Recently I had the privilege to interview a great independent film director, Eric Stanze. Stanze represents everything that I enjoy about the independent film world. Focusing on the art of the craft and story over crazy effects. He works hard and it shows in all of his films.
This is my first interview so I thank Mr. Stanze for taking the time to answer my questions. Enjoy!
What are a few of your favorite horror films?
THE EXORCIST, THE CHANGELING, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), CREEPSHOW, VIDEODROME, THE SHINING, BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH.
What are a few of your favorite non-horror films?
THE GODFATHER I & 2, APOCALYPSE NOW, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, NETWORK, SERPICO. Newer films, WINTER’S BONE, NEVER LET ME GO. Almost everything by David Fincher.
Who are some of your personal influences?
When I was very young and first trying to be a filmmaker, I was heavily influenced by Sam Raimi, George Romero, and Wes Craven. On a personal level, my grandfather was a huge influence – he was very supportive when I was making student films as a teenager.
What would you say is the mission or goal you hope to achieve through film?
Filmmaking provides amazing life experiences. I want this to continue, while I keep adding to my skill set as a director. I like to do something completely different with each movie I make. Each film is like a class – I become a more well-rounded filmmaker and improve my skills. You don’t get that when you keep making the same kind of movie over and over. Plus, the variety gives me a greater range of life experiences – shooting in new places, working with new people, researching new things.
Of all the films you have made so far, which one are you happiest with?
I tend to move on, emotionally, when I am done with each film. I’m always most excited about my next movie.
If you could go back and re-shoot any of your films, would you?
I used to say I’d have no interest in re-shooting any of my films – because of my tendency to really put ‘em behind me after each release. Now I think, if I were forced to re-shoot one of them, it would be ICE FROM THE SUN… because I believe that project represents the greatest gap between potential and final result.
Since you don’t really like to look back on past films, would it be safe to assume that you wouldn’t be interested in doing a sequel to one of your early movies? Or have you ever had an idea that was too big for a single feature and would require multiple films?
Years ago, Jason Christ came to me and proposed writing a sequel to my movie, SAVAGE HARVEST. I can’t remember if he said he wanted to also direct it at that time. I was immediately interested in what Jason would do with a sequel – and I immediately made it clear that I had no interest in directing it.
At this time, I don’t have an interest in directing sequels to any of my other films either… or permitting other directors to make them. But future circumstances may change my mind. I was only 21 years old when I started making SAVAGE HARVEST. That movie was more of a learning experience than anything else… so I find it strange that more SAVAGE HARVEST 3 stories have been pitched to me than sequels to any of my other movies.
Once again touching on the fact that you like to look forward with your films. Do you ever watch your own movies? If you do, do you tend to critique them or can you detach yourself and just enjoy what is on screen?
By the time I’ve gone through post-production and the DVD process, I’m pretty burnt out on a movie, and I have no interest in watching it. Even after some time has passed, I still don’t tend to sit down and watch my movies. I always end up focusing on my mistakes, and it causes me stress and depression. It’s torture… because I try to make movies I would enjoy watching as a fan – and then I can’t really do that.
What or who first got you started on filmmaking?
The interest has been there since I was very young. There wasn’t one person or experience that got me into it. It’s like I was born with this inside me. On a professional level, I was lucky to get started very early. I was interning on local commercials, music videos, and PSAs as a teenager. I started when I was 16. When I was 18 I started working professionally in the film / television / video production industry, and that is what I’ve been doing ever since.
Can you tell us about your experience directing your first feature film SAVAGE HARVEST? How did it happen? Was it exciting? Stressful? Difficult? All of the Above?
There was excitement and stress, I’m sure. Certainly, parts of making that movie were difficult. However, what I most remember about the experience was how natural it felt – it was obvious to me that being there, making that movie, was exactly what I should be doing at that point in my life. I never ran out of confidence – in myself, my team, or the movie. There was no: “I hope we make this movie.” Of course we’re making this movie. There was no: “I hope this project doesn’t fall apart.” That’s my responsibility, and it won’t. There was no: “Jeez, will we be able to solve this problem?” Solving problems is what we do – now let’s get to work.
I also remember absurdly long days of shooting. Sleep deprivation was a problem on that shoot. On subsequent film projects, I started learning how to schedule a shoot better. There are always long days on a film project, but on SAVAGE HARVEST, it was ridiculous.
With THE SEVERED HEAD NETWORK Volumes 1 and 2, you did segments alongside other directors. How did working in this format differ from doing a feature?
We came up with THE SEVERED HEAD NETWORK to give a home to shorts that we had made over the years. When we decided to compile them, we invited other filmmakers to join in.
I have mixed feelings about making short films and music videos. They can function as terrible distractions that keep me from making what I prefer to make, which is feature length movies. On the other hand, shorts are nice because the time commitment is so much less. Also, short films give you an opportunity to try things out and take creative risks. Something you may not be sure about trying in a feature can be explored in a short – and if it works, the idea can be refined and then incorporated into a feature later.
You have been making features for quite a long time now. There is a 17 year gap between your first film and your most recent film. How different was it making RATLINE (2011) compared to making SAVAGE HARVEST (1994)?
It’s as if RATLINE and SAVAGE HARVEST were made by two different filmmakers, in two separate universes.
Looking ahead, what are you working on now?
I’ve been working on several scripts, but two have risen to become my top picks. One of these will likely – hopefully – be my next movie. One is a horror film, and one is a drama.
What is your opinion on the current state of horror films? Any current films you particularly love? Don’t love? Are you excited or apprehensive about the future of film?
My favorite era of film is 1968 through 1982. That goes for horror and non-horror films. So, do I think today’s horror films, in general, stand up to that era? Sadly, no. Most genre stuff I see today is disappointing. Not all of it, but most of it. Films used to be written to excite and surprise an audience. Today, even on lower-budgeted stuff, the trend is to play it safe. Don’t rock the boat. Go with the flow… because nobody wants to risk their financial investment by making something different. The business models are evolving, though. Everyone is still trying to figure out how to make the most of our current distribution and marketing options. I’m encouraged by this. If the Commerce half of filmmaking changes enough, it may loosen the stranglehold it currently has on the Art half.
Do you have any advice or “words of wisdom” to give young filmmakers?
A depressing number of green “filmmakers” want to skip right over the part where they actually study the craft and make some movies. They want to jump straight to the part where they’re the next Quentin Tarantino, getting interviewed in big magazines, and waving from the red carpet.
My advice is, if you want the celebrity status more than you want the experience of being a filmmaker, don’t bother. Wanting to be a big shot is too much of a distraction when you have a job to do writing that screenplay and running a film shoot.
Making a low budget film (especially trying to make a really good one) is one of the most stressful and agonizingly difficult endeavors one can embark on. It is arduous, unglamorous, exhausting work. It requires you to do a lot of homework, studying the craft, learning about it on a hundred different levels. You need to embrace all the hard work and sacrifice. You have to learn to love the process, despite how difficult it is. Better yet, learn to love the process, in part, because of how difficult it is. Otherwise, you’ll be standing there on set, miserable about making a movie, when all you really want to be is a celebrity – not a filmmaker.
Also, too many filmmakers obsess over which camera they are using, or how much CGI they’ll incorporate, or which name actor they’ll be able to put in the film. These are all very, very important topics to address, but not at the expense of the story, how it’s told, the tone of the film, and the world it creates. You should be able to make a great film with no CGI, no name actors, and an outdated camera. You can start adding the more exciting stuff later, but first, you should learn how to make it happen with the basic building blocks: shots and cuts. Filmmaking is painting with subtleties, so becoming an expert at what to shoot, and when to cut to it, will give you plenty to wrap your head around. If you’re really good at what you do, you’ll never stop learning from your mistakes, expanding your skill set, and sharpening your instincts. This will contribute much more to your worth as a filmmaker than working on your Oscar acceptance speech.
Eric Stanze – http://ericstanze.com
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