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Rusty Nails!!!

This month, we spoke to filmmaker RUSTY NAILS (Yes, that’s his name), the writer/director behind the independent feature ‘ACNE’, the documentary ‘HIGHWAY ROBBERY’ and the upcoming documentary ‘DEAD ON: THE LIFE & CINEMA OF GEORGE A. ROMERO’. After screening footage at a few conventions, it’s clear that Rusty’s ‘DEAD ON’ is going to be the most extensive documentary on George Romero and the workings of the independent filmmaker. We talked to him about the troubles of getting your first film finished, why he went into documentary filmmaking, and of course his experiences with George Romero. Check it out!!! !!! - by Robg., Mike C. 9/06

What are your earliest recollections of the horror genre? Do you remember the first movie that scared you and opened your world up to horror?

I think I saw the movie ‘Frogs’ on TV when I was a kid and being scared by that. Then I saw a Japanese movie called ‘Attack Of The Mushroom People’, when I was about 4, and it scared me so much that I didn’t eat mushrooms for 5 years. (laughs) I was horrified by mushrooms. I used to stay up until 2 in the morning watching everything from ‘Dracula Vs. Billy The Kid’ to ‘Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein’.

Later on, the film that would have a huge effect on me, in my pre-teen years was ‘Night Of The Living Dead’. I was probably 11 when I first saw that. I saw it on TV and remember being blown away by it. I recall watching Night at 1 in the morning, and it didn’t take long… with the opening shot, the music, and the beautiful black & white cinematography – the opening scene in the cemetery with Barbara, before I was caught into the web that was ‘Night Of The Living Dead’. The film was really gripping and intense. I remember seeing the cover for the book, and even the cover of the book with all the hands ripping wood thru a door was terrifying. Those were some of my earliest memories of falling in love with horror.

At what point did your interest in filmmaking begin? When did you think that maybe you could start making films?

There were a few films that made me feel like I could possibly make a movie. One of them was ‘Pink Flamingo’s’ by John Waters. When I saw that film, I found it to be raw, punk, in your face and very simple… you could tell it didn’t cost much to make but it had more guts than most films. I thought, “I could make a movie like this!” It was set in a trailer park and the film didn’t look expensive and you could obviously tell that these people weren’t professional “ Hollywood” type actors… and they were perfect for the film. Another film that inspired my interest in making films was ‘Eraserhead’ by David Lynch. I loved Eraserhead. Eraserhead had better filmmaking techniques than Pink Flamingos but it was also a very basic film that relied more on it’s storytelling and fantastic characters than a large budget.
Most of Eraserhead takes place in a couple of rooms and some odd exterior locations. ‘Rock N Roll High School’ is one of my favorite films. The energy and vitality and humor in that film are what did it for me. The Ramones are my favorite band. Everything about the film is wonderful… the surreal humor, clever dialogue, strong characters and a strong basic story. ‘Repo Man,’ and “Mad Max” were also influencial. A lot of the great 70’s and 80’s and even 60’s independent films were all inspiring.
What was the first video experience you had?

When I was 12, my mom bought me a camera and I started making films. So, pretty early on, I just started making films. She’d bought me this Super 8 camera. I would go and shoot and make these little Dirty Harry movies. Even by the time I was 11, I knew I wanted to have something to do with films. Initially I wanted to act in films. I had this immediate realization that if I wanted to be in films, I’d have to start making films. I felt like I might be able to create some bizarre worlds on my own.

You first feature was ‘ACNE’. Can you bridge the gap for us between this period of starting to make films at 12 and making your first feature length film?

Actually, it would’ve been great if I started out making shorts. I did go to film school, and I made some short films, but at my school there was a very strict rule that you could NOT make features. Me, being a person with no rich uncles or relatives – basically being a wage slave like most people reading this interview – I felt like before I got out of school, I’d better start using that equipment immediately.

So, I made a feature. I started making ‘ACNE’ while in school. During my sophomore year at college, I worked as a bag boy at a health food place and I made $3000 dollars over the summer, which was the seed money to make the film. My initial idea was to shoot the film in 3 weeks and edit in a month and that turned into a few years and would end up costing me between $16,000 to $20,000 and shot on black & white 16 mm film. We ended up having over 300 people work on the film, both cast and crew. We would have 5 different cinematographers, basically because of scheduling. It was a long trek to make the film.

What’s the origin behind the story for ‘ACNE’? I’ve seen the film and based on that and seeing the trailer, it seems like it’s an homage to all the old 50’s B-movies.

Right. I love 50’s and 60’s and even 40’s B-movies or science fiction movies, but I also love French New Wave films from people like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. I love film-noir films – Humphrey Bogart, Sam Fuller, Orson Wells. I wanted to create the first new-wave horror film. I have a surreal sense of humor, and I love MAD Magazine, and I wanted to make the first MAD Magazine horror movie. I wanted to make a horror movie that was like the great independent films that I loved, because in a way I felt that horror films I’ve been seeing as of late were a bit misogynist or homophobic. The horror films I love are the one’s that are smarter. Like ‘The Howling’, ‘Scanners’, ‘Rabid’, ‘The Brood’, ‘An American Werewolf In London’, ‘Bride of Frankenstein,’ ‘Let’s Scare Jessica To Death,’’The Crazies,’‘Deathrace 2000’. I prefer horror films that are smarter. I wanted to make a horror film that had some brains, but which was also a lot of fun and not degrading to woman. It had to have my sense of humor in it. I haven’t seen that in a lot of other films, so I thought that’d be something I could bring in. ‘ACNE’ is sort of a compilation of all those things. Fun and but with some horrific elements. It’s not a terrifying film by any means (laughs) but it does deal with actual horrific things that happen in the world. It’s a coming of age story for teenagers who are dealing with these horrifying circumstances in our society: War and Pollution. The military/industrial complex. The commodification of teenagers in our society. Discussing this concept of humans as nothing more than profit machines for industry… it’s disgusting. I find those things to be terrifying so I wanted to include those themes.

(laughs) It’s all good. I’m personally creeped out by the cream cheese in the head. I don’t know why. It just creeps me out.

Right. I just wanted to make a movie that was fun and had important things to say, or at least things that I find important. If you’re not interested in those things, then there’s humor there.

Was it a conscience effort to make it in black & white?

I love black & white. I LOVE black & white. It was always my intention. It wasn’t because of a budget thing. I mean, the budget was extremely low, but the movie was always going to be shot in black & white. The fact that I loved black & white just happened to work in favor of the film, because if I had made it in color, the budget would’ve immediately doubled and I didn’t have that money, and it just would’ve taken me longer to make it. But I love black & white films. Acne is not based on any film, but it’s a tribute to the look and feel of 40s, 50s and 60s films.

It took a few years for you to complete ‘ACNE’. What was one of the most difficult obstacles?

Money. I am a poor person. So, this wasn’t a case of me being able to call people and get money. The way I raised money was by me having a job and me putting every penny I had into it. That’s why the film took so long to make because of lack of money. If I had the whole budget at once, I could’ve just made the film within a year or two. I did get some money from other people… in addition to me working jobs for cash – I had this friend who became a Hari-Krishna and he gave up all his worldly goods and gave me $1000 bucks. We had set up 6 punk rock shows and I made $2000 dollars off of those.
We had lots of yard sales. At one point, I was so depressed and practically suicidal because I just couldn’t finish the film, that I remember I called about 13 friends and asked them all for $25 dollars a piece. Not $10,000 a piece! $25 dollars a piece. And my friends felt for me and sent me $25 dollars just so I could buy film. We did steal some film stock. (laughs) Just doing anything we could do! In the future, I hope not to have as many money obstacles. Another holdup was the script. I started shooting from the 1st draft. I ended up doing rewrites during shooting that left some of the scenes on the cutting room floor in order to replace them with stronger new scenes… this might have been avoided if it took a couple of months to go over the script a few more times.
One thing I would have to say to new filmmakers is to write your script and have a lot of your friends, peers, teachers look at your script and get their opinions. You don’t have to change anything, not a single thing, but if there are certain things that you were trying to get across to people and you have 16 people read the script and no one understands that point, then you have a problem. That might be something you want to notate. And if you want something to be subtle and everyone feels it’s blaring, you’d want to maybe change that. So, my initial script was 90 pages and after filming those 90 pages, I found 20 minutes of the film to be weak. So, I cut those out, and then I found another 15 minutes I felt were weak, so I cut those out.

Then I added an additional 20 minutes, which I felt were much stronger and helped solidify the story. So, I think it’s very important for filmmakers to make sure that your script is good! Because a lot of times you think your first draft is perfect, but I know in my case it wasn’t. Now, I really go over my scripts, because as soon as you start filming, if there are a lot of things to be changed then you’re wasting a lot of people’s time.

As much as possible, I like to rehearse people. Even if you’re filming on video tape, and I do film on videotape sometimes, you want to give your actors scripts and have them go thru it, and have them get together on their own to learn their lines. And then you get together with the actors without the crew and make sure they know their lines and then you can direct them. Because a lot of people who shoot on video, they feel that the tape is $6 bucks – it’s cheap, so let’s just film and then they’ll do 40 takes! The editor will get 40 takes and it’s only the 40th take where the actors have finally gelled with it, and that’s just wasting a lot of people’s time. It’s not very considerate. Get with your actors and make sure they’re how you want them to be before you start filming.

Preparation is the key.

Absolutely. And the more prepared you are the better. Those were some of the hardships of making that film. Also, getting the music for the film was tough. We have a lot of great music in ‘ACNE’ from people like Devo, The Dead Kennedys, Lunachicks… It’s very important if you’re going to use music to get your contracts for the music signed before you put it in the film. I had a couple of mistakes where I didn’t do that and then it was a long process. It took 6 months to a year to get some people signed off. Some people might just not know about having some of the music rights cleared, then they put it in their film and then someone might want to buy it, and then you run into trouble.

So, make sure you get all your music cleared. You might want to look on line for some forms, or just look thru some independent film books to check for forms. Something that was important to me, something that I thought would give the film a bigger feel was to use a lot of locations that were necessary. We didn’t force them on the film. We had 90 locations. We only paid for 2. And all together, between those two, it only came out to be $175 dollars. I feel like a lot of independent filmmakers do these films that are only in a couple of rooms in a house, and the film feels really static. I suggest to people to watch a lot of films, and pay attention to a lot of the parts that you find interesting and just see how a film can breathe with a lot of settings. Never force settings either. You’re only limited by your imagination, so don’t be afraid to ask people about using locations. Tell people that you’ll give them credit for putting their restaurant in the credits. Gosh, I hope I’m not giving too much of a film school lesson in this interview! (laughs)

No! Not at all. I think it’s great if people can come and learn from different filmmakers thru these interviews. What were the good things to come out of your experience of making ‘ACNE’?

The great things about ‘ACNE’ were that so many people helped on the film and 98% of all the people were great. We had a really nice family. Everyone was very supportive and no one got paid. Well, one person got paid and that was the make-up man, Jason Dummeldinger who got $225 to pay his rent for one week. He wanted to work on the film, but he couldn’t this one week if he couldn’t pay his rent, so I paid his rent. All together, we had 300 people work on the film for free and everyone was extremely sweet. On days that we didn’t have food, some of the actors would bring food and feed other people! I really suggest if you’re making a no-budget film, the most important thing is to be kind, considerate and appreciative of everyone. Even though the director is “the boss”, it’s very important to appreciate everybody weather you’re paying them or not. And also, make sure you do your best to feed them. Whether it’s from a restaurant or your mom has to cook, just try to feed everybody.

Being that ‘ACNE’ was such a difficult film to make, how’d you decide what to follow up with? Was the documentary on George Romero your first choice?

Even when I was finishing ‘ACNE’, I made a lot of short films and music videos. Because I was working on the film for a while, I just decided I wanted to make some short films which took a lot less time, and which were gratifying. I’d worked on this project for a few years, so it was nice to go work on some short films and complete those and get that audience applause from making short pieces.
My next film after that actually is a documentary, which is just about done called ‘Highway Robbery’. It’s about a 65 year old blind veteran cowboy in Rockford, Illinois whose land was taken away by the Federal Government in order to make an unnecessary $17 million dollar highway, which is on Native American burial grounds and wetlands. Now, that film we shot on video with Sony TRV100 camera’s and has only cost around $3000.

What’s the name of the gentleman that this documentary is about and how’d you hook up with him?

Tom Ditzler. I was a film editor on a website called SuperSphere.com, which was a great website that had music culture, videos, and a political section. So, I went up there for one of the political stories and just fell in love with that family. So, that film is just about done right now. You can learn more about it at my website www.neweyefilms.com. So, I fell in love with that project and I’ve been working on that for the past couple of years as I finished up ‘ACNE’ and got that out. So, after working on that, I went thru the trenches with ‘ACNE’ – my first narrative feature, but putting that together and learning how to make that, what would’ve been easy was to follow-up with another narrative feature, but I decided to completely throw myself off course by making a documentary. (laughs) And that’s ‘Highway Robbery’.

Rather then screw myself up again, I decided to make another documentary and this one’s on George A. Romero. I run a film festival in Chicago called Movieside Film Festival and we invited George Romero to the festival. He came and we had a really nice relationship. I’ve always been a fan of his films and I felt that George is really interesting because in many ways, he’s one of the progenitors of American independent films. Not the first, but one of the first directors to put his own money, along with the other people at Image 10 into their independent film. Secondly, he’s one of the first independent filmmakers to stay in his home town outside of New York & Los Angeles and make films. He’s also one of the first independent filmmakers to work with social issues, especially in the horror genres. ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ has become the Rosetta Stone for a lot of other independent films and filmmakers.

I’ve always found him to be interesting, and I thought a documentary about him would be great. I know there are a couple out there already - smaller ones that don’t cover his entire career. And I like the ones that I’ve seen. But I really wanted to cover HIS story, as well as the story of the communities he’s built with a few different groups of people – the Image 10 group, and the Latent Image folks, and the crews that’s had from ‘Martin’ to ‘Day Of The Dead’. I thought there would be a lot of interesting angles to that. In ‘Dead On: The Life and Cinema of George A. Romero’, we’re covering a lot of the independent film process, as well as the communities that are sometimes built in making an independent film. George’s career is the main focus of the film, but we’re seeing other people’s stories like John Waters and Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino and a number of other people. It’s an investigation into the independent filmmaking process, while holding George in the spotlight.

I love the fact you’re going to cover his entire career. He’s got so many great films that people don’t know about. Have you already spoken to people from every one of his movies?

To date, we’ve almost spoken to at least two cast and two crew members from every single film he’s made. It’s really great, because George obviously doesn’t make every one of his films by himself. There’s a team of people, cast and crew that is behind every film made. And the communities that have been behind a lot of his films are fantastic people. Whether they were formally trained or non-professionals, a number of people have so many great stories and they relate to so many different people.

Everyone from Stuart Gordon to Mick Garris to quite a few other filmmakers. It’s nice because when I’ve gone to Pittsburgh or Toronto or Los Angeles or Ohio and interviewed different directors or actors or crew people, I see a lot of the same stories and feelings that my own crew had while making it. It’s really nice & interesting to see the way that George progressed. Like I said, even though the film centers on George, I feel it tells all of our story.

How difficult was it to track down some of the people that have worked with George?

A lot of people love George and a lot of people have loved working with George and are very supportive. So for a number of crew people and cast that he worked with in Pittsburgh, it was as simple as going to the phone book and tracking them down. For stars like Ed Harris (Knightriders) we had to go to William Morris and find his agent and send in requests and proposals to see if he was interested – same with Adrienne Barbeau and Leslie Nelson (we haven’t gotten him yet). For the most part, we’ve gotten to talk to most of the people we requested. Some people’s schedules are tough, so we’ve let them know that we want to get them, if they don’t have time now, we can get them later. For people we feel are important to the story, we are willing to come back or try to find them.
Sometimes it’s just me living in Chicago and then calling my cameraman in Los Angeles and saying “Jason Flemying (who is the star of ‘Bruiser’) is going to be in Los Angeles. Can you go interview him?” He’s been on enough interviews with me that he knows what kind of questions I’d ask. Or if I know that George is making an appearance for ‘The Crazies’ with Lynn Lowery in New York, I’ll call my cameraman in New York.

We were at that!

I wasn’t, but my camera guys were there. I’ve been lucky. And so many people have digital cameras now that fortunately I’m able to catch plenty of things when I’m not around. And since I’ve worked with a number of these people, I trust them to get good footage. In some cases, like when Rob Zombie came to Chicago – I knew he was coming into town because I saw it in the paper, so I sent a request to his management 2 months in advance saying “We’d love to get him at the venue.” They made me wait, but finally said OK and gave us 15 minutes, so it was a matter of us rushing there with the equipment, setting up in 10 minutes, then interviewing him. We felt he could be important to the piece.

Sometimes an author will be doing a bookstore, and it could be us just sort of keeping our eyes and ears open and seeing if someone is making an appearance at a convention. Again, we still remain fairly poor, so sometimes if we have a friend staying at the convention, we’ll ask if we could use their hotel room. A lot of people have been really supportive. And now we’ve gotten interviews with Stephen King and Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. The more people we get, the more people see we’re really very serious. We are trying to do THE most definitive documentary on George to date. It’s been a great experience so far.

I know you mentioned at your panel that you’d like to include fans in your documentary somehow. How far along are you in completing ‘Dead On’?

One thing that’s really nice about what we’re doing, and the fact that I’m currently the producer of the piece along with my friend Chad Wilson, is that we’re on our own, paying for everything. We don’t have to worry about anyone on our backs. I’m a little bit spoiled in that way that I don’t have to worry about a big studio. The fact that I’m poor is sort of a plus in that I don’t have all this money that people have given us, and I don’t have to worry about all this money. I can buy two $6 dollar tapes. In a way it’s like a weapon against worrying about people trying to tear up my project. But at some point, we will be looking for investors after we’ve gotten a cut of the film that is to my liking, and we’ll have the power to say “No, we don’t want your money if you’re going to try to control the way this project should go.” My plan is to get this piece finished by the 40th anniversary of ‘Night Of The Living Dead’, which will be in 2008. Although, if you’re going to talk about our original shooting schedule, then it’s 2007. I’d love for it to be done by sometime in 2007. So, forget the 2008! 2007 is my dream finish time… but I dream a lot (laughing).

Being a big genre fan yourself, is it surreal for you to sit down with a legend like George Romero, or even some of the people he’s worked with like Stephen King?

It was very daunting to call Stephen King’s assistant and even try to make an appointment. I’m just a regular person and Stephen seems like a guy in a big castle to me. (laughs) I called in February of last year (2005) and I remember his secretary asked, “Ok, well, how about Tuesday…?” And I said OK. And she continued, “… of August.” (laughs) Well, ok. That was the first his schedule was open, which was 6 months later. He also from what I understand doesn’t do a lot of interviews, so we felt privileged & we were very excited about it. So, one day we just got up at 8 AM, drove straight to Maine, got in a car and drove straight back. It was quite a trip. Although we did make a stop in Boston to interview Brother Blue from Knightriders, who was just such a wonderful person. It was interesting because we were going from Stephen King, who’s basically one of the largest literary figures in the world to Brother Blue, who’s this wonderful street performer. It just goes to show that we really are going out of our way to get as many people as possible, as many eclectic voices involved with George. In the last year, thru this project, I basically met many directors and actors that I wanted to meet. It’s been scary and nice. (laughs)
It’s definitely been surreal to talk to someone like John Landis, who’s one of my favorite director’s. What’s interesting is that in Pittsburgh, there is a Romero family. So, when you first call people, they test you. Not in a nasty way, but they are very protective of George. People love George. And I’m sure a lot of people have called. But after 5 minutes of conversation, they realize we’re really serious. And it’s fascinating to hear stories about ‘Night Of The Living Dead’. We just spoke to Judith O’Dea, and she’s such a sweet, wonderful person. Myself and my assistant director Bill got really choked up while we were doing that interview!

You’ve done a number of conventions at this point and screened some early footage from the documentary. What’s the convention experience been like from your perspective? And it seems like the audiences here are very receptive of the ‘Dead On’ footage. How does that affect you?

Honestly, I’ve always loved Fangoria. It’s a fun magazine, and when my picture was in the magazine for the Chicago appearance, it was very touching. It’s great. I love horror films, and it’s a dream. I’ve been going to comic book and horror conventions since I was 12. I know it can be easy to make fun of people who go to stuff like this, but the truth is most of the people that come to conventions are really nice & supportive. We’ve all just nerds and it’s fun for us. (laughs) It’s great to be around people with so much passion for movies. I’m just excited to be here. And people at these last few conventions come up to me and tell me they bought ‘ACNE’ or have seen it, and I’m just surprised that they even know about the film!

In the last 6 or so months since it’s been on Go Kart Films, we’ve sold a lot of copies of it. For an independent film. Some people like it, some people dislike it. But it’s really nice that it’s getting out there. My mom called me to tell me she was at a chain record store and saw it and she walked up to the guy at the counter and said “This is my son!”. And the guy at the counter said, “Whatever!” (laughs) How can that not be nice for people to appreciate something you’ve done?

Since you’re still working on ‘Dead On’, I know you mentioned that you’re still looking for people with stories or props or collectibles or pictures of George to contribute to the documentary. How can people contact you to take part?

Yes. If people have photos of George, I’d be interested in seeing them. So if fans would like to scan them and send them to me so I can take a look, they can email me at movieside@hotmail.com. If they have any interesting artifacts, like old press kits or press books, hard to find stills, or any old interviews that they might have taped off TV, I’d love to see it. We have a lot of material, but we’re always looking for more stuff. We’d love to find old interviews with Duane Jones. Or other people associated to George’s films. Contact me thru my email, or my ‘mypace’ page, or go to my website www.neweyefilms.com.

I noticed while watching the footage from ‘Dead On’ that you screened here at the convention that there are a few interesting people I didn’t expect to see talk about Romero. Penn Jillette and John Waters. Why Penn Jillette? Why John Waters?

Right. One thing that was important to me while making this film – George is very important to the horror community, but we also have to understand that George’s work and influence goes far beyond the horror community. He’s tried thru the years to expand his work. I really wanted to show that George has had such a wide influence.
My films have been in a number of festivals and at those festivals are usually filmmakers, directors, actors – so, if I see someone who I think is interesting, I’ll go up to them and ask them about George. In the case of Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller, I walked up to him thinking there’s no way that he could be a fan of or familiar with George Romero’s work. So, I walked up to him and asked him “Hi, I’m making a documentary on George Romero. Are you a fan of his work?” He threw his hands out with his fingers spread and said, “Dawn… Of The Dead… is my favorite film!” (laughs) I thought “Great!” And if you think about Penn & Teller, they have a lot of sort of gory, interesting bits. He turned out to be a Romero historian. He and Teller talked endlessly about George’s films and they go to see every one of his films. John Waters and George Romero have had very similar career paths… both continue to make films that are very true to their visions and very identifiable as their works.

We do not want DEAD ON to only cover George’s horror work and DEAD ON is not a horror documentary… though we love horror movies… this movie acknowledges George as a great filmmaker and will show how his work has left a mark on many different kinds of filmmakers… so you will see a few surprises as far a people we interview.

How much of George’s pre-Night Of The Living Dead work were you able to see? Is that stuff hard to track down? Because I saw some of his commercial work in your preview footage.

I’ve seen many of his commercials, and we’re really doing out best to track down as much stuff as possible. George has given us access to some of his photos and we’ve been to his house a couple of times, which is very exciting. We’re trying to get a lot of that early Latent Image days stuff, and this film (‘Dead On’) will have a lot of great stories about some of the down time moments of Latent Image and Image 10 crews.

We heard you’re also working on the script for your next narrative feature film,’Teenagers From Mars,’ what is that about?

It’s going to be a very dark look at what leads young people in this country to go through with violent acts. The subject matter is very disturbing. I can’t say too much about the film because the script isn’t completed yet but I will say that I’m extremely excited about the project.

Thanks for talking with us, Rusty. Can’t wait to see ‘Dead On’ and ‘Teenagers From Mars’ and we wish you the best on all your future projects!

Visit: www.neweyefilms.com and mypace.com/RustyNailsFilmmaker
Contact Rusty at:
Special Thanks to Rusty Nails for his time!!!

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