To celebrate Christmas in a way befitting guerrilla film makers, I thought I would share this short film ‘Treevenge’, plus an interview with the film makers from the Guerilla Film Makers Pocketbook. If you like this, there are more free resources on the Guerilla Film Makers Masterclass site here… http://www.guerillamasterclass.com/free-expert-interviews/
And if you missed the early bird deal for the two day masterclass in Feb, so long as you sign up before Xmas, you can still get the early bird discount price of £65. Use the discount code CHRISJONESBLOG when signing up and join hundreds of other film makers who have decided to kick off the year like they mean it! You can get your pass here…
OK here are Jason and Rob, filmmakers behind ‘Treevenge’
Jason (director) – My family goes nuts over Christmas – they decorate the house from top to bottom. In fact, they actually have a separate storage locker for some of the decorations because they don’t all fit in the attic or basement. One year, my Dad brought home a Christmas tree that must have stood 15 feet tall. We screw it into place, my Mom puts on Christmas music and I get up on a ladder and start decorating it. As I am doing that, I look at the tree and think this must be the most horrifying experience from its perspective. It’s cut down and taken away from their quiet home in the forest, then sold off to these strange humans. I pitched that idea to Rob and he liked it.
Q – How did you approach writing the script?
Rob (producer) – We always saw it as a short. If it were any longer it might become tedious. Then we hashed out ideas for things that might be good for the story. At that point, We went off and put together an outline. We read it, gave our notes and then hashed it out again. I think Jason and I went through four drafts before we started shooting, but in the end what we shot was very different from the script. It ended up being more of a template.
Q – You built the humor and tension in levels. How much of it was in the script and how much came about on set?
Rob – Most of it was in the script. The guy getting tree raped was not. We like those kind of movies that keep building the story beats in that way. It creates an event-like atmosphere in the theater.
Jason – Yeah. When you see Evil Dead 2, Army Of Darkness or Dead Alive, you go and people are screaming and hollering. It’s like being at a fun rock show. Even though you get gore and blood all over the screen, you know it can’t possibly be real. And that freedom allows you to have a visceral reaction.
Q – What did you do about money and how did you keep the costs down?
Rob – We begged, borrowed and stole. A lot of our friends work in the industry in Halifax (Eastern Canada) and we got a lot of support from rental and transfer houses. They all supported us for free. Really, our biggest expenses were special effects and food. Everyone worked for free and what money we did spend came out of our own pockets. In the end, we shot Treevenge for about $1500 CAN and when you include post and music rights it was closer to $5000 CAN.
Q – Did you get any Canadian grant money for the film?
Rob – No. There aren’t many financing structures for that here and the ones that do exist are application based. We didn’t have time for that.
Jason – Christmas was coming. There were going to be Christmas trees in Christmas tree lots around for only a short period of time. So we decided to just go for it.
Q – How did you organize the shoot?
Rob – When we did our short Hobo With A Shotgun, it was sort of catch as catch can. But we took Treevenge more seriously, so I tried to create an atmosphere of a traditional film crew.
Jason – It was important for me to experience that because we plan to make features and I needed to see how that worked. And it was challenging because it was the first short I didn’t shoot myself. Usually, I know where the camera will go or I do the lighting. At first, it was a big struggle to convey my ideas to the camera operator, but I got the hang of it.
Rob – And knowing that it might be an issue, I got a camera operator that would work well with Jason’s mindset. However, most of the organization fell to me and I used a lot of friends. I know a great location scout and he found us the tree farm. In fact, that sequence wouldn’t have been in the script if he hadn’t taken us there that day. We were just looking for a place where lumberjacks cut down trees and while we were doing that, he took us there. It was amazing! It gave us great production value because it was so industrial. When we were there they said they were shutting down in a week, so we came back two days before they stopped.
Jason – We went there with a crew of four. Me, Rob, Pat, the camera operator, and one of the actors. There was not time to organize. We just went out and shot.
Rob – We got that location for a bottle of rum. They totally helped us out and didn’t want anything, but I thought we owed them something. They even turned that conveyor belt on for us on the day.
Q – How did you approach bringing the trees to life – especially their language?
Jason – A lot of the tree movement is from friends lying on the ground and puppeteering a tree by its stump. The scene where the tree steps out of the house – that was a guy standing out of shot, holding it by the trunk.
Rob – One of our inspirations was Joe Dante’s film, Gremlins. There’s a scene where Corey Feldman walks into a house wearing a Christmas tree suit. Our friend Jason Johnson used it as a model, got a couple of fake Christmas trees and built a suit in a couple of days. Basically, it was a hula-hoop, a Christmas tree, a webbed body suit and a hat. And for the arms of the tree, we cannibalized the suit. So when the arms came out the branches looked like they were alive. We took the arms off a sweater and attached tree branches to them with wire.
When we wrote the script, we wrote the tree’s dialogue. On set, we had the actual puppeteers saying the lines in English. After a couple days of shooting I realized that the trees shouldn’t speak English. They had to have their own language. Plus it made the situation seem more dire as they didn’t understand what the lumberjacks or family were saying. It seemed scarier for them.
Jason – The voice of the Christmas trees was inspired by Jason Johnson. We had him in the suit at the tree lot when the trees attack the lot owner. He put the axe in the air and screamed this dolphin sound. It was so cool and interesting, we decided to build upon that. Also, the voices were inspired by Ewoks. So we had some friends come in and do some voice acting inspired by them, dolphins and raccoons.
Rob – But we wanted it to sound like a human language. So we had them run through emotions and it was tough. We had John Dunsworth, who is on a show up here called Trailer Park Boys do it for an hour and I thought we were going to kill him. The squealing and the screeching sounds he made were incredible!
Jason – His daughter got in there and helped too. So I would cut up the sound effects and mix them together and change the pitches. And that’s how the language was born.
Q – How long was the shoot?
Rob – We shot on weekends when we could, so we prepped a two-day shoot for a weekend and got everything together for that. Then we would have a couple weeks off until the next weekend shoot. So we got everything together in that time. We did that for four weekends, so 8 days plus one for pick-ups.
Q – What camera did you use?
Rob – The Sony F-900. We shot on HDCAM. For the most part, the camera worked great – especially with all that white of the snow. We had one nail biting moment where we really wanted these extreme wide shots as the perspective of the trees. On the first day of shooting, the lens hadn’t arrived so it looked like we were going to get boned. But it came in at the last minute so we did a crew split to go get it at FedEx.
Q – Were there any surprises on set that you had to be creative to get around?
Jason – When we shot the opening sequence with the trees, we weren’t expecting it to snow. And we didn’t have time to wait for it to stop for continuity sake. So in the shots with the lumberjacks, it isn’t snowing. In fact, it was in bright sun. So I had to shoot things close up and less wide so as to reduce the continuity issues.
Rob – There was another challenge on that day too. The DP hadn’t worked with us before and he didn’t realize that we shoot continuously. So he hadn’t brought enough tape and at one point he said we only have 10 minutes left. And we had planned on doing these slo-mo Steadycam shots.
Jason – But we never ended up doing that because it took too long to set up. That was kind of sad because we got the Steadicam for free and when does that ever happen?
Q – How did you do the spurting blood?
Rob – In the scene where the girl gets killed, we cut off some of the branches from a tree and had two people standing behind it acting as the arms. Meanwhile, three of us stood behind the camera with syringes and water bottles with a nail hole in the cap filled with fake blood. On the cue, they grabbed her and we let loose. She was such a trooper because at one point she swallowed enough fake blood that she puked. But she wanted to do it again. Her Dad was there making sure she was OK and she said she was.
Q – Did you rehearse with the actors?
Jason – Yes. I like to have things down before we bring in the camera. That way I can shoot as much coverage as I can as quickly as possible.
Rob – Most of the actors knew our style so when we explained the world; they got it right off the bat. And we did that with the crew, too. In fact, we sat them all down and made them watch DVDs of the films that were inspiring us.
Jason – One of the actors, the father played by Jonathan Torrens, and I talked at length about his character. At first, I was going to get a normal Dad to play that role, but the more we spoke about it and the fact that I loved Pee Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, I realized that I wanted a crazier, over the top kind of father – almost maniacal. We did that with every character in the film so even the nice, saccharine family is screwed. They all wear the same thing. They smile a little too much. We were always telling people to give us more, which is usually the opposite of what normally happens.
Q – How did you handle post?
Jason – I cut it at home on my girlfriend’s iMac with Final Cut Pro. Surprisingly, that computer was able to handle the 1080p HD footage. It was hard because I was cutting it in the spring and close to summer and there was always that temptation to go out and be in the sun. Plus my girlfriend’s office is painted pink and has trinkets around it – it’s a girl’s room. So I blacked out the windows like Sylvester Stallone did when writing Rocky. All together it took about 2-3 weeks to cut it. But then I was also working with several composers and handling the sound design for the tree voices.
Q – Did you have anyone watch the cuts or did you keep it internal?
Rob – Jason would go into his cave, do a cut and then show me what he had done. Then we would sit and talk about it. I might ask him to see if we have a better take of a shot and see how it works. Sometimes it would end up better.
Jason – We have the same mindset so it’s great to have Rob come in see what I am doing. Sometimes I might not be sure of something and Rob would come in and give me his notes. It was reassuring because most of the times I was leaning toward his point of view.
Q – Did you do anything special in post?
Rob – Our biggest craziness was in post. We had a deadline to get it to the Fantasia Film Festival, which was going to be our premiere. We had to do the whole sound mix in 2-3 days. We had to do it after hours at this place so we were there from 6PM to 8AM three days in a row.
Jason – And we had a major problem with our final export. We shot it in 24p, but I was cutting it in a 29.97 timeline and when we went to do the up-rez, we had to bring everything back in at 24p. It created gaps between each cut so I had to go back and put it back together. Most of the time it was just a frame or two off, but that makes a huge difference. And I had one day to fix it.
Q – Did you have to kill any darlings?
Jason – Yes. There was this epic scene that we shot where a tree witnessed a boyfriend proposing to his girlfriend. The tree got sickened by it, stuck its branch into a light socket, catches itself on fire and then jumps on the boyfriend. We had a stunt guy. We had a pyro guy light the tree. We built a whole set for it. But when I was cutting it, the scene did not work with the pacing of the film.
Rob – It took over. We were working on it for days and then we both looked at each other and said, “This has to go.” We were trying to get to the climax of the story and this scene was one too many.
Jason – I’m pretty good about cutting things that don’t work, but it sucks when you have a guy that is risking his life for you and you don’t use it.
Q – What was your plan for getting Treevenge out into the world?
Rob – I had never submitted a film outside of the Atlantic Film Festival here in Halifax. I would have been jumping for joy if it got into the Fantasia Film Festival or the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. But we submitted it and it got in both and won the audience award in both. Then it kept going. It got into South By Southwest and New York Horror. And we were winning the audience award at most every one. Then one of our friends said that we should submit it to Sundance. Yeah, right. No way. But this friend knew someone there so we sent a copy and never expected to hear back from them. A couple of months passed and I was working on a prison movie and it was a loud set. So when I got the phone call from Sundance saying that we got in, I couldn’t hear the voice on the other end and I said, “I can’t hear you because I’m in jail.” So I got her to repeat it and I was flabbergasted. I called Jason right away.
Jason – At the time I was grocery shopping. I dropped my groceries and ran outside and started calling all my family and friends. I was almost in tears. So a crew of us went to Utah and had an awesome time. We made a presence. We had tee shirts made. All of our shows were sold out and people outside were throwing chairs when they couldn’t get in. There were pools of blood outside the theater. It looked like a riot. The people at Sundance said it was the craziest reaction to a film they had seen at the festival. We won an Honorable Mention, which is a big honor. In fact, we went to the ceremony to cheer on this other filmmaker that we met that made I Live In The Woods. He gets nominated and I celebrated, then we got called and we both were shocked.
Rob – This was the first time it played to a mainstream crowd. Normally we preach to the converted at genre festivals, so it great to see it hit them like it did everywhere else.
Q – Has anything business-wise come of that?
Rob – Before Sundance we had agencies talking to us. It was getting good buzz on the internet.
Jason – The Hollywood Reporter put us on the 2008 International Watch List as well. So we’ve been out to LA a few times to meet with producers and studios. We got repped by UTA. It’s helped to get our foot in the door.
Rob – All the people that we’ve met along the way have been great. They are like-minded and it’s great to make relationships with them.
Q – What advice would you offer a new film maker?
Rob – Probably what everyone else will say – beg, borrow and steal everything you can to make your movie – you have to WANT it, because making movies is not easy, you have to have the fire and desire to forgo everything else in your life to get it done, and it will mean pain, tears and anger – but it will also make you laugh and feel full of life – and that first moment that you are in a theater watching your movie with a crowd and they go off, reacting to what you have made – it’s amazing – the best drug in the world! So advice? Just get a camera and do it with what you have. Stop talking about it, and do it. We all have stories to tell.
Onwards and upwards!
Chris Jones, Film Maker and Author