Friday, August 21, 2009

Interview with Director Mark Steensland

Many may not know this, but indie filmmaker Mark Steensland is the one person that really inspired me to start writing about horror and start this site. You see, back in college Mark taught a film class whose emphasis was horror films. Each class we would sit in the dark and watch horror movies. It was in this class where I was introduced to Italian gialli, Asian horrors and many other influential horror films. After watching the films we discussed them and wrote about our reactions to them. I had always loved horror movies, but this class gave me a way to express that love on paper and in words and was definitely a gateway for me to start this site. So, as you see, I am eternally grateful to Mark for introducing me to the academic study of horror!

I was lucky to take Mark’s class when I did, because soon after he accepted another teaching position and moved away. A few years later, I learned that he was pursuing filmmaking more and was making his own horror shorts, a few of which I was privy to see.

This year, Mark really impressed with with his two latest horror shorts, Peekers and The Ugly File, so I thought it was high time that chat with Mr. Steensland about his remarkable films and what the future holds for this talented filmmaker.

Fatally Yours: Hi Mark and thanks for taking the time to talk! Your latest project is The Ugly File Can you tell us how the project came about and why you chose this particular short story to adapt to film?

Mark Steensland: After I finished my last short film (Peekers), I saw a long short movie called Bugcrush, made by the guy who directed The Ruins [Carter Smith]. And I was really fascinated by the emotional quality of it and I realized that while Peekers was good, it wasn’t really very deep emotionally. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, per se, but I felt like I wanted to make something very different. I wanted to make something that had a much deeper emotional quality to it. So I started looking for a story that had that quality, as well as all the others I look for in material. Ed Gorman’s name came up from a couple of people and I asked them which of his short stories I should read. Two were mentioned. One was The Ugly File. As soon as I read it, I said: “This is it.” I didn’t even read the other story and to be perfectly honest, I can’t even remember the name of it now.

Fatally Yours: Will The Ugly File or any of your other films be screening at any upcoming festivals?

Mark Steensland: The Ugly File is on the festival circuit right now. We’ve already played in a handful of festivals – including opening for Paul Solet’s Grace at Fantasia in Montreal – and we’ve won one award (first place in the horror shorts category at The Indie Gathering in Cleveland, Ohio). We’ve been accepted to a bunch more and I’m waiting to hear from even more. It’s a very expensive process to submit to film festivals, so I usually submit to somewhere between 40 and 50 fests.

Fatally Yours: Your 2008 short film, Peekers, did extremely well and now you’ve made it available to watch for free on your website, Do you plan to release all your films online?

Mark Steensland: There were plans at one point to release a DVD compiling all the short films. You got to see a sort of early version of that, which was called Beyond the Pale. But that didn’t really get much momentum, unfortunately. So I decided that maybe Peekers could generate more traffic by being on its own site. As for the other stuff, we’ll have to see.

Fatally Yours: I loved your short film Dead@17, based on Josh Howard’s graphic novel! What made you want to adapt that film for screen and how did you organize that project?

Mark Steensland: Our original hope was to get the feature film rights to the comic book and to use the short film to generate interest in our making the feature version. The bad news – for us, anyway – was that the rights were already sold. They’ve been doing the Hollywood shuffle for years now, literally. And maybe you’ve heard that they’ve attached Vanessa Hudgens to star and Michael Dougherty to write. Who knows. The good news is that we did generate quite a bit of attention for ourselves. Especially now as the interest in the feature version has been growing, the mention of our little fan film has been growing along with it.

Fatally Yours: A lot of your films have been inspired by or are based on short stories. Why do you choose these as the basis for your films? 

Mark Steensland: Stanley Kubrick had a very interesting bit of wisdom about this subject. He believed that you could never have the same objective reaction to someone else’s writing as you could to something you wrote yourself. I think he’s mostly right. I’m certainly not opposed to making films based on my own ideas, but I do think the stories I’ve chosen to adapt have an undeniable strength. Also, there’s a lot to be said for the reputation of the story raising interest in the film. I’ve heard from a number of people who loved The Ugly File as a short story and they are very pleased with what we did in the film version.

Fatally Yours: Is it difficult or expensive to get authors’ permissions to use their stories and adapt them for the screen? 

Mark Steensland: Yes and no. It really depends on the author. We’ve gone after some stories from authors who simply would never even talk to us. We’ve gone after a few stories that we made deals for but that fell apart at some stage before actually being made. Now, I’m happy to say, we actually have authors soliciting us to make films out of their stories because they’ve seen the quality of our work and what kind of exposure it’s been getting.

Fatally Yours: Short films are usually seen as a means to an end for most directors, but your shorts are impeccably filmed and stand on their own artistic merit. What draws you to focus on short films as opposed to features?

Mark Steensland: Well, I’ve made two feature films already. The first one, called The Last Way Out, was made back in 1997 and is available from Troma. It’s a crime drama, not a horror film. The second was made in 2001. It’s a documentary called The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick. We’re gearing up for a feature right now that will be a horror film. Hopefully that will happen this year. But I’ve learned not to hold my breath. What I hadn’t done with the features, however, was go on the film festival circuit. And that’s what I’ve really been doing with the short films. And it’s really been an amazing experience. I think we’ve been building a really good reputation and I’m hoping that it will help when we have a feature to screen.

Fatally Yours: Your films have an artistic, sophisticated look and feel to them. How do you feel about indie horror films that don’t have the same polish as your films do? Do you think the easy access to technology has made some filmmakers skip the actual craft of filmmaking? 

Mark Steensland: That’s a loaded question! I don’t really think about my own films as they compare to what other people do. In other words, I’m not trying to imitate some particular look or feel. In fact, someone recently commented that the thing about my films is how bright they all are – they seem to take place during the day and in brightly lit spaces. Not the usual dark and stormy night kind of thing. And this isn’t really something I was even aware of until they mentioned it. I don’t like a lot of shaky camera work. And I don’t like a lot of fast editing. And so my films reflect that. I don’t really like to be flashy in that way. I like a more thoughtful approach. And that’s just me. I know plenty of people prefer a completely different style. And that’s fine with me. I’d just like to have enough fans to support a career.

Fatally Yours: How do you feel about the current state of horror films?

Mark Steensland: I think it’s the same as it always has been. There are good ones and there are bad ones. And I think a good film will always manage to find an audience. I wish there were more good films, but I wish a lot of things that don’t come true. I’m sorry that the business has become so business oriented. I think that’s why we’re seeing so many remakes. They know there’s an audience out there and if they can make it for X amount of dollars, they can open it on Y amount of screens and ultimately make Z amount in total revenue. It’s too bad the production side has gotten so bloated. I think good movies can be made with very limited resources and I think that they could return their investment. But everything these days is about making a billion dollars at the box office and that takes a lot.

Fatally Yours: When did you become attracted to the horror genre?

Mark Steensland: I was really young. I remember being probably four years old and my older brother (who was eleven) was into monster movies. He had the old Aurora monster models in our bedroom and they had glow-in-the-dark pieces and I had to have them covered up at night so I could sleep. My brother and I shared bunk beds. He had the top bunk and I had the bottom bunk. And he had a giant poster of Bela Lugosi as Dracula at the head of his bed. And one night I went to bed and fell asleep and the poster came off the wall and slid down so that it was at the head of my bed. And I woke up because of the sound and when I turned around, here was Dracula reaching out for me. I screamed bloody murder, I can tell you. So I think that all had its influence on me. And I used to watch monster movies on TV and when I started getting into filmmaking, it just so happened that I gravitated towards horror more than anything else.

Fatally Yours: How did you get your start in filmmaking?

Mark Steensland: I can remember reading about John Carpenter’s Halloween in Fangoria magazine. And then going to see it at the movie theater. And when I came back home, I was so inspired because I knew that he had made it with a very limited budget and a very limited crew and so on. So I got out the old family movie camera – a Super 8 cartridge camera – and I made a film with my friends called Darkness is Always Black. And I basically wrote it while we were filming and I edited it in camera. So when I sent the film to the lab and it came back, it was ready to watch. It’s pretty bad, as it should be. But it really gave me a sense of what it would take to make a movie.

Fatally Yours: I still remember taking a horror film class from you that inspired me to write about horror movies and take them more seriously. Do you still teach?

Mark Steensland: Yes. It’s my secret day job. But it’s great because I have time to make my own films and I’m teaching what I’m doing.

Fatally Yours: Do you use your students in your films as part of either the cast or crew?

Mark Steensland: As a matter of fact, I do. Students have worked with me on several of the short films. And they really like it because it’s a big step up from what most of them are doing on their own. Frankly, I wish that I would have had a similar opportunity when I went to film school.

Fatally Yours: What are you working on next?

Mark Steensland: As I said earlier, we’re putting together a feature now. We’ve got a lot of other irons in the fire, as well, but the way things go, you just never know.

Fatally Yours: Mark, thanks so much for answering my questions. It is always a pleasure and I wish you all the best with your film career! 

Mark Steensland: Thanks!

Visit Mark Steensland’s Official Site!

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