Production at Bargain Basement Prices
Pretty Dead was a production built on the answer to the following question: What things make movies expensive to produce, and how can we make a movie without them?
“It’s two words: Character and Story. You don’t need many bells and whistles if you have those, so that is were we started,” says Pretty Dead producer Joe Cook. “ We made an agreement to not spend more than $250 on anything, and with very few exceptions we kept that promise throughout the whole production. By not throwing money at our problems, we forced ourselves to find ways to incorporate our challenges into the story.”
“And this was a zombie movie, not a little indie drama where two angsty 20-somethings sit in a coffee shop and smoke a bunch of cigarettes. To pull it off, we had to forget everything we knew about making movies and zombies and start from scratch. It was a challenge to say the least, but in the end we made it happen.”
“I honestly wasn’t sure what we’d end up with in the end,” adds Pretty Dead writer/director Benjamin Wilkins. “We took so many creative risks, it was kind of a shock to see it start coming together and actually working as we marched forward. I’m still amazed by how engaging the movie turned out to be. Carly [Carly Oates playing the lead character Regina Stevens] and Ryan [Ryan Shogren playing her fiancé] just knocked it out of the park. It’s their chemistry and authenticity that anchors the entire story and lets us get away with how we are telling it.”
“Ben and I made Pretty Dead while working 60 hour weeks at a day job without any money really put aside for the occasion and we didn’t put the production on credit cards either, we just took it slow, kept our costs as low as we could and worked it out one day at time.
“So, for all those aspiring filmmakers out there, If you want to make movies, but aren’t, what’s your excuse?” challenges Joe. “Seriously, what’s stopping you?”
Lost and Found Footage
The concept of Pretty Dead is a premise that takes the term “found footage” literally, and very seriously. Each video clip that makes up the film had to plausibly come from the evidence presented in Stevens vs. State of California (the suit filed to get Regina Steven’s body back from the CDC). From a filmmaking prospective, this meant that officially there would be no “filmmaking” – or at least no evidence of it.
“We wanted it to feel like the video footage was taken independent of the story,” explains Benjamin. “The idea is that everything you are seeing was shot by the people involved, with no intention of it ever being put together into a narrative. That means the camera is not always going to be able to be where I (as the director) really wanted it to be. In fact, sometimes it meant the camera was not there at all. There are literally entire scenes in Pretty Dead which were purposely left out because they were not moments in which a reasonable person would be using a camera.
“I hate it when characters in mockumentry/found footage style horror films suddenly start shooting in situations no one in their right mind would record video in. “Oh, there’s something evil in my house and it just dragged my wife into the basement. Let me get my camcorder with night vision and use that to go search for her instead of a flashlight.” If character is story, how are you supposed to take a movie seriously when its characters behave like that? It’s the modern equivalent of that scene in almost every 80’s horror movie in which a character goes to check out the ‘sound’ in the woods by themselves after three of their friends have just been brutally murdered. People just don’t do shit like that. And that is a fact of human nature we did our best to respect in the writing and filming of Pretty Dead.”
“Audiences are much more intelligent than they are often given credit for” adds Joe. “If you set up the dots, they will connect them. So while it would be great fun to see that inevitable fight between Regina and Ryan, which must have happened between the time she starts to steal human bio-waste to eat and the time she and Ryan start documenting their investigation of her condition, they would never film it. But, as long as the subtext of that fight’s aftermath is in the subsequent scenes you do show the audience, they’ll stay on board with the film as long as they remain emotionally engaged in the characters themselves. Or at least that is the theory we were operating under.”
A ‘Check Disc’ Production
The letters “C-D-L” appear several times in the film and are a private shout out to Check Disc Labs in Burbank, California – where both producer, Joe Cook and Director, Benjamin Wilkins, work for their day jobs, but the list of Check Disc employees who are involved in the film does not end there.
“Check Disc, like I imagine a lot of places are in Southern California, is a hotbed of creative talent both in front of and behind the camera” explains Joe. “You’ve got actors, you’ve got sound guys, you’ve got composers, camera guys, story board artists. Just about everybody we needed were our coworkers.”
“We ended up developing a kind of creative community at the work place and it carried the film all the way from development to fruition” adds Benjamin. “Nobody was left out. It was beautiful. It made both our day jobs and production feel much less like work and more like just a bunch of friends playing on the creative playground.
“Everybody involved, Joe and I no less included, was so excited to be doing something and not feeling like we were asking anybody for permission. It was our money. It was our story. And we just fucking did it. It was liberating.
“Filmmaking can get so oppressed by jaded negativity in Hollywood. Making movies can feel impossible if you don’t have connections to a studio or a production company, or investors, or name talent. There are so many things everybody you talk to out here in LA says you need to get to make a film that it’s easy to feel like you’re never going to have enough to get into production. and maybe what they say is true if you want to make 100 million dollar “studio” movies, or even 5 million dollar “low-budget” movies, but with technology advancing the way it is and hidden or unproven talent all around you if you just look for it, there really isn’t anything stopping you from making a “good” movie, except the belief that for want of x or y or z you can’t. I wish I’d learned sooner to just let that belief go.
“Check Disc provided our cinematographer, our composer, our production sound team, our sound designer, and 90% of our cast. We used music from a fellow employee’s band Modern Time Machines. We test screened the various cuts with everybody from work we could wrangle.”