Blood, Sweat, and Fears – An Interview with Sacrament’s Writer & Director, Shawn Ewert

 

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When I first started flirting with filmmaking and its various phases, the best encouragement that was given to me was by a local filmmaker, “If this was easy, everyone one would do it”. Such humdrum advice to some people actually awoke an epiphany to me and as instantly became one of my favorite mottos for everything I put my name on. Now, I look at filmmaking differently, and have a certain respect for those that bleed for their passion. While on the outside it sounds glamorous, on the inside it is long day or night shoots, deadlines, malfunctioning equipment, and the small monetary payout. Filmmaking is a labor of love and you must have a love affair with it to stay in the relationship.

In today’s world of overnight sensations, thanks to the internet, everything comes easy and the hard work and sacrifice is yesterday’s trend.  Long gone are the days of handing out flyers at events to promote your release or having to work your way up the ranks by taking shitty roles for years before you have the feature role. These days it seems that everyone has a blog, screenplays are cranked out at the local Starbucks over a Venti skinny latte, and everyone with a camera phone on the video setting can film the next “found footage” film. However, if something is real, you feel it, and the one thing that will never change is the undeniable sincerity of an artist’s soul.

Enter Shawn Ewert, a horror filmmaker from Dallas, Texas that has the passion for the horror genre and the sweat that it takes to make a movie. With two short horror films under his belt, he will release his first full length feature, Sacrament, this year (premiering at the historic Texas Theater in Dallas, Texas this June 7th  and then in the U.K. and Germany shortly after).  Unlike other directors who enjoy making spoofs and passing them off as a cult gags, he respects the horror genre and gives his all to each film he makes. This combined with his “take no shit” work ethic, Ewert wrote and directed Sacrament containing something that is relatively new for a horror movie, a gay lead couple. Looking to break barriers as well as stir discussion, Ewert uses the same sex relationship not as a gimmick like the rest of Hollywood would, but rather to accent the story in a realistic and modern platform. Taking on religious extremists, Sacrament is about a seven friends who find themselves stranded in a small town of religious extremists who not only take their Bible literally, but also celebrate it over their barbeque revival where the secret isn’t in the sauce, but rather the meat itself.

I had the honor to sit down with Ewert and talk about his methods, motivations, and the film this year that will push some buttons while at the same time open the minds of others, Sacrament

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Renfield Rasputin: As a horror fan, were movies always your first passion or did you have a different love before you got into filmmaking?

Shawn Ewert: I’ve always been a fan of movies in general. Some of my earliest memories are my dad or my mom taking me to “E.T.”. It scared the shit out of me when I was a kid, and I’ve always liked to tell stories but I fell into filmmaking a little later in my life than I wish it had. I wish I had started when I was younger; this is definitely a younger man’s game. It’s just the older you get the harder it gets. With 16, 17 hour shooting days it starts taking it out of you when you’re older. But yeah, I’ve always told stories and to me this was the best way to get the stories out there.

RR: Tell us a little about how you learned about filmmaking. Were you self taught or did you go to film school?

SE: Absolutely self taught and I’ve been surrounded, luckily, by a really, really cool group of filmmakers here in Dallas and the rest of Texas. I mean we’ve got friends all over the place that are always willing to help. We’ve got friends in Houston, friends in Austin, friends all over the place that we all tend to offer each other help, offer each other advice, offer equipment, just whatever we can do to help. Everyone is really good at helping each other out.

RR: One of the important things about telling a story is coming up with the best camera angles to convey it. How do you capture the camera angles that you want to capture? Are they in your head before you start, do you improvise them, or do you use storyboards?

SE: It’s actually a mix of all that. When I am writing, I’m basically watching the movie in my head. So I already have an idea of what I want to see. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that is what we are going to do. I try to storyboard things out, very vague sketches, but that doesn’t always happen either. The storyboarding can really be a time consuming process and when you are on a schedule sometimes that can get in the way.  Sometimes that should get in the way! Maybe you should take a little more time! Sacrament specifically, we started out with the original trailer that we shot we started out in 2010 or 2011, but we did not storyboard out the film and I wished we had. But we got some really cool shots on the day. Our cinematographer, Justin Powers, was absolutely instrumental on a lot of these shots. He is really good about eyeballing where he thinks a cool shot will come from and I left a lot of that up to him. He would show me where he was going to shoot and I was like “Hell yeah, shoot that because that looks fucking amazing!”

RR: So how much freedom do you give to your crew when you are directing?

SE: I have a general idea of how I want things to be. You know? I think that it is a little bit easier on me since I wrote it because there is not that extra person in there saying “Well no, I meant that this way.” At least on the set I have a general idea. I had a script supervisor there his name is Brad Foster, and he was the guy that I would say “No, no, no. Just let it go. I know that’s not what I wrote but that’s close enough.” There were a lot of moments that I tried not to micromanage people. I brought in actors and crew that I trusted them to do their job, and that’s what they did, especially the leads. I talked with them several months before we started shooting and said “Hey guys, if you are reading through these lines and something sounds better to you, something is easier for you to get out of your mouth that sounds more natural to you, please throw that out there and if it doesn’t work for me I’ll tell you”. But I’m not going to stifle that creativity. This is a collaborative process and I should not be, like…yeah, it’s my film but I should not be a dictator. I should open up and be the creative flow for everybody and so we are getting the best film that we can.

RR: Definitely. So Sacrament is based in the state of Texas were you grew up. Do you feel that your Texas surroundings during your upbringing have influenced the horror films that you make or enjoy?

SE: No, I really don’t think it has. I mean there’s a certain love that I have for rednecks with chainsaws. You know what I mean? Yeah, there’s some of that. There’s a special place in my heart for that kind of stuff, but the stuff that I write is really all over the place. There’s the slasher reference, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre type stuff to really cerebral stuff. It’s not only the stuff that I enjoy but the stuff that I write is a very wide range. So I don’t think that it necessarily is Texas based.

RR: Well let’s talk more about Sacrament. How long did it take you to write the script?

SE:  I would say it took me about a year and that was off and on. I didn’t devote all of my time to it. We started not long after we finished our film called Jack’s Bad Day. And that was just the beginning of the idea of what it was going to be. I had a dream and I woke up at three in the morning and I wrote everything down and ultimately we put together a trailer or a teaser kind of, that was based on that dream to try to get some interest for the film. Like I said, we shot that in 2010, 2011 and we spent the rest of the time just honing the script and trying to build up the budget to actually do it the right way. We had an idea that we didn’t want to do CG, we wanted to do things that we knew were a little bit cheaper but we wanted to do things right. So the effects are going to cost us a fair amount of money. To do this in the right location is going to cost us a fair amount of money. So I mean we spent a long time in preproduction on this, I would say, we were in preproduction for probably 8 to 10 months of actually putting things together trying to nail things down.

RR: Well that’s good because you know what you want out of it when you get down to it.

SE:  You do. I mean I think that we were better off than we would have been if we tried to rush things. I found that on this particular project that things tend to happen the way they are supposed to happen even if I’m not particularly happy about it at the time, they work out the way they are supposed to.

RR: You’ve said before that Clive Barker is your favorite master of horror because he “lyrically has a way of melding sexuality with horror”. So how much of that admiration played into Sacrament for you.

SE: As far as influenced directly from Clive, I wouldn’t say it was a huge influence on this one. This one as far as it goes, it goes in a different direction as I’ve seen or read. Now one of his books is called “Sacrament”, and we landed on that title not only because it is perfect for our film, but because of that little connection to Clive means a lot to me. He seriously is just one of the first people that I met that you would call a celebrity and he encouraged a lot out of me. I think I met him when I was 17, 18 years old and as a young gay kid I was trying to put these things out on paper and he was the most encouraging people that I met. Now like I said, he does have a way of mending sexuality with horror and I think that there is something beautiful about that and horrific at the same time because they are two just extremely base emotions…

RR: They are two very polar opposites because sex can be a very scary thing at the same time depending if it is your first time.

SE: Right.

RR: Or if it is with a stranger or whatever, sex is a very scary thing. They are polar opposites but go hand in hand so easily.

SE: Well it’s true. If you look at things like Pinhead for example, he is grotesque, he is one of the most awful beings that has ever existed, but there is something really sexy about Pinhead. It’s a certain amount of the S&M, leather chain thing he has going on. He is a fucking rock star at the same time. So you really can’t separate the two. So it is something that I don’t have the balls to do, but the things that he [Clive] has done sometimes. I love his work, not only his work, his films, his books, his paintings, his photography. He just an all around artist and I’m just incredibly impressed with his stuff. 

RR: I go the pleasure of meeting Clive about 3 years ago and I have to say that he is one of the kindest gentlemen I have ever met. He took the time to meet and speak with everyone and encourage everyone and that is something that I will never forget. I’m sure that both of us have met certain celebrities and after meeting them, you just don’t look up to them anymore!

SE: You know it is just a really weird thing that you get to meet people that you’ve idolized for so long. I will say that I am very rarely disappointed when I met someone. There have been a couple that I am kind of sorry that I met them and it just kind of ruins things but out of anyone I’ve ever met, Clive is by far the most important to me. I’ve got a not small collection of Clive’s work and anything that Clive has touched, anything that he has signed, it is the most important stuff that I own. If I was going to have to get stuff out of the fire, that is where I’m going first!

RR: There is a particular scene inside of Sacrament that was rather taxing on you and the crew to film. What can you tell us about that scene?

SE: I don’t want to give too much away with that. I will say that it does have something to do with…there’s a lead couple, Blake and Lee.  They have a bit of a confrontation and it is a really rough scene. I’ve seen it shot, I’ve seen it on film, I’ve seen it over and over and over and over and it is still incredibly upsetting every time I watch it. The actors that pulled that seen off, not only Troy and Avery that play the lead couple but Richard Houghton who plays Isaac in the film and Josh Simmons who plays his son, those guys did such an amazing job! I won’t lie, I cry watching them act that scene multiple times and when we shot that scene we were actually drained by the end of the day. I was like “I cannot watch you guys do that again. You know we cannot get anything better than what you’ve shown me. It’s too much and I don’t think we can do it again.”

RR: So if it affected you that way and it affected the crew, you know it will affect the viewer.

SE: That’s what I’m hoping. It’s like I said, it’s not… (Sighs) it’s a really hard thing to watch. It’s really rough to sit there and watch it. I’ve seen the severed pieces, and we’re working on the editing of it and it’s just so hard to watch because you are seeing what I had envisioned, and it’s just that much better than what I thought it was going to be.

RR: The idea of a same sex couple inside of a horror movie is a relatively new idea. How much credit can you give to yourself for being one of the first to introduce the two in Sacrament as an influence?

SE: That’s really the direction that I wanted to go with this thing. One of the things that I’ve had a problem with over the years with “gay” films is that they push the gay part as much as they can and they forget about the story.  Me, it’s secondary. Yeah, they are a gay couple, so what? It could be boyfriend, girlfriend, who gives a shit? Now, I’m not going to say that I’ve not intentionally pushed some hot buttons that I know are going to have an emotional effect on people. If I didn’t I would be lying to the viewer. There is no point in making the film if I was not pushing some of those buttons. But I didn’t stay on that any more [than anything else]. There is a sex scene, but you know what?  There is also a sex scene between another couple. I didn’t play into it anymore than that I had played into the straight couple. I tried to make sure that anything I was showing naturally, felt real.  I did my best to try to write something that I had hoped, tried to open up some people’s minds a little bit. Now if that actually happens or not, hey, that’s up to them.  But I went into this thing knowing full well that it is going to piss some people off. And I’m kinda okay with that! Now, I am kinda interested to see what people say when they see the sex scene in the film. Because I want to see if they actually pay attention, because that was really the big picture of for me is “Are you paying attention?” Because I told the cast and I told the crew, was “I don’t want to hear the word ‘God’, I don’t want to hear the word ‘Christ’, I don’t really want to hear anything that is specifically ‘Christian’.” I’m not attacking Christianity as a religion, what I’m going after here is religious extremism in general, be it Christianity, Islam, not that I see a lot of extreme Buddhists but it is going after religious extremism and what it does to the people that involved in it. There are a lot of biblical verses in the film that I have literally tweaked so minutely, they are some of the most screwed up things that I have ever heard in my life! And it is a matter of taking things out of context! I intentionally took things out of context to show how those things can be interpreted. And that’s what I’m really interested in hearing is people’s take on once they think about that. You know? I didn’t write this [Bible verses]. What I did was literally take these verbatim from a book. A book that you confess to believe in. Like I said, I hope that opens up people’s minds a little bit. I’m a little skeptical on whether or not that is going to happen, but it is there.

RR: So you don’t worry about the possible backlash that you could get from the LGBT aspect, the religious extremist, or even the issue of doing something in the horror genre in general right?

SE: You know, the thing is…gay characters in horror to date, have been a stereotype and I did my best to make sure they weren’t. Is there some stereotypical behavior? Absolutely! But you know something? Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason! There are a lot of things that I can look at friends I have, people that I have known over the years and say “Yep, that is a stereotype because you are doing it right now!” I don’t think I’ll get a lot of backlash from the horror community, and it is not necessarily because I’m cantering to anybody but it is because I think that I’ve been honest in the way that I’ve portrayed people . I don’t think there will be a lot of push back. The push back that I’m expecting is gonna be from religious people that are not paying attention, that are making up their minds before they see it. I think that is where the problem is going to be. In the horror community, I have been part of the horror scene here in Dallas for, I don’t know, 10 years? And that’s the real community where people come together for conventions, go out to see movies together, whatever it is, I have never met a more accepting group of people than horror fans. Whether you’re gay, whether you’re black, it doesn’t matter! I have never seen a group more accepting than that of horror fans!

RR: I could not have said it better! Now about your ideas, you’ve said before that you keep a pen and paper and a voice recorder next to your bed just in case you wake up from a dream that gave you ideas. Was Sacrament something that came out of that?

SE: Yes it was! I woke up and it was like 3 in the morning and I didn’t have my voice recorder in the room at the time, but I woke up grabbed a legal pad and a pencil and started writing stuff down just so I could remember what went on in the dream. The screwed up thing is, the dream was actually set in Sweden for some reason rather than backwoods Texas. So all of the characters were long blond haired, angelic figures and once I finally woke up and started putting everything together it made a lot more sense to do it as Texas since I live here. I mean, I don’t speak Swedish (laughs) and it made much more sense. Once we started going through it and put the script together, it really lent itself to what it became. Like I said, the dream wasn’t the indictment of religious extremism that it has ultimately become. It was more of a slasher, cannibal kind of dream, but the elements were there to create Sacrament.

RR: Is there anything that you can give away at this moment that occurred in a dream that you are working on at this moment?

SE: I have actually in the middle of another script that I’m really excited about. It’s going to be a very, very different kind of film. This is going to be a…I don’t know if you’ve seen Beyond the Black Rainbow.  It is a very stylized, very artsy. The thing is I dug the visuals in that film, but I didn’t get into the story. I don’t know if it was me or if it was the film but I couldn’t get into the story, but the visuals were absolutely amazing! So between that and there’s the Maniac remake, which I absolutely fell in love with. Between those two, it is kinda a mix between those. It’s kinda the visual attack rather than…it’s kinda a visual, psychological attack than your straight on “knife-in-the-throat horror”. It’s definitely going to be more of a psychological thing and I’m really excited about it.

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RR: What advice would you give all the future filmmakers that are reading right now?

SE:  The thing is, they really need to bone up on what it takes to make a film. There some really good books out there. Adam Green who did Hatchet, Frozen, he did Holliston, was a huge influence on me actually getting off my ass to write my first script. I met him when he was out doing his original push for Hatchet and at the time nobody knew who he was. He was doing all this on his own.  He was a huge encouragement and said “Look here’s a list of the books that I’ve read. I suggest you do this, I suggest you do that.” And all night he was just “Just do it.” Honestly, “just do it” is a pretty damn good bit of advice. Yeah, there’s a lot to learn and yeah, you are going to fuck up. There’s no way around it, you are going to fuck up! But that is part of the learning process especially if you are going to do it on your own and don’t have anyone there to teach you. You are going to screw up and that’s part of it, that’s part of the learning process. There’s a book out there by Syd Field called “Screenplay” and that’s seriously for me the Bible. It’s one of the most influential books as far as filmmaking goes and I’ve passed it along to other filmmakers. I had a copy of it and I wrote a little inscription and said “Here you go, read this, and pass it along to someone else” because Adam Green did that with me. He said “Read this book before you get started, and then let it go”. So that is exactly what I’ve done.

RR: So as your final words, what do you want written on that tombstone when you are gone?

SE: Man, what I want is to just get my story out there, that’s what I want. I enjoy the shows, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing it because there is certainly not a lot of money in it. I take what I have spent, far more money than I expect to make on this film. And again if I didn’t love doing it, I wouldn’t do it because if this wasn’t fun I wouldn’t be doing.  I want to have fun. I want to tell these stories and you know if I make a little bit of a mark, hell yeah, I win! If people are affected, either they love it or hate it, but if they are affected by something I’ve done and they remember that, I win!