STEVE: I am a child of the 80s, and, like many of my generation, I grew up with a camcorder in my hand. I was one of those kids who wrangled my friends and family into acting in comically bad home movies, and I would edit from VCR to VCR. So I had the filmmaking bug from an early age.
I moved out to LA in 1996 without any connections or true knowledge of the industry. I hopped onto a few student productions and then some professional independents as a Production Assistant. These were not glamorous times. A grad student at Loyola Marymount, Kuang Lee, took me under his wing and showed me the ropes, helping me direct my first short film. After that, I focused exclusively on directing, writing, and producing my own work.
Back in the 90s, most indie films were still shot on film, so living in LA or NY where that infrastructure was already in place helped significantly. High quality digital video democratized our world and made it easier for us aspiring filmmakers to hone our craft anywhere. We don't have to rely on rushes from Fotokem. So, tiring of the LA lifestyle, I moved to Michigan and focused on making films here.
In the early 2000s, I directed a handful of short comedies, eventually writing and directing my first feature Solitude in 2004. It was a no-budget drama that was largely a passion project and an absolute blast to make. Of course the film went nowhere, but some of my most enjoyable filmmaking memories are from that flick. After Solitude, I focused mainly on features, dabbling in different genres. I wanted to expand my writing and directing skills by tackling unfamiliar territory like horror and action, and The Cabining proved a good introduction.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
STEVE: My feature prior to The Cabining was called Starlight & Superfish. It was a low-budget art-house dramedy that just didn't find its audience. The struggle to push that movie forward took a personal huge toll, and I was pretty burnt out on the whole low-budget world. Around this time, my brother Mike asked me to direct a short comedy script he wrote titled My Friend Peter. It was our first significant collaboration and proved to be a festival hit.
My Friend Peter brought us to the awesome DC Shorts festival, where we attended a seminar on low-budget filmmaking by Kelley Baker. Despite my struggles with Starlight & Superfish, I left that seminar inspired to dive right into another low-budget project! Mike and I, and fellow filmmaker David Silverman, riffed on a few horror script ideas that very night. After returning from DC, I started on the script, and a few weeks later The Cabining was born.
I had tried writing horror many times before with no success. I believe The Cabining came about so quickly for me because it's basically a comedy script with horror and gore sprinkled in.
STEVE: I'm a member of the online filmmakers group at filmspecific.com. It's a site for independent filmmakers run by former sales agent Stacey Parks. The site is packed with tangible, real-world advice on how to actually monetize our movies. I know this sounds like a commercial, but filmspecific has been a massive help for me and my brother in forming the financial plan. Sites like this can also save you money by connecting you with people with specific talents.
Stacey recommends that, unless you have a star, it's best to keep your budget as low as possible to more easily recoup costs. The horror genre is sometimes an exception, but our movie was a horror-comedy, not a true horror like 'House of Good and Evil' or a Jason Blum production. So we had to raise enough money to meet broadcast television standards, but we couldn't spend too much to blow any profit potential. With that said, it was difficult raising even our low-budget goal. It took us about a year to raise the money. We didn't go the crowd-sourcing route and limited the pitch to people we knew personally. Eventually, we found enough financial backing.
Once the movie was complete, the goal was to shop it at AFM - the best market for horror products. Thanks to the aggressive work of my brother, Mike, we landed a sales agent in Leomark Studios. They helped us score a handful of overseas contracts and a domestic deal with Indican Pictures. The domestic deal placed us on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, AT&T Uverse, Charter, WOW, Dish and several other on-demand services.
The Cabining scored a handful of awards at film festivals, and fans of horror-comedy seem to really respond to it. The goal now is to promote the film as much as possible to recoup our budget and make another movie. So if you like horror-comedy, I encourage you to check it out.
STEVE: Casting the main character, Todd, was easy - it was written for my brother, Mike. He's first and foremost an actor. For the Bruce role, we wanted an actor who, like Mike, would also help with producing, and Mike found the multi-talented Bo Keister via imdbpro. Bo immediately responded to the Bruce character. Prior to The Cabining most of Bo's roles were in dramas and action, and I found it surprising because he was an absolute natural with comedy.
The two female leads were cast out of Los Angeles through ActorsAccess. Mike and another producer, Ian Michaels, sifted through thousands of applicants. While we were low-budget, we were still a paid, SAG gig, so there was ample interest. We happily found Angela Relucio and Melissa Mars who actually sent an audition video from her apartment in Paris. She didn't even know her character was supposed to be French -- it was a lucky coincidence.
Ian helped us land the fantastic Luce Rains, Richard Riehle, and Chuck Saale, and Mike convinced veteran Michigan actor Mark Rademacher to join us at the 11th hour.
Once we got to set, the script didn't change too much, except for Bruce's lines. Bo Keister had leeway to add and change lines as he saw fit. His suggestions were often definite improvements. As a writer, I'm not married to any lines. The script is just a guide. Besides, you never know what's going to ultimately work on the screen. What may seem like gold on the script may fall flat on set, so I try to keep an open mind.
You wore a lot of hats on this project -- Director, Writer, Editor. What's the upside and the downside of that approach?
STEVE: The upside is that I worked for free. The downside is that I didn't get much of a break/vacation from the material. For this project, it definitely helped to be both writer and director. I had lived with the characters for a long time and could answer any of the actor's questions about their character's motive or backstory.
Being the editor was a bit trickier. I would've preferred for a new set of eyes to interpret the footage. Yet, in the low-budget world, that's a luxury we could not afford. Ultimately, I powered through the edit a few weeks before my second baby was born. That was the deadline. :)
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
STEVE: We used the Sony FS100. Jeffery T. Schultz, our DP, recommended the camera, and I was not disappointed. It really surprised us with its ability in low-light. Still, the camera is only as good as its DP, and Jeff was wonderful. A good DP can make a hi8 camera look beautiful.
The only thing I hated about the FS100 was that we only had one. Our second camera was a 7D, and it was a challenge to match the footage.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
STEVE: The first thing that comes to mind actually occurred during pre-production. I story-boarded every single scene and also devised camera moves and editing tricks that would give the movie a style and identity. Those weeks of prep really paid off because we were able to move super-fast in our compressed schedule without sacrificing quality.
Yet, the smartest thing I did during production was listen to ideas posed by the DP and actors. Jeff's ideas for camera moves and Bo's one-liners proved to be the most memorable in the movie.
The dumbest thing -- my biggest regret -- was I never got an exterior shot of the house at night. The house had huge vaulted ceilings. Jeff dropped several Chinese lanterns from the ceilings to beautiful effect. The west wall of the house was almost entirely glass, and the view through those large windows was truly impressive. We have plenty of exterior house shots during the day, but it was only during the evening that we could see the Chinese lanterns. Why we never got this shot baffles me. It probably would've made the poster!
STEVE: Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this project was that the massive effort of preparation and storyboarding leading up to the shoot was totally worth it.
Storyboarding is often intimidating to non-artists like myself, but there's digital software (and old-fashioned stick figures) that can help. The storyboards gave the DP, the sound guy, the production designer, and actors a physical illustration of what I envisioned.
On a more macro-level, I discovered a real love of writing during this film. Prior to The Cabining, I was a director who occasionally wrote. Now, I've definitely got the writing bug. I've written three scripts since The Cabining wrapped, including one that continues the Todd and Bruce journey.