Your new movie House
on the Hill - in a few words, what is it about?
an account of the activities of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, two real life
serial killers that operated in Northern California, specifically San
Francisco and the Sierra Nevada foothill town of Wilseyville in the 1980s.
They were extremely notorious at the time. The movie conveys what they
were doing, kidnapping people, families and friends for money and material
wealth, and then killing them. I added a fictional “wraparound” story
and combined aspects of many victims into five or six victim characters,
so that the whole ugly story could be told in 85 minutes.
did you first come across the true story House
on the Hill is based on, and how much research did you do on the
killing spree of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng when writing the movie?
The movie came about when director Ulli Lommel and I
were working together on a series of low budget, independent horror movies
Entertainment. Ulli had a freak success with a movie he made
called Zodiac Killer, which Artisan picked up in 2004 and made decent
money for Lionsgate. He and I had worked on some movies previously, and I
joined him in L.A. to create several more. We did a few supernatural
themed shows but mostly concentrated on serial killer stories, such as the
B.T.K. Killer, The Green River Killer and the one about the Canadian pig farmer, Robert Pickton.
We did Killer Pickton, in which I played the killer. You can’t see that
movie easily because it was banned in North America.
was searching for a topic that had not been filmed previously, and Leonard
Lake stood out to me. The research was quite exhaustive. Two non-fiction
books had been published, but I avoided those as inspiration and went
after the original newspaper reports on the pair’s activities after Lake
had been arrested. Also, I had access to court records of Charles Ng’s
trial as well as the videotape library that police confiscated from the
sources of inspiration for House
on the Hill?
2005, Ulli and I formed The Shadow Factory, a production company that made
several movies between 2005 and 2007. We had an actual factory going. One
movie would be in production, another would be in editing, and we'd be
writing another. Ulli and I both were well versed in the moviemaking
system created by Sam Arkoff and Roger Corman [Roger
Corman bio - click here] and applied it to our
venture. This system worked in that we met Lionsgate's release schedule,
but as we cranked out the movies they suffered in terms of quality. Also,
Ulli was directing ALL the movies and I think he was losing his mind a
little doing all that. The serial killer storylines were getting
increasingly bizarre, too. House
on the Hill was put on the schedule and I
co-wrote, produced and directed. I was looking at how we could make a
BETTER movie using our budget limitations.
What can you tell us about your
co-writer Nicole Marie Polec, what did she bring to the table, and what
was your collaboration like?
was brought into The Shadow Factory by one of our regulars, actress
Jillian Swanson. She worked on a few of our films as an actress. She and I
hit it off and brought a twisted humor to the screenplay for House
on the Hill. I hired her as my assistant director on the
movie as well. In
on the Hill, she and I created a scene plan from the large
amount of available research on the case and I would write the scenes. She
and I would edit and I wrote the script based on our conversations. She
was on set with me and we rewrote a lot as we shot.
When it comes to torture
and murder, it's hard to get any more cynic than Lake and Ng were - so
when making the movie, how hard was it to find the right balance between
the nihilistic attitude of your leads and something that's still watchable
for the general public?
I’m not so sure that House
on the Hill is a movie
for the general public. The main characters were basic opportunists,
narcissists and enjoyed torturing and killing people. The actors playing
the two killers understood they had to display some genuine humanity in
their characterizations, to offset the ugliness of the world we tried to
create in the movie. That became the challenge.
One aspect that was only touched on in the movie was
the fact that Lake was constructing a bomb shelter at his residence in the
Sierra Nevada Mountains. The cells that held the women captives were
underground and were part of an underground complex Lake was building in
order to survive the nuclear war he was certain would come. Lake and Ng
were pragmatists, as well. The kidnapping and killings were tied to
schemes to make money. One of the major points of the movie is that they
were generally unsuccessful in making money and terrible at choosing the
appropriate people to kidnap for ransom. And Lake would often default to
kidnapping and murdering people he just didn’t like.
worth mentioning that the formula for all the serial killer movies Ulli
and I worked on was the same: episodic stories that would go from one kill
scene to the next, and there had been attempts to “get inside the
head” of the killers in each movie. Killer Pickton and The Green River
Killer are useful examples of this approach. The constant voiceover in
Killer Pickton was supposed to indicate his state of mind, for example. In House
on the Hill, I turned that approach around a little bit by telling
the story of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng through the eyes of the victims.
It was a subtle change. The episodic approach was applied in so many of
those movies because it made shooting easy and inexpensive. Overall,
was happy with the episodic “kill scene after kill
scene” approach and wanted more of that.
The character of Sonia - was she
actually based on one of the victims of Lake and Ng, and to what extent
could you identify with her?
Sonia was a
fictional character that Nicole and I created in order to tell the story
from a victim’s point of view. In reality, there were no survivors of
the Leonard Lake killing spree. Sonia was envisioned as the point of
identification for the audience. She was partly based on Patty Hearst, the
newspaper heiress that was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a
bunch of wacko terrorists operating in the San Francisco area in the
1970s. At some point, Patty Hearst took up arms with her terrorist
captives and became one of them. Sonia does likewise, as a survival
mechanism. This phenomenon is called the Stockholm Syndrome.
What can you tell us about
your overall approach to your story at hand?
story was constructed as a flashback being told by Sonia to the detective
character, which gave me a lot of flexibility in terms of designing the
shoot. The production was devised in such a way that we could shoot the
principal work in about two weeks at a single location, and then schedule
additional scenes and pickups around L.A. over a planned two more weeks.
For principal photography we had limited funds and wanted to make the
movie look more expensive than it was, so keeping on budget was paramount
and elevating the look and feel of the scenes, especially the kill scenes,
was Number One.
about your key cast for a bit, and why exactly these people?
knew most of the cast from previous Shadow Factory productions. If you
look at Ulli’s Lionsgate/Artisan movies from that period, it features
the same actors in different wigs and costumes. Others came in on casting
calls, such as Brenna Briski, who played Leonard Lake’s neighbor. The
two actors that played the killers, Stephen Day and Sam Leung also came in
on a casting call. Stephen was an actor and comic who also had played
cello for a few philharmonics in the past, and Sam was a talented stunt
man and actor. I was very pleased with my cast and they gave me exactly
what I was looking for in terms of performance. One of the top if not the
most important tasks for any director is to acquire the right cast.
few words about your location, and how closely did you stick to the actual
site all these crimes happened?
house in House
on the Hill is in Winnetka, California. It is part of a
large 1960s tract development in the San Fernando Valley. The house
belonged to the sound editor for The Shadow Factory. There were aspects of
this house that I used to imitate important landmarks from the actual Lake
property. The location had a large backyard that served various purposes
for the movie plot, and was visually interesting. A foliage fence, high
ivy and thick undergrowth allowed me to create the illusion of this being
a totally isolated environment, as was the Lake compound in Wilseyville,
even though the shooting location was close to other homes and even a
What can you tell us
about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?
The shoot was run like a military operation. I had a
production manager that was the epitome of efficiency and she organized it
all extremely well. I planned the shots in the manner of Russ Meyer,
working fast with a small crew and getting good coverage.
The atmosphere on the set was very upbeat. Most of
the actors had worked together before. They were well fed, which is often
a key to success on these micro budget shoots.
We spent three days in San Francisco getting the
Golden Gate bridge scenes and the sequence where Leonard stalks the
teenage girl. After finishing principal photography, I put the movie aside
to concentrate on a sales effort for The Shadow Factory, which Ulli Lommel
sabotaged… and as a result, he and I parted company. I took House
on the Hill away from Ulli and Lionsgate
and put the whole project aside. I’d
been doing this factory routine for a few years and was getting burned
when I returned to the movie’s post-production it became clear that the
first iteration of House
on the Hill for Lionsgate
was not going to meet a
standard needed in order to gain distribution. I financed a second shoot
in 2009 and filmed new scenes, reshot some scenes and reworked the movie
somewhat, so that it could be distinguished from the early Shadow Factory
projects. I edited the movie myself. Christian Baker is credited onscreen
in first position as editor due to contractual reasons, but I was
responsible for the final cut and re-edited all of the scenes he worked on
in 2006. I brought in Shannon Leade, one of the actors from the movie and
a good filmmaker in her own right, as a co-producer during post-production
and she brought a lot of good ideas to the table. After all the work was
completed, it took another two years to sell House
on the Hill. In 2013,
ITN Distribution acquired it. It was released in 2014 first in Europe and
then in the US. It was a long saga from inception to release.
few words about audience and critical reception of your movie so far?
be real straight with you. I love getting emails and notes from people who
like the movie. This is a “niche” movie that appeals only to a certain
audience. There have been some good, fair reviews but most of the horror
movie reviewers out there have ignored it. I’m talking about the major
horror fan mags and online swamps. One reviewer from a high profile online
publication obviously had not seen the movie but wrote an inaccurate,
negative review anyway. That is often the case with reviewers and bloggers
that have no credentials, which is most of them. I know from what I speak,
because I come from that group, many years ago. I was one of the first
editors of Cinefantastique magazine in the late 1970s and also wrote for
what I know, in quite some territories your movie got into trouble with
the censors - care to elaborate?
Early on, the movie was designed strictly as an
R-rated movie. Lionsgate
was committed to distribute the R-rated cut of
the movie after a screening of my rough cut in 2006. Soon after that, Mr.
Lommel and I had a falling out and I took back the movie. I would have
loved to see Artisan release House
on the Hill but I was certain I’d get
ripped off in the process.
Later, I realized that in order to sell House
on the Hill on the open market and without Lionsgate’s support I would have to
do something to give it an edge. Please note that I am one of the most
peaceful people you’ll ever meet and I enjoy and have enjoyed the
company of many female friends and some ex-wives, and that those people
know that I have high regard for women. However, in the context of making House
on the Hill and considering the context of the Lake murders and the
fact that I wanted to get the movie into distribution…. additional
extreme and sexualized violence against women seemed to be the way to go
to get a distributor to even look at the movie. I was correct. I had no names in the movie, no lead
actor that the viewer would recognize. The only big mistake I made with House
on the Hill was not obtaining a name actor for some role in the
film. With no known names in the cast, I relied on the documentary footage
of Leonard Lake and sexualized violence to market the film to
To accomplish this, I constructed new scenes or
reshot old scenes in order to accentuate the violence. At the time, I had
seen a horror movie in which, during the opening scene, a woman is killed
in extreme close-up with a baseball bat. The camera doesn’t move and you
see her face battered to a pulp. Inspired by that dubious scene, I shot an
opening “gross out” scene that I hoped would let the audience know
what kind of a movie they were getting into. It was one of several new
touches I made. I re-edited the movie from the version shown to Lionsgate
and added a new soundtrack, all meant to help make a sale.
overdone violence and rapes that were supposed to get the attention of
potential distributors were offensive to the censors. The shower rape
sequence between Sam Leung and Brenna Briski is completely missing from
the DVD and VOD releases, although fans were able to see stills from that
scene that had been posted without permission on the Internet prior to the
movie’s 2014 release. All scenes of Olivia Parrish’s nudity are
optically zoomed or fogged. Other small moments of violence have been cut.
The U.K. release is almost incomprehensible because of the censor’s
Any future projects
you'd like to share?
on the Hill, I wanted to try something other than horror. I’ve written the
screenplay for a movie to be shot in Asia, probably summer of 2016. It is
a romantic comedy. The movie is funded and the project of award-winning
director Georges Chamchoum. I’d been involved in a horror feature film
project called Supernal Darkness, but left after I realized the producers
were never going to get it together. Sometimes saying no to a project can
be more important than saying yes. I’ve directed a few music videos.
There is a horror feature I’m working on now but can’t say much about
What got you into filmmaking in the
first place, and did you receive any formal education on the subject?
the journalist and book author who decided to go into the movie business.
I continue to write movie scripts and plan feature films, but I also
continue to work in the publishing field and have been working in the
online journalism field since 1993. Prior to that, I did the usual student
films as a youth. I learned a great deal about the production and
marketing side of making movies from Ulli Lommel, and I have learned a
great deal about the art of directing actors from Monte Hellman. They are
my mentors. Everything else has been self-taught, from lenses to Final Cut
Pro to scoring a movie (my son and I wrote and performed some of the music
on the Hill).
the years, you have worked quite a bit with Ulli Lommel who's also House
on the Hill's script consultant - so what's working with him like?
Ulli’s credit on House
on the Hill came out of a
15-minute meeting in 2005 in which he came up with what I think were
excellent ideas. One, tell the movie as a flashback, which was critical to
solving some budgeting issues early on. And two, the final shot of the
real Leonard Lake as we zoom into his face. Other than that, Ulli was very
hands off. He did pay me a very high compliment, though, upon seeing the
first cut of the movie. He said it reminded him of director Roman
Polanski’s early work.
with Ulli was usually a fun adventure and he has a tremendous humanity and
sense of humor about him. I have many fine memories of working with him
and appreciate everything he did taking a chance on me.
can you tell us about your filmwork prior to House
on the Hill (in whatever position)?
been a published author with two non-fiction books and two novels, over
300 magazine articles in the medical and high tech fields since 1984, as
well as movie reviewer, potential screenwriter. My work as an author of
movie director interview articles has appeared in numerous magazines,
including Video Watchdog and mags mentioned earlier. My first serious
movie credit was as screenwriter of Ulli Lommel’s childrens film, Danny
and Max (a.k.a. Monkey Rap), which was shot in 2000 in Arizona. It was
made for the German TV channel RTL, and was shown on the Disney
also helped Ulli in a production capacity on a few of his unsold feature
films — Hitchghost and September Song. The Lionsgate/Artisan movies I
worked on followed, starting with Killer Pickton in 2005.
you describe yourself as a director?
Feeling lucky ?
any of my partnershops yourself
for more, better results ?
The links below
will take you
well prepared, relaxed on the set, helpful to the actors but not
overwhelming, quiet and joking with the cast and crew between takes,
studied patience with the DP.
John Huston, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné, Monte Hellman, Robert Altman,
Victor Erice, John Ford, Dario Argento, George
movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?
you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?
for the interview!