Vancouver’s indie filmmakers make horror on the cheap

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Here’s my piece that ran as the cover story in the Georgia Straight‘s Halloween 2003 issue.

By Steve Newton

Ten years ago, Robert Rodriguez caused a sizable stir in the movie world when he managed to bring in his first film, El Mariachi, for a purported cost of US$7,000. That was an unheard-of sum for a feature, but Vancouver filmmaker Vince D’Amato, president of Creepy Six Films, is going one better. The 28-year-old director is making a full-length horror flick called Human Nature for only $3,000—Canadian! Of course, it helps that he’s shooting on digital video, a tool that can turn even the most cash-strapped cinema buff into an auteur.

And it doesn’t hurt that the film’s main location is the garage in his mom’s Burnaby duplex.

It’s from the rafters of that cluttered enclosure that D’Amato’s fiancée, Creepy Six vice-president Nicole Hancock, hangs half-naked, one eye mutilated, blood running down her face to a mangled breast. She’s playing a victim of a psycho serial killer, and thanks to the makeup effects of Ryan Nicholson—who stands at the ready, blood-red applicator in hand—she’s looking quite the corpse.

“I’m supposed to have a gag in my mouth, according to the script,” she points out, but D’Amato nixes that idea and, from his vantage point behind the camera, instructs the cramped crew on the particulars of the next scene. While he does, executive producer Damien Foisy and president of production Rob Carpenter drag in a stained old mattress, which Hancock is expected to land on when her bindings are cut by the film’s sadistic villain. Before D’Amato calls for action, the trussed-up Hancock asks Nicholson to adjust her slipping dress, and a member of the crew quips, “Yeah, could be embarrassing.” That garners chuckles all around, but Hancock’s not overly amused.

“Don’t make me laugh,” she warns. “I’ll crack my face.”

After several takes, in which the killer (Donnie Lucas) enters the room with another bound victim (Cynthia Potvin), someone notices a barely audible sound impinging on the shoot. At first, the little kid playing video games in the next room is suspect, but after he’s shut down the faint noise continues. Just when blame is about to fall on the neighbours’ stereo, an observant Hancock detects the real culprit.

“You know what? Your mom’s radio is on in the living room,” she tells her mate, and someone is dispatched to quell the disturbance. (D’Amato’s 61-year-old mother reads all of his scripts, he claims, and is very supportive of his work, her only regular complaint being about excessive swearing. The exploitation-of-women angle doesn’t bother her. “She sees it really from a business point of view,” the director notes. “She always thinks that we could use more blood and tits.”)

Half an hour later, when the scene is shot to D’Amato’s satisfaction, Hancock and Nicholson repair to the upstairs kitchen, where the gored-up actor has some nice potato-leek soup simmering on the stove. As Nicholson dabs at her face with alcohol to remove the makeup that took two-and-a-half hours to apply, the Victoria-born Hancock explains how she and D’Amato formed Creepy Six Films in 2000. Turns out she was Vince’s boss at a soul-sucking corporate video outlet she chooses not to name but which Nicholson reveals when he blurts out “Ballbuster”.

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“Vince liked that I was very organized,” relates the 31-year-old Hancock. “And being an artiste, he is not very organized.” D’Amato’s future wife was recruited to help with his first project, a vampire flick called Jenny Jacks that never got finished.

“He brought in friends and was working around everybody else’s schedule,” Hancock recalls, “and things just don’t work that way. I tried to organize that as best as I could, and then I basically said, ‘You know what? You gotta call it quits; we’ll do another one.’ ”

D’Amato followed up Jenny Jacks by writing and directing Corpse-O-Rama, a $10,000 project that Hancock coproduced and worked on as first camera assistant, script supervisor, co-editor, and sound designer. The film was actually reviewed by famed drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs. “Twenty-three dead bodies,” Briggs wrote in his summation. “Skinhead head-bashing. Elbow to the face. Head-stomping. Scissors to the spine. Herky-jerky zombie action. Multiple strangulation. Severed-head brain-biting. Acid to the face. Cleaver-hacking. Blood-sucking. Heads roll. Cat’s claws roll. Kung Fu. Throwing-star Fu.” Then he gave the movie Drive-in Academy Award nominations “for doing things the drive-in way”.

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Creepy Six has also produced a campy update of Sheridan LeFanu’s lesbian vampire novel, Carmilla, and a short film titled “Heads Are Gonna Roll”. Both featured American B-movie veteran Brinke Stevens, whose credits include Haunting Fear, Bad Girls From Mars, and Teenage Exorcist. But it’s not as though the company was in the position to throw stacks of cash at the established scream queen. Hancock says that it’s been a struggle to keep the company afloat its first few years.

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“Because you’re working with such a low budget, there’s challenges all the time. And you’re really relying on people to keep their word for things. But it’s really fulfilling—ow, my eye is burning…it’s really fulfilling when you’re able to start something from a piece of paper and do all the work to get it going. We’ve had the same team for at least four years now, and it seems like the good people always stick around. The people that are maybe a bit more into the ego thing just can’t take it, and they’re gone.”

Apart from using digital video in private locations—Human Nature is being shot over seven days in three houses, an office, and a back yard—the Creepy Six principals keep costs down by renting equipment and editing rooms at special rates provided by Cineworks, a local society for independent filmmakers.

Another way they get the biggest bang for their bucks is by having experienced makeup-FX artists like Nicholson lend a hand (or decapitated head). His Burnaby-based company, Flesh & Fantasy, has designed gruesome effects for such hit Hollywood films as Final Destination and Scary Movie; Nicholson is currently working on the locally shot Chronicles of Riddick, which sees Tinseltown macho man Vin Diesel return to his role as the monosyllabic killing machine from Pitch Black. He’s also a regular contributor to TV’s Andromeda and Da Vinci’s Inquest, and several of his finest creations from those shows are now on display at Granville Optical, at the corner of Granville and Robson streets.

So what’s a guy with a Gemini Award for makeup doing on a seriously low-rent project like Human Nature? “Well,” Hancock ponders, a big smile spreading across her ravaged face, “Ryan is a really, really good guy. And when and if—when we make money off this movie—he will get fairly paid, just like everybody else will. And we’ve done a few things for him.”

D’Amato and Hancock helped Nicholson do a budget breakdown for a low-budget film he hopes to make, so he’s basically returning the favour. But the 31-year-old makeup-FX ace has other reasons for delving into the indie-film world. “I have a funner time doin’ this stuff than doin’ the big shows,” he claims, “because on this the people appreciate it. You know, Vince and Nicki and the crew, they actually care what I think, as opposed to workin’ on a show where you don’t even talk to a director, necessarily. You talk to somebody else and they don’t really give two shits about what it is.”

Nicholson first hooked up with the Creepy Six gang when they hired him to deliver a gory ending for Carmilla, which involved the titular bloodsucker’s torso being ripped apart. They even offered his nine-year-old son, Taylor—the kid engaged in Mortal Kombat downstairs—some screen time as a little zombie who shows up to chomp on the entrails. Nicholson says he isn’t concerned about his offspring getting traumatized by all the lurid goings-on surrounding his craft.

“He’s been around it his whole life,” the avid gore-hound says, “and he’s actually my biggest critic. I mean, today he came up and said, ‘It doesn’t look real! It looks fake!’ ”

When pros like Nicholson aren’t available, Hancock has been known to take on the self-described role of “keeper of the blood” herself. “I like the gore part,” she insists. “Vince woke up one morning at 7 o’clock and I was on an FBI site looking up shotgun wounds, because I wanna try and make it look realistic. I know if something hits my gag reflex, then it’s gonna hit somebody else’s.”

ED BRISSON knows a bit about the gag reflex, too. Through his Vancouver-based company, Fizz Films, the 28-year-old director has already produced two short works, “Living With the Dead” and “Graveyard”, which test people’s ability to keep their lunches down. On a Saturday afternoon in October, Brisson is hanging out near the alley behind Cineworks on Howe Street, and he’s seen better days.

One side of his face sports two wicked gashes, and his throat has been ripped open, the insides showing. It’s all courtesy of up-and-coming makeup-FX artist Cindy Dilts, also 28, who learned her trade at John Casablancas Institute of Applied Arts. Her biggest inspiration in the movie-makeup field is New York’s Troma Films, the company best known for its schlocky Toxic Avenger flicks. “I’ve been doing art since I was a little kid,” Dilts says, “and this was the one way I decided that I could make money.”

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Not that she’s making much here. Dilts created the gore effects for all of Brisson’s movies, but there’s only been enough cash in the Fizz Films budget to reimburse her travel expenses. Still, her icky efforts are much appreciated, especially by the two street kids on bikes who cruise down the lane, one stopping dead in his tracks after catching an eyeful of Brisson’s facial wounds. “Hey, cool!” he hollers, then motions to his pal, who wheels around. When they pedal over for a closer look, I suggest they take a gander at Brisson’s torn throat. “Ah, wicked!” is the response, and Brisson offers a sheepish “thanks” for the praise heaped on his repulsiveness.

Inside Cineworks, a dozen or so other horror-loving film freaks are busily setting up a scene for 27-year-old director Jason De Groote’s six-minute zombie film, “After Ate”, which will be part of an anthology of short works. It’s the first project by a film collective that Brisson helped get off the ground a couple of months ago. He was chatting with “After Ate” writer Chris Bavota at the latter’s Main-and-15th specialty-video store, Oddity Cinema, and the two talked about the idea of banding together some locals who would help each other make films.

“There seemed to be individuals or small groups making independent, low-budget horror films around town,” Brisson says, “but there was no communication between them, no sense of community.”

A couple of weeks after the collective idea was broached, Brisson got an e-mail from Bavota about a film-group meeting he’d arranged at the Jolly Alderman pub. About 10 people showed up, all with different experience in film: set decoration, camera, lighting, sound, writing, producing. The turnout was promising, but Brisson wasn’t getting his hopes up too high. “Friends and I had attempted similar-type meetings in the past,” he relates, “so I was fully expecting that fewer people would show up for the next meeting, then fewer for the next, until it was just two guys talking pipe dreams in the pub. But at the next meeting everyone was back, as well as a few new people.”

While Brisson offers the scoop on his newly christened Cinema Fabulon collective, its gaggle of movie enthusiasts bustle around on the bathroom set that they started building the day before at 9 a.m. Some of them worked on it till 5 in the morning, then were back three hours later to start shooting. As De Groote watches on a monitor, the film’s towering lead zombie (Shawn Wilson) bursts through the door and pins a smaller male victim (Cal Salerno) to the sink while a terrified young woman (Marcia MacDonald) cowers near the toilet, screaming bloody murder.

“Shut the door! Please, Diane! Shut the door before more of them get in!” Salerno pleads frantically before he overpowers his attacker, pushes him backward into the bathtub, and suffocates him with the torn-off shower curtain. After one particularly violent take, Wilson gets up slowly, having hurt his back on the tub faucet during the scrap, but the devoted actor makes no beefs about the multiple takes involved in capturing those choice few seconds of zombie terror.

Brisson hangs around the set, soaking up the action and helping out whenever something needs doing. His marauding zombie had already been killed off in a scene shot earlier that day. He looks a tad uncomfortable in the face and neck wounds; he’s not quite sure what to do with the fake blood that’s forever ending up on the tips of his fingers. It took Dilts about an hour to apply the makeup, which Brisson has been sporting since morning.

“This is my first time acting,” he reveals, “and I only did this because all the other films I did, the actors would always complain about how uncomfortable the makeup was. So I thought it was only fair that I take a turn.”

For his first short film, “Living With the Dead”, Brisson had actor Jeff Christenson spend the entire movie in increasingly gory makeup. The 20-minute film was about a corpse that magically appears in a man’s apartment one morning and proceeds to take over his life. Brisson shot it on the cheap in his Oak-and-16th apartment over six days. That’s the beauty of digital video.

“If it wasn’t for digital filmmaking, I wouldn’t be making films,” he asserts. “Using 16mm film for something like ‘Living With the Dead’ would have probably cost me a minimum of $10,000, and it never would have happened. ‘Living With the Dead’ cost me under 800 bucks to make on digital video and played in the Firelight Shock Film Festival in Modesto, California, where I was up against $500,000 films for audience awards and stuff like that.

“I didn’t win the audience awards,” he adds with a shrug, “but at least it was nominated, which is cool.”

Brisson did, however, score a best-short-film award for his latest project, “Graveyard”, as voted by the audience at the 2003 Cinemuerte International Horror Film Festival, held last July at the Pacific Cinémathèque. The 22-minute film is a twisted mix of Clerks and H. P. Lovecraft, about an evil bookstore owner who kills off two employees and brings them back from the dead to exploit them for free labour. It was shot in three days at the Book Warehouse on Granville and featured strongman-rocker John Mikl Thor, D.O.A.’s Joey “Shithead” Keithley, Toren Atkinson of the Darkest of the Hillside Thickets, and Butch Murphy of the Bughouse 5.

“When Nick [Sheehan] was writing the script, we’d just seen Thor perform,” Brisson explains, “and he was really entertaining. I knew he was living in Vancouver, and he hadn’t done any movies since [his starring role in the 1987 horror flick] Rock and Roll Nightmare, so I thought it’d be cool to get him. Joey Shithead we got in just because Nick and I used to play in a punk band years ago, and we used to go see D.O.A. all the time. Then Butch Murphy, he’s a friend of mine, and Toren was a friend of a friend.”

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Brisson doesn’t just recruit his best buds and fave local rockers for his movies, however. He offered James McBurney a costarring role in “Graveyard” after seeing his work in the Canadian features Waydowntown and Kitchen Party. While he can’t offer much in the way of financial reward, Brisson makes a concerted effort to find actors who will come through for him.

“When you don’t have a lot of money to put into production value,” he asserts, “then you better have a good story and good actors. Like with ‘Living With the Dead’, I put out an ad for actors in the Georgia Straight, actually, and it was my first time doing this, so I had no idea what sort of reaction I’d get. I put out an ad just saying: ‘Actors wanted for short horror-comedy. No pay, just glory.’ The ad ran Thursday, and Friday afternoon I had to unplug my phone because I was getting so many calls. In total I got over 200 calls from people, and I just auditioned them and chose the best actors. And I think I got really good ones for that; I was really pleased with the performances.”

These days Brisson finds inspiration in the new wave of Japanese horror flicks, and Japanese films in general. The 22nd annual Vancouver International Film Festival is in full swing, and he’s looking forward to seeing Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Bright Future, which, according to the film-fest brochure, is “an all-male melodrama which explores unspoken feelings”. That’s a far cry from Freddy vs. Jason, but—though you couldn’t tell by the current state of his face—Brisson isn’t in the horror biz just to splatter blood willy-nilly. Right now he’s working on a script for a “serious and creepy” film about a guy who’s being haunted by people who aren’t actually dead yet.

“I’m not necessarily trying to do straight-ahead horror,” he claims. “And I hate it when independent horror filmmakers just build a story or film entirely around effects. I like to have some sort of—I don’t want to say subtext—but something else going on the film. A sense of humour, I guess, or something different. At the end of ‘Living With the Dead’, all these guys are zombies, and all they’re doing is sitting around watching TV. So I just want to play with it a bit, and see what I can come up with.”

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