by Jason Whyte
Cherry Valley at SxSW
THE PITCH: We have always been surrounded by ghost stories, they are designed to teach -- a fable as it were -- to mystify and to frighten. In Cherry Valley, stories at every house in this lost and lonely town has its own traumatic and unique tale – all stemming back to the town’s brutal massacre over 200 years ago. We investigate these claims and in the process give our own account of the strange phenomenon and stories behind Cherry Valley.
Is this your first film in SxSW? (Or the first film you have) Do you have any other festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favourite and least-favourite parts of the festival experience.
Well, this is a multi-faceted question! Quick response: Yes, yes (in terms of feature documentary) and yes. I’ve been to Cannes and Venice as part of an internship program at school. So I have festival experience, especially with the larger festivals that have film markets, which is always interesting to observe. I’ve also been to smaller festival in the states like The Hampton International Film Fest. So it’s great to get a taste of both ends of the spectrum. The larger festivals are fun because there is a lot of glamour and red carpets and wheeling and deal making going around. I liked Venice especially because people are more accessible. The smaller festivals are great because they are all about the films and the storytelling; you’re surrounded with people who love to celebrate the art of storytelling through film.
Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?
[I was] born in Allentown, Pennsylvania. My family was very supportive of my adventures into filmmaking. I don’t know if they quite understood, or even understand to this day, but there were, and continue to be behind me 100 percent. I first realized that I wanted to go into filmmaking when I was 12 and in a theatre watching “Jurassic Park” – I know, not some great achievement in cinema, but there it is. It was here when I consciously realized that I wanted to be a part of that process in building a world and telling a story that an audience could fall into and become emotionally attached to the characters and what was happening on this giant screen.
Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!
Well, first it was an archaeologist. I was a HUGE Indiana Jones fan. But when I turned 12 it was a filmmaker. I thought maybe television at first. When I was in high school I thought it would be easier to start in TV and transition in to film. But eventually decided on film school which lead me to where I am today.
While you were making the movie, were you thinking about the future release of the film, be it film festivals, paying customers, critical response, and so forth?
(Laughing) No, when shooting the doc I had no illusions of grandeur such as those! This started as class assignment for New York University. It was to be a short 10 minute doc for the class. So my primary though, outside of making a good film, was to get a grade. From there things kinds of happened precipitously when Rich Guay and Candace TenBrink came on board and we turned the film into a feature.
How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.
As I said above, this was a class assignment. The class was Sight and Sound Video, and I was in my sophomore year at NYU. A good friend of mine, Jeremiah Newton, had told me in passing about his haunted house in this strange little town in upstate New York. And that had stuck in the back of my mind for some time. So when this assignment came up I put to and two together and though it would be good little doc on Jeremiah’s haunted house.
The doc was to be 10 minutes, period. We discovered once we got to the town that not only was Jeremiah’s house haunted and filled with stories, but virtually EVERY house in the town had some strange phenomenon and tales both horrible and intriguing. Once I had over 100 hours of interview, surveillance, and footage of our adventures in this town, it became somewhat difficult to prune that down to 10 minutes.
So a trailer was created and that was shown to Rich, who liked it and decided to help make it a feature. That where we got independent financing, with help from Candace, and we transitioned from a student film to an indie film.
And of course the film was made in the editing room… many months of editing and fine tuning. And that’s where we are today. A final cut ready to be seen.
What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production?
While shooting, we were both keeping up with all of the stories. We would get to one interview and they would recommend us to five other people, and so on. So we constantly had to be re-evaluating everything from tape stock to the direction of the film. As well, just staying alive. Looking back on it we did some pretty stupid stuff; hiking up in the middle of the woods at night, not telling anyone, having no cell service, where people and animals were reportedly killed or mutilated, going into houses that have since collapsed and were on the verge of collapsing…stuff like that.
Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.
I wouldn’t say we had cinematographers. We had camera people, namely ourselves. At one time we had 4-8 cameras running either at a location or in the car; very guerrilla-style filmmaking here. The digital video format really made things a lot easier for us to do this. In terms of look I put a lot of thought into how I wanted to portray the stories. One way would have been to do re-enactments, but we all thought that would be lame. So I decided on a form of animation, using charcoal drawings and “Adobe After Effects” to animate them in 3-D space. This look, juxtaposed with our footage and the interviews give three very different feels for three very different elements to the film.
Talk a bit about the festival experiences, if any, that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?
Nothing at festivals yet. In test screenings we did get some feedback that I always found interesting. While watching the film certain people would see different things. They would swear they saw something move, or a flicker of something, or a shadow or a figure. They would yell out what they saw at points, and the person next to them would see nothing and be just as adamant about it. One girl in particular came up to me at the end of the film and said it was good but thought it should be scarier. Then two days later I get a frantic call from her that she just had a nightmare about the film and was really freaked out. Therefore, the film is working on a subconscious level with some people and I get a lot of satisfaction out of that.
Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?
Alfred Hitchcock is my greatest influence. His subjective and precise direction of the camera, blocking, sets, costumes and the way he directs actors is amazing. Perhaps he is always working in the background of my mind, which is why a lot of the subject matter I choose tends to be somewhat dark.
How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself directing larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?
I would like to continue directing, writing, producing, or editing – or a combination of all of those, in the feature narrative and documentary genres. It seems to me that the studio and independent worlds are merging together, so that working in any one may be a moot point in the years to come. We see the studios seeking their financing through independent means and partaking in co-productions. We see indie-filmmakers and mini studios upping the budgets to their pictures and attaining higher production values, like a studio. Both are implementing similar tactics of new-media for distribution and advertising.
If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?
It would have to be something creative; something in the arts, or something where I could create things either physically or visually.
Please tell me some filmmakers or actors that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.
Clint Eastwood. To me, Mr. Eastwood is the most precise, articulate storyteller/filmmaker alive within the studio system. I would love to shadow him on a production and see how he works on set.
Do you think that you have “made it” in this profession yet? If you don’t believe so, what do you think would happen for that moment to occur?
Made it? You know, I don’t really know what that means. To me it sounds complacent. And the moment I become complacent, or satisfied as a director, storyteller or artist is the moment I stop pushing myself; the moment I stop being good at what I’m doing.
You have been given the go-ahead to make your next movie, but you must include one piece of product placement. Luckily, you get to choose said product placement. What would you choose?
This question is loaded with a ton of variables. Do I have a choice on the film or is this a film that was given to me? And how cleverly can the product be “placed?”
How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?
I think it can be very important and simulteanously not important at all. There always seems to be a large discrepancy with how films are received critically and how they do at the box office. Critics have agendas, be them political, social and so forth; they are looking at the artistic and storytelling merit to the film. The box office is really only focused on the entertainment. Let’s face it, this is the entertainment industry. However, I would try to balance both. I want to make pictures that people not only want to see, but also have some deeper value.
If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose and why?
The Grand Theatre Lumière at the Cannes Film Festival. That would be pretty sweet! It’s an awesome theatre with a HUGE screen and great sound. Having a 20 minute standing ovation at the end would be pretty cool too.
Do you have an opinion on the issue of “A Film by (Insert Director Here)” ? Is this something you use? Many people collaborate to make a film yet simultaneously, the director is the final word on the production.
I have not used that particular credit – though I don’t think I would have enough leverage as a beginning filmmaker to get said credit. And does the director have the final word in a production? I think that really only applies to those few top directors in Hollywood. There are many factors and variables that would sway, push, prod, and wheedle a director away from his from his original idea. Some may call this collaboration, or compromise, and that’s to be expected. I think the premise that a director has the final say is a little idealistic. The reality is that there are many factors that limit the freedom of a director, speaking from a creative standpoint.
What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local twenty-screen megaplex?
I can always reel them in with that whole scare factor. People just love to be scared, that’s why horror movies are always very popular and a bankable film for studios.
No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?
Just do it! I know that sounds really tacky and cliché but go out and make the picture. You will learn so much in that process. And really try to make something, something complex with multiple characters or locations. Challenge yourself. The technology is such that virtually anyone can get a digital camera, a few lights and a microphone and shoot their story and edit it on their personal computer. Aim for the highest production values and that will teach you how to properly budget a film a schedule a film; you will learn the short cuts and the easiest system that works for you, and work with a lot of people so you can find your peers that you want to work with in the future. For being a young film student, Aurelio De Laurentiis once told me that by virtue of being young and a film student I can beat down doors and barge my way into situations once, and to take advantage of that.
And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?
Well this is a complex question. I usually break films into “Films” and “Movies”. So my favourite film, that being of a higher artistic and creative and storytelling quality, would be Rear Window. This is quintessential Hitchcock. Simple story, complex characters, great performances, wonderful camera work, and the idea of flipping the voyeur element and placing it on the audience is wonderfully terrifying in those final moments of the film.
Favourite movie would probably be The Shawshank Redemption. Now an argument could be made that this should be in the film category. But I just love this move. It’s one of those movies that if I see on television I can watch it to the end.
“Cherry Valley” will be screening at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival. For more information on the film and for showtimes at SxSW, point your browser HERE. And check out BSide.com for even more info!
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2121
originally posted: 02/28/07 17:26:39
last updated: 03/07/07 08:59:48