The Spooky Incident: Director's Production Notes
Even with the latest technologies - digital video, editing software for home computers, internet marketing - I have learned first hand the difficulties that need to be hurdled in order to successfully complete a film, regardless of its length or budget. The following notes are from my experiences in creating the 24-minute short film, "The Spooky Incident."
I am always aware of the writer in films and find it difficult to separate the idea1s and characters you see on the screen from what I imagine actually happened in the writers life. So when I experienced the real "Spooky Incident" in my life, I decided to draw upon it in my work.
When I lost my friends cat, I was living in an old vintage building in Chicago on Argyle street near the lake (the same apartment in the film). I was very much attracted to it in the beginning of my stay, but my experiences there began to make me think of it in a different light. In addition to the missing cat, rodent-sized cockroaches, a decaying interior, peeling ceilings, plumbing problems and the constant presence of various noises began to feed my imagination such that it felt like the building was alive in some way. I have always been sensitive to environmental sound and it's strange music - conversations and arguments in other dwellings, the periodic mechanical grind of the vintage elevator through the structure, the incessant possessive sounds of the old radiator in the wintertime, thumping footsteps from above and creaking pipes and floorboards. However, there were so many sounds in the breathing building, and stories attached to it - which I learned from one of the managers of the building -that I found that it was sometimes difficult to discern the true source of every audible occurrence without having it be tainted by my imagination. But I can tell you that it only took one time for me to imagine the muffled sound of a trapped cat within my walls in order to come up with the entire story for "The Spooky Incident."
I decided to take the path of having my characters go through simple metaphoric scenes of what actually occurred in the real life situation, while hinting at the general struggles I faced trying to make ends meet in the city, financially and socially. The real life experience of losing the cat was unpleasant on all sides and though I definitely wanted to capture the essence of what happened, I felt no need to duplicate the reality of the interpersonal context of the situation. Drawing inspirations from short classic pieces in the thriller genre - including Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and pulp horror productions like Tales From The Crypt and Creepshow - I wrote the script over a few melancholy weeks in October of 1999.
Low on cash, a friend and I scraped together the money for the budget. We had the limited option of shooting only on video, not 16mm, which I would have preferred. However, we were lucky enough, through the donation of a friend, to secure a digital video camera, the Canon XL-1, and editing software on an Apple MacIntosh home computer. With no significant financing, I decided to make the Spooky with a very limited crew and pay the actors a small fee per day in order to ensure they would continue with the project over time. We spent a total of 8 full days shooting but it was actually spread over 7 months.
We cast Fred Warner, a very talented and ambitious up-and-comer who was then working as a waiter (he's since moved up to bartending), out of 200 people - he was the last to show up for the call. One thing we learned after casting him however, was that he was allergic to cats, so I actually used simple chroma key blue-screening techniques (a $12 sheet of blue fabric purchased from the local fabric store) and cross-cutting angles during all of their scenes to make it appear as if they are actually interacting together.
We also shot some of the L-train sequences from inside my living room using the same technique. The cat who played Spooky, Elsie - owned by a friend - was more than slightly uncooperative on the set. I coaxed her into performing various actions by luring her with broken threads of audio tape, creating directive borders with off-camera boxes and boards, and using another friend's dog - who had to be matted out of the shot in post-production - to get the cat's hiss response. We also used liquid latex in order to give the character of Jack a subtly deformed and more aged skin surface.
I wanted to try and take advantage of the fact that we were forced to use digital video and one way in which I was able to use the camera for a particular effect was in the night scene when Tom is moving through his apartment with a flashlight. I wanted to capture the realism of the room exactly as it existed at night, which included not only the subtleties cast by Tom's flashlight but also the outside street light which casts the image of the French windows on the ceiling in the room - but we obviously couldn't afford the exterior lighting necessary to reproduce the effect. In order to do this I had to not only maximize the gain on the camera but I also shot the flashlight scenes on a slow shutter speed (1/8 of a second). Fred and I worked together on the scene and determined that he would have to move approximately one-quarter his normal speed and I would then speed up each shot in the sequence during post-production. Due to time-constraints on location we shot the entire night sequence which leads up to the last morning sequence in two hours, but luckily I think the effect worked for us.
While in post-production, I decided to put "The Spooky Incident" Soundtrack (most of which originated on recordings I created on an old 19701s reel-to-reel 4-track) on the music site MP3.com under the name "pan". To our surprise, the opening track, "Succubus" (played over the opening credits), shot to number one on the site1s Top 40 charts during the week of Halloween 2000. MP3.com pays their artists based on number of daily listens and so the track made $3,000 for that month. (We lay claim to being the only independent film we know of to make returns before the film was even finished editing!)
With my most recent experiences since completing the project - spending more time and money on promoting the movie - I almost lost site of my original intent for producing The Spooky Incident, which was to raise funding for Myth, a feature-length project I had been working on and off over a period of five years. That was almost two years ago and I can honestly say that whole experience of creating this 24-minute short film has made me appreciate even more the efforts of independent filmmakers and the process of the art form, whatever the subject matter.
Tony Kern, Director
"The Spooky Incident"