1a. – To Benjamin: Pretty Dead (REVIEW) is your first film as director, however, you have produced many short films and even feature films. Why did you decide to make the leap from producing to directing? Can you talk a little about your career in the film world? You have a Peruvian film, what can you tell us about the production “La Navaja de Don Juan”?
Ben: I was tired of trying to get other people’s permission to get things made – which is what you have to do when you need other people’s money to do your project. My Peruvian project was just starting its second year of searching for finishing funds, which we still do not have all of… so at the time Joe and I started talking seriously about doing something together I was ready step outside the box. I didn’t actually start off intending to write or direct “Pretty Dead”. Joe and I both came to the project initially as producers looking to develop a “sexy zombie” story. We didn’t have any money for Pretty Dead – Joe and I produced the movie by working overtime and putting it on credit cards, so it was our poverty as producers that prompted me to initially write the script.
Ben: * I knew I wanted Carly Oates to be the lead* so I structured and designed the script and the character of Regina Stevens around her. I had just proposed to my wife and so the story steadily became a kind of arena where I could metaphorically excise my own inner demons and visions of worst case scenarios as the wedding got closer and closer. And by the time it was done, the story was just too personal to let anybody else interpret as a director. It was a real blessing, because I would have never considered myself a writer/director until Joe and I made Pretty Dead and now I can’t imagine being anything but that . It did take over five years freelancing as an independent producer and working as 1st Assistant Director to get here, but here I am.
Ben: “La Navaja de Don Juan” is Tom Sanchez’s directorial debut; I am the lead producer on the project and also was the first Assistant Director when we were shooting in Peru. It’s a great story, the film is in Spanish and set in Lima, Peru, which is where Tom was born. I’m excited to get it out there. Tom and I went to film school together and originally he wanted to do Navaja as a short film, but I talked him into doing it as a feature, which to be honest has been a lot harder to get done than I’d anticipated… in fact I think the frustration of working for years on Navaja without a finish date in sight is part of what compelled me to do Pretty Dead with Joe.
1b. – To Joe: On the other hand, Pretty Dead is your first known work in film (as a writer and a producer). How was this first experience? How did you meet Benjamin?
Joe: I met Ben through working at a placed called Checkdisc, which is unofficially kind of a place where a lot of filmmakers work between projects. I had talked to him about how much different things had cost such as the cameras, etc. and he had a very positive attitude toward getting things done in ways that required more imagination than money. We both left for a year or more to work in other countries and ended up coming back and talking about the movie stuff again. Ben’s a great person and was great to work with as a mentor and a partner.
Joe: The movie was probably a terrible first experience in a lot of ways as we got a lot of support from friends and co-workers that other filmmakers don’t have access to. There were more than a few issues, but everyone really put their hearts into it and I’ll be forever grateful. I’m sure the next movie won’t be as easy, but I look forward to it.
2. – To Both: How did the idea for Pretty Dead? The figures of the undead is currently overexploited, then why talk about it again? Do you see zombie flicks?
Joe: Ben and I sat in a room and were talking about what we wanted to see in a movie. Ben said he wanted sexy zombies, I said I wanted to see something more scientifically accurate. We made a couple jokes while thinking about what would happen if your girlfriend really did turn into a zombie and we kind of started from there.
Joe: I love zombie movies and I wish there was more effort put into them as they can be allegories for a number of important social issues such as with the original George Romero Works. I try to see as many of them as I can, but I can’t get behind doing anything the same exact way someone else has done it. That’s why “Pretty Dead” was so exciting to put together, we had come up with a way to work in so many new elements into zombie lore that hadn’t be overdone. We have a real love story that feels real. We have scientifically accurate zombies, which could be real at any moment. We have honest reactions from society and characters that could be a part of anyone’s life. You don’t get any of those elements in the traditional zombie movie and that’s why we had to make this movie.
Ben: There are so many elements in Pretty Dead that it’s hard say exactly where to story started. There was a conversation about how vampires were now always being portrayed as tortured sexy monsters with hearts of gold and what that would look like if it was zombies and not vampires. There is the BBC clip on Youtube with the cordyceps infecting the ant and turning it into a zombie, which became the catalyst for our concept of a scientifically plausible zombie outbreak in humans – a chance to get away from the myth and bullshit science of some vague virus. As we looked into it more and more, we found that a fungal infection that caused mindless behavior was not only possible, but was happening in a number of different species all over the planet. Also, there was me having just proposed to my wife and dealing with the fear and shock that goes with getting ready to be married and what it really means to be committed to somebody until death do you part. There was Carly Oates – who I always knew was this undiscovered diamond of acting talent and wanting Regina’s character to really mesh with her emotionally… Pretty Dead developed from all of it. But the one constant through it all was the Joe and I were determined to do a zombie movie like nothing we’d ever seen before. And I think we succeeded quite well on that front.
Ben: I am a huge fan of zombie films, but I am also bored with what has been released lately. The depth and allegory Romero’s films began with has become a little lost in cheap scares and video game logic. It’s the comedy zombie films like Shaun of the Dead and “Zombieland” that I’ve enjoyed the most over the last few years, if for no other reason than they spice things up a bit and the character development generally is better when you’re trying to get laughs.
3. – Benjamin: It is true that in certain aspects Pretty Dead dynamite traditional zombie movies, but recognize you some influences behind your work? Do you follow series like The Walking Dead? Are you interested in the human factor or prefer you the social interpretation of Romero?
Ben: You can’t make a movie in a vacuum (you can’t watch one in a vacuum either). There are certain things that you just have to have if you are going to be a “zombie” flick – mindless cannibalism and animated dead people being at the top of the list, but Pretty Dead puts those on the back burner and is really centered on the idea of “what would really happen.” Our story starts at the beginning with the impending Zombie Apocalypse’s patient zero and it takes the whole movie to reach the point that she really fulfills the definition of a zombie.
Ben: As much as I love the “slow moving, but overwhelming by their shear numbers” Romero zombies, as a filmmaker with Pretty Dead, I am not really out to make a commentary on society as a whole. I am much more interested in the choices that make us individually who we are and the lines between human and monster that get crossed by ordinary folks just trying to do the right thing.
Ben: Ironically the movie that most inspired Joe and to do Pretty Dead and which probably had the biggest influence on us is the Swedish vampire movie “Let the Right One In” In by Tomas Alfredson because that is film we went to when we were looking for examples of a character driven horror movie.
4. – Both: The two are listed as writers, were any carried more weight writing the script than the other? What parts of Pretty Dead’s story you are recognized? Why supplement the story with the prospect of fake footage? Who did the great editing of all this footage?
Joe: Ben is the only official writer on the movie, but we came up with what the story should be together. We both put a lot of ourselves and our experiences in this movie. I pretty much made sure the science was accurate and that we had a way to move through the story. I might have come up with the pizza guy thing back when it was going to be a comedy and one of the tear-jerking moments. I’ll let Ben toot his own horn on his stuff.
Joe: The idea of the found footage was mainly out of necessity. We couldn’t afford camera rigs that cost $400/day – or lighting and sound setups that cost far more on top of that. I was sitting in the shower and thought about cameras that were believable but were cheap. That’s pretty much how we came up with security camera footage. The rest of the challenge didn’t cost a lot of money, but took a lot of really hard work. We had to find a way to get our characters in front of a camera.
Joe: I would like to say that our cinematographer, Joshua Grote, did an amazing job of making everything look as good as it does and he deserves a lot of the credit for getting us through the long days of shooting.
Joe: Editing was basically just Ben and I sitting in my tiny room and arguing about every frame for about nine months until we got it right. We care a lot about this movie, our cast and our crew and we butt heads with each other and the software until we got it into a form that would do their work justice.
Ben: I did the actual typing on the computer part of writing of the script, and while I think the core of the Ryan and Regina relationship comes directly from my own personal experiences with my wife and my mother, Joe was there every step of the way adding and enhancing the story.
Ben: As a writer/director I don’t really believe that the scripted words are really much more than a blueprint to build the store around and really encouraged my cast to make the words their own. Because of that, Joe and I really can only take credit for writing word for word about a third of what is actually said on screen, the rest was born from the collaboration with – and improvisational talents of – the main cast. I think, at its best, a film is an organic creature that has a life of its own… the secret to writing is figuring out how to feed that unique monster and tame it in light of what resources you have at your disposal. In Pretty Dead’s case, we cast the leads before we wrote the script, so when it came time to write, it wasn’t in a vacuum. I knew who Carly and Ryan are in real life and that was the basis for the characters I put into the script. It took Carly some convincing to get on board with this style of developing a story and a screenplay, but I think the results speak for themselves.
Ben: As Joe said, the Found Footage style of the film was really a means to control the budget. Given a choice I would have preferred to do a more traditional coverage style. It’s very hard to make things scary in wide shots and without using camera angles that would never actually be recorded by somebody actually there. The voyeur quality of found footage and the ability to break the forth wall and look directly into the camera were the only real advantages creatively, everything else about found footage, especially if it is done right, is really only frustrating. We upheld religiously the idea that no camera would be there if it wasn’t natural to have it there at the time. This meant that whole scenes of the story couldn’t be filmed. For example we got the note that Ryan seems to accept Regina’s condition extremely fast and without any resistance… but that is not actually true at all. It’s just that there is no way to justify a camera in the fight that happened after Regina started bringing body parts home from the hospital. I made sure the actors knew the missing elements and if you look for it, you can see all the missing scenes in the subtext of their performances… but, it’s a lot to ask an audience, especially ones that are so used to having films spell everything out for them.
Ben: Keeping it real the mantra of the film. Josh Grote, the cinematographer, and I really worked hard to keep it visually interesting, but never looking like it was on purpose.
Ben: Joe’s the official Editor, but I was there almost everyday with him. Some days it felt like all we did was fight about things so small nobody but us would ever care them and some days it felt magical like we were discovering the story all over again together like little kids. The story changes a lot in the edit, and I think it was hard for both of us to see the forest for the trees sometimes, but in the end it was the kind of creative arena where any and all ideas had to prove themselves and while that can certainly be intense at times, I think it makes for some of the best work.
5. – Both: I think Pretty Dead is truly sincere about sincere love, have you lived or live a love story like that? Your film attempts to distill continuously realism, however, do not you think that the passion of Regina and Ryan is something cloying and initially false?
Ben: I have lived both sides of the Regina and Ryan relationship. The beautiful “stand by your partner through thick and thin no matter what” kind of love is exactly how I feel about my wife – in fact she was the inspiration behind everything I wrote when it came to the non-zombie side of that relationship. In my head I was Ryan, my wife Regina and I just played things out until they got to what you see on the screen. And with the mental illness that runs in my family, schizophrenia being a big player in that equation, I have had the all too real experience of trying to cope with a loved one’s terrifying swings into and out of delusions, paranoia and psychosis. If Regina and Ryan come across at all false in their relationship, I think it is more due to the sad state of personal relationships in this world. Anybody who has experienced love like theirs will recognize it as true and those who haven’t experienced it, well I can see where it might be a little harder to accept, but a thing’s existence or the truth it holds are not dependent upon a person’s believing in them. It either is, or is not. And I can assure you it is.
Joe: Everybody has someone that they love incredibly and sometimes that person can change into something terrible. If people never changed, the divorce rate wouldn’t be as high as it is and stories would be boring. Everyone, including myself, has been hurt by someone they loved and it felt like it was going to kill them but they didn’t know how to just turn their back on them. That’s what this movie is about and I think that a lot of people don’t want to admit they’ve been hurt, which may lead to questions about the sincerity of their relationship. If there is a person out there that hasn’t felt that sting of heartache I count them among the blessed few and wish them the best, but the rest of us will be able to relate to the painful decisions that lead to a broken heart and I think this movie really speaks to that part of the human experience.
6a. – Benjamin: How was the filming of Pretty Dead? There are many medical locations and a real effort to bring medicine and psychiatry to the world of the undead, have you medical knowledge or was assisted in some way? ¿Schizophrenia, zombies? Do you know if there is any documented case of a similar situation?
Ben: Filming was a bitch. We shot for 13 days and then did sporadic pickups for the next six months as we tightened the story during editing. If it weren’t for the dedication and love of our cast and crew all working for less than nothing, I think Joe and I would both have been killed by exhaustion before the end of the first week. What kept us all going were these totally awesome moments where you could feel the magic working… those were like shots of adrenaline.
Ben: My family history with mental illness and our commitment to showing a real life response to somebody who is claiming to be a zombie is a key component to the film, but for me it was even more than that because if we didn’t do a good enough job, or somehow made the mental illness side of things into anything that looked or felt insincere, I ran the risk of offending and alienating several very important people in my own family who have lived through experiences so close to what we are depicting in the film that when I screened it for them they had to stop watching it because it seemed too real. The documentation for Cotard’s Syndrome is extremely limited, but extremely graphic and while there is no case that I know of where the patient is claiming to be a zombie specifically, if you were to tell your psychologist what Regina confesses to Dr. Romero, I am confident you’d eventually find yourself with a similar diagnosis. Our website (HERE) has details of all the mental disorders addressed in the film. It’s a great resource for anybody who is looking to dig deeper into the story.
6b.- Joe: It’s very hard to be independent and self-financing producer today, how you worked with the budget? Did you show on screen all you had in mind? Are you satisfied with the realism achieved?
Joe: I originally set the budget at $250 for the whole movie, so we really weren’t able to stay in budget after buying all the gluten-free food for the cast on the first day of filming. Ben thought I was joking when I said $250 instead of $250,000. He might still think I was joking, but I kept trying to get us down to that number. When you’re working 40 hours of overtime per week at your day job just to stay afloat, it isn’t that difficult to make people justify every cent that had to be spent. We used imagination and built everything ourselves for the most part to make sure it all worked. There are behind-the-scenes videos on the website (HERE) if anyone wants to see how bare-bones our operation was. It ran on love and Allison King helping out every day. Ben and I just stuck to keeping everything under $250 any time we went out to buy anything and that pretty much got us through most of filming and I suggest that anyone who wants to make films do the same. If there are countries in the world where people live for ¼ of that for a whole year, you can figure out how to get a shot for the same.
Joe: Also we hired amazing people: Carly, Ryan, Quantae and his kids, Emily, Heather, Dave, Josh, Chanda, Daesha, Ernesto, (cast), Jill (makeup), Allison (Associate producer), Martin and Cody (Stunts), Sparky and Will (sound) got along wonderfully and helped out with everything we needed to build or dress. Martin and Cody pretty much built that padded cell by themselves out of Styrofoam and shower curtains in two hours while we were shooting a scene in another room and you absolutely cannot tell it’s not part of the hospital. Everyone gave 100% of their heart and soul to this project and that’s why it came out looking so good. Love and creativity got us over the rough patches and kept us within budget.
Joe: We didn’t show everything we wrote, but we showed everything that needed to be there. I’m happy with the story and I’m happy with the movie. There are a few things that I would love to be able to enhance, but never anything that would hurt the soul of what we made. Our realism is the chemistry between our characters and I am very satisfied with that.
7. – Both: The movie would not exist without the amazing work of Carly Oates, (Regina in the movie), how’s you met her? I think you know she takes the viewer on a rollercoaster of emotions, what had to do the artistic direction on this? What was actually the human fat she drinks? There is great chemistry between her and Ryan Shogren, known they previously?
Joe: Ben knew Carly and brought her in to meet me and it took all of 10 seconds to fall in love with her and know she was the right person for the role. Carly and Ryan only met a couple times before filming, but we scheduled a few scenes with them that didn’t require as much interaction so they could get used to each other before having to really get intense. They did their homework as actors should and really gave us awesome performances. Their professionalism and effort cannot be understated.
Joe: I made the fat shakes out of bananas that had oxidized and lemonade. It was really quite delicious, but I didn’t know Carly wasn’t a big fan of mashed bananas beforehand; otherwise I would have made it out of mangos and tofu. Everything disgusting you see in the movie actually tasted amazing and would make a great breakfast.
Ben: I met Carly during a casting call for another project several years ago. She was amazing then just like she is now. We cast her before I wrote the script – which was a tough sell, actually. We didn’t know at the time what form Pretty Dead would actually be, but we knew it would involve a lot of talking to the camera and require some serious emotional work, so we asked Carly to do a screen test with us that was mostly just improvisation based on the ideas behind the character. Carly showed up and was mesmerizing like usual, but the idea of a zombie movie that was 90 percent her sitting in front of a camera doing a reality television style confessional was not appealing to her. She tried to pass on the project, I think more than once, but I told her “Let me write the script first, then if you still don’t see the potential, we’ll talk about it…” A couple of weeks later we had a script and I think she was shocked by how much she had in common with the character of Regina and responded to the material, though she still had reservations. But by that time I had a vision for the film and that vision wouldn’t work with anybody else. In film school they told us that directing is 90 percent casting, 10 percent everything else and I couldn’t agree more, so from that point on it was about getting her on board. Using another actress was never an option we considered – even while she was still trying to pass on the project.
Ben: Obviously she eventually said yes, and to her credit once she was “in” she gave 110 percent everyday, no matter how demanding I was with either the emotional or physical aspects of her role – I remember one time after a long take at the end of an even longer day of this very intense struggle between her and the hospital staff trying to strap her down in a hospital bed, after the camera cut she collapsed and I thought maybe I had finally pushed her too far, but her response to me asking if she was okay was a hardy and full of humor “Fuck you, Ben. Fuck you.” And then she was ready to do it again if she needed to. She always put getting what we needed for the story first and the script goes to some very dark places, not the mention some gross and physically challenging ones. When you have an actress that will make you cry during a take, then jump in bio-hazard trash can to eat bags of human fat… well, you know the movie is going to turn out good.
Ben: The human fat was a mix of mashed up bananas and fruit juice – it probably tasted better than the food we served everybody for lunch. Funny thing is, Carly told us at the wrap party that she actually doesn’t like bananas… she fooled us for so long with her performance that it never occurred to me to even ask her – and she is such a professional that I don’t think it ever occurred to her to ask for something different.
Ben: Ryan and Carly had never met before we started production, but we worked hard to develop a back story and full history of their relationship. While the way we chose to shoot the film meant some scenes we wanted to show just couldn’t be put on tape because there would be nobody filming them – I made sure both Ryan and Carly knew what was happening in those “missing” scenes so that we could map out where they had to be emotionally for the scenes we did film. Their performances are very subtle, but all the information is actually there – it’s the key in making their relationship feel real.
8. – Both: How do you see the independent film scene? Are you afraid that may affect piracy to Pretty Dead? Have you thought any form of distribution that can help the movie against it? What about the negative, or positive, effects of online reviews, when so many bloggers talk without real knowledge?
Joe: I am really proud that there are people out there making independent movies, but what counts as an “independent” movie is really hard to define. There are a few movies that run on a budget as low as ours, like Primer or Paranormal Activity that get attention, but it’s a real shame that there aren’t more avenues to compete with the big studios and the review sites and bloggers such as yours have been a great help in breaking through the noise. Audiences just want to see something good and are tired of all of the super big budget, yet emotionally crippled, movies out there and are ready for something smaller and more intimate.
Joe: We have to be very careful to keep our movie from getting leaked online so we have been watermarking a lot of the copies and being very careful about who we send the movie to. Most of the time people pirate movies just because it’s easier to pirate them than to find them legally. We’d like to get the movie in front of as many people as possible at a fair price, but that really isn’t our call all of the time. Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes have been really great at making it easier for people to get movies more easily than through piracy.
Joe: One thing I don’t think pirates understand is that not every movie is made by studios spending hundreds of millions of dollars, there are smaller movies like ours that are made by just a couple people that are still scratching to make back the costs and it hurts us and our families.
Joe: Anyone can be a critic whether or not they have a great deal of background knowledge about the story, filmmakers, or movies in general. That’s part of the risk of making art, you have to show it to people and you don’t know how they are going to react. Films like Pretty Dead are made to connect with universal emotions that hopefully don’t take a lot of background information to enjoy, so even if a blogger or reviewer is not an expert their opinions are valid.
Ben: Independent film is both struggling and booming in the states right now. Tons of films get made every year, but most are never seen domestically beyond few festival screenings because distribution is pretty much locked up by the studios that have to use up all the available screens to stand a chance at making back the $100 million or more budgets most of their movies have. In a perfect world, I like to see smaller, riskier films get more screen share, but the math doesn’t generally work out in favor of that.
Ben: Piracy is a real problem for little films like ours, there generally is not that much money coming in to us after everybody gets their hands in the pot and if you’re stealing the movie, then we get even less. It’s a bummer, especially since most people don’t buy or download pirated movies maliciously, they just want to see them when they are not available legally. The Catch-22 is that they are not available because piracy has killed the marketplace for them.
Ben: I think the best way to combat piracy is to make a streaming version of the film available directly off the Pretty Dead website for a buck or two… but I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that or not.
Ben: I love the buzz the film has. We try to put as much info on the website as we can, so bloggers can write informative reviews, but the overwhelmingly positive reaction everybody is having to the film is very exciting. In fact, the industry is starting to take the film a little more seriously as a direct consequence of all the good press, so a few misstatements here and there seem like a small price to pay. Speculation is a powerful force in the marketplace.
9. – Both: What are your plans for the near future of Pretty Dead? Any festival? What about the distant future? Will we know more about Regina? Any other project in mind?
Joe: We are still trying to find a venue for our world premiere and have been submitting festivals all over the world. We have a contact form on our website (HERE) if fans want to tell us where they live and if there is a festival we should submit to. We’ve got a sales agent that will be pitching the film to various distributors and hopefully they will be able to get it in front of everyone.
Joe: We have some bonus content in mind that may fill in some more of the story and hopefully we’ll be able to do a really cool sequel. We’ve got lots of projects we’ve been tossing about but are really focusing on Pretty Dead right now.
Ben: The future of any independent film is always a gamble, but I think we have a winner. We’ve brought on Original Artists to help sell the film with us and I think their strategy, dedication and enthusiasm combined with Joe’s and mine, will let us make the most of out of what we have. But God only knows what that will actually look like.
Ben: I’d like to do a sequel at some point for Pretty Dead where we get to really see what a fungal sporing zombie apocalypse actually looks like – but that is not a low budget endeavor, so we’ll have to see how this one is actually received first.
10. – Both: Finally, would you comment on something we have forgotten?
Joe: I did not go to film school and learned everything from making this movie and the Make Your Own Damn Movie! series of books by Lloyd Kaufman of Troma. I would encourage anyone out there with an idea in your heart that you can’t let go of to do the same and don’t get discouraged by what everyone else had to do in order to get their movie made. Everyone will try to talk you out of it, but imagination can overcome any obstacle. Also, get all of your releases signed before you put anyone in front of a camera or microphone. And thank you Jorge for giving us this opportunity!
Ben: Unlike Joe, I did go to film school and I am still paying for it even though I graduated over six years ago. I can tell you without a doubt that if you want to make movies, the best thing you can do is just start making them. For some people film school is the best way to do that, but it’s certainly not the most effective or only way, and I would encourage anybody interested to stop reading books about it and just do it. Shoot and edit it on your iPhone if you have to, but get out there and start learning things the hard way, because no matter how much film school you have or books you read, you’re still going to have to learn everything that matters the hard way on your first production regardless.
Thank you Jorge for your interest and support and for giving us a chance to tell our story behind the story. We’ll keep you posted as things develop!