Thursday, March 3, 2011

From Conception to Screen: Rise of the Undead

The path a movie takes from conception to distribution is rarely the same. “Rise of the Undead” (my 1st movie) was conceived in January of 2003. Shannon Hubbell and I were finishing up our senior years at the University of New Orleans and wanted to tackle our 1st feature. Neither of us was too interested in doing a short and Panasonic had just released the DVX 100 the previous year. It was the 1st prosumer camcorder to shoot 24p. We were convinced we could pull off the production and with this new camera have something that didn't look like cheap video. So we set about writing a script and planned to co-produce and direct the feature together, along with our other friend Brandon Maughon.

Our completed script, then titled “Shelter: A Monster Movie” came in at 65 pages. Its pretty common knowledge that one page of script translates to approximately one minute of screen time. The proposed run time for a feature is 90 minutes. But we went ahead with production anyway; figuring that it was a horror flick and the suspense beats would stretch the runtime. 

****the final edit came in around 80 mins, this included an extremely overlong opening credit sequence and an insanely, crazy-long closing crawl with so many crew credits (way more than half are fake) it rivals The Lord of the Rings special editions. (I actually copied many of the positions from Fellowship of the Rings)
There's probably only 65 to 70 minutes of actual movie.

The script was written with the super low budget in mind. It all took place in one location; a warehouse of some sort that would stand in for a government complex where 7 strangers would seek refuge from an ongoing apocalypse. We were still students at UNO and our initial plan was to shoot in the PAC (performing arts complex.) It was a huge three-story complex, which would make a lovely government complex and would add much production value to our little movie. We contacted the head of the film dept and he gave us a go ahead. We couldn't really afford to create a good monster, so I had a brainstorm. The creature in the movie would suck all the light out of the room whenever it appeared. I thought it was extremely clever at the time, and I did have some cool ideas from lighting bits and pieces of the action with cellphones, but in the mad rush of production these ideas never came to fruition. 

We begun casting with a few actors we knew. Christian Recile, Whitney Getz and Kyle Jemison were friends. We cast them both before auditions. Brandon Maughon was also cast as Jim. It was around this time that Shannon and I decided that the two of us should direct without Brandon. It was felt that he’d be too busy acting. Of course to be honest, we just didn’t want to split the credit. But Brandon was super cool about the whole thing and was content just acting and producing. The plan was Shannon would be in charge of the visuals and I would work with the actors.

I then approached Leonard Zanders about playing the role of Judge, I had seen him on stage in a UNO production of Glen Gary Glen Ross. He accepted the role.
Then we had auditions for the remaining few roles.  I can’t remember exactly where we posted but the turnouts were less than stellar. I think we had 5 roles to fill and 6 actors showed up. We had our cast.

I filled out the rest of our crew with friend and acquaintances from UNO.
Then about 2 weeks before production the head of the film dept got cold feet about us shooting in the PAC. We had to find a new place. A buddy of ours was in a band. They practiced in this 5-story self-storage facility. It was an old hotel that had been converted. The top 3 floors were rented out to bands for practice. IT was an awesome location. The bottom floors looked more industrial. The top floors looked desolate and the halls we’re capped with barred doors that looked really cool.
I talked the building manager into letting us shoot there at night. The storage place closed at 9pm. We’d have the run of the building from 9pm till 6am. The only catch was the noise from practicing bands. So we planned the shoot for weekdays. Most bands practiced on the weekends. This provided the Shelter production with one of its toughest problems.

“We’d get these great takes going, super charged eight cylinders, all pistons pumping, and then I ‘d start picking up some Billy Joel cover band in my head phones. I mean, I like Billy Joel and all, but come on man, Uptown Girl?"
Blaine Cade / Boom Operator

We had only two days to shoot the zombie sequence. These were perhaps the two most stressful days of my life. The sequence was broken up into two major scenes, with both crowd shots, and crosscutting action. We had the entire cast and crew, plus close to a hundred extras in full zombie make-up to deal with on both of the days. We had about an hour to get them all into make up, and two hours to get all the crowd shots. Then we had just less than five hours to finish the rest of the scene, because we had to be out of the location by dawn. I still don’t know how we did it.

The movie was wrapped after 5 days of principal photography.  We had one other half-day of pickups aprox. One month later. 
Once we wrapped production we actually found ourselves without an editing system to finish the movie. We started working on a friend’s system, but it became apparent after a few weeks that it wasn’t going to work out.

In December 2003, Shannon got a computer around Christmas. We then started work editing. It was his and my first time editing an entire feature. By February we were about 70% done. Then disaster! The motherboard crashed and we lost all of our edit files. We hadn’t backed up to an external! Yeah, duh! All the work was lost. After about a week of crying we started over, re-digitizing and editing. We finished the edit around May of 2004. Then we started looking for a composer. Four months and 3 composers later we locked post on “Shelter: A Monster Movie.” It was Sept. 2004.

During the composing period I had begun sending screeners to film festivals. I continued after the score was done. I submitted to an average of 2 fests a month through January 2005. We got in nowhere.
 Then in March 2005, I submitted the screener to half a dozen distributors. 2 never got back to me. 2 turned it down. 2 made offers!  That same month we delivered “Shelter: A Monster Movie” to York Entertainment that same month. They changed the title to “Rise of the Undead” to play up the zombie angle and released the movie in May 2005, right after my birthday.

I had this to say about then.

“What can I say about Shelter?  It is a monster movie.  It is also a throw back to the more ambiguous horror films of the 70’s.  Today in most horror movies, in most movies period, everything is completely spelled out. Filmmakers treat audiences like idiots.  We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to leave things open to interpretation.  But, at the same time, we wanted to make a kick-ass, fun horror flick.  In that, I hope we succeeded.”

Jason Horton Co-Director

That was my director’s statement from the film festival production notes.  It was an idiom I took even further in Edges of Darkness, and is something I’ve pulled back from a bit in later projects.

Rise of the Undead has actually sold pretty well for York. It’s available in many countries including the US. It received mixed reviews, eh who am I kidding they were pretty much universally bad. If you look hard you’ll find a couple of positive press reviews.
It’s still available on Netflix, and Amazon.

***Some of the timeline maybe a bit off, I’m writing from memory. I know for sure we shot in summer 2003 and it was released in May 2005. The inbetween is up for debate. But I think it’s all pretty close.


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