Interview conducted by Christopher Maynard
Eric Stanze is an Independent filmmaker raising funds for a feature length film called The Stoplight. He is best known for directing Ratline and Deadwood Park but also was second unit director on We Are What We Are and Stake Land.
How are you today?
Overworked by all the demands our upcoming film Stoplight is putting on me, but I also just keep getting more and more thrilled about the project. The super-enthusiastic response to our announcement of the film has been energizing… I’m bowled over by all the positive feedback and general fan excitement.
Where are you from?
I was born on an army base in Virginia. I spent most of my pre-teen years in a company town that surrounded a lead smelting plant on the eastern edge of Missouri. Our house was at the top of the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.
Where did you grow up and go to school?
When I was 11, my family moved near Pittsburgh… George Romero zombie country. It was shortly after we moved to Pennsylvania that I started shooting little 8mm films with my friends. We attended Beaver High School, about 35 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. I later finished off high school in a small town south of St. Louis, Missouri, at Windsor High School.
When did you discover film?
I was probably five or six. If I saw anything on television that was some kind of “making of” program – with behind-the-scenes footage of a movie or TV show being made – I was transfixed. I loved Star Wars and wanted to make action-packed sci-fi movies. I loved Jim Henson’s Muppets. I couldn’t make films or a TV show, so I made a lot of puppets.
What has attracted you to working in the horror genre?
When I was 9 or 10 I spent the night at a friend’s house and we caught 1958’s The Blob and the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers on TV, late at night. I think that’s where the first seeds of being a horror fan took root. Later, when I saw The Evil Dead and The Toxic Avenger, I loved ’em… but also, the rough edges of those movies made me realize I could make movies too. If Sam Raimi and Lloyd Kaufman could make cheap but cool movies, without big Hollywood budgets, I had a shot at making it work as well. Later, after making a lot of terrible student movies in high school and college, I began to realize that interesting, thought-provoking, artful movies could be made in the horror genre – not just fun slasher and gross-out movies. Things are improving, but the genre used to be seen much more as some kind of restriction on what can be accomplished cinematically. In reality, the genre adds a whole lot of additional, wonderful colors to the palette.
How did your relationship with Jim Mickle begin, and will it continue?
A friend of mine, Aaron Crozier, got the gig as the 1st AD on Stake Land. I was a big fan of Mickle’s previous film, Mulberry Street – and Larry Fessenden (Habit, The Last Winter) was producing Stake Land. Fessenden is something of a hero to me, so I was pretty much prepared to do anything, fill any crew position on that set, if they’d have me.
Aaron put in a good word for me, and I was asked to join the shoot as an unpaid camera operator for the DVD making-of documentary. A week into the shoot, I was asked if I’d like a paycheck to direct and edit the documentary. Halfway through the shoot, I was bumped all the way up to 2nd Unit director of Stake Land.
I think at first they had no idea who I was, but then slowly they realized I’d directed a few of my own films, and that I wasn’t just a fresh-off-the-turnip-truck videographer. On day one of the shoot, I was a nobody; lowest priority. Then, two weeks into the shoot, a producer told me he was happy I was there, because he hoped my involvement with the film would draw my fan base and boost sales of Stake Land. That’s quite a leap, from day-one lowly behind-the-scenes camera-monkey to, a couple weeks later, hearing producers talk about my fan base.
The new issue of Rue Morgue Magazine came out during the shoot, and in it was a very positive retro-review of my film Deadwood Park. I didn’t even know about this. It was actually Larry Fessenden who handed me the magazine on set and showed me the review. So it was clear to Mickle and Fessenden that I was quite capable of taking on the more substantial and challenging position of 2nd Unit director. As an added bonus, I struck up a friendship with Larry – and I was relieved to learn this indie film hero of mine is a really cool, down to earth, super nice person.
I was hired on to Mickle’s follow-up, We Are What We Are, again as 2nd Unit director. A ton of material was assigned to me on that movie. Easily fifteen or twenty times what they’d assigned to 2nd Unit on Stake Land.
We Are What We Are was a great experience. I loved the work, and collaborating with Mickle was a joy because he’s as cool a dude as he is talented a filmmaker. I love how both Stake Land and We Are What We Are turned out. I’m proud to have contributed to those two really incredible films.
I’ve stayed in contact with Jim Mickle since We Are What We Are. Yes, I hope to work on more of his films in the future. When and if the circumstances are right, if he calls me up and asks, I’m there in a heartbeat.
How do you describe Stoplight?
One of the film’s strengths is that it is difficult to describe. We’ve been calling it, “A road-trip odyssey, a stark thriller, and a harrowing descent into madness.” This is accurate, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Stoplight is a road trip film, following in the footsteps of classics like Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop and Easy Rider. It’s also a weird mutation of a horror film. It tells a dark tale of a personal, almost spiritual journey, while also commenting on a lot of what’s broken in America. Religion, the erosion of the US economy by the wealthy few, sexual repression, the role women are still boxed into in American culture… these are some of the themes that pulse menacingly beneath the surface of the film. The nefarious nature of such stuff begs to be folded into a horror art film. It can be subtle, nearly invisible – and I don’t have to take sides. I don’t have to provide answers. The questions are scary enough.
Will you be the cinematographer?
What camera will you shoot it on?
I still have not made a final decision, but I’m spending a significant amount of time on the research, evaluating what gear will likely fit best with this specific project.
Why have you chosen to crowdsource this project?
Our prior films have been funded primarily by investors, mixed with a handful of fundraising events (usually rock shows). For Stoplight, we wanted to have our fans involved from the beginning. This way, we see a bit more funding up front, and the fans get more out of the movie. They become participants – not just consumers who buy the product at the end of the process.
We’ve never gone the crowdfunding route before, so we want to learn the ropes, figure out what works, what does not work, evaluate the experience and see if we want to repeat it in the future.
Do you think the explosion of online VOD distribution is good for film?
Personally, I prefer the DVD or Blu-Ray, but I understand the current distribution landscape is dominated by VOD. There are negatives to this, but mostly, I think it is positive. It helps level the playing field, and provide nearly equal access to big budget films and small indies alike. Back when everything was on tape or disc at Blockbuster and Best Buy, the indies were choked out. Best Buy would have fifty copies each of the last twenty Big Hollywood Hits on their shelves, and not much else. Online distribution means a great indie film shares the same “shelf space” with the Big Hollywood Hits, and audiences finally have a real choice.
A quick thank you to Eric for taking time out of his busy schedule to do this interview. He seems like a really good guy who happens to be making films that speak to me and my sensibilities. I, for one, am very excited to see this film and wish Eric and the producers the best of luck with this worthwhile endeavor. Please give him some love.
The Stoplight Indiegogo campaign runs through July 26th: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/stoplight–2
You can find Eric on Twitter @eric_stanze