For a while, Jack Perez was mostly known for directing the rather infamous „Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus“, but since his movie „Some Guy who kills People“ is playing festivals worldwide, things have changed. The subtle slasher comedy did not only convince John Landis to function as executive producer, it also keeps winning audiences and critics alike. Just recently Perez entered the „ABCs of Death“ contest with his short film „T is for Tantrum“, hoping to become a part of the upcoming horror anthology alongside 25 other prestigious genre directors. Being the second collaboration with writer Ryan Levin, „Tantrum“ immediately found its audience and over night became one of the most voted for films of the competition. With us Perez talked about his directorial approach, working with child actors, humor in horror, tight budgets and what he shares with David Cronenberg.
screen/read: By the time we’re speking you’ve entered second place in the „ABCs of Death“ competition and you did so pretty much immediately. What do you think about that, how do you explain this reaction so soon?
Jack Perez: I know it sounds so clichéd but I didn’t expect it at all. It’s funny because I didn’t really know about the contest until Ryan [Levin] brought it up and was very enthusiastic about participating in this. I really hadn’t made a short film since I was a student. As far as the response goes, well, I don’t understand why certain things become popular and why certain things don’t, because god knows there’s tons of good work out there that isn’t recognized. So I was completely delighted when I saw the numbers shooting up and I’m just happy people are watching the film.
screen/read: And obviously enjoy it. There are many favorable comments on the discussion board and of course you’ve gotten praise by John Landis and Barry Bostwick whom you have been working with before.
Jack Perez: Yes, I thought that was very generous of both of them to say such nice things. So yeah, it’s flattering.
screen/read: Now you already said it’s been quite some time since you’ve made a short and as far as I can see the majority of people participating in this contest are pretty much just starting out in the business or have only made short films so far, while in your case it’s the other way round by returning to the format after many years of working on features and tv productions.
Jack Perez: Yeah, it’s interesting. Actually I feel strange competing with so many first-time filmmakers. Also because I haven’t tackled the format in a long time. On the other hand, when I teach film to students, which I do at the Art Academy in San Francisco when I’m not making my own movies, I’m guiding them constantly through the short film process. So for a moment I was a little daunted and wondering whether I could still do this. But as it turned out, it was exactly like doing a feature and I approached it the same way. I approached it as a mini-movie with an extremely short schedule. The process by which you go ahead and make a movie whether it’s three minutes or three hours is essentially the same. You’re still working with actors, you’re still designing your visuals, you’re storyboarding, you’re shotlisting and just in general you’re thoughtfully creating this piece of work. What I was concerned with when I was making it was whether or not it was going to fit into those four-minute parameters. I was worried I was going to go long, but fortunately it fit. And I really enjoyed it, also because it meant working with Ryan again. We had such a successful collaboration on „Some Guy who kills People“ which I felt was one of the most successful collaborations in my entire career. And so I was eager, and I guess so was he, to kind of jump back in and just do another piece while the film is playing festivals. It didn’t really matter what it was. It was just the opportunity to work together again.
screen/read: It’s pretty easy to see that both films have been done by the same people. It almost feels as if the short was a part of the feauture as it looks similar, the tone is very similar, the style is recognizable. Which is quite fascinating.
Jack Perez: That’s interesting you recognize that. I know there’s a particular way I like to photograph my movies, in terms of the lenses that I choose and the compositions and the kind of lighting. But it all depends on the material. In other words, with „Some Guy“ and „T is for Tantrum“, the written material, Ryan’s scripts, inspire the shooting style. Which is something that I think is sort of developed naturally over time. Recently I was watching some of David Cronenberg’s last movies and I was thinking about how his particular style has developed over the years. I think there is a certain simplicity or purity to how he approaches the visual breakdown of his movies now. It’s just very boiled down or distilled in terms of the camera just being in the right place for the right moments with the right lense. Maybe that’s a factor of age because I think all of us early on, when we start out making films, try to make our films more stylized and replicate things we’ve seen in other movies to show and prove to oneself and the world that you can do that. So there’s a lot of flash in younger people’s movies, mine included. But as I’ve gotten older, I feel that my own particular approach is more distilled or precise. I don’t know quite how to put it. But again, it’s the written material that inspires the shots. It’s just less interesting for me to design a movie visually when the written material is not something I relate to personally and so I think my lesser films are those that were done either for a paycheck or for the simple pleasure of working. But with Ryan it’s just that we connect, our sensibilities are very similar. And so it’s sort of the perfect combination of elements. His words inspire exactly the kind of images that I want to create and so I think that’s why there’s a consistency between those two films. We’re simply on the same wavelength.
screen/read: It’s obvious that the two of you click and there will probably be more collaborations in the future.
Jack Perez: I hope so, I really do. We were talking about that.
screen/read: Now while „ABCs of Death“ is originally a horror movie contest, your short is not really a straight forward horror film but more of a black comedy. Do you feel connected to this type of genre, is that something you always felt like wanting to do?
Jack Perez: Yeah, I am a huge horror movie and monster movie fan, whether it’s 30’s Universal horror movies or the Hammer films or whatever it is. I did a terrible „Omen“-rip-off several years ago, called „666: The Child“ but I don’t really count that as a proper genre work. Other than that I haven’t really done anything horror myself. What I loved about Ryan’s writing was that there was this very specific black comedy aspect to his work. There are certainly strong comic lines in his writing but apart from that there is always a believability of character. These people always felt real to me, like real people. The comedy is on top of that and the horror is again on top of that. And that’s what I think makes his approach to the genre so interesting or appealing to me. That it’s based in character. And I think that’s really where all good direction comes from. You’re directing from a point of character. You’re trying to find out what is really going on in this scene, what are these people thinking, what are they feeling, what is the mood of the scene? And if the characters are real then the situations become real and it becomes very easy to visualize what this world is like. You don’t have that very often nowadays. In a way its more indicative of the middle 70’s and the films that I grew up watching and that inspired me to become a filmmaker. Particularly thrillers like „All the President’s Men“ or „The Parallax View“ or the original „Taking of Pelham 1-2-3“ or „The French Connection“ where you got real characters and real believable drama. And all the thrills on top of that. I think that’s what’s absent in so many genre movies today. It’s just that you don’t have people that you really care about. And in a way I think that’s essential for thrills to be thrilling. I think people forget that the degree to which you are scared is relative to how much you invest in the people in the movie.
screen/read: A remarkable thing about this only four-minute short is that it delivers characters who seem to have an existing background story that you want to know more about. Especially the father is someone that has the potential for further insight into what is going on with him. Same is true for the Sheriff in „Some Guy“.
Jack Perez: I agree. Of course that’s partly due to the actors that we had. Barry Bostwick’s portrayal of the Sheriff in „Some Guy“, even though he’s not the main character, is so full and rich that you can totally see this guy existing beyond the confines of this one particular drama, that he must go on to other cases somehow, that his life must continue. It would be great to find a way to continue that character in some other form whether it’s a tv show or another movie or something. He could be sort of an Agatha-Christie-type character, a Hercule Poirot kind of guy who strangely manoeuvers through various cases. And with the father in „Tantrum“ it’s been all up to Paul F. Tompkins. He’s someone I wanted to work with for a long time, and for a moment it looked like he was going to be in „Some Guy“ but then his schedule wouldn’t allow it. Probably my biggest concern about doing the short was not necessarily that I wouldn’t be able to cram the story into four minutes but I was afraid that the characters would be two-dimensional, that there really wouldn’t be enough time for you to believe that these are real people. And Paul’s take on the character of the father really helped. His performance was fairly understated and I supported that. If a character is supposed to be an asshole or whatever the stereotype is and you have the actor overstating one particular kind of personality, then it just becomes cartoonish. And while the violence I think can be cartoonish, and I prefer it to be a little on the funny side, the character stuff can’t be. Because then it just becomes dumb. So what helps in the short form is to not try to hit the nail too hard on the head.
screen/read: It’s one of the few shorts in this competition that keeps getting richer on repeated viewing because you can approach it from various angles. It works as a comedy, as a gory sketch to some extent, but it also works as a very condensed family character study, because you can see there’s something wrong with this constellation of people and one might guess what their development might be like in the future. So there’s a variety of persectives to deal with. Was that something you were aware of from the beginning?
Jack Perez: No. Actually it was there in the story, but if you’re looking at three or four pages of script, you don’t know how much is there. So just as in the case of „Some Guy“ I decided to approach it like a drama, to photograph it straight. I think that was a way of making it believable for me. Obviously there are certain stylizations in terms of how the lighting and the colors are designed, and some of the angles are a little more broke and gothic. But in general, when the characters are talking to each other, when they’re sitting down for dinner, I would just shoot it like a normal drama. And for me that was a way of making it at least bigger in my mind. But then again, even in four pages, Ryan’s sense of humor and that combination of a real situation, real characters with a sort of fucked up gory component and dark comedy was all still there. I think our sense of humor is definitely the same. Ryan has much more of a passionate interest in serial killers and slasher cinema. And for me I feel like that stuff is almost in support of what he does with his characters and dramatic situations. I think it’s just a rare combination. I didn’t know if anybody was going to like „Some Guy“ let alone „Tantrum“ because I thought the sensibility, the sense of humor was so specific. I didn’t know who would think it was funny, I didn’t know if people would laugh, I didn’t know if people would think it wasn’t gory enough. I mean, some people like their genre in a certain way, they like their horror movies straight, without any comedy, or if it does have comedy they want it to be of a particular kind. I was just happy to do something that spoke to me and I guess that’s true for everyone who does movies.
screen/read: Now apart from the father there’s the little boy’s character who is actually the protagonist. For a director it’s always a risk to work with children because you never know how believable they will be. Fortunately you’ve been quite lucky. What was working with the young actor like?
Jack Perez: Well, it was not the first time I’ve worked with children but that was another concern, because when Ryan wrote the script and said there’s a six-year-old kid, I was like, „Oh no.“ You know, the old saying of children and animals is what makes movies ten times harder is true. When you work with children, a lot of them are not well-trained, they don’t have a lot of experience, the way they act is very indicating and broad. And I can’t stand that because to me that kills the believability. But funny enough, the last child we’ve worked with, if not as young, was Ariel Gade in „Some Guy“. She was the exception as far as child actors go in a sense that she was such a mature person and a thoughtful actress. So when we found her I figured we got really lucky. And when Ryan wrote „T is for Tantrum“ I thought there’s no way we’ll be lucky again. But Griffin, who plays the boy, had a real quality to him. I don’t know if kids are different these days, but he had a maturity too, he was very relaxed and very confident and patient. And those are rare qualities in a little kid. So I just basically directed him like I would direct any actor. I think I was a little more sensitive to his age and perhaps I used direction that was more simplified than I ordinarily would do. But in general it was very easy working with him because we had to shoot the thing really fast and I thought his sort of take on how he decided to play certain things was right on. I guess what I related to was the panic that comes, specifically when he pulls his tooth out. It’s almost like Jeff Goldblum in „The Fly“, pieces are falling off of you, so it’s like, look, I’m dying here! As for me, I was a nervous kid and I had a fairly strict father. Those elements that Ryan wrote in the script were easily identifiable for me. So I wanted the kid to be sort of a mess and frightened and nervous and neurotic. And Griffin was able to do all that very simply with his eyes and I would just push him a little bit into one direction or another when I felt that we needed more of this or that. So I got lucky twice with child actors.
screen/read: How long did you work on the short including shooting and post-production?
Jack Perez: We shot it in a weekend, just a couple of weeks ago, and we cut it in a weekend. So actually it was just four days altogether which is obviously extremely short. But I’m sure it’s probably comparable to what most people have been doing for this contest. It’s amazing how many are entering this and how many are out there shooting movies.
screen/read: It’s interesting in general how the popularity of the short format is increasing due to all the new ways of distribution via mobile devices and the web of course. Compared to only a few years ago there are more short films around today than ever before while the format had been completely dead for years.
Jack Perez: You’re right, it was dead. But I think that streaming video and youtube and vimeo etc. are designed for the short film format. And people are accustomed to it being a reasonable amount of time to watch something.
screen/read: And then there’s the webseries as a whole new format becoming more and more popular. Is that something you would like to explore in the future as well?
Jack Perez: Oh yeah. I think it’s hard enough to get any movie made, any kind of story made, and so I would certainly never limit myself to any kind of platform. Webseries is very appealing to me. I look at it the way television was in the early fifties, when it was a new form that had yet to be fully explored. It’s still a novum, and if Ryan and I could find a way to get that going, that would be great because I think there would be way more freedom and we could probably continue with the kind of tone of comedy and horror that we’ve been doing with these last two projects. I think that would be a good home for work like that. And now that the broadcast quality, the streaming quality is so high, there’s no reason not to.
screen/read: I could easily imagine the two of you working with that format but as usual, the question is, where do you get the funding from?
Jack Perez: Yeah, I was going to ask you that [laughs]. Basically, that’s the question that looms, where’s the money? I’ve seen too many people put their dreams on hold because they’re waiting for all the money that’s going to make it happen. And I’ve done it myself. So today I would rather do smaller low budget work that I know is our own and can be done than wait around forever for financing. Because it does take a long, long time and it can be very soul-crushing waiting for money. So in a way it’s better to design stuff you know you can do for a couple of bucks yourself. I mean it’s always nice to pursue money, but it’s a gamble and I was never patient enough.
screen/read: There was quite some discussion on the boards of „Tantrum“ regarding the ridiculously small amount of $4000 that you gathered up by means of a crowdfunding campaign. And judging from the comments there, people obviously have no idea why you need money to make a short film look and sound the way yours does. So once and for all, let’s clarify all the confusion that seems to be there.
Jack Perez: Well, neither Ryan nor myself are Hollywood guys with money to burn. But for a certain technical quality there’s no way around spending some money. We didn’t pay ourselves, we didn’t pay the actors but what we paid for was the technology. Of course some could argue we might have shot this on a 5D or 7D, and I actually considered that, but we ended up shooting it on the RED. I wanted it to look and sound a certain way that required a lighting package and a gaffer with a grip truck and specific lenses and a sound mixer to record proper sound. And that all just cost money. There were certain art department things that had to be purchased to create the kid’s room and some minor props, like for the tooth fairy, even though it’s a small costume it still had to be purchased. We could have certainly have done it for less money but I don’t think it would have looked the same way. I think it would have looked cheaper and it would have been less effective. There’s just a certain texture and quality that comes from using finer optics, finer lenses. Which doesn’t mean you can’t do great things with a consumer camera as well. Because most of all it’s a question of care. And I think people can feel if something was made with care. Which is true for everything, whether it’s a car, a lawnmower or a toaster. It’s a certain thrown-together feel that makes many films less effective.
screen/read: I guess it’s also about making the most out of what you got, and „Tantrum“ as well as „Some Guy“ both look like you had more money than you actually did. That’s obviously a lessen you’ve learned over the years by doing all those rather low budget movies. Now speaking of your teaching job, is that somethig you encourage your students to do, going for the utmost effect no matter how much money there is?
Jack Perez: Oh yeah, I do, I do. You’re right, I never had big budgets. So from the very beginning I learned quickly. One of my first jobs was doing the pilot for „Xena: Warrior Princess“ in New Zealand. Nobody told me in film school there was such a thing as making your day. In other words I thought that studios just had a big pile of endless money and that basically the goal was to get it right. I didn’t really understand that you had to get it right but you also had to shoot eight pages a day, and if you didn’t, there would be consequences. I learned very quickly that the way to go is to think like an editor, to try to see the movie shot by shot in your head. And if you do that you start to cut away all the unnecessary setups, the coverage, where you shoot pretty much everything from a master to overs and close-ups so you get the scene from a lot of different angles. But that takes a lot of time and it wears down your actors. So if you can preconceive the movie and decide which moment happens in which shot, and only in this particular shot, then you can take the time to light it properly, shoot it properly and get the performances that you need and move on. That will not only help you to shoot the movie in the short amount of time that you have and with a small amount of money, but you will also be able to protect your vision. As most people know, this was Hitchcock’s whole method, to design a movie in order to have it cut together in a certain way, so that producers or studios couldn’t take it apart and put it together any way they want. Which is what happens when you don’t have final cut and you deliver a whole pile of material that could be interpreted any way editorially. And so thinking like an editor is really the approach that I teach, it’s my philosophy.
screen/read: What would you say how many minutes of footage did you end up with on „Tantrum“?
Jack Perez: My shooting ratio is probably three to one. I never do more than three or four takes, so I doubt we shot more than fifteen minutes of material. And there certainly wasn’t one shot that isn’t in the movie.
screen/read: If you imagine yourself looking back at your work in about ten years, what type of movies would you like to have made then?
Jack Perez: Well, there’s certainly a number of movies that I liked to make but didn’t get made and I think a lot of directors are like that. I heard a quote from John Boorman recently that was kind of bitter. He said, „Filmmaking is about all the movies you didn’t get to make“ [laughs]. But it’s true. So there’s a handful of films that I continue to try to make. Basically between 1997 and 1998 I did two movies back to back that I thought represented my pretty well. One was „The Big Empty“, a private detective story that was very much inspired by Robert Altman’s „The Long Goodbye“. And then „La Cucaracha“ which was a south of the border noir, reminiscent of „The treaure of the Sierra Madre“ and „Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia“. Those were the types of movies that I wanted to make back then. They’re both about using the genre and then going somewhere else. And it wasn’t until last year when I made „Some Guy who kills People“ that I felt like I had returned to that kind of approach. So that’s what I would like to continue doing, genre movies transcending genre conventions. And I guess if I had to pick one particular genre then it would be thriller because I think that is the most cinematic. But as so often, nobody wants to pay for that.
Recommended LINKS for further reading:
- Ryan Levin and Jack Perez join The ABCs of Death
- Ryan Levin and Jack Perez might join The ABCs of Death
- Ryan Levin talks Some Guy who kills People
- Screamfest 2011 features Some Guy who kills People
[Images: Battle of Ireland Films]