that supernatural element—but we didn't really draw those comparisons; but, later we did. The movie even starts off with a mention of murder.

Guillén: Notwithstanding, it's a great feather in your cap to get Susco's endorsement. One of the disclaimers of the film is that Pop Skull is based on a true story. Is that so?

Evan L. Katz: It's loosely based on a true story.

Guillén: In what sense?

Peter Katz: The actor Lane Hughes, who is also one of the writers and producers on the project, originally met Adam when he was writing for his zine. The first film that we produced was Home Sick—a low budget slasher set in Alabama—and they were just talking about his zine and then Adam and Lane became friends. Lane had just gone through a terrible break-up with a girl he really liked and he was venting about it and was very passionate about it and Adam said, "Wow, this is a story right here. We've got to make this into some type of story. You've got a lot of demons here to exorcise." At that point Lane had a very loose story, a story for a book he wanted to create on it, and it just turned into a movie. Evan, who had collaborated with Adam in the past on the script for Home Sick, got involved and they started working on the script for Pop Skull.

Evan L. Katz: Lane was a kid who definitely had some problems with pills at some point in the past. He thought he lived in a haunted house. Some of the friends in Pop Skull were based on Lane's friends. But then the story shifted into this supernatural horror movie and we obviously fictionalized the ending.

Guillén: Neither of you have a Southern drawl. I assume you're not from Alabama?

Evan L. Katz: No. Me and my brother, we went to Alabama for about a year after I graduated from film school. And then I stayed there for about a year and a half producing the first movie Home Sick, which is a slasher we did with Adam. We went back home and then I [returned] to Alabama for another six months to work on Pop Skull. Adam and I went to film school together in Florida. He was pretty much the first person I worked with after graduating.

Guillén: The reason I ask is I have a college friend living in Louisiana who tells me he's having problems with his son and his son's friends because they're all hooked on pills. Whereas here in the Bay Area we're in the grip of a meth epidemic, in the South it's pharmaceuticals like OxyContin. Were you purposely commenting on that regional issue?

Evan L. Katz: I got interested in a website called It's like MySpace but—let's say I get hit by a car—they'll link my MySpace profile on this website, have an obituary, and people will comment. I went on this website and I was looking at all the entries and a lot of the entries were weird. They were of kids dying of these pills. They were all like these Emo-looking 15-17-year-old kids, some are older, but they're all dying from pharmaceuticals. There were also a lot of [stories] of guys murdering their ex-girlfriends and then killing themselves. That influenced a lot of the horror elements of Pop Skull; these weird teen homicides.

Guillén: I hear that. I used to work for the State Judiciary where at least half of the cases that crossed my desk were methamphetamine-related crimes: strange public behavior, robberies, assaults, murders, suicides. So I'm always intrigued when the link is made between drug abuse and horrific events. In the last year or so there have been a few films, Pop Skull included, that have been exploring that link between drug abuse and horror: Simon Rumley's The Living and the Dead; William Friedkin's Bug; Sean Abley's Socket. These films try to visualize and capture the drug experience. Pop Skull also captures "a" drug experience but I'm not quite sure which drug experience or whether the film references more a process whereby—if you become an addict, if you become too drug-affected—you thin the membrane and become susceptible to dark forces.

Evan L. Katz: With regard to those forces of darkness, if you get into those dark places you are more open to weird shit.

Guillén: You become paranoid delusional and suffer a schizoid break. People are following you. You hear things you can't quite make out. Pop Skull captures that perfectly, especially through its sound design. As the reviewer for Splash wrote: "The soundtrack occasionally spikes as images jump out at you. But mostly, it is a drone-filled stream of pulsing tangled melodies intertwined with hard sound effects and haunting voices. Sometimes shredding, sometimes simmering, the sound design of this film was great." Can you speak about Pop Skull's sound design?

Evan L. Katz: It's a combination of things. We always use an awesome composer named Kyle McKinnon. He's worked with us for about five years basically. At the same time Adam is pretty good composing his own noisy soundscapes as well; he's a big fan of noise music. He's always been able to find a good drop needle that's appropriate for a threatening atmosphere but also to create his own. He obsesses about it. He's a music fanatic. That stuff to him is one of the most important parts of the movie. The music, sound design, atmosphere, all that stuff is integral, especially when you have a film like Pop Skull that's so much through the perspective of one character. You need to really build that.

Peter Katz: A lot of times I'll see a movie and I'll think, "Yeah, this is a great scene" and then they just randomly and haphazardly throw a song down on the track and you listen to the music while you're watching the movie and it doesn't match. You want the music to blend in. Adam is so into music. He plays the keyboard and listens to soundtracks, CDs and scores. It's almost second nature to him. Lane, the actor, is also actually a musician. So when they combine forces, they create a unique sound.

Guillén: It's completely visceral. Between the visuals and the sound, watching Pop Skull is a visceral experience and that's why the film works.

Evan L. Katz: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Guillén: What I'm hearing from the both of you—without Adam here to defend himself—is that Adam's a good guy, a great talent.

Evan L. Katz: Definitely.

Guillén: And what I've been reading is that folks have their eye on him. Bloody Disgusting calls Adam's work "the beginning of something special", even as Todd Brown at Twitch claims Pop Skull "clearly marks Wingard as a significant talent to watch." You both concur?

Peter Katz: [Enthusiastically] Yeah! I remember a while back I was working on a music video and—at that time—Spielberg was doing a call for On the Lot, this ridiculous show where directors compete against each other; but, it was done in an asinine way where directors would compete against each other while being interrupted and distracted, like American Idol where they're on a rocking stage while they're trying to sing. I told Adam, "Adam, you're an amazing director. You should try to get on the show." He sent them one short film and immediately gets called back that they want him on the show. He's on the show for about a minute—which is good because the show is ridiculous—and then he gets off the show. But it was just something to show people [who want] to see his work. After Evan, Lane and Adam did such a great job [with] Pop Skull, it got out there. Their work had such a great response that agencies were interested in Adam and he got signed to Endeavor.

Guillén: Another aspect that interested me in Pop Skull is its William Castle riff. The epilepsy warning….

Evan L. Katz: [Chuckles] Oh yeah, I know, prepare yourself! The Tingler is waiting!

Guillén: Nurses are on standby in the theater lobby! So, I'm curious, was that merely a marketing device? Or was that something you were legally advised to do?

Evan L. Katz: Adam actually had a short film play in the Sidewalk Film Festival a while back that had flashing and someone had an epileptic seizure. Adam was like, "Well, this has more so let's [provide a warning]!" At the same time Adam does have that same kind of [showmanship].

Guillén: Didn't you likewise pass out collectible Pop Skull pills at your Winnepeg Short Film Massacre screening?

Evan L. Katz: Yeah, that was Kier-la Janisse at the Winnepeg Cinematheque. She's really cool. She helps program for the SF IndieFest. She's programmed for the Fantastic Film Fest. She really championed Pop Skull. She made these free pills that she was passing out. That was her! That wasn't even the filmmakers.

Guillén: But they had the skull on them, like on the poster?

Evan L. Katz: Yeah.

Guillén: That's too cool.

Peter Katz: She's a really good promoter. She did this cool festival where people were locked into a theater for 24 hours and they had to pay to leave. They didn't have to pay to get in.

Guillén: Pop Skull had its North American premiere at AFI. Where has it gone since then?

Evan L. Katz: It played in Rome. It played at the Winnepeg Cinematheque. It's going to be playing at the Boston Underground. It's waiting on Telluride and Cinevegas and Seattle. And it's playing at the Over the Top Festival in Toronto, which is a music/film festival.

Guillén: And what is your hope? As producers are you hoping that at one of the film's festival screenings it will be picked up for distribution?

Evan L. Katz: Right now our sales reps are trying to get North American distribution separately. These festivals aren't markets. Right now we have Wild Bunch [in Europe] and Glenn Reynolds and Endeavor is our North American sales rep. Hopefully they'll get an art house small run. That's what they're working on separately. [The festival screenings are] just to get Pop Skull out there, to have some kids see it, and visit different places.

Guillén: Another intriguing aspect of Pop Skull is that it's a genre hybrid. As you indicated, Evan, it's more than a horror movie, even though I understand why you've pitched it as horror first. Robert Koehler at Variety grouped Pop Skull into a subgenre he calls "acid horror"—which, I don't find an accurate term; but, I understand what he's saying—how would you classify it?

Evan L. Katz: I come from more a straight genre background. I work primarily in horror genre. If you look back at some of the '70s ghost movies, they were sometimes more minimalist character studies, psychedelic even, and I loved those—films like Let's Scare Jessica to Death—they were kind of arty and kind of out there. I love an indie approach or an arthouse approach to horror because you get less and less of that nowadays. There's still room to mess around in the genre. I like Larry Fessenden a lot. He's a great talent. Watching Habit influenced me a lot when I was younger. He's doing more of this low-key indie Brooklyn movie about an alcoholic; but, it's also a vampire story. It's really cool.

Peter Katz: It feels like Pi. I like what Evan says about Habit because it has that toned down lo-fi quality, very realistic in a Larry Clark way where you get to know these characters, you're not pushing anything in your face, there's no gimmicks here. Then you have a little bit of that Pi element; that stirring quality of editing where things are unsettling and in-your-face soundscapes.

Guillén: Todd Brown at Twitch likewise drew that analogy, describing Adam's work as "equal parts Aronofsky and Tsukamoto." So what's next for you two?

Evan L. Katz: There's a bunch of stuff. The Writers Strike's probably going to end tonight—which is a great thing—but we have a million things we're doing. Right now me and Peter are producing Adam's next film, which is a gritty, dark, pulpy werewolf horror film. [Evan is grinning from ear to ear describing the film and his eyes are gleaming, which makes me laugh.] I like it because it's different than Pop Skull but it still takes place in more of a real world. You have this dark creature feature but it's based in a small town like Flint, Michigan.

At the same time, Adam's working on a script. He's obsessed with Herzog's Nosferatu. He wants to do a white trash version of that. He's working on a draft of that and he'll send it to me to do a rewrite. We're going to try to do a druggie lo-fi [version].

Guillén: Which leads me to admit that—rather than thinking of Pop Skull as "acid horror" and despite my reservations about mumblecore films—I think of Pop Skull as "mumblecore horror".

Evan L. Katz: You're not the first person to say that.

Guillén: Good! Then I'm not totally off mark.

Evan L. Katz: One other person has said that he's surprised that Pop Skull hasn't been lumped into [the mumblecore movement]. I guess we just don't know the people in that scene; it's an insular group. A lot of it seems to be comedy relationship dramas.

Guillén: More how I look at mumblecore is that the protagonists tend to be irredeemable losers, usually lower class or—as you mentioned—white trash, caught in miserable scenarios. Myself, I have some issue with that, just because I like happy endings and want to think people can rise above their circumstances; but, realistically, I completely understand why mumblecore films are finding an audience. Lots of people do feel like chumps and don't see a way out of their circumstances. They can't get the girl and—if they do get the girl—they lose her fast.

Peter Katz: Especially young people because they haven't established themselves. All these people and their potential is the X factor because they don't know what the future holds. Mumblecore is embraced by those kids.

Guillén: That being said, that's why I would classify Pop Skull as mumblecore horror, which is possibly the only thing about mumblecore I find intriguing: the notion that someone from a lower class or working class environment might be more prone to becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs, which then leads into this field—as I mentioned earlier—where the membrane is thinned and the darkness crosses over.

Evan L. Katz: The potential for bad shit just expands. One thing I think is cool about Pop Skull is that you get a break-up story and then you take it as far as you can go but you need to start off at least in a place where the guy is not like Norman Bates, he's not an over-the-top character actor chewing scenery running around. He seems like a regular kid. And then to take him to such a dark place in the end is like the worst this could go, the worst way this could end up.

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You have one last chance to have an epileptic seizure at this year's IndieFest when Pop Skull screens at the Roxie this evening at 9:30PM.

Cross-published on Twitch.

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