Friday, August 7, 2009

Q and A with THE LANDLORD's Emil Hyde

Recently I sent some questions to Emil Hyde, the co-producer, writer and director of the microbudget indy film THE LANDLORD, which I reviewed at this post. Mr. Hyde wrote me back (I love saying that; sounds like I'm corresponding with a monster) and gave some interesting answers to my queries.

Emil, was the film always planned as a comedy? I can see it being made as a straight horror movie with only a modest amount of changes.

We always intended for The Landlord to be a comedy. Our goal was to combine a typical sitcom scenario (landlord with wacky, trouble-making tenants) with a generic horror plot (flesh-eating demons) and find the humor in juxtaposing the two. And while I agree it would only take a slight nudge to turn the whole thing into pure horror - some of the scenes of people getting killed or eaten are pretty gruesome - it could just as easily be turned into a dumb, formulaic sitcom. On set, we'd amuse ourselves by concocting ridiculous plots for other 'episodes': "This week on The Landlord, Rabisu the demon decides to go vegetarian by eating vegetarians!" [cue laugh track]

Was it hard to keep focus on both the horror elements and the comedy elements while writing the screenplay?

Our main comedic touchstone for The Landlord was Will Farrell. In all his movies, Farrell starts with an absurd character, then plays it with 100% conviction. For instance, in the movie Elf, he's seriously trying to get inside the head of a man raised by Santa's elves, and take the role seriously. That's infinitely funnier than him just standing around making lame candy cane jokes.

In The Landlord, Derek Dziak, the actor who plays the main character, Tyler, really tried to figure out how an average douchebag would cope with having two mass-murdering demons for tenants. Meanwhile Rom Barkhordar, who plays Rabisu, did a great job portraying how a 2,000 year old Babylonian demigod might deal with being cooped up in a tiny little apartment for decades. With that mindset, it wasn't hard to balance the horror and the comedy: the predicaments that Tyler finds himself in may be funny to us, the audience, but for the characters they're deadly serious.

Was there much revising?

Tons. We'd revise and revise, and even on set we might shoot a scene once or twice as written, then improvise. The early drafts bear only a passing resemblance to the finished movie, and even now there are things I'd change.

You've said in another interview that you find monsters of ancient mythology interesting. The Landlord is about two demons of Babylonian myth. Any other creatures of ancient cultures that you would like to put on film?

There are so many fascinating mythologies that Hollywood hasn’t even touched – I have one screenplay that involves these really terrifying tiger demons from Hindu mythology, and another one that features some really cool Vodun (“Voodoo”) gods, who have personalities unlike anything in Greek or Norse mythology.

Name one Hollywood actor or actress you'd cast as a mythical creature. (I think Sandra Bernhard would be a good Medusa. Or maybe Scarlett Johannson--? She'd turn the men in the audience to stone--or some part of 'em, anyway.)

I'd say Jack Black as Bacchus, but that's probably too obvious. Heck, I think our lead actor from The Landlord - Derek - could make a pretty good Bacchus. He's certainly hairy and rowdy enough. As for goddesses, sticking with Greek stuff, I think Catherine Keener and Hilary Swank would be great as Hera and Artemis - and I guess you could let Scarlett Johannson be Aphrodite.

If you could work with any actor and/or actress from any time period, who would you choose?

Well, my time is now, and I hope to collaborate with some of the best actors of the present day. As for who they are: I think Joseph Gordon Levitt is going to become one of the great actors of this generation. While most people will know him as the annoying kid from Third Rock From the Sun or Cobra Commander in the new G.I. Joe movie, they should check out his performances in Mysterious Skin - this unbearably intense movie about child molestation and UFO abductions. Seriously, he's going to win at least one Best Actor Oscar, and G-d willing it'll be for a film that I directed.

Otherwise, I really like the people I'm working with right now. If Derek Dziak, the lead actor in The Landlord, can get some more roles, I think he can become a cool character actor a la Bill Paxton. He's penciled in for a supporting part in our next movie, and I think people will be impressed at just how different that role is from Tyler. Meanwhile Rom, who plays Rabisu, has been getting some small television parts (he was on that show The Beast with Patrick Swayze) and auditioning for supporting parts in big budget films - I think he just auditioned for a suspense thriller starring Adrian Brody and Forrest Whitaker. Rom's forte is playing authority figures - scientists and military generals and whatnot - and he might still be a little young for these parts. But hopefully he'll get his break one way or another, and people in Hollywood will start using him again and again, the way Hollywood uses all the same people again and again.

The sound quality varies and is not very good sometimes. What happened?

If we're going to get into the technical shortcomings of The Landlord - of which there are plenty - let me start by explaining that we made the whole thing - a 95-minute, stunts-and-effects-loaded feature film - for just $22,000. While that might sound like a lot of cash if you're making minimum wage at McDonald's, realize that even the crummiest direct-to-DVD horror flicks you see at Blockbuster will spend more than $22,000 just feeding the cast and crew.

As for the sound, we just weren't able to find a sound guy willing to do the movie without pay. Normally you'd have a full-time sound recordist on set, with a huge collection of microphones, and they'll select the perfect mic for the room, then best type of windscreen if you're outside, and have their assistant - the boom operator - hold it at exactly the right angle so you get the actors' dialogue but not the background noise. Well, we didn't have any of that. We had one mic, with just a standard sock covering it, and oftentimes we didn't have anyone on set available to stand around and hold it. So we'd just stick it on a mic stand, point it in the general direction of the actors, and hope for the best.

Yes, we could have overdubbed the dialogue later, but again we ran into a situation where the actors had already given so much of their time for free, they weren't interested in spending 20 more hours in a vocal booth overdubbing every single line - especially when most of them had moved on to other projects. So we just overdubbed the absolute worst scenes, and cleaned up the rest as best we could, though sometimes “as best we could” was still kind of murky.

But you know what? If the alternative was not making the movie, then I'll deal with some bad audio. If you insist on perfect sound and picture quality, then go watch whatever’s playing at your local megaplex. Meanwhile, I think most fans of indie horror would agree that it’s better The Landlord exist in an imperfect state than not exist at all.

Most of the films you listed in other interviews as favorites are pretty contemporary. Name a favorite horror movie made before you were born, and old favorite non-horror movie. (Being older than you I hadta ask.)

My favorite horror movie, Roman Polanski's The Tenant, came out on June 11th, 1976 - exactly four months before I was born (on October 11, 1976). What I love about that movie is how nothing is explained - you never really find out why there's a creepy Egyptian tomb in the middle of this Paris apartment building, or why the main character's neighbors all seem to be conspiring to drive him insane. Even though we end up explaining most of the weird shit that happens in The Landlord, because of movies like The Tenant, I'm fine leaving a few things unexplained: and there's even a few jokes about that, like when Tyler asks Rabisu why demons are forbidden to open the portal to Hell (I won't ruin the punch line).

As for non-horror movies, if I wanted to be all hard-core I'd say Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), which is about an insane conquistador going rogue in the Amazon jungle and features an even more insane performance from Klaus Kinski, the only actor who can make me forget he's just playing a role. However, if I wanted to be all sentimental, I'd say Casablanca, because it really does contain action, romance, and everything else we traditionally go to the movies for.

What would you name as one of the worst movies you have ever seen?

Whatever it was, I forgot its title. The worst crime a movie can commit is not being memorable. If you keep bashing a movie for being the "worst" you've seen, then you probably find it fascinating on some level. I feel that way about Daniel Day Lewis' performance in There WIll Be Blood - it's so over-the-top and hammy, it's awe inspiring. Hopefully that will prove the case for some critics who hated The Landlord: they'll keep having visions of Rabisu eating brains with a spoon or remember when the detective says "I'm gonna feed your fucking bacon to the fucking piranhas in the fucking aquarium!" and not be able to get it out of their heads.

Film music: Hitchcock had Bernard Herrman, Steven Spielberg has John Williams, Tim Burton has Danny Elfman--what musicians or composers would you hire?

If you're asking for my favorite film composer right now, that would be Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream, Blood: The Last Vampire, Moon). But really I'm less interested in hiring Clint Mansell than I am in finding the next Clint Mansell.

On The Landlord, I asked my friend Karen Sandvoss if we could use some of her existing recordings for our soundtrack. Karen's been in so many great bands - Supra Argo, Clevergirl, Beautiful Engines, Pfiffin, Spansion, etc. - and released so much music that we could find a match for just about any scene. And no matter what band she's playing with, Karen has a very distinctive sense of melody that ties all the pieces together.

Going forward - well, perhaps it's premature to be discussing this, but the other day I turned on our local college station and this really intense, disturbing music jumped out of the speakers - a mix of throbbing Middle Eastern percussion, off-kilter jazz, and weird electronic noises. I started imagining scenes from our next project, and the combination of the visuals and the music freaked me out in a very good way. So I called the station and asked who the artist was. It turned out to be a group called The Division, which is mainly a pseudonym for this composer named Matt Schultz. Later that night, I shot Matthew an email, and we e-chatted a bit about possibly collaborating. Hopefully, it will all work out, because Matt's music is absolutely mind-blowing - just pick up the CD Mantras by The Division and hear for yourselves.

Any shooting have to be done "on the sly", and what surprises did you encounter during the shoot?

Before The Landlord, we did a movie called Escape From Planet Love, where we only spent $850. To pull that off, we often had to jump fences and "steal" our shots. However, for The Landlord, we did everything legit, as the worst thing would have been to have one or two dozen volunteers show up, then have the shoot get busted for lack of a permit. Fortunately, the people at the Chicago Film Office were extremely supportive of our efforts, and helped us get all the necessary permits without busting our budget. Seriously, the way they treated us, you'd think we were Chris Nolan doing The Dark Knight, and not some two-bit D.I.Y. flick. Their support made me so proud of our city, that I'll do my damnedest to keep future productions here in Chicago, whenever practical.

When will "The Landlord" go on sale, and where will people be able to buy it?

We're talking to a couple of distributors about getting it in stores and up on Netflix Instant sometime in the next year, but your readers can go to and order a promo copy right now. That's a special, direct link - you can't get that page from the main website. We just figure, if we're handing out DVDs to festivals and blogs, we may as well let any interested folks in the general public see it, too. Any distributor worth its salt shouldn't feel threatened by a few dozen Internet sales.

Thanks for your time, Emil!

No problem. I like to type.

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