The Arrow interviews Nick Vallelonga
Welcome Nick Vallelonga to the site! He's the writer/director behind CHOKER a little horror/sci-fi movie that could and did. I recommend that all you aspiring filmmakers out there read this extensive interview in-depth where it's loaded with some fine words of movie making wisdom. You got the floor Nick!
What’s your favorite horror movie?
Do I have to pick one? I can’t so I’ll give you a few. I define horror movies as movies that scare me or are just really cool, so in my mind I put horror and sci-fi movies into the same category. The horror purist may disagree with some of these, but here’s a few of my favorites. I guess most of these are obvious classics, but I’ll mention them anyway:
The original black & white Frankenstein, Mummy, Werewolf and King Kong; House of Wax, The Blob, Psycho, 2001, The Exorcist, The Omen, Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Fog, The Shining, American Werewolf in London, The Thing (both versions) Dawn of the Dead, They Live, and Alien. And for good measure a movie that was really scary when I first saw it and is not considered horror or sci-fi, Jaws.
What was the initial spark that ignited your creative juice and have you write CHOKER?
The idea to do something scary, small and quick on HD was first sparked when David Caruso told me about a film he did, “Session 9”. We were talking about doing another script that I wrote with Paul Sloan called “Tribes of October” that would have starred David and Michael Biehn, (that movie also fell apart when Caruso got the CSI Miami show) and he was telling me about the HD on “Session 9” and how they were able to get so much done on a short schedule with minimal lighting. I watched it, really liked it, thought it looked really good and thought maybe I could do something like that. I put that idea on a back burner and wrote a romantic comedy (believe it or not) called “That’s Amore” and was trying to put that together, but as you know, these things take forever and I was getting frustrated with waiting for other people to tell me whether I could make a movie or not.
It had been awhile since I actually made a movie and I really wanted to get something done. Then one night Paul Sloan called me and said he had just watched the DVD of Starship Troopers II and that I should see it. I watched it that night, immediately became a Colleen Porch fan, (who wouldn’t?) and the rest is history. I thought to myself, if I leave out the giant bugs, maybe I could write a movie that would have the small scale of a “Session 9” and combine it with the sci-fi of a Starship Troopers II. A movie that would be an homage to movies like “The Blob” and the old Roger Corman movies, a “B” movie, a popcorn movie that would be fun to watch. The only thing I was conscious of when I started was that I wanted to try to write a “B” version of a Stephen King type story. The actual story just came to me as I wrote it. I started on page one and never went back to look at what I had written until I finished it.
One draft, never changed a word, though I added some scenes when Colleen Porch was cast. I wanted to add more for her character and she and I collaborated on writing the additional scenes for her. Then I had to shoot it. I thought Troopers II looked really good for HD, so I figured that’s the way I would shoot mine. How I was going to pull it off, I didn’t know, but I just kept telling myself and anyone that would listen that I was making this movie, and nothing was going to stop me. I wrote the script at the end of June, my producing partner James Quattrochi and I raised a little money, and I began shooting at the end of July.
CHOKER seems like it genre-melds a lot (serial killer – Sci-Fi – Horror); were you at all afraid of having too many elements within one film and therefore risking in missing the mark on some of them?
No risk, no reward, right? Whether it works, remains to be seen. Because it is homage to all of those genres, I wanted to see if I could meld them together and come up with something a little different. If someone is out there looking for the usual low-budget, blood and guts slasher movie, they’re probably going to be disappointed. But… it’s got elements of those kind of movies, so hopefully it will still deliver on some of those levels. I think it’s the type of movie where you’re either going to love it for what it is, or hate it for what it’s not. Again, I tried to do something different, and I think if you can sit back, have fun and watch it and not try to compare it to anything else, you’ll enjoy it.
Because, you’re right, it doesn’t fit into one category; it’s not really a full blown horror movie in the traditional sense, it’s not full-on sci-fi, it’s not pure action, it’s sort of it’s own animal. My composer Harry Manfredini had an interesting take on it when he said that act one is sort of the fun, sci-fi, action, serial killer, horror stuff, act II is sort of a cop drama, and act III is like a Hitchcock movie, with an action hero ending. It does mix a few genres, but hopefully that’s one of the things that makes it stand out for a low budget movie. If I made something that just copied something else, you probably wouldn’t be talking to me right now.
How would you describe the casting process for the picture?
Unbelievably blessed. All of the men were cast from actors that I already knew. I wrote the part of Hud for Paul Sloan. I believe without a doubt, whether it’s from this movie or another one down the line, that he’s going to be this generations Stallone and Arnold. I think anyone that sees the movie will agree with me. He’s also an incredible writer, and a couple of his scripts have been optioned with him attached to star, (Snakeskin, Siphon) so he’s ready to explode onto the scene in a major way. Bobby Ray Shafer is a great actor who many of your readers will recognize as the Psycho Cop, Officer Joe Vickers, from the two “Psycho Cop” movies, and he was recently in Monster Man.
Tony Denison, whom I worked with many times before, is a solid veteran character actor who really gives credibility to the cast. Then there’s me, James Quattrochi and the rest of the guys in the cast, all excellent actors who I knew I could count on and not have to worry about their performance. One of them, Jesse Corti, has two of the most talented kids you’ll ever meet, and I cast them in the movie as well. Then there’s the women. The women in the movie really kick ass. Not only are they all gorgeous, they’re some of the most talented actresses I’ve ever worked with. They all took the material and elevated it to a higher level. You don’t normally get acting of this caliper in a film like this, and all the women, down to the smallest roles, did an incredible job. In the larger roles, Susse Budde took what normally would be just “the wife” role and turns in an incredibly emotional performance. Hayley DuMond, as our “villian” is simply amazing.
She originally auditioned for one of the smaller female roles, and she did some things that gave me goose bumps. I had a crazy hunch and took a chance and had her read for the role of “Leader” which was written for a man. I had auditioned dozens of guys, nobody really had the presence that I needed for the role, and Hayley came in and just blew me away, so I cast her. I call her the female Gary Oldman, she’s that great, one of the best actors I’ve ever seen. And then there’s Colleen Porch. Every director should be blessed by working with an actor like Colleen Porch. She was my biggest cheerleader for the film, encouraging me when things got tough, even showing up on days she wasn’t working to bring food for the crew. She worked under some rough conditions, some days without a trailer, some days without a make-up and hair person, and she never complained.
She worked just as hard on this little movie as she would if it were some big budget film. She’s an extremely intelligent actor, and she really put all her class, talents and her heart into her role, and it shows. Her performance is excellent, and whenever she’s on screen you can’t take your eyes off her. She’s one of the nicest and most talent persons I’ve ever met. I can’t say enough about her.
Did you have any rehearsal time with your actors before the shoot?
I’m very big on rehearsals, I believe in rehearsing the movie as much as possible as if it were a play. But unfortunately in this case, with everything happening so quickly, I just didn’t have as much time as I would have liked. So I relied on my casting choices to pull me through. I’m paraphrasing here, but John Huston once said something like 90% of directing was casting. That once he cast the right actors, he just let them alone and concentrated on the filmmaking. I was fortunate to cast incredible actors, actors I could trust, so other than some specific moments, I pretty much let them go and do their thing. I rehearsed some of the fights, but even those I mostly had to wing it on the set.
I heard you shot the film in 12 days; can you give me some insight as to how one day of shooting was like?
It’s something that I never want to do again. I had shot a previous film, Kingdom of the Blind, with William Petersen and Michael Biehn in 14 days, and at that time I thought never again, but this time I mean it, never, never again. It’s just too much work, and you have to compromise too much. It’s also not fair to the actors, they only get one or two takes, and then you have to move on. Choker was even harder because I had some fight/action sequences that require a lot of coverage, and I compromised how I shot all those scenes because of time restraints.
My days were made even more crazy because I was also co-producing, so me and James Quattrochi, my producing partner, were prepping during the day, loading equipment for the shoot, shooting all night, packing equipment, watching dailies when we could, then talking over the next days schedule, then maybe we got a couple hours sleep before we had to start all over again. Then we also had to squeeze in and steal some additional daytime scenes that were added for Colleen that weren’t on the schedule, scenes that we shot with just a skeleton crew.
And I was also acting in the movie. One night when it came to the scene where I had my biggest piece of dialog, we had already shot about twelve pages, we were in about our 14th hour, and now I was supposed to give this long speech. I couldn’t even remember my own dialogue, stuff that I had written. My brain was like mush. With the help of my crew, somehow I got through it, but it was just brutal.
What did you shoot the film on?
My DP, Vladimir Van Maule, owned two Panasonic Vericam 24p HD cameras. I always hated “movies” shot on video because they always look like video. The only ones I thought pulled it off and looked good were the ones I mentioned earlier, “Starship Troopers II” and “Session 9”. I really learned a lot from watching the behind the scenes stuff on the Starship Troopers II DVD, and I owe a lot to what they did on that film. I saw what they did, listened to how they did it and tried to take that information to the next level. I really wanted to try to push the envelope with the technology and make “choker” a great looking little “film” shot on digital.
I knew that the lighting on set, the camera settings and post production after-effects would all have to be pre-planned and ultimately work together to get the look I wanted. Vlad really knew his cameras and was looking for a project to stretch the limits of what he could do, so the two of us worked together to really make something special and new, which made it more of an adventure for us, like we were going to be part of the pioneers that eventually helped move the industry from film to HD. There were a few “tricks” that I had read about when it came to shooting HD, like using fog and smoke machine to diffuse the picture and help give it more of a film look, but I didn’t want to do any of that.
Vlad and I wanted to find a way with the lighting and the technology in the camera to pull of a look that would stand on it’s own. From what the guys at Plaster City, the post-house tell me, we may have pulled it off. For example, there are some scenes that take place in a house at night, and our call time was early evening, and we were set up and ready to shoot so quickly, that the sun was still out. So instead of wasting time and waiting for it to get dark, Vlad flipped a switch on the camera, and we were ready to shoot the scene, day for night.
The actors were complaining, saying that it looked like it was the middle of a sunny afternoon, pure daylight, and the scene was not going to look right. I convinced them that it would look fine and we shot it. Then when I was in post at Plaster City, we were able to manipulate the picture on Final Cut Pro HD, so that it now looks like it’s pitch dark in the home, with nothing but moonlight pouring in from the windows. That’s one of the advantages of the HD technology, and that’s why pretty soon, film is going to be a thing of the past.
How high is the gore ratio and how was it executed? (Practical or CGI)?
There’s no CGI, everything was done the old fashioned way, because again, no money, and also I wanted a kind of 1950’s or 60’s feel to the movie. But, having said that, the effects that are there were done by MastersFX, Todd Masters company, which is one of the best in the business. As far as gore, again, don’t expect the traditional stuff, but I think there’s a few scenes that will make you jump, and a few that will gross out the girls out there.
Is there any nudity in the picture?
I can hear the boo’s already, but no. It’s the old concept of “It’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see.” The old “Psycho” shower scene, is one of the most brutal scary moments on film, but we all know now that you never actually see Janet Leigh getting stabbed. I believe the same thing applies to beautiful women. Leave them wanting more. I was forced to do nudity in one of my films in the past, and really regret it and wish I hadn’t done it. On a low budget movie like this, it drops the credibility of the production, and I also think it changes the caliber of actress you end up with.
When you’re casting a low budget film, especially one that’s in the sci-fi horror genre, if agents see that there’s nudity involved, they immediately categorize it as a soft-porn piece of crap, and the good agents with the good talent don’t even submit their people. I would not have ended up with the incredibly talented group of women that I was fortunate enough to cast if there had been nudity in the film. None of them would have done it. I set out from the beginning to make as good a film as I could, with the best actors I could get, despite the low budget. I bet if you really think about some of your favorite movies, the real good ones, most of them do not have nudity.
Plus, what I loved about the scary movies I grew up on as a kid was the fact that I could watch them with the adults. My music supervisor showed a rough-cut of the movie to his two sons, and they both dressed up as our lead character for Halloween. That to me is a success. Had there been nudity, the kids could not have watched it. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of gorgeous and talented women in this movie to satisfy everyone.
You must have been elated to hear that Harry Manfredini agreed to do your score; have you heard any of his tracks yet?
Yes, it’s incredible. The music’s taken what may have been just a small movie and made it into a much bigger film. Getting Harry was a blessing on so many levels. First, having his name attached give legitimacy to the film, and for me personally, it told me that I really might have something here. Harry told me that after he watched it he had the same feeling that he had after watching the first Friday the 13th, that here was a low budget film that had the potential to really break out and become something much bigger.
Are you at all involved in the process?
Of course, I definitely had my ideas of what the music should be like, and I did a temp mix with music and songs to get the feel of what I wanted across. But you can only do so much with temp music, a film needs it’s own voice to move the story along. Harry and I did a couple spotting sessions and had conversations about the film, the mood, what I was looking for, etc. But luckily for me, Harry’s a genius, and part of being a good director or producer is when you are working with someone who’s that talented, the best thing to do is let them create without any inhibitions. After our talks, I knew Harry understood the movie, at times finding themes and meanings that even I didn’t know were there, so I wanted him to have the freedom to create without me stifling him or putting any restrictions on what he should or should not do. So after all my notes, I told him he could throw away everything I said, and just do whatever he wanted to do, and it’s absolutely amazing.
Where is the film now in terms of distribution? Any biters yet?
We’ve got a lot of interest and will start screening for distributors in mid-February.
Is there a door open for a CHOKER sequel? If so would you be willing to go down that road again?
The film ends with the door definitely open for a sequel or sequels. I think for a film like this, that’s what a distributor is looking for, something that might take off and has the potential to turn into a franchise. Choker has that potential, so we’ll see. I’d like to eventually see what kind of sequel we could make with a real budget, maybe do one in outer space, but if one day you’re talking to me and I’m promoting “Choker 10”, then do me a favor and grab a light saber and cut off my head. But seriously, there’s one last thing I’d like to mention.
To be honest, you and your site giving our little film this much publicity by this interview and any other mentions you’ve been giving it really gives a little movie like this a better chance to be seen and distributed, and I want to thank you and your site for the opportunity to have someplace to promote it and talk about it. Independent filmmaking is hard. A lot of time and work goes into a movie and sometimes it never is heard of and it never gets seen, but you and your site has given “choker” and lots of other films like it a chance to get out into the world, and that’s greatly appreciated. All of this is just a big crap shoot.
As an independent filmmaker, you make the movie and you hope for the best. I think we made a great little film under very limiting circumstances, and I hope everybody likes it. But I think in the end, no one really cares how many days you took to shoot or how much it costs, all they care about is if they like it. Is it entertaining, or not? I hope everyone that sees “choker” sits back, eats some popcorn and enjoys it for what it is, a fun little movie. I mean, you get to see the beautiful Colleen Porch acting, and running around shooting guns. That’s worth the price of admission alone.
I'd like to thank Nick for choking the site and the fun ride that was CHOKER. Keep them coming dude!