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An Interview with Scott Schirmer, Director of Found

by Mike Haberfelner

September 2012

Films directed by Scott Schirmer on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new film Found - in a few words, what is it about?

 

Found is about a fifth-grade boy who discovers his older brother is a serial killer.

 

How did the project get off the ground in the first place? And how did you get in touch with Todd Rigney's novel the film is based on?

 

I work for the publishing company where Todd published the first edition many years ago. I stumbled across it by accident, but it sounded so interesting that I took home the galley and read it in one sitting. Words can't describe how thrilled I was after finishing that book. It had been years since I made a movie, and I was beginning to wonder if anything would ever inspire me to make another one, so I couldn't wait to talk to Todd about it. After a little research on the web, I found his email address and we started up a conversation. I drove to Lexington, KY to meet with him, and THANK GOODNESS he was totally awesome and gave his blessing to continue. I don't know what I would have done if he said no. I wanted this more than I've ever wanted anything. Ever.

 

You wrote the screenplay for Found together with Todd Rigney - what was your collaboration like, and how protective was Todd Rigney concerning his creation?

 

I've done another adaptation before, which was really challenging, because some books simply aren't written with movies in mind -- and they shouldn't be. But Todd wrote Found as though it were already a movie. So the adaptation was very direct and very simple. I structured the screenplay scene by scene, and nearly all the dialogue in the movie is Todd's. We agreed from the start that Todd would have final script approval, but he was incredibly gracious about letting us make changes here and there. I don't think any of them would be considered major. People who've read the book and seen the movie seem to agree it's a very faithful adaptation. It was sometimes tempting to expand or clarify points Todd brings up in the book, but we always reeled ourselves back in because we love how open to interpretation the characters' motivations are. We feel it's actually a pretty deep story full of multiple meanings, and to put too fine a point on any of its themes or issues would make it preachy. So we exercised a lot of restraint. Probably the biggest thing we added was a visual element, not really a story element -- we added the gas mask. In the book, Steve doesn't wear one, but I thought it would be a cool visual element and Todd agreed. In all, it was super easy to work with Todd and I hope to do it again in the future.

 

Found is part coming-of-age drama, part horror film - where did you find yourself more at home at?

 

I've always loved coming-of-age movies, but it seems most of them never take off or go anywhere. The best ones always seem to be the darker ones -- like Stand By Me or Welcome to the Dollhouse, and even 400 Blows has a bleak ending. So really, I think the best coming of age movies ARE horror movies. Because growing up sucks. Loss of innocence sucks. There are things that can't be unlearned in life, a sense of safety you can't ever return to. Childhood could be defined as the absence of sex or death. Once one or both of those factors enter the equation, it's time to grow up. So, I guess if coming-of-age is horror, then I'm more at home in horror. I see a lot of horror movies in my future. I hope.

 

Deep Dwellers

Headless

Found also contains extended clips from two fake schlock monster movies - now how much fun were they to shoot, and could you ever be tempted to shoot a feature length movie of this sort?

 

Deep Dwellers and Headless were pretty fun to make. Since they appear within the movie (Found), we had to shoot them first. Each took about a weekend. They were fun for me personally because the cast and crew were so incredibly proficient and creative on those shoots. With Angela Denton, Brigid Macaulay and Shane Beasley acting in front of the camera, I barely had to say a word. They know what to do and they bring it. They bring more than you could ever hope for. And The Clockwerk Creature Company created the masks and effects -- all I had to do was film them. Looking back, Headless may have been the most fun we had on the entire shoot. We all felt like we were in our element. There's some talk of expanding Headless into a feature, but I'm not sure what it would take for me to want to direct it myself. The only way I could see making it worthwhile would be to follow the same approach that Maniac took -- the bittersweet psychological approach. And I don't want to copycat Maniac. But if we can find the right angle, something that makes it more than just a run-of-the-mill slasher movie, maybe the Headless killer will rise again ...

 

How would you describe your directorial approach to your subject at hand?

 

All filmmakers are influenced by their idols, so I really borrowed liberally from other filmmakers in my approach to Found. First of all, it was imperative that the audience identify and empathize with Marty. So whenever possible I wanted to have closeups of Marty's face. One of the reasons I wanted to go with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio is so that we could get those Sergio Leone-style extreme closeups of Marty's eyes, especially when he's watching Headless. One of the things I told Leya Taylor (our DP) was to avoid medium shots whenever at all possible, and that's a Leone philosophy. There's something inherently cinematic about the juxtaposition of wide shots and extreme closeups, and you'll find that kind of thing in Leone movies. Plus, what's more boring than a medium shot anyway? So we had Leone in mind during Found. And there are times when Marty's not saying anything, but by lingering on his face you give the audience time to put themselves in his shoes. I favored reaction shots in the cutting. I'm also happy to hear a few people saying how voyeuristic the movie feels to them. We intentionally tried to put objects in the extreme foreground to give some scenes that voyeuristic kind of feeling -- like you're peeking into someone's private life.

 

A few words about your key cast, and why were they perfect for their roles?

 

Gavin Brown

Obviously, the whole movie hinges on the two leading performances. So I'm still thanking the movie gods that we found Gavin and Ethan. Gavin came to our attention through Sheila Butler, who helped us cast the movie. He didn't really have any prior acting experience, but I just had a feeling about him. Whoever played Marty, it was important that I like the kid, and that I believed he would have the stamina to do take after take after take after take, and shoot for however many days we ended up shooting -- 32, I think it was. We saw a number of other kids, but Gavin was real and raw. And for a child actor, lack of experience can just as easily be a good thing as it can be bad. A kid with a lot of theatre or commercial experience, for example, is likely to project their voice all the time or smile all the time -- because that's what gets drilled into kids in musical and children's theatre, and commercials, too. And Marty is such a disturbed, sullen boy, we needed someone more real than all that. So I took a leap of faith with Gavin, and working with him was by far my biggest task during the shoot, and rightly so. He carries the movie. He carries it beautifully, and I'm just so proud of him.

 

Ethan Philbeck

Ethan was actually a last-minute replacement for the role of Steve, and that's another thing we owe to the movie gods. The previous actor's family had major issues with the movie's content, and we didn't want that hanging over the movie. So we kinda mutually decided to open the part back up for another actor. Unfortunately, we didn't really like any of the other actors we had already auditioned, so we had a week where we frantically posted on social media to send as many actors our way as possible. And we ended up seeing five more young men for the part of Steve, and one of them was Ethan Philbeck. Arthur Cullipher, our makeup effects supervisor, had spent some time with Ethan during a recent local production of My Fair Lady and urged him to audition, so we really have to thank Arthur for that, because Ethan is amazing. The first thing I loved about Ethan was that he had notes and questions about the script and wanted to talk about it with us. He was clearly very conscientious, and I thought that was a necessary quality for an actor going into material this dark and disturbing. He made me feel confident that if he could wrap his head around the character and his motivations, he'd be fearless in tackling the role. And he was. Ethan put his ass, quite literally, on the line. And I've got mad respect and admiration for the guy.

 

What can you tell us about your collaboration with your producer Leya Taylor, who as I understand it also handled cinematography and sound on Found?

 

Leya Taylor and Scott Schirmer on set

I needed a partner in crime on this because I knew it was going to be way to big, emotional, taxing, and amazing to keep to myself. So while I was still in the script-writing stage with Todd Rigney, I asked Leya to get involved with the movie, so she read the book, loved it, and she basically said she wanted to be as involved as possible. Early on, we thought about hiring a cinematographer, but the more we thought about it, the less comfortable we became with bringing in a totally unknown person for such an important role on the movie. So we both learned the ins and outs of the Canon 7D together, and when we decided she should be the DP, I asked my long-time friend and collaborator Damien Wesner to come in and help us on the producing end so she could focus more on the camera during production. But roles overlapped a lot during the shoot. We were operating two cameras most days, so Damien and I both shot second camera at various times, but Leya was always operating and most of the footage in the final movie is hers. When you consider it was her first time, that she was largely hand-held, and that we had no focus-pulling assistance, it's actually a pretty amazing feat. Leya also did foley work and sound effects editing during post-production. She made my favorite scene in the movie, the burning of the artwork, really come to life with the foley she did. And now that the movie's finished, she's still working on it, submitting it to festivals and soliciting movie reviews. But when I think of Leya Taylor, there's really no credit that does her justice on this movie. She was there for me every day, every night, whenever things were going well or whenever they were going to hell in a hand basket. I need a producer who helps keep me sane, and she took pretty good care of me. And I can be quite a mess. She cared about the movie every bit as much as I did, we had productive arguments (fights, even), and toward the end of the shoot there were days where it was just me, her, and the actors. A lot of people worked very hard on Found and it's very much the sum product of all our efforts, so I hope I'm not hurting anyone's feelings to say this, but Found couldn't have been made without Leya. There were some dark days right before production and even half-way through production, where I'm not sure anyone else could have convinced me to keep going.

 

As far as I know, Found hasn't gone into wide release yet. So what can you tell us about critical and audience reception so far, and how do you plan to proceed, release-wise?

 

Scott Schirmer, Sybil Danning, Bill Moseley, Leya Taylor, Damien Wesner

I'm still soaking it all in and waiting for the other shoe to drop. I spent about 7 months editing the movie, and I had really lost all my objectivity at that point. But then Leya showed the movie to a group of friends, and they were really impressed, and then we had our premiere in Bloomington, Indiana, back on July 14th. About 350 people showed up... and they loved it. I was numb during that screening, and even afterwards for a few days, but the applause and initial reactions were amazing. People started messaging us on social media about how much they loved the movie, how it messed with their heads, and people whom I don't know to get terribly excited about things were going out of their way to tell me how much they liked the movie. And that kind of reaction has continued through Elvira's Horror Hunt, our first film festival where we won best feature. Our very first festival, and we won. And now we have the likes of Elvira, Peaches Christ, Bill Moseley, Joe Bob Briggs, and Sybil Danning [Sybil Danning bio - click here] offering testimonials for us because of that. I'm still processing how amazing all this is. I'm shocked and humbled -- I don't know what else to say. People see Found and they want to own it. I'm usually very skeptical of compliments -- I don't receive them well, and I'm also very hard on my own work. But I'm finally beginning to realize that we actually have something here. This is the kind of great feeling I've always wanted to have about a movie I've made, and wasn't sure I'd ever have. And now that that dream has been realized, I'm just ecstatic. So grateful. We do have a few distribution offers at this point, including one from a top choice of mine, but we are not going to make a decision for at least several more months. We want the film to screen at more festivals around the country, and hopefully beyond. And we also haven't ruled out self-distribution.

 

Scott Schirmer, Peaches Christ, Cassandra Peterson aka Elvira

Let's go back to the beginnings of your career: As far as I know, you started making movies at a very early age - so what can you tell us about your early days, and how did you learn the craft?

 

I was fortunate enough to have parents that took me to the movies. A lot. So that's what inspired me. And then I was also fortunate enough to have some of the best teachers in the universe while I was growing up. My fifth grade teacher, Kay Rankin, introduced me to media fairs. She paired me with another boy that year and we made a film strip together. We won first prize at that year's fair, and we got to show the film strip to our entire grade. That pretty much sealed the deal for me. I got a taste for blood that's never let up. And another wonderful teacher, Marsha Daugherty, sponsored me at the media fairs every year thereafter, from sixth grade all the way through twelfth. She really championed me, never hesitated to pay whatever fees needed paid, or whatever supplies needed purchased. She believed in me and gave me confidence, and of course I didn't fully appreciate it back then, but now I know it was really the greatest gift. But those media fair projects, usually film strips with an accompanying soundtrack, taught me to tell stories in a concise manner and to plan ahead. Most kids would put their projects together a few months before the fair, but I'd start working on my next project right after the last fair was over! And the extra work and planning showed.

 

Other than the media fairs, I really didn't get much hands-on experience with video or film until college. I took a video art class at IU that helped me a lot, at least in terms of gaining more confidence. That class helped me to open up and tell more personal stories. I think maybe, if you're not a little embarrassed by what your art is saying, you're probably not making anything that's going to stick in people's minds. It was a small class and we watched each other's work every week and critiqued it -- by far the most amazing experience I had at IU. I was in the process of coming out at that time, so it weighed heavily on my mind. I made a video where the camera was just pointed at me, and I just sort of talked about what was going on -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was scary to make, and even scarier to show to the class, but there was nothing but love afterwards. My screenwriting class at IU was also pretty invaluable, if only because the professor had no qualms whatsoever about telling you how bad your script was. I got a very high mark from him and I still wear it like a badge of honor.

 

Before Found, I made several other movies -- from 10 minute shorts to 70-minute features, and for the most part I got better with each movie. That's all you can do at a certain point. You can read and talk about making movies forever, but until you actually start making them, you'll never get better at it. And prior to Found, I also watched an enormous number of movies. For a good three years, I was watching 12-15 movies a weekend, mostly older movies. It was a fun time, but I guess it was also a little like research maybe.

 

According to my information, your first "professional" film was Boy in the Making. What can you tell us about that one, and lessons learned from it?

 

My producing partner at the time, Dan Dixon, and I had just spent 3 years working on an ambitious animated project called DarWest, which unfortunately never got finished. But after all that painstaking work, we were eager to try our hands at live-action. Boy in the Making was originally a 90 or 100 minute movie, but we ended up cutting about 30 or 40 minutes out of it. I'd say the main lesson learned from that movie is edit your screenplay so you don't waste time shooting scenes that'll just get cut later. I also learned the importance of a good producing partner. Dan spoiled me by being such a committed project partner. After he left Bloomington to pursue other interests (check out universesandbox.com!), I wasn't sure I'd ever find another Dan. But then I met Leya.

 


Before Found, you have already dabbled in the horror genre once or twice. So what can you tell us about your earlier excursions into horror?

 

I went into House of Hope with all the best intentions, and I'm still fairly proud of the movie -- I cast some amazing actors in that movie, and the locations were awesome, but the script lacked suspense, and that's all on me. That's one of the reasons that prior to Found I watched about half of Hitchcock's entire filmography -- not that Found particularly benefitted from that. I'm eager to work more on building suspense -- I have a long way to go in that department, but I think it will be a fun journey. Then there was Full Moon Sonny, the movie of which I'm least proud. Once again, I had a good cast, but the script was clunky, nearly all the crew bailed on me, and the production schedule was horrendously compromised. There was no time to finesse things in post-production, and the whole experience really damaged me for several years. That was shot in 2005, and I never shot another movie again until Found. So there were definitely lessons learned.

 

Any other films of yours you'd like to talk about, any future projects?

 

I had the most amazing time working with actors on my little gay road trip movie, Off the Beaten Path. I'd love to work with that kind of ensemble again some day -- they were a really experienced, reliable foursome of actors that needed very little direction. And they improvised, which I love. That movie looks the crudest of anything I've ever done -- we shot without lights, without external mics, and wrapped it in just 3 days. But it was probably the best time I've had making a movie.

 

As far as the future goes, I'm not sure what's going to be next. I've always wanted to make the world's first good Sasquatch movie and Todd's got a collection of short stories I'm interested in adapting for an anthology. I've also got an ambitious, dialogue-free, post-apocalyptic sort of thing rolling around in my head.

 

How would you describe yourself as a director?

 

Oh, gosh. I try not to be dictatorial. I believe good casting is probably 60 or 70% of the job. I hate medium shots. It pains me tremendously that I'm not capable of composing music for my movies -- that element is so critical, and it's the one area where I have to depend completely on the talent of others. I think I might be an editing director. I can't imagine not editing my own movies. And I don't see why things can't always be pretty. Even if what's happening within the frame is very ugly.

 

Directors who inspire you?

 

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At this moment, I'd love to see anything by Julie Taymor, David O. Russell, or Peter Weir. But I also greatly admire David Lynch, Peter Bogdanovich, Ridley Scott, William Wellman, Spielberg, Hitchcock, Kubrick, all of them. Maybe it'd be easier to say who doesn't inspire me.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

Ordinary People and the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are the ones to beat. The Empire Strikes Back is also way up there.

 

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

 

There's a Jeanne Triplehorne romantic comedy called 'Til There Was You that I could wipe my ass with. Also any John Cusack romantic comedy ever made. Seriously. Why do people love him so much? I'm sure he's a nice man, but his movies suck. His balls are always in a jar and he's always insufferably pining after some girl who isn't worth it. Maybe I just hate rom-coms all together. But especially if John Cusack is in them.

 

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

 

facebook.com/foundmovie and foundmovie.net.

 

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

 

Nope -- thanks for the opportunity!

 

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
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WHICH IS WORSE!!!

 

A Killer Conversation

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directed by
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written by
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starring
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Rudy Barrow

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