Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Automatons for the People

As I promised long ago, I have an interview here with James Felix McKenney, the writer-director of AUTOMATONS. Jim is a friend and an example of a guy doing it his way, and making a name for himself as a filmmaker.

What was the genesis for AUTOMATONS?

I worry that I've told this story too many times, but it's the truth. When I was about five years old, I was watching TV with my uncle. I have no idea what we were watching, it could have been FORBIDDEN PLANET or an episode of “Lost in Space”, I have no idea. I just remember that there were robots. I asked my uncle what we were watching and he told me that this was an entire genre of its own. Obviously, he was referring to science fiction, but I took him as meaning that there were all kinds of movies out there with robot movies battling one another, like cowboys and Indians or armies in war films. I searched for these films on TV for years. I was crushed when I got older, home video came along and I found out that they films didn’t exist. So I vowed to change that.

After many years of planning, I managed to talk Larry Fessenden into letting me make it as part of the ScareFlix series. He was hesitant at first, because it's more of a science fiction film than horror. I felt that the idea of a never-ending war and being trapped alone in a bunker was pretty horrifying, but I knew what he meant -- where are the scares? So I added the element that The Girl's robot companions could turn on her at any moment and attack her in her sleep. He was happy with that and I fell it added few moments of much-need action to the film. So I got to make my robot movie-- a dream come true.

How did you achieve so much unique production design for your movie - the bunker, the video screens, the robots?

I didn't put too much thought into it really. I had spent enough time in my life imagining what everything should look like in a robot movie that it was just a matter of plucking the sets and things out of my memory and building them in real life. I was just looking at my sketchbook and there are only eight drawings in there that were used for AUTOMATONS -- sets, robot suits, props, everything, eight rough sketches. The rest just came down to verbal descriptions and the imaginations of the people putting stuff together.
Also, in many situations, the materials that we had dictated the design. Don Wood and I found these sheets of Styrofoam that are used as forms to pour concrete into at Home Depot. They had such a great shape, that we began calling it "sci-fi foam." Don used it for the wall around the airlock and the girl's planter to give the thing a classic science fiction look and at the same time the clean lines provide a contrast to the piles of junk everywhere to indicate that at one time the society used futuristic materials before everything fell apart.

As we were shooting, a need for certain props would come up: weapons, a crude wrist communicator -- and Laree Love and Don would just dig through all of the junk lying around and cobble something together. Most of the people in our regular crew have day jobs at contractors, particularly electricians, so most of the set decoration is scrap left over from jobs they did. We also got a lot of TV sets from yard sales and thrift stores and took them apart.

A local artist named Jeanine Gerding built the full size robots. She builds all kinds of crazy things for the big shop windows in midtown Manhattan. She found out about the project and insisted that she built our robots. I was kind of shy about it at first. I couldn't pay her anything and didn't want to impose, but she refused to take no for an answer. I gave her a couple of drawings and she built us fourteen beautiful robot suits.

The miniature ones were made from motorized toys that I took apart and then Laree Love, with minimal assistance from me, customized them to resemble their full-size counterparts.

Why shoot on B&W film? What aesthetic were you trying to achieve with it?
I hate things that look to glossy or clean. I need some sort of atmosphere or texture to latch onto. I also like things to be slightly obscure. My ideal image is one that looks like it was beamed in from somewhere in deep space many many years ago. That was what I was going for. I'd shoot everything in B&W super-8, bury it in the ground for ten years and then dig it up and process it, if my producers would let me.

How hard was it to light the movie?

Not hard at all. The whole thing was done on a closed set with no natural light sources at all. So we could just place lights wherever we wanted. Our DP is really great with lighting, so I just stayed out of the way and our AC Jeremiah Kipp just made sure he didn't take too long. But as good as he is with the lighting, he isn't the best camera operator and a huge chunk of the film was underexposed in the camera. That broke my heart, as the stuff that was shot at the correct exposure was beautiful. I spent days in post trying to brighten the thing up without washing out the blacks.

You had two "stars" for your movie - Angus Scrimm and John Levene - how'd you get them?
I had done films with both of them before. I wrote a part in THE OFF SEASON with Angus in mind. Never really thought about actually getting him, he's just who I imagined in the part. When we were doing preproduction for the film, I came across and ad somewhere for a convention here on the East Coast that Angus would be appearing at during the week that we were going to shoot. The producer, Larry Fessenden, took that as a sign and suggested that we should try and get him, as he would be in the neighborhood anyway. Tony Timpone at Fangoria put me in touch with Angus' agent and we got him! He's the sweetest man in the world. I want to work with him over and over again.

John lived near me back when I lived in Burbank, CA. He used to come into the copy shop that I worked at. I asked him to be in CANNIBALLISTIC! and he said "sure". He's a really fun guy and great to work with, so I wanted to bring him back for my next film, SATAN HATES YOU, to play the same character that he was in CANNIBALLISTIC!

When I was in LA shooting Angus' scenes for AUTOMATONS, I figured I could get a jump on things and shoot John's stuff for SATAN HATES YOU while I was out there. Suddenly it occurred to me that here I was making a robot movie that was strongly influenced by Doctor Who and I had one of the original series' cast members in front of me and I wasn't using him! What a missed opportunity! So I quickly wrote a few lines for him, gave him one of Angus' costumes and shot the cameo. I would have killed myself if I had let that slip by.

(Editor's note: I was pissed that Jim came to town and I had to hear about all this after the fact. I would have worked for free. )

How long was the shoot?

Four hours in LA for Angus. Fourteen days in Brooklyn for the bulk of the film and then maybe a week or two's worth of weekends and evenings for the puppets and effects.

How long was pre-production? Post-production?

I have to confess that I always break the cardinal rule of low-budget filmmaking: I do very little pre-production. I can do this mainly because I do most of the work myself, so there's no need for 15 meeting every time a decision needs to be made. Also, I like to try things out on the set. With a very small crew of people that you work with all the time, we can do that without wasting time. If everything were mapped out ahead of time, I probably wouldn't be interested in the actual shoot. It would already be done and the joy of discovering things during the shooting process would be lost. I don't recommend this method for anybody, but it works for me.

Postproduction was probably a couple of months working nights and weekends to get he cut and rough sound design, and then another week or so for effects. All of that I did myself. Then Graham Reznick did some more sound work on it and did the final mix over a couple of weeks while he was working on several other projects, including his own film I CAN SEE YOU.
For a movie filled with effects, it took a lot less time to finish than my other film that had only practical ones. I'd say that was due to the rough aesthetic of the film. It gave me a lot more wiggle room. Everything didn't have to be perfect. If it was perfect, then it wouldn't match the style of the film.

How did your budget dictate how you wrote the script?

Well, because this was meant to look low budget, not as much as it would usually. I was only wanted two indoor locations and a miniature landscape set, so I didn't have to scale back the amount of locations as one would normally. I also didn't worry about not having enough actors to play various bit parts, as I would force members of the crew to do it. Which is exactly what happened.

How were all the robot FX achieved?

As I mentioned earlier, they were the guts of toys stuck inside our own custom bodies. After we were done shooting the "big people". We built a landscape, put the robots on it and started blowing them up with little explosives Noah DeFilippis and Laree Love made by taking the powder out of fireworks.

All of the marching and close ups were done in my apartment on a smaller landscape that I made with a green screen backdrop. Those robots were puppets that Laree worked from below, two at a time. I then layered them digitally to make it look like and army was on the move. I also added the laser blasts and additional explosions and effects digitally, not by altering the actual film as some reviewers have suggested.

What's your involvement with Scareflix?

ScareFlix is something that Larry Fessenden always wanted to do. He's a horror director, but his own disposition makes him lean toward making more "art horror". But he loves the more traditional genre stuff, especially monster movies. It's just not in him to direct one, but he always wanted to start a line of films where he could do so vicariously through other filmmakers.
I showed him CANNIBALLISTIC! and he challenged me to make something else. I dug out an old script and made THE OFF SEASON for him and ScareFlix was born.

Ti West's THE ROOST followed, then AUTOMATONS, Ti West's TRIGGER MAN, which is premiering at SxSW this year and features a cameo by yours truly. The newest is Graham Reznick's I CAN SEE YOU, which is in post. Next up is Glenn McQuaid's I SELL THE DEAD with Larry, Dominic (LOST) Monaghan and Ron Perlman.

I'm usually credited as Associate Producer on these films. I used to run the office, take care of a lot of general support duties and be heavily involved in distribution. I'm spending less time in the office these days, so I'm starting to move away from all of that.

What do you do when you're not making movies?

Do you mean "What's my day job?" I work for Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix, mainly in the capacity I just mentioned. It's great since he's also the producer on my last two films; I was able to make some of the duller business aspects of getting my films made part of my regular workday. Lately, I'm not doing any administrative stuff, mostly design, copy-writing and web stuff, which is more fun to me. Filmmaking has become a huge part of my life. When I'm not working on one of my film's, or Larry's or one of the ScareFlix, I'm watching tons of films. The weirder the better.

Then I tell people about them on my silly little blog:, also known as named for Reggie Bannister's line in PHANTASM.

How many scripts have you written? What is your process?

God, I have no idea! I used to write a lot of spec scripts that pretty much went nowhere. I've done some work-for-hire projects and some polishing and rewrites on other people's scripts. I've learned that co-writing doesn't really work for me, as I tend to just let things fly out of me very quickly and the whole back and forth thing kills me. I would call the GIRLS WTH GUNS thing that I did for you an exception, because you allowed me to just burn out a first draft and hand it over to you for you to work on your own. That's ideal. It's the meeting and the rewrites that kill me.

( A long time ago, I was looking to put a project together with two female leads who take on a gang of ruthless bank robbers who stole one of the women's child during a heist. I didn't have time to write it as my day job at Omega Entertainment was gearing up for pre-production on .COM FOR MURDER. I hired Jim for the princely sum of $500 to crank out a first draft of GIRLS WITH GUNS based on my 10 pages of story notes and some pictures I had of girls with tattoos and guns. I have recently been taking a look at Jim's draft and making a new outline...)

I generally get an idea and walk around with it for a long time, so that when I sit down to put it on paper it all happens very quickly. I rarely write for the sake of writing. Nowadays I just write when it's time to make a movie. I just finished the full script for SATAN HATES YOU, segment of which I had already filmed two years ago! I've been walking around with that one for five years.

What do you count as among your influences?

Watching movies late at night on a tiny black & white TV with a coat hanger for an antenna; THE BIRDS, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, INVADERS FROM MARS, GODZILLA movies Universal and Hammer horror, and great TV shows like "The Prisoner", "Thunderbirds" and "Doctor Who". When I got older, it was having a video rental shop open in my town with a cult movie section. I rented every film in that section. I think I was the only one. I love David Lynch, John Waters, George Romero, Don Coscarelli.
Of course comic books are a huge influence. Huge.

You've also written and directed CANNIBALLISTIC and THE OFF SEASON. Give us some background on those movies and how they prepared you for AUTOMATONS.

CANNIBALLISTIC I made when I got tired of people turning down my spec scripts. I had just spent a year doing rewrites and going to meetings for this script that my friend Rich and I had written that had been optioned by an independent producer and nothing came of it. I was fed up and decided to make my own movie. I made it with all of my old friends who I used to do theatre with in Boston. We shot it with $8,000 I earned working for the Census Bureau and some borrowed equipment at my parent's house in Maine. That was how I learned to make a movie.

THE OFF SEASON was a reworking of one of those old spec scripts. It was originally called "The Rainy Season" and set in LA. We shot it in Maine and it was a hellish shoot. We fell so far behind; I cut twenty-two scenes out of the script while we were shooting. It's too traumatic to go into detail, but it was just a bad shoot. In hindsight, I wish I had written something new instead of trying to rework a ghost story that I had written six years previously, before films like RING had flooded the market with similar, less quirky and restrained films.
Angus would argue with me, he LOVES that film and there are other people who do as well, but they're in the minority. Anyway, THE OFF SEASON was the one where I learned from my mistakes.

Please mention all of the folks involved in the production you feel deserve it and any and all interesting anecdotes which show the perils of low budget films.

Well, Noah DeFilippis and Laree Love are our workhorses. Like me, they're from Maine. They're the grips, gaffers, drivers, carpenters, sometimes actors and everything else during filming.
Here's a story about Laree: When he was a kid, about eight years old, his mom and uncle took him to the drive-in to see Phantasm. At one point the adults got so scared that they would not stop screaming and eventually Laree's uncle peed his pants! No lie. It really faked out little Laree and he had nightmares about the Tall Man for years.

Twenty years or so later, we're shooting THE OFF SEASON in Maine and Angus' flight is coming in at around 10:30pm. I of course, send Larry to pick him up ALONE. He then had to drive the source of his nightmares through the dark woods of Maine for about a half an hour. One again, he was freaked out. But he said it helped that Angus is such a nice guy. They're friends now.

Noah also did all of the music for THE OFF SEASON, most of the music for CANNIBALLISTIC! and some stuff for AUTOMATONS. He probably would have scored more for AUTOMATONS, but he and his wife had a baby during postproduction.

David Hale, who was the DP on all three films, also recently had a kid. I worry about their involvement in future MonsterPants projects, as it's really hard to keep the kind of schedule that low-budget filmmaking requires while being fair to and feeding a family. So I've begun putting stuff in Laree Love and Don Wood's food to make sure that they are never able to breed.

I've known Don for twenty years. He's a good actor who I also depend on to get a lot of work done behind the scenes. If you've seen him on "Colonial House" or "In a Fix", you'll know he's also a carpenter and that really comes in handy. He's been there to talk me down more than once when things are going wrong and I begin to lose it. That's extremely valuable, because if the captain begins veering off course, the whole thing is sunk.

Any distribution info you may have to relate - how you got your flick in front of people's eyes so they could spread the word? What worked PR wise and what didn't?

It's hard to say what works and what doesn't. As you know, the distribution world is constantly changing and with, even more so now with everybody and their dog making digital features. The days of selling a movie on a poster are long gone.
I sold CANNIBALLISTIC! in 2001 just by carrying around a trailer at the AFM and showing it to anybody who would look at it. I also got ripped off. The company who bought it put out one of the shoddiest DVD releases I've ever seen and then vanished from the face of the earth without paying me a cent. But still, I was happy that my little $8,000 first shot at filmmaking got any sort of a release, not to mention rave reviews in both Rue Morgue and Shock Cinema!

I don't recall doing too much to get THE OFF SEASON out there. It got a lot of early press because Larry and Angus were attached to it and we started getting inquiries. I never submitted it to any festivals or anything. It was picked up by an acquisitions company and released on DVD by Lionsgate in no time. The lesson here is the value of having a name in your film, specifically a genre name. Fangoria gave us all kinds of press before we had even finished shooting and it wasn't because of anything I was doing. Yeah, I sent them press releases, but those releases had the names Fessenden and Scrimm in them.

Who knows what'll happen with AUTOMATONS? It's been in a few festivals, has had theatrical runs in both New York City and Chicago, and has received some amazing reviews. When the New York Times review came out, we received all sorts of requests from distributors who wanted to see it. And then they saw it and had no idea what to do with the film. The truth is, despite the critical success, AUTOMATONS is a hard movie to sell. It's an odd little film, aimed at a very specific audience. The thing that really kills it is that it's in black & white. Not a good thing if you want to sell a film to Blockbuster.

We're about to launch our first push to sell to a DVD distributor. It seems right now that our first targets should be art labels (who are going to say it's too quirky) and cult film labels (who are going to say it looks too cheap). Neither type of label is going to shell out tons of money, but that's okay, as the film didn't cost very much to make! We'll see...


Christopher Sharpe said...

Great interview. I've GOT to see this movie!

Kelly J. Crawford said...

Excellent interview, Bill!

Cunningham said...

I just came up with the questions. Jim did the heavy lifting.

Glad you liked it.