Thursday, October 8, 2009

Interview with Indie Filmmaker Jeremy Sumrall

Last time we heard from Jeremy Sumrall, he was filming the phenomenal Sweatshop and terrorizing the set as the killer of the film, “The Beast”. This time around, Sumrall has stepped behind the camera and just finished production on Possum Walk, a film he both wrote and directed.

We got the chance to chat with Sumrall about his role in Sweatshop and his directorial debut with Possum Walk, as well as what he learned from his fellow “Texas Blood” filmmakers and his opinion on the current state of horror!

Fatally Yours: Jeremy, can you tell us about your upcoming film, Possum Walk?

Jeremy Sumrall: Possum Walk is the name of this small southern town where everyone knows everyone. In this town is a young virgin girl named “Faith Carpenter”, who’s grown up in this very narrow-minded, judgmental town. Her whole life she’s had fear, ignorance, and disdain crammed down her throat – all in the name of religion. However, her life is completely turned upside down when she learns she’s pregnant. She begins having nightmarish visions that she believes to be the work of a demonic entity, or perhaps even the baby itself. Her father – the local Baptist preacher – has a few demons of his own and tries to control her life with an iron grip. Meanwhile, there’s a sadistic serial killer running around town sexually abusing and murdering the young women of the town – but not necessarily in that order!

Fatally Yours: Sounds delightfully demented! Possum Walk is your first time directing. What inspired you to direct your own film? 

Jeremy Sumrall: Pure insanity, or maybe masochism! (laughs) But, seriously, I was on the set of Sweatshop one night, and Stacy Davidson (director) and I were talking about movies and what-not. He told me I should throw my hat into the ring and try to direct some time. His actual words were “If you can sit at a monitor, and yell ‘Action! … Cut!’, then you can be a director!” I sort of laughed it off at the time, but a few weeks later, I was on the set of Sway, and Josh Vargas (director) told me almost the exact same thing. Naturally, it’s not THAT easy!! But, I got to thinking about it, and I’ve always been a writer, so I thought I might give it a try. I’ve written probably a dozen screenplays in various stages of “un-finished-ness”, so I just needed a swift kick in the ass to actually get something worth putting to film.

Fatally Yours: Speaking of being a writer, you wrote the screenplay for Possum Walk. Where did the idea for the film come from? 

Jeremy Sumrall: I grew up in a town of less than 900 people. I mean, really, my graduating class had less than 50 people in it. So, having grown up in that type of environment, I learned pretty early on that everybody knew everybody, and that everybody knew everybody’s business. It was pretty difficult to walk down the street in my hometown without running into someone I knew. So, for anyone to have any sort of secret in a small town requires a fair amount of sneaking around and trickery. That sort of small town vibe of “no secrets” really laid the groundwork for the script.

Being that the town I’m from is a fairly religious town, I remember growing up having religion pummeled into my skull on a daily basis, and how judgmental everyone was while being able to hide behind the shield of religion. It pissed me off. It still does.

But, that was just the beginning of the story. A very young family member of mine had a pregnancy scare, and everyone around her started throwing around the two “A-words” – abortion and adoption – without really stopping to consider her feelings. So, that got me to thinking about small town life and how everyone knows what’s best for you, even if you don’t. So, from that, I thought of a religious girl who was a virgin who wound up pregnant, and what that might do to her and the town. From initial thought to a completed rough draft only took a week. Of course, subsequent rewrites took me a couple of months, though.

Fatally Yours: What is the cast of actors like in Possum Walk

Jeremy Sumrall: Two words: FUCKING AMAZING!! The first two people I went after were my good friend Victoria Lane, and local Texas hero Parrish Randall. I’ve known Victoria for nearly seven years, and I’ve watched her career from afar ever since we met (she lives in Los Angeles, and I live in Texas, naturally). She’s a very beautiful woman, and an amazing actress. She’s really studied the craft. She was the first person I ever showed the script to, and I was nervous as hell about doing so. I had never really shown anyone my work, let alone someone who does this sort of stuff for a living. Thankfully, she responded very well to the script, and was flattered I wrote the role of “Abigail” specifically with her in mind.

Parrish was a natural fit as Faith’s father “Brother William Carpenter”. He’s played a scumbag in so many movies now, people almost think he is that scumbaggy in real life, but the truth is he’s one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met. He has a genuine love and affection for the genre and for movies in general. And, I don’t think Parrish has really been given the opportunity to show a different side to his acting. He’s usually the villainous rapist, or escaped convict. He’s never really played a father. And, Brother William is by no means a saint – he does some downright despicable things in this movie – but he genuinely loves his daughter, no matter how misguided he may be. Parrish pulled this role off effortlessly, and I’m very fortunate to have worked with him.

For Faith, I knew I needed someone who could pull off being sweet and innocent, shy and demure, and possess a near angelic – almost cherubic – beauty about her, as well as pull off some very dark, dramatic moments. We probably searched longer trying to find Faith than any other character. Thankfully, during our Austin auditions, Robert Luke (my cinematographer) came across this young lady by the name of Maggie Conwell. I’ll admit that I was skeptical at first, because her headshot didn’t look like “Faith” to me. But, Robert pushed me hard and told me to look at her audition footage. Within five seconds, I knew she was Faith! It’s ridiculous how good she is! There were moments on set where I’d be watching Maggie on a monitor and forget to call “Cut” because I was too emotionally wrapped up in the scene, because she’s that damn good! Robert and I actually had a conversation one night about one particularly emotional scene between Maggie and Parrish, and how it was almost like we were eavesdropping on a family argument, and afterwards, we both felt like we needed a few moments to collect ourselves.

Faith’s love interest is this guy by the name of Joe Don, and I kinda consider him the “James Dean” of the movie. He’s the new guy in town, he’s rough around the edges, but he has a good heart. Joe Don is played by Tyler Tackett, who has amazing acting chops.  The guy is less than 20 years old, but I swear he’s an old soul. We click on a lot of levels, so I don’t actually think of him being such a young guy. He’s younger than my niece, but he comes across much more mature. His portrayal of Joe Don is pretty critical to the movie’s success. There are some scenes between Joe Don and Brother William that are just insane. Tyler has big things ahead for him. Huge.

The rest of my cast is phenomenal as well. There’s Gracie – played by Keli Wolfe – who is the local outcast; a sort of gothy-punker chick, but not the “real” kind. We’ve sorta dubbed Gracie the “Wal-mart Goth” – the kinda chick who dresses outlandish just to stick out and draw attention to herself, but, naturally, she’s quite shy when the doors are closed. There’s Lizz – played by Jessica Jecker, who, as a first time actor, really blew us all away! – who is the quiet counterpart to Gracie. Lizz is also Gracie’s secret girlfriend. These two characters are really conflicted between the love they have for one another, and the judgment they would face if they were to come out publicly. Jessica and Keli really played amazingly off of one another. You really get the sense that these two girls have a beautiful love. It’s not exploitative. Then there’s Mark and Stephanie – played by Chris Warren (director of IMAGO) and Danielle Jones (who is also in Sweatshop).  They’re like the football player/cheerleader couple that everyone knows that dated all throughout high school, and they’re gonna wind up married with nine kids. Their scenes together are just phenomenal. This core group of characters really feels like they’ve been friends since they were kindergartners.

The other actors are amazing, too. Sheriff Wilcox – played by Tim Taylor – is just a hilarious character. He’s the local bumbling cop whose most exciting day probably consists of a farmer’s chickens getting loose. So, naturally, when a serial killer starts bumping off the locals, he sees it as his chance to shine! Dr. Thompson – played by Andrew Sensenig – is the nurturing physician who sees to Faith like her father can’t. He takes care of her when she begins having her “spells” – moments when she has her nightmarish visions or when she passes out. And then there’s Wynona and Cassie – two sisters who have some of the funniest bits of the movie, without ever being on screen at the same time! Wynona is played by Kristen Hall (who can be seen in our teaser trailer), and Cassie is played by Jennifer Peebles. These two have amazing comedic timing, and they certainly kept all of us behind the scenes in stitches! And, I can’t forget about Cassie’s new husband, Jake – played by executive producer Burton Bailey. I swear we literally have tons of footage of the “white trash newlyweds” because they just kept bouncing stuff off one another, and we just had to see where they were going! Their dialogue was usually all of two lines on a page, but they’d riff for several minutes at a time. Sometimes it was too difficult to call “Cut’, so I’d just hide from the camera and crack up laughing!

Fatally Yours: Since this was your first time writing and directing your own film, can you tell us about the filmmaking experience and any obstacles/triumphs you and the production experienced? 

Jeremy Sumrall: Believe me, there’s a lot! First of all, just making a movie is a feat in and of itself. It’s an everyday battle to make things happen. Even though we were only shooting on weekends, due to our day jobs, we were still talking to one another almost every day, making sure locations were secure for the following weekend’s shoot, organizing props, building sets, etc. The list is a mile long. A lot of people think movie making is this glamorous thing, and it’s nothing but fun, but the truth is much, much darker. Yes, at the end of the day, we are playing “pretend”, but there’s a lot of hard work and money being put into this thing. I couldn’t do it alone, that’s for sure. So, I just want to make sure everyone understands that it took a collective effort on everyone’s parts – from executive producer, down to production assistant – to pull this movie out of our asses. I have to give recognition to my wonderful production team, rounded out by producers Brandy Eastman and Matthew Ash, who really kept the wheels turning when I felt like I was going to crack. Matthew also really stepped up on the special effects side of things when our primary artist Kristi Boul had to miss several shoots. Kristi and Matthew really pulled off some amazing effects together, though!

That being said, there are a couple of incidents that stick out in my mind as being particular obstacles to overcome. The first one that pops into my mind is the weekend we had to shoot the wedding and church sequences. We needed about 40 or 50 extras to portray church-goers, and we had people travelling from several hours away to be a part of our film. My assistant director was going to be tied up for most of the day, so we had to work with a man down. All of this insanity was spinning all around us, and the day before we were scheduled to shoot at the church we had secured, we get a phone call.  “The septic pipes burst, and sprayed the interior of the church.” We went into overdrive!! Thankfully, Parrish knows damn near everyone in Groesbeck, so he made some calls, and by the end of the day, we had a secured location. I got on the phone to everyone I had invited, gave them the updated directions, sent out emails to those I couldn’t call, etc.  And then, the next morning, just before extras began to arrive, we realized that the church we were telling people to go to was NOT the correct one! So, we had to call everyone back up and correct the directions, etc. By the end of the day, though, we had amazing footage, and we had pulled off one of the coolest scenes of the movie.

Fatally Yours: What makes Possum Walk special and stand out from other horror films?

Jeremy Sumrall: First off, this isn’t a typical backwoods-redneck-inbred-hillbilly-cannibal film. And, I didn’t go with the typical slasher formula and send a bunch of stereotypical teenagers off into the woods, into an area they’re woefully ignorant about, and then drop a supernatural killer into their midst. There’s also not a killer who was wronged years ago and is back for revenge. Possum Walk is very much about a group of kids who’ve grown up their entire lives together, and their struggles to deal with staying in their hometown, despite the desire to leave. So, the relationships in this movie are much stronger than in a lot of horror movies. However, Possum Walk does have some of the trappings of other genres within horror, just because I’m heavily influenced by slashers and occult movies, but it’s really a very dark, dramatic movie with horrific things going on around it, with a little bit of humor to spice things up. Yes, there’s tons of sex and violence, because I enjoy those things in my horror movies, but there’s a very human element as well. The relationship between Faith and Brother William is a very tenuous one, and it’s really the thing that holds the movie together. We could easily remove all of the horror elements and still have a very compelling, dark, dramatic movie.

Fatally Yours: After Possum Walk, do you think you’ll direct again? 

Jeremy Sumrall: Absolutely!  I’m actually working on a couple of different scripts at the moment. First up, there’s ISO (pronounced “Eye-Sew”) which is very different from Possum Walk. It’s a very claustrophobic, twisted tale, about a young woman who is being tormented by something outside of her apartment. She hasn’t set foot outside of her apartment in years, but there’s a presence threatening to come in and destroy her if she doesn’t now. It’s my take on Hitchcock-meets-Clive Barker. We’re hoping to begin filming on that one in mid-late Spring 2010. It’s a very small cast of characters, with minimal locations.

Beyond that, I’m working on a very over-the-top script called Mouthful of Dirt, which is a Mad Max-meets-Evil Dead 2-meets-Kill-Bill story. It’s stylistically very different from either ISO or Possum Walk. It’s a bizarre tale about a guy called “Dirt”, who is searching for the man who slaughtered his family. It’s sort of a post-apocalyptic Robin Hood. It’s very in-your-face, sarcastic, and – shall we say – gooey! Lots of explosions and decapitations and little kids being killed. Very anti-PC. Very wrong on many levels. Plus, it features a bisexual vampire stripper nun with a wicked gun collection, a schizophrenic porn star who talks to her boobs, and a gay-guy-who’s-not-really-gay soap opera star who wants to be a heavy metal singer!

Fatally Yours: Wow! Those sound like projects to look forward to! As you mentioned earlier, your first experience with an indie production was Stacy Davidson’s Sweatshop, where you played the killer named “The Beast”. What knowledge did you gain from that experience that helped you on the set of Possum Walk

Jeremy Sumrall: Patience, patience, patience! I think first and foremost, I learned that no matter how “in control” you are as director, you’re never fully “in control”. Sometimes, you just have to let things happen as they’re going to happen. No matter how much planning you do, sometimes you’re just going to have to find a solution by pulling it out of your ass. A lot of things go awry on movie sets. That’s just the nature of the business. And you do what you can to keep your cool, even if you lose it sometimes. Stress gets to everyone from top to bottom. The important thing you have to remember is that you’re all in it together, and you have to try and not take things personally. People are going to yell. People are going to argue. And you just have to swallow it, and deal with it as a professional as much as possible. At the end of the day, you’re making a fucking movie! How cool is that?!?!

Fatally Yours: I just saw Sweatshop, and I was just blown away by your intimidating performance! Yet, you also gave the character emotion through body language since the audience never sees his face. Since this performance was so successful, do you have any plans to continue acting? Or reprise your role as “The Beast”?

Jeremy Sumrall: First off, THANK YOU!! It means a lot to me that my role was appreciated! “The Beast” was a lot of fun to play! I grew up on slasher films, and Jason Voorhees is my favorite of the lot, so being offered the chance to play this faceless, utterly brutal killer was a dream come true. I actually had the chance to sit and briefly talk with Derek Mears at a con a while back, and he and I bonded over playing killers in a slasher flick. That was a surreal moment! I’m grateful to Stacy Davidson and Ted Geoghegan for giving me the opportunity.  I tried my best to be as menacing as possible with my movements and really give “The Beast” a nasty temper. There were moments on set where I would start growling at the other cast members just to try and get them to jump. It usually worked!

After Sweatshop wrapped, I did get the chance to appear in a couple of cameo roles in Sway and [Mel House’s] Walking Distance, but I don’t really see myself doing a ton of acting in the future. I’ve always enjoyed the behind the scenes action more than anything. I’ve been a writer since I was very, very young, so my first love is the writing, the creating. I’m probably happiest when I first come up with a new movie idea. Of course, that’s not to say that I wouldn’t act again, given the right role.  I just don’t see myself actively pursuing that in the near future.

That being said, I’d love the chance to don “The Beast’s” sweaty-ass-stinky coveralls again!! And, as I understand it, screeners are being sent out as we speak to potential distributors, so maybe I’ll get the chance sooner rather than later if Sweatshop winds up being as successful as we all hope it to be! I also have my own ideas for a script for a Sweatshop 2 if it ever comes to fruition. We’ll just have to see if the powers-that-be would allow me to take a crack at it!!

Fatally Yours: It seems like Texas is a hotbed of talent these days – from yourself to Mel House to Stacy Davidson to Parrish Randall to Josh Vargas and so on – it must be really great to have such a wonderful support system when making indie films! Did you get any pointers from any of these guys while making Possum Walk?

Jeremy Sumrall: Yeah, I’ve learned that filmmaking sort of makes you part of this twisted, inbred, mutant family. Once you’re in, you’re in for life, ya know? Meeting all of these guys at conventions, like the guys you mentioned, as well as Wayne Slaten (director of Backroad), Abel Berry (director of Spoils and Kodie), and Marcus Koch (director of 100 Tears), I really feel like I “belong” for the first time in a very long time. We’re this geeky bunch of film nerds who genuinely love the medium and cackle like banshees when the red stuff starts to flow!

When it comes to Possum Walk, though, in the beginning I always just kind of blindly assumed that we’d make it with no budget whatsoever, with whatever props I could wrangle myself, with a few of our mutual friends to act in it. As time went on, however, I realized I had a pretty unique script that could turn into a very amazing movie given the proper treatment. So, I started to look at this as a movie that could really stand out, and sort of separate us from the pack. Maybe it was my ego talking, but I really wanted to sort of stay outside of my “comfort zone” with this movie. I could have easily cast every actor from Sweatshop, or Walking Distance, or Sway, etc. I really did my best to sort of do this on my own, and I think it’s paid off. Yes, there’s a familiar face or two in Possum Walk that you’ve seen in Mel’s or Stacy’s movies, but there’s a number of people that none of us had ever worked with, let alone met before.

That’s not to say that I didn’t receive a great deal of help and support from those guys.  Anytime I was feeling a bit uneasy about a scene, or worried about an actor, a location, etc., I just texted Mel or Stacy or Parrish and asked for their advice. And, thankfully, because Marcus was in town working on IMAGO, he was able to help out with a few effects ideas. Being an inexperienced director, you have to surround yourself with people you trust, and they’ve all been down these roads before, so having their ear to chew on really made things go a lot smoother than if I had done things completely on my own.

The best advice I got was from Vargas, though: “Just bend over, grab your ankles, take a deep breath, and don’t tense up. It’ll be over soon!” (laughs) Sorry, Josh! Had to bust your balls a little! Vargas is kind of our whipping boy down here!!

Fatally Yours: Indie horror seems the only “true horror” left within the genre and where fans can find the thrills and chills they crave as opposed to the mediocre or downright horrible studio horror being pumped out by studios. What do you think of this and the overall current state of horror?

Jeremy Sumrall: Honestly, a lot of people gripe about the studio system – and I’m including myself here – but the truth of the matter is that no matter how much bitching and complaining and grousing we all do, they’re just not going to listen. If you don’t go see their big studio horror flick, nine other kids will go in your place. It’s capitalism at its finest.

I’ll probably catch a lot of flack for this, but fuck it. “Indie” does NOT equal “good”, much like “studio” does NOT equal “shitty”. There’s just as many shitty indie flicks as there are shitty studio flicks. And I’ve seen my fair share of shitty indie movies. It just seems like the studio pictures are shittier because we’re pummeled with their presence 24-7. My advice to any real horror fan is to go see the good ones – or buy the good ones, whatever. If you enjoyed it, tell a friend. If they enjoyed it, have them pass the word along to someone else. If they didn’t enjoy it, it doesn’t make them a shitty person; I promise you that.

If you see a terrible movie, don’t watch it again. Bitching about it on the internet doesn’t make it a true statement. I do my best to keep my opinions to myself unless asked directly, because honestly, who gives a rat’s ass what anyone else thinks? Just because Joe Schmoe told me that Rob Zombie’s Halloween was a shitty flick doesn’t make it a shitty flick. I’d rather watch it and form an opinion myself. And speaking of that, I actually enjoyed RZ’s Halloween! I haven’t watched the sequel, though. Oh, and Zombie Strippers was a steaming hunk of monkey shit. That was a shitty indie flick.  But, that’s my humble opinion. It just happens to be the correct one!  (laughs)

But seriously, if anyone is pissed off at the state of horror these days, they should fucking do something about it! Go write a script that blows everyone away, go raise the money to fund it, buy or rent a camera or hire a DP, and direct the fucking thing! I did!

Fatally Yours: Haha! I actually LIKED Zombie Strippers and thought it was a riot! So that totally proves your point about everyone’s opinion being different! Anywho, when can we expect to see a completed Possum Walk?

Jeremy Sumrall: Robert [Luke] is editing it as we speak, and I imagine I’ll be seeing a very rough cut in a couple of weeks. After that, we’ll go over it piece by piece by piece and flesh out another edit, and then we’ll do pickups, and whatnot. Hopefully we’ll have our composer soon, and if that all pans out, that should be a hoot and a half. So, I’d say our finished product should be ready sometime early next year. I’m not sure what we’ll do yet about a premiere screening, but as soon as we know, we’ll make the proper announcements.

Fatally Yours: Do you have any plans for distributions, festivals, a DVD release, etc.?

Jeremy Sumrall: We’re eyeing a couple of festivals for next year, but beyond that, it’s really sort of up in the air. I’d prefer to do this movie right and release it through a distributor rather than releasing it ourselves, but we’ll do what we have to do.

I will say that our intention is to have a presence at a number of higher profile horror conventions next year, including Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas in May. I’ve been to every TFW since the beginning, and it just gets bigger and better every single year.  Loyd [Cryer - founder of the festival] and his crew really know how to treat the indie filmmakers and make no distinction between the “little guys” and the “bigger names”. Every year he has a “Texas Frightmaker” panel and allows us Texas filmmakers to show off what we’ve been working on. We showed the first Possum Walk teaser trailer during that panel this past year, and the response was overwhelmingly positive, so I’m sure we’ll cram a bit of Possum Walk down everyone’s throats at next year’s TFW!

Fatally Yours: What’s next for you, Jeremy, and what else do you want to do in the future?

Jeremy Sumrall: Well, while working on Possum Walk, I’ve met some amazing people.  Recently, Keli Wolfe and I have formed a collective known as Sick Bastard Brainchild Entertainment.  This is sort of an offshoot of my own Bloodbrick Pictures and will be used to develop new scripts for us to either shoot ourselves, or shop around to other filmmakers.  The first project for Sick Bastard Brainchild Entertainment is ISO, which I discussed earlier.  We’ve also got several other projects in the works as well, including a story idea from Tyler Tackett.  I’ll be tackling that script after ISO and Mouthful of Dirt.

Bloodbrick Pictures is also looking to expand its scope, and we’re looking for other projects to throw our support behind.  I’ve actually been conversing with a filmmaker – whom I’ve dubbed “KILLian” –from the Boston area about producing a script she’s writing. It’s called Oak Grove, and it’s a dark psychological thriller, so it’s not strictly a horror movie per se. It’s about a grisly public murder that was caught on tape, which shocks a quiet suburb. The residents continue to be murdered in these horrific and brazen ways, and the lead detective has his work cut out for him. It’s pretty heavy stuff, really, and I can’t wait to see what KILLian comes up with!

Fatally Yours: Thanks so much for chatting, Jeremy! Can’t wait for Possum Walk!

Jeremy Sumrall: Thanks for having me again! And thanks for supporting good indie horror!!

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