Monday, 5 April 2010

Interview with Finale Writer/Director John Michael Elfers

As evidenced in this month’s release of Amer, and films such as Darkness Surrounds Roberta, Eyes of Crystal and Lust for Vengeance – the legacy of the Italian giallo continues to bleed into the work of contemporary filmmakers. Another new title to wear the influence of Argento/Bava/Martino et al on its sleeve is director John Michael Elfers’ feature directorial debut Finale. A supernaturally tinged tale, Finale focuses on a family torn apart by the death of the oldest son - who seemingly committed suicide. The boy’s mother however, is convinced that her son was the victim of a satanic cult. As her investigation leads her deeper into a dark world of paranoia, death and despair, she not only risks tearing her fragile family apart, but also her own sanity, in an attempt to uncover the dark truth about her beloved son's fate...

I recently had the privilege to chat with John Michael Elfers about the tragic origins of his feature debut, shooting on a micro-budget and the influence of Italian horror directors. Read on…

Behind the Couch: Can you talk me through the genesis of the story of Finale? Where did the idea come from?

John Michael Elfers: I wanted to tell a personal story because making a film is an enormous investment. Unless you throw your heart, soul, mind and body into it, you will fail or make something mediocre.

My oldest brother was my childhood hero - he led a colourful life, practiced lucid dreaming, Shamanism, and led a gang that clashed with a group of self-declared Satanists. When I was an adolescent, he hanged himself. In the chaos that ensued, my mother poured through his writing and became convinced his death was actually the planned sacrifice of a Satanic cult. Grief-stricken and paranoid about our family’s safety, she made irrational and painful decisions that drove us apart. Ten years later – when I was the age my brother died – I decided to tell our story, but from my mother’s perspective. For what could be more terrifying than if she had been right – her family was in danger and no one believed her?

Was it difficult for you to write and immerse yourself in the production of Finale given the tragic events that lay in its origins?

There is a great divide between writing and directing. Writing a personal story, I took things that actually happened for granted. But when actors bring a character to life, they question their choices. For the performance to be honest, actors can’t pass judgement on their characters. So as a director, I had to find ways to justify people’s choices that in real life I had disagreed with.

Didn’t you feel at all vulnerable given what ideas the film is based on? How did you deal with this?

I believe that any real artist creates from a vulnerable place, and I’m tremendously objective oriented, so once I made up my mind that this was the film I wanted to make, everything became secondary to that. If you watch the behind-the-scenes, I get as haggard and unkempt as the character of the mother during the course of production. There were more important things to focus on while shooting. The hardest part was the emotional fallout following the shoot, when everything I’d been holding back caught up with me.


What was it about the horror genre that you felt equipped you best to tell this particular story?

I wanted a dream-like, surreal quality that captured my recollection of my brother and his world – where supernatural and black magic are possible. Horror gives you unparalleled freedom of expression - stylized camera angles, colour and movement. It also allows you to paint with the full palette of human experience, with touches of drama, humour, action, romance, attraction and repulsion.

Was there anywhere that you were quite hesitant to bring the story? Or perhaps a part of the story that you were quite hesitant to explore?

When I pitched the film to Kodak, they asked why I didn’t tell the literal story of my brother’s death. Honestly, I wouldn’t enjoy that film. My brother hanged himself in auto-erotic asphyxiation. It was such a meaningless way to die. The repercussions on our family were harrowing and took years to resolve. I wanted to tell a story with depth, but also thrills, action and suspense. In the film, he dies trying to save the town from a Satanic cult.


Finale has a very distinct and atmospheric look. How did you go about achieving this look and maintaining it throughout the film?

Thank you! Yes, we worked incredibly hard to achieve this. I wanted an authentic grind-house 70’s cinema look, so we opted to shoot Super 16mm film instead of digital. And instead of CGI, we achieved all our FX in-camera - what you see is exactly how it looked on set, giving a truly organic feel. Our FX rely on the quirks of film that digital can only imitate, like the flashes, blips and jittery motion of speed ramps or the haze of behind-the-lens filters. Finale could have been shot 40 years ago without changing a frame.

Did you consciously set out the direct something akin to the gialli of Italian 70s/80s cinema?

Yes, I am a huge admirer of Argento, Bava, and those Fulci death scenes, but not pastiche – not taking moments from my favourite films and tacking them together. Rather, after scouring the video shelves trying to find rare gems, I decided to make a film that felt like it was found in a vault from that era. Minus cell-phones, it’s a period piece. Finale is the movie I was subconsciously searching for.

Who or what are you inspired by and why? Any particular filmmaker’s you admire?

Before I set out to make Finale, I watched the first films of all my favourites. Along with the Italian directors, I was truly inspired by the independent spirit and imagination of Sam Raimi, Danny Boyle, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Clive Barker and Robert Rodriguez. They had the balls to make the movies they wanted despite having neither money nor industry connections. It can be frustrating hearing about filmmakers whose parents dropped a couple million dollars for them to make their first movie. The ones that are self-made I deeply admire.

Finale was obviously a labour of love for all involved. What challenges did you face whilst working on such a low budget film? Any scenes or shots that proved quite difficult to realise?

Too many to list – 4 years worth, to put a number on it – I lived out of my car while raising the budget, we ran through flames, blasted a prosthetic head with shotguns, lived on location and worked without heat or running water in the dead of winter. I stunt-doubled for actors, even dressed in drag with my legs shaved. It was an insane punk-rock adventure. You can get a taste for it in our behind-the-scenes.

How did you remain motivated throughout the shoot, and keep your cast and crew motivated too?

I’m like a 9 volt battery – you’d have to chain me to a spiked wall to keep me from making films. But I also had great people by my side. Ryan Harris – the DOP – was with me from the first draft to shooting our 3rd round of pickups 3 years later. The key was finding people with analogous goals that could directly benefit from being part of the project. Everyone on Finale was looking to launch their careers. From the connections we made, Ryan has already landed his first directing gig on Virus X headlined by name actors.

What themes and ideas intrigue you most as a filmmaker?

Love – both the beautiful and terrible things it will make you do – choices and the potentially dire consequences they have, and intentionality – how well-meaning actions can cause harm when misguided - also the value of life and its relativity.

How did you go about setting up the production of Finale and getting everyone involved? What brought you to the locations you used? Did you get a lot of local support in the area?

I met the majority of my team studying at the University of Southern California. Ryan and I shot a short together, then a music video, then test footage specific to Finale, and cut them into a short demo to scare up grants from Kodak, Panavision and Laser Pacific. That lent us credibility to private investors to raise our financing. We cast our two leads in Los Angeles and then set out for the post-industrial wasteland on the outskirts of my hometown in Middle America, where I knew we would find abandoned houses, dirt roads, backwoods, crypt-like passages and cemeteries to film in. Locals offered amazing support and hospitality – donating use of a generator, hospital, church, transportation, furniture and a lot of volunteer hours. But to build the cult set, we needed Los Angeles’ equipment and actor resources, so we finished it here.

Did you have a particular writing process throughout this project?

I like to mull over new ideas while working on the project at hand, and then hammer out the first draft in a single go. After outlining Finale, I wrote it straight through in 5 days, then spent 6 months revising. Still, the biggest changes to the story happened in the editing room. After screening it for feedback, we discovered a lot could be cut out – it taught me a tremendous amount about writing.

Apparently you guys had a few encounters with the local police whilst filming!? What happened?

We had 13 encounters, to be precise! We got held up at gunpoint by police who mistook us for burglars, I got pulled over shirtless and covered in blood, a local man found our prop pipe-bombs, called the police, who called the FBI, who shut down the highway and brought in a bomb-squad robot to blow them up. By the end of the shoot, when I went in to the police station to retrieve the belongings they’d confiscated, everyone in the station knew me.

How was the experience directing your first feature? What were the positive experiences working on such a low budget project? Were there any drawbacks?

It was heart-breaking and amazing all bound together. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Working on your own project gives you freedom to make mistakes, learn from them, and correct them. If we’d had to turn this around in a couple months, it would have been a disaster. Because it was so spread out, I had time to re-evaluate what was working, what wasn’t, and to grow as an artist. Principal photography was a nightmare – we worked 14 hour days, 7 days a week for a month and a half straight, with only two days off. We were ready to decapitate each other by the end. But the next round of shooting went better, and the next even smoother. It’s all a learning process, and while it sucked making papier-mâché corpses for two months, or sitting in a dark room sound designing for 3, or editing for over a year – the lessons I learned are invaluable, and I know my next project will absolutely kick ass!

You’re obviously a fan of horror - what scares you? What do you think makes an effective horror film?

For me, the most effective horror movies focus on character development, with a strong protagonist chasing a concrete goal. Too often in contemporary horror films, the audience is just waiting for everyone to die. That’s fucking dull. I enjoy the thrill and adrenaline of fear, so not much scares me – but the rare films that do, like 28 Days Later or the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, had a commitment to the reality of the world created in the film. The zombies were real. Friends were dying. A good horror comedy like Drag Me to Hell has its place in my heart, but in a straight horror film, I want the characters to fear for their existence.

What is next for you? Any ideas or projects you can tell me about?

My next project is a gritty thriller – Kiss Before the Slaughter – set on the border between the US and Mexico. We’re pitching it around Hollywood, seeking serious funds. After doing Finale, we’re ready to take on a big film, and Kiss is an insane ride. When that’s complete, I will return to supernatural horror with a haunted house film! Finale will go on sale in the US May 2010, and Jinga - our UK sales Agent - is trying to close international deals as we speak. Keep your fingers crossed for a release!

For more info, check out:

Finale official website and Myspace.

Fire Trial Films.

1 comment:

The Groundskeeper said...

Nice interview! Finale looks awesome. Can't wait to see it.