Lance Weiler is the director of two critically acclaimed independent horror movies, The Last Broadcast and his most recent film Head Trauma. On top of that he’s also the founder of the Workbook Project, designed to give aspiring filmmakers an understanding of funding, production, promotion, and distribution in a digital age.
I recently had the chance to ask Lance some questions about his career and in particular his latest cinematic venture Head Trauma.
What’s the reaction been like to Head Trauma? Has it lived up to your hopes?
The reaction to the movie has been amazing. It has exceeded my expectations. Both critics and fans have embraced the movie. The fact that we made seven top 10 lists for 2006 and that I’ve been getting tons of emails from fans who are discovering the movie as well should give you some idea of how well the film has been received.
I spent over three years making it and a lot of that time is spent in a vacuum, so you’re never sure what the reaction will be. You always hope for the best, that people will respond and not only has there been response but the amount of doors that Head Trauma has opened are amazing.
One of the key factors in the film’s creepy atmosphere is the sound design. Did you pay particular attention to that and do you feel that it’s an area often underused by horror directors?
The sound design and the music really blend in Head Trauma. I really wanted the sound be a character within the movie and we spent a lot of time discussing and prepping for the score. Tim Nielsen, the sound designer, and Brian McTear and Amy Morrissey, the composers, did an excellent job of creating the fractured world of the movie’s protagonist, George Walker.
Brian and Amy started making audio sketches while we were still shooting. They traveled to various shooting locations and recorded actual sounds within the house. Later they would create music using those sounds. It was important to have a non-traditional score, one that would blend the nightmares and reality. Tim Nielsen started early as well. He did an amazing job of bringing the sound design to life. I want to make every movie with Tim, Brian and Amy.
While the film has similarities to Polanski’s Repulsion (an isolated individual going insane) it also has things in common with recent Japanese horror films like Ringu. Was this a conscious (or even unconscious) influence? Are you a fan of the modern wave of Japanese horror?
I really enjoy the works of Polanski. I’m a fan of Repulsion, The Tennant, Cul-de-sac, and Knife in the Water. Head Trauma even mentioned in the same sentence as Repulsion is an honour. I’m also a big fan of Asian horror. I’ve been to Japan a number of times and enjoy their culture. Some of the most interesting horror films are coming out of Asia, in my opinion. In some ways I think they owe something to the works of Polanski and the other atmospheric horror films of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Unlike many recent genre films Head Trauma, while not having a conventional happy ending, does have a sense of catharsis. Was this your aim from the start or just how the story evolved?
The ending was always intended. In a sense the movie is about redemption and in some ways is more of a psychological film than a horror film in the traditional sense. The comic that George finds in the phone booth foreshadows elements of the story. I’m interested in exploring complex characters and like films where you travel with someone and experience some type of transformation.
Do you see independent horror films as the cutting edge of the genre, willing to take risks while Hollywood plays it safe?
I think in a lot of ways some of the most cutting edge work is coming from truly independent horror films. There are also a lot of independent films that are trying to copy what Hollywood is doing. The digital filmmaking revolution has opened the door to the tools and now many different types of people can step behind the camera to tell their stories.
Horror is an exciting genre when people use it for a purpose. It is a great genre for subtext, but often subtext is replaced with a desire to do what somebody will think will sell. I’m excited to see what is coming from the underground both hear in the states and overseas. There is some really great work surfacing and I hope that continues.
What are your feelings about the current state of mainstream horror cinema? I find it disappointing that up and coming horror filmmakers like Alexandre Aja (Hills Have Eyes) and Rob Zombie (Halloween) are reworking old ideas. How do you feel about the current trend towards remakes (or reimaginings) and is there a film you’d particularly like to remake?
Too many remakes and not enough character and story development. It feels formulaic and over-thought in the wrong ways. Like more thought is put into the marketing and promotion than the actual script.
Remakes aren’t my thing unless it’s a film that has been lost or was an amazing story but missed the mark for some reason. I’m not into the remaking of movies that were well made to begin with. I’d rather see an original story from Rob Zombie that the remake of Halloween.
At this moment in time I can’t think of a film I’d like to remake, but I can think of a number of films that I’d love to see re-released in theaters. For example Pretty Poison, Black Sabbath, and Jigoku would be nice to see on the big screen.
Comics play a key role in the film. Are you a comic fan and how did legendary Swamp Thing artist Steve Bissette become involved with the project?
I love comics and graphic novels. I’ve collected them since I was a kid. I’m really drawn to the independent comics. For instance I love Charles Burns’ work; Black Hole is amazingly haunting.
Steve was a fan of my first film The Last Broadcast and we struck up a friendship around that. I’d been a big fan of Swamp Thing when I was a kid and was familiar with Steve’s work. Steve had stepped away from comics and I had often thought about using comics in my work.
Once I had the concept down for Head Trauma I approached Steve and asked if he would consider inking something for the movie. It was an amazing experience working with Steve and his son Danny, who also inked some of the comic. It was an organic process that happened over a year or so and I’m thrilled with the results.
On a comic related note, towards the end of the film we see Julian reading a Spider Baby comic. Is this an homage to the classic Jack Hill film?
Good eyes, you’re the first one to catch that. In fact there are a number of hidden things through out the movie. Some of them are foreshadowing elements and others are just nods to films. Spider Baby is really one I can’t take full credit for. It is the name of Steve’s label. He self-published a lot of his own work and the works of others.
You will no doubt have been asked this before but I have to ask. How do you feel about The Blair Witch Project – is it “there but for an innovative Internet advertising campaign go I”?
There is so much written on this question. And Stefan and I have been asked about it so many times. I have no regrets or hard feelings. Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast will be forever linked. In the end we summed it up in The Last Broadcast – is it fact or fiction, you decide. For those who want to judge for themselves, The Last Broadcast has been released in a new collector’s edition to celebrate its almost 10-year anniversary. It has new commentaries, new bonus footage and a remastered version of the movie.
Unlike big budget movies, small independent films require the director to be far more involved in marketing the film. Do you see the Internet as a key tool for the independent filmmaker?
Without a doubt the Internet is a key tool. Filmmakers that aren’t embracing the Internet are missing out on a cost effective tool for marketing and promotion. Not to mention that very soon digital distribution will be more of a reality. For those who want to go DIY (do it yourself) they will be able to fund, produce, shoot, edit, promote and distribute their own work. That’s what we did for TLB and what I’ve done for Head Trauma. In fact I feel so strongly about the subject I started a free filmmaking resource called the Workbook Project. it is a social open source project for filmmakers that shows them how to make and distribute their own work.
Your first two films have both been horror. Do you see yourself as a genre filmmaker or would you like to try your hand at something else?
I love making psychological films. There is something great about mining dark material and mixing it with subtext. My next film will be in the horror genre.
After that I’m not sure, it really depends on what story I’m interested in telling. Since independent films take a couple years to make I want to make sure I’m passionate about whatever I’m making. In the end that’s what keeps you going.
Lance Weiler, thank you and good luck.