What inspired you to seriously pursue filmmaking?
The biggest thing was helping my friend Joey Kidwell shoot a horror film called PARADOX on Super 8, back in Fall 1999/ Spring 2000. We shot mostly on weekends. In Minnesota, the two seasons kind of look alike. There are no leaves on the trees. It all cut together okay. As well as being a Production Assistant, I acted in the film. Plus, since Joey didn't have tripods, I had to stand there holding up the worklights! I came up with the term 'fleshpods' for the worklights and Joey enjoyed that!
PARADOX hasn't been distributed but I know it was on the shelf of a video store in Minneapolis. There are only a limited amount of copies out there. I wish Joey would put the film out there because it was surreal and weird as hell. It used stop-motion animation. He was very ambitious for the limited budget he had. In retrospect, it really set my expectations high of what local independent cinema could be. Joey really inspired me to go really dark and weird in my own films, and try to burn the images into people's brains even on a limited budget. You might love or hate what I do, but at least you won't forget it!
Where are you originally from?
I pretty much grew up in the Twin Cities, and I lived in St Paul for nine years. I now live in Litchfield, Minnesota.
Can you talk about your day job as a reporter? I work for the Hutchinson Leader, a paper that comes out twice a week in Hutchinson, which is seventy miles west of the Twin Cities. It's a lot of fun. I get to meet a lot of people and get ideas and hear interesting phrases that I can use for my stories. I've been working at the paper for eight years now. I studied Advertising as part of the Journalism course at the University of St. Thomas and got some exposure to the news style of writing. The paper took a gamble on me as I had no previous experience.
Which films made you fall in love with cinema?
The first film that made me think of cinema as something more than just entertainment, something that could make a statement or be ambiguous or have multiple meanings was BLADE RUNNER (1982). I caught the original cut on TV at first, but the 1992 Director's Cut blew my mind when I caught it at the Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis. That's the film that really made me want to get into filmmaking, and fostered my love of extreme close-ups! (See if you can spot my homage to the film in SOME OF ANGELA.) A film that influenced my choice of horror as a genre (I've mainly made horror stories) is David Cronenberg's THE FLY (1986), which I saw as a kid. I was never really into horror movies because they always seemed to be mindless slasher films. THE FLY had such an engaging story and characters that you cared about. When you go into dark territory in horror films, a sense of humour is important. THE FLY has that. Cronemberg has fun with the gore. It gives the audience a release. In my films I try to make the horror as disturbing as possible, and to add gallows humour to the proceedings. My favourite film of all time, though, is THE EXORCIST (1973).
What was the first short film you made?
It was a silent comedy called MOON PATROL. I'm embarassed to show it now. It involved a guy standing on a street corner who sees a cute girl at a bus stop on the other side of the road, and who introduces himself with the aid of a remote controlled truck. The film only lasted three minutes. It was influenced by these Chuck Wagon dog food commercials I had seen as a kid and thought were a lot of fun. I submitted it to the Fringe Festival in Minneapolis. For that one year, they had a film component. They usually only have theatre performances. I got to watch it with an audience, and they laughed when they were supposed to! It was a validating experience. From that moment on, I really felt that I knew what I was doing.
What was your next film?
I made another short called DONNA, MY LOVE. I wrote it as a ghost story because I was in a phase of being deeply fascinated by THE SHINING (1980). I set it in a library and I thought I'd be able to use the library on the campus of the University of Thomas, where I was studying Journalism. This was a Catholic university and unfortunately the Public Affairs folks wanted to review the script. It didn't go over very well. I had a cast lined up and I was going to shoot it myself. I figured I could steal all the other locations. In the end, I had to cut out all the library scenes from the script, which was most of the movie, and shoot just the other scenes.
With some of the footage I made a music video with my friend Will Richardson. It was very surreal and Oedipal. Will was my neighbour across the hall and he's a real Renaissance man. He's a cellist, he plays guitar, bass and keyboards, builds his own instruments, and plays with a couple of orchestras in the Twin Cities. I asked him if I could sample some of his cello playing, and it worked out pretty well. We concocted a kind of trip-hop piece together. While we were sitting in his apartment, I described to him the mood I was going for. He then recorded himself doing a solo improv on the cello. I sampled his playing and multi-tracked it in places for the finished song. So the song and the video are both called "Donna My Love." Ever since then I've had him compose the music for my films. We both have a similar communication style and can understand each other easily.
Can you talk about your short EMPTY TRASH (2010)?
It was a milestone for me because it was the first time I worked with a crew. I was actually a bit nervous since I thought everybody would know what they were doing better than me! I had help from my friend Tristan Corrigan on the film. He was in college at the time and the crew was mainly his friends, whom had been making films from a precocious age. It all turned out fantastic. I had no doubts since I had seen some of the trailers and shorts they had put up on YouTube. They had a really dynamic energy like the early Rodriguez films, which was what I was going for. I was actually comfortable with Tristan directing my script, but he wanted me to direct, so I was really honoured. He helped me out a lot. He didn't ask for a co-directing credit but I gave him one because I figured he deserved it. He would take over during the action sequences and shoot what he thought looked good for editing purposes. It looked great when it was put together. We both have similar tastes so the film doesn't feel like it was directed by two people.
How did you cast the film?
I just put a call out on Craigslist. Since then it's become less of a preferred place for actors looking for employment. It was the first film I did that wasn't mainly family and friends in the cast. I wanted to raise the bar since I was working with a crew. It was an interesting mix of people. Wade Dienert, who plays one of the heavies, was very experienced. He'd done a lot of theatre and film. Loren Farrand had done some shorts as well. Both of them really impressed me when I first met them and I knew they were right for the parts.
How long did you shoot?
Just a couple of weeks. The post-production was drawn out because I had some technical issues. I was editing using a computer loaned to me by Tristan, and whenever he was home from college he'd help me fix it. It would work again for a couple of weeks before it started acting up again. Phil, my brother, eventually gave me his computer to work with, and I'm now using Premiere to edit with, which I'm able to keep pretty stable.
How did it get financed?
It was basically financed by my tax return for that year.
What inspired EMPTY TRASH?
At the time I was working in a clinic in South Minneapolis. Some of the plot elements were stories that I'd heard from co-workers eg. someone hiring someone to rob their store for insurance purposes, or incidents of police brutality. I combined elements like these into a film noir plot structure. In noir films, heists always go wrong, so I had it go as bad as it could possibly go. Everybody loses their goods and gets dead. The last man standing isn't just killed but he's going into the afterlife missing some flesh! The ending always gets a strong reaction from audiences, especially males! There was a screening I attended where I could hear a man gagging and I thought ''Yes! Mission accomplished!!" The cheek-biting bit was inspired by CAPE FEAR (1991). We used a piece of chicken, which is I think what Scorsese also used.
There were a couple of screenings of EMPTY TRASH in Minnesota. One of the festival organisers got an angry letter saying ''What a great festival! What a great line-up of films ... except for EMPTY TRASH. I've never seen anything so offensive in my life. I hope you never show anything like that again!'' I was a little bit hurt, but again, I was happy the film got a strong reaction. It also played at the Polly Grind Festival in Las Vegas (I wasn't able to attend), and by mistake at the LA Horror Fest. My next film, SOME OF ANGELA, was actually chosen to be screened, but they played EMPTY TRASH by mistake as it was on the same DVD. The audience enjoyed it. LA seems to get my work.
How did you get EMPTY TRASH out there?
I just put it out on the festival circuit. I guess I could get more exposure by putting my films online for free, but I'm too much of a tightwad! I think it's more engaging to watch films in a theatre than online or on a cellphone! I mean, how can you watch something like THE GODFATHER (1972) on an I-Phone?
What inspired your next film SOME OF ANGELA (2012)?
It started off as an idea for a feature film I wanted to do in the future once I could get a decent budget. I was chatting with Tristan when he was home from college and told him I needed some ideas for a short. He gave me a script about a serial killer. I ending up melding that script with my original feature idea, which was more of a MS. 45 (1981) rape-revenge story. I'm hoping that the short film version of SOME OF ANGELA will serve as the introduction to the feature film version when it gets made. My original idea was inspired by a story I read in the newspaper of a real-estate agent who was using his properties for orgies. Human trafficking was also an issue I wanted to address. I had come across quite a few stories too. I tried to be respectful towards Angela's plight. She's a sympathetic villainess. I like stories too like PSYCHO (1960) where the story starts off with one character whom you expect to be the villain but is actually a red herring. SOME OF ANGELA played at an SF festival in the Twin Cities called CONvergence and was well-received.
How was it financed?
Half of the budget was out of my own pocket, and the other half was through Indie Gogo, which meant we could pay the crew something close to their normal rates. I'd worked with some of the actors before and they initially agreed to work for free. I was able to give them a token amount - not nearly what they're worth, in my mind. There was no way we could pull together a crew like we did for EMPTY TRASH. I put together a crew of people recommended to me by my associate producer, Alaina L. Lewis. The DP, Justin Schaack, I got through the lead actress Jennifer Prettyman. I had seen a short he had photographed called MASQUERADE (2010). Jennifer wrote, directed and acted in the film. I really liked the look of the film so I was happy to have him on board. I didn't know until later that he had won a Regional Emmy for a documentary that he had directed. If I'd known at the time, I'd have been nervous around him!
How long was the shoot?
It was shot over a single weekend, and then I took a a week off in the spring to edit, which was one of the nicest weeks we had had since winter here in Minneapolis. In between sessions I'd watch ERASERHEAD (1977)!
Why do you think you're attracted to dark stories?
I find it easier to write dark stories. I'm a born worrier and it's very easy for me to imagine the worst case scenario, which is what horror is about. It's kind of cathartic for me. I've done a couple of comedies, but horror is something I can sink my teeth into and pretty much go anywhere I want to.
Your films also have a crime element to them. Are you influenced by any filmmakers working in that genre?
EL MARIACHI (1992) and PULP FICTION (1994) were important movies for me. Those came out right around the time I started college. They were like the Generation X equivalents of EASY RIDER (1969) or VANISHING POINT (1971). They kicked off this flourishing of independent cinema where a regular guy with a camera could make it. Rodriguez's DIY ethos inspired me particularly.
What do you enjoy the most about filmmaking?
I love being on the set, because the writing, the planning and the editing are all solitary experiences. But on set you have a group of people together who are as passionate about their work as you are and want to do something great. You're watching your script come to life from capable actors. It's a real trip. Actors bring their own unique spin to things. I'm wired every day with nervous energy. There are a lot of hurdles, but it's rewarding.
What's next for you?
My next short film, which I hope to shoot this year, will have supernatural elements. I'm very psyched about it. I think it's going to take me to the next step. The level of excellence I'm reaching for is in reach. I want to do this for a living, so I hope one day to get as close to Stanley Kubrick's level as I can get.
I spoke to J. L. by telephone on 5th December 2012, and would like to thank him for his time.
DONNA, MY LOVE can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/35856946
SOME OF ANGELA site - http://www.someofangela.com
Anyone interested in seeing EMPTY TRASH and SOME OF ANGELA, please contact JL at sosa
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.