Dead Weight Interview with Adam Bartlett, John Pata, and Nicholas Elert: Part I
While covering the Milwaukee Film Festival I had the opportunity to sit down with the co-directors & co-writers of "Dead Weight", Adam Barlett and John Pata, as well as the film's composer Nicholas Elert. What follows is the first half of my interview with the filmmakers as they discuss the trials of micro-budget, indie-horror filmmaking and the power of collaboration.
Andy_BGH: You guys have been running the festival/convention gauntlet for some time now. You were at Horror Hound Indianapolis a few weeks back. Bloody Good Horror did a review of “Dead Weight” along with Night of the Living Podcast. Then you just got back from CryptiCon in Minneapolis and now you’re here at the Milwaukee Film Festival. What’s next for you? Where is “Dead Weight" now?
John Pata: The last weekend in October (the 26th through the 28th) “Dead Weight” is screening in three different festivals. We’re at the New Orleans Horror Film Festival. We’re at Spooky Empire. Spooky Empire is the convention but the film festival is the Freakshow Horror Film Festival. That’s in Orlando. And then we’re at Landlocked Film Festival in Iowa City. And then November 2nd through the 4th we’ll be at the Central Wisconsin Film Festival in Amherst and Stevens Point, the Madison, WI Horror Film Festival, and the Drunken Zombie Film Festival in Peoria, IL and following that we’re at the Weyauwega International Film Festival as well.
ABGH: And will you guys be traveling with “Dead Weight” at those showings?
Adam Bartlett: As much as we can we like to be there when there’s a screening going on just because it’s great to meet the people if there’s folks there that enjoyed the film and to answer questions and just interact with everyone. That’s one of our big things. The whole film was produced because of the horror community. So being able to get out and talk to people and expand the range of friendships that we have all over the United States where the film has been screening in whatever way we can. But especially when the film’s screening we like to be there. Obviously stuff like New Orleans and Orlando can be a little bit difficult to get to. We made the film with no budget and now we definitely have no money. **Laughs**. But we try to get too as many as we can.
JP: But it’s kinda like that old William Castles approach in the 50’s when he went to every screening. He traveled with the film and that doesn’t happen that much anymore. So it’s awesome to be able to go too a screening and talk to people. And I just think people are accustomed to watching at home or whatever and so it’s nice when we can go with the film. Be there to talk to them.
AB: Add a little personal touch to the movie.
JP: Yea, absolutely.
ABGH: One thing I’ve noticed about “Dead Weight” in general is that you guys have a really strong social media presence. I was going over your blog just a couple days ago and I noticed that you guys even recorded and took pictures of your production doing editing and post work along those lines. And I was curious, how did having the social media influence not only how you guys were selling the film but also how you made it. Did it have any kind of impact on the production process?
AB: Kinda of how I touched on how the whole thing came out of the horror community, like actors, producers, and other people involved [in “Dead Weight”] were all people John met networking in real-life at horror conventions, at Horror Hound, at CryptiCon, at Days of the Dead, and all those sorts of things. And my background is working in the music industry doing sales and marketing. And I have a record label that I do. So between the two of us we’re kinda like networking and marketing machines.
And not in like the suit and tie sitting around the executive boardroom sense. We both have tons of tattoos and dress like a couple of homeless guys and look pretty shaggy all the time so it’s definitely a lot more of just getting out and talking to people. People that legitimately love horror and love film for the fun of it and not because their trying to further their own career, trying to find every little thing to make themselves sound like the snobbiest most enlightened experienced film reviewer. It’s all about actually networking with real people. And that’s why the whole time we’ve been working on this, even before the script was done, before anyone even knew what the film was about, because we didn’t tell anybody through the premiere…No one on the crew got the script. Members of the cast only got their parts of the script. So literally there were very, very few people that actually knew the whole story. But even from the beginning we had the blog going and we would have writing updates. “This is what we did!” Or the Facebook page just little junk here and there. “Hey we went and checked out these locations.” We’d post a picture.
And being a couple of movie dorks ourselves, that’s the stuff we love to see. We love to see the process behind the creation. We love to see the directors or the location scouts standing in the middle of a field in whatever season it is that there not actually going to be filming in pointing at stuff, looking around, or making videos, or things like “Here’s all the root beer we drank” or “all the tea we drank while writing for nine hours.” We like seeing that stuff ourselves and finding out about the process. So it started out I guess more as, “This is what we like so why don’t we do this cause we think it’s fun so why don’t we just do it.” And if people like it, cool! And people really latched on to it and really got attached to it.
I think that and the community in Oshkosh where we’re from, a small city but definitely, hugely supportive of the arts, all types of art. So I think the combination of the supportive community and our dedication to keeping people informed on a very personal level—honestly, and sincerely personal level—helped drive things and helped us sell out two premiere screenings of 400 people each night in a town of 65,000 people.
JP: Something that Adam talked about was just how [he] and I work and how we’re just kinda like we’re used to doing things on our own. A big part of “Dead Weight” and our background too is DIY. I grew up in the punk rock scene. Adam grew up in the hardcore scene and the metal scene so we’re just very used to doing everything ourselves. And so there was no questions asked when things started. We’re like, “Yea, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do this.” Because we knew that we were going to follow through with it.
AB: And we’re kinda control-freak-maniacs.
JP: And yea there’s that too (**Laughs**). It’s like when we get to Horror Hound the first thing we do is put flyers up throughout the entire hotel. We have handouts. We’re reaching out to people ourselves, not saying that the convention isn’t going to do it, cause they do.
AB: They definitely do.
JP: We want to wrangle up as many people as we can. That’s just kinda how we operate. With the social media, we had a photographer on set with us. Professional photographer named Mary Manchester, who’s a dear friend of ours, she was on set with us all seven days in April. What was awesome was that she was taking photos of the production and was uploading them to Facebook that day. So THAT day, people could go to Facebook and see ten photos of what we just filmed. Granted we made sure they were spoiler-free but her level of work and seeing the scale of the production I think people took “Dead Weight” seriously. And that was a huge thing [to get to see images instantly]…I did a film five years ago that was a $700 film called Better Off Undead that’s a really low-budget, shoot on the weekends stuff so I think people might have expected that. And then they see, this is professional, THIS is what they’re doing. And that was all through Facebook and Mary’s photos.
ABGH: Going back to what you mentioned regarding the two music scenes you guys grew up in, [John and Adam], how did the two of you meet and become collaborators?
AB: We had a lot of mutual friends in High School. And I worked at the record shop in town and John would come in and we’d talk about music. Just chat here or there we wouldn’t hang out or do stuff much. But we’d see each other in public or we’d see each other at shared places and we’d talk all the time because we had these similar interests. And John worked at the used CD store in town so I’d see him when I’d go in there too. It just sort of developed into a friendship through our mutual love of music and DIY sort of music. I moved away for a while…and came back right as they were finishing up “Better Off Undead” and I saw that and though it was really awesome what he was able to do with friends in the community. At that time I didn’t have any interest in actually creating film at all. Like I loved seeing movies but I had just started the record label so I was much more in to music. So after seeing “Better Off Undead” and reuniting with John our friendship continued to grow and grow.
JP: So in 2007 I released “Better Off Undead” and then basically did the same thing; festivals and conventions. Basically just traveled around and through that is where I met a lot of people. Aaron Christensen who plays Thomas in the film I met through there. Dan Kiggins one of our producers. A lot of people came through that scene.
[Then] I started working on a full-length called, “Among the Dead”. Wrote the script. Started pre-production. Cast the film. Adam was one of the lead actors. And we had everything lined up to go. We had to rent a house to shoot the film because ninety percent of it took place in a house. Took four months to get the house. Long story short, rental agency we went with pulled the carpet out from under our feet the day before we got the keys. That was about eight months of work that was just gone in a flash. And one of our actresses had a job in a month that she had to be done with the film for. So basically there was no way we could continue on. And that really bummed me out. I became very, very depressed. [I said], “Alright, we’re just going to do a bunch of short films!” So I wrote a bunch of short films. But that ambition was gone. The drive was there. But the motivation and dedication was totally gone. It just got sucked out from me.
Maybe like a year after that in 2009 Adam was working for me in a screen-printing shop that I co-owned at the time. Ya’know he said, “I got these bullet points…” Actually, no! Step back. Adam sent me a photo of this alley in Neenah, Wisconsin and it said, “We should probably fill this with zombies and film something here.” Couple months later Adam was like I got this idea for a story. “Guy’s on a journey. There’s two timelines. Their moving in this direction. They end in the same physical location. I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know why he’s traveling. But what do you think?” And we began fleshing that out when we worked together every single day. And then we were organizing the Oshkosh Zombie Walk. We were together all day and all night basically. The wheel kept turning. We kept throwing out more and more ideas, throwing out different things, and then we decided to write the script.
ABGH: Talk about the decision to have the split time-lines. What inspired you to use that technique? It’s a strategy that can potentially have almost too forceful of an ironic bent on it. But at the same time if you do it right it really functions well to punctuate a contemporary action that is occurring in our main narrative. Where did that idea come from?
AB: I don’t really know…(**Both Laugh**). There was literally four or five things I told John. What he listed before was literally the beginning of “Dead Weight”. That was just one of the things I thought up. There’s all sorts of stuff these days that has alternating timelines. Flashback stuff is really popular. I like that idea when it can serve a purpose. When it serves the primary narrative or when it’s relevant, I really, really like that a lot. I wanted to try to do our own version of that. Maybe try to do an original twist to it. And really, I’ll tell you, the primary reason that we feel it worked, the reason we feel it works for people and works for us is because of people like Aaron Christensen who was one of the first people that read the script along with Scott Dercks and producer Lee Marohn. Those were three of the people that read the script first. My wife Carrie and John’s girlfriend at the time, Ashley, those were the first group of people to have read the script. We took criticism from everyone. Positive feedback and just really good constructive criticism. And Aaron, I must say, was one of the biggest influences and just the best at saying that he really liked the two narratives but he took John and my very unfocused energy and polished it and pointed it in the right direction. He was like, “I really like what you guys are doing. I see what you’re trying to do. You need to work on this, and this, and this. You need to cut some of this out.” Basically just trim the fat. And Aaron was one of the biggest keys in making that happen. And helping us get to where we wanted it to be.
JP: I remember a phrase he said was, “I like the timelines. I don’t want it to be a gimmick. I want it to serve a purpose.” And that was what we needed to hear. It’s a “cool, creative” way to tell a story but there’s many things you can do to be like “WOO! Look what we did!” Once that phrase came, “not a gimmick, but a purpose,” that really helped us into the right direction.
ABGH: Let’s talk about the setting. You look at a lot of contemporary mainstream horror and they’re absolutely saturated with Post-apocalyptic, zombie settings. When I see a smaller Indie-horror film like “Dead Weight” utilize that setting I get automatically concerned because it doesn’t seem like it will be able to compete and capture the necessary scope of what that idea requires. But what I really enjoyed about “Dead Weight” is that it’s not even necessarily about the global scope. The scope is in the person. It doesn’t have to be some big grandiose thing. It doesn’t have to be Mila Jovovich in leather outfits (sorry, Eric). What influences are you pulling from when you’re thinking about zombies, if I’m allowed to call them that, but also the setting of a world that’s very close to our own but so completely different.
AB: I’ll let John answer but first I’m going to say, “Thanks, Wisconsin!”
JP: Basically, yeah! **Both Laugh** Adam and I are big Wisconsin guys so right away we knew we’re going to set it in Wisconsin and film it in Wisconsin. But in terms of influence definitely John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of our favorite films. And while that’s a great creature feature and it’s got awesome special effects, ya know, hands down those effects are incredible, when you take all that away it’s still people against people. It’s about the characters.
AB: And it’s isolation. And it’s atmosphere.
JP: Yep, and it’s desperation and all of that! So that was a big influence for us. And then even films such as 28 Days Later. The Mist even, is a big creature film but its about people in adverse situation and what happens when you pull society away, you pull the norms away, you pull our rules away, and you’re just left with humanity.
AB: Or the lack thereof I guess; the animal nature of people to survive.
JP: “Horrors of Humanity” is a way that we like to describe “Dead Weight”. Is it a horror film? Depends on how you look at it. But it’s a Horrors of humanity.
But in terms of the scope that’s a lot of Travis [Auclair] our cinematographer. He knew how to compose a shot and work with what we had.
AB: Because we had no storyboards. Travis basically had the script which I don’t think he even read at any point. He’s just an old friend of mine and he became fast friends with John and was like, “Yeah, you guys are in to this. John sold his share of his screen-printing company to do this full time. I know you guys are serious. I’m in!” And we basically took him to locations day of. That was the first time he’d been there. Set him down at a location and said, “Here’s our area. Point the camera where you want. And let’s figure it out.” The visual aspect of it we just gave him control. He asked, “Do you want it tight? Or do you want it wide here?” Well we’re thinking this. What do you think? Sounds cool to me. Or, I think this is a better idea. And we’d talk through everything. No bullshit. No punches pulled. We were all respectful of each other but we were also like, “this is a bad idea.”
There were times when Travis saved the film because he said, “this is a bad idea.” When we were in some really, really dire situations he said, “This is a bad idea. We need to pull back, regroup, and figure something out.” And when Travis was serious we knew this is what we need to do. But Travis, when it came to visual quality, we gave him the reins. If we had a different idea we’d tell him and we’d work through it.
JP: To talk about something that’s a little bit related, a little bit off topic. Not only were we arriving on set each day with Travis being like, “Here’s our location.” Our cast, the “survivors” we call them, prior to filming them once for one table read, because we had two actors from Chicago, two from Milwaukee, one from Appleton, so we didn’t have the chance to have the cast around together a whole lot. We did read-throughs with most of them. They came up two days prior to filming and stayed at my house all throughout production. So they met one day. Did an entire script read-through. We did five revisions of the script after that. And then they were in Oshkosh to film…A lot of “Dead Weight” was run and gun. We had seven days. Joe Belknap our lead actor was student teaching. That was his Spring Break. So we had those seven days. We couldn’t get everyone else together after that it was just going to be too difficult.
ABGH: So are you saying a bulk of the film was shot in seven days?
JP: The present timeline was shot in seven consecutive days with a couple pickup shots here and there. And then the flashbacks were shot in three and a half days. So all together “Dead Weight” was made in less than thirteen days.
ABGH: That’s incredible! That’s really awesome.
AB: There were some long days in there.
ABGH: I’m sure! There’s something to be said about running and gunning production. I’ve made a couple shorts of my own and there’s something fruitful about the manic energy that comes from that. It really gets the creativity flowing.
AB: There’s definitely some critical scenes in the film that we had no time to shoot them and we had multiple angles we had to cover with our one camera. We just had to stand with people foot deep in manure and mud and snow and be like, “We have thirty-five minutes to get this entire scene. No one talk. Quite on set at all times. Even when we’re not rolling. We need to get down to business. We need to do this.”
It’s all to the credit of the actors. And Joe [Belknap] had never acted before he was in “Dead Weight”. That was his first time acting. And we’re very proud of what he’s done and we hope he is too. No one’s been able to tell [that was he’s first time acting]. Everyone’s been complimentary to Joe. And we’re really happy about that. Him being able to step up and do that under such pressure, he’s first time acting, and he’s literally in every scene of “Dead Weight” except for one scene.
JP: Like, fifty-two seconds.
AB: He needed to memorize ninety pages of script. And the other actors that we pulled in. It’s all to their credit to be able to sit there under pressure and be so positive all the time when John and I are so ready to put the gun to our heads and be like, “This is over. We can’t do it anymore. We’re screwed!”. It was all the positivity of the cast and crew under those dire situations when we’re doing the run and gun sort of thing. It was all their energy that kept us going and really helped us to pull throw and actually be able to do it.
JP: The crew is like the unsung heroes of “Dead Weight”.
JP: I mean, we put everyone through absolute hell. We had blizzards. We had a whole bunch of different stuff going on. Wind storm. We had sixty mile per hour winds on the first day. Nobody, cast or crew, complained. Nobody said they wanted to quit. No one said they wanted to stop. Everyone just said, “What do we have to do.” And the cast in every film gets all the recognition. But the crew worked their asses off. Everyone made “Dead Weight” happen. But the crew are the unsung heroes.