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An Interview with Michael Bartlett, Director of Treehouse

by Mike Haberfelner

May 2014

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Your new movie Treehouse - in a few words, what is it about?

 

Treehouse is suspense thriller about two brothers who discover a missing girl when they stumble upon a treehouse deep within the local Missouri woods. Completely isolated they learn her attackers are nearby and soon they become trapped, using the treehouse as their bunker. It is a coming-of-age story that is probably closer to Stand by Me and It than it is to modern day Horror films.

 

How did the project come into being in the first place, and what drew you to it?

 

I was pitched the project by Alex Child and Miles Harrington in a pub back in the UK. I was getting ready to start filming Zombie Diaries 2 at the time. I wanted to get involved but it was, unfortunately, the right project at the wrong time. So they ended up optioning it to a very successful UK producer and I moved on and went to work on developing a time travel film, Timeless. Alex then contacted me in 2011 after I had relocated to Missouri and said they weren't able to get the film made and asked if I was still interested. So we worked out a deal and I managed to get it financed.

 

What can you tell us about your writers Miles Harrington and Alex Child, and what was your collaboration like?

 

The process of writing Treehouse was very different from how it normally works. With Timeless I had producers approach me, ask to option the film, tell me how they loved my script, and then learned they actually loved my concept but wanted me to rewrite the film. This will happen every time you get a new producer involved. After a ton of rewrites you find yourself in a spiral of self doubt and do not connect with your own material anymore.

 

I was tired of this method and, in general, I am always looking for better ways to do things. So I told Alex and Miles from the get-go that I loved the characters and concept in their script but I did not love their screenplay. I told them I wanted to rewrite it and change the antagonists. However I told them I would spend a few months doing this and then at the end of the process if they were not happy they could walk away and return full control of their script. No legal battles of options or any of that nonsense. In return I could get the exclusive rights to rewrite the film for free without paying an option fee. It worked great and Alex and Miles are very happy with the process. They are great to work with and we always push one another. Alex hates cliche and is always trying to find ways to innovatively tell a story.

 

The process was as follows: I use a combination of screenwriting techniques to build a screenplay. The biggest of which is the SEQUENCES method. So I would write a sequence and then send to Alex and Miles for feedback. That way I was writing in small 10-15 minute chunks. Before we knew it we had a 95 page script. It's a great way of tackling a screenplay, whilst also keeping reviewers involved (it's easier to sit down with a cup of tea and spend 10 minutes reading than trying to digest an entire screenplay). I have writers working for me now on other projects and we use exactly the same technique.

 

What can you tell us about the look and feel of your movie?

 

The film is lensed to look like a 70s/80s movie. It was shot on Red Epics with old Russian lenses. It is a suspense movie which is designed to feel incredibly immersive. I do this with a calm pace that allows the viewer to get to know the characters and the world they live in. I have always had a problem with the first 15 minutes of most genre films where we are supposed to like the characters. Wolf Creek, Frozen and Paranormal Activity stick out as films where the first sequence was painful to sit through and I hated the characters. It's almost like filmmakers in the golden era of the 80s knew how to make first acts and now it has become a forgotten art. I wanted to make people fall in love with the world and our protagonists so that when the transition into the second act happens, the audience is dragged into the darkness with them.

 

Do talk about Treehouse's approach to horror for a bit (as in suspense vs sudden shocks, atmosphere vs all-out gore and the like)!

 

Every type of movie has its place and audience. I used to enjoy the gory stuff like Braindead. I still remember laughing at school when a kid I knew had been shown a zombie film and thrown up when the zombie rolled over on a gurney and its stomach fell out onto the floor. But truth be told I grew up on a different kind of horror. In fact horror is not even the right term; maybe I should just say I grew up on stuff that was 'different' from the mainstream and it really shaped my mind. When I was a kid I used to stay up late with my parents and watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales of the Unexpected and The Twilight Zone. I also remember in my early teens being incredibly impressed by the story telling in George Romero's Martin and The Vanising (original). When I look back, all of these had one thing in common: Suspense.

 

And so my filmmaking instincts, that were shaped all of those years ago, propelled me into making a film that can be best described as a suspense thriller. A lot of people who are expecting an out-and-out horror will be disappointed. This movie is about atmosphere and suspense and I will leave it to others to decide if it is worthy of even being called a horror. I am not so sure - it's 50/50 for me.

 

You just have to talk about the treehouse-set itself for a bit, and what were the main challenges filming there?

 

Tony Noble (Moon), Jeremy Borg (Treehouse Masters) and I worked together to design a neat outdoor set that would provide the illusion of being high up in the trees but also be safe for Cameras. I broke all the rules of low budget filmmaking and wanted dolly shots galore so we had to have smooth platforms.

 

We found a steep drop in an area of land owned by our Locations Manager, Richard Michael. Richard was instrumental to the success of Winter's Bone. Debra Granik calls him her "Fixer" - he is a brilliant problem solver that just makes things happen. He helped construct the set with some local builders. It had fold up walls and platforms around the sides. So we could get some really neat dolly shots as well get the camera into seemingly impossible positions. You could look right off the edge and see tops of trees.

 

The most important thing is that it was an outdoor set so our actors had cold breath to maintain that element of realism. It was a little grueling at times but the team never complained about the cold. We soldiered on because we knew on camera it would look incredible. Jeremy Borg spent a month in the freezing cold meticulously laying aged barn wood around the stable wooden frame so that the thing sold on camera. Then when J. Christopher Campbell (DP from The Signal) showed up, he punched a few extra holes in to allow the light to filter in nicely and we had a finished set. A lot of the incredible look of the film is down to Chris and Jeremy. Their work combined perfectly and I am very lucky to have had them be part of this movie.

 

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

 

I saw 600 people nationwide for Elizabeth and Crawford each and 300 for Killian. Then another open casting in Springfield, Missouri of 300. I used Heather Laird (Winter's Bone) to cast the movie but unlike a lot of directors, I did a lot of the casting director's job. Normally they whittle down the list for you. I am a bit of a control freak so Heather kindly let me look at every submission myself. And I did. J. Michael was the first person I looked at for Killian and I fell in love with him instantly. So did Alex and Miles. I kept those guys involved at every stage of the movie making process. Daniel Fredrick was the first person I saw for Crawford. Again, no-one else came close; I had to have those actors come Hell or High Water. Then we find out that due to their schedules we only had them both at the same time for one week. So we rewrote the entire schedule so I could have my leads.

 

In the case of Elizabeth it worked differently. There were a number of very good actresses who came close, including one local girl from open auditions and two actresses from Missouri. But the competition was fierce and the LA girls had the edge. For me it was a big struggle to choose between the final three, which involved interviewing them with their managers. Interviews that, again, Alex and Miles attended.  However my wife, who knows me better than I know myself, claims that she could see in my face that I cast Dana Melanie the moment I laid eyes on her first audition. I don't believe this to be true but my wife is rarely wrong.

 

What can you tell us about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?

 

The shoot was very cold and a nasty flu bug took down almost everyone at some point, losing us days, but there was a real sense of camaraderie about the team. I had two friends who paid their own flights so they could come out and volunteer on the movie from the UK. That is how much people enjoy working on my films. I have a pretty good sense of character - I can read people normally within the first 30 seconds of meeting them and, as such, I rarely end up in situations where someone needs to be fired.

 

Campbell and I developed a sixth sense that was eerily similar to the bond I have with Kevin Gates [Kevin Gates interview - click here], my long time collaborator. I combined an experienced team from Atlanta with young, hungry people from Missouri who wanted to prove themselves. For the reshoots I used an entire Missouri crew headed up by Sarah Kessinger (Production Co-ordinator on Winter's Bone) who is probably the best Missouri-based producer I know of.  

 

For me the shoot was very tough as I was working a full-time job at the same time. So I had no time off. I would work 2 days a week on my day job, then 5 days on the movie. I started having strange hallucinations at night where I would sit up in bed while dreaming and start complaining to my wife that a shot was not framed correctly and asking where Chris (the DP) was. It was also incredibly emotional for me as I didn't feel that I was just making a film. Ryan Fitzpatrick (costume designer) told me Treehouse was like a place he felt he went on vacation to, and then when it was finished he needed time to readjust to 'life back in the real world'. And that sums it up perfectly. It took me about a month to reintegrate and stop dreaming about making the film every night. When everyone left to go home (I had one hotel and one large house full of crew) I remember feeling pretty emotional as I had made a lot of good friends and now some of those people I may not see for a few years or more.

 

As the leader of this shoot I tried to be generous and put people first, but it is impossible to direct and produce a film at the same time. So I had to delegate to others. I have had a lot of crew come back and say how much they enjoyed the movie. So overall it was a very positive and character building experience.

 

The $64-question of course, when and where will the film be released?

 

We just had some offers for distribution at Cannes and will probably complete sales at AFM. Our sales agent, Imagination Worldwide, normally can close out most territories within 12 months, so I am hoping the film will be out in 2015 on DVD.

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

I am going to rewrite Timeless for Boundless Pictures this summer. Other than that I plan to take a year off to spend time with family and while this happens I have three projects in development that I am managing. If one of them kicks we can shoot the next one in late 2015.

 

What got you into filmmaking in the first place, and what can you tell us about your education on the subject?

 

I was just a regular guy who wanted to make movies with no clue how to get into the business. So I blogged my journey on MakingTheFilm.com which still stands as the world's longest running movie director blog.

 

I always wanted to make movies and seeing Jacob's Ladder during the summer of 1994 with my friend, Mark Wright, back in Walderslade (Kent, UK) was probably a great life affirming moments. I wrote and called every production company I could but nobody wanted to let me help out, even for free. This is one reason I try and help every young person who asks me for experience now because I know how it feels to be shut out from an opportunity to learn. So I put the dream aside. I then saw Jeeper's Creepers in 2001 and it was that incredible moment where you say to yourself: "I could do better than this."  And the rest is history.

 

I started my journey in November 2001 and shot my first short in 2003 (Mnemosyne) and my first feature in 2005 (Zombie Diaries). I am completely self-taught and I honestly think the best way to learn to make movies is just to go out there and do it. You can obviously read interviews and books by experts and people have trodden the path before you. But no education rivals making your own movie. And also a lot of the good instincts that make a good director I feel come from watching a lot of movies at an impressionable age. I feel all film directors are *film directors* before they get to the age of 10, they just don't realize it ... but in a way they always know it's in their blood and finally admit the truth to themselves when they get older.

 

A young girl named Capri e-mailed me after I finished day 1 of my open casting on Treehouse in Springfield, MO which was featured on the local news. She said she wanted to make movies and learn the business and asked if I could help her. So I invited her for day 2. I gave her a job, a camera and put her to work. She then worked as an assistant to the unit production manager and has since worked on a ton of other productions. I am absolutely dedicated to helping young people who want to work hard and learn have that opportunity. In fact I have never turned anyone away who was serious about learning.

 

What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to Treehouse?

 

I co-created The Zombie Diaries franchise for The Weinstein Company with Kevin Gates [Kevin Gates interview - click here]. We then shot a part-reality, part-fiction film titled The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill shortly before I left the UK. That was probably the funnest film I ever made. I love old school, slow burn horror and that film, which spent 3 years in the edit, was the perfect blend of that genre with a documentary. It was inspired by the BBC stunt Ghostwatch.

 

One can't help but notice that most of your films are of the horror variety - a genre at all dear to you, and why (not)?

 

Horror is, frankly, the easiest way into the industry. It's also a great way to find innovative ways to tell stories and let your imagination run wild. I've gone off it a little, lately, though. I rarely see a horror film these days I think is any good. I heard Occulus is great and will check that out. Before that the last horror I enjoyed was State of Emergency, a super low budget film where the characters work together rather than bicker. Before that, The Conjuring - a very well made film that was fun, but not scary at all.  It looks like the industry is returning to the more slow-burn route now. We are seeing more thoughtful, suspenseful movies coming out (one of the good things I hear about Occolus) and less mindless gore. So maybe I will start to enjoy more movies in the genre. We'll see. I'd like to see more stuff like Prisoners and Se7en being made.

 

How would you describe yourself as a director?

 

I know exactly what I want. That was the biggest compliment I had from a very experienced Atlanta team who said countless directors are not focussed and keep changing their minds. I am also very open and anybody on my set is free to speak their mind. I keep finding that with movies, in general, characters keep making stupid decisions or crazy things happen because the writers have written themselves into a corner (like someone forgetting they have a cell phone - I think that was Eden Lake, but I can't remember, it definitely happened in a film, though). So for this movie I hired two guys who had no experience of filmmaking. They were just two angry guys who were fed up with the usual nonsense decision making in modern films. The kind of guys who sigh loudly in the cinema and then bitch about the film the next day on Facebook. I figured that maybe all of us in the industry get into closed, clichéed ways of thinking. And I think I was right. Their no-holds-barred feedback on the script was brilliant. I have had feedback on my scripts from some well known producers, the head of Sony Stage 6 and the person who founded Paramount Vantage. And I will tell you right now - these two guys gave me the best feedback I have ever had. It was real. It's a bit like a test screening to your target audience, except you are doing it at the script stage.

 

Filmmakers who inspire you?

 

Kubrick is my idol. I love the way he used the camera to tell stories. Shane Carruth I think is a monster talent.  His movie, Upstream Color, told a story through emotion rather than conventional narrative means. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like that. It was beautiful although I completely understand why some people did not like it. I like "old school Spielberg" and "old school Carpenter". Absolutely adore Jaws, Duel, The Thing, Halloween. I love Aronofsky (we can just pretend The Fountain never happened). Noah is my favorite movie of the year so far. Incredible story telling.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

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The Swimmer. My favorite movie of all time. Burt Lancaster is so great in that movie. It's the godfather of that breed of WTF movies that Memento, Vanilla Sky, Donnie Darko and Mulholland Drive made popular again.

 

Other than that I would say: Psycho, No Country for Old Men, Jacob's Ladder, Full Metal Jacket, Duel, Assault on Precinct 13.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

In Bruges. I just hate that fucking movie. Six Shooter as well.

 

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

 

Twitter: MakingTheFilm

E-mail: via my manager, JP Henraux: henraux@aol.com

Facebook: Bleeding Edge Films

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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On the same day
a Burglar wants to kill you
and your Ex wants
to make up ...
... and for the life of it,
you can't decide
WHICH IS WORSE!!!

 

A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
Melanie Denholme
directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
starring
Ryan Hunter and
Rudy Barrow

out now on DVD

 

 

Stell Dir vor, Deine Lieblingsseifenoper birgt eine tiefere Wahrheit ...
... und stell Dir vor, der Penner von der U-Bahnstation hat doch recht ...
... und dann triffst Du auch noch die Frau Deiner (feuchten) Träume ...

 

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Bauliche Angelegenheiten
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