Monday, December 20, 2010

A Moon in the Gutter Q&A with Producer and Director Herschel Zahnd III

Today I am very pleased to present this new Q&A with Actor, Director and Producer Herschel Zahnd III. I have stated here before that I wish more films were shot in the wonderfully cinematic Louisville, Ky., so I was thrilled to find Herschal's striking shot in Louisville micro-budget feature Girl Number Three earlier this year. I greatly admired Herschal's first-feature so I am very happy to present this Q&A with him, which should prove a fascinating read to inspiring your film-makers and theater directors.

Moon in the Gutter: Now I believe you were born in Jeffersonville, Indiana? Can you tell us a bit about your early days and how you first became interested in film?

Herschel Zahnd III: Well I was born in Seymour, Indiana, about 40 miles north of Jeffersonville. I have lived literally from the top of the state, Fort Wayne, to the bottom. I moved to Jeffersonville after I got married.

I became interested in filmmaking very late in life, by today’s standards. It wasn’t until I had graduated College with a theater degree and had formed my, then only Theater, company, Renegade Art Productions, LLC, that I gave any serious thought to Producing and Directing a Film.

I have always loved movies. I was introduced to Star Wars and Indiana Jones by my parents, and subsequently became obsessed with, what was then, those SIX films. In an effort to abate that obsession, they had my watch all sorts of other films. That is where my love of film was born. My first movie was actually a Star Trek film that I made using Star Trek action figures and my Dad’s RCA VHS Camcorder. Though at that point it just sounded like fun, not a career. Early in life I wanted to be an archaeologist, wonder why, and I am still obsessed with History. I spent my middle and high school years with every intention of being a Medical Doctor. However, by my Junior Year of High School I realized that I did not have the math and chemistry proficiency to realize that dream. So I turned to what had become my true love, Theater.

My dad had showed me the film version of Lil’ Abner and I fell in love with it. I turned to him and said that I would love to be in the show some day. We moved back to Seymour in 1997 and that fall the Seymour High School Choir was doing Lil’ Abner as their Fall Musical. I auditioned and won a role as a Crony and Chorus member. From that point on I was hooked. I participated in over 20 musicals, plays and concerts during High School Several that I Directed and one that I wrote.

Did you get interested in the Horror genre fairly young or did that passion come a bit later?

MUCH LATER! I grew up in a very conservative Christian home. My parents did not allow me to watch horror films, and truthfully they were quite right to do so. The truth is I think the Horror Genre is Wonderful, I love it, but I think exposure to it at too young of an age is a bad thing.

I grew to love the genre in college. My roommate would go home most weekends and leave me alone. I didn’t have a lot of friends and no money to go out so my Friday nights consisted of a trip to the Public Library to pickup a stack of movies that would watch over the weekend.

It was then that I was introduced to names like Roger Corman, Wes Craven, John Charpenter, and Clive Barker. It was also then that I got hooked on Trash Horror. The SCARCROW movies, SLEEPAWAY CAMP, SORORITY MASSACRE, ect.

To this day I love bad horror films. Though I am a bit more finicky than I used to be.

I saw where you involved in Theater during your college days and I know you are still actively involved. Would you say that you have more of an enthusiasm for theater or film, or are they both equal for you?

My true love is entertaining. I have been blessed to do it in about every form imaginable. From plays, to musical, operas, Shakespeare, ballet, film, television, and webisodes I have gotten to do it all.

Though I see Film as being my true calling and my career, I will always love the theater more. I feeling of finishing a performance and the crowd roaring to it’s feet as you step out for your bow is for me the essence of life. I got to experience it for the first time while playing Kenney Kenickie in GREASE. The Crowd went nuts when I took my bow. I live for it!

The other side of the coin is Film. The greatest tragedy of theater is that eventually, the show will close. Some of the greatest performances of our time occurred on stages with no cameras there to document them. Save the few hundred people that were there that night, no one else will ever see them. Once a film is shown and released, it is there for all time. Especially now. In the early days of film, it was possible for all the prints to be lost. Some of the lesser-known Charlie Chan and Charlie Chaplin films are great examples of this kind of loss. Now, however, once DVDs hit the market there is little chance that it will ever completely disappear. My film was bootlegged to the internet and so long as there is power to the server it is stored on it will always be there. The eternal nature of film appeals to me. All the hard work and countless hours spent won’t be lost because the audiences quit coming night after night and Disney needs space for Lilo and Stitch: The Musical.

When I am asked, “What do you want to do?” I always respond, “As Long as I am working in the arts, I don’t care.”

Tell me how you first got involved in filmmaking and what did your early work consist of?

I became interested in film at first purely as an actor. I did several student and independent films as minor leads and bit characters. In early 2004 I got a hair-brained idea for a script and wrote and outline the finally turned into a screenplay by 2006. At that point I had raised about $2000.00 to make the movie, and I had a guy that claimed to have camera and was going to shoot it. Well, his camera turned out to be a off brand high-8 and a really bad one at that. I made the choice at that point to invest the money I had raised and buy a camera of my own.

I purchased a Canon XL1 and started to learn how to use it. I made several short films and got into Wedding Videography. I also had to learn how to edit, direct for film and all the other things that most people don’t think about when they utter those famous last word of a fool, “Making a movie can’t be THAT HARD! I bet I can do it!”

I soon made a successful short film called TOLERANCE and produced a TV Show called THE NECROVILLE PICTURE SHOW.

These were all small projects and largely light comedy.

Onto GIRL NUMBER 3. Tell me about the genesis of the film from comic to screen and how you became involved in it.

This is a LONG story. In October of 2007 I was running the haunted house at the Waverly Hill Sanitarium. I was also working at UPS as a supervisor. It was then that I met Nathan Thomas Milliner. He gave me a copy of a newly printed comic he had written and drawn called GIRL NUMBER THREE. I read the thing as soon as I got home and then told my wife to read it. By that afternoon I was on the phone to Nate and struck a preliminary deal to turn GN3 into a film with him Writing the screenplay and me directing.

More than 28 months elapsed between the night Nate handed me the Comic and the first Public Screening of the film. We faced casting difficulties and location changes. We shot in some of the coldest weather Louisville had ever seen. We were tested so many times in so many different ways. One prominent local filmmaker looked at me at one point and said “I would have given up by now.” That was just never an option for us. We resolved to make the film no matter what. We were challenged, we fought the battles, we were victorious.

I though the film was a cool hybrid between the fairly extreme Grindhouse Revenge thrillers of the seventies and early eighties Slashers. Were there any particular films you were trying to emulate while making it? Any you recommended you cast or crew watch to prepare?

There were certainly elements of classic films that we wanted to homage but never copy. The horror genre is challenging because it is hard to do something that hasn’t ever been done, it’s ALL been done!

There was no chance of creating new and innovative FILM stuff on the budget and the knowledge we had. This was a learning film. There was not one film school graduate on the production team. We were going on what we knew from watching other films and from what I was able to learn from reading.

For me style and intent became important factors. We have all seen death bye axe in films before, but have you even seen it done by a girl in a French Maid costume motivated by revenge, kidnap, and rape…well maybe but not everyday.

Since we were making and Black & White Film, and yes it was always the intent to do the film in B&W. We didn’t do it because our color correction budget was nil. That just happened to be a bonus. I watched A LOT of Hitchcock. My mother-in-law is always saying that films today show too much. I agree. I love the idea of letting the audience imagine what is happening off camera. Our own imagination is far more gruesome than anything a f/x department can create. Audiences are too spoon-fed today. The great films of the golden age hid the blood and gore and people passed out and puked in the theater. Now they walk out saying “Those intestines were so fake.” I wanted to make a movie that forced the audience to think again. I did add more gore into the film after some test screenings but the film is much less gory than any Hollywood horror film. I like it that way.

As far as getting the cast to watch anything. I tried to direct them based on their experience, I believe in real method acting. Not the common perception of The Method, but the real thing taught from Stanislavski and Stella Adler. This is a Theatrical approach, which is what I know best, and it worked really well. Especially with Julie Streble.

I’m really drawn to D.I.Y. productions and it was so great seeing a film like this set and filmed in Louisville, which I think is a really underutilized town that is ripe for more filmmakers. It made me think of the late William Girdler, who was a fantastic Kentucky based director in the early seventies who shot films like Three on a Meathook, The Zebra Killer, Abby and Sheba Baby in Lousville. Are you familiar his work?

I really don’t know Mr. Girdler’s work. But since you recommend him I will look him up!

One of the main factors that elevated Girl Number Three from your average microbudget film was the quality of the performances. I was especially impressed with your leading lady, Julie Streble. Can you tell us a bit about her and how she came on board the film?

Juile is friend, first and foremost. I met her while I was doing a run of the Sondheim classic A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. I was playing the romantic lead and she was in the chorus. One night in rehearsal the girl playing opposite me was out and Julie stood in for her. I was captivated by her beauty finally understood how my character was supposed to feel. We were cast opposite each other in The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyle and Mr. Hyde. After that show I was a huge fan of Julie Streble. I have cast her again and again. She has turned in stellar performances each time, and each time she comes back I find new ways to challenge her. She always rises to the occasion.

Julie was my first choice for the role but the script called for MAX to undress on camera. A the time Julie was not prepared to do that so I had to move on. We searched and searched for other actresses but found none. During the time we were searching Julie changed her mind and decided she really wanted to play the role. She auditioned and we were blown away. We cast her and never looked back. She filmed beautifully and hit all the right moments at all the right times. She was flawless.

I was also impressed by how you managed to keep the film visually interesting, which I think is rare for films with this low of a budget as the shots are typically just more functional than anything else. Was it difficult for you to maintain the cinematic quality in your shots due to time and financial constraints?

I thank you for this complement, but I think it is undeserved. I think the cinematic look of the film is one area that I came up lacking

By the time we were ready to film I had found myself a mentor. He told me that one of the best things I could do was to keep the camera off a tripod. The film had to move. Well my handheld technique is good but not good enough to do an entire film. I had a dolly but no track. We were shooting in a one hundred year old warehouse so smooth floors didn’t exist. I did the next best thing. I used pans and tilts whenever possible. I utilized the zoom on my one lens as much as I could. I wanted every shoot that could to start “in motion.” I shot the film entirely in 24p and in a 16:9 aspect ratio. This allowed the film to look cinematic while being shot on Mini-DV. So I had my look but when you see the final film there is a problem. The cinematic look goes away from time to time. Here’s what happened.

I did what I could to maintain a consistent look, but he problem I ran into was that I didn’t really have a crew that knew the cameras as well as I did nor did we have access to multiple cameras. So when scheduling dictated that I had to run two units, the B-units were not able to maintain the same look. Not their fault. There simply was not enough of me to go around. My mistake was that I tried to make Girl Number Three an artistic one-man show, not smart. I wanted to control the film. To be a successful filmmaker one has to rely on partners and collaborators. First time filmmakers hear me well, DELEGATE!

The film is shot in Black and White, another aspect that really sets it apart. I suspect it was done to match the comic but did you plan to do that from the get-go, or what was your ultimate motivation for not shooting it in color?

As I already mentioned it was intentional. The comic was printed in Black & White. So we wanted to make the film look as much like the book as possible. The book was a graphic novella, which means that it was basically a short story with about 20 illustrations. At the outset we resolved to recreate every illustration exactly as it appeared in the book. The Black & White was part of that. The other thing was that I just wanted to do something different. We have been kicked for it a couple times, but it is one of my favorite elements of the film. Funny story: When we premiered the film, a little kid came up and watched the trailer and said “The movie isn’t in Black and White is it?” We said, “Yeah isn’t that Great!” He looked at us like Christmas was cancelled and walked away.

How has it been trying to get the film distributed and are you happy with the final product?

We are self-distributing right now. You can purchase both the Single Disc Edition and the Double Disc Edition at the official site.
I would be lying if I said that the movie was perfect. I would love to go back and fix things. That being said, I LOVE MY MOVIE. We created something that is truly unique. There are not many films out there like Girl Number Three. There will most likely not be another anytime soon.

I know it has played at quite a number of festivals. Has there been any particular feedback or praise you have received that surprised or meant a lot to you?

Honestly just the fact that people come and watch is the greatest praise that I get. When we premiered the film I was so nervous that no one would come I was sick. We had a LINE to get in to see it! The first screening was a mess. There were technical difficulties and more than 20 minutes of the movie was skipped. Yet, people stayed to the end! They stayed for the Q&A afterward. We have gotten wonderful praise and harsh criticism, but the truth is that we have affected people’s lives. Just for a brief moment, but we were there. That is the greatest praise I can hope for.

You’re currently working on a stage version of Sweeney Todd in Louisville. Tell us a bit about that.

I like to pull off the impossible. We I was asked to suggest a show for the Halloween Season, “Since Sweeney Todd can’t be done.” My reply was “ Why can’t Sweeney be done.” Eight months later I am getting to helm the show both as a producer and getting to play the iconic Sweeney Todd as well.

Our production returns the show to a more traditional setting. There will be throat slashing and the audience will see the bodies slide out of the chair and down the chute.

I am proud of the cast and crew we have assembled. They are amount the most talented I have ever gotten to work with!

What are your plans after Sweeney Todd? I certainly hope we can look forward to another film from you.

Well I am partnering again with Nathan Thomas Milliner on another comic of his called A Wish For The Dead. It is a tribute to George A. Romero, which means of course that it is a Zombie flick! Nathan will be directing the film and I will be acting as the cinematographer . I am also honored, at Nate’s request, going to be starring in the film as well.

I am also in development on two other films. I never stop thinking up new ideas. I am sitting on about five great scripts that I will be pursuing over the next few years, not all in the horror genre but most are. I will be taking some time off in the beginning of 2011 to write and prep for a very busy summer!

Finally, for a bit of fun, I was hoping you could maybe mention five films and five plays that mean a lot to you professionally and personally.

Wow that is hard! I will probably have to mention a few groups. And that wouldn’t be a third of all the wonderful films and theater that I draw inspiration from.


The Star Wars Saga (As a whole)
The Indiana Jones Films
Silence of the Lambs
Sergeant York
The Red Curtain Trilogy (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo & Juliet, and Moulin Rouge)

Plays and Musicals

The Works of Stephen Sondheim Sweeney Todd, Sunday In The Park With George, and Assassins
Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom Of The Opera, Cats, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat
Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy
August Wilson’s Jittney
Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Excellent, thanks so much Herschel for taking time out of your busy schedule for us and all the best of luck with your future projects.


ThatQuebecGuy said...

Fascinating read indeed! Definitively interested in seeing his film.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thank you very much!