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Stefan Avalos

Stefan: "I think that movies where music was
of great importance were the ones
that really got me first".

Conducted by Phil Davies Brown
June 23rd, 2004

Stefan Avalos is a remarkable talent. Not only was he a concert violinist before the age of 15, but he will forever be remembered for making the first ever "Desktop Feature Film" which was also the first film to ever be shown digitally.

Read on for all the info on the film that deserved way more credit than it got, and for some exclusive info on his latest film 'The Ghosts of Edendale' which is due for release from Warner Brothers on October 19th in the U.S.A and from the excellent Anchor Bay here in the UK later this year.

You were a child prodigy?
My parents started me on the violin at the rather insane age of 2 1/2 years. I actually gave my first recital at 3 - "twinkle twinkle little star". This evolved from a "cute" scene to an eventual 5 hour a day regimen, pulled from the public school system and given home schooling, etc. A living Hell actually. The result was that yes, I was a concert violinist - a very good one, also a very unhappy, and lonely one. I finally got the nerve up to say "No More" when I was fifteen. Actually, the truth is that I got my left hand caught in a disc sander and was temporarily unable to play the violin - - though only a month or so, that was considered devastating - so it was the catalyst. A happy accident, shall we say.

How then did you first become interested in the medium of film?
By the time I was ten years old, I wanted to make movies. I never really dared tell my parents the extent that I desired this, but I remember actually being driven to violin lessons and looking out of the window of the car thinking about dolly shots. This was at the age of ten. Even though movies like "Star Wars" and such were very impressionable - in terms of how the effects were created, etc., it was really the 1938 movie, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" that did it for me. That was the first movie where I wanted to be the characters MAKING the movie, not the ones in it. I watched it every chance I got.

I think that movies where music was of great importance were the ones that really got me first. I'm sure that had a lot to do with my musical upbringing. The final nail in the coffin for wanting to be a filmmaker was (like it was for so many other kids) "Raiders of the Lost Ark". I left the theater with my fate sealed. I was about 12 at the time, so it would still be a few years before I made that desire fully known.

You made your first feature in 1993. Considering what you went through to get it made, how pissed were you at the technological advances that occurred between then and the making of 'The Last Broadcast'?
I'm not pissed at all. I am the largest proponent of the advances that have come down the pike. The one thing that does bother me is that previous to '96, you pretty much had to shoot a film on - film. That alone gave weight to the statement "I made a feature". Nowadays, it means nothing to say that. Though that really is nothing more than an elitist attitude, I do miss it a little. Also, I'm not sure that the tech advances have really made for better movies. All in all though, I'm thrilled with what has happened. Without the advances, there would never have been a "Last Broadcast". It is amazing to think of the things I learned - cutting on a flatbed, synching sound to picture during dailies that are things of the past. Already there is a generation of filmmakers that have never touched these things.

When did you begin to think about making 'The Last Broadcast'?
Lance and I had worked the major bugs out of our editing systems in late 95. I was doing a lot of work editing at home, and with the advent of DV cameras, picture quality was getting real good. One night, after spending months/years trying to figure out why film and video looked so different on video - I had a revelation. I think I was the first person to come up with a way of deinterlacing without losing resolution to video on a home editing system. I can't find any record of anyone doing it before me.

Suddenly, the stuff shot on video looked a lot more like film. I showed Lance and we looked at each other and said "Shit, let's make a movie for nothing". We were both frustrated with other projects we'd been trying to get off the ground, so it seemed like a fun thing to do. In the end, the up front costs of "TLB" were 900 dollars, so we missed our mark of making it for nothing.

Where did the original idea come from?
We wanted to do a horror movie, but we didn't have an exact idea. We knew we didn't just want to do a slasher film. A friend of mine, Joe Wicen and I were drinking at an art show (as one does), and I mentioned to him that Lance and I wanted to make a horror movie, but didn't have the subject matter. Joe was the one who brought up the idea of the "Jersey Devil". It's a local legend that we all knew. On close examination though, it was kind of a lame legend, so we used it as a jumping off point for our movie.

Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler.

How did Lance Weiler get involved?
Well, as already mentioned- he was in from the start. I met Lance in school and we had helped each other out on other projects. He had, for instance, worked on "The Money Game" (my first feature) with me.

How long did it take to write the script?
This is something that a lot of people are surprised about - the ending - the genre switch, was one of the first things we came up with. We really wanted to mess with people in the way that "David Holzman's Diary" had messed with us in school. Since we were using video cameras, we wanted to accent that fact - not really hide it. With the "film look" process I had come up with, we wanted to try using that for some stuff, though we feared making a whole movie with the processing it involved.

Over the course of three odd months, we developed the outline what would become a script. The eventual script actually became long series of questions we'd ask people - about this event that we'd made up.

How did you go about casting? Assuming that you intended to make people believe it was real; you obviously couldn't have put an ad in Variety?
Our casting consisted of calling friends and family and seeing if they wanted to be in a movie. We designed it to be a low-effort for most involved. Rein and Jim had to do location stuff along with Lance and myself, but beyond that, most people only had to work for three hours or so. Lance and I had this theory - the most expensive parts about making a movie are the film stock and the actors. We'd eliminated the film stock problem, so getting rid of actors was next. We knew that WE would actually show up to the set, so we put ourselves in the lead roles. It was a matter of convenience rather than ego.

How much did you give away to all concerned? Was the process very hush hush?
Since we were dealing with non-actors, we would tell them only as much as their character would know about the situation. Then we told them what answers we were looking for to the questions we'd ask. Then, we would ask the questions in a variety of ways, including follow ups that we hadn't prepared them for. The play acting actually worked beyond our wildest expectations. The hesitations, and thoughts and ponderings, and answers really seemed quite realistic. When the movie was finally edited, it also made for a true documentary experience. I think I can safely say that the movie was made in the editing.

How much preparation did you have?
We prepared as much as we needed to. The movie was very improvisational in a lot of ways and, besides the Pine Barrens trip and the narrative stuff, was not that difficult to do.

Where did you film? Were you actually in the Pine Barrens?
We did go to the Pine Barrens though none of the "camp" footage was actually shot there. For that stuff - A friend of ours owned a house on an old Christmas tree farm. It was very overgrown, and with the winter snow, doubled quite well. It gave us the advantage of being able to go indoors and warm up as well as run cables for electricity from his house.

The actual Pine Barrens footage was all the stuff in the end of the movie - the narrative portion. A small crew of us - Rein, Jenny (Lance's wife) David Beard, and I went out there with a camera, a small jib, and some props and shot for a day.

How long did the shoot last?
Overall, we shot for about 28 days (I think. It's been a while). However, we were in post for nine months.

Any major problems?
Shooting was pretty easy. The real work began with the editing. This was 1996-97, so home editing systems weren't nearly as mature as they are now. You had to know what was going on under the hood as well as being an editor. I think the most serious problems were hard drive crashes. Back then, the life-span of many of the Video worthy hard drives was quite short. Thankfully, that's been worked out.

One amusing production problem, though minor, was being thrown off the grounds of a prison. We wanted to use it as a backdrop for a "talking head" section with David, and as we're shooting, we were informed by a prison guard that the Warden didn't like our "type". Imagine that.

Stefan: "One amusing production problem, though minor, was being thrown off
the grounds of a prison".

Did the shoot go to plan?
The shoots all went very well. I have nothing but fond memories of production. The days in camp were very cold though - The fog coming out of our mouths is NOT an effect. I think it was around 12-14 degrees Fahrenheit, and each night was about nine hours long.

How long did the project take to edit and what software packages did you use?
It took about nine months to edit. It was very much like cutting a doc. Test screenings, and variations on editing were all incorporated in the process. Here is an example of how we couldn't have done it without the "DV revolution" having happened. We used Adobe Premiere 4.2 (a long time ago) for the picture edit, and Adobe After Effects, and Photoshop for effects. For sound we used Sound Forge for a lot of our work.

Whilst I'm feeling technical, what cameras did you use?
Our main camera was a Sony vx-1000. We also used a JVC 1 chip camera (a little palm sized camcorder) as well as a regular 8 video camera. We also used a Tyco kid’s camera for a couple shots.

Once the film was finished how did you go about getting it screened and distributed?
This is a saga unto itself. This was the time that Digital Projection was beginning to come into its own, and we were very fortunate to hook up with the premiere company doing it - Digital Projection Inc. Incidentally, the parent company of DPI is Digital Projection Ltd (in Manchester).

With the big guns of their projection behind us, Lance and I felt invincible in approaching theaters and festivals. For the most part, with a great sales pitch on our end, we got far.

This culminated when we put together the World's first theatrical digital release of a feature film via satellite. Oct 23 1998 is a day that will forever be in the history books of digital cinema - we, in conjunction with Digital Projection inc, Texas Instruments, Loral Space, Quvis, IFC, and several others were able to put together this massive undertaking which required retro-fitting theaters across the country and actually sending the movie via an uplink into space to be downloaded on servers in the theaters.

We beat George Lucas's "Phantom Menace" digital "first time ever" shows by eight months, and Miramax's "first ever" "Bounce" presentation by a couple years. We did the same thing again at the Cannes Film Festival - which made "The Last Broadcast" the first movie to ever screen digitally at Cannes. That was 1999.

At this point, we were doing the self distribution thing pretty well, and though we weren't making any money - people were seeing the movie, and it was getting good reviews. We were excited that things were looking good for a video release for our little movie. When we'd finally make some money.

How annoyed were you by the fact that 'BWP' came along and stole your thunder?
And then came BWP. Annoyed is a good word. For us, the entire thing was surreal. Many of the people who had been calling our movie unique, etc. suddenly jumped on the BWP band wagon. The amnesia was amazing! You have to remember too that our movie had played at the very theater those guys worked - so we knew them, they knew us - etc. It was a very small world. When we heard they were making their movie, we'd always thought "well - everyone has already seen ours, so their little rip-off probably won't mean much". Famous last thoughts. There is a bit of dirty laundry that isn't really worth being aired at this point. It doesn't involve the makers so much as a silent producer of there’s. A little research would reveal the details.

In the long run though, the surreal publicity that was generated helped our movie more than we could have ever hoped. Of course we didn't make the kind of money they did, but we also can't complain. Additionally, I don't think that our movie would have ever done as well theatrically as theirs, had it been picked up by Artisan Entertainment (the BWP distributor) because our movie was much more intellectual than theirs. They were going for straight out horror.

Can you explain the ending for us? Many people have asked me why you didn't just end it before David Leigh goes into the Pine Barrens and starts talking to the camera.
Well, they can turn the movie off at that point or skip to the end credits. The ending was one of the first things we thought of doing, and remains to this day, one of my favorite things.

We made a movie about Fact and Fiction. The whole movie goes over that question again and again. - AND - the movie is done in a "real" doc style. People who know nothing about the movie think it's a real movie. They buy into it completely. When it first screened - long before BWP - Lance and I never introduced the movie. We would sit in the back somewhere. The movie plays as a doc. The horror and indignation people felt about the "travesty" of justice was always great. Then - when they are shown (with a literal punch to the face) that the movie is a narrative, they are shocked. It's the most complete way of demonstrating the "Fact and Fiction" point the movie was trying to make for the past 84 minutes. Before Blair Witch, and the spate of mock-docs, it was quite effective.

It's interesting to see how some people get it, while others don't. I am most fascinated by people who comment, "I thought the movie was real and it was great, but then in the last five minutes the thing turned to crap and sucked".

I guess the "great" part of the movie went right over their heads.

Also, for anyone watching the movie more than once - the hints are there that David Leigh is the killer, and one can even decipher the reason he made the movie. We were also speaking to the arrogance of "hard hitting" TV, which insists on pointing to itself in the course of a story; be it with heavy handed voiceover, or shots of the "journalist" or dopey graphics.

I am most satisfied by people who have watched the movie and at the "switch" break into applause because they "get it". This would happen at festivals - especially from doc filmmakers.

'The Ghosts of Edendale' writer-director
Stefan Avalos and producer Marianne Connor

Your new film 'The Ghosts of Edendale' is soon to be released. Can you tell us the idea behind this project?
I incorporated some of the historical realities of where I now live, along with the typical feelings of hope and fear one has when moving to L.A., and created what I hope is an entertaining horror movie. It's more of a supernatural thriller actually.

The Synopsis goes like this:
The Ghosts of Edendale is a haunting supernatural thriller about a young couple who moves to Los Angeles determined to make it in the movies. They find the house of their dreams on a hill called Edendale, right next door to Hollywood. Here, all the neighbours are in “the business,” and they have high hopes for Kevin and Rachel. But when something sinister and strange takes hold of Kevin, Rachel begins to discover the price Edendale expects for success.

At its most basic, I was trying to make a movie that would be unnerving and hopefully frightening. Beyond that though, I thought I could make a bit of a statement (more accurately - a jibe) at the whole L.A. thing. - fame, fortune, destitution, insanity. Why are some people "in", and others not? Where do all the homeless come from?

Once again, it would appear from the film's website that you are telling the audience that this is real, care to divulge?
Well, the movie is a full on narrative, so people will never think they're watching reality. However, we did incorporate a lot of reality - true facts - into the story. For instance, the Tom Mix character was a true cowboy superstar, and did indeed die in the bizarre way we talk about in the movie. The movie is indeed shot on what was his original studio, and the stories of the history of the area are indeed true. At least some of them. We did add our own twists on some things to create the movie.

It is my hope that new "ghost stories" will come into existence with the release of this movie. If enough people believe in a ghost, could that ghost become real?

Was it any easier this time around, thanks to all the experiences you had with 'The Last Broadcast'?
This movie was easier to make in that we had foreign sales in place before we shot. It made spending huge amount of OUR money up front much easier to stomach. Though there were no guarantees, the dice were quite a bit more loaded than making an all out "spec" movie. The technology has matured all along the line, so shooting and cutting were painless. I think also, it was easier in that when people heard that I was making a movie, they knew and believed that there would be a movie down the line somewhere -- and that they had a chance of seeing money and getting a credit if they worked on it. Beyond that, the movie had its own host of difficulties. Being very low budget, we had to save money anywhere we could - we didn't shoot on a sound stage, which meant shooting in actual homes. Difficult. We were using all the usual tools that are used in a narrative feature - big lights, heavy cables, dollies, etc. - Difficult. The hours and days were very long - Difficult. The list of difficulties goes on - including the producer also acting as sound person and catering, etc. - in addition to being my girlfriend. The standard difficulties of ultra low budget filmmaking.

Can you tell us about the production?
We shot digitally - Our main camera was a jvc-500 (a large professional DV camera). We shot for about 25 days. In post, I cut on Adobe Premiere, did effects with After Effects and Commotion, Sound work (we are a fully surround sound movie!!) was done with Nuendo, and sound manipulation was done with a variety of programs - Sound Forge, Cool Edit, a marvelous little program called Diamond Cut Audio. We even authored the DVD here with a (unfortunately discontinued) program called Maestro. A wonderful authoring program.

Was it easier to get distribution?
With Foreign markets - yes. Our agent, Atlas International, who had also done "The Last Broadcast", was prepared and waiting for our movie, and did indeed sell some key territories upon completion of the movie; sales that covered the basic production costs of making the movie - and kept us from living on the street.

In the U.S., we did our own theatrical exhibition type stuff, and also played some festivals. We talked to many distributors, who - unlike when we made TLB - were anxious to see our movie. Several offers were made before we settled on a company. However, there was a big problem which put us in the market again - and finally - we made a deal with a company we never even imagined a possibility - WARNER BROTHERS. So, in the U.S., the movie will be released on Home Video through them in October. So - we had several ups and downs before that rather significant up.

WVincent Gillioz did the score, I know Vinny, are you pleased with what he has created for the movie?
Vincent is a great guy and a really great composer. He worked his tail off to give me what I was looking for, and he delivered! In fact, I'm so happy with the music, that on the U.S. DVD, there will be a discrete music track with his audio commentary. He really got the feeling for what I was looking for - a gothic, classical soundtrack - yet not stodgy.

What will you be working on next?
I'm working on an action romp called "Diamond Road". The pitch goes like this:
Love, treasure and mayhem abound during a fun-loving flyboy’s misadventures as he struggles to get back his uncle’s bi-plane lost after a drunken poker game and uncover its link to a secret stash of diamonds.

It's been in the works for quite some time, but now I'm fully engrossed with it. It will be a much larger budgeted movie, stars, the whole works. I imagine it will be shot on 35mm. That or whatever latest HD format is workable. I'm very curious to play with a camera which is in the prototype stage - It's called the Kinetta. I am also developing another horror movie - which I can promise - will be a very disturbing and frightening movie. It's tentatively entitled, "Children of the Lake" and in this supernatural thriller, a woman goes to a lakeside town to recover from a terrible personal tragedy, only to be haunted by the ghosts of children drowned years before -- warning her of an impending disaster.

"Thank you for taking part in this interview Stefan.
And we wish you the best of luck in the future."

You can visit Stefan's official web site right here: www.stefanavalos.com

You can visit the official site for Stefan's 'The Ghosts of Edendale' below:

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