Jeff Thomas

Interview by SGM correspondent Stuart Willis

SGM regular Stuart Willis recently got the opportunity to check out the new low budget shocker '13 Seconds', you can find out what Stu thought of the film by clicking here. Obviously though he was impressed enough to take time out to shoot the breeze with the very cool writer/director Jeff Thomas...

SGM: You based your career initially in TV. What productions do you have to your credit and what did you learn from them?

Jeff Thomas

JT: I have several hundred television commercials to my credit. I've been working in the Detroit area now for about ten years as a freelance writer/director and my business has produced work for the Big Three automobile manufacturers, their support industries, their foreign partners and affiliates, numerous dealerships, and several other regional corporations in the south eastern Michigan area. What I gleaned from working in broadcast video is the whole philosophy of being able to deliver an entertaining product on a budget. Commercial work fully prepares a director for the guerrilla warfare of independent filmmaking. Honestly, there never was an issue or problem during 13 SECONDS' production period that I hadn't already encountered while shooting commercials. Plus, with commercials there are very strict time restraints for all of your information and what you are attempting to communicate. Films are essentially narratives with information and themes you are attempting to communicate as well. Therefore commercials were a tremendous help in aiding me to become more precise, more developed and more direct in the storytelling process. Also, with broadcast video it's important not to bore or lose your audience and I felt this as a major influence in both the script and film forms of 13 SECONDS. I wanted to create something that was fast-moving and scary, and that would not let up until the twist ending. So throughout the post production of the film I was constantly employing the same rapid editing style from my commercial work. Lastly, commercial work helps prepare you for the collaborative process of filmmaking. After a couple of early instances in the production of 13 SECONDS, I would quietly scratch my head and ask myself "Why didn't I just write a book?" - working with talent and crews can be stressful. When faced with the challenge of committing a story to the visual medium, especially one that incorporates a lot of special effects, the last thing you want to do is play mediator, counsellor, and arbitrator. But fortunately commercial work had exposed me to this wonderful side of filmmaking.

SGM: You've also shot a number of short films. Of all of those that you directed prior to 13 SECONDS, which one would you consider to be the most significant - and why?

13 Seconds

JT: THE DESCENT. This was essentially an exercise in videomaking to see if we could succeed in producing a feature. It was based on a short story I'd written years ago and it allowed us to experiment with lighting, set design and special effects. This was the first effects-driven piece any of us had done, and now it definitely shows. But it did help me to refine my lighting style. All of the lighting techniques I had employed for THE DESCENT were present for 13 SECONDS. Looking back, that is what I appreciate this short the best for. A style can only emerge after so much experience that comes from experimentation and hands on applications. Plus, at the time, I had a rough budget outline for 13 SECONDS, and I had no idea where I was going to come up with the cash. With THE DESCENT, I had a tangible example of what we could accomplish. From here, this short became a tool that we showed to potential investors. Oddly enough, after watching it, everyone was sold.

SGM: So you didn't encounter any difficulties when finding financing for the film?

JT: I had several individuals ready to invest in the project. My budget was set, checks were ready to be signed, a film was waiting to be made but I was personally very uncomfortable. I felt that if I failed with something I should at least fail with my own money. Then there was the subject matter of 13 SECONDS. All of my investors were highly respected doctors and my script was not typical matinee fare. Everyone had read the script, but I did envision problems down the road with creating some of the more violent set pieces. Literally at the last minute I decided to finance the film myself. Since I already owned a business I applied for a commercial loan, never telling the bank where the money was really going. I also did something that many independents do: I applied for every credit card I could get my hands on. I also had money that I had saved and my grandmother loaned me some additional funds as well. Luckily, I was all set and ready to begin, without the hassle of investors constantly looking over my shoulder. Plus I continued to shoot commercials during the entire production period. If money was ever needed for additional matters - and it always was - the cash came right from my pocket. I was literally working two full-time jobs at this point and I always felt like the first job just supported the second.

SGM: How did you meet Robert Miller (co-star/ associate producer/ FX designer for the film)?

13 Seconds

JT: Through pre-school. We were fortunate enough to grow up in the same neighbourhood, be the same age, and go to the same schools together. We always knew we would make a film together. It was interesting growing up and seeing where our two very distinct interests would take us. Rob is an award winning master sculptor and one of the best overall artists I have ever met. Whereas I was good with writing, and cameras and editing. We collaborated on a couple of projects, including one for syndicated television, and we felt confident enough that we could tackle a feature. Even though we were both friends this was still a huge leap of faith. We both knew for 13 SECONDS to be successful, both of us had to give the project everything. The effects work for the film are very integral and important to the overall narrative structure. I couldn't tell the story I wanted to without Rob's talent. Likewise, he had to trust my cinematography to graphically bring his creations to the visual medium. Having a pre-existing friendship does aid in the collaboration process, even more so on an independent filmmaking level.

SGM: And were the rest of the cast of 13 SECONDS friends of yours?

JT: All of the cast members, with the exception of Rob and myself, were Detroit area commercial actors. They were friends in the regard that we had all worked together before on various broadcast shoots.

SGM: In that case, how difficult was it to direct them?

JT: It should have been easy. But I think people have several preconceived notions of what horror films are. So many times horror is played for camp, or for more comedic possibilities. I wanted something that would be dark and scary, and for the most part devoid of laughs. I wanted to lose any camp from the performances. Plus, with the narrative structure of the film, I wanted the acting to play into the twist ending. Purposely, I wanted motives and reactions to be mysterious and not always what would come naturally. It was somewhat difficult at first, asking everyone to forget what they had seen in many horror films before. I never lost my temper on set, but Melissa Hoffman, our producer, always heard my behind closed doors rants!

SGM: What was the most difficult scene to shoot, and why?

13 Seconds

JT: Mac's death scene, otherwise referred to as the upside down crucifixion scene. Kevin Kuras - who plays Mac - was an exceptional sport about this scene, considering he spent the majority of it suspended several feet off the floor and upside down. We found Kevin could only shoot for about fifteen minutes upside down before he started acting strangely. So, like clockwork we had to lower Kevin down, then use a pulley to hoist him back up into position. In the world of independent filmmaking, fifteen minutes is not very long, especially when you add the special effects needed to create this illusion. We used gallons of blood in this scene as well, which only added to the chaos as everyone would slip and slide around this very confined set.

SGM: How long did the film take to make - from it's inception, to completed print?

JT: If you count absolutely everything, the project took 15 months to finish. The script itself went through three rewrites that took three months total. Everything else, from set design to scoring, was completed in a twelve month interval.

SGM: Is there anything that, in hindsight, you wish you'd done differently?

JT: For marketing, I wish I'd contracted at least one name actor or actress. I also wish I'd shot on 35mm. There is a level of prestige with 35mm shoots, but with the level of sets and special effects I was contending with, financially it was impossible to have both.

SGM: Of all the accolades and awards 13 SECONDS has received, which has affected you the most?

JT: Honestly, I am thankful for all the reviews, awards and accolades. I was really surprised by how great the response has been. But there are a few that have been personal successes. The quote by Douglas Preston, best-selling author of THE RELIC and THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, was incredible - not only because I'm a huge fan of his work, but also because his was the very first accolade to be attached to 13 SECONDS. The quote from FANGORIA's Tony Timpone was equally as touching since that magazine played such a pivotal role in the most formative years of my life. The award from the Calgary International Horror Film Festival was exceptional as well. Our world premiere had taken place there and the festival director, Dave Bond, proved to be such a wonderful and influential host. The award from the New York International Independent Film Festival was exciting because it was our first major award from a non-horror specific festival. And the award from the UK's Festival of Fantastic Films was just breathtaking since I have been a Ramsey Campbell fan since age ten. I cannot tell you how appreciative I am of all the support there has been for 13 SECONDS.

SGM: 13 SECONDS is committed to scaring people and takes it's horror seriously - a breath of fresh air! Which films would you personally consider 13 SECONDS to have been most directly influenced by?

13 Seconds

JT: The films of Dario Argento and John Carpenter. In the world of great and historic cinema I think Argento is the most under appreciated director. Stylistically, the man is a genius. Everything within the film frame perfectly compliments each other: the set design, lighting, angles, colour all work in a perfect symbiotic relationship to achieve a startling vision. Sure, you can throw all narrative logic out the window, but films are supposed to be looked at. Argento consistently creates original and surreal images unlike any other filmmaker. Carpenter exceeds at making us believe that something horrifying is waiting to destroy us in our own neighbourhoods. He takes the terrifying and presents it to us in our own backyards, effectively invading our sense of safety and destroying all comfort zones. Best of all, both of these directors play horror straight and for keeps.

SGM: I imagine 13 SECONDS has relied on a lot of self-promotion. What has your strategy been?

JT: Never let a day go by without promoting the film. Sometimes I think promoting a project is as expensive as actually making the film. But the independent filmmaker needs to be prepared for this. At the very start I applied to every film festival I could (a word of caution: be prepared to spend a lot in entry fees). Then I searched for a database of every single domestic and international distributor and filmmaking company. With this immense list, I would update everyone of new festival dates, awards, and any other news. From there I got into contact with every web site, magazine, radio show, television, newspaper and media outlet I could find. Trade shows and conventions also offered great possibilities of creating new fans for the film. Sending news release e-mails to different sub-cultures that usually show an interest in horror media also proved effective. And it doesn't hurt to give away as many free posters as possible. Networking, like in all businesses, is also essential. There are so many talented individuals with great projects out there. I've been lucky enough to meet several, and it's very important that we all support and help promote one another.

SGM: Speaking of which other than yourself, if had to name three directors active today that had the potential to rejuvenate the horror industry who would you choose?

JT: I can think of some great independents that come quickly to mind. Kevin Lindenmuth of the ADDICTED TO MURDER series, JT Petty of SOFT FOR DIGGING, and Jose Prendes of CORPSES ARE FOREVER, are all extremely talented directors that exercise a keen sense of style, vision and narrative dramatics in an always entertaining and engaging fashion. Keep an eye on these guys.

SGM: Back to 13 SECONDS, is there a DVD release in the pipeline? If so, can you share any details?

JT: I am very excited to say that at this time we are very close to signing a deal for international and domestic distribution that would place 13 SECONDS on shelves by mid summer.

SGM: If Hollywood approached you with the concept of remaking your film on a major budget, giving you directorial duties and total artistic control - who would you cast in the roles of Davis, Sidetrack and Kara if you could have ANYONE?

JT: This is an interesting question, as there have been talks of a potential remake. Oddly enough, I would love to remain in the role of Davis and I think Rob Miller brings Sidetrack perfectly to life in all his obnoxious glory. Given the opportunity, I would love to rethink the character of Kara for Kiera Knightley. She has proper dramatic range well beyond her years and a classic Hollywood style.

SGM: What's next from the Jeff Thomas/ Rainstorm Pictures stable?

JT: I just completed the script for what is a very loose continuation of some of the sub-textual themes just hinted at in 13 SECONDS. This is not so much a sequel, as none of the original characters or settings return. It's a further exploration of some issues with more violence, bigger set pieces and an ever expanding menagerie of creatures. The idea is to make it faster and scarier while speeding towards another twist ending. I am very excited about this project as it would not only expand the narrative structure but also the palette of visual effects.

SGM: A crass question (as it's so predictable to ask this!), but what advice would you offer to any upcoming wannabe filmmakers?

13 Seconds

JT: Just do it. I know so many individuals that want to create films and talk avidly about their ideas, but never do anything about it. I think regret is the hardest thing to live with - especially about something as passionate as filmmaking. Don't live with that regret. It's important to understand that it is very difficult work that requires mass amounts of organisation, preparation, collaboration, money, time, and more time. But if you are passionate about it, it all outweighs any possibility of regret. I answer a lot of technical and aesthetic questions for novice filmmakers through my website and I always encourage people to contact me. One thing about being independent is that you find out very quickly you are alone. And a lot of people in this industry can be jerks. Again, that's why I like networking so much, it always allows a platform for support and communication. So, if I can ever help anyone out, please let me know.

SGM: Finally, since promoting 13 SECONDS what horror films have you stumbled across that have personally left an impression upon you?

JT: Unfortunately since making and promoting 13 SECONDS, I have had very little time to catch up on my movie viewing. I can let you know about the very limited viewing I have had. As for independents, I really appreciate the work of the three directors I mentioned earlier. As for studio films, I immensely enjoyed FRAILTY, 28 DAYS LATER and BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF. I loved DEATHWATCH and THE BUNKER. I was thoroughly entertained by Doug Agosti in DR SHOCK'S TALES OF TERROR. Unearthed Films just did an excellent job with the engaging JUNK. And I have no idea how I missed it originally, but Blue Underground's release of DEAD AND BURIED proves just how much of an overlooked horror classic it is.

Many thanks to Jeff for his time, contributing so generously to the above interview. For more updates on Jeff's latest projects, and insights into the joys of independent filmmaking, be sure to visit the aforementioned!

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