An Interview with the Filmmaker of THE DARKEST HOUR
by Robert Long II ©2009
Robert: Dan, how did you both (Producer John Knox) get together for the collaboration of DARKEST HOUR?
Dan: John and myself were members of an improv comedy troupe called “Ribbed For Their Pleasure.” We were doing a lot of shows and started to garner a following. We decided to take the members of the troupe and create a sketch comedy show kind of like SCTV or SNL. We produced a TV pilot called “Quickies” and shopped it around the networks. We had some solid interest from Comedy Central but “Quickies” unfortunately was never picked up. I find it funny though that on their DVD releases they now have Comedy Central Quickies, which are just clips from their shows. Hmmmmmm!
“Quickies” was a sketch show written by the members of the troupe. I personally felt the best work was coming from John and my collaborative efforts. Our sensibilities and humor are very similar. I can pitch John a stupid idea and he can make it even more ridiculous. There were disputes and creative differences and the troupe broke up. After that John and I continued our creative efforts and co wrote a feature length screenplay that we pitched to New Line. It was a tale about gothic teens who fantasize about becoming vampires. They have their fantasy realized when a real vampire tries to join their group. The screenplay was called “Chasing Shadows”. Unfortunately New Line didn’t buy it. We had noticed that one question kept coming up in pitch meetings, over and over again and that was… “what have you done before?” The TV stuff no one seemed to care about. So we decided we needed a feature film credit under our belts and that is why we created Darkest Hour. The original title was “Slasher Flick” and the distributor almost went back to the original title before the movie was released. Anyway a little bit of back story about the origins of Darkest Hour. Like I said before we were doing live shows in the Vancouver comedy scene. We had recently put together a successful murder mystery show called, “Murder in the Cairo Club” which played for several weeks to nothing short of sold out shows. It was fall and Halloween was around the corner so of course we were looking for ideas for our next show. I am a horror movie nut, John Carpenter’s Halloween is my favorite horror movie. So I was trying to think of ways we could incorporate something with a Slasher killer of some type. I threw an idea out there about putting together a weekend long murder mystery show at a local summer camp where we would incorporate ourselves into a crowd and stage fake murders. I thought we could do it for 2 days or so… then I thought hey that would make a cool movie. The rest I guess is history.
Robert: What are pros and cons to this collaborative effort?
Dan: John and myself can write something and not get our ego’s bruised by the other guys ideas and contributions. John will chop the shit out of something I have written and I have to say for the most part it never get’s my symbolic panties in a bunch.
Robert: What compromises have to be met to have a good creative team up?
Dan: I think the biggest compromise you have to make when you are working on something artistic with someone else who is also artistic. And that is… stow your damn ego. Collaborate don’t dominate… and leave the leather ball gag and whip at home.
Robert: What kind of video camera would you recommend to those in the independent film business?
Dan: I have seen stunning images from the RED Cameras. I would recommend them. I know at the moment they aren’t very good at recording audio and if you are shooting with one you need to record the dialogue/wild sound independently.
Robert: Is this the type that was used for your movie?
Dan: No. This is a good time for me to explain something… Darkest Hour lists Lazlo Balgonie as our D.P. Well. That is a name John and I made up for a Vampire character. I actually lit every scene and also cam op’d each shot. So our little DV movie we shot on the XL1. I do not recommend it for anything than doing Behind The Scenes stuff. I would have loved to use a 35 mm lens adapter but our measly budget did not dictate that. I also do not recommend shooting DV at all. Shoot HD or nothing. No one wants to buy Digital Video indies anymore… and if they do they will pay you shit for it. So SHOOT HD!
Robert: What kind of lighting equipment do you use?
Dan: We used all professional lighting gear from Paladin Show Services. Our lights were mostly Arri and Mole Richardson’s. I tended to use a lot of Blondes, Red heads and HMI. The biggest light we used on that shot for wide shots of the camp at night were big heavy ass Arri 12K’s. We also used Kino Flows for close ups etc. We got a great deal and had all of the professional lighting and grip gear. C-stands, flags, silks, dollies and all of that good stuff. We had the camp to power our lights and we didn’t have to rent a genny. That saved a lot of dough.
Robert: What do you feel is essential as a basic kit for someone starting out in this business?
Dan: At the very minimum you need at least a 3 light set up. Make sure you diffuse your key lights and make it look as natural as possible. Bounce the lights off surfaces to get a nice even realistic look. Too many “No Budget” flicks get made with no regard to lighting and it hurts the end result. They look cheap. Also color correct in post you bastards! We used a crappy film look on Darkest Hour that actually hurt our image. We have all the pristine reels and I am planning to put together those for our foreign release. There are so many more options now for film looks etc.
Robert: What kind of preplanning went into DARKEST HOUR?
Dan: It all happened very fast. We came up with the concept I booked the camp we shot at and we basically rushed into production. We could have benefited from more pre production… I wouldn’t rush into a shoot like that again.
Robert: Did you storyboard?
Dan: No storyboards. I personally don’t like them. I prefer to work with the D.P. on the day and plan out shots. I do a shot list and figure out where the dollies would go… but other than that I don’t use them. On our next production we are doing a lot of CGI Previz shots which I prefer over the storyboards.
Robert: Did you hold script meetings to get feedback on what will and will not work?
Dan: Usually we argue over plot points, then settle our disputes with an arm wrestle.
Robert: Are your films self-financed, or do you have investors? If you have investors, what is your advice on how to obtain them?
Dan: We financed Darkest Hour ourselves. Four investors. Our next feature is more expensive and more ambitious. For that project we will be looking at getting other people to invest.
Robert: Can you tell me what the budget – in US dollars – was for DARKEST HOUR? Can you give me examples of where the money goes on a project?
Dan: Our budget is listed as 300k but it was made for much, much less. Our budget was around 40k. Most of your costs go to equipment rentals and location fees and catering. We had a lot of people volunteering their services on this project so we didn’t have a lot of those expenses.
Robert: Is there script-writing or script-formatting software out that you recommend using?
Dan: Final Draft is the best way to go. That is the one we use.
Robert: How did you go about holding auditions for DARKEST HOUR?
Dan: We took out ads in various casting websites and solicited the local talent agencies.
Robert: How did you get the word out? Where did you hold the auditions?
Dan: We rented a board room at a public library and held the auditions there.
Robert: Did you have any sort of form for the actors to initially fill out at the audition?
Dan: No. We should have had them sign a release for the auditions so we could have used the footage in our behind the scenes documentary but we fumbled the ball on that one.
Robert: Did you video tape the auditions?
Dan: Yep, we video taped the auditions then watched the tapes later to determine who would be the best potential victims.
Robert: Did you allow actors to send in video taped auditions with their resumes?
Dan: We looked at some demo reels. The best way is to get to see them in person though and direct the audition to see if they can take direction.
Robert: Do you feel it is important to get together with the cast and crew before shooting officially commences to go over the film, the plot, the duties of the individuals, and conduct and etiquette on the set?
Dan: On this project we did a table read with the whole cast at the camp location. That was our only get together before we actually shot the picture. I think a couple of those would have been nice if we had the time and money to do it.
Robert: Besides your cast, what does your DARKEST HOUR crew consist of? Did you have a grip truck for the shoot?
Dan: Darkest Hour was so low budget we didn’t have a truck for the gear we had it all in a cabin at the camp. One cabin was the make up cabin, one was the grip gear cabin and another was the place the production people went to get their stuff in order. I spent a lot of time there. The make up cabin became the gossip cabin with all the actors and actresses chilling and talking shit about everyone. Gossip is the most annoying process I find. I like to say what is on my mind and had an actress leave the set because she said I treated her like she was cattle. I make a lot of snide remarks and my close friends are used to it. I forget to put the filter on and keep my rude opinions to myself sometimes and I get in trouble. I didn’t think she was cattle by the way… I did think she looked like she had down syndrome though. (I’m glad she is not in my movie!)
Robert: How was costuming handled on the project? Was it “everybody wear what you want to wear” or are the costumes actually cleaned and put back on the rack at the end of the day? Did the cast supply their own costuming, was it supplied to them, or did you have a wardrobe allowance for them?
Dan: We had a costume designer on Darkest Hour. We wanted to have a certain look, we wanted it to look 80’s and not quite the 80’s. Sherri Wenden did a good job at the costumes.
Robert: You worked at natural locations. What are the pros and cons of that over a set?
Dan: Shooting at the camp was like being on a backlot. We could basically do whatever we wanted so that was nice. The only time we considered the neighbors is when we did the scene at the end where Ben dies, the blank guns were pretty loud. The company that we worked with had a relationship with the local police in case someone complained. The good thing is no one bitched about the shooting!
Robert: What kind of food prep, or catering did you set up for the cast and crew on film days?
Dan: Like I said it was looooooow budget. We each took turns making trays of sandwiches and on special days we would cook meals in the mess hall at the camp. The location saved us a lot of money on catering. One week it was John’s turn to make sandwiches and they tasted just like a mix between footwear and dry sawdust. You would take a bite and run for some water. The cheap bastard never put any mayo in his tuna salad. Who does that?
Robert: What kind of food was available and prepared?
Dan: There were a lot of times when we just ordered like 12 pizza’s and the cast and crew would be farting all night. Those were horrible nights on set. Hot chicks and gurgling guts… yucky.
Robert: You may have employed special effects artists and make-up artists in your films, but have you ever used a make-up artist for the glamour of the actors and actresses, or is that up to the individual performer?
Dan: My sister Angie Zachary is a make up artist and she also played the character of Lisa in the movie. She did all of the glamour make up on set. I did the gruesome stuff as I have a background in special make up effects.
Robert: While perhaps most of your actors and crew for DARKEST HOUR might be from your local area, how did you handle actors and actresses that have to come from out of the territory? Where are they put up after the day wraps?
Dan: There were a couple that had an hour long commute and we had to drive them back home after the shoot. Man that sucked. We would wrap around 6 am and one of us would have to battle traffic there and back. I would slap myself in the face to stay awake in the 2 hour morning commute.
Robert: Due to the many different personalities that you can encounter from cast and crew, how did you handle any friction or situations that sprung up from time to time?
Dan: We had an actor go back to rehab after relapsing. We had only 3 days to get all of his scenes shot so myself the actor and my sister stayed at the camp for 3 days and shot all of his close ups etc for his scenes. We used a C-Stand for the boom and we got his stuff shot. I won’t say who the actor was… but I wanted to choke the shit out of him on several occasions.
Robert: There is some nudity in DARKEST HOUR. What’s the proper conduct and the way to deal with this matter so everyone involved is comfortable, and you get the shots you need?
Dan: I would say schedule it early in the shoot and get it done ASAP. A lot of our actors agreed to do nudity and only one did.
Robert: How did you go about scheduling actors and crew for the days they are needed? Did you have someone in charge of continuity, logging and such?
Dan: John Knox and Scott Gueulette took care of the scheduling.
Robert: Did you shoot just weekends for a feature, or have you had a scenario where everyone takes a week off to shoot the full week non-stop?
Dan:We mostly shot 3 or 4 day weeks. Depending on the actors and actresses availability. In the mean time all of us crew members had jobs that we had to go to after shooting all night. It was a grueling schedule.
Robert: What importance did you put on having a crew member documenting the behind-the-scenes making of the movie, as well as taking photos of the characters at the locations and sets you are using?
Dan: John had some college friends come out on a couple of nights and shoot some B-Reel for the doc. We also shot interviews in between set ups so we had a lot of material. It is a shame they didn’t include it on the DVD. We made a 37 minute Behind The Scenes doc called “Behind The Screams: Darkest Hour.”
Robert: Some filmmakers do everything they can to cover brand names of products in a movie, some blatantly don’t care if they show. What are your rules to product placement? Have you ever used any product placement in any of your features?
Dan: We definitely covered the brands and logos. We didn’t get clearance for anything. In one scene an actress has a mask on that looks like Michael Myers from Halloween. It is actually an original mask I sculpted and made and not a licensed one.
Robert: For DARKEST HOUR did you have to deal with insurance, location permits, or completion bonds for the movie?
Dan: We got production insurance for the movie. No completion bonds on this shoot. We had to get E+O insurance as well.
Robert: There is some gunfire in the movie. What is the correct and safest way to use a gun with blanks loaded in it on the set or location? Did the performers wear earplugs?
Were the local authorities be informed that blank gunshots will be going off at such and such a location?
Dan: We hired a company that specializes in guns for film. I would say that is the smartest way to go. These guys were all ex cops and guys who get boners for automatic weapons. They were very professional and no one died. That is good. They would hand out ear-plugs before each scene with gun fire. Our schedule only had one day with gunfire so we only had to hire them for one day.
Robert: Understandably for a slasher thriller like DARKEST HOUR, there was a lot of knife play. Knives, axes, machetes, etc. can be really dangerous if not used properly in films. Have you used fake cutlery in your movies, or what has been done on your films to get around that danger factor?
Dan: We used some plastic and rubber knives. There is this tape you can buy that has a shiny metal look to it. You take a plastic knife and cover it with that tape and it is pretty convincing on screen. The Reapers Scythe was pretty lethal though. We had to be careful with that bad boy.
Robert: Did you work with union or non-union actors?
Dan: Non union actors.
Robert: What was your best experience on the film? What was your worst?
Dan: My best experience was the table read I would have to say. It is really cool to hear what is basically a radio version of the movie. I liked when we finally wrapped. The schedule was intense and nutty. My favorite part was being in mid town Manhattan and going to a Blockbuster video store and seeing my movie on the shelf in between copies of Death Toll and The Darjeeling Limited.
Robert: Since everything is practically done on computers these days, can you tell me what software you edited DARKEST HOUR with? Are you on a Macintosh or a PC? What do you feel is the bare minimum of hardware and software that you need to edit a feature?
Dan: Darkest Hour was edited on Final Cut Pro on a MAC G-4. We have moved up the to the Quad core Mac Pro for our newest stuff. I started editing with premiere on a P.C. and the damn thing would crash like every hour. It was frustrating. Then we got into Macintosh. The platform is way more stable. Sure we get a crash every once and while but not as much as on a P.C. Once you go Mac you never go back.
Robert: You had to deal with many sound effects and music for this movie. How did you handle these subjects? Have you hired composers? Do you use stock music and sound effects libraries? What would you recommend to someone starting out?
Dan: I have had a working relationship with the same composer on everything I have done. Chris Gestrin is an award winning jazz musician who I grew up with. The sound effects were all done mostly in my living room. We turned it into a foley studio. We took the coffee table and flipped it over so we could fill it with sand for the walking sound effects. We took a video cassette and ripped the tape out if it and strewn it out over the floor for the grass sound effects. In a slasher film every time you see a knife there is a “Shiiing” sound. We accomplished that by taking two machetes and rubbing their blades together. We did most of the sound effects ourselves. We made sure to record certain sounds like the truck passing and driving toward a microphone. We got a bunch of vegetables for the stabbing sounds and bones breaking. Chris ended up doing the final sound mix, which was sent to Dolby and passed their stringent standards.
Robert: DARKEST HOUR was in the can, it’s edited, and sound and special effects have been added. How did you go about finding a distributor? Did you experience any 7th level of hell trying to get your film out to the public?
Dan: We took it to the American Film Market in Santa Monica and we had a great response. We had 8 offers after the market. It was a matter of choosing the right one. Getting the film sold was relatively painless actually.
Robert: What kind of marketing materials did you have on hand to promote your feature?
Dan: We had sell sheets and screeners. The sell sheet had bullet points about why the film was worthy of taking a look at. It had pics from the movie and we did some artwork with our poster on a DVD case. The sell sheet also had our contact info at the market and our production company address etc.
Robert: Did you hold a premiere of DARKEST HOUR or throw a wrap party at the end of filming?
Dan: We had a wrap party. For whatever reason we never did a big screening probably because we were all in the poor house when the production ended. One of the producers lived in a maytag box in a pissy Vancouver alley for about a year. (Just kidding)
Robert: Are there any genres that you wish you were doing, but can’t because of money constraints (or the market isn’t there) and is there any genres that you refuse to touch, and for what reasons?
Dan: I would like to direct a computer animated film. That is one of my goals. A funny family oriented film with a dark feel to it. Something like Gremlins I can’t get into too much detail about without giving away my concept.
Robert: In this age of DVD competition, do you feel it is important to pack extras such as commentary, behind the scenes, and bloopers?
Dan: I absolutely believe it is necessary to give the distributor as much content as you can to bolster your product. We had a commentary and a behind the scenes doc they never included. I have no idea why. Maybe we will post them on our website for free.
Robert: After your experiences with DARKEST HOUR, is there anything else you would like to add to those who are trying to get into the independent film industry?
Dan: Well. If don’t mind getting kicked in the nuts and publicly scrutinized on a regular basis go for it. Get into the movie business. Remember in this business no one invites you in, you have to break in.
Robert: What else is on the horizon for Moviehouse Pictures? What are some of the other movie you have done, and what interesting projects will be on the drawing board?
Dan: We are going to shop one of our projects to some comic book companies to see if they want to make a graphic novel out of our property. We also have a vampire movie called “Slow The Decay” in development and a sequel to Darkest Hour called “DARKEST HOUR 2 – HUNTING THE REAPER.”
To buy Darkest Hour, click on the image below!