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Jay Woelfel

Jay: "Try to be open to all kinds of films
and learn the ďmastersĒ of filmmaking
past and present".

Conducted by Phil Davies Brown
May 16th, 2005

If you haven't yet seen the kick ass poster for new horror movie Ghost Lake, you will soon as it makes it's American DVD debut this Tuesday. To mark the occasion I chatted to Writer/Director Jay Woelfel and actor Damian Maffei about their parts in the making of this eerie new horror movie. I also have 5 pieces of Ghost Lake artwork signed by Director Jay Woelfel which I will be giving away to 5 lucky readers! Stay tuned for competition details and the second Ghost Lake Interview later this week.

Would you say that you are a horror fan yourself?
Iíd like to say to horror fans that Iím certainly one myself. Both of film and written fiction. Iím not however a fan of formula or even interested in following the conventions of what, say in this case what a Ghost story is supposed to be. Iím interested in trying new things as much as possible. I like films where you donít know how it will end when it starts. Those are the kinds of films I like to make in or out of the genre. There is also a certain amount of horrifying absurdity or horrifying irony in moments of horror stories. There is dark humor in moments of my films that Iím aware of. When you make horror films there are always things the crew laughs about, strangely these are usually some gruesomeness or really violent thing. You know youíre making a movie and controlling a situation you couldnít control in life. Namely I guess death. Horror films are about struggles between life and death, good and evil in symbolic ways, thatís whatís important about them and what also, makes them imaginative and fun.

When did you first become interested in film, and what route did you take into the industry?
Some of the first films I ever saw I saw as a very small child and they made a deep impression on me: Pinocchio (the scary whale scene and the children turning into Donkeys), 101 Dalmatians, 2001, The Russian version of WAR AND PEACE, a Matt Helm movie and a version of Tom Sawyer. I watched Star Trek on TV in the 1970's and that lead to my first film. One winter in Ohio there was a blizzard and schools were closed so a friend of mine Andy Banks (now an Emmy winning news cameraman) and I got my Dadís old 8mm camera and made a stop motion Star Trek film. I guess I was maybe 13 years old. Itís kind of impossible to describe but we used to paint up small rocks (we called them rock men) and build space ships out of cardboard and play with them. We were outgrowing that kind of thing but films became a way of playing characters telling stories etc.

Did you have any formal training or was it all on the job experience?
I saw THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE more than once and then JAWS and that was the movie that I saw repeatedly and made me really want to make films. I kept doing stop motion animation films. I never read any books about movie making at that point, it was all watch films and then trying to do it on my own. I did two James Bondrock films each about 45 minutes long. The first of these I showed to a college professor who had worked for my grandfather at THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY. He saw the film and said I had enough talent to make a career out of filmmaking. That was news to me, by this time I was in high school and writing film reviews for the school paper and taking pictures for the yearbook and newspaper. I figured I would try some film classes and see how it went. I got better grades in film school than Iíd ever gotten in anything before it, and I made as many films as possible and did get a degree in film. When youíre in film school my advice is learn to play with others and make as many films of your own and work on other peoples as much as you possibly can, itís so much harder to make films once youíre out of school. Watch and read everything you can get your hands on and learn from your own mistakes as well as other peoples. Try to be open to all kinds of films and learn the ďmastersĒ of filmmaking past and present.

You first became known to horror fans for directing Things. How did you land the job and how was the experience?
In the UK this was my first film released, but my first feature is BEYOND DREAMíS DOOR a film I made as a first feature and also sort of as a farewell to Ohio and short filmmaking in 1988. The success of that film helped me move to LA and in LA I used that film as a calling card. Most of the people who are friends now I met thanks to having that film as a conversation starter. So here I am in LA looking for work. I was working first as a film editor for Raymond De Felitta (son of horror author Frank De Felitta)and Matthew Gross at the American Film Institute (theyíve both gone on to have good careers and were great first friends to have in LA. The film we made together was Bronx Cheers that went on to be nominated for an OSCAR as best short film) After that and the many adventures good and bad it eventually lead to my first feature as an editor for Jeff Burr, a film that only recently got released called Eddie Presley, it starred future PULP FICTION actor Duane Whitaker. There was a thing in LA at the time called Drama Log (my joke name for it is Drama dog) itís a thin magazine about non union film jobs in LA that came out once a week. I saw a movie there that was looking for a director and it was a horror film. At the time the horror market had just crashed so not many people were looking for horror directors. I sent in what I thought was a good letter and my resume. I got a call later from a producer, Dave Sterling, who refused to admit at time that it was he who had placed the notice in Drama Log. Exactly why he didnít tell me he did it is beyond me, and perhaps is part of a character thing about him that ultimately led me to not working with him several years later. But at that time he had half of a movie done (it had collapsed in a sea of troubles about a year before) he needed someone to come in and rewrite the script for the second half of it (it was an anthology film) and direct it. It was a shot on video feature, at the time there were very few of those, and a very bloody violent story. I also met Mike Tristano who had done make-up work on the film (youíll see Mikeís name on dozens of films since usually as a weapons supplier) I liked Mike and wanted to direct again so I did the film, the pay was virtually nothing but you have to start somewhere and in LA I was starting all over again. There were lots of problems and it introduced me, even on a low level, to the ďfilm is just a jobĒ attitude that was alien to me. Thatís not to say that LA is just a grind factory, but in LA, film is the local coal mine that supports the town, so to speak, and not everybody there/here is doing it for the art or craft of it. We went through two directors of photography/videography to finally finish the shoot and during the production the LA riots happened so one night we actually defied the curfew to keep shooting. It must have taken another year maybe more to finish the editing, but when it came out it did well and two sequel films were made from it. It started Sterling on the trail of a bunch of mostly video features that continues to this day.

You have worked in the genre since then, and your most recent film 'Ghost Lake' will soon be released in the US. What inspired your initial idea for the project?
Iíve worked in and out of the genre but always enjoy it. I spent summers at the location where we shot the movie. There was a spot on the lake where you could see the old road leading down into the water. There had been two towns in the location where today Rushford Lake is. I just had this image in my mind of dead people coming up out of the lake on that road. This was probably years and years before I ever made films. I heard a few other stories about spots on the lake where people had drowned, and weíd take the boat out to the dam and that was a sort of creepy impressive spot as were the various little inlets off the lake that weíd explore in the boat. At the cottage there one night I stayed up because I was scared and couldnít sleep. There was a sump pump in the basement that made these horrible inhuman gasping type of sounds every once in a while. Anyway I was trying to stay awake and not wanting to wake my parents. I wanted my mother there so badly that I actually saw her in the corner of the room for a moment. When I actually looked again she was gone. Only time anything like that has ever happened to me, Iíd probably fallen asleep for a moment. Thereís a moment in the film inspired by that moment. I actually went to the area to shoot a graduate level film, an adaptation of Hawthorneís story THE BIRTHMARK in 1987 at a house my great great grandfather built not far from Rushford Lake. Ever since then Iíve wanted to go back and make my lake movie whatever that might be. When my first feature Beyond Dreamís Door was in post production I started writing the script for the film, it had no title, and I never finished it. Then when I moved to LA I starting writing full time and developed a longer treatment for the same idea, I was never happy with the ending. Then I put it aside. I had a bad cold not long ago and watched SHOCK WAVES a film I had recently got on DVD. From that point on I went back to the 5 inch floppy drives Iíd stored the idea on and worked out the ending etc and so here we are.

The ghostly spirit of a dead
fisherman comes to visit.

How long did it take you to write the story/script?
That first treatment was written in maybe a week spread out in two segments over 5 years, though the ideas developed in my mind for years and years. Once I actually started writing the script about 3 weeks. I went to Rushford Lake and actually wrote in airports on the way there and at night while sort of scouting locations. So I was really in the story as I was writing it, physically in the places it was to take place in. I had a relative I never knew drown; she was my grandmotherís sister when she was very young. I wrote the script in part in a room right next to a couch where they laid her down to take a photo of her after she died. That I must say did get to me some nights and hopefully got to the script in a good way. The script came very quickly after years of thought. I donít lock myself up when I write like some people do, so the interaction with the location we were going to shoot in and conversations with people while Iím writing affect the script and this one in particular very much.

The film went through many title changes before release, did anything else change before it was released?
The original title The Empty Lake was in part inspired by the great Algernon Blackwood story The Empty Room. Also the lake we shoot in is emptied each winter, and in my story the lake is empty of its dead who all return at once in the story. We talked about calling it Dead Lake which is a line I put in the script. Ghost Lake was sort of a gag title because we said a sequel would be called Ghost BabyĖwhen you see the film or have seen it youíll know why.

Maybe because we were half frozen some of the time we were shooting or maybe because I finally had freedom (the movie was produced by Young Wolf Productions a company I formed with my longtime producer Johnnie Young) I shot the hell out of everything and let the beats play out in every scene. So the end product was longĖover two hours when we first got it all together. So we chopped and chopped, my goal being to get to less than two hours. We had a fairly long post production period so I was able to get away from the film at certain points and screen different cuts to various groups of friends and we got the film down. The opening of the film in particular was tried several different ways, trying to decide how much information we should share with the audience right away, we got cute with that for a while and kept the real back story of the main character a mystery. That was a mistake that I realized after the first distributor we approached passed on the film. After that we went into overdrive and re-cut and shortened and I also wrote much more music for the film and we (Editor Jonathan Ammon and I) got the film into its final shape. There is a 30 minutes documentary about the craziness of the shoot and about 30 minutes of deleted scenes (and commentary about them) that will hopefully be on the US release that show some of the alternate opening ideas for the film as well as many dropped story elements that I liked but which ultimately made the story drag on too long. Those deleted scenes answer some questions that youíll have if you really watch the film more than once. Not that you have to.

The film has received positive reaction here in the UK; do you know why the US audience has had to wait so long to see the film?
Well just today I was given the date of May 17th. Iíve got to knock the UK release in the regard that it is a full frame version of an anamorphically shot movie and it doesnít have the true 5.1 sound mix either. Both of these omissions are a great pity. Many of the extras that are now complete werenít finished when the UK release came out. So the US release will offer new things that the foreign releases havenít had yet and may never have.

What for you was the biggest challenge on the movie?
Time is always your biggest challenge. There is never enough of it. On this film we had a really small crew, maybe 7 or 8 full time people and that includes the actors. No matter how hard we all worked we couldnít seem to catch up. The last day of the shoot about half way into it I realized I was ahead of the game and could actually finish the movie. Imagine spending the majority of a shoot not knowing if youíd ever be able to finish it. We would get rained out from a location and wait for over a week to go back there and finish a scene, stuff like that. We were able to go slightly over our original schedule and still keep on budget. Certain FX things never got done, but thatís perhaps for the best because this was basically a non bloody story. I have no problem with bloody stories this one just wasnít one of them. As a director/writer the challenge was that this was a non bloody story with subtle things that are supposed to be scary. So it was important to be very visually exciting with rippling water reflections and constantly moving shadows, the location helped us out with these elements beyond what we expected and we got lots of beautiful natural fog, not that horrid fake fog most movies have to rely on or CG fog.

How important would you say your crew were to the overall success of the project?
For most of the shoot I really felt that the whole crew and cast and locals who helped out were totally dedicated to making the film the absolute best it could be. Remember my story about making Things? This was a totally different experience. Itís great to have that support and that pressure to do your own best work. For the people who made the film we also had probably an equal number of people quit the movie both before and during the shoot for many reasons many of which had nothing to do with the actual shoot process. It was a war; you replace the empty positions and keep advancing. Damn the torpedoes full speed ahead. I do miss the close relationship we all had living and working in the same place for a month on this one; Iíve never hugged so many people Iíve had on a crew before. If Iíd know that going in I would have made sure we had more women in the cast and on the crew. Note to self....more women....

There has been a little talk of a sequel, are you waiting to see how the film performs in the US or are you already at work on an idea?
Right after last years Cannes film festival American Worldís Chief Mark Lester (yes thatís the director Mark L Lester not the Oliver child actor Mark Lester) asked us to do a sequel. I was stunned at the time because we were still finishing this one. He said other people would rip the movie off so we should do it first while we could get the cast back etc. Since then some other talk of a sequel from other sources has taken place and I have given it some thought. Iíd love to go there in the winter when the lake is really empty and shoot. The plot could be about ghosts appearing again and they drain the lake to see if anything is under it. At Rushford Lake itself there are still remnants of trees on the bottom and foundations of some buildings and itís a strange alien like landscape with the water gone. I thought about using some of that in this first film but decided against it. Iíd say more but it would really ruin things for people who havenít seen this one. For now though I want to make another film first and then weíll see. Itís usually better to let other people make the sequels, letís face it they usually suck.

A ghost reveals itself in the
independent horror film Ghost Lake.

Would you say that Ghost Lake is the first film you can truly call your own so to speak as you had a lot of control over it?
First in a long time and we had more overall time to finish this one than any other film Iíve done. Creativity canít really be forced and films in particular have to come rushing out of you without pause. Itís great to have the juices flowing but thereís no time to think twiceĖfrequently not needed if you trust your gut instinct and experience. But the rule of FAST< CHEAP < GOOD, you can have any two but never three. Itís an important rule. On this film I had 6 months to think about the edit and to do the music score and we edited. Youíre luck to get 6 weeks to edit a film these days and composers usually have 6 weeks at most even on big studio features.

You also scored the film, which composers influenced your work?
The great Jerry Goldsmith is one of the people whose work in film inspired me to try to work in film as a filmmaker, but strangely he had almost nothing to do with the type of music I did in this film. Two French composers actually Camille Saint Saens and George Auric were influences as was Bernard Herrmann. I really tried to use melody as a chief element of this score. Each scene would have a melody of its own and the whole would be unified by instrumentation and key signatures more than character themes. Thereís a song in the film that plays against action, Iíve never done that before myself and itís not done that often in films in general.

You edited the film too, why did you decide to use split screen? It worked really well.
Co Edited with Jonathan Ammon who has worked with me on the last two films. While shooting I just knew I wanted to use multiple imagesĖperhaps because we are dealing with ghosts so those ghostly dissolves etcĖ thatís with hindsight that I think of that now, it was just instinct then. I hadnít seen split screens used much latelyĖthough in the year since making the film Iíve seen them used more and more. Iím not trying to be trendy, actually just the opposite. The best split screen movie to me is THE BOSTON STRANGLER so that was my inspiration. As we dealt with a long film and bringing it down in length we could show twice as much with split screens by putting people in two places at once. Also we used them to show passage of time, counterpoint, context, suspense, scope, all these things could be increased with split screens. Jonathan did the actual programming to do the splits and we worked those out together, it takes a lot of time and imagination to make them work so he had a large hand in executing them and as we went weíd come up at the same time with areas to do splits. Thatís the way it is in film you get in sync with actors and crew and they and you just know what should be done nextĖthatís collaboration at its best.

Who created the amazing poster for the movie?
American World Pictures the international representative for the movie created it from photos we took during the shoot. Johnnie Young, the films producer actually did a mock up poster that was much like what they ended up doing. They told me a guy named Don Zerlin did the initial work. It may look painted but those are actual photos of our actors from the movie itself very beautifully composited together. I like the fact that those people on the poster are actually in the movie; itís not just some generic zombies.

Is there anything that you would change if you could go back and do it all again?
There are maybe three scenes that I would re-shoot entirely, but that would take more time that we still wouldnít have. Iíd get a bigger crew for the film, then again we tried to get one as we went and that just didnít happen and wouldnít this time either. But beyond that I guess Iíd go back and have the actors talk and walk faster etc in hopes of getting more of that deleted stuff in the movie. But in reality if you went back and did things again knowing what mistakes youíd made you would probably just make more new mistakes and break things that were happy accidents. You might just end up with something different not better. The whole is more than the sum of the parts in ways youíd ruin.

Finally, what can you tell us about your next project The Dark Between the Stars?
Well that might be my next film or might be the film after that at this point. The rains here in LA have totally wiped out some of the locations we were going to shoot in and they wonít be reopened for 4 months! The whole cast for the film is absolutely fantastic. Some initial news had Tricia Helfer being in the film. She was going to be but she after early rehearsals had to move on sadly, but Iím equally happy with Aimee Brooks whoís replaced her (she was most recently in Monster Man) We also got Richard Hatch who Iíve worked with before to be in it. Fans of Ken Foree in particular are in for a treat, this is a totally different type of role for him. You see Iíve already done full rehearsals with them all, so I hope they can all stick around to do the film when we get around to it. The story is based on some real Native American creation myths. Itís set in the desert; it does involve dreams and a very H.P. LOVECRAFT view of history and our place in it. We live in the dark between the stars only at the mercy of the stars themselves which are eyes that watch us and decide our fate. Thatís what the title is about. Iím ďonlyĒ the director on that one so whatever the producer can work out schedule wise is beyond my control. I have two other projects that Young Wolf Productions may do in the meantime. One is a very unusual Vampire type story called LESS THAN HUMAN and another called HIS NAME WAS DEATH that deals with South American mummies and also, now that I think about it, creation myths. This brutal pre-Inca civilization had a religion that believed in devils but no gods. This brutal belief system and practices have never been done on film. So itís possible either of those would get done now before Dark. I guess what they all have in common is real world connections to myths and beliefs and events. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction and makes great source material. As I tell people if you have to have mumbo jumbo in your story why not have real mumbo jumbo. It rings true more eerily.

"Thank you ever so much for taking part in this interview Jay.
And we wish you the very best of luck in the future."

Ghost Lake gets its USA DVD premiere on 17 May 2005.
You can read Phil's review of Ghost Lake here.

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