Hi Dennis, great to talk to you again! This was your first feature film, but you made a couple of documentaries before this. Can you tell folks about those?
Sure! Well, the first film I ever made was a 2-hour documentary entitled “The Witch's Dungeon: 40 Years of Chills” (2006). It centers around a museum that housed life-size figures of classic movie monsters and its founder, Cortlandt Hull. There are interviews with the museum's supporters and it covers the history of the museum. It features interviews with people like Christopher Lee, Dick Smith, Tom Savini, Basil Gogos, Ricou Browning, Bob Burns, Ben Chapman, June Foray, Michael Ripper and others. The entire presentation is very colorful and has good pacing. The interviews are insightful with plenty of photos to accompany them. Dick Smith told me when he received the DVD he'd only planned on watching twenty minutes because he was really busy that day. He laughed and said he ended up watching the entire thing. That was a real compliment. The movie did quite well and sold lots of copies. But I think it's out of print now.
When it came time to do my second documentary, Cortlandt and I decided to collaborate. We wanted to create a series of documentaries about Hollywood moviemaking that was to be called “Legends of Film and Fantasy”. We had interviews and footage with Hollywood prop houses, costume makers, and special effects departments. Interviews with Mark Hamill, George Romero, Bill Mumy, Rick Baker, Julie Adams, Leonard Maltin, Don Sullivan, Lori Nelson, and many others. Mark Hamill even pitched it for us in a preview trailer. And if you go to YouTube and search for The Witch's Dungeon channel under Dungeonghouls13 (no spaces), you can see that trailer. Unfortunately, those documentaries never got made. What did happen though was while at WonderFest in KY, we were talking with Donnie Waddell and Dave Conover. They told us that we should make a documentary on the Aurora Monster Model Kits simply because no one had done it. We thought it over and decided to do it because all the details for the “Legends of Film and Fantasy” series had not been fully worked out yet and doing a documentary on model kits would probably be easier. And that's how “The Aurora Monsters: The Model Craze That Gripped the World” (2010) happened.
We really wanted to get James Bama in the documentary, who was the artist who painted the artwork on those original Aurora Monster Model Kit boxes in the early 60s. The only person that we knew who was in contact with him was the “Jaws” movie poster artist, Roger Kastel, whom we knew from the Chiller conventions. Roger didn't think Bama would do the interview because he had done an interview back in the 70s with a major network. Bama hated it and swore never do another one. Apparently everyone from “60 minutes” to “Good Morning America” had tried over the years to get an interview with him and failed. So Roger sent James Bama a copy of my documentary because he said he was a fan of the classic monster movies and it might pique his interest. A month passed, we left LA and we were back in Connecticut. Then I get a call from James Bama. He tells me he just watched the “The Witch's Dungeon” documentary and loved it. He said he'd do the interview if I did his interview just like that. I said, “Absolutely”. We were thrilled.
Somebody at WonderFest got us in touch with Andrew Yanchus who was the project manager for Aurora Plastics when they were in existence. So we went to NYC to do an interview with him. He was so helpful and generous. He let me make copies of his personal collection of photos, artwork, blueprints, concept art, comic inserts, and ads that were used in the movie. We wouldn't have had those without him. Then he told us that he was still in touch with Ray Meyers, one of the original sculptors who sculpted The Bride of Frankenstein, Ghidrah, Godzilla and others for Aurora. We would have liked to have interviewed Bill Lemon as well, but he had passed away in 1994. Andrew arranged the interview with Ray. I think we ended up having several people tagging along with us for that interview because they wanted to meet him. It was a fun interview and Ray didn't really understand why we were so interested. He thought that his claim to fame were these cars that he once sculpted for The Franklin Mint. He had the ads cutout from a magazine and framed on the wall. He pointed out to us that his name was in the ads. He couldn't grasp the concept that the Aurora kits were hugely popular and that there was a convention called WonderFest that would love to have him as a guest. We also tried to get James Bama to attend WonderFest, but no one could get him to do it.
Things were arranged and Ray's son brought him to the next WonderFest convention in May 2010 where he was the guest of honor and was inducted into The Monster Kid Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend because I was back in Connecticut editing the final cut of the movie. People were disappointed that the DVD would not be ready in time for WonderFest. So I told Cortlandt that we could print 100 copies of the movie to where it was at this point to satisfy the people who couldn't wait. Frank Winspur from Moebius Models caught wind of it and said that he would add a special Frankenstein monster model figure to go along with that special Aurora Monsters DVD. That was such an amazing and generous thing Frank did for us. So Cortlandt and Bill Diamond went to WonderFest and assisted Ray and his son. I sent Disc Makers hot off my computer, a Special Aurora Monster DVD master disc. And they quickly duplicated 100 copies of it, and shipped them over to WonderFest where Cortlandt and Bill nervously awaited their arrival. There they sold and promoted that Special Aurora Monster DVD. Then about a month later, I officially finished the final cut of the movie and it sold like hotcakes.
I was personally financing these films on a school bus driver's salary. So it was difficult. I think we lived on chicken everyday for 4 years while I made that movie. We were doing a lot of on-the-road traveling to get those interviews. Especially the James Bama interview. From Connecticut where we lived, to Bama's house in Wyoming and back again. Not to mention the drives to Hollywood to get those interviews. But it was worth it. Back then, Cortlandt and I worked well together. We'd get to the location and he'd talk to the talent while I set up all my equipment, lighting, camera, sound, etc. I can't be involved in conversation when I'm getting sound calibration, camera settings and lighting. I need to focus, otherwise I'm going to screw something up. Cortlandt would ask the talent the questions during the interviews and I would man the production from behind the camera. It was a one camera setup on the talent. It was better that way because it gave more screen time for them. So you never saw or heard Cortlandt asking the questions. We told the talent to repeat part of the question in the first part of their answer. For example: “When did you first become a contract player for Universal?” They would answer “I first became a contract player for Universal back in...” and so on.
Do you think the experience of working on those documentaries helped prepare you for shooting a feature film?
Those two documentaries only prepared me for postproduction work. Preproduction and production work for “narrative” filmmaking and “documentary” filmmaking are two different animals. That is unless you're doing some reenactments in your documentaries, but even the script writing is very different. When I was preparing to make my first monster movie “The Cosmic Creature”, I knew I was going to have to direct actors. I'd interviewed a lot of actors, but I didn't know anything about acting. So I took acting from an acting coach when I moved back to Denver for about four and a half months. Ironically, we had interviewed Brett Halsey years before, and he actually gave me my first acting lesson. I asked him about the craft of acting and he told me a few things. But the one thing that he said to me that I never forget was that he hated when a director would tell him, “I just want you to say no”. He would tell the director “But I can say no fifty different ways. I can make ‘no’ sound like ‘yes’”. Studying acting can really help you as a director, and many actors respect directors who have done some acting. Let me make it clear, I'm a fair actor, but I'm not great at it. But you don't have to be a great actor to understand and communicate effectively with other actors. It just really helps if you've done some acting yourself.
Tell me about working with the legendary John Zacherley in the Aurora Monsters documentary. Knowing Zach, I’m sure that was a blast.
Before we got started with Zacherley, I pulled out my checkbook and began to write him a check. He looked over and saw what I was doing, and in that classic voice he said, “Put that away, this is for fun”. What could I say? Zacherley was loved and respected by everybody on that set. There was a lot of dialoge that Cortlandt and I had written for Zacherley, and Bill Diamond who was the puppeteer for Gorgo. Bill was under the desk so he had the script in front of him. But for Zacherley, Cortlandt took a black Sharpie and wrote his lines on blank 8x10 sheets of paper and held it up for him just out of frame. He would glance over to it every now and then. Some of the lines he got, some of it he improvised. And what he improvised was always better than what Cortlandt and I wrote. Zacherley was a hoot, and he was in his element whenever you called “action”. What a legend, what a gentleman, and what a privilege it was to work with him.
Thank you. Actually, Cortlandt and I were inducted together, into The Monster Kid Hall of Fame for 2007, in 2008, first. Then the Rondo Award for best Documentary for 2010, in 2011 happened later. So, yes, “The Aurora Monsters” did win best documentary for 2010. But I was unable to attend the ceremonies and I never received the Rondo Award statuette.
But, The Monster Kid Hall of Fame Rondo Award 2007 plaque, hangs on my wall in my bedroom. I'm very proud of it. To be in the company of people like George Romero, Rick Baker, Uncle Forry, Paul Blaisdell, Ray Bradbury, Joe Dante, Greg Nicotero and Roger Corman, just to name a few for crying out loud! Real giants, and who am I? Yeah, it's a big deal to me. And believe me, I work damn hard every waking day to uphold that honor.
Funny thing, the night they presented the Rondo Awards, Cortlandt and I couldn't make it to the ceremony to accept the award because one of us got sick and I don't remember who, but we were fine the next day. So, David Colton and the coordinators at WonderFest held another event the following evening just for us to accept the award. I couldn't believe it. It was the nicest thing and one of the most surreal moments in my life. When I was 8 years old I saw “2001: Space Odyssey” at a neighborhood theater a few years after it was released. That movie blew me away and has always been a huge influence on me. So, who was in the audience sitting at a table applauding as Cortlandt and I went up to the podium to receive our Hall of Fame Awards? Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, who were guests that year at WonderFest. A moment I will never forget. There's a photo somewhere on the Internet of Cortlandt and I getting that award, and I laugh because I look like a deer in headlights, as they say. I was such a different person back then, painfully shy and awkward. Today, I couldn’t be any more opposite.
So tell folks a bit about Rage of the Mummy if you would.
Well, “Rage of the Mummy” is about a group of occultists who steal thirteen sacred relics from a mummy's tomb. The occultists believe the relics will empower them with supernatural powers they themselves do not have. The mummy, of course, leaves his tomb to seek out the thieves and brings deadly vengeance upon them. It's really a revenge story with subtle humor like “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”. For my first time, I really wanted to make a fun and simple monster movie that could be enjoyed with a family. I didn't want to shoot something too serious where I would get bogged down with heavy drama, very elaborate gore makeup effects, or holding actors hands and trying to get them through complex scenes. I know I'd be dealing with all the technical issues on the set. The camera, the lighting, storyboards, set design and dressing, costumes, makeup effects, props, you name it. Many times I had to shoot the movie while in the mummy suit. I shot this movie fast. The principal photography was shot in three months, mostly on the weekends in the Summer of 2016. The average time spent on set with the actors was between 4 and 5 hours. The longest shoot was the gathering scene with all the occultists at Greyson's house. That was 8 ½ hours. The rest of it was second unit stuff, pickups with the mummy and mostly postproduction all of which took me up until 2018 to complete.
It’s interesting that you set your mummy movie in modern times, but then so did the Universal films when you think about them. Of course, nowadays it feels different, with cell phones, computers, and modern technology.
I would love to make a period film, but it becomes too expensive. And hats off to indies like Joe DeMuro’s “Tales of Dracula”, Larry Blamire’s “Dark and Stormy Night”, and Eben McGarr’s “House of the Wolfman” and others who've done it.
Are you a big fan of the old mummy films, and if so what are some of your favorites? (I’m partial to the Hammer Mummy movie with Lee and Cushing, personally).
I like all monsters in general without favoring any one particular monster type per se. However, I find myself drawn to creatures or mutant creatures like, “The Hideous Sun Demon”, “The Monster of Piedras Blancas”, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, “Octaman” and all of Paul Blaisdell monsters. But I do love mummies as well. My favorite mummy movie is “The Mummy's Shroud” second to that is “Blood from the Mummy's Tomb” and that one doesn't even have a mummy in it. Maybe I'm just in love with Valerie Leon? And after that, all the Chaney mummy movies, “The Mummy's Hand”, “The Mummy's Tomb”, “The Mummy's Ghost” and “The Mummy's Curse”.
What were the biggest challenges in making Rage?
The same for all indies... money. And when you don't have enough to pay skilled professional people to help you through every phase of production, then you're still going to need some money to do it yourself.
In addition to producing and directing, you also played the monster in your film! Did you enjoy that?
No, I did not. I did it because I had already made a mummy mask for another feature I was going to make but lost the funding for it. It was called “Creepy Island” and there were supposed to be 8 mummies breaking out of their sarcophaguses towards the end of the movie. I needed to see how I was going to make the mummy's headpiece first. So like most makeup artists, I experimented on myself first. I did a build up of the mummy's face over an ultra cal casting of my face. So the mummy mask only fit me. I had only a few weeks before shooting began for “Rage of the Mummy” and I didn't have enough time to find an actor who would be available to do a new casting, a new build up plus fabrication, and then tailor the fitting of the suit. Then have them come back to my house when their schedule permitted, for me to do final fittings and final touches on the suit. Not to mention, all the pickup shots needed to complete the film. It was just easier for me to do it. However, there were two shots in the movie that are my nephew in the suit, because I had to do the camera work and I didn't trust anyone else to do it. If you don't see the mummy, then I did the camera work. And even then, there were other times where I had to shoot myself in the suit because I didn't have anyone available to help me. I usually got the shot I wanted after 60 takes. I'd run in my house to my computer to upload the shots and see if they were good. If they weren't I'd run back outside and do them again. Neighbors would watch this mummy running in and out of the house carrying a camera. That's indie filmmaking.
Which phase of filmmaking do you like best? Writing, shooting, editing, etc.?
Editing, and all the postproduction work that goes with it for sure. It's exciting because it's where you really meet your film for the first time. And it is there where you decide what to keep and what to leave out. And what you need to add in order to get something that you feel is going to work best, because the film is no longer what you thought it was going to be.
What piece of advice would you give to other newer filmmakers who are taking the leap to shoot their own feature film?
I think the same stock answer that most filmmakers give. Just get out there and start shooting. But I would start with small, simple projects that are manageable. I've seen people take on huge projects and become overwhelmed, get discouraged and then never finish. There's a lot of free help on YouTube to get you started, but the best teacher is direct experience.
What’s next for you, do you have another film in mind?
It's an anthology of murder and the supernatural, with ghosts and demons, for which I'm already writing. It will be a far cry in tone from “Rage of the Mummy”. I'm interested, at the moment, with the Italian “Giallo” films of Argento, Bava and Fulci. That doesn't mean that I'm done with classic monster movies. I just want to try something new right now.
Thanks again for chatting with me. Where can folks find Rage of the Mummy?
Thanks for having me Dr. Gangrene! It was fun! You can see “Rage of the Mummy” at Amazon. Available on DVD to buy, rent, or stream on Prime. And you can go to rageofthemummy.com or the Facebook page of Rage of the Mummy for more photos and behind-the-scenes content.