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An Interview with Jeff Frentzen, Director of House on the Hill

by Mike Haberfelner

January 2016

Films directed by Jeff Frentzen on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new movie House on the Hill - in a few words, what is it about?

 

It's 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.

 

How 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 for Lionsgate 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.

I 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 Lake property.

 

Other sources of inspiration for House on the Hill?

 

In 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?

 

Nicole 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 writing House 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.

 

It’s 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, though, Lionsgate 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?

 

The 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.

 

Do talk about your key cast for a bit, and why exactly these people?

 

I 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.

 

A few words about your location, and how closely did you stick to the actual site all these crimes happened?

 

The 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 playground.

 

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 out.

Later, 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.

 

A few words about audience and critical reception of your movie so far?

 

I’ll 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 Fangoria.

 

From 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 distributors.

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.

The 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 cuts.

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

After House 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 it.

 



What got you into filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any formal education on the subject?

 

I’m 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 in House on the Hill).

 

Over 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.

Working 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.

 

What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to House on the Hill (in whatever position)?

 

I’ve 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 Channel. I 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.

 

How would you describe yourself as a director?

 

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Extremely 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.

 

Filmmakers who inspire you?

 

John Huston, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné, Monte Hellman, Robert Altman, Victor Erice, John Ford, Dario Argento, George A. Romero.

 

Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

https://www.facebook.com/houseonthehillthemovie/

 

Anything else you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

Nope.

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

You are welcome!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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On the same day
a Burglar wants to kill you
and your Ex wants
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... and for the life of it,
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WHICH IS WORSE!!!

 

A Killer Conversation

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Melanie Denholme
directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
starring
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Rudy Barrow

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