Justin Richards recently spoke to Blair Erickson, Director of the 3D film Banshee Chapter; a film that’s been picking up critical acclaim and taking the festival circuit by storm.
Tell us how the film Banshee Chapter came about and how much research you did when you were preparing the screenplay?
There was a couple of years of looking into various strange historical phenomena, in the background of modern American history; experiments that the CIA had run and the history of that MK-Ultra research program that we really get into the film, that had been stuck in my mind for a long time; history that had been really glossed over and ignored; it was all just a great leaping off point for the story. It just started building out of there. We were really just surmising what it would be like to really dig deep with that story, into those creepy and strange events that we saw that the CIA and their scientists were involved and participating in. That was really the genesis of it.
Can you tell us about your own background in filmmaking?
Before Banshee Chapter I was actually a creative director at an interactive ad agency and we would do a lot of work in virtual worlds, doing different projects around that, and then we started to get into a lot of other stuff – Fox started doing a show, Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles and we were shooting live action episodes to exist alongside their show, online, and we were playing with lots of cool ideas and writing some interesting whole stories and then we started working with Dreamworks on Monsters Vs. Aliens so I was working for other people initially and then I just got into the idea of sitting down to write a simple story for a small budget horror film using the weird sort of ideas that I’d been researching, which is how it started.
I see that you’re a fan of Lovecraft?
Absolutely. I grew up with those stories and the Stuart Gordon movies too. I just loved that mythology – I loved the weirdly specific nature of it; it’s so different from most other horror mythologies. One of the reasons why I took the route I did with Banshee Chapter was because, in the original Lovecraft story, From Beyond, and in some of his other work, there’s a lot of discussion about the pineal gland and how it plays a role in influencing the mind. And as I was reading a lot about dimethyltryptamene research there were a lot of scientists that were actually speculating that there’s actually a dimethyltryptamene chemical in the pineal gland of human beings, that’s actually released when you’re born and when you die. It was one of those wild speculations, but it was very intriguing to me. And we started working that into the story.
What was even more interesting was that not only did that overlap with the H.P. Lovecraft story, but after we shot the film it actually turned out to be true – they actually found laboratory evidence that the chemical is actually in that region of the brain. It’s interesting that Lovecraft had actually speculated in that way and then it ends up becoming true and installs a weird sense of reality to it; maybe it’s truer than we think. Obviously in the film it’s a little more surreal and crazy!
How has the reception been for the film so far?
Terrific, it’s been a really wonderful surprise that people are really open to something that’s so different and so weird. For a lot of folks it resonates on some weird level, more so than, say, the typical ghost stories or ‘slasher’ stories. There’s something about the ideas, the material that for a lot of people is timeless. Something that is genuinely unsettling and compelling. It’s fascinating stuff and you want to know more and it has that aura where people can feel there’s some tangible thought and truth there. I’m not going to take credit for that and say it’s all down to the writing; it’s more about the research, about real scientists and what they were speculating about.
Why did you shoot Banshee Chapter in 3D?
I was looking ahead to the future. It’s an irreversible march of technology and it’s better to embrace rather than to resist. 3D helps to immerse the viewer in the world you’re trying to create.
I expect you’ve seen a lot of these films that get converted to 3D in post? And there’s nothing worse than those 3D converted films. My sense is that the way technology is developing, that there will be an easier way of presenting a lot of this stuff in future. People are going to want that three-dimensional information and I thought we have the technology now so why don’t we just shoot it that way, and we’ll have that information of what it looks like in 3D. So we really took that into account when we were shooting. We’ve been working behind the scenes now to come up with the best way to unleash that version, which I think looks really fantastic, it looks terrific. Basically, in a nutshell, I saw that 3D would, in future, take a dominant position, hence the reason for shooting in 3D. I would never want it converting, ever!
What are your thoughts on stereoscopic filming – does it have a future?
I work with a software company, here in San Francisco, and we work a lot with Oculus Rift; my sense is that that’s where things are going. The Oculus software is very interesting, but it’s that sense of total immersion, in three dimensions, with projected imagery; I think that is where it’s going towards. I know that the current system where you have to wear a cumbersome head-mounted display or when you go to a movie theatre and have to wear some kind of 3D spectacles is not quite right; I think we all kind of feel that it’s not quite there yet, but my sense is that we are moving in the direction of a fully immersive experience.
The BBC famously dropped their 3D schedule. Do you see 3D as ever being an additional revenue stream for film?
I’m not utterly convinced that it’s going to be a big revenue stream for us because 3D tends to suit the bigger blockbusters with a wide-scale theatrical release and this, of course, is a much smaller independent type of experience.
If you go back and look at when colour was introduced into film, they went back and colourised all these old films and there was a resurgence of interest in them and I kind of feel the same way about 3D; that stereoscopic information is another layer that matches our experiences in the real world and it helps add to that immersion. So a lot of the choices that we made were how do you maximise that immersion and how do you really bring the audience with you into believing in this world, in a really unusual way.
I think that we’ll eventually get it right, that it doesn’t always feel like an add-on or after-thought, but that it feels right, that we actually find the right way to present movies in that format.
How was the Banshee Chapter shoot and how was it to work with Ted Levine?
It was a really fun and intense experience in a lot of ways, just because we had a limited amount of time and such a limited budget. There were just so many obstacles to overcome. There was a real sense of crazy team work among our crew. We worked a lot with the crew from Breaking Bad (we were shooting in New Mexico); they were on hiatus so we were using a lot of their crew. Our location manager was able to save us a lot of money, pulling off lots of minor miracles – you need an entire abandoned subdivision? We got it; you need an underground government testing facility? Boom, done. We weren’t sure we were going to get all this stuff, but he was able to come through and use all his skills to make that happen. That kind of saved us and kept us going. The entire process was quite an adventure.
Working with Ted Levine was a lot of fun and a lot of great learning for me because that’s an actor who has worked with almost all the best directors, from Martin Scorsese to Jonathan Demme to Michael Mann so he’s had dealings with all these big directors and worked on all these big productions…. So we were all learning from him. I think what he brought to that character really helps; what he did with that character played so well within the realm of whom that character needed to be and there’s very few actors who could have brought that wonderful strange energy to that character. He played it a little bit strange and creepy, but also a little bit funny; it’s a fine line that you walk between them… I was really, really grateful that he agreed to work with us on the film.
How did he get involved?
Well, we were working with my production company, they’d just had Margin Call, and had read through the script and we just made a list of the actors we thought were capable for the role and he was the first one on that list and we sent him the script and he read it and very quickly he was a ‘go’. He said: ‘yeah, this is very interesting stuff’, and was all for it.
What are your thoughts on the democratisation of filming due to the advent of digital media?
Yeah, I know what you’re saying, where people are saying: ‘look we’ve made the technology so cheap and abundant that now everyone can make films’. The danger, of course, in my opinion, is there’s definitely the case of what happened to the art world where everybody was so busy saying that everybody could be an artist; nobody stopped to ask: ‘should everybody be an artist?’ I’ve known people who are pretending something is art, but really it’s this gimmicky stuff that doesn’t really have any artistic value. I think there’s always that danger in any medium, but in this case, when it comes to filmmaking, I think the transition that we’re going through is very similar to what we saw in the music industry about 15 years ago when digital technology had made it so easy to rapidly disseminate music, where you saw producers and music industry middle-men really suffer that bottom line where it became less and less necessary for the process and they didn’t need as many people.
With the easy way you can make films and get them out so quickly it floods the market with a lot of films and I understand that there’s that strange feeling right now where we don’t know how to determine what’s good or bad, where big movies get lost and great movies just get ignored and there’s this torrent of films, and I understand that. But what we’re also doing is building a new process where we can better allow anyone to create a film, but we haven’t solved the discovery process that enables us to best find the good ones. That’s the sort of strange transition period we’re going through at the moment. In a couple of years I think we’ll have it solved.
I look now at the music industry and it seems to me to be healthier than it was ten years ago. I can go onto YouTube and discover new artists, anytime I want a new album I can access one on my phone; there’s a lot of cool stuff that’s been solved there, that we’ll see eventually get cracked with film also. It gives me confidence in the future, if anything.
How do you perceive the future of filmmaking and the industry as a whole? What are your thoughts on piracy and its impact, for example?
I can give you a higher level, civilization-wide perspective on this. Right now, we’re watching as one-by-one industry is creating an abundance of cheaper technologies. The digital technology makes distribution cheaper and easier; everything gets smaller, faster, cheaper, and it becomes increasingly abundant and easier to access. And we’re still working under an economic model – if you look at how we’ve structured, say, capitalism – that assumes scarcity, so when there’s no longer scarcity it totally screws up the economics of the market. But I think as more and more mediums and technologies become just as abundant and easily accessed we’re going to change a lot of those things too. I think the best analogy goes back to the days of Shakespeare and the economy of the time. When he wrote those plays, it was very different – the government, economics – was very different then from how it is today, however, plays still happened, theatres were there, we still told stories, we still did all that stuff, it’s just that everything around it has changed, but the medium itself has survived and I’m fairly confident that film will follow the same path.
Can you tell us about the tech you used on the film, i.e. the cameras?
Yes, absolutely. We shot on a pair of Red Epic cameras, and we used the 3D rig that a lot of these larger productions use; in fact the rig we used had just come off the set of Prometheus. The rig has the two cameras side-by-side and it’s incredibly heavy, about 100lbs.
For us, we’re trying to create that sense of immersion, with that hand-held feel, one that mixes in with our found footage kind of stuff, giving it a more modern cinema vἑritἑ feeling to the stuff that’s taking place right now. So we mixed those two to give it that weird documentary style of filming. But using that 100 pound camera to obtain that feel was actually the hardest part of the shoot. The camera was damn heavy so you couldn’t rest it on your shoulder. Our cinemaphotographer, Jeremy Obertone, a former cage fighter, is this wiry thin guy, but this brilliant cage fighter, so he was the only one on set who would lift this thing up and place it onto his shoulders and he’d go through the scene and make the camera feel like it was this lightweight effortless thing and then at the end of the scene, he’d collapse, wheezing on the floor! The technology could have definitely done with getting a bit smaller and lighter before we embarked on that style of shooting. But I’d definitely recommend that camera system to anyone – it still worked for what we needed.
What about the editing software you used?
Well, we bounced back and forth on that. When we started it was Avid, but to be honest I’m really not in love with the Avid system. I find it to be clunky, I find it to be unintuitive and I feel that it hasn’t really modernised in the past twenty years. It tends to rely on lots of learnability and keyboard shortcuts because the interface hasn’t really solved the core issues of what we do in non-linear editing, so I dived a fair bit between that and Final Cut 7. We ended up finishing on Final Cut 7 just because it was such a faster turnaround and a lot easier to deliver in multiple formats. So that was how the process went.
Can you tell us about some of the SFX that you used in Banshee Chapter?
Well we had a wonderful post production team at Spy Post, up here in San Francisco. They handled a lot of the subtle, digital effects, but we also had some practical prosthetic effects on the set and what we did was lightly merged the two. So there would be some digital enhancement to some existing practical stuff. And I think it’s that subtle mix that makes it just a little more realistic and more believable. I personally tend to resist going too CG and less practical, unless it’s something you just can’t represent in anyway in the real world. That’s been my own perspective. I love CG as a tool, but I hate seeing it overused.
What are your thoughts regarding the whole CGI vs. prosthetics debate?
I honestly think you need both. I do think that if I watch a film and it’s a heavy user of CG there is a certain surrealness to it, unless they’ve done an amazing job, for example, Children of Men or Gravity, where the filmmaker really puts their time in to make sure that each shot is photorealistic. I mean Alfonso Cuarὁn (the director of Gravity) had seven years to put that movie together. If you go back and look at any of the $200 million movies from last summer it’s unmistakable to your eye as to which films are CG, there’s no suspension of disbelief, you just know that it’s all CGI and have to go with it; there’s no tangible weight to it, it feels a bit cartoonish, it just feels not quite there, there’s a certain intangibleness to it. Whereas when you look at the filmmakers who really do their work to make sure everything is really photorealistic, making it as believable as possible, you get a very different effect, it feels grittier, more authentic. For us, where we’re working in this very low budget realm, had we gone too CG I think it would have been too cartoonish and ineffective so we had to go with a lot of practical stuff. It makes for a little more hard up-front work, but to me it’s worth it, to me it’s something that people should all do, to make those effects a bit more realistic, but that’s just me!
What’s next for Blair? Banshee Chapter part 2?
If people are into it there’s actually a couple more aspects to the story, that were cut out of this one just because it was getting too complicated to explain to people and there was too much to it for people’s brains to hang on to for a feature-length time period. But I think there’s definitely some ideas there to explore. Right now I’ve actually just finished a screenplay for my next film and now I’m looking for some partners to help put that together and make that happen so we’ll see how that goes.
Can you expand more on that?
This one plays in the sci-fi horror realm, where it’s a little bit strange, but it’s not a ghost story, but it kind of functions on a similar ‘haunted house’ level, but with American culture and government, that sort of past history that we’ve never really grappled with, but that still works as a bit of a haunted house story. But, to be honest, I think we had to be working in the horror realm as I don’t think there’s any other medium that allows you to comfortably play around with stuff that’s so outside the box. Horror fans are a lot more open-minded and a lot more willing to play in those areas of imagination without rejecting it and saying: ‘No, no this is too different, I don’t like this’. That, for me, was one of the big reasons for doing it and it’s been wonderful. Just going back to last year, with the Frightfest (film festival) in London where we debuted this film, it was such a wonderful experience because horror fans got it right away and were vocal with their thoughts about the film and they were just great advocates – you don’t get that with other genres. You don’t get hard-core drama fans championing your drama the way horror fans will the films they like, so it was wonderful to work with horror fans. And the next one, there are some horror elements, but it plays in a different realm. There’s lots of different stuff, it’s less about what scares you.
What are your influences?
Weirdly one of the biggest influences on this film is David Lynch. I love a lot of his work, going all the way back to Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive. I love that really disturbing sense of unpleasant surrealness that he creates, where it’s surreal, but there’s something genuinely disturbing about it or genuinely creepy about it and you can’t quite put your finger on it, but it just kind of hangs there in the air, that creepy sensation. For me it was looking at a lot of his work thinking: how would you bring this back into a little more of a traditional narrative? How do you bring that sensation in there? So that was a big influence on me. And then growing up, those Stuart Gordon – H.P. Lovecraft films, like Reanimator and From Beyond, just blew my mind as a kid. They were such great approaches to taking such a surreal story-world and bringing it to real life. So all those influenced me too.
Banshee Chapter reminds me a little of Jacob’s Ladder…
Absolutely, that too. Adrian Lynne’s films are a big influence on me. He’s not a widely recognised filmmaker, which is unfortunate because he’s, in my opinion, one of the best. If you look at Jacob’s Ladder, that’s about the only other horror film (and I consider it to be a horror film) that plays in this area of MK-Ultra and the fact that they were screwing with people’s minds and injecting chemicals into them and doing unspeakable experiments to people that could have huge ramifications on reality and on their perception of reality and on their lives. It’s one of those great crimes in American history that we’ve never truly reckoned with. And I love every piece of that puzzle. Not only regarding what they were doing, but also the nature of that terror. The nature of the fact that we ignored it and who was behind that, it’s all such a wonderful puzzle to play with. So, yeah, Jacob’s Ladder was a huge influence.
I hear they’re looking at doing a remake of Jacob’s Ladder…
Why? Every time I hear about a new remake announcement I just ask: ‘Why?’ Why do we need a Gremlins remake? I get it, that we love Gremlins; they say: ‘We need to do something with it, remaking the original film is the way to go’, but I think they need to take a different approach and do something different with it if they’re going to bring it back…
Was it difficult to obtain funding for the project?
It’s funny, but back in that era, (and it seems so long ago since the industry is changing so rapidly, the market is going through such a rapid transition, it’s very different now), but at the time we had teamed up with Stephanie Riggs, a producer working out of New York, with Zachary Quinto’s production company ‘Before the Door’, and Christian Arnold-Beutel, our Executive Producer from Germany, and he was really the architect of the funding. In filmmaking terms it wasn’t a large budget, but people found the script really intriguing and interesting so that was kind of what helped me get it funded.
I would say it would be a lot different to try and get it funded now, a couple of years later, just because there are so many films out there and that it makes it much harder, it makes it much riskier to make a film, even a small one, but I sure hope that changes soon…
At the moment there seems no certainty, no clear path, everybody’s just trying to put something together and figure it out and it’s just a big uphill slog right now. And I know that’s really frustrating for a lot of people, especially me – I just made this movie that got critical acclaim, it should be so easy now, but that’s not the case. Every filmmaker is going through that right now and I think you just have to be persistent, unfortunately; that’s the best advice I can give anybody right now, is to just keep at it, I guess. I can’t say I’ve cracked it 100 per cent. I think we were very lucky to be in that situation a few years back and should we be lucky to find ourselves in that situation again I’ll be very happy. I hope that the issues with the market and with distribution get solved sooner rather than later because I do think that there’s a danger of young up and coming filmmakers getting ignored and lost to that effect…
What are your thoughts on crowd funding?
I think crowd funding is a great tool that, right now, has just been screwed with in exact the same way as film festivals have been screwed with. Film festivals used to be a wonderful medium for discovering new talent; they used to be the perfect venue – you could go and see all the best early creations of burgeoning talent. Kevin Smith going to Sundance in the early 90s with this film, shot in black and white, about a bunch of guys hanging out at a convenience store. What’s sad now, and it’s what we’re seeing with Kickstarter, once the celebrities and the studios started realising that this is a ‘venue’ to get funds or money for production and distribution, they start dominating those mediums.
So now, in order to get into Sundance you had better know somebody! And Kevin Smith making a movie about some guys hanging out at a gas station or convenience store – that’s not getting into Sundance now, you’re not finding that movie. You’re going to see a bunch of movies starring very big name actors, funded by multi-million pound budgets, that’s the sort of film you’re going to see all over those festivals. And I think that’s going to have a pretty negative effect in the short-term. But I remain optimistic that were going to sort that out, because at a certain point, when you have so much great undiscovered content, somebody finds a way to deliver…
Yeah, which is crazy because when you think about the likes of YouTube there should be a more abundant network of short-films, but it’s the capital of it, the marketing, the selling and the ‘product’ part of it, it’s never really been cracked with short films so, yeah, right now about the only venue is short film festivals and stuff. But I want to be optimistic and say it will get better, but who knows…Maybe I’m being overly idealistic, I don’t know! I’m like orphan Annie (sings): ‘The sun will come out tomorrow…’
Banshee Chapter is available now on DVD and digital download. Follow the links below for details: