Interview with ‘Plank Face’ director Scott Schirmer (Elder Fan Films)

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Indie films gives to viewers an opporttunity to wacth movies with a range of thematics and original s ideas that maybe in studios films you won’t be able to watch regullarly. Inside this wide spectrum i had the pleasure to talk with SCOTT SCHIRMER an indie filmmaker who has shot four film so far, standing out one after other, found in 2012 a recognitizion with his film “FOUND” winning many awards during its crossing in theaters. He gave me the chance to talk with him about his works and his upcoming projects.

EFF: Scott, first of all thank you for take your time out to answer these questions. When and how did you realize you wanted to be director or be involved into film industry?

SS: I was six when I saw ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ and that really sealed the deal for me. I’ve been on the filmmaking path ever since. That movie still inspires me, even though I’ve seen it a few hundred times now. It’s one of my top 5 favorites of all time, for sure. I don’t know how kids get interested in film today because it seems so much less magical than when I was a kid. I grew up on a farm in rural southern Indiana. We had no cable, no VCR, no internet. You had to entertain yourself. And when we went to the movies, we got dressed up, we had dinner, and we made a night of it. We often drove an hour or two out of town to the nearest theater where a film we wanted to see was playing. And I sat on the edge of my seat, ready to absorb every word and every frame because I never thought I’d see that movie again. So from as young as I can remember until I was at least 10 or 11, going to the movies was like going to church for me. I still think they hold tremendous power over us as a society. They don’t usually live up to that potential, but every now and then, one comes out and is universally embraced — those movies remind us of what we have in common, and we need more of that today than ever.

EFF: Where are you from Scott?

SS: I’m in Bloomington, Indiana, in the USA. I grew up a little bit south, in Hanover and Madison, Indiana, right along the Ohio river.

EFF: You started out your filmo, making a drama movie in 2001, right? Then you changed your thematic through these days to horror films, why you decided changed to horror genre?

SS: Yes, I made a few non-genre movies, long short films, really. But then in 2002, I shot “House of Hope,” and that was something that I conjured up after discovering horror. I never liked horror growing up, because the only horror I was ever subjected to were the slasher movies of the 80s. I’ve grown to enjoy those films as an adult, but as a kid, I took my movies very, very seriously. I didn’t like horror movies because they were so far-fetched and over the top. I didn’t even like The Princess Bride, because it was silly, and I liked my sci-fi and fantasy movies to be deadly serious as well. I guess I was weird. But then some friends in college introduced me to the 1974 “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “The Evil Dead,” and that really opened up a whole new genre to me. I fell in love with horror and have been in love with it ever since. I’m interested in making all kinds of movies, but I don’t think I’ll ever leave horror behind.

EFF: I will like to initiateasking you about “Found” i’ve found great reviews and comments about your movie, let me asking you,Is it true you literally found out this book called “Found” and contacted the author in order to make th movie? Tell us about it

SS: I worked at the publishing company where Todd Rigney published the book, and I fell in love with it right away. I read it in one sitting and immediately started stalking Todd on the internet. I found him without too much trouble and wrote him right away. He agreed to meet with me, and he literally made my dreams come true by giving me permission to film his story. I’ll always be grateful to him for that — it’s such a tremdous gift to get a story that compelling, something that speaks to you so personally and deeply. Todd can’t get enough credit for “Found”. The movie is very faithful to his book, which is a riveting, raw, incredible read.

EFF: Another thing is that you financed the movie by your own, your own money?

SS: Yes, after talking with Todd, I think it took me a year or two to save up enough money to buy a camera (Canon 7D), lights, sound equipment — I had to get everything. And that was about $8,000.00 I spent. No one was paid to make the movie, it all went toward equipment and catering for the most part. It was a real labor of love.

EFF: Obviously the low money handicap puts over any filmmaker that many problems could comes out from out of nothing, but tell me what setbacks you can tell us you faced in during this movie?

SS: Money didn’t set us back, really. Timing did, though. The hardest part about making “Found” was that we shot it for 32 days spread out over almost 8 months. We had to do it that way because our lead actor was in junior high school. We managed to get a lot of it shot before summer ended, but once school was back in session, we could only shoot on the weekends. So the schedule dragged on forever and it became a real test of endurance. Money is always nice, of course, but since the cast and crew were all in it for the passion, and all our location owners were kind enough to let us use their locations free of charge, I never felt like lack of money was holding us back.

EFF: What did you learn making this movie? How does this film changed you, professionally and personally?

SS: I think everyone learns from every movie they make. “Found” was a project I loved more than I’d ever loved a project before. And prior to “Found,” I had actually decided to quit making movies. It had been 5 or 6 years since I shot anything, because the last few projects I made were so incredibly difficult and unrewarding. If DSLR cameras hadn’t come along to revolutionize indie filmmaking, I would not have made “Found”. But also, if I had never found a story I loved that much, I wouldn’t have returned to filmmaking either. “Found” taught me that every movie needs to be like a love affair. You can’t just crank movies out left and right unless you really, really care about them. Because they take an immense amount of time and attention to see through to completion. If you don’t love them with all your heart, you will probably come to see them as a chore, and you might very well quit working on them. You might give up. Your passion for the project is what fuels you through all the hard times, long nights, compromises, and completion. When I get involved in a movie now, the main question I have to ask myself is, “Do I love this story enough to spend the next 6 months of my life devoted entirely to it?” Because it takes us about 6 months to get a movie off the ground, shot, and edited. We spend even longer promoting and marketing all our films, but you really have to be prepared to live, eat, and breathe that individual film for about 6 months. So you better love the hell out of it.

EFF: Now, after that you’ve made two movies so far, “HARVEST LAKE” and “PLANK FACE“, they were released the last year (2016), and beside that, you were writer too. How did you get involve in these movies and why decided to make them?

SS: Brian K. Williams and I worked on a for-hire job during the summer of 2015 and really hit it off. We decided we wanted to make a movie together, and we both had a little bit of money to scrape together to invest in it. So we did. With “Harvest Lake” and “Plank Face,” Brian and I sat around for a few nights and pulled those stories out of thin air. They stem from ideas we’ve had for a long time, but we really hammered them into narratives together and put them immediately into production because we’re both trying to be full-time filmmakers right now. We HAVE to be making a movie at all times, or we will literally starve to death. So we’re always talking about other projects and trying to set aside time to develop next year’s movies so we don’t run out of ideas or viable projects to work on. We would LOVE to work with other people’s material, but its really hard to initiate and keep those kinds of relationships going.

EFF: All the filmmakers uses or employs references from differents films into their films, what influences can we see on these movies, can you explain to us?

SS: I grew up on Spielberg and Lucas movies, so I’m sure you’ll see a little of them in my work. I’m not sure where, but it just seems inevitable. I love Peter Weir because he mixes reality with visual poetry in a way that I find really beguiling. And I love to work in wide shots and close-ups, because I think the juxtaposition of the two is where the real power of cinema lies. People attribute that sort of thing to Sergio Leone a lot. But I really don’t try to emulate anyone. Ever since I started working on “Found,” I’ve been trying to discover my own voice and my own style. It doesn’t do any filmmaker any good to try and be the next Kevin Smith or the next Quentin Tarantino, because you will only be a watered down version of those artists. Be your own thing, and be the best version of it that you can be. That’s bound to strike a chord with audiences more than being a hack or a pale imitation of someone else.

EFF: How did you go with these two films, at festivals and on audience response?

SS: I entered “Found” in about 80 festivals worldwide, because I didn’t know any better and I thought that was what you’re supposed to do. I’ll never do that again, because it cost a few thousand dollars to enter all those festivals, but I don’t have any regrets because we had about a 50% acceptance rate. It played at over 40 festivals and won, I think, 15 or 17 best picture awards. It was amazing, and kind of unheard of. Festivals can be great. They can get your film reviews and exposure, and there’s a slim chance that they can help you get the interest of distributors, but I’ve met enough other filmmakers to know that distributors are no longer the goal for many of us anymore. Distributors can’t be trusted. If you ask 10 indie filmmakers, 9 of them will tell you they have never been paid. I’ve discovered that you can keep your film and distribute it yourself, and you will make much more money than you will through most distribution deals. I will license my films in foreign countries where the distributor will be able to subtitle or dub the film and help it reach a wider audience, but only if they pay me up front. You HAVE to get the money up front, or you will never ever, ever see it. Audiences at festivals are usually very receptive to my work. But I think that’s because they know what they’re in for. They know they are at a film festival where you see independent films that strive to achieve based on ideas and execution under the limited means. The best festivals I attended were the Phoenix Film Festival, the Nevermore Film Festival, and Elvira’s Horror Hunt. But since I don’t want to sell my films to distribution companies, festivals aren’t as important to me anymore. We enter a few that we like, or are nearby, or if they are affordable, but we don’t let festivals play a large role in our release strategies. And I advise other indie filmmakers to do the same thing, really. Don’t wait for permission to make a movie, and don’t wait for a film festival to validate it. It’s just one tool. You gotta use everything in the arsenal to get a film out there these days.

EFF: how do you handle the casting process for your movies, maybe in one of two last made, could you tell us what aspect did you try to get from your actors?

SS: We are fortunate enough to know many other indie filmmakers, and all of us share notes and recommend actors to each other. We never hold auditions. Living in Indiana, you just rarely discover good talent that way. We find actors on the internet, watch their acting reels, write them and see what happens. But, we usually work with people we’ve already worked with in the past — it’s just easier and more fun to work with people you know and love. But we also try to add at least one or two new people with each movie. Tristan Risk and Kevin Roach were new on Harvest Lake, and Nathan Barrett was new on Plank Face. Allison Maier is new on Space Babes from Outer Space. We’ve been really lucky with all the new talent we’ve worked with, but we’re also very cautious about them. We vet them and stalk them on the internet, and try to get some recommendations for them before we take a chance on them. Because you don’t want to make a movie with assholes — that’s the worst! We’ve been lucky. So far, no assholes. As far as trying to “get” something from my actors, I always wish we had more time to rehearse and shoot the movies. Because I think that’s where a director can really have fun with actors. But we rarely get a chance to try things many different ways, or to improve them substantially. Instead, I have to really be careful casting and get the best people possible, so that I don’t have to direct them much, to be honest. Fearlessness is my favorite quality in an actor, because if you’re not afraid to make a fool of yourself or try anything, then I know you can probably do whatever it is the role needs you to do. I can’t rev an actor up, I can’t make them act scared or terrified, or terrifying. But I can ask them to tone it down if they’re doing too much. So I like knowing they will go there, all the way to the max, because if they can, our bases are covered. That was a very big deal with Gavin Brown on “Found,” because he carries that picture. I had to talk with him prior to filming and make sure he made me believe that he could cry and get emotional without being embarrassed or afraid. And he promised me he would do his best, and it was challenging at times, but he did do his best and we got there, and he’s great in the movie. Casting Nathan in “Plank Face” was similarly distressing, because the guy playing his role simply couldn’t have any fear. He has to be completely naked half the film, constantly screaming or in pain, kicked, beat up, wearing a mask that makes you half-blind. You have to make sure the actor is brave and fearless enough to pull that kind of thing off, and Nathan hit it out of the park. I love him in “Plank Face.”

 

EFF: From “Found” you think your professionally life has changed,do you feel that is easier for you try to pitch out a film due that experience?

SS: Not as much has changed as some people might think. I never got rich, because the distributors barely paid me anything. Blumhouse isn’t knocking at my door yet. But slowly and surely, “Found,” “Headless,” “Harvest Lake,” “Plank Face,” and soon, “Space Babes from Outer Space,” continue to soak out there. More and more people find and see them, reviews continue popping up… and I’m hopeful. I’ve made more money self-distributing movies than any distribution deals, so that’s very much where I think the future is at. It’s barely keeping me alive right now, so I’m desperately hoping that our fan-base will grow and that our movies will reach a wider audience so I can keep doing this.

EFF: What horror movies you like the most?

SS: I am a big fan, but I will be the first to say I don’t like most horror movies. Some people out there love them all, and I’m not like that. I’m hard on all the genres, and horror is full of a lot of crap. That’s the main reasons I dismissed the genre as a kid. But, man, “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is a fucking masterpiece. I will forever be chasing that movie. “Evil Dead,” “Jaws,” “Alien,” “American Werewolf in London,” “The Thing (1982),” “Gremlins,” “Poltergeist,” “Dawn of the Dead,” and more recently “The Witch,” “The Descent,” “The Midnight Meat Train”, “Eden Lake,” — those are some of the ones I really admire. I also have a soft spot for Jason and Freddy, though.

EFF: What cameras, equipments did you use in these films and why those ones in special?

SS: We used a Canon 7D on “Found,” because it was the best I could afford at the time, and it did a great job for us. I’d shoot another movie with a 7D, no problem. You just have to be sure and light it a little brighter than you would with some other cameras because that camera isn’t especially good in the dark. But once I started working with Brian, we use his camera — a Black Magic Pocket Cinema camera, which is actually more affordable than a 7D these days. It’s incredible picture quality, and does amazingly in low light. A very beautiful image. The camera is so tiny and not the most user-friendly, but if you get it on a good rig, it’s one of the best you could use today, I think. I have no interest in using big, expensive cameras for the sake of using them — I want whatever looks great. Right now, we are loving the Black Magics. We both like the 2.35:1 aspect ratio (or 2.40:1 as it is more recently), because it helps make movies look different from home videos. Back in the 1950s, Hollywood invented wide-screen to compete with television, and I feel we have to do the same today to compete with YouTube and everything else that’s out there — all the 16×9 stuff. So we love the wider ratio of 2.35, and I find it’s much more fun to compose shots within those dimensions than any other.

EFF: what advice would you give to new-filmmakers, and what camera and accessories can you recommend them to make a low budget film with high quality?

SS: First, I’d try to scare people away from making movies. The market is more saturated that ever before, hard formats are withering away into non-existence, and no one’s making money from streaming or on-demand options. The industry is imploding and no one really knows if its going to survive, or if it will be recognizeable when we finally hit bottom. Piracy and torrenting, combined with our economy problems, are really killing cinema, slowly and surely. We may never see another indie film boom like we saw in the 90s. And Hollywood isn’t immune to this. Big time producers like Gale Anne Hurd are on record saying piracy is going end us, basically. If you think about it, a movie like “Batman” in 1989 made $50 million its opening weekend and that was a huge deal.

Now here we are decades later, and it’s kind of a big deal when a movie makes just $30 or $40 million its opening weekend. The bar has dropped considerably. Studios used to make most of their money domestically, then half, and now they make most of their money overseas. Too many people feel movies have no real value anymore, and so they don’t pay to see them in a theater or rent them through a reputable source. Instead they watch them illegally, and this is very much hurting me and everyone who makes movies. Because if films stop having value, we won’t be able to earn a living making them, and then they won’t be made. So my advice is to be prepared for a lot of hard work and heartache, because if you want to make a living doing this, it is about the hardest thing I can imagine doing. Any other career will likely make you more money. And don’t expect your first couple of movies to be worth showing to people. Seriously. Give yourself permission to make a couple of shitty movies that you learn from, but don’t expect them to get into festivals and make you famous.

I made a ton of shitty movies before I made “Found”. Few of us are prodigies, so adjust your expectations and prepare to learn from your experiences. And technology wise, it’s never been easier. You can get a Black Magic Pocket Cinema camera or a Canon DSLR for under a thousand dollars. There’s several different pieces of editing software. I love Vegas Video, Brian loves Adobe Premiere. You get those things, a good computer to run that software on, a good sound recording device and a shotgun microphone to attach, and at least 3 good LED lights, then you’re ready to make a movie. These things aren’t free, but they’re affordable. Or, HELL. If your story’s good enough, no one’s going to care if you shoot it with your phone.

EFF: And by last but not least, what is new on your career, any upcoming film?

SS: Brian and I are in post-production on “Space Babes from Outer Space” which is a sex comedy — very different for us, but we think our fans are really going to enjoy it. The world is so nasty today, it will be good to make audienes laugh instead of cringe for a change. We’re launching a pre-order campaign for it in the next week or so. We have other horror movies we want to make and will probably go into production on one before this summer. If all goes well, we will shoot a third movie this summer or fall. Fingers crossed!

Scott Schirmer

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