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An Interview with Wes Sullivan, Director of Nightbeasts

by Mike Haberfelner

October 2013

Films directed by Wes Sullivan on (re)Search my Trash

 

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

 

Nightbeasts is the story of a divorced recovering alcoholic father Charles Thomas (Zach Galligan) who takes his son Tim (Chad Trager) on a weekend hunting trip up to his ancestral cabin far away in a mountainous wooded area. That trip is quickly interrupted by the appearance of the legendary Bigfoot creature of Native American folklore and things go badly for the two of them from that point onward.

 

Why choose Bigfoot-like creatures as the monsters of your movie, and how much research did go into the actual myth your movie's based on - or was that one all made up?

 

I have had a fascination with Bigfoot from a very early age and remember being haunted first and foremost by the televising of the infamous Patterson-film on the evening news shows, I was further affected after seeing episode of the old In Search of -television show hosted by Leonard Nimoy which did an expose on the Bigfoot phenomenon. Around that same time I remember being scared to death by the Charles Pierce Bigfoot horror movie classic The Legend of Boggy Creek. The creature was a huge part of the cultural zeitgeist when I was a kid that went beyond these 2 examples. I clearly remember Bigfoot being in an episode of the 6 Million Dollar Man TV show starring actor Lee Majors and Bigfootwas the villain in more than a few of the comic books that I read at that time, not to mention that Chewbacca in Star Wars was definitely a Bigfoot-relative and was extremely popular. You couldn't walk 2 feet without tripping over Bigfoot in popular culture then. Later it was not so much. I feel lucky to be part of the Bigfoot generation, ha!

 

There was a fair amount of research that went into the backstory of Nightbeasts. As I mentioned, the world changed but I didn't. In the intervening years I voraciously read every non-fiction book on the subject as well as books covering other cryptids like the Loch Ness Monster and the Himalayan Yeti. I also was influenced by an episode of Arthur Clarke's Mysterious World that explored the phenomenon. I have closely followed the work of  anthropologist Jeffrey Meldrum at the University of Idaho and his Bigfoot footprint studies and was enboldened to hear that the famed naturalist Jane Goodall believes in the possibility of Nightbeasts's existence.

 

Importantly, the one aspect of the phenomenon that I felt had not been dealt with much in fictional depictions of the creature was the Native American connection. In my research, I discovered that for hundreds if not thousands of years prior to the settling of North America by European colonists, Native American tribes like the Halkomelem and Lummi traded tales of the Sasquatch/Bigfoot, which they handed down in oral storytelling tradition. To this day, Bigfoot plays a large part in the ritualistic lives of many Native American communities. Some believe him to be a powerful spiritual entity while others believe him to be a close relative of man that is flesh and blood real as we are and should be respected and treated with caution and in some cases feared.

 

Other sources of inspiration when writing Nightbeasts?

 

Beyond the research, much of the inspiration for writing the screenplay of Nightbeasts came from a 28 page short story that I wrote for a Halloween writing competition a few years before that was very well received. In that story only the Charles and Tim chracters appeared except that they didn't have names. They were simply referred to as Father and Son. Other inspirations were my love of the low budget, moody and atmospheric B horror movies of Hollywood producer Val Lewton who made Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie along with many others. I'm also hugely influenced by the early films of John Carpenter who crafted such horror classics as Halloween, The Fog and his masterpiece The Thing. With the exception of The Thing, many of these films were done on miniscule budgets but were extremely creative in their execution.

 

Nightbeasts is your live action feature debut as a director, but you do have strong background in family animation - so why choose a monster movie, and is that a genre you're particularly fond of?

 

Wes Sullivan on set

Way back when, when I was in film school, live action motion picture directing was my major and animation was my minor. Now, I have drawn since the age of 4 yrs old and won my first art competition at 10 yrs old. (It was a competition at my mother's job for whose kid could do the best drawing. The top prize was 100 dollars. I won 100 dollars at 10 yrs old! It was an awesome experience and I always enjoyed creating art.) But in film school I wanted to be Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Many of my classmates did as well.

 

I'm saying this because while still in film school, I worked part-time in the animation industry in my hometown of Chicago, working on commercials like Kellogs Rice Crispies with Snap, Crackle an Pop and Frosted Flakes with Tony the Tiger, and I was getting paid which was a big deal because many of my classmates were starving. So I was directing live action short films at school and doing animation outside of school to pay bills.

 

When I finished film school, I needed a job so I went from being part-time animation guy to full time animation guy. My classmates went  from wanting to be Spielberg and Lucas to being full time waiters and cab drivers. I was extremely fortunate. I learned a lot about animation and got better at it and moved to Hollywood California. But I always wanted to direct live action feature films and never lost hope that I could do that.

 

Since childhood I have always been enamoured of the Horror and Sci-Fi genres both in literature and movies. I am a huge H.P. Lovecraft fan and read the EC's Weird Tales illustrated by Bernie Wrightson and Wally Wood. And yes, I have worked for the likes of Walt Disney Studios and Warner Brothers as an animation artist, but it is not incongruent that I've embraced the horror genre. E.g. at their gestalt , the Grimm Fairy tales are very macabre and horrific and even some of the better Disney features like Pinocchio and Dumbo tap into primal fears like abandonement and are frightening.

 

Do talk about your directorial approach to your story at hand for a bit?

 

My directorial style is a conscious use of visual design to tell the story but hopefully not at the sacrifice of pathos. I'll explain that. Since the earliest silent days of filmmaking there have been 2 approaches to filmmaking - for example, the great Charlie Chaplin was unconcerned with visual design in his filmmaking. The staging of his films was flat and so was the lighting. It was pure pathos, emotion and comedy. And it was brilliant. At the opposite end was the German, Fritz Lang and the whole creation of German Expressionism in cinema in films like Metropolis and M, where the visual design, lighting, composition, editing, set design, and costumes are used to enhance the narrative. Many of my favorite filmmakers were visual stylists like Alfred Hitchcock, but some were not like Howard Hawks. I'd like to be right in the middle, give the audience some eye candy, but also let the actors do their thing to sell the story. Hopefully I achieved some of that in Nightbeasts.

 

A few words about your charmingly retro monster costumes, and did you have any say in their design?

 

Yes, I did all of the preliminary designs of the creatures and handed these off to the very talented Barry Atkinson, who took them the rest of the way and improved upon them in his sculpting of the creatures. We are very simpatico in our tastes regarding creature sculpts and are huge fans of John Chambers, Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Rob Bottin, and the Henson Creature Shop. Many of my personal favorite films were made in the pre-CGI period like Dragonslayer, The Dark Crystal, An American Werewolf in London, The Thing, Legend etc all contained strong design elements that made the prosthetics and makeups believable but also fanciful.

 

You just have to talk about the effects work on your movie for a bit, and was it a conscious, financial or whatever decision to rely mostly on practical effects?

 

It was both. While I am a fan of well done computer generated imagery, I feel that it is overused in many of today's films often treated like a band -aid to fix poor decisions made in pre-production and principal photography. Also there are limits to what CGI can do convincingly. 

 

I am a HUUUGE fan of traditional effects techniques like stop motion animation, puppetry, matte painting, miniature sets, animatronics, prosthetics and motion control photography, and rear projection. We weren't able to use all of these techniques this time around but did use a lot of them. We made extensive use of physical effects, cable actuated puppetry, prosthetics and in camera speed ramping, squibs, and creature suits. I believe there is a certain reality that you get when light hits a real 3 dimensional object made of rubber or silicone that you don't get in a completely CGI generated creation where light is simulated. I think that this accounts for much of the cartoony feel of many of today's visual effects. CGI effects (when done well) are also Incredibly expensive.  We did not have that kind of budget but what we did have was the luxury of time which many big Hollywood movies do not have. What I mean is that we had a very lengthy pre-production period in which to plan how we would attack each visual effect in the movie and figure out what technique would work best for which shot. As a result, prior to actual filming, I personally storyboarded every sequence in the movie that involves a visual effect. This proved to be very valuable because it allowed us to know exactly how much of a prop or gag needed to be built based on the shot composition that would be used. We used 3 seperate effects vendors on the movie, Bear Din, 1313 Effects and Ozzy Alvarez Productions. Based on our budget we were able to bid out all the the effects shots among these 3 companies based on who could do the best job for the best price. The storyboards also created a visual unity between the 3 and kept everyone on the same page. We would not have been able to do the film and have this level of effects otherwise. A story comes to mind told by one of Hitchcock's set designers on one of his films in which he told the designer, "You do not have to build a left wall for this set, we will never see it!" The art director scoffed. He had heard this sort of thing before from other directors who turned the camera around and said "Hey you need to build a left wall" But in Hitchock's case, he stuck with his plan and never showed the left wall so none was built. We stuck to our storyboards and filmed the effects shots in exactly that way and the plan worked.

 

Zach Galligan

Chad Trager

Audra Wise

What can you tell us about your cast, and why exactly these people?

 

Our lead actor Zach Galligan was wonderful to work with and elevated the film to a higher level with his professionalism and dedication to his craft. Having a long career and experience with the challenges of practical effects films like Gremlins, he brought an instinctive knowledge of where to be in his blocking in relation to camera and his fellow actors. He was also inspiring and set a high bar for how hard to work for his fellow thespians. He is also a fantastic acting teacher and spent a lot of time off camera tutoring Chad Trager who plays his son Tim. It was Chad's first film and Zach eased him into the process. He is a very giving performer. Zach came to the production and came with a lot of neat ideas about how he intended to perform his character, there were details that went beyond the screenplay material and I welcomed them and we put many of them in the film. These are the types of gifts a wise director should welcome and take credit for later. All kidding aside, a lot of the humor surrounding his character was invented by Zach.

 

The hardest roles to cast were the Native American parts. We must have seen every Native American actor in Hollywood before finding Audra Wise, Billy Daydodge, Apesanahquat and Sonny Skyhawk. Billy became a good friend to the production beyond just acting in the movie  and was invaluable to the film turning out the way it was. He has passed on now and is missed. I always tell Apesanahquat that he is like a Native American Clark Gable, his charisma is infectious. Audra is a one of a kind beauty both inside and out. The camera loves Sonny and just kisses him.

 

Do talk about the actual shoot and the on-set atmosphere for a bit!

 

The shoot was tough and very gruelling but also a hell of a lot of fun. The entire film was filmed in just 17 days versus the 4 or 5 months that a typical Hollywood movie is filmed in. There were a lot of location moves for a film of this budget and many of them were in rough terrain away from the ammenities of paved roads and the ammenities of a big city. Much of the production equipment, lights, cameras, flags, c- stands, dollys, track, cranes, props, effects gags, animatronics, and generators were transported in a single 1 ton truck. It was very crowded in there. The two 35mm movie cameras used to film the movie, all of which I personally own, were driven in the back seat of my Honda Civic. None of the movie was filmed on a soundstage or on sets. The entire movie is filmed on practical locations, which limited how much destruction you could get away with. During production we lost a pivotal location where the Bigfoot attack the 2 police officers in the house they hide in. As a result, my house became a last minute subsitute and my windows were busted out and captured on film. The wind blew freely through my house for a time. The crew was largely young and strong which was good because our vintage BNCR and ARRIFLEX camera in a blimp were big and they did an amazing job. The sound crew was a husband and wife team that owned all their own gear. One was the boom operator and the other was the sound recordist. I remember that we had to hire a caterer that could cook gluten-free food for them because they were on a gluten-free diet. Our cook's name was Belkis and she was amazing. I tasted a lot of her food but was never able to finish any of it as I kept being pulled to answer questions about some aspect of production and would never get back to finish my meal before someone had thrown it away. Did I mention that I never slept for the entirety of those 17 days?

 

The $64-question of course: Where is the movie available from?

 

The movie is currently available for rent from Vimeo Vod - https://vimeo.com/ondemand/nightbeasts - and on indieFlix - http://indieflix.com/indie-films/nightbeasts-37117/.

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

We have several sci-fi projects that we're in the process of raising funding for that we hope to go into production on real soon.

 

As mentioned, you started out in the film industry as an animator - so what can you tell us about that aspect of your career, and your education on the subject?

 

Being in the Hollywood animation industry as I have is akin to being a small cog in a very large machine managed by a large corporate infrastructure that has to be all things to all people where hundreds of millions of Dollars at stake. It is filmmaking by committee. I was fortunate to be surrounded by some very talented and gifted artists that I learned a lot from, particularly with regard to the high  technical level of drawn character animation that we did at Disney in the 90's and 2000's. It was something that I always wanted to learn how to do. You can't lean this animating  technique working in commercils or TV limited type of animation. But it is filmmaking in slow motion. We spent upwards of a year to 2 years making a single film. And at the end of a week's work only a few seconds of footage might be animated.

 

In contrast, Nightbeasts has my personal authorrship all over it for better or worse from the concept, scripting, directing, and editing stages and there's an immediacy of working with actors on a scene that you don't get in animation. The turnaround time is a lot faster. I think animation did teach me the value of having strong  pre-production plan and the importance of storyboards in visualizing complicated action and effects sequences.

 

What made you change into the director's chair eventually, and how do live action and animation compare - and based on your experiences with Nightbeasts, could you ever be tempted to direct another live action feature film?

 

As I stated, it was always my goal since film shool to be Steven Spielberg and George Lucas ha! Not be them but be like them, making live action features for a living that are entertaining and yes, I can't wait to make another one.

 

How would you describe yourself as a director?

 

I think that I have a clear vision of what I want in a film that I make but that I am also collaborative and open to the ideas of crew members, actors, cinematographer and dept heads if they are in alignment with what I am trying to do. I am very involed in all the phases of production from the writing phase right up to post production. I even designed the Nightbeasts one sheet poster which was painted by the wonderful Phil Phillipson, an animation veteran.

 

Filmmakers, animators, whatever else who inspire you?

 

Big list - Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Howard Hawks, Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick, Richard Fleischer, John Ford, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton [Buster Keaton bio - click here], Spielberg, Lucas, Kurosawa, Jacques Tourneur, John Woo, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker, John Carpenter, Carol Ballard, Peter Weir, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and the list goes on...

 

Your favourite movies?

 

Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Close Encounters, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lawerence of Arabia, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, Star Wars: A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, Superman 1 and 2, The Matrix , Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Chris Nolan Batman Trilogy, The Howling, The Exorcist, Legend, Blade Runner, Star Trek 2, Time After Time, Coppola's Dracula, Children of Men, Gravity, Greatest Show on Earth, Heston-Planet of the Apes, They Live, Jason and the Argonauts, Golden Voyage of  Sinbad.

 

Feeling lucky ?
Want to
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Find Wes Sullivan
at the amazons ...

USA  amazon.com

Great Britain (a.k.a. the United Kingdom)  amazon.co.uk

Germany (East AND West)  amazon.de

Looking for imports ?
Find Wes Sullivan here ...

Thailand  eThaiCD.com
Your shop for all things Thai

Something naughty ?
(Must be over 18 to go there !)

x-rated  find Wes Sullivan at adultvideouniverse.com

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

 

ALL TORTURE PORN MOVIES!

 

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

 

www.nightbeasts.com

 

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

 

NOPE.

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

Thank you. It was a pleasure.

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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