BREAKING THE B-MOVIE RULESPAUL SCRABO PRODUCES “DR. HORROR’S EROTIC HOUSE OF IDIOTS”
Welcome, all up and coming low-budget producers out there. This article is for you.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to state the facts, or at least my side of them. Yes, “Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots” is a real movie starring Debbie Rochon in her most elaborate comedic role to date. Ms. Rochon also sings, dances and is assisted by Trent Haaga, Michael R. Thomas, Zacherley, Barbara Joyce, Conrad Brooks, Jasi Lanier, Marina Morgan, Nathan Sears, Tina Krause, Rodney Gray, Amy Lynn Best, Rachael Robbins, Ruby Larocca, Brinke Stevens, Dean Paul, Bob Burns and several surprises. It is not a straight horror film, but a satire on assorted B-movie genre including Jim Wynorski’s “erotic thrillers”, Fred Olen Ray’s sci-fi knockoffs and low-budget videos with “erotic” in the title.
To describe our opus as an oddball addition to the cult movie community is putting it mildly, but isn’t that what independent producing is all about? Where would John Sayles, Kevin Smith or Spike Lee be if they didn’t take risks?
Okay, they were smart and didn’t take any risks. Let’s move on.
You may have noticed that in my introduction I was careful not to use the word that diminishes every low-budget discussion - a noun that has no meaning. That’s right, FILMMAKER!
There is no such job, no such title as “filmmaker”. You may attempt to perform the tasks of a writer, editor or if you’re foolish enough, a director. What you really are is…a producer. There are painters, sculptors, carpenters, etc., but no filmmakers. You don’t work alone. Thank God.
Inspiration comes without warning. I was watching one of those vampire/lesbian (You can never think of one without the other) movies with “erotic” in the title, and at one point I thought, “I have to get in this racket. It doesn’t look difficult. I can keep the actors in focus. Maybe THEY can’t, but I can!”
There was some scene with a Frankenstein monster making embarrassing bathroom sounds or something, then two minutes later, some lesbian action began. I felt there must be something wrong with me, as this killer combination didn’t get me “hot’. Let’s establish why lesbian scenes are so popular with B-movie producers. If they took the hetero-highway route, there would be an erection on screen and it would be X-rated. See what you’ve learned already!
Right out of the gate, I made a poor decision for a producer who wants to get rich quick - “Dr. Horror” would not be designed for any perceived exploitation market., but for me. Besides, the “erotic” market seemed to be in strong shape. What did they need ME for?
This decision was based on the absolute number one rule of independent film producing. Get your highlighter marker out for this one -
“There is no real money in producing an independent film.”
Remember that the B-movie world and the independent film world are two separate factions, and my production would not only be independent, but absolutely adrift in the universe. Want to live dangerously? Produce a comedy. The global market understands bare breasts and lunatics with knives, but consider yourself lucky if any of your jokes play in New Jersey, let alone the world.
Now, hang on to your hats for a summary of the plot.
While caretaking for a vacationing doctor’s retreat, a retired TV horror host and an out of work horror film writer masquerade as sex therapists for some gullible clients. In a nod to horror anthology films such as “Tales from the Crypt” and “House that Dripped Blood”, the clients’ sex lives take the form of assorted movies that parody several low-budget genres.
There’s also a neat musical number.
THE FILMS OF INSPIRATION
I’ve purchased dozens of videos from creative writer/directors around the country and there’s a lot of incredible work out there. I recommend surfing all those indie producer web sites and buying their movies. From horror to suspense to comedy, these producers are way beyond me, and you can learn a lot from them. As an added attraction, these micro-productions are a unique way to see the sights from around United States. From Pennsylvania to Oregon, you’ll see locations never before used. There’s no reason to visit Blockbuster, with the choice of films being offered on the Internet. I’ll sit back with a Dr. Pepper and a can of Pringles and spend an evening with the works of backyard directors than with “XXX” any day.
THESE films were off-limits in terms of any satirical bent. A better target would be the productions by the professional B-movie industry, the films that are referred to as “McMovies”. (Like a McDonald’s menu item. They fill you up, but you don’t remember what you ate.) These films are usually designed to ride the coattails of current Hollywood A-movies, and do well on foreign television. Also in firing range would be those films guilty of pretensions, i.e.; there’s no comedy potential if you persuade a young starlet to take her clothes off and slam some fangs in her mouth, but if you pass it off as “art”, let’s have some fun!
WHAT I DID RIGHT!
Another priceless piece of advice - If you don’t know what you’re doing, hire people that do. Even those who thought our entire concept insane have gone out of their way to express their amazement at the cast and crew who became part of our team. Make-Up by a Saturday Night Live alumni? Lighting by one who lit “The Cosby Show”? A co-writer who’s a cult film legend? And a huge cast list headed by none other than DEBBIE ROCHON?
Overlooking the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, Debbie & I had our first meeting about “Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots”. We had worked together a year before on the cult movie talk show “Front Row”. Now she was busier than ever, and I was amazed at her interest in the film. Without any build-up, I presented her with the script.
I said, “I am not making a horror movie with you.”
“Because everyone else does.”
After a few minutes, she lifted her head from the incomplete first draft. I mentioned that the last act was still in the idea stage.
Debbie said, “This is Hope and Crosby. Martin and Lewis. And I get to work with Zacherley?”
“You perform a song and dance number with him.”
Not only did Debbie approve of the project, she was responsible for some of the most important casting in the project, including recommending a gentlemen who’s becoming one of the most prolific players in independent film; Trent Haaga.
Trent had appeared in several famous cult films, my favorite being “Terror Firmer”. When not acting, he’s writing and producing. He had recently moved from New York to LA and was quickly establishing himself as a true triple threat in the independent film world. I offered him the opportunity of a lifetime, to play both a werewolf AND a zombie in “Dr. Horror”.
After our website announcement of “Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots”, the hunt was for the major location; Dr. Horror’s office/retreat located in the fictional community of Clear Lake. By good fortune, a friend’s lake front house proved ideal. One exterior location used only sparingly was the primary location of most every low budget production - “The Woods”.
“The Woods” is overused due to its easy access and absence of authority (meaning you can shoot without a permit), but in 525-line video, it usually looks muddy, with shimmering leaves and a washed out sky. The worst time to shoot? 12 PM of course, with the sun directly over the actors’ heads. The close-ups will appear so harsh you won’t have to worry about zombie make-up.
“Clerks” looks like a mess. “In the Company of Men” was shot on outdated stock and consists mostly of master shots, the camera hardly moving. “Cube” was pretty much one set, repainted and reused. So why are these low budget movies held in such high regard? The GREAT SCRIPT. A production cannot rise above its material. The script is the single most important element.
All fine and dandy if you can write. What about me?
What I lacked in talent, I gained in respect for my audience by keeping my scenes as short as they could be. If I could not create any magic, at least the attempts would be brief. Here’s a great tip: Start the beginning of your scene as close as possible to the END of the scene. Forget entrances and exits. Stop shooting cars pulling up and leaving. As always, do what I say, not what I did. There is one scene near the opening of “Dr.Horror” that has Mike Thomas running up a flight of stairs to place a garden rake in a living room. Now, we MUST see him do that, or else there is no payoff later on. But I made the mistake of having the scene consist of just that; the dropping off of the rake, without anything else happening in the scene. What lasts as fifteen seconds on screen seems to take forever.
Bruce Kimmel, actor/writer/director of “The First Nudie Musical” and “Spaceship” gave me a piece of advice that I did keep in mind - “If you’re not a great comedy writer, at least try to invent some interesting characters. If the audience likes the ensemble, they may forgive your mistakes.”
Rochon and company put much comedic life into some of my feeble gags, but as I was going into act three, I needed help.
As successful as she has been in the b-movie acting world (her best work by far has been with Max Allan Collins), writing is Brinke Stevens’ real professional passion. If I could bamboozle the author of “Teenage Exorcist”, “Jacking In”, etc. into co-scripting the last segment, now another great talent from B-movie world would be associated with “Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots”.
Brinke reacted favorably to the work-in-progress reel., and said it would be fun to do some creative writing. I was ecstatic, since up till now the best B-movie creative writing I’ve seen was Jay Lind’s own review of his own “To Dance With Death” on the Internet Movie Database. Brinke’s primary work on “Dr. Horror” comes in the film’s final half hour, though you can surely spot some of her touches and inspiration throughout the entire movie. Though I did feel a bit guilty in drafting Ms. Stevens into what could become my personal Waterloo, I felt that if she could survive “Demon Lust”, she could survive anything.
HOW TO DIRECT
After a few films down the line, you can start directing, but right now, you are COVERING, trying to get the scene in a master, and then going in for close-ups. You are more technical than creative. You do want to get it done well, but you also want to get it done! Storyboarding is not a panacea but it helps you keep track of what shots are needed. HINT - Your AUDIO is more important than your video. If your video is lousy, a viewer might stay to the bitter end if the story is interesting, but if they can’t decipher what the actors are saying, the eject button gets pressed. We encountered a surprising lack of barking dogs and traffic noise while shooting our exteriors, so we were able to use most of the existing audio. Another hint: All professional films re-dub most all of their original sound, so the audio ambience matches cut to cut. Close your eyes and just listen to outside scenes of your favorite film. You can’t hear the shot changes and it SOUNDS LIKE A MOVIE. Example: In real life, I may not be able to hear you coming up the stairs, but if I see you climb stairs on screen, I better hear those steps.
Concerning VIDEO, the fact that your new miniDV camera can shoot in low light doesn’t mean anything. You still must paint the picture. It may not take many lights, but it does take lights. Key light, back light and fill light.
When editing, do not concentrate on just hooking the footage together; the footage has to match! How many of these video features have you seen where the actor sitting down is red, and the guy by the window is blue? Color correct, using a real monitor, not your computer screen.
I cannot stress the importance of using real actors. What a clever shortcut! Debbie and Trent were always prepared, even when I wasn’t. Conrad Brooks is used to adlibbing, but I insisted that in order for the comedy to work, there could be no improvisation. He never did the same lines the same way twice, so we kept the camera and audio running at all times which gave us enough elements to create a terrific performance. There were even a few instances where Conrad’s line rehearsal was funnier and more natural than a true take and those are in the final edit!
A mini-movie miracle occurred on an early morning exterior scene featuring Conrad, Mike Thomas and Nathan Sears. For the scene to play correctly, it had to be done in one master shot, with the lines delivered at exactly the right time. To be perfectly honest, I was resigned to just getting the scene, not getting the GREAT scene. On “action!” Conrad, Mike and Nathan rushed out of Dr. Horror’s office and huddle together against a railing. Every line, every reaction from Conrad was dead on. Perfect.
I was sure I missed something, so I decided to go for another take. It was a mirror image of the first one. Once again, Conrad could not have been better. One more for audio…”action!” Take three was the best of all. Trent, who was next to me the whole time whispered, “The legend is Conrad is great when you shoot him first thing in the morning.” Maybe it’s not that lofty a goal, but I am proud that Conrad is a true character actor in our production.
When we were close to wrapping principal photography at the lake, Debbie, out in a rowboat, yelled out an idea for a shot that could make the scene funnier. We all chuckled and I packed up the gear. A month later, realizing she was absolutely right, I drove out to the lake and shot the footage.
MUSIC AND TITLES
Of all the b-movie rules I’ve discovered, these were the most specific; The titles must be over black accompanied by synthesized instruments, and the end crawl should be loaded with a list of rock bands whose songs were needle-dropped throughout the film. The songs do not need to have any connection with the story or even be heard in the film’s soundtrack. There must, however, be this list at the end.
Of course we did the complete opposite for “Dr. Horror”. We open with cartoon credits and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra is one of the bands in the film. I’m not kidding. I’m also negotiating for permission to use some actual 1950’s recordings of some music used in classic horror/science-fiction films. Song writer Doug Scrivani produced a classic musical comedy sound for the Zacherley/Rochon musical segment.
THE SPECIAL SNEAK NON-PREVIEW
About halfway through shooting, we felt it was time to show some assembled scenes of “Dr. Horror” to an audience. Michael R. Thomas, who plays Dr. Horror, was scheduled to attend Monster Bash 2002 in the guise of Ygor, a classic Universal horror film character. Since the Bash’s taste runs more toward classic horror than modern schlock, we figured this would be an ideal audience to judge whether our experiment had any merit at all. We assumed that the combination of werewolves, zombies and a starring role by the Bash’s own mascot would fit perfectly in the convention’s agenda and stated as much in my letter to the Bash’s head honcho Ron Adams. I was curious about what he thought of the screening copy I sent, but I never heard back from him. Though disappointed in the non-response (a common experience if you’re a producer), I still attended Monster Bash and had a fine time. On the last night, I found out the rest of the story third hand. It turns out that Ron didn’t focus on the werewolf, zombie or space alien footage, but on a navel. A bikinied woman (Barbara Joyce) appears for about 20 seconds in “Dr. Horror” and Ron figured this was not a presentation suitable for a family-oriented convention. Later, a fellow attendee expressed his regret that the footage was not presented since it would introduce the crowd to something new.
“A B-movie comedy?” I asked.
“No.” he said. “Women.”
Every book and seminar on producing stresses this requirement; TAKE TONS OF PHOTOS! If you are the so-called director of one of these epics, forget the idea of shooting any stills yourself. You’ll never do it. You’ll forget it. You’ll be too busy. So, at the very least, toss your still camera to the nearest gullible crew member. I was fortunate because my associate producer, Rich Scrivani, did an amazing job capturing the highlights of every scene.
Thanks to Debbie Rochon, a few shots exist to give the impression of the film being directed by yours truly. When I was in still camera range, Debbie would yell at me to point my finger in any direction. The photographic result seems to support evidence that I was actually in charge or at least doing something.
I was warned, however. The publicity stills were pretty tame in the erotic and violence department, and to ensure getting any hype in the cult movie mags, I should lay out some more cash to get a few ‘hot erotic horror pics” of some of the female cast members. This could even take care of the cover art for the video release. The busiest photographer around for this end of the business is Ward Boult, an L.A. guy who specializes in making glamorous b-stars look hideous.
After sampling a bit of his portfolio, I chickened out. The actresses did not look at all like themselves, and I got a bit weary of the ‘standard Boult pose”, which is a B-star squatting with a sort of constipated expression while being covered in fake blood.
I passed, hammering another nail in my publicity coffin. We settled on the cast actually smiling at the camera for our primary publicity poster.
MAKE A “SPECIAL EDITION” DVD
Now, this is the scam for me! Back as far as the glory days of the laserdisc, I’d been a fan of “extras” such as audio commentary and deleted scenes. Now, in the age of DVD, go figure, EVERY release seems to say “special edition”!
The B-movie industry has not only grabbed hold of this selling point, they’ve made it a packaging priority. And here’s the best part; you can release an hour-long film, as long as you fill the disc with three hours of extras. Here I was, sweating on a one hundred twenty page script when I should have been running around following the making of the film instead of making the film. No wonder my budget skyrocketed; “Dr. Horror” is about 100 minutes in length.
More panic set in when I realized there were no “deleted scenes”. In low budget producing, how CAN there be any deleted scenes?
So, towards the end of principal photography, I asked Debbie Rochon and Trent Haaga if they could just improvise a few scenes that I could pass off as ‘deleted”. Trent asked if he could improvise a bit on how idiotic my idea was. I said, “That’s fine.”
In retrospect, it’s the best scene in the entire production, and it’s a real shame it was deleted.
If you’d like to see it, please buy the SPECIAL EDITION of “Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots”.
FILM VS. MOVIE
This rule concerns itself with the payoff of the entire producing process and I will strictly adhere to it. You created a video presentation, with possibly some post-production process that gives it a film look. Here is the big secret of the “digital revolution”- there isn’t any. It’s a phrase used by two elements - film schools and video equipment manufacturers. It’s not revolution. It’s evolution. Years ago, nothing stopped you from making your own film. You had the option of shooting in 16mm, and some years later, super 8. Today you have the 500-line resolution of MiniDV. But it is not, and never will be, a “level playing field”. The big boys are now fiddling with HI-DEF. So drop out of the race and produce the film you want to make, be it in MiniDV, Super VHS, HI8mm, Betacam or Pixelvision.
But when does your film become a MOVIE? When it plays to an audience. “Dr. Horror” will have an opening night showing at a rented theatre in New Jersey. To compound this mistake, there will even be a souvenir program. Our movie comes complete with a built-in intermission, so if the audience does not return for Act Two, perhaps I can pack up early and get a reduction in my theatre rental fee.
I cannot resist a serious comment to end what I hope was a funny take on B-Movie making. I am deeply thankful to the cast and crew of “Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots” for their friendship, hard work, and belief in this project.