Halloween weekend is this weekend, guys.
All sorts of sexy something-or-others, zombies, and bloodied freaks will fill bars and drunkenly dance to “Thriller.” If you yearn for something a tad more frightening and definitely more interesting, head out to KC CreepFest. The two-day festival will feature freaky horror films directed by Midwestern directors/producers, a short film festival, and other devilish events.
We recently spoke with Leif Jonker. Jonker wrote Darkness, one of the films that will be featured at CreepFest. He told us about his film, what horror films give him the creeps, and what he’s going to be for Halloween this year.
The Pitch: Can you tell us a bit about Darkness? How long did it take to finish?
Leif Jonker: The story of Darkness was largely influenced by Richard Matheson's classic vampire book I Am Legend. In fact, the main vampire is named Liven, which is derived from the name of Legend’s hero, Neville, spelled backwards. Darkness depicts the takeover of a small town by an army of vampires and the small group of teenagers who fight through the night to stay alive.
I wrote Darkness when I was 17 and tried to start shooting when I was 18, but none of the college students I had recruited to crew behind the camera ever showed up to help out. After four days of shooting, I shut down and returned all my rental equipment begging for as much of my rental deposits I could get back. I worked a number of odd jobs (driving forklift, doing landscaping, washing dishes at a local greasy spoon) and a year later bought my equipment so I could shoot as long as I needed and began production again with a new cast when I was 19 in 1989 and finished post in 1992. All in all, it cost less than $5,000 cash out-of-pocket and took about 2.5 years to complete from when we started the second shoot, or 4 years if you start when I wrote it at 17 in 1988.
What inspired you to start the project?
I had wanted to make movies since I was 7, after seeing "The Making of Star Wars" on network television. After I saw Alien when I was 10, I wanted to make scary movies. When I was 14, I was shooting a short horror film called Ghost Carol that I had financed primarily by selling acting parts to my friends; "You want to be in the movie? It'll cost you twenty bucks." Etc. Etc. During the shoot, the boyfriend of my 17-year-old sister was giving me a hard time about wasting my time and money making a movie and she defended me saying "I believe in Leif. I really think he can be a filmmaker and I think he'll be making a feature by the time he's eighteen." These words resonated with me and I was compelled to get a movie going by the time I was 18.
At 17, I took my script around to anybody and everybody in Wichita who had made a movie and tried to get help funding it. At this time the U.S. Army was converting all of it's production equipment from film to video and were selling off huge palettes of 16mm film stock for pennies on the dollar so I figured I could get the movie made on 16mm for around $100,000. (The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Martin, Evil Dead, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Last House on the Left, Maniac and the Hills Have Eyes were all shot on 16mm.) Unfortunately, almost every movie that had been made in Wichita were never successfully released, and many were simply never finished, so it was a very difficult proposition to convince anyone it could be done at all. (This was still years before Clerks and El Mariachi showed the world that you could make a viable feature for very little money.) At one point, I took an older filmmaker to lunch who had made a slasher movie in town with a budget of $350,000 that had an unsuccessful release to video and lost all of its investors money. After I pitched him Darkness, he told me he couldn't shoot the opening ten minutes of my movie for $100,000, there was no chance that I could make the whole thing for that price. I realized then and there I had to prove I could make the movie in the first place before anyone would take me seriously.
I was a huge fan of Sam Raimi's original Evil Dead and though I had never seen it, I had heard legend of a short film he had made called Within the Woods. Apparently, they shot WTW, which was for all and intents and purposes a 20 minute version of Evil Dead, on Super 8mm film for around $2500, and showed it to various possible investors (dentists, grocery store owners, lawyers etc.) to raise the budget to shoot their feature on 16mm. I decided I would do the same thing and shoot a "demo" for Darkness on Super 8 film but I would go ahead and do the entire movie, almost like a feature length storyboard for the "real" movie I would later shoot on 16. It was so decided from the start that this S8mm version was only a demo that I also chose to shoot at 18fps instead of the professional rate of 24fps because it would allow me more shoot time for my footage and besides, only investors were going to see this version anyway.
Long story short, after taking almost 3 years to complete the demo. I wasn't too hot to jump right into a remake. The home video industry was hitting a peak need for product and though Darkness was an amateur production shot on an amateur format, it was a lot better than many movies I saw getting wide releases on video, so we decided to send it to distributors. We figured having a movie in release would make an even better "demo" to help us get the next film made.
I had started Darkness with around two thousand bucks from savings, and most of that went to buying equipment and film stock. At one point, a guy pulled out in front of me and we had a small fender bender. His insurance company sent me a check for $750 to straighten out my bumper, but instead I bought more film stock. Towards the end of production, I worked 3rd shift security/desk clerk at a fleabag hotel and actor/co-fx artist Gary Miller and I started selling plasma on a weekly basis to buy film stock. Yep, we sold our blood to make a vampire movie.
By the time we got the film in the can I had no money to do a film to video transfer. To get a professional telecine done back then was going to run over $5,000 and I simply didn't have it. So, instead, I bought a piece of white poster board from WalMart and spray painted it with flat white paint. I used that as a screen and set up a S8 projector on my friends kitchen table. I had a camcorder on a tripod directly over the projector and we just simply videotaped the movie right off the "screen". Now, we figured this crude transfer would allow us to edit the film and we could then send it out as a "workprint" hoping that somebody would put up the money for a proper post-production. Strangely though, everyone who saw it thought it looked great for Super 8 film and didn't think we could make it any better, and so starting in 1993, this incredibly crude rough cut workprint ended up getting released onto VHS and DVD all over the world, that is until 2006 when we finally did a professional re-mastering.
Are you working on any similar projects now, or something completely different?
Currently, to make ends meet, I've been shooting local and national commercial spots. After Darkness came out, we had a lot of press in various Indy Film type publications and I started getting calls from LA. I entered what is commonly known as "Development Hell" working for years to get a couple movies made out there that simply never happened. I have worked in the film industry regularly for the last 20 years doing everything from co-producing a movie that played on the Sci-Fi Channel, to working on the special effects teams for a network sci-fi series, to doing locations work on a big budget studio picture, to writing advertising copy for Paramount Pictures to even doing acting and stunt work.
Right now we are talking with a variety of companies and individuals about re-releasing Darkness in HD on BluRay for it's 20th Anniversary and possibly producing Darkness 2. We are also in development on two projects; one that is a very unique zombie story and the other is a very, very fun action/adventure/fantasy with horror elements.
What's your favorite horror film?
Maybe John Carpenter's Halloween, though it often rotates through the top three with George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead and Don Coscarelli's Phantasm.
What (if anything) scares you?
From a filmmaker's POV: The idea of not getting any more features made.
From a new dad's POV: Not being able to provide for my family.
What upcoming horror flick are you most excited to see (local, national)? What film are you most excited to see at CreepFest?
Brad Pitt's production of World War Z could prove to be interesting, but I'd lie if I didn't say I was much more excited about seeing Darkness 2.
Unfortunately I'm going to miss Jeff Chitty's Taking of Savannah as I won't be there Friday night, but on Saturday I'm very stoked to check out Patrick Rhea's Nailbiter!
What will you be for Halloween this year?
After our baby girl was born 3 years ago, my wife and I both stayed home with her for a month. At the end of the month, I promised to take whatever full time gig I could find since production work had been pretty hit and miss. I ended up driving a school bus for a year and a half. On Halloween that year, I made up a bloody stocking with pencils sticking out of it to wear when I had the junior high and high schoolers on the bus and handed out decorative Halloween pencils instead of candy. They loved it. I still have the hat and it has become my easy go-to costume the last few years.