2010 INTERVIEW WITH ADAM WINGARD
Several years ago, I saw an extremely small budget independent horror film called POP SKULL and was thoroughly blown away. It was co-written, directed, shot, and edited by a very talented cat named Adam Wingard. He has gone on to direct a bunch of entertaining films, including A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, YOU’RE NEXT, THE GUEST, and this year’s BLAIR WITCH. Back in 2010, after seeing POP SKULL and a bunch of his great short films, I wrote to him and he graciously agreed to be interviewed for the blog I was working on at the time, which was viewed by approximately 4 people. I am reprinting it this year in hopes that it hits a wider audience (at least double digits) and in celebration of the fact that he is finishing up his live action version of DEATH NOTE, which I bet will rule pretty hard. This will be especially interesting to any film makers out there, as he talks a lot of good movie shop.
Without further adieu, may I present…
ADAM WINGARD: Here are 19 rules I abide by when directing low budget cinema:
1. Cinema is not magic if all you are concerned about is tricks.
2. Don’t fix it in post.
3. Shoot it and edit it as fast as possible. Start it and finish it before you lose your enthusiasm.
4. Never trust anyone to do something that you can do yourself.
5. Learn everything and forget it all. You can’t make a movie with a rule book.
6. Fuck CGI unless you have the money to make it work. Even then be aware of its limitations.
7. There should be one voice on the set, the director’s, all ideas should be funneled through him.
8. If it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. Don’t be afraid to ask your cast what they think is right or wrong with the scene and its blocking.
9. If they aren’t reliable 100% of the time, don’t use them.
10. Don’t over think it.
11. Let the location and weather dictate the mood and lighting.
12. Don’t force it, there are ideas floating around that are better than anything you could pre-conceive. Be aware of this.
13. Don’t let your personal life or problems show up on set. You can deal with all that later.
14. There is no wrong way to shoot or edit a scene. How can you cross a line if there is no line?
15. Always remember when shooting, all of the stress, lack of sleep, and unforeseen problems that pop up along the course of filming are insignificant. In a few weeks time they will be forgotten but the film will always be.
16. Nobody cares about your “behind the scenes”. Focus on the product.
17. Don’t be afraid to use genre. It’s the quickest way to get attention for yourself.
18. Make films that you want to see not what you think people want to see.
19. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
BRIAN LILLIE: Can you give a bit of an overview of how you got started in filmmaking? Do you remember any formative experiences that made you want to make movies?
AW: I come from a family of three brothers so as you can imagine we were always trying to find new ways to amuse ourselves. What started out as an obsession with genre films such as the Ninja Turtle movies and the Alien trilogy eventually moved into a desire to create films once my parents finally got a VHS camcorder when I was in sixth grade or so. During this last Thanksgiving my family all sat down and watched some of our early short films. There’s an interesting theme of home invasion in most of them. There are literally dozens of short films where we would all take turns playing different roles in the same scenario, a man breaks into the house while everyone is blissfully unaware and proceeds to murder the family. I wonder if it was just bad plotting or perhaps we were subconsciously acting out a real fear of home invasion.
BL: What can you tell us about your early days of filmmaking and what was the first thing you made that felt like it was on the right track?
AW: When I was in 8th grade I read Robert Rodriguez’s book “Rebel Without A Crew” and it totally changed my perspective on what was possible. Learning about what Rodriguez did opened my eyes to the modern reality of filmmaking, which is to say you no longer need a ton of people and money to make something happen. I decided then that I would not, and could not, allow anything to stand in my way. My life from that point has been a constant learning process of trial and error. Before I was 18 I had already shot three feature-length backyard action movies and countless shorts. Of course those early films are all garbage, but it’s a process.
BL: It’s rare to find someone who has such an eye for shooting, as well as strong editing chops and an actual directorial style. Have you always been drawn to all those aspects of moviemaking, or did you take on those tasks more out of necessity at first? Do you have a favorite aspect of filmmaking?
AW: I did try the standard crew approach early on with HOME SICK. On that one I had a DP and a camera op and all that jazz. It just didn’t work at that point because I didn’t have the proper reference points of how certain things operated and how long it should take to do something. I got totally trampled by my crew because I couldn’t supply the proper motivation and vision, it felt like I was trying to drive a car with my feet. It was after that film that I took an analytical step back and decided that I couldn’t keep going like that. So I picked up my camera again and started learning to truly be my own DP and editor. It was then I began making 48hr film fest shorts, which I still do to this day. Nothing can prepare you better for filmmaking than shooting and editing a film within the course of a weekend. For me it was important because I discovered that my style is one of a sort of organized chaos. I like to do almost no planning and allow the actors and location to speak for me. I think some people tend to over think things, especially from a technical perspective, in the low budget film setting. When I see behind-the-scenes footage of a movie with a budget of ten grand and they have 20 people walking around, it makes me laugh. How absurd and wasteful. In that cramped environment with no financial backbone you’re just going to walk yourself into a world of stiffness and half-achieved concepts.
To answer the last part of your question, my favorite aspect of filmmaking is, hands-down. the editing. The production side of things is just so stressful to fully be enjoyed, although at times that can be the most exhilarating part, but as an artist I find the most rewarding task is putting the pieces together.
BL: You are also a painter of some skill. Are there any aspects of painting that you feel give you a leg up in moviemaking?
AW: I started painting in the summer of 2007 towards the end of my psychedelic phase. Painting really enriched my existence on a very base artistic level because it opened new doors of expression. Once I started painting I realized that at last in between film projects I didn’t have to just sit around dreaming about the next thing– I could work as an artist expressing my thoughts and emotions on a daily basis.
I think the key to expanding yourself creatively in general isn’t one of intellectualism, we can’t learn everything in the conventional sense like we can for technical operations in school, sometimes you have to let that inner spark grow through continual instinctive means mixed with ongoing experience and mastery over technical factors. Of course it helps to know the technical end of things but that isn’t going to create your unique stamp.
I know this is a far-fetched way of putting it but I think Bruce Lee’s philosophy concerning Jeet Kune Do and martial arts in general holds a lot of weight when you compare that to doing creative works. Heres a quote from Bruce Lee that sums up what I mean nicely – “Art is the expression of the self. The more complicated and restricted the method, the less the opportunity for expression of one’s original sense of freedom. Though they play an important role in the early stage, the techniques should not be too mechanical, complex or restrictive. If we cling blindly to them, we shall eventually become bound by their limitations. Remember, you are expressing the techniques and not doing the techniques.”
BL: So, you directed a feature-length horror movie at age 19, with a cast that includes many recent horror icons. How on earth did you pull that off?! What was it like working on your first feature. Did you enjoy the experience?
AW: I dropped out of high school in order to go to film school a year early. It was a sort of in-and-out kind of trade film school called Full Sail, in Orlando. I’ve never been good at school so the idea of being done with it in about a year was an attractive one for me. I met E.L. Katz there and we came up with the concept of doing a sort of dream-like slasher film. HOME SICK is a bloody mess, no doubt about that, but it was an important learning process for me, a wake up call if you will.
I remember I read an interview once with Quentin Tarantino talking about how he wished he had a b-movie phase early in his career, instead he sort of skipped that whole step and went straight to the big leagues. Well I certainly don’t have that problem but I did get my b-movie phase which is a beautiful thing. One of the things people miss when watching the film is we didn’t just want to do an homage italian 80’s slasher thing, we didn’t want to update the genre with a post modern kind of Grindhouse approach– E.L. and I made this thing in 2003 before all that. We really wanted to make a film that was so insane and un-self aware that it would just blend right into those types of trashy films. I watch it now and it seems like it was made by a total stranger, a madman, and to that effect maybe that means we succeeded for better of worse. With all that said I loved working with Bill Moseley and Tom Towles. For me they were larger than life, it was sort of like talking to Santa Claus everyday on the set. I couldn’t ever believe it was real.
BL: Your second feature, POP SKULL, is just an amazing movie. You hear people say that stuff is “unlike anything else” all the time, but rarely is that an accurate description. In POP SKULL ‘s case, it’s completely dead on. It boasts one of the most over-the-top edits I’ve ever had the pleasure to have experienced, and there is SO much going on as far as the formal construction of the film– I’m wondering how on earth it came to be. What set the movie in motion, how did you shoot it (as far as size of crew, amount of time shooting, etc.), and how did you get into the space of that editing style?
AW: We shot it slowly, comfortably, with little or no crew, over the course of a year and a half, and I drank a lot of cough medicine for reference. That pretty much sums it up. I think we just made the film to have a good time and experiment with improv acting. It’s weird that the movie blew up the way it did. After going to festivals for a year I forgot this wasn’t “THE” film. We were just fucking around. I’m ready to move on now though. I’ve got quite a few things going on again at last.
BL: What did you shoot POP SKULL on, camera-wise?
AW: We shot it all on the DVX 100 A and B, with the exception of the scene where Lane’s mom drives him to his ex’s house and when he takes a bath. Those were shot on the Cannon XL2.
We didn’t have lenses or anything– it was all just making the best of the DVX. I found that the DVX did best in shallow depth of fields. Helped it from looking too cheap. I always turn my master pedestal to about -7 or so to ensure there is a crisp highly contrasted image before I even start color correcting. I can’t stand to see in shadows, they have to be pitch black.
BL: What did you edit the movie on, software and system-wise? How long did it take? Any details or stories you have about this process would be really appreciated.
AW: I edited POP SKULL on Final Cut Pro HD version 4.5. It’s hard to say how long it took since I was sort of editing it in segments as we shot and re-shot material. The whole film was a sort of patchwork of streaming psychedelic-infused consciousness. In order to ensure a proper first person perspective for every five to fifteen minutes worth of edited footage I would drink a bottle of Robitussin and trip out on the footage. The robo trip is a sloppy, intense ride that sort of makes time slow down and intensify. Something about it, though, made me stay honest to the material and gave me insights on when I felt certain scenes needed to be cut down and in what way.
I should sort of make a disclaimer right now that this is not how I work on all of my projects, it was just appropriate for this one. I was making a film about a robotripping depressed kid. I wanted to get in that head space as accurately as possible so that’s what I did. Perhaps that’s why there are so many people that don’t really click with the film, they aren’t watching it from the right perspective. Hell the first time I showed Lane the film I made sure he was on acid haha. Those were the days.
BL: There is a lot of amazing music and sound design in POP SKULL. Who did you work with on the sound design and score, and what kinds of goals did you have in advance? Did you have sound to work with on the edit, or did you do a visual lock first and then bring in the audio?
AW: I did the sound design in Final Cut Pro and my friends Kyle McKinnon and Justin (a.k.a. Jasper) Lee did the score. I’ve always hated those conventional Hollywood scores that sound more like a bunch of sound cues than they do music. I have a rule that says if I wouldn’t listen to it on my ipod then it has no place in a movie.
The way I work with Kyle and Jasper is I ask them to come up with a couple of songs and we just talk about general moods or themes or even song examples. The important thing is they have come up with actual MUSIC that can stand on its own before I even put it in the film. I don’t start editing even one frame until the score is complete, then I make the film to the music. With POP SKULL that is totally true because my on-set sound was shitty enough where I needed to constantly have music playing to mask it.
BL: After making POP SKULL and learning what it had to teach you– how will you approach the making of your next feature differently? Along those lines, do you have any big projects currently in development that you care to talk about?
AW: POP SKULL helped me work with improvisational acting. There’s nothing more real than having the actors say something that is in their head and their own words. If the goal is to make the acting invisible, then this can potentially go beyond that altogether, eliminating any essence of a performance. All that is left is reality…
That’s if it’s done right, there’s plenty of lousy improv acting out there.
BL: What are your goals as a filmmaker, both artistically and career-wise?
AW: I have no idea what my goals are. I just plan on churning as many of these things out before I die.
Right now I’m prepping for shooting A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE which is a serial killer revenge film Simon Barrett wrote for me. I’ve been filming these short films about date rape which I will turn into a sort of anthology feature. I also wrote a revenge film script this year which I hope to film after those two projects are done. I want to be as prolific as Takashi Miike in 2010.
BL: Who are some filmmakers you admire, and what are a few favorite films? Any more obscure titles you think our readers should hunt down?
AW: Takeshi Kitano, Shinya Tsukamoto, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Joe Swanberg, Lodge Kerrigan, Werner Herzog, Gasper Noe, Gus Van Sant, Darren Aronofsky and, of course, the best– Stanley Kubrick.
I have a few obscure films I would like to recommend that aren’t just from the list of directors above. A film that I feel is totally overlooked is POSSESSION by Andrzej Zulawski. Sam Neil and Isabelle Adjani give bat shit crazy performances and the low key natrural photography is some of my favorite ever. Another of my favorite films is GONIN by Takashi Ishii. It’s an operatic crime film shot in a strange colorful way that could only be done in Japan. Lastly have you ever seen that movie THE VAGRANT starring Bill Paxton? I’m sure this is the long lost golden gem of the 80’s, I don’t think it ever came out on DVD. To me it feels sort of like a cross between EVIL DEAD and FREEWAY. Very fucking funny movie.
BL: Lastly, being a horror nerd I am always pleased when the genre attracts truly talented people. Are you a big horror fan, and do you see yourself dabbling in it for the foreseeable future? Do you have any specific comments relating to the making of stuff that’s scary and disturbing?
AW: I’ve always said to my friends that every film could use a little horror in it and I mean that. Just imagine how much better LOST IN TRANSLATION would have been if there had been ghosts in the hotel. In a way everything I do is a horror film and probably always will be.