ERIC STANZEInterview by Wendell Redding
You can probably count all the "name" independent horror moviemakers that have carved a decent niche for themselves in the underground movie scene on one hand. And without a doubt, filmmaker Eric Stanze's name would be on everyone's list.
Residing in St. Louis, Missouri, Stanze and his dedicated group of talented artists began their journey in 1994 with the VHS Do-It-Yourself-On-Video movies THE SCARE GAME and THE FINE ART.
THE SCARE GAME, in particular, showed Stanze's flare for telling wild and violent tales that are set in alternate universes. He quickly followed that movie up with THE EVIL DEAD-inspired SAVAGE HARVEST, where Stanze established himself as a moviemaker that would stop at nothing to finish his projects---whether it be cold, heat, or Missouri floods. He was one of the few "doers" in a business that is chalk-full of more "talkers" and "con artists" than anything else...
With the success of SAVAGE HARVEST, Stanze formulated his production company, Wicked Pixel Cinema (www.wickedpixel.com), and wrote and directed ICE FROM THE SUN, a super-8 magna opus which took many years to produce and film, with locations spread out all over the United States of America! As far away from a "backyard movie" that you can get, this tale of angels, devils, and a human battling an evil "Presence" in Clive Barker-ish realities raised the ante (and pushed the envelope) of independent filmmaking in general.
Following ICE, Stanze directed the small but brutal rape-revenge flick called SCRAPBOOK, which has provoked an incredible reaction from critics and viewers alike across the world. It's unflinching "documentary-ish" look at a killer and his last victim has set new standards for rape/revenge flicks, finally outdating forefather movies like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Which was no small feat, mind you...
Now Stanze is working on executive producing a few SEVERED HEAD NETWORK videos (which highlight short films that have a high level of sex, gore, and rock ‘n roll) and running the fairly new division of SUB ROSA EXTREME, where Stanze oversees five new productions of titillation and sleaze per year, occasionally jumping in to direct one himself.
As a matter of fact, his newest movie as director, I SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE, I PISS ON YOUR GRAVE, is about to be unleashed on DVD, and it's every bit as sick and intense as SCRAPBOOK! I caught up with Stanze at his Missouri production studio to pique his brain about the past, present, and future...
WENDELL - What was the defining moment that made you want to become a filmmaker?
ERIC - The seed was planted in my brain when I first saw THE EVIL DEAD on video. That was the first movie I saw that was so rough-around-the-edges that I thought "Hmm, I could do that." Yet that film was so fun, it taught me that creativity is a great substitute for a big budget. But that was just the beginning of my interest in this craft. It's hard to say that THE EVIL DEAD made me want to become a filmmaker, because at that time, I really didn't understand what that meant. When I directed my early flicks, THE SCARE GAME and THE FINE ART, I still didn't have a great grasp of what a director was supposed to do on a creative level. Even on SAVAGE HARVEST, I didn't know what it meant to be a good director; I was just trying very hard to be Sam Raimi. My education about being a director has evolved over many projects, and I'm still learning. So it's hard to pinpoint a moment in time where I made a decision to do this. But, I do think that with each passing day, there is less and less likelihood that I'll ever dissolve my want to make movies.
WENDELL - Splatter movies of yesteryear obviously inspire your work, but what about today's crop of studio and independent releases. Anything good that stands out for you?
ERIC - I'm pretty disappointed in what the studios release, horror movies or otherwise. I've liked some big-budget stuff released over the last few years, but not much. I enjoyed PITCH BLACK. I really liked THE MATRIX. I liked Raimi's recent films, like A SIMPLE PLAN and THE GIFT. Recent Spielberg stuff works for me, for the most part. Oliver Stone still makes good movies, though I really only became a fan of his starting with NATURAL BORN KILLERS. On the indie film front, I think Darren Aronofsky's PI and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM are both absolutely brilliant films. I thought THE LOSS OF SEXUAL INNOCENCE by Mike Figgis was extremely well done. As far as the micro-budget, underground stuff, the coolest indie film I've seen in a long time is 23 HOURS, by Eric Thornett.
WENDELL - Your movies push the boundaries of "extreme" to the furthest levels possible. Are there any limitations on what you would show the audience?
ERIC - Nope. I just do what I feel is appropriate to each movie. The violence in SCRAPBOOK is entirely appropriate to that movie, but it would have been way too much for ICE FROM THE SUN or my earlier movies.
In some cases, the extreme content isn't so much appropriate to the movie as it is to the investors. For I SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE, I PISS ON YOUR GRAVE, I was getting overseas financing to make a completely trashy, nasty, sick movie. So, because it was what I was getting paid to do, the violence and depravity were appropriate for that reason.
I think if there ever comes a project that goes into areas that I don't personally feel like going, I'd just turn the project down. I'd rather not do it at all instead of doing it all watered down.
WENDELL - You've collaborated with actress Emily Haack on a lot of cutting edge movies like "Scrapbook" and "I Spit On Your Corpse, I Piss On Your Grave." Tell us how you hooked up with her, how she is to work with, and if you'll be using her in upcoming movies.
ERIC - I met Emily during post-production on ICE FROM THE SUN. I met her through Tommy Biondo, who was working with her on a short she was directing called CHOKEHOLD. She immediately identified with and became friends with all of us in the Wicked Pixel group. When Tom brought to me the idea of doing SCRAPBOOK as our next project, he already had Em in mind to play the female lead. And he had already asked her if she was interested, which she was. So, I had two or three meetings with Emily, really vividly explaining how brutal we wanted SCRAPBOOK to be. I wanted to scare her away, make her NOT want to do the project, to keep her from finding herself in the middle of a situation she was uncomfortable with. But Em was on the same page as me and Tom. She understood what we wanted to do and she really wanted to be a part of it.
Emily is wonderful to work with. She's fun to be around, yet she's professional when it comes time to roll camera. She's very creative and open-minded, which is extremely refreshing. She can find artistic worth in things that most people are simply shocked by.
Emily will certainly be in upcoming movies of ours. I have a part in mind for her in the screenplay that I'm currently writing. And for Sub Rosa Extreme, she's playing a part in UNDERTOW, which will be released early next year. We'll get her into a few more upcoming projects as well, if we can work out the scheduling.
WENDELL - You're heading the Sub Rosa Extreme division now. As the CEO of this branch, what direction to you plan to take the new releases in?
ERIC - Well, this whole Sub Rosa Extreme thing has been a real adventure. When we started, I agreed to executive produce five movies a year under this banner, which is just an insane schedule. Even with our no-money budgets, our no-frills production, and super-fast shooting schedules, five movies in one year is still just plain goofy.
I'm doing these flicks to help pay the bills. I can't make these movies look like big, important personal epics, because there is just no time and no money. I can't put the personal devotion into each Sub Rosa Extreme movie, like I do for my own Wicked Pixel Cinema films, because the SRX flicks are just a different animal. However, I realize that I was asked by Ron Bonk to do these movies because he believes in my abilities. I don't want these movies to look like any Joe off the street picked up a camera and made 'em. So, I have to find a balance: Stay on time and on budget and make sure each movie is at least competently produced.
My Wicked Pixel Cinema movies do benefit from longer schedules and a bit more money, as well as our sincere personal attachment to each project. But Sub Rosa Extreme movies are not better or worse than my WPC projects. SRX is just a different level of showmanship. I think audiences will watch a Sub Rosa Extreme movie for down 'n' dirty thrills. Or a unique style. Or to check out what a new, green director can do in the area of horror and exploitation.
When I directed I SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE, I PISS ON YOUR GRAVE, I really did grow as a director. It's not my best work, but it was a project on which I was able to hone other skills, like figuring out how to do it all with no money and no time. Also, it was a good "director for hire" type thing. I was responsible for the production, but much of the content was dictated by the overseas investors. So that gave me a new level of experience.
The other movies, the ones that I did not personally direct, ended up being great opportunities for some first-time directors. They benefited from me keeping an eye on the production, just making sure things didn't go spiraling out of control. Plus, I set a deadline. There was pressure there for these new directors to finish by a certain date, and I think that was good for them. I'm really proud of the fact that I was able to give these new directors their first shot at making a feature. When Sub Rosa Extreme first started, the focus was on fetish content. But that didn't really hold my interest, so I knew early on that I wouldn't be able to endure five movies a year of that kinda stuff. BIZARRE LUST OF A SEXUAL DEVIANT is a project that was produced just as I was working with Ron Bonk to bend the focus of Sub Rosa Extreme. So that movie got caught in the middle of the transition. It is very fetish, but it also slants in the direction that we were more attracted to.
I was interested in doing movies in the style of '70's exploitation flicks, slasher films, and odd, artsy, European type stuff. I like the idea of mixing all these styles together, maybe emphasizing one genre in each specific Sub Rosa Extreme movie, but overall keeping things unique by mixing these different styles. As the name of the line indicates, these movies should be "Extreme"... in terms of violence, sex, weirdness... there must be a level to each of these movies that is far from mainstream.
WENDELL - Your earlier films (Savage Harvest, The Scare Game) got extensive coverage in FANGORIA magazine. How do you feel about the way underground and independent horror are covered in mainstream press today?
ERIC - On one hand, it's appropriate that these little movies don't get a lot of press. It makes sense that a mainstream publication would ignore something that is intended for such a specific niche audience. FANGORIA isn't really for us little guys. FANGORIA prints magazines for teeny-boppers in malls, not hard-core horror fans.
On the other hand, it would be more realistic if mainstream movie mags like Premiere covered ALL movies, from 100 million dollar CGI shows down to $5,000 productions. Only about 12 guys in America can set in motion a theatrical release, yet mainstream publications like Premiere make it seem as if theatrical releases are the only movies getting made in America. There are a lot of cool movies that go direct to DVD, or maybe cable or foreign. Premiere Magazine makes it seem like BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is the way all micro-budget shot-on-video movies will or should end up. This is just very misleading. Because of magazines like Premiere, I've had so many people inform me of their little Mini-DV movie that they plan on selling to Sony Pictures Classics or Miramax for a million bucks.
When it comes to critical reviews of underground, indie movies, I find the whole concept very odd. Sure, I'll take all those good reviews of ICE FROM THE SUN and SCRAPBOOK and use 'em for publicity. I gotta pay the rent and sell these movies! But personally, I have mixed feelings about reviews of my work. A glowing review of SCRAPBOOK seems almost irresponsible. That movie is intended for such a select audience, I'd guess that 95 percent of readers who see a glowing review of SCRAPBOOK will rent it and hate it, or be completely offended by it. Same with ICE FROM THE SUN. A glowing review tells everyone who reads it that they're going to like the movie. But ICE is so off-kilter, I'm sure many people watch it and just simply become enraged! Yet at the same time, when more mainstream publications give scathingly bad reviews of ICE, it seems unfair. Those mainstream-minded reviewers were not part of that film's target audience. So is it fair for them to use their personal tastes to measure a movie's quality? Is it fair for them to warn the entire world that they should not view a certain film, when a select percentage of the world may really enjoy that film?
WENDELL - Tell us about your encounter with law enforcement officials after you shot the axe-murder scene for Sub Rosa Extreme's "I Spit..." movie.
ERIC - Ha! Yeah, we did all the special effects gore shots for SPIT and then gathered up all the body parts and bloody meat, sealed it all up in black trash bags, then disposed of it all in a dumpster. Someone ripped open the trash bags and called 911. The next thing I know, I'm being questioned by police, homicide detectives, and the medical examiner. Everyone was cool, though. Very polite to me. They figured out very quickly what was really going on and the cops thought it was funny.
The next day, the story exploded in the media. That was some weird shit. This one little incident and I suddenly make national news. The AP carried it, and by that evening, the story was in every major newspaper in the country, on the evening news in every major city in the U.S., and on over 300 news radio stations across the country. The story was on Internet news sources. It even made CNN! That whole thing was a trip and a half.
WENDELL - A lot of filmmakers have really used the "improvising" style of shooting with their actors, like you did with "Scrapbook." Are you doing this with the SubRosa Extreme movies and do you plan to continue to use this stylistic "reality" approach? What are the pros and cons of it?
ERIC - We improvised the dialog on SCRAPBOOK as a creative decision. We improvise the dialog on all the Sub Rosa Extreme movies because we don't have time to write full scripts! We base our shooting schedules on ten or fifteen-page outlines usually. We will script out things that are important or very specific, but this usually is only a few pages worth on each movie. On I SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE, I PISS ON YOUR GRAVE, the overseas investors wrote more of the movie than I did.
Our upcoming Wicked Pixel projects, TEMPEST OF THE DAWN and SAVAGE HARVEST 2 will go back to being scripted-out, with not much imprv on set.
WENDELL - There's always a lot of discussion on message boards as to what format of film or video you utilize. Everyone knows "Ice From The Sun" was a super-8 film epic, but what about "Scrapbook" and the SubRosa Extreme movies---what formats are you using for shooting and editing?
ERIC - We did shoot ICE on Super8 film. Over the years, our video projects were shot on S-VHS, 3/4", Mini-DV, or DV-CAM.
To me, the format is not as important as the quality of the camera. The last time I ever shot a feature using consumer equipment was back on THE SCARE GAME in 1990. Since then, I've gone for the high-end camera and editing equipment as much as possible. We shot a recent feature on S-VHS, but we shot it with a $40,000 camera and it looked great. I've used industrial "pro-sumer" cameras in the past, but the cheaper the camera, the more I'm annoyed by it. I think Mini-DV is a great format for shooting on a budget, but we would never shoot a feature on Mini-DV with a consumer camera. If you want to shoot on a professional level, you can do so without spending a huge fortune. Just don't start by purchasing your camera at Best Buy or Circuit City. The same goes for editing. Aim high. In fact, I think you can get away with shooting on a lower format, with a cheaper camera, if your post-production is high-end. I edit everything these days on a non-linear Avid editing system. The last movie I edited on an "old-fashioned" linear system was ICE FROM THE SUN, which was edited picture/voice on a Betacam SP linear system, then had all the music and sound design added on D3, then it was mixed down to a DigiBetacam final master. We ran D3 and DVC-Pro dub masters. These days, my format of choice for dub masters is either DigiBetacam or DVC-Pro, though for some projects, I'm asked to turn in BetacamSP dub masters.
WENDELL - What does Eric Stanze pop into the VCR or disc player for viewing pleasure or to just simply unwind?
ERIC - If I'm stressed, I'll unwind by watching some of the good ol' horror and exploitation stuff I grew up with. Slasher movies. Zombies. Sleaze. 60's drug trip films. Lucio Fulci, Joe D'Amato, Andrea Bianchi. RE-ANIMATOR, ILSA SHE WOLF OF THE SS, BLOODSUCKING FREAKS, MANIAC, NEKROMANTIK, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, and S.F. Brownrigg's DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT are some favorites. I'm very annoyed that our society is so "politically correct" ...everything is offensive to everyone. I wish people would grow a spine and just deal with it. Sometimes you have to cleanse your soul after being around these fake, in-denial, sugarcoated people by opening up a beer and watching a zombie gore-fest or a demon-possessed lesbian nun movie.
But when I'm in the mood to see some true cinematic artistry, by a director who I really respect, I'll put in APOCALYPSE NOW, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, PATHS OF GLORY, or FULL METAL JACKET. I like David Fincher's films, Ridley Scott, David Lynch, Mario Bava, and anything by George Romero.
Sometimes, I just want to watch something light or campy. So it's PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, TRON, THE BLACK HOLE, THE DARK CRYSTAL, any of the TREMORS movies, the STAR WARS movies, or a Jackie Chan flick.
WENDELL - You're also currently working on a demonic possession movie and a sequel to "Savage Harvest". Can you tell us a little about these and what audiences can expect?
ERIC - Jason Christ is writing and directing SAVAGE HARVEST 2, the sequel to my original movie. I had a tiny voice-over acting part in the first SAVAGE HARVEST, so Jason has written that part into a leading character in the sequel. So I'll be playing a leading acting role, in addition to being executive producer of the project.
Jason's script for the sequel is very cool. It is much better written than what I pulled off when I was 20 years old, writing the first movie. This sequel is very character-driven. There is some excellent character interaction in the piece, and Jason did a very good job of showing how all these different characters react in the crisis. But don't assume by this that the movie will be all talking heads. From what I've read in the script, this sequel will have more gore than the original.
TEMPEST OF THE DAWN is the screenplay I'm currently working on. It's very, very epic. It's going to take a lot of time to produce, and more money than I've had in past budgets, so there's no telling how long it will take to begin pre-production. The movie is about Satan infiltrating our world through our own technology, wanting to send his demons up to possess all humans, all over the world. A deeply religious man who has been experiencing visions from God becomes the key pawn in Satan's game. TEMPEST OF THE DAWN will cost so much more than my past projects, because it is wall-to-wall special effects. There's a lot of gore, but there is also sci-fi effects work too. Set design will be expensive as well. TEMPEST OF THE DAWN is just incredibly ambitious.
WENDELL - Finally, there's an onslaught of Sub Rosa Extreme movies coming down the pike like "Last House On Hell Street". Can you wet viewer's appetite's a bit on what they can look forward to?
ERIC - LAST HOUSE ON HELL STREET is a very odd project that went through many changes during shooting and post-production. The directors of that movie had never directed before, so they were kind of testing the water with this project. What's cool is how very unique the movie is. It's a strange mix of violent exploitation and mostly silent "visual poem" filmmaking. It has a gritty, hostile core, a fairytale-style story, and interesting German expressionistic visuals. A very odd and hypnotic movie.
The same directors who did LAST HOUSE also made INSANIAC for Sub Rosa Extreme. INSANIAC has an 80's Wes Craven horror movie vibe to it, but it's more modern and stylized visually. Lot's of insane nightmare imagery and really strong performances by leading actors Robin Garrels and Chris Grega.
THE CHRISTMAS SEASON MASSACRE is directed by Jeremy Wallace, who was my producer on ICE FROM THE SUN and SCRAPBOOK. THE CHRISTMAS SEASON MASSACRE is a slasher comedy, spoofing the slasher flicks of the 80's. We think it turned out pretty funny. And we made it extremely gory, which is unique for a comedy.
I SPIT ON YOUR CORPSE, I PISS ON YOUR GRAVE is a sleaze epic. If you're into totally sick flicks, this one will not disappoint. It contains graphic violence, sex, genital torture, defecation, and a sawed-off broom handle going up into places it was never meant to go. The story is about an abused woman pushed to insanity. She snaps and begins a revenge rampage to humiliate and mangle the people who abused her. Emily Haack plays the maniacal woman. Her performance is outstanding; very raw and super-energized.
BIZARRE LUST OF A SEXUAL DEVIANT is the project that started out to be a fetish video, but then tried instead to be a stalker crime drama with a David Lynch tone. The movie ended up somewhere in-between. There's a mystery about the stalker and one of his potential victims, and there's lots of naked girls getting chloroformed and groped. The movie stars Emily Haack, Angela Zimmerly of ICE FROM THE SUN, and Lisa Morrison of SAVAGE HARVEST.
Overall, being the executive producer of the Sub Rosa Extreme line has been challenging and fun. It's certainly a new experience for me. I'm hoping that these nasty little flicks find their audience and give a bunch of people a nice escape from reality. And if we shock and offend a lot of people in the process, then good. It'll toughen 'em up!
For more information on the work of Eric Stanze just head to any of the following sites.
Wicked Pixel Productions
Sub Rosa Studios