Thursday, April 9, 2015

Adrenalin Productions – Finding Success by Following Passion (Part 1)

She has a style that sometimes feels like it’s a little bit William Castle, a little bit Sam Raimi, and maybe even a little bit Tod Browning. But in the end, when taken in full, it’s unequally her own and it’s earned Christine Parker a solid reputation and following in the independent film community in and around the North Carolina area and beyond. But the thing that started her onto the path of being an independent filmmaker probably isn’t the first thing that most people would think of if asked to guess. She lost her job as a graphic designer for a Sanford, NC advertising agency.

Christine Parker: “I got an interest after reading Bruce Campbell’s book If Chins Could Kill, and it seemed like a lot fun. So, when I lost my job I decided to go back to school and study television production.”

It was during her time at Central Carolina Community College where she learned a lot of the basics, but it was also there that she got the opportunity to get her hands dirty in the world of gorilla filmmaking. During a particularly dry and technical course, instructor Joe Wilson recognized that he was starting to lose some of the class to thousand-yard stare. As a way to get some of his students back into the land of the awake and aware, he issued them a challenge. He would show them what it was actually like to film a movie if one of the students would write a usable script. Parker stepped up and delivered the script for what would become the Joe Wilson directed zombie short film Second Death (2005).

Christine Parker: “They gave me a producer title, because I was pretty much on set during the whole time, and kinda helped promote it and stuff like that.”

She also got to be a zombie.

On top of giving her a real taste of and for ultra-low budget, independent filmmaking, it was on Second Death that Parker would also end up meeting a local area high school teacher, Bill Mulligan, who had a longtime love of horror, makeup FX, and filmmaking. It was the start of a filmmaking partnership that a decade later would still remain strong.

Bill Mulligan: “A student of mine said that her friend’s mom was making a zombie movie, and would I be interested.  Would I?!? So I called her up and probably sounded like a stalker or something, and just basically said that it’s always been my dream to be in a zombie movie, and I’ll be a zombie, do makeup, get your coffee, make fake blood, or whatever.”

With Tom Savini inspired FX tips in hand, Mulligan found himself doing some of the makeup FX on the film as well as working in front of the camera as one of the principle characters.  

The final product, the story of a small group of people trapped in a house during a zombie outbreak, hooked a number of people involved on the world of independent filmmaking, Parker more so than some of the others. During an evening of drinks over the film Redneck Zombies, Parker and then partners Patrick Loree and David Houston decided to create the production company that Parker still owns. “I can’t remember which of us came up with the name,” recalls Parker. But by the end of the night, on the theme of running on adrenaline, the Adrenalin Group was born. An interesting side note to that night would be that later Pericles Lewnes, the director and star of Redneck Zombies, would later become friends with Parker and appear in Parker's Fistful of Brains.

Their first full-length feature would be 2007’s Forever Dead, a prequel story to and expansion of the Second Death. Directed by Parker, the film would put on display what would become something of a trademark style for a number of Adrenalin’s works; mixing dark (and sometimes not so dark) humor in with the horror. An example from Forever Dead would be the decided upon source for the zombie outbreak. The culprit was an escaped lab rabbit, filmed in various levels of decomposition throughout the movie.

The film required a larger cast and crew, shooting on a budget of $10,000 with funds raised in part by selling credits on eBay before the idea of formal crowdfunding websites had become a thing and filmed mostly on mini-DV cameras. Parker was a little surprised by the response she got with backers not only from the North Carolina area, but from places like Georgia and California, and even as far away as Australia and South Africa.

The plot was kept sweet, simple, and straightforward in that it would tell the tale of a zombie outbreak in a small town, and then follow key members of the cast as the holed up in an abandoned house. But, again, it also mixed doses of dark humor in along the way, both scripted and ad-libbed by performers during the shoot.

The finished product won Best Feature at the Ava Gardner Film Festival as well as netting itself a DVD distribution deal through Brain Damage Films. It also introduced Parker to a number of NC area actors and other creative types. Some of these people would simply become infrequent or frequent extras on future Adrenalin projects. Others would fill slots behind the scenes as Adrenaline grew and its core group changed due to departures. Some people would leave due to creative differences, others simply because they had done all they had wished to do.

Bill Mulligan: “Everybody wants to make a movie. Every single person on God’s Earth wants to be in movies or make movies, and a lot of them, once they do it in any manner; they check it off their bucket list. And then there are those like ourselves that, okay, well here’s my addiction. Yup, gonna keep on doing it and can’t imagine not doing it in some capacity.”

The response to the film was generally positive. There were critics of course, some who absolutely hated it, but for every critic there was a fan, and the critics were no worse than any other film would find with maybe one exception. They did find the inverse of the super-fan in the form of one person who became one of their more amusing critics. Blogger and critic “Castle Vardulon” would devote columns to trashing Forever Dead. He would later devote large amounts of time on at least one other film, Fistful of Brains, going so far as to record a podcast while watching it live during the podcast. He liked that one though.

Christine Parker: “It was play by plays with screenshots.”

Bill Mulligan: “I’ve never seen such loving hate.”

Parker’s response was almost classic Hollywood. She killed him her next film.

The success of Forever Dead spurred Parker’s desire to do more work as soon as possible. This saw the back to back production of the murder/comedy short film Getting a Head in the Movie Business (2008) and the zombie western Fistful of Brains (2008). Fistful of Brains was going to be Parker’s most ambitious project to date (and a time lovingly referred to by friends as when Christine lost her mind and decided to do a western period piece zombie epic.) The production was given a huge hand with getting the look of the Old West right thanks to their finding and securing the use of Shadowhawk, a Western town/film set built in Smithfield, NC by William Dallas “Wild Bill” Drake, a veteran TV and movie cowboy actor who eventually got a role in the film.

The film took a total time of about a year and a half to shoot on a tight budget, and was done on mini-DV cameras. A part of the additional time spent on the film was due to Fistful of Brains being heavier in both plot and substance than Forever Dead, with a plot that not only touched on morality plays, but contained themes of redemption as well as moral and religious hypocrisy. It also spun a bit of a new twist on the zombie, giving them an origin that played out onscreen as an ancient legend in the area around the small town.

Short form version of the story: An old west style huckster with a secret past comes to town to sell his rather special wares. There have also been some unusual things happening around the town that have the local town folk spooked. As things progress, the secrets behind the events, the huckster, and some of the townsfolk’s past are exposed, leading the town down a path to face a full on zombie attack. Of course, that's when the fun really begins. Everything runs along its enjoyable path, and the ending leaves things open for a continuation in a way that you really do not see coming.

The film was well received by many, and deservedly so. Not only did it show a huge leap forward in Adrenalin’s ability to create layered stories populated with interesting characters for their films, but it also showed how far Parker had come as a director, learning as she went on her two prior directorial efforts and honing her craft as both a director and editor. It also created a stronger core for Adrenalin as the film not only grew their fan base, but it brought to them people who would over the next few years become important members in their growing troupe of actors and behind the scenes participants.

Having seen both greater success and fan buzz with Fistful of Brains, as well as a DVD distribution deal that saw its release both domestically and overseas, Parker was raring to go. She devoted some of her time following the release of Brains to working on the horror/mystery Dead of Night, the story of a woman experiencing paranormal visions of a ghost who may or may not have deserved his fate. Dead of Night was also done as a friendly payback to Lanny Maude, who was executive producer on their projects, providing them with funds. Dead was his script. But the rest of her filmmaking time and energy were being devoted to preparing her largest film to date, the follow-up to Fistful of Brains and the finishing of the story for several of its key characters.

After dealing with the headaches of a western period piece set in the late 1800s, one would assume that doing a more modern film set late 1900s would be easier to pull together. One would be wrong in assuming so.

Bill Mulligan: “The genres to avoid are the ones at the 48 hour film festivals when people pull it they burst into tears. So, period pieces… Oh God.”

Christine Parker: “And Westerns…”

Bill Mulligan: “And Westerns. Although… Okay, so our next movie after Fistful of Brains was the sequel A Few Brains More set in the 1970s. One might think, if one were foolish, that it’d be easier to make a movie set in the 1970s than in the 1870s, and how wrong one would be.”

Christine Parker: “Yes.”

Bill Mulligan: “Because 1870s, it’s real easy. What kind of cars do they drive? No cars at all, so you’ve just got to make sure there are no cars. In the 1970s there were lots of cars, but they were all 1970s cars.”

Christine Parker: “They weren’t all 1970’s cars. It was 1970’s or before.”

Bill Mulligan: “Yes, it gets even easier to find them when they’re older. The point is, you can’t have any cars… 999 cars out of 1,000 that you see are not usable.”

The same would hold true for every other aspect of preparing their next film. Locations would have to look old enough to fit the era of the story, and they couldn’t be too limiting in shooting angles by having things in the background that were too obviously modern. Props such as phones, typewriters, and other everyday use items would all also have to be found that would fit in with the early 1970’s esthetic.  Somehow they managed to pull it all together, and they set out full of optimism and enthusiasm with the goal of making 2010’s venture the next big leap forward for Adrenalin.

Instead, they experienced a year when it suddenly seemed like everything was crashing down around them.

Filming actually started out fine. Their plan was to film A Few Brains More as a direct sequel to Fistful of Brains, picking up directly where the first film left off. The three actors who played the key roles in the first film that carried over were onboard, and they had a number of extras and crew more than willing to return for the new film, as well as getting a few new people willing to join in the fun. Then, after filming began, the problems started.

The first problems they encountered seemed relatively small. They lost their cinematographer just before shooting, a role not filled again until finding Ryan Malham some months later, causing Parker the rather sizable headache of having to pull double duty. There were issues with the lead actress, but Parker and crew found ways to work around that. Then one of their two lead actors decided to cut his hair and completely change his look in the middle of filming. Due to the nature of his character this was a little more of a problem, and it ended with the actor walking off and leaving the production. This meant that his role had to be recast, and that every scene he had been in had to be reshot. It probably seemed like no more than a hiccup, but it would lead to far greater issues within a very short amount of time.

The role was recast, the scenes were reshot, and things began to get moving again. Their newest edition seemed to be a good fit. He got along well with the cast and crew, becoming especially close with the leading lady, and he had friends with experience in independent filmmaking who were willing to come down and lend a hand. Unfortunately, lending a helping hand wasn’t exactly on their agenda

The production had been moving on at a good clip once everything had fallen back into place. They were getting back on schedule, and they were planning one of their largest shoots for the Easter weekend of 2010. They had booked a location, Old Gilliam Mill Park, they had one of the film’s executive producers coming in from out of town, they had a band coming out for the weekend, and they were expecting upwards of 80 extras on top of the actual cast. They also had Mike Christopher, most famous for his role in the original Dawn of the Dead, coming in to shoot his part in the movie. Christopher and Parker had met at a convention where her films were screening, and he had indicated that he would love to be in one of her films.

Then, just before the Easter shoot, the friend of the lead actor started a vicious, and somewhat irrational, email campaign meant to knock the wheels off the production. Lowlights included things like attacking Parker’s abilities and professionalism as a filmmaker while boasting of his own in an email that included a selfie taken while on the toilet taking a dump. He started an email campaign to crew, cast, what extras he could, and, without knowing it, Parker’s own daughter designed to get them to bail out on the project as well as sending multiple vulgar and degrading emails to Parker herself implying that many of her people were already onboard with the idea of deserting the project.

Bill Mulligan: “It was misogynistic, and I don’t use that word lightly. Just because you criticize a woman doesn’t mean you’re a misogynist. But this was very… Just ugly and mean. It was Mean Girls, just a bunch of Mean Girls stuff. It was the weirdest thing.”
With literally days left before their shoot, Mulligan and Parker worked to figure out who was or wasn’t onboard. They had assurances of support by most of those involved, but the night before the shoot, with producers on the film, people who had contributed funding, an army of extras, Executive Producer and key funder Lanny Maude coming in from California, and one cult horror icon set to be there, they didn’t know if their movie was dead in the water or not. By that morning, they were closer to thinking that it was dead. Their leading man had departed in a show of solidarity with his friends, and their leading lady, now much closer to their leading man, left with him. That was a double blow, as the leading lady's mother was the film's wardrobe person. She not only left, but she also held the film's wardrobe hostage.

In the five years of creating movies with Parker and crew, Mulligan was fond of saying that doing indie films was like being in a band. You were a tight family, he would say, focused together on succeeding at your creative goals. He would later comment that when saying that he had forgotten how many bands ended badly, breaking up with some members never talking to each other again.

With both their leading man and their leading lady gone, they were as close as they would get to calling it quits on the film. Most of the planned shoot schedule had to go out the window, and the two of them and others brainstormed like mad to figure out what they could do to salvage the film. The weekend itself was changed to focus on the extras, allowing them creative input to create scenes or ideas that might or might not have ever seen the light of day. Zombie carnage and fights were improvised on the spot, and Mike Christopher’s scenes were shot in such a way as to allow them to be plugged into the film, if there was even going to be a film, however needed later on.

Mulligan and Parker also started looking at their options with regards to the story. They had some of the film in the can, the weekend’s scenes were planned as being for the big finale, and at least all of their secondary characters, the film's Scooby Gang as it were, were all on hand. Perhaps, they thought, they could change their story to salvage their film. At least for a time they considered shifting the story’s focus, having the film’s big bad kill the two leads and then having the secondary characters that had been briefly traveling with them pick up the torch and finish the mission at hand. Looking back on it now, they agree that the idea would have most likely made a terrible film.

Despite the creativity and energy contributed by the cast, the crew, and the extras throughout the weekend, it still felt like their darkest hour. No idea as to how to salvage the film seemed to really click for them, and the idea of delaying the film who knew how long in order to seek out new leads so that they could go back and yet again reshoot everything they had already shot and, in some cases, also already reshot at least once before was not a desirable suggestion. Then, on the third day, completely out of the blue, the beginnings of the project’s salvation literally fell into their lap.

Bill Mulligan: “The big thing, the big saving thing, was that there was a young lady there who was very impressive.”

Christine Parker: “On the very last day.”

Bill Mulligan: “And I swear I said this. I said to Christine on Friday, wouldn’t it be funny – ha ha ha – if, like, one of the extras turned out to be perfect for the role. And she was like, yeah, Bill, go dream some more.”

Christine Parker: “But he planted that seed in my head though, so I was kind of, like, eyeing them and thinking.”

Bill Mulligan: “There was a young lady there, very attractive, really striking eyes by the name of Emlee Vassilos, and people kept coming up and saying she’s really good, and she’s done acting and stuff, you should check her out.”

Christine Parker: “So we put her through the paces. We had Ted (Perry) try a stunt thing with her.”

Bill Mulligan: “And we had her read. Just gave her some of the script stuff that she hadn’t seen.”

Christine Parker: “Cold.”

Bill Mulligan: “Basically did a cold reading and blew us away. Just… Oh my God. And I’m looking at Christine like, am I just so tired and depressed that I’m grasping at any straw here, or did she just knock that out of the park?”

He wasn’t, she did, and the film had found its new leading lady within days of officially losing its first one. In short order, they had replaced their leading man as well. Now came the “fun” part of pulling everyone back in to reshoot early scenes yet again, a task that included finding new props and vehicles to use in place of some that they had only limited access to before.

They were finally able to finish the film, but they had to pull a lot of tricks out of their bag to do it. Not being able to get everyone together for each shoot, some scenes in the final film combine shots from the two or three versions of any given shoot. Amazingly, this only occasionally led to drinking game material where you play spot the continuity error with hair, wardrobe, or the changing variety of trees in the background. It’s made even more amazing if you listen to the film’s commentary track and discover how many scenes also involved one actor acting as a double for another who couldn’t make a reshoot or a rescheduled shoot.

When looking at the final product, Mulligan and Parker agree that, ultimately, it was worth what they went through to finish it. The film became their best received film to date, and all involved feel that the two leads in the final film were actually better than the ones they started with, elevating the portrayals of the characters greatly through their performances. However, despite the feeling of success after what at one point seemed to be a dead in the water project, the problematic shoot took a toll on many of those involved in it. The film was originally to be shot over roughly two to three months’ worth of total film dates spread out over the year. By the time they had gotten it finished, it had taken far longer to film and was spread out over almost two years of time. The long filming time also carried the extra sting of having been a period where some longtime friendships in the Adrenalin family had ended badly.

Further, a last minute suggestion based on creative differences had created a new ending for the film. What was going to be an ending that pretty sufficiently ended the story became instead a cliffhanger ending setting up a third chapter of the story to be set in the present day. At every screening Parker was asked by some cast and most viewers when the “third film in the trilogy” was going to start shooting, but the truth was that she didn’t really know. The thought of doing another long shoot on a full feature just wasn’t something they were just yet ready to face again. After the constant problems faced throughout 2010 and 2011, most of those involved felt burnt out to greater or lesser degrees. But as disappointing as that may have been for the growing fans of Adrenalin’s films who were looking forward to a finished trilogy, this may have ultimately been for the best.

But that will be next week with the somewhat shorter Part 2.

 Bonus content - A chat with Bill Mulligan about making indie films, why shorter TV seasons are better, and how you can learn from his experiences and not end up face to face with police officers while filming your indie masterpiece. 

Jerry Chandler blogs. He's also married. He has two kids, two dogs, two cats, and is presently working way too much overtime. He hopes that his sanity remains intact at least through Dragon Con 2015.

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