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An Interview with Sutart Wahlin, Writer and Director of Slay Utterly

by Mike Haberfelner

April 2014

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Your upcoming movie Slay Utterly - in a few words, what is it about?

 

Slay Utterly centers around an FBI agent called in to assist local law enforcement investigate a crime scene where six children and two adults were axed to death in their beds. The agent soon discovers the murders are not unique, and that thereís a serial mass murderer on the loose.

 

As far as I know, Slay Utterly is inspired by a true crime from more than a century ago - so how close do you stick to the facts, how much research went into this aspect of your movie, and what fascinated you about the particular crime in the first place?

 

Yes, itís a modern horror-thriller inspired by the Villisca (Iowa) ax murders of 1912. Villisca is pretty well known these days, thanks to ghost-hunting shows on TV. It was actually the paranormal aspect that lured several of us to spend a night in the house. But in the end, it was really the murder case itself that was far more compelling to me. If it hadnít actually happened, I think people would probably say our script isnít believable [laughing].

In the months that followed our visit, I pored over quite a bit of research material, including things like the coronerís inquest, grand jury testimony, and even tracked down a descendent of one of the top suspects. As a result of having absorbed just about every piece of available information, the research has inadvertently made me one of surprisingly few experts on the subject.

And rather than taking a lot of liberties, I do feel Iíve been rather faithful to what we know about the case. But there are unknowns, too, and thatís where I get to have a little fun with some fictional exploration. For example, weíll probably never know who the real killer was, so I had to choose who it would be in the film, and what somebody capable of such things might be like, both in public and behind closed doors.

Thereís a lot that fascinates me about the case, but I guess the main thing most people donít realize is that Villisca was not a one-off massacre. Based on strikingly-similar signatures, such as covered mirrors, left at other crime scenes throughout the Midwest during a two-year stretch, itís clear that as many as two-dozen murders were the work of one ritualistic serial killer.

And then thereís always the question as to how one would go about bludgeoning eight people to death in a relatively small house, on a silent country night, without anyone waking up.

 

Other sources of inspiration for Slay Utterly?

 

Aside from the real case, Iíd have to tip my hat to Thomas Harris, who gave the gift of Hannibal Lecter to the world. I certainly borrowed his pattern of focusing on a troubled FBI agent on the trail of an enigmatic killer.

 

Bearing in mind that Slay Utterly is based on some very gruesome murders, how would you describe your approach to horror (as in atmosphere vs blood and guts, suspense vs sudden shocks and the like)?

 

Iím a huge fan of horror, but blood and gore isnít my personal style of approaching the genre. I prefer the psychological aspects. But to pull that off, I think you need strong character development that slasher films typically lack. So, itís a very character-driven piece. What I hope will scare viewers the most is that we essentially hold up a mirror to the audience, forcing them to see themselves in even the worst kinds of monsters. But by doing this, I think it can also make an atrocious character very sympathetic to an audience. I like to challenge my viewers, and leave them with an unsettled feeling long after theyíve watched a film.

 

How would you describe the film's intended look and feel?

 

A period piece would be out of the question, but to preserve that rustic, old-timey feel of the case, weíre shooting primarily in rural locations. The only real contrast to that will be in the FBI agentís world, which will appear quite modern. Most of the music will have a kind of rustic feel, too. Iím working with Paul Baker, a musician who goes by the moniker Good Neighbor, for the soundtrack. His music really captures that turn-of-the-century feel, but with the kind of modern sadness and desperation that fits especially well with a story like this. As for color, expect to see a lot of red [laughing].

 

Your movie will star fan favourites Bill Oberst jr [Bill Oberst jr interview - click here] and Melantha Blackthorne [Melantha Blackthorne interview - click here] - so what makes them perfect for their roles, and how did you get them in the first place?

 

Iím very, very fortunate to have them. My assistant director, Justin R. Romine (director of What they Say and Afraid of Sunrise) [Justin R. Romine interview - click here], initiated contact with Bill last summer. Before this, Iíd only worked with local actors, so it never occurred to me that someone of Billís renown might actually read the script. When dealing with LA folks, you usually get the door slammed in your face as soon as they learn youíre not funded yet. Iíve heard ĎLet me know when you have moneyí a lot.

But Bill did read it, and he believed in it enough to jump aboard. The fact that having him on the bill could be the difference between whether the movie actually gets made hasnít been lost on me. Iím thankful that he has that sort of faith in Slay Utterly.

I think that genre actors often have to take roles just to stay working and keep the lights on. But Bill really made me feel as though this is truly a passion project for him, and that means a lot. The same can certainly be said of Melantha.

 

I came into contact with her after getting acquainted with Billís manager, Matt Chassin. I like the way he conducts business, and decided to have a look at who else was in his stable. As soon as I saw that Mel was another of his clients, I immediately asked him to share the script with her.

Mind you, Iíd mostly only seen her in campier types of roles, but I always thought to myself, ĎI bet she can really act.í I was right. Given that there was some competition for the role, she graciously agreed to submit a video audition, and totally nailed it.

What I always say about Bill and Melantha, regarding Slay Utterly, is that their fans will get what they came foróbut that theyíll also see entirely new sides of them. Theyíve taken on roles that really give them room to flex their muscles as actors, and theyíre going to make a lot of people take notice.

Youíll see the familiar dark nature from Bill and the sexiness from Melantha. But youíre also going to be treated to very vulnerable sides that I donít think their fans have ever seen to this extent.

And theyíve worked together before, and continue to slate projects together. Thatís big, too, because it means they have a real chemistry and rapport. There are some really uncomfortable scenes in this film, so itís a real asset when actors can be comfortable with one another.

Just as Bill and Mel have provided me a great opportunity by coming aboard, I think their roles are opportunities for them as actors. Itís a blessing to work with people who believe in a project as much as you do.

 

Anything you can tell us about the rest of your key cast and crew yet?

 

Iíve still got a few big roles to fill. Iím courting some more names your readers will certainly recognize, but itís too early to talk about just yet. Those aside, I do plan to use local actors, too. This is a Midwestern movie, and we need some Midwestern people to maintain an authentic flavor. I think thatís important.

For crew, in addition to the aforementioned Justin R. Romine [Justin R. Romine interview - click here] as A.D., Wolfgang Meyer [Wolfgang Meyer interview - click here] will be our cinematographer. Bill and Matt are also co-producers, by the way. Wiley Wells is our sound designer, and Chris Young is our production designer. These are all people who get it. As with the cast, theyíre passionate about making this thing happen, and I like to surround myself with people like that

 

As far as I know, while the movie's not yet even shot, it has already earned itself its first award - care to elaborate?

 

Youíre right. We havenít shot a single frame yet. Last year, I originally cast the film with local Chicago-area actors. Unfortunately, an all-local cast wasnít enough to get people sufficiently interested in investing, or donating. At that point, I became really discouraged, and thought I should maybe just try to sell the script in order to fund some other project. So, I entered it into a screenplay contest. I soon thought better of selling the script, and never submitted it to any other competitions. But as it turns out, we actually won in the feature category. Whatís particularly validating is that it wasnít a horror competition.

 

With the film still in pre-production, what's the schedule, and any idea when and where Slay Utterly might be released onto the general public yet (and I do know it's waaay too early to ask of course)?

 

Iíd hoped to start filming this summer, with an early 2015 premiere. But Iím learning that the higher your budget is, the longer it takes for things to happen [laughing]. We donít believe financing is a problem, but it takes time.

The story unfolds over the course of a single summer, so itís a little frustrating to be faced with losing another one, especially considering Iím a year-and-a-half into this thing already. But what choice do I have? Itíll just give us more time to prepare and, as a result, make a better picture.

I plan to premiere Slay Utterly at the most prestigious festival we can get into, and we feel confident itíll get picked up for distribution. I donít imagine there will be a theatrical run, aside from festivals, so itíll likely be released publicly on DVD and on-demand services.

 

Any future projects beyond Slay Utterly you'd like to share?

 

If Iím going to lose this coming summer for Slay Utterly, Iíll probably focus on shooting a couple short horror films to stay sharp. But for features, Iím kicking around the idea of a biker movie that, as I describe it, will make Sons of Anarchy look like a bunch of Girl Scouts. Iíve also got my eyes on Bill and Melantha for that one.

 

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

 

I was born in the 70s, so the original Star Wars films were literally my life growing up, as many from my generation would identify with. Very inspiring.

But when I was in high school, my parents bought one of those side-loading video cameras that used full-sized VHS tapes. Having that available to me meant that every moment after school was devoted to honing the craft, even though I didnít really realize it at the time. I was just drawn to the magic of the camera and telling stories visually. Before graduating, Iíd managed to write, direct, score, and star in a film, which I think clocked in at around 40 minutes. And that was for an assignment in a creative writing class. I went beyond just writing a story. I brought one to life.

I studied film and TV production, with a directing emphasis, in college. Shortly before earning my degree, I started working at a local TV station, and went on to be a news videographer for several network affiliates around the Midwest. As a news photog, I really had an opportunity to improve my cinematic eye and storytelling sensibility. There are some things they canít teach you in school. You just have to go out and do them every single day in order to become any good at them.

I worked for several years as a print journalist after that. Both career diversions were great preparation for returning to the realm of filmmaking a few years ago.

 

You of course have to talk about your debut feature Hands of Glory for a bit?

 

I made Hand of Glory for about $5,000, which included the cost of the camera and other equipment. That being said, Iím incredibly proud of what we accomplished with so little.

It was originally intended to be a web series. But halfway through production, we realized we had something a little more special, and opted to finish it as a feature, albeit a relatively short one. During production, it went from a short 40-page script to really taking on a life of its own. After completing our festival rounds, we did briefly release it as a four-part web series.

The film symbolically marked my return to filmmaking after having been seduced by the news business. I often describe Hand of Glory as my effort to shake off the rust before taking on a larger project like Slay Utterly.

Despite the limited budget, we earned a number of awards, including Best Actress for Heather Dorff (Jessica Cameronís Truth or Dare [Heather Dorff interview - click here; Jessica Cameron interview - click here]) and Best Director, plus numerous nominations on the festival circuit. It was an encouraging experience, and I learned a lot.

 

Any other past films of yours you'd like to talk about?

 

Well, I do some short films, too. Weíve got one called Mictlantecuhtli making its UK premiere at the River Aire Ten Minute Amateur Film Festival April 26. Filmed in a single night, itís a short originally intended to be an ABCs of Death 2 26th-director contest entry. Again, it took on a life of its own, and we couldnít cut it short enough to qualify for the competition without ruining it. So we left it complete.

I also made a documentary last year about the real-life case that inspired Slay Utterly. Itís called The Ax Man Enigma. If you need something to chew on while you wait for Slay Utterly, Iíd recommend it.

 

How would you describe yourself as a director?

 

I consider myself an actorís director. As a filmmaker, if you can choose the right cast, and give them a good story to run with, half of your headaches are gone.

I think this comes from my own acting experiences. I was so disappointed to discover just how shitty most scripts were. So, I resolved to write the types of roles Iíd like to play. But my place is behind the camera.

And itís important to not be so attached to your own script that you donít give your actors room to play. They often give their respective roles more thoughtful consideration than the director, as writer, may have. And they put a lot of preparation into turning theses names on paper into real people. Itís their job to know the characters better than anyone. Their insights are vital, and when actors are free to express their own ideas, amazing things can happen.

 

Filmmakers who inspire you?

 

In no particular order, and probably forgetting too many, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne, Mike Figgis, Lucky McKee, Peter Jackson, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Alfred Hitchcock, Dario Argento, Dennis Hopper, Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, Clint Eastwood, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, Sergio Leone, George Lucas, Michael Mann, Terry Gilliam.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

You know, I think a movie can become endearing to someone for very subjective reasons. It doesnít necessarily have to be a great film. For example, Peter McCarthy made an indie movie back in 90s called Floundering. By a criticís standard, itís not very good, despite some really notable cameos. But sometimes all it takes is one character you can personally identify withósomeone you see yourself in. Even bad movies can make you feel good, so I wonít get started listing favorites.

But if I could only watch one film for the rest of my life, it would have to be Jaws. Thatís easy.

 

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

 

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Remakes. If itís your dream to go out and remake a film, do us all a favor: Choose a really bad movie, and turn it into a good one. And it happens sometimes! I find that far more interesting than remakes and reboots of classics.

 

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

 

https://www.facebook.com/SlayUtterly

https://twitter.com/SlayUtterly

https://twitter.com/StuartWahlin

Our eventual website will be www.slayutterly.com.

 

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

 

Nope!

 

Thanks for the interview?

 

My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity to answer some great questions!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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