Horror Survival: Tell me about your most recent projects?
PJ Starks: I’m currently serving as Executive Producer on a slew of film projects. The creature feature anthology Cryptids is still filming. In the coming weeks I’ll be headed to the set of John Holt’s sequence to film my cameo and I’m pretty excited about it. The film has a ton of talent involved such as Justin M. Seaman (The Barn), Zane Hershberger (10/31), Billy Pon (Circus of the Dead), Brett DeJager (Bonejangles) and a bunch more. The supernatural found footage e-Demon from Jeremy Wechter got distribution and will have a limited theatrical release this month. Stephen Wolfe’s vampire comedy Dracula’s Coffin is almost out of post-production and he’s currently working on a pretty awesome fan film I’m helping with called Halloween: The Face of Michael Myers. He’ll be releasing an Indiegogo campaign real soon, so keep your eyes peeled. Tory Jones’ latest film Angel had its premiere not long ago and they’re currently seeking distribution. I was part of two documentaries this year; the first being Paul Downey’s fan retrospective For the Love of the Boogeyman: 40 Years of Halloween and Scott Tepperman’s VHS love letter Magnetic Highway: Exit 2. I’ve got a few other things in the works that I’m just not talking about yet. Needless to say it’s been a very busy year.
Right now my producing partner and I are extremely busy with pre-production on the third and final installment in our anthology franchise Devil’s Knight: Volumes of Blood 3. A bunch of major casting announcements have begun on our Facebook page. The script is completed and I couldn’t be more excited about it. I think it’s one of the strongest entries we’ve had yet. We’ve already approached a couple of potential directors and we’re also in the process of looking for financing. So anyone interested in helping us bring the latest film to fruition can contact us at email@example.com.
HS: What makes a fruitful collaboration? What do you do to enhance the collaborative process?
Starks: Working with others who share the same goals and passion for the project is key. Not every idea is a winning one, so being able to recognize when someone else has a better one and using it is paramount. As long as you can work with others who play nice and want the film to be better than it has any right to be, from story to characters and production; that helps to make a fun set and a great filming experience.
HS: It is said that there are only six stories. Maybe twelve. It’s all been done before. And we have seen it all. What do you do to keep it fresh? Is there anything that you can do to subvert the process to keep it original?
Starks: It can be really tough to not piggy back other films and there’s no guarantee that if you come up with a concept you consider original someone hasn’t already done it in a project you aren’t aware of. As long as you can come up with a story that you feel is strong, has interesting characters and potentially brings something new to the table then you’re off to a good start. At the end of the day films are about entertainment. They can be mixed with a message or a motive, but as long as you entertain the people who are watching then you’ve done your job.
HS: What are typically your biggest frustrations when making a movie?
Starks: Frustrations can vary from project to project, but scheduling is always a pain in the ass. Audio issues are another problem, for instance, when we were shooting the sequence ‘The Deathday Party’ for VOB: Horror Stories we had an entire scene of dialogue and the neighbors decided to start mowing their lawn. Our mics were picking up all the noise. We were left with either ADRing the scene or going next door and asking them to stop for a period of time, which is always a crap shoot. We did option number two and luckily they were cool enough to stop and let us finish the scene. Ego’s can be another major issue from time to time. I dealt with this several times during VOBHS where we had talent walk away because they weren’t getting their way or had to be booted from the project. This is frustrating because it’s just pointless, if what you want out of a project is only self-serving and doesn’t help the film be any better then there’s no point in trying to hold a production over a barrel because you won’t get your way. At least not on one of my sets.
HS: What makes a film great for you?
Starks: For me it can be anything from solid story arches for characters or just interesting characters in general. If it’s horror then elaborate and creative kills or scares. I recently watched Ron Bonk’s latest film House Shark and it was a fun watch because it never took itself too seriously. It knew exactly what it was, a completely ridiculous concept and it treated itself as such. This made it a good time.
HS: What has to happen to your film for you to consider it a success?
Starks: Most people gauge success by how much money something makes. For me success has come with putting myself out there, working really hard, working with insanely talented people and ultimately finding far more exposure for my projects than I ever anticipated. The Volumes of Blood franchise isn’t what I would call a commercial success in the sense it hasn’t made a boat load of money, but truthfully we’ve never really had the funds nor the full amount of resources to push either film into being a commercial success. We’re hoping to change all that for Devil’s Knight, by incorporating what we need into the budget to help it along during the end game. But considering the films have been featured and mentioned in over 500 plus articles, been featured in international publications and screened all over the world; to me that’s a success.
HS: What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Starks: Oddly enough the film that really made me realize I could be a serious filmmaker and actually get my stuff out there wasn’t even a horror film. It was Clerks and I’ve been a huge Kevin Smith fan ever since. His writing style has really influenced my own with the kind of fast talking one-upmanship he’s become synonymous with. Tarantino and Rodriguez are a couple of other filmmakers who’s films I’ve loved and From Dusk Till Dawn is on my Top Five Favorite Horror Films list. Any John Carpenter film, especially with visuals by Dean Cundey because he knows how to create a perfectly composed shot that tells the story without having to overdo it. Honestly I’m a lover of most genres and styles of filmmaking and I try to incorporate all I can into my own films as long as it helps me tell the narrative the way it needs to be told.
HS: When you get angry at a movie, what sets you off?
Starks: One of my biggest pet peeves is telling me what you’re showing me. Film is a visual artform so obviously you’re going to be showing me things, but what is the purpose of wasting time telling me what I’m looking at as I’m seeing it. Assuming your audience is dumb and dumbing down your film because of that cheapens the experience and pisses me off. Really, really dumb characters are another problem I have. Unfortunately the horror genre suffers from both of these a lot of times. I mean sometimes a character has to make an ill choice in order to move the story forward and we have to suspend our disbelief. But sometimes it’s too much.
HS: How did your love for movies get sparked?
Starks: It started with just an appreciation for film. Especially with the horror genre, which began when I first saw Ghostbusters. I know that’s not a horror film, but it certainly has horror elements in it. After I became scary movies buddies with my grandmother, we kept ourselves busy with a steady diet of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Monsters, The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Darkside, Joe Bob Briggs’ Monstervision and of course all the staples like Halloween and Friday the 13th. Eventually I started writing horror stories, slasher and whodunit mostly. Then I got my hands on a VHS camcorder and the rest is history.
HS: What failures (of your own) have you been able to learn from? How did they change you and your process?
Starks: Starting a film without knowing the outcome and promoting it as if it were a sure thing. When you make a film you have a lot of people who are depending on you to follow through, so when you talk about a project and talk and talk and eventually it never happens, then you basically put a scarlet letter on your chest. I did this to myself early on and afterwards I vowed to never put my name on a project and let it fall apart. I’ve had a pretty good track record ever since.
HS: When do you know a script is ready to shoot, and what is your process of getting it there?
Starks: You know a script is ready when it elicits emotion from you. It makes you laugh. It makes you sad. It makes it hard for you to sleep because it’s put terrifying visuals in your mind. But more importantly when it makes you antsy because you can’t wait to see it realized, that is when you know.
HS: So far what has been the saddest or most disappointing moment of your filmmaking career?
Starks: I typically keep my expectations fairly low so it’s very hard for me to be disappointed, at least on a large scale. There’s always small disappointments here and there, but never anything that has killed my enthusiasm for making movies. The saddest moment was last year when I found out a good friend and fellow filmmaker was killed suddenly in a car wreck. His name is Brian Storm and he was a really passionate and dedicated guy. Tons of talent and promise. I worked with him on both Volumes of Blood installments. He and I became good friends on the sequel. It was a horrible tragedy and not one I’ll forget any time soon.
HS: In filmmaking what are your biggest strength and biggest fear?
Starks: Facilitating a production has become one of my biggest strengths, along with marketing and promotions. Which has opened the door for me to doing producing. My biggest fear is a stupid one, but it’s death and that is one of the driving forces for me to do what I’m doing. I don’t like the idea of being forgotten. I don’t feel like I’m anyone special, but I still don’t like the thought. I don’t like the idea of dying and not having anything special about what I did with my time on this earth. Of course I have a family now and two great kids, but there will always be that part of me that wants to leave an additional piece of me behind. Something I did that dealt directly with my dream of being a filmmaker.
HS: When I got started there were two screens: the movie screen and the television screen. Now there are also computers, tablets, and phones. And screens are everywhere: the home, the bus stop, the elevator, the taxi cab. As a creator how does this affect the stories you tell and how you tell them?
Starks: Unless you’re doing a period piece the technology around us directly affects or should affect the outcome of your story. Cut phones lines are a thing of the past. You always have to be mindful of how we live today. How accessible we are to one another and to emergency services. If you aren’t, someone watching your film will be and staying ahead of the audience should always be in the back of your mind.
HS: If you could remake any 80’s horror movie which one would it be?
Starks: As much as I absolutely love the 80’s, if I were to remake a film right now it would be Horror Express from 1972 with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It’s truly a film that was ahead of its time in terms of layered storytelling. You think you’re watching a monster movie and suddenly the rug is pulled out from under you and it’s more of a cellular alien invasion flick that predates Carpenter’s The Thing and then there’s an all-out zombie like outbreak on the train. It manages to be a whodunit with monsters, aliens, zombies and Telly Savalas. It would be such a fun concept to reimagine. And if that doesn’t work out I’d like to remake the live action Inspector Gadget because Disney really screwed the pooch on that one.
HS: Could you survive a horror movie?
Starks: I would like to think so, especially since I’ve watched thousands of hours of it and dedicated my genre of filmmaking to the idea. I tend to be the funny fat guy who feels the need to add levity to every situation and we all know what happens to that character. Lets face it, I’m basically Shelly from Friday the 13th Part 3. On the more positive side, if it wasn’t for Larry Zerner’s character Jason would have never gotten his iconic mask. So suck it fate!