Interview: A Conversation With Director Steven DeGennaro

Published on February 14th, 2014 in: Found Footage, Horror, Interviews, Movies, Upcoming Movies, Upcoming Releases |

By Jeffery X Martin

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When I first heard about the upcoming horror movie, Found Footage 3D, I immediately got on Twitter to make fun of it. Oh, don’t act like you’re shocked. The real surprise for me happened when the director of the movie, Steven DeGennaro, saw my tweet and engaged me in a civil conversation. That’s the inherent joy and terror of Twitter; you never know who’s reading. After talking to Steven for a while, I moved out of mockery mode and into curiosity. That led to research.

Steven DeGennaro previously directed the short film, First Date. For his new movie, he is working closely with horror icon Kim Henkel, co-writer of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That certainly intrigued me. Then, I had the opportunity to talk to Steven DeGennaro at the end of last month.

Popshifter: I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. Especially me, since I was such a dick to you on Twitter a couple weeks ago.
DeGennaro: Well, that’s part of our strategy, to be honest with you. We realize we have a bit of an uphill battle in terms of convincing people that this film is not a joke and that it’s a good idea and that we’re going to do some pretty cool and interesting stuff with it. So part of our strategy on Twitter is engaging people who haven’t been converted yet.

Popshifter: You are almost aggressively available on social media, which is fantastic. How important is social media to the success of Found Footage 3D?
DeGennaro: It’s a huge part of our strategy. We just started the push where we’re actively being active on social media in the last month or so once we got all the money in place, but we’ve had the Facebook page up, and we’ve had our email list going since almost a year ago, before we had raised a dime to make the movie. The purpose of that was that we wanted to build our audience, early and often, so that we have people who are excited about the movie and are willing to share and tell their friends about it and whatever else. Nowadays, for any movie—especially a low budget movie—to be successful, unless you get picked up by a company that’s willing to put ten million dollars of advertising behind it, building your audience as early as possible in order to plan for distribution a year or two down the road is really important.

Plus, honestly, I have a ton of fun doing it. I’m not a big Twitterer in general. I have my own personal account, and if you look at it, you’ll see there are maybe five tweets I’ve ever sent. I just never got it. Maybe I’m old, I don’t know. Facebook, I get. Twitter, I never really got until this last month or so when I get to actually have conversations with people and be sort of a smart-ass to them.

Popshifter: So it IS you behind the Twitter account!
DeGennaro: Mostly, it’s me. Our other producer, David, jumps in once in a while. But I’m doing it a lot of it myself. That, unfortunately, will probably have to change as we get closer to making the movie. But I have fun doing it. I will definitely always be one of the people doing it. It’s great to see people really skeptical of the concept and engage in a conversation with them and turn them around and have them be like, “Wow, actually, this sounds really cool and I’m excited about it.” There’s nothing like the zeal of a convert, as they say. It’s part and parcel of what we’re trying to do, the concept of the film itself. I say we’re trying to make the Scream of the found footage genre. Part of the reason we’re trying to do that is because I’m just as dismayed and upset by shitty found footage movies as anybody; more so, maybe, because I love the genre so much. Watching a crappy found footage movie is a little bit like seeing someone that you love tied down to a chair and beaten. It’s not a pleasant experience when it’s something that you really love and care about. I think we’re at a point right now where people are getting tired of found footage movies and the clichés they all sort of fall prey to. That’s what this movie is about: taking those things, pointing them out, and subverting them, but doing them super, super well so that we make a genuinely scary movie. Again, it’s very much in the model of Scream and what Scream did for the slasher movie sub-genre.

Popshifter: So, here’s the thing. Doing a found footage 3D movie, you are combining two sub-genres that absolutely polarize movie fans. You’re smooshing these things together. It’s either brave or its insane.
DeGennaro: I don’t know why it can’t be both.

Popshifter: Are you trying to revitalize these genres? Particularly the 3D. I get where you’re coming from with the found footage, on a logical level, but the 3D also?
DeGennaro: The 3D came in a little bit later. When I wrote the first couple drafts, it was just this meta, kind of “Scream of the found footage genre” kind of angle. And then I just had this idea one day: wait, what if we shot it in 3D? And it was such a ridiculous idea that I didn’t even consider it at first. One of the great things about making a movie about people who are making a bad movie is that anytime they make a bad choice, I get to use that as an excuse to do the same thing in my movie as something that’s not a bad choice anymore.

The whole idea was, what if this guy, the producer of this movie, who is kind of a jackass, decides he’s going to make the first Found Footage 3D movie, even though it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, for all the reasons you stated. It’s a bold idea, bordering on a bad idea. But if he does that, that gives me a very good excuse to go shoot the movie in 3D. So I ran this by our producer, Charles Mulford, and he was like, we should look into that. We looked at what it would take to shoot the movie in 3D, and realized it wasn’t going to be a whole lot more expensive or difficult to do it that way. That was sort of the genesis of the idea. Over the past year or so, as I’ve been rewriting the script, it’s become more and more important to the story and to how I intend to tell the story. There are things you can do in a found footage 3D movie that you can’t do in a normal 3D movie. It’s a chance to break new ground in 3D. Ideally, I want to make a movie that . . . well, I’m not going to compare our movie to Gravity, but like Gravity or like Avatar or something like that where people go to see the movie then they tell their friends, “No, dude, you totally have to see this movie in 3D. The 2D version is just not going to be the same.” I really want to make a movie that uses 3D in a way that is so new and interesting that people have that feeling about it. I’m excited about it. It’s become much more important to the story I want to tell to film it in 3D.

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Popshifter: Are you filming it in 3D or doing a post-conversion?
DeGennaro: We’ll be filming it in 3D.

Popshifter: That’s sweet. That’s so much better.
DeGennaro: Yeah, well, it would have cost us several million dollars to do a post conversion. But, that’s kind of the idea. It’s just a matter of time before people start doing this more and more. I was on my honeymoon with my wife last year in Italy, and we were outside of the Coliseum, and we saw a bunch of Japanese tourists just walking around with 3D camcorders, shooting their vacation video with 3D camcorders. They’ve gotten so cheap now. It’s a lot easier to shoot a 3D movie. It actually makes more sense that [the characters] are shooting a 3D movie. It’s not as funny of a joke to me. It kind of makes some sense that they would try to shoot a 3D movie. I think someone’s going to do it. There’s apparently another one in the pipeline. A movie called Ghoul that they’re shooting as a found footage 3D movie. But I haven’t heard a lot about it.

Popshifter:You’ve got financing secured. No distribution yet, as far as I know. Unless that’s changed.
DeGennaro: Nope. No.

Popshifter: Are you worried about taking Found Footage 3D to the festival circuit?
DeGennaro: Well, what do you mean?

Popshifter: Well, there are festival politics; some fests are kind of shady. I’ve not tried to shop my own film around, but I understand it is increasingly difficult to get into festivals and there are fewer festivals to get into.
DeGennaro: There are a lot more festivals to get into. There are just fewer that mean anything. We’ll see. I mean, I have a lot of connections, especially here at SXSW. Our production team has some connections with some festivals and some friends and whatever else, so we’ll play the politics as much as we can. But our hope is that, number one, we’re going to make a really awesome movie. An awesome movie sort of speaks for itself in terms of quality and in terms of audiences wanting to watch it. I also think it is breaking new ground in filmmaking, especially if we are able to achieve what I want to achieve which is doing something new with 3D that no one has ever seen before, then it becomes something that festivals and filmmakers actively become interested in. Movie people love movies about people making movies. And the hard thing about that kind of story is not to make it too in-jokey and make it relevant to a regular audience, at least of movie lovers, as opposed to moviemakers, which is where we’re going with it. I would say our chances are pretty good with getting into one of the major festivals, assuming we can execute it at the level we intend to execute it at.

Popshifter: Okay. I wanna poke into your mind a little bit. What movie made you fall in love with movies as an art form? The movie that made you think, “Shit, if making movies is a job, I want that!”
DeGennaro: Well, the easy answer for anybody of my generation is Star Wars. I cannot not cite that. Precisely because I cannot remember a time when I did not want to make movies. It’s what I played when I was a kid. When I played outside with my little brother, we were always sort of inventing stories and movie stories. I wanted to be a director, even at that early of an age. It took me a while to kind of find my way back to it, to realize I could do it as a profession, something I could do for real instead of just think about, you know.

But, by the same token, I don’t think there was one particular movie, at least, that I can remember, just because it goes so far back.

Popshifter: You own your own sound studio, The Ubiquitous Studio 42, so you work on movies anyway. What is the weirdest sound you’ve ever had to capture for a gig?
DeGennaro: (laughter) Have you seen First Date, my short film? I’ll just leave it at that. Well, let’s say that there was a night where, if you look at my tax return for that year, you’ll see a trip to CiCi’s Pizza written off as a prop . . . well, I can’t remember exactly how I put it, but let’s just say there was a large component of reality to some of those sound effects. They were enhanced, but you know.

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First Date

Popshifter: It’s hard to combine horror and comedy and do it well, and I would consider First Date to be a horror movie, because, Jesus.
DeGennaro: That’s how I conceived it, taking the rhythms of a horror movie and using them for comedic effect.

Popshifter: Which horror/comedy do you think does it best?
DeGennaro: There are different types of comedy/horror movies in my opinion. To come back to the original Scream, I feel like Scream really balanced the elements. I don’t even consider Scream a comedy/horror movie. It’s a horror movie with some comedic elements to it, but they’re all in service of the story and are all funny in a way that really fits that story and aren’t slapsticky. So there’s that kind of horror/comedy, and that’s really what we’re aiming for more with our movie. Then you’ve got more like Shaun of the Dead, where it uses the horror, but it’s clearly more of a comedy. It’s got the trappings of a horror movie, but it’s meant to make you laugh more than scare you. Or something like Evil Dead 2, which is an easy example, because it’s the greatest horror/comedy of all time, but it has that reputation for a reason. It’s just fucking brilliant. And Army of Darkness, which was definitely much more a comedy than a horror . . .

Popshifter: No Student Bodies?
DeGennaro: I’ve never . . . I don’t know what that is.

Popshifter: It was early Eighties. It’s atrocious and wonderful at the same time. And it’s still funnier than any of the Scary Movie series, so go figure.
DeGennaro: Yeah, one of the things about the Scream series as it went on is it got more jokey and less scary. I still like all of them, but the further they got into that series, the more they were winking at the audience and not really trying to make a scary movie.

Popshifter: So, where are we now? And I’m talking specifically American horror. Are we on the verge of another golden age or are we in a downward spiral?
DeGennaro: I don’t ascribe to either of these points of view. I get into arguments with people sometimes about when people say to me, “Oh, movies of the past were so much better than the crap that’s coming out now.” I look at that and I think, you’re comparing, in your head, you’re looking at all the great movies that came out over the last 20 years. And you’re comparing them with the five movies that came out this week. That’s not a fair comparison. If you compare the five movies that came out the week The Exorcist came out, I’m sure four of them were shitty and unmemorable. You remember the good ones. I don’t think there’s been an increase in quality or a dip in quality, necessarily. I think you have to find the movies that are good. There’s so much more stuff being made now, that of course more of it is going to seem like crap. But by the same token, when something brilliant comes along . . . like, for instance, I went to see a double feature last weekend of Gravity and Her. Both brilliant movies that I absolutely loved. Man, one of the things about being a filmmaker and screenwriter, I am so analytical now when I watch movies. And I’m constantly thinking about, how would I have done that differently or is this story working or not working, you know, just analyzing the screenplay and I don’t do it on purpose. It just sort of happens. And then every once in a while you watch a movie and it just so totally absorbs you and is so totally good, that you just forget about that for two hours. And we’re still making movies like that, even in our genre.

Popshifter: The way of the indie filmmaker is difficult. Tell us about your support system. Who do you have backing you up here?
DeGennaro: You mean in terms of getting the movie made?

Popshifter: Just in general! Not just in terms of getting the movie made, but also, I mean, how does your wife handle all this?
DeGennaro: My wife, she gets it. She does. She gets it. My wife was the production designer on First Date and she produced it with me. Initially, when I came to here with the idea for that movie, she was horrified by it. She was the first person who read the script and she was like, “I didn’t laugh at all. This is not even funny. All I can think is how pissed I would be if some guy did this to my bathroom!” Gradually, as the movie started to come together, I won her over. This is when we were still dating, before we were married or before we were living together, even, in our house, where I live now, where she lived with her daughter before, there are these giant vaulted ceilings. I realized I was going to have to build a set for First Date. That whole main bathroom is a set. I needed to get all four walls out in order to put the camera in, crank a dolly and stuff in. I needed to find a place to build that that wasn’t going to cost me tens of thousands of dollars. I was over at her house one day and I said, “We could build it right here in your living room.”

Again, at first, she was shocked and horrified, but I managed to convince her and we had this bathroom set living in her house for like three months. Just right there in her living room. And she saw the moviemaking process and she got very interested in it and she sort of came along for the ride. For the last year, I’ve been neglecting my actual paid work a little bit more than I maybe should have, so my wife has been helping to sort of make up the gap in terms of financially because she knows that I’ve been out busting my butt and because she knows this will eventually pay off in the end.

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Photo from Cinapse.co

She thought I was nuts. The day that I walked home, I came home from, I don’t remember where I was and I had read this book called Bankroll by Tom Malloy, which has a lot of really interesting advice and strategies about how to raise money for a movie. And I never even thought of this as something I would ever do. It was one of those things where I thought, “I want to be a director, so I’m going to write scripts and try to get somebody to produce them for me.” And I realized I had this script, and I had this concept, that I thought I could sell. Like I could legitimately look an investor in the eye and say, “Look, I think this has the potential to make a lot of money because it’s in a genre that people love and it’s doing something new.” So, I’m like, I wonder if I can convince investors to give me hundreds of thousands of dollars to make this movie? I came home and I said this to my wife, and she said, “That’s insane. No one’s just going to hand over half a million dollars to you to go make this movie.” And I’m like, “I know! It does kind of sound insane, doesn’t it?”

And then I started going through the process, I wrote the business plan, I got Charles on board, my partner, my producing partner. And after him, we managed to get Kim [Henkel] involved, and once Kim’s name came up on the thing, we found investors much more willing to sit down and talk with us. They saw First Date and they saw what we were trying to do with this movie, and it’s been interesting. It’s been a huge learning experience. But it allows me to completely keep control over the project, which is really important to me. There’s nobody above me. I am the ultimate person who gets to decide what we’re doing or what we’re not doing. I know that didn’t work out too well for George Lucas, with the prequels, but in this case, I feel like I’m willing to take everybody’s advice about how to do this best, but I don’t want somebody who doesn’t understand what I’m trying to do to bone me halfway through the process by saying, “Oh, we should do it this way instead,” instead of trusting me to go out and make a good movie.

Popshifter: How did you meet Kim Henkel?
DeGennaro: Charles worked with Kim on his last movie, which got released as Butcher Boys. It was also known as Bone Boys. I think the foreign release title was Bone Boys, as well. But it came out here as Butcher Boys back in September. Charles had worked with him on that as production manager. We were thinking about who we could work with to help bring some legitimacy to the project, since we were both just starting out. He called Kim up, and asked him if he would read the script. Kim read the script and sat down with us. He kind of liked it. He had some reservations about it. We invited Kim out to a screening of First Date and to see this proof-of-concept thing that we shot for Found Footage 3D. I don’t want to put words into Kim’s mouth, but he believes in me a director. That’s what it comes down to. He saw First Date, and he saw what I could do as a director, and he saw what I could do with the four-page thing we shot for Found Footage 3D, and he was on board after that. He had some reservations, like I said, about the script, so he and I sat down. We’ve spent the last six months or so just hammering out drafts of the script, back and forth. I’m doing the writing, and he’s critiquing them and giving me lots of really surprising and interesting insights into how to make this thing better. I was proud of the script that we first handed to him! But the one that we have now is a thousand times better, thanks to his input. Originally, we approached him just hoping that if he put his name on this thing, it would get us noticed. If he did nothing else, at least we had his name. He has now become such a valuable part of the process of making the movie. It’s really cool to get script notes from the guy who wrote one of the most famous and scary horror movies of all time.

Popshifter: You have a doctorate in astrophysics. You know I know this.
DeGennaro: You’ve done your research.

Popshifter: Will we be seeing a sci-fi flick from you in the future?
DeGennaro: My wife has told me that if I go my entire career without making her a sci-fi movie, because she’s a huge sci-fi buff, that she will be very disappointed in me. I mean, I can’t tell you what the future holds, in terms of I don’t have any specific concepts at the moment of things that I feel I could execute now. Hopefully, if things go well, and I get to make bigger and bigger movies, then yes, absolutely. I’d love to make a science fiction film.

Popshifter: I have one more question for you, Steven, and it may be the most important question of the whole interview. Please name your favorite Iron Maiden album and explain why.
DeGennaro: Ah, man! That’s a tough question! I would say most of my life growing up that Powerslave was my favorite album. I got into Iron Maiden because a friend of mine had the VHS of the concert video that they did for Powerslave.

Popshifter: Live After Death.
DeGennaro: Right. We watched that thing so hard; I think the VHS tape broke. My brother and I were both huge Iron Maiden fans. We used to make my little brother and sister dress up like Adrian Smith and Dave Murray and shoot a video with us where we did “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” But I’ve rediscovered Seventh Son of a Seventh Son lately. That album is so good! I had forgotten! I never had it. I had bought it on cassette, but I somehow never got it on CD and I just recently bought it on iTunes, about six months ago. Like, I forgot how good it was. Great album, but I would say that whole run between The Number of the Beast and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is a pretty unbeatable run in terms of just great album after great album.

I’d like to thank Steven DeGennaro for taking the time to talk to me for this interview. Follow the progress of Found Footage 3D at their Facebook page and on Twitter.

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