Thursday, 11 February 2010

Interview with Shadowland writer/director Wyatt Weed: Part 1

Shadowland is director Wyatt Weed’s low-budget and provocative feature debut. The story follows the plight of Laura, a young woman who emerges from a makeshift burial ground during a raging storm, with no idea of who she is or how she got there. Is she reincarnated? Resurrected and risen from the grave? As she makes her way across the city – seemingly drawn to a particular part of it – Laura begins to slowly piece together her story; all the while hiding from someone who seems intent on killing her at all costs. Shadowland provides a strikingly original twist on the vampire film, combining gothic grandeur and tragic romance with post-Buffy feistiness and action. The film played at Belfast’s first annual Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival last August and went on to win the award for Best Director. I was very privileged recently to catch up with the writer and director of Shadowland, Mr Wyatt Weed and to have a chat with him about filmmaking, the eternal allure of the vampire, shooting on a shoestring and the desire to create something genuinely original on one’s own terms and against all the odds…


Behind the Couch: How did the idea/story for Shadowland come about? What inspired it?

Wyatt Weed: I was walking through LA one night - yes, WALKING in LA - and I passed by a construction site. There was this enormous dark hole in the ground. At that time in LA there had been a civic arts project where angel statues had been given to various artists and businesses to decorate as they saw fit, and then the angels were displayed around town. Well, there happened to be about 3 or 4 of those statues on nearby buildings and steps, and they all seemed to be watching over this deep pit. My mind goes racing off, and I thought, "What are those angels keeping watch for? What on Earth is down in that pit?!?"

This inspired the image of a woman, dark and mysterious, crawling from the pit. Know one knows who she is, no one sees her come out. Is she evil? Is she a monster? That was pretty much how it started.


BTC: What was the writing process of the film for you?

WW: I write in various ways, sometimes just sitting down and knocking it out from page 1 to page 90, and other times I put the story together stroke by stroke, figure out where the three acts are, and work from that outline. I've had success and failure with both techniques.

In the case of Shadowland, the concept had been swimming around in my head for years, and when an earlier project that I wanted to direct became unavailable, I was suddenly left standing with a budget and a green light, but no script! I had other scripts and stories, but they were either too big or too esoteric to do as a low-budget first feature, so in a rush I turned to the idea about the woman coming out of the hole.

I roughed the outline together, and believe it or not, the vampire element was the last thing added. I really didn't want to do another schlocky low-budget vampire film, so I tried everything else first - is she an angel? Is she a demon? Is she some other creature with a new mythology? Some of that worked OK, but every time I injected "vampire" into the script equation, it answered all of the questions in a much more satisfying way.

The decision then became, OK, if we're going to do a low-budget vampire film, it has to be different, it has to be character driven, and it has to take itself seriously. Once we arrived at that, I began writing and got the first draft done in about 2 months, and then kept refining it up until we shot, so it was about 8 months of writing, off and on.


BTC: How did the film change, if at all, when you were transferring it from page to screen?

WW: There's the Hollywood joke that at the end of the script for Star Wars there was a line that said, "And then there was a great battle", and what followed was the result of the interpretation of that vague line. I don't believe that's true, but I get the idea, and I've seen that type of thing before. A vague concept or a specific concept can get transformed or lost when going from script to screen.

In an earlier project I worked on, Guardian of the Realm (which is called "Virago" in the UK) there was a line in the script that read, "Josh pulls up in front of the warehouse and is confronted by an army of demons." An ARMY!! This was a low-budget feature, and needless to say, the army became 6 guys in slip rubber demon masks.

With Shadowland, the scenes remained almost completely intact, but certain stylistic aspects were lost. For example, I had this idea that the main character, Laura, would never stand in direct sunlight. She isn't a vampire YET, but she's sensitive to light, so she stays in the shadows, hence part of the meaning of the title.

Unfortunately that's a difficult thing to do even on a big budget, so she just reacted to the light. She doesn't like it, but she can handle it for short periods of time. It made things like chase sequences a lot easier to shoot. Along those lines, there were times when I wrote "10 police cars", and got 2. I wanted 50 police officers, and I got 10, which I could double digitally, so that wasn't bad, but you get the idea - a lot of stuff just got scaled down. Overall, I was really lucky and got most of what I wrote, and translated most of the scenes straight into the film.

The biggest change to the script came in the editing room. Shadowland had been written and shot as a mystery - you didn't know Laura was a vampire until she found out at the end of the film. That version READ great as a script, but filmed and edited that version was long, slow, and didn't play as well as it read. Plus, most people who saw that early cut already knew she was a vampire before we got to the big reveal. That version also meant that we had to keep the vampire element a secret, and that was going to kill us in terms of promoting the film. It's one thing if you have Bruce Willis in your film and the final reveal becomes something the whole world is talking about, but for our little vampire film that wasn't going to happen, so we needed to promote the fact that it WAS a vampire film, and get that image of Caitlin with teeth out there front and centre.

In the end, several early sequences were cut, and we repeated a scene that shows Laura as a vampire getting a stake in her chest right in the beginning of the movie, so that the audience knows what is going on and we could dispense with a lot of exposition. That made the film move faster, and it turned the "what is she?" question into "When is she going to snap?" question.


BTC: This was your feature directorial debut. How was the experience for you? Was it a difficult shoot? What were the most challenging aspects?

WW: I was lucky in that I had been very involved in so many low-budget features before this one. I had worked in one capacity or another on all of Steve Wang's features, including being a producer and second unit director on "Guyver: Dark Hero", and as a second unit director and miniature supervisor on "Drive", both of which were brutal shoots by comparison to my little film. I had also been co-writer, 1st AD, editor, and effects supervisor on Ted Smith's "Guardian" (Virago), and that film was pretty brutal as well. I got to take note of all the problems and mistakes on all of these other low-budget, extremely ambitious productions, so when it finally became time to do my own feature, I was probably the most well prepared first-time director I knew.

As for the film and the experience, I'm very happy. I learned a lot, and there are things I would do differently, but I'm happy with the film. I stand by it.

The thing that helped the most was that coming from big Hollywood films and these crazy-ambitious low budget ones, I knew how stuff was SUPPOSED to be done, so I could usually find a modified way to accomplish what I wanted, or could at least apply the theory of how it should be done. In other cases, it was a matter of knowing what could be done and just convincing the crew that we could do it, that it would work. After the first few days, they saw that our ambitious ideas were working, and that it was looking good, instead of falling flat. They got behind it, and got on board.

Other than the funds being tight, as they usually are, the biggest problem overall was that the shoot was just physically gruelling. It was 30 days, it was hot, and because of the budget, most people were doing more than one job. I couldn't just direct and come home and go to sleep, I was directing all day, helping produce, then coming home and rigging effects or figuring out how to solve a new problem for the following day. I'm in my 40's now, and I just don't bounce back like I used to!

Part of the difficulty was due to the fact that I had a standard and I wanted it met, so that meant being vigilant and insisting everything come up to a level, to meet a quality point. It means a lot of extra work, but in the end, the film will go on forever, and the pain was only temporary.


BTC: What are the subsequent rewards for shooting such a low budget film?

WW: Control, control, control. I would do a studio film at this point, of course, but having spent so much time in the indie world now, the control is amazing. It was me, producer Gayle Gallagher, executive producer Robert Clark, and that was it. If we agreed, the decision was made, and we moved on. The executive producer works with me because he trusts me and likes my work, so he pretty much knows what I'm going to do. He pretty much stands by in case I get lost in the tall grass and need a nudge. If it was a creative decision, most of the time it was left up to me.

The bad part there is that if something sucks, it's my fault. The good part is that this is now my demo - it's pretty much my baby and I can show this to the world and say, "Here's what I did with very little. Imagine what I can do with more!"

This level of control will also carry over into the distribution. We are maintaining a LOT of control, so we know what the product will look like, how it will get marketed, and how much it really costs and where the money is. Distribution is a major hassle, but you gotta do it, and this is the first time I've gone down this road and not felt completely lost.


BTC: Vampires are very in vogue at the moment. What do you feel Shadowland can offer audiences that other vampire flicks can’t?

WW: I first began writing Shadowland in late 2006, so vampires weren't really back on the map just then. The first two Stephanie Meyer books had been published at that time, but they hadn't become such a phenomenon yet. "True Blood" wasn't even a blip on the radar.

As we moved into production in summer 2007, we began to really hear the fuss about "Twilight", and the fuss became a roar. Our first reaction was, "Great, we can get in on all of the hype." But we didn't have a whole lot of money or a big company behind us, so now that it has taken so long for us to get the film out there, it seems more like we are following the trend than leading it. But I have the script registration paper and the receipts from the shoot - we were ahead of the curve at one point! Our finished film had even played several major festivals before the Twilight movie premiered in '08.

But in all seriousness, the continued hype just makes people all that much more interested. It's very timely to be 'vampire'. The thing that I think will appeal to people now is that Shadowland isn't your typical low-budget flick, as I stated earlier, and it skews toward a slightly older audience than "Twilight" does. The 13 year old girls AND their moms and dads will like it. The film is serious, not cheesy. It is quality.

Plus, and I think this is our single biggest factor; we have a great sympathetic female lead character who is interesting and unusual. There aren't a lot of characters like her out there. She has more in common with La Femme Nikita than with traditional Gothic heroines.


Part II of interview

Part III of interview

Shadowland is released on the Yellow Fever DVD Label in May...

Read the review of Shadowland here...

2 comments:

Carl (ILHM) said...

Excellent review James, I have been looking forward to Shadowlands since you first posted the review! Wyatt, thanks for taking the time to stop by and talk about the film!

James said...

Really hope you get a chance to check it out Carl - its a great flick. Thanks for stopping by.