Sunday, 13 January 2013

interview: Mark Adams

After I reviewed Minds of Terror, an ultra-low budget horror movie with a history so twisted and complex that you could probably use it to open a wine bottle, I was delighted to receive an e-mail from that film’s director, Mark Adams. If ever a film had a story to be told it was this one and Mark very kindly agreed to explain how this unique movie came to be the way it is. This interview was conducted in January 2008.

Can you sum up briefly, from your point of view, the differences between the feature film Lost Souls, the feature film Minds of Terror and the two short films Stone Ridge and Lost Souls and Evil Thoughts?
“When I sent Chris Mackey a copy of Lost Souls, I was surprised to hear him say that he thought it’s very similar to Minds of Terror. I consider them to be very different.

“The three major differences between the two feature length films are: 1) Lost Souls has completely different music composed and performed by Kerry Marsh while Minds of Terror has music by Mark D’Errico; 2) Lost Souls does not have the two really short segments starring Eric Spudic and Conrad Brooks that are in Minds of Terror; and 3) Lost Souls begins with the ‘Farm Segment’ starring Joe Estevez and then goes into the ‘Stone Ridge Segment’ after a title ‘10 years later...’. Minds of Terror begins with the Stone Ridge Segment, and has the Farm Segment as a flashback near the end of the film. In Lost Souls, near the end of the film, where Vandoren begins to tell the story of how he left Stone Ridge and went to Kansas City, I have a short 30-second montage of images from the Farm Segment, rather than the entire 20-minute segment.

Lost Souls and Evil Thoughts is a short film of the Farm Segment only. Besides the fact that the music is by Kerry Marsh, Randy Allen’s character is only identified as ‘The Killer’ and the ending credits are over extra shots of the farm, it is edited exactly as it appears in Minds of Terror.

Stone Ridge again has music by Kerry Marsh and no short segments with Eric Spudic and Conrad Brooks, as well as no Farm Segment with Joe Estevez. Its opening credits are unique, beginning with a voice over by Randy Allen followed by credits over tracking shots of the dark patient’s hallway in the Stone Ridge Mental Health Facility. This was opening I originally intended for Minds of Terror. One other major difference is that I had shot an alternate take of the end of the ‘Torture Scene’ near the end of the film. In both Lost Souls and Minds of Terror, after Vandoren has killed Andy in the basement/boiler room, he grabs Karla. The image of Vandoren from the Farm Segment appears to himself, which causes him to let go of her. Since the Farm Segment does not appear in Stone Ridge, the image of Vandoren from that segment wouldn’t make any sense. I shot an alternate take with the ghost of Karla’s brother, Bobby, appearing over his own body and reciting the same dialogue.

“Now, I think why Chris Mackey thought Lost Souls and Minds of Terror were very similar comes from the fact that both used my edits of my segments. I shot and edited my two segments, and sent them to Chris Watson for him to add his own credits, music and the other two shorts with Spudic and Brooks, which was done by the ‘other editors’ Michael Fritz and Steven A Grainger. I then took my edited segments and created my own feature length and two short films. So as far as the way my scenes were edited, they are exactly the same in all of the various versions. So for someone not as close to the production as I am, Lost Souls and Minds of Terror would appear to be basically the same movie.

“I guess a question would be: which versions do I like the best?

“If I show the feature length film to anyone, I’ll show Lost Souls before I show Minds of Terror. I still consider it my vision of the film. I had nothing to do with the segments starring Eric Spudic and Conrad Brooks - I didn’t write them, shoot them, edit them or have any creative input into their production - so they don’t represent me in any way. I also felt the Farm Segment worked a lot better at the beginning of the film, rather than near the end, for a couple of reasons. I thought it worked better not knowing Randy Allen’s character’s identity during the Farm Segment, so the audience wouldn’t know who the killer is until it is revealed after Joe Estevez’s character is shot. With the farm segment near the end of Minds of Terror, the audience already knows that Vandoren is ‘the villain’, so he doesn’t appear to be an innocent car crash victim with amnesia when the Farm Segment starts. I also didn’t like the fact that in the middle of the most intense scene of the entire film, the ‘torture scene’ where Vandoren is slicing up Andy in the basement, you suddenly have this other 20-minute story about Vandoren on a farm, and then come back to the torture scene. So for Lost Souls I put the Farm Segment at the beginning of the film. Chris Watson has the Farm Segment near the end of the film because that was how it was written in the original script.

“I will say that I was pleasantly surprised with the music by Mark D’Errico for Minds of Terror. I had nothing to do with hiring Mark or working with him on the music - that was done by Chris Watson. But I thought most of the music turned out well. (A few places I would have done something different, but overall very good.) The music I used by Kerry Marsh for Lost Souls was from the library of his music I already had, so it wasn’t composed specifically for this film.

“If I show one of the short films to someone I usually choose Lost Souls and Evil Thoughts over Stone Ridge. I thought the story of the man with amnesia coming to this farm and thinking he’s seeing ghosts was a stronger story/thriller than the three college kids going to the abandoned mental health facility. If someone wants to see any film of mine, I usually show them Deconstruction and End of the Line before I show them Lost Souls. They were made right before Lost Souls/Minds of Terror, and I feel they are more personal films as well as stronger films overall.

“I made a video for the Minds of Terror DVD, but there wasn’t enough room on the disc for it and Chris decided to post it on-line. I not only show clips from some of my previous horror films (with connections to Minds of Terror), but clips from Lost Souls, Lost Souls and Evil Thoughts and Stone Ridge to show the differences among the many and confusing versions of ‘Minds of Terrors’.”

What are the pros and cons - and indeed the practicalities - of being a one-man film crew, especially in scenes where you’re acting as well?
“Being a one-man crew was a result of necessity more than anything else.

“One thing to keep in mind about Minds of Terror - it was not a low-budget film, but a no-budget film. At one point Chris Watson was quoted saying Minds of Terror cost about $450 to make. That’s partly true. He got that from me - I estimated I personally spent about $450 on Minds of Terror, but that wasn’t the total cost of the movie.

“For me, I was lucky in that I didn’t have to pay for actors. Everyone, except for Joe Estevez, donated their free time to be in the movie. Chris Watson arranged for me to shoot the farm segment on the same weekend Joe Estevez was in Kansas to shoot Zombiegeddon, so he could be in both films. He never told me how much Joe was paid and I never asked. I also don’t know how much Chris spent on making those two short segments with Eric Spudic and Conrad Brooks.

“I didn’t have to pay for my production and post-production equipment. I was working at Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kansas at the time as the only video production person and they allowed me to use their equipment on personal projects. So I had access to a broadcast quality video camera, Lowell light kits and a non-linear editing system for no extra cost.

“I didn’t have to pay for locations. The farm was owned by a good friend of mine, Andy Battmer, who graciously let me film there for free. The mental health building exteriors and interiors were all Barton County Community College facilities.

“My biggest expenses were tape stock, make-up effects, costumes, gas and food. The only costumes I bought were the five mental patients outfits, four of which were cut up and bloodied. (Randy Allen wore the fifth costume, which was never cut up or destroyed, so he kept his outfit. I still have one of the bloodied outfits - the others were thrown away by the actors.) The gas and food costs for the weekend we shot Zombiegeddon and the farm segment with Joe in Missouri were the biggest expense for me.

“Chris Watson paid for the additional editing, as well as the initial poster art and screener DVDs. Chris Mackey paid for more post-production, new artwork and DVD authoring when he took over distribution from Watson. So I have no idea how much the film ultimately cost.

“I really paid for my portion of the movie out of my own pocket, since I didn’t receive any money from Chris Watson. In terms of being a one-man crew, that meant I couldn’t afford to pay for crew members. Volunteers would not have been an advantage to me, since there were no experienced crew members in Great Bend, Kansas willing to help me. In the time it would have taken to explain and show someone how to set up a key light with diffusion, a fill light with ND, etc. I could have done it myself. Plus most of the Stone Ridge Segment was shot on Saturday afternoons, in order to work around everyone’s class and work schedules. So if I had the actors call time as 1.00pm, I would show up an hour earlier to the location and start setting up the equipment. I worked with one Lowell Soft Light and four Lowell Pro-Lights so it wasn’t a lot of lighting equipment to move around in between shots.

“The biggest disadvantage was having to spend more time working on getting lighting set and the cameras ready (I also had the behind-the-scenes video camera and a still 35mm camera as well) and spending less time with the actors getting them ready for the scene. Their rehearsals were done after I set up lights and cameras, and then they rehearsed on-camera. Many times I filmed them rehearsing, in case we got a great take.

“I originally planned not to be in the film as an actor at all, but with the last minute change involving Joe Estevez at the farm I had to step into the role of Brad. Again the biggest problem was spending the time setting up equipment, then sitting down and trying to memorise my lines. Plus it was over 90 degrees in that farm house, so it was miserable and things took longer to do.

“In many ways I enjoyed being a one-man crew. I didn’t have to worry about a crew of 10, 20 or 50 people behind me getting ready and being quiet for a take. When I was ready and the actors were ready, we could start shooting. I didn’t need PAs with walkie-talkies running around. I didn’t need to spend the time trying to describe what I wanted to the Director of Photography or the Production Designer. I had planned out most of the scenes for Minds of Terror, including creating storyboards and shot lists, so I wasn’t standing around the location wondering where I should put the camera or lights. I had done the location scouting and pre-planned everything ahead of time. There were a couple of scenes that were more improvised than the others due to last minute changes. Since I was a one-man crew I was able to quickly improvise on the spot without worrying about getting the crew in place and ready to go. It was the purest form of cinema - the filmmaker with the actors. If an actor had an idea, we tried it immediately. If I wanted to try a different angle, I grabbed the camera and did it.”

How were the cast and crew assembled?
“For the Farm Segment I knew I wanted Randy Allen to play the man with amnesia, in order to connect this segment to Vandoren in the Stone Ridge segment. Randy was a psychology teacher at Barton County Community College and had acted in several of my previous films, although this would be his first ‘villain’ role.

“Andy Battmer played the Apparition and we filmed at his farm, so it was just inevitable that he appeared in the movie out of necessity. It was also an attempt to make the farm segment a continuation of some earlier horror films I had made. One of my earliest films back in high school was 1983’s The Unknown Horror, shot at the Battmer farm and starring Andy as a lost hunter who finds refuge at the farm but is attacked by this strange figure. I made two other Unknown Horror films, each with Andy Battmer reprising his role, so in many ways Minds of Terror is The Unknown Horror Part IV. Andy’s character is now a spirit haunting the farm.

“For the Stone Ridge segment, I had originally lined up some actors when it was going to be a short 10-20 minute segment, shot during the summer of 2002. But when plans changed, I had to start over and find three new college students. The first person cast was Patrick McCaffery. He and Matt Mazouch were drama students at Barton and had acted with Randy Allen in a college play called I Hate Hamlet in the fall of 2002. So Patrick, Randy and I thought Matt would do well as Andy. Nicole Crawford (she preferred to be called ‘Nicci’) had acted in my previous film End of the Line, so the cast fell into place fairly easily.

“I guess one thing I probably need to explain is that I had been making independent narrative films/videos for a long time, including one every year while I was working as a video producer/director at Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kansas (I worked there for nearly 12 years...). So by the time I made Minds of Terror I had a lot of things already in place to easily start production on a new film. I had college employees and students willing to help make my films. They had either acted in previous films of mine or had seen my previous films and/or knew someone who had been in one of my films and were eager to be in the next one. Plus no one else was making anything like these films in Great Bend at the time so it wasn’t difficult to find people willing to help me make my movies. It was a unique experience for a lot of people in central rural Kansas to be in a film. And I had developed a reputation as a local filmmaker who made good films. When the opportunity came to make a horror film that might actually get some national distribution, the actors were very excited and wanted to be a part of the production.

“One thing I would like to point out is that both Randy Allen and I were very impressed with Joe Estevez. We didn’t know what to expect from him - the only films I had seen Joe act in were Soultaker and Werewolf, seen on the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000. These weren’t the best examples of his work. But after working with Joe, Randy and I were really happy that we met him and that he was in Minds of Terror. He’s a better actor than people give him credit and he deserves better roles to show off his talents. Plus he was really patient in terms of working on such a low budget film in a farm house with no air-conditioning in 100 degree weather. I have a new admiration for Joe Estevez after working with him.”

With films of this level, how important is it to have one or more ‘name’ actors involved?
“For me I really had no worries about getting ‘name’ actors in my film before shooting, but I had never worried about such a thing before. All of my previous films were never intended for distribution, just to be entered into film festivals. Originally I was planning to shoot the Farm Segment with my own actors - it was Chris Watson who arranged for Joe Estevez to be in Minds of Terror. But I understand why - it’s all about marketing. Unfortunately a terrible film with a ‘famous’ actor will make more money than a good film with no ‘name’ actors. People will buy/rent a film based on who is in the movie over any other considerations. I’ll admit that I do the same thing. I’ll see a Harrison Ford film just on the fact he’s in it. So from a producer’s point of view that is crucial for making a film a financial success - especially on this level of low/no budget film-making. The only exception may be that there are no name actors, but the filmmaker him/herself is famous enough to draw an audience. But it’s still a name that the audience knows.

“It’s the nature of the beast. If you want people to see your film, you need something to draw their attention from the ever-growing pile of other low-budget horror films, as well as other sources of entertainment such as video games and the internet. If it’s not a ‘name’ actor to draw attention, you need lots of sex and gore, a gimmick (3-D, first computer-generated fill-in-the-blank, glow-in-the-dark DVD cover...) or some publicity during the production that could be used for marketing (filmed on the day of the ’89 earthquake!) or just a really cool poster that usually has nothing to do with the film.

“In many ways Minds of Terror is not your typical low-budget horror film. I think it’s inbetween two levels of low-budget horror movies. Below it is the kind of horror film that was literally shot by a guy with a home video camera and some friends. Chris Watson gave me a copy of a film just like this, but they were able to get Conrad Brooks to appear in it. That certainly takes it to a new level for marketing, even if the film looks like a bad home video.

“The level above Minds of Terror consists of films that are commercially made with an actual crew and good quality equipment - either video, HD or 16mm film. It still may be a crew of only five and a handful of actors but the cost is so much you can’t just pay for it out of your own pocket anymore.

“So there was Minds of Terror inbetween them, where I shot a horror film with friends and barely any money, yet I had good quality equipment and enough experience to make it look like a more professionally done production. My segments didn’t have the sex or gore quotient that Chris Watson wanted so I think he approached his two short segments as purely providing the nudity and gore needed for marketing. Chris also had enough foresight and experience to get some ‘name’ actors in Minds of Terror (Joe Estevez) so maybe that will lead to an audience to watch my little film that doesn’t belong in a convenient category. But is there an audience interested in a low-budget horror film that is more of a thriller and less of a splatter film?”

What have you learned from your experience of making this film?
“I’ve learned never to schedule one of my shoots the day after another movie’s shoot, because I’ll be screwed every time.

“It’s been five years since I made Minds of Terror so I’ve had some time to look back and smile, as well as cringe, at what I did. If I learned anything from the experience of making the film, it’s to push yourself to try to make whatever you’re working on a better project that what you did before. Don’t always rely on whatever feels comfortable or is the easiest way. I could have approached Minds of Terror as just contributing a few segments done quickly to someone else’s low-budget horror film but when it really became almost entirely my film I wanted to do something to make it stand out from all the rest, even with its imperfections.”

Finally, I’ve got to ask about Princess Warrior, a film I’ve been wanting to see for ten years now: what was your involvement with that film and is it worth me continuing on my quest to track down a copy?
“I don’t think anyone watching Princess Warrior, who wasn’t involved in the making of the film, would enjoy it. It’s a bad film. I don’t mean it’s so bad it’s good, almost entertaining to watch as it fails miserably. I mean it’s just a bad movie. Bad script. Bad acting. Bad directing ... campy yet not campy enough to be entertaining. Just bad.

“I had just graduated from the University of Kansas with a Bachelor’s Degree in Film Studies and decided to go out to Los Angeles and see what the film industry was really like. I thought it was the only time in my life I could just pack up my car and go, with no personal or financial ties to hold me back. Princess Warrior was the first film I worked on in LA. initially hired as a production assistant helping the Production Designer and Producer make the sets for the ‘planet-ruled-by-women’ scenes. (That’s why I was given an ‘Art Director’ credit.) But I ended up working on the entire production, helping in any way I could, even appearing in the film as one of the lead villain’s concubines. Since it was a non-union shoot I could get hands-on experience doing a lot of things. I learned a lot about what to do and what not-to-do on a commercial film.

“When I watch the film now I enjoy it purely from the standpoint of remembering the experience of making it and not for the film itself. For someone who is just a general audience/viewer, I don’t think they would enjoy watching the movie. For you, Mike, I guess you should see it once just to have seen it. The ultimate bad, 1980s, low-budget, science fiction, straight-to-video, T&A film. Read my stories about the making of the film on my website before seeing it to really appreciate what it took to make such a thing.

“After seeing this film for the first time I was amazed by how good the production actually looked in terms of photography. For $200,000 (which is what I was told the budget was back then) you can make a good-looking film, yet the script was so bad I couldn’t believe people would spend so much money to make such crap. But it goes back to marketing, distribution and making money. The producers wanted a product they felt would earn a profit in the overseas markets - a low-budget, T&A movie made in Hollywood. And that’s what they got.

“It was great to hear from Dana Fredsti, the lead ‘villain’ from the film. I hadn’t seen or talked to her since the summer of 1989 when we shot it. She e-mailed me after finding my website a couple of years ago and we’ve been friends ever since. It was fun to hear her side of the story about the making of the film. I included some of her stories on my website. She is now a mystery writer with a new novel coming out - you can read about it on her website.

“I can’t believe you’ve wanted to see Princess Warrior for ten years now. Just for that fact, you need to see this film. But you’ve been warned!”

Interview originally posted 5th January 2008

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