by Faruq Oyekan
From the Blair Witch Project to Paranormal Activity, the found footage film has become the staple sub-genre of horror over the last decade.
These films are real, or more accurately, they look real, which really is a plus for any horror film. For the horror genre the possibility that this could actually happen is a tremendous selling point. Sadly, like with any genre, whether its romance, comedy, or action the rules and conventions that define a genre can leave films of that genre feeling stale and predictable.
Thus, it becomes the filmmaker’s job to rewrite the rules of the genre, to throw out the old conventions, and YES! To think outside the box. Like with what Brick did to the film noir genre and like what Unbreakable did to the Superhero genre; Matt Atkins’ short film 9-12-13 is a genre-bending new take on the found-footage horror films.
9-12-13 tells the story of an amateur film director who is both parts crazy, and egotistical. The film showcases his attempt to shoot his latest film, which he avidly describes will be the best thing to happen to horror since Cannibal Holocaust. The filmmaker employs a troupe of actors, which he comically finds off of craigslist. Taking the lead, as the main man in front and behind the camera, the director and his actors set off into the middle of the dark woods.
What happens next is a surreal twist on the found-footage sub-genre that will leave you intrigued.
The film’s concept is daring and new; surprisingly not even common film aspects like credits or some admittance of its fantasy is present in the film's presentation.
Presented in a VHS like format, this film takes every attempt to give its audience the sense of its reality. Though it may feel distracting at times, the film's presentation is its selling point. What it lacks in stellar acting, and high budget special effects, it makes up in its dedication to reviving the sub-genre.
9-12-13 is a horror movie film by a horror movie fan for horror movie fans. Though that may sound confusing at first, this description accurately describes the feeling the film left me with. For myself, the very existence of this film reminded me that no genre is dead, and no matter how many times a story is told, there will always be a way to bring new life to it. 9-12-13 is a fine film by Matt Atkins, and a kick in the butt to the found footage genre.
First of all... Yikes! How terrifying! Where did this dark, twisted film idea come from?
The idea of the film began as a thought experiment. I love the idea of the found-footage genre. However, when you see them at home or at the theatre, they are properly sound-mixed, the narrative is fleshed out… more or less, and there's a credit sequence. Not exactly 'found-footage,' is it? So, I looked at a possible A to B story with an analytic eye - what is a found-footage movie? My conclusions were:
a) It had to be shot on a camera as completely raw, unedited footage;
b) It would not include narrative-style expository dialogue that was unrealistic and without reason;
c) It would most definitely not be distributed under any sort of traditional release formula;
Once I had those concrete limits in place, I had to find a way to make a compelling story work. If it's just about someone killing people in front of a camera, it won't make for a very entertaining plot. So, I decided to create a story where the camera began as the reason the plot exists in the first place, but becomes a tool for a different message in the end. I love horror and I tend to write about dark themes anyway, so I just tapped into that and 9-12-13 was the end result.
Was the film scripted or was it improvised? How'd you find your cast?
Once I had the story of 9-12-13, I ran into one of the limits I put in place for myself - how do you script a real found-footage movie? Life isn't scripted. No one can really expect what tomorrow will be like. So, the answer became unavoidable - no script. It had to be improvised. With this in mind, I had to make a very detailed scene-by-scene breakdown of what had to happen in order for the plot to move along. Then, I could tackle with how to introduce the characters, their reasons for doing anything and why they are at the locations in the film without being artificial about any of it. With the idea that it's a behind the scenes/making-of documentary of an 80's style found-footage horror movie for the first half of the movie as a framework, things fell into place quickly. With the actors, we would rehearse each scene multiple times before even pressing record on the camera. This was to work out what exactly we were improvising about, as well as for the biggest technical reason of all - it had to be raw footage. When I hit the record and stop buttons are how I would make my edits. Full disclosure, however, I did have to do some editing in the end because of how certain shots came out. Since I shot it in chronological order, it gave the actors a better handle on how to perform at their best in a non-traditional situation.
I found my actors through friends of friends and an ad on Craigslist. This was also a challenge to me because in an authentic and real found-footage film, why would there be actors? The characters are supposed to be real people in a real story. Because of this I hired raw talent and first-timers - the less acting experience, the better. The auditions were nothing more than meeting with them individually and just having a chat. A couple of the members of the cast are my friends, so this part of the process was incredibly simple with them. Once I had a feel of them as the wonderful people that they are, I talked to them about the character I wanted them to portray. I asked them questions on how they, as their character, would react to anything from flirting to being horribly murdered. This was something I had to do with myself. I had a friend set to play the role of the egomaniacal director, but he had to drop out with only days left to shoot due to personal reasons. With no one else who could come in at the last minute, I played that role myself, as well as shooting the movie and directing the actors and juggling the other balls that no-budget shoots throw at you.
Any interesting onset stories?
My best on-set stories revolve around being in the forest location. It was a location volunteered by a paintball range specializing in zombies called Company Z. It was an incredible place with lots of obstacles and clearings that were tailor made for a horror film to shoot there - so, naturally, we obviously shot at night on murky analogue! Everyone was so gung-ho and there was a real sense of camaraderie that I hadn't felt in a long while. It's one of those intangible reasons you do this in the first place. If there was one story I can pick, I think it would have to be (spoilers) the death scene of my character. It was 3:30am and it was the last shot on location. Everyone was still thrilled to be there, but we were all exhausted. I hadn't slept in two days, trying to make everything work. Luckily, it had been a blast and everyone was amazing. Unfortunately, I realized at that moment, everything rode on this last scene - on me. To cut a throat from ear to ear convincingly takes talent and time and luckily I had a great make-up artist with Don Maloney. He works with St. John's Ambulance on their simulated exercises, so he knew how to make the effects look great. I was wired with plastic tubes with pumps and a reservoir of fake blood and a dulled-down knife with another tube and another pump. Also, the knife was a real one, we just ground it down as it was being used against my neck. But, I have to say that when you are high on the adrenaline of a shoot, especially one wrapping up in moments, and with lack of sleep...the pressure is definitely on. Especially when another take was out of the question. With the time and supplies left, this was a one-shot deal. With a mouthful of sickly sweet fake blood in my mouth and an almost dull knife against my throat, I murmured, action and the scene carried out as I hoped it would. It was such a microcosm moment for the production to me. Us crazy people, in the wee hours of the morning, in the middle of a forested paintball range, a knife to my neck and everything riding on this one take. I can't thank everyone who worked on 9-12-13 enough, and this moment was a big reason why.
What are your influences when it comes to film?
My influences tend to skew more to incredible visual storytelling, like with Kubrick, Tarsem, Cronenberg, Lynch and Jodorwosky. However, as I get older, I keep finding myself really paying attention to filmmakers like Peckinpah and Carpenter. These are filmmakers who really understand the innate need of a really good story as your foundation. Without a cracker of a tale, everything else can fall. As a filmmaker, I am driven to tell the stories I want to tell. Every filmmaker can be considered unique because of that one fundamental quality. None of us do it for the money, because it's never really there. I like to think that none of us do it for the fame, because it is fleeting and fickle and usually dictated by others who aren't your specific audience. We do it because we want you to experience the world that we live in every day and the wonders and horrors that we cohabit with. Life should make you feel something, hopefully more than one thing. That's how art can affect all of our lives and that's something that I love. All I or anyone else can do is show people our loves, hates and various interests through our work and hopefully there is an audience that will take it with them and feel something or think about something new and wonderful and terrifying. That would be awesome.
Any films in the works currently?
I'm currently writing a surreal horror feature film that I will take to crowdfunding. It's about a young couple whose relationship has been damaged by an unseemly event and having to work through mental issues, life pressures and parallel dimensions to hopefully see the other end. I'm very excited about it and I am looking to shoot a teaser in the next couple of months.