Dabbling in filmmaking for the last year the first thing that I learned was something that I will remember as a motto throughout my career; filmmaking is an art, as well as it is a science. The art side of it will thread themes and press undertones through scenes in attempt to make profound political statements. The lighting will need to be flawless in order to capture facial features in just the right way, so that their innocence can be displayed theatrically while their secrets remain shrouded in shadows. As an art, the film will be critiqued in great detail the same way that wall art, sculptures, and music are discussed by fans and connoisseurs. The filmmaker hemorrhages every last drop of their energy and soul into the project as to make it an eternal remembrance of their efforts.
The science side of filmmaking is equally industrious. Finding the appropriate kind of light, the inner workings of a camera, fighting weather on outside shoots, tweaking microphones just right to avoid that “hiss”, all emanate from the tireless efforts of the film crew. Like ancient guilds, these skills are handed down over time to new generations of filmmakers and perfected during their careers; gaining the knowledge that will synthesize to become future works.
Enter Peter Dukes. As a co-founder of Dream Seeker Productions and numerous independent short films of multiple genres under his belt, this writer, director, and producer has walked the halls of film history and studied under scholars that taught the art as well as the science aspect of filmmaking. By holding every job behind the camera, Peter honed his craft, which ultimately culminated into a successful Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channel following.
I got the chance to speak with Peter about Dream Seeker Productions, the horror genre today, and the reality of what it takes to be a filmmaker.
Renfield Rasputin: How long have you been making films?
Peter Dukes: I think like most indie filmmakers I’ve been making them since I was a kid. But I didn’t start working with full crews and all the departments that you can bring out until about ’99. So, gosh, I guess that’s what, about 15 years now? It’s gone by quick. I graduated from college in 2001 and it was in college that I first got started working with crews with cameras. It wasn’t just me with a couple of friends. I graduated from college, moved out to LA, it took a few years to put all the pieces in place that I needed to and I’ve been pumping them out ever since.
R.R.: What lead you to filmmaking?
P.D.: I think it was from very early on. We lived in New Hampshire and we lived way out in the woods. We were left on our own to go out and play in the forests and lakes and I think we just got to use our own imagination and enjoy story telling by the campfire, comics, books, movies or whatever it may be. But I just long loved crafting stories and the creative freedom that comes with that. It just naturally led to me when I went to college I took the pledge and went in to get a film degree. You know, things kind of just went from there but the seeds have been there longer than I can remember. From the very start.
R.R.: So you went to film school. What school and what exactly did you take away from it?
P.D.: I went to CU- Boulder, beautiful school, beautiful campus. Their film school is a little small to be avant-garde but it’s a quality program. They have really good producers there as professors. Many of them have produced before, have been independent filmmakers, or things like that. Stan Brakhage was one of the professors, he was a very famous, possible the most famous avant-garde filmmaker. People like that. So I went to that school and did my thing there. I graduated again in 2001 and I think that my class must have been one of the final classes that was taught with actual film, like celluloid. Like cutting on a flat bin, you know? Things like that, which I love! By the time I came out to LA, the digital age was just beginning and it had several years to go. It has slipped through the cracks and it was making its way through to the business and of course it has entirely taken over now. But my school as okay, I got a fantastic film history background which I enjoy very much and I think has been very influential on how I approach the business and how I approach my type of film making. But in terms of production, it was fairly lacking like I’m sure many schools are. You can learn how to load a film magazine but when you come out here that doesn’t really prepare you for what you need to do to be an independent filmmaker or professor or whatever. I don’t so much hold that against them, I’ve heard that about many schools. What you could do is if you cough up the money and go to like a graduate or masters program, or you could just come out here and work your way up from the bottom on up on set and learn everything you need to know there. Bottom line is, it was a well rounded education and the production stuff I kind of picked up on my own when I was out here. Everything else came out and expanded from that point.
R.R.: That is what I’ve heard most all directors tell me about their experience in film school. You really learn the most while you are on set and doing such.
P.D.: Or just hands on experience. Nothing teaches like hands on experience. Years ago, when I had a little more time on my hands, I thought about going to UCLA and one of their extension courses, and pitching them a course on independent filmmaking, like what you really need to know to get into the world and move ahead. Again, it is not about how to learn to work a camera, or how to load a magazine or this, that or the other. There are a lot of variables that could really help you in terms of what jobs should you go for first, should you go to a master’s program, how to put your pieces in place. I had to learn this on my own over the course of years, but a course like that could have been great for me when I was in college. I hadn’t really followed through with that since things got a little busy on my end but film school is just like anything else. You are going to get out of it , whatever you get out of it. To each their own. It’ll teach you everything you need to know and if it doesn’t you learn everything else once you get out and into the trenches and kind of get your hands into whatever you need to. You just go from there.
R.R.: Tell us what Dream Seeker Productions and what kind of movies you like to specialize in.
P.D.: Dream Seeker Productions was just a simple little website that we put together in 2005 by my sister and I back when we were just playing around with a project together. We put it together just to have a central location for people to check out what we do and something that we could get a kick out of. Since then the social media revolution has blown up with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and all these other things, so it has become something that’s very marketable and something that you can take advantage of. So since then we have integrated our YouTube channel, Facebook, Twitter, all of that stuff is on our website also. People really go to those pages more than they go to traditional websites now. So it is still remains where we put all of our work, what we enjoy and it is also something that we use as part of our pitch package. We got our scripts, we got our short films, and we’ve got press releases and things along those lines. The website still anchors who and what we are and what we’re about. In terms of what we specialize in, I’ll tell you, I’m open to doing any genre. I dealt with many genres so as long as there is an interesting story to tell. I don’t really know, I tend to do more horror and fantasy and those genres allow for a lot of flexibility which I enjoy. I’ve just ended up doing many of those and that’s where my following has started growing the most. I didn’t strategically or intentionally, but when most people recognize my name they are going to recognize it for horror or fantasy. For the projects that I’ve got coming down the line, they happen to be horror and a little fantasy also so the wave is kind of taking me this way and whatever it takes to get ahead, I’m happy to ride it out and see where it goes.
R.R.: So you have done several horror films, some were comical and some were serious. Do you have a preference to one or the other?
P.D.: Not at all. I enjoy them all. Apple to oranges. They are completely different. I can certainly say that I tend to do more psychological horror more so than light hearted horror, but I like to shake things up every now and again. As you noted, I’ve done comedy horror about a year and half ago or so. It was much more comedy than it was horror, but I figured, what the heck? I’ve never tackled comedy before; I’ll give it a shot. You’re going to challenge yourself and figure out what your strengths and weakness are. I thought I would throw the dice and see where it went with that. And I did another horror film many years ago that was just lighthearted kid’s horror. So I enjoy all types. If anything that drives my decision to decide what type, and in this case I’ll just say what type of horror project I’ll do next, is something that is fresh and interesting. If I’ve done several of the same pictures in a row, then I’ll lighten it up a little bit. But the project that I’m editing right now is horror and it is back on the darker side and the darker spectrum of the genre which is about 180 degrees from Little Reaper the horror comedy that you were referring to before. Whatever keeps it fresh and diversified is what keeps me happy.
R.R.: Who were some inspirations to you when you first started out and why?
P.D.: When I was a little kid, one of the first films that I remember we had in my VCR, it was a big deal to have a VCR back then, we rented Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that hooked me on to Steven Spielberg and I was a big fan of that, Duel, Jaws, Close Encounters, Poltergeist, granted he didn’t direct Poltergeist but all those early movies. He was certainly a big influence but he was not the only one. Once I got older I got to explore other types of filmmakers. I became a big fan of Krzysztof Kieślowski who is about as different from Spielberg as you can get but they both have their own voice. There are many other films out there of course. I love films that go way back to the 1910s, 1920s, back to the silent period. Over the years I think that what has influenced me more so than movies is books. I’m a book junkie and again, I’m known more for horror than anything else so I just stick to horror for this. Some of these horror authors I have picked up on like Ray Bradbury, Shirley Walker and several others, that’s mainly where I get most of my influence. They have incredible stories. You read them and they totally engage you. It kind of gets the cogs moving in your head. Very inspiring. So I would say a little mix of all that. But for the kind of guy I am there is a little inspiration everywhere, you just have to know when and where to look. You can be inspired just driving to work and there is all sorts of things out there to inspire you. With me inspiration is the key. Without inspiration I don’t even start writing my script or if I do write a script it sits on the shelf for several years. It’s got to be something that really inspires me to proceed with it.
R.R. I understand. You have to entertain yourself first before you can start to entertain anyone else.
P.D.: That’s right.
R.R.: Robert Rodriguez is known for doing things off the cuff and making do with what he has available to shoot. He has written his scripts around his shooting locations or props that he had access to. Other directors such as Peter Jackson have a strict “by the script” vision to their directing. What do you say your style reflects more? Something that is off the cuff or something that is strictly to a specific vision?
P.D.: A little hybrid of the two but I think certainly because of the kind of films that I usually have to make where time and money is a little tight. Sometimes you have to go a little off the cuff and you have to shoot where you have to shoot. If you don’t have permits you have to be a little careful there and it’s one of those things where kind of a slave to the circumstances. So I certainly cut my teeth on what’s available. That could include gear, lights, cast, location, wardrobe, what have you. But on some occasion I think you need to adhere to your vision strictly. Sure. When I breach into the feature world I think I’ll cling onto that a little more but I’ve been doing this for so many years now that it is kind of in my nature to do things a little more off the cuff and very flexible and flexible on other things and that is what works for me. But it is one of those things that if you ask ten filmmakers the very same question, I’m pretty sure that you are going to get ten different answers. To each their own! But I’m pretty sure that I am a hybrid of the two.
R.R.: So you have written, directed, and produced films. What do you find is the most difficult part of filmmaking to you?
P.D.: They all have their own challenges. Each project is it’s own living organism and each one offers its own challenges and obstacles and things along those lines. I think for me the most difficult thing is directing, and that’s the thing that I set up originally to do, is direct. Because I didn’t have a ton of money, when you are first starting out no one is coming to buy your scripts or offer you scripts. I had to write my own and produce my own, and often edited my own. Directing is something that is primarily my interest and it is the hardest because when you go out on set, it could be the major studio picture or it could be a small independent short like I have done time and time again. Directing is hard and it is not always fun. There is time and money on the line, the hours are very long. No matter how prepared you are there is always going to be unforeseeable challenges that you have to contend with. It can be and often is a pressure cooker and inherently what we do. When you are on set you are not always enjoying every second of it. But it is very fulfilling though of course and I’ve done it so many times and that is what I want to continue to do. Again, they are all challenges but nothing pushes me like being out there directing.
R.R.: A lot of times when you direct horror there is some backlash. A lot of award show steer away from crediting the genre, winning awards, and giving any credit to the work. American Horror Story was thought to be robbed last year at the Emmys but insiders have said “As long as it is horror, it never is going to win.” Because of all the criticism that revolves around the genre, have you ever felt that anything you have ever written, directed, or produced would cause any backlash? Have you ever thought “Well this one is a little edgy, darker; I’m a little concerned about this one.”?
P.D.: No not my films, not yet. I have some stories that I’ve written and kicking around in my head that would do just that, but not yet. I’m trying to think of any of my pictures that would not be appropriate for anyone of any age. There is a couple that might be PG-13 but nothing that would be super edgy. I think that the reason they don’t win a lot of awards is just natural that horror movies are considered B-movies. B-movies don’t win awards, well not the coveted awards I would say. A lot of filmmakers tailor just for that, just plain entertainment. You’ll rarely see horror that is rather entertaining and engaging and very smart. Unfortunately those are few and far between. You’re thinking like Jaws, like I never saw the remake but I did see the original Let the Right One In, which was fabulous. Those kinds of movies I would sure think deserve awards because they are entertaining, they are very smart, they are very well done and they should be able to contend with daytime dramas or what have you. But back to your question, no, I don’t think that any of my pictures to date have been that edgy or controversial with religious undertones or violence or whatever the sub context might be. They’ve all been fairly free from any of that stuff. And I don’t know if I’ve been avoiding it but they are the stories that I’ve enjoyed telling. I think that the stories that I enjoyed when I was a kid and to date have been the stories that I don’t mind the kids watching.
R.R.: I’ve watched several of you films and I never saw anything that would have been unacceptable or force my kid to cover their eyes and leave the room. However what I enjoyed about watching your films is that they are something that anybody could watch. Horror is a subjective area.
R.R.: It does not have to be splatter; it does not have to be violent. It could just be a frightening image of a goblin or a personification of a supernatural figure in an everyday role such as Little Reaper. So as I was watching this I was wondering if that was something that you were drawn to as a choice.
R.R.: So as a filmmaker, do you feel any responsibility for any of the subject matter that goes into your film?
P.D.: I do. Yes, very much so. I think filmmaking can be a lot of film and it can fulfill a lot of enjoyment. I do think there is a responsibility to your audience. I had many thoughts on that but when I’m asked questions like that, automatically my mind kicks back 12 – 13 years to this college class I took about horror and the different types. One of the things in the class was just that “How much are we responsible for? Do we need to take responsibility for the things we are putting up here? How far is too far?” We watched several films that were banned worldwide for violence, or they were really killing animals on screen, killing them in really nasty ways. Things like that. It really affected me for a long time. Some of the things I still can’t get out of my head. It doesn’t have to be killing animals of course but there is a lot of things that some filmmakers have put on screen that haven’t had enough thought put into it. I’ve been offered scripts before that have been horrendously violent and disturbing. If it is appropriate to the story then you can make an argument for it. But it’s just not really my cup of tea. It’s just not something that I’m interested in doing in any way, shape, or form. In terms of my overall case, let’s just say horror, I’m much more attracted to the more subtle atmosphere of films from yesterdays, the horror films that pick at your imagination. They forced you to really think about the implications of what you were watching. It wasn’t films about people getting killed off for five minutes in front of the camera. Not to knock that, to each their own. Some of those films like Hostel films were very successful but they are just not for me. My films in my own small way, I’m trying to educate people that there are different types of horror out there. It is a great genre with a long and rich history. I was hoping that some of my films may remind people of those films. It’s out there and it will show younger audiences that there are different types of horror and you don’t have to see a film of people getting their fingers cut off to get a scare. I kind of lost faith or begun to lose faith in what the horror genre had become at least in American cinema and with the film that I had mentioned previously, Let the Right One In, granted it wasn’t an American film, but it did restore my faith in the genre. There is violence in that movie but that’s not what drives it. It was a very well done horror movie and it kind of inspired me. And people responded to it. If you have a good product out there, something that doesn’t rely on complete in your face shock horror, people could really still enjoy it. And that bolstered me and again as I push into the feature world, that is what I’m going to continue to do. They are the movies that run the other end of the horror spectrum and I think/hope that people will respond to it.
R. R.: I love it! I feel the same way. Splatter gore is great for just one film but Let the Right One In renewed my faith in horror much like the older films like the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, there isn’t really that much violence in it. Frankenstein, I think the most violent part was throwing a young child in the lake, which at the time I’m sure was quite shocking.
R.R.: But today compared to the shock gore that is being made, it is very tame. I don’t need to see blood. I think American horror fans, or even horror fans in general are getting used to blood. What is the next step? How far do you need to go to scare someone?
P.D.: Right. Then you have your backlash which thank God is over and again, to each their own, but it is not for me. We went through seven, eight, nine years there when every horror film would have usually been considered way out there had somehow become mainstream. That was all the Saws, all the Hostels, which became mainstream horror! I think that people kind of got a stomach full of that because it has kind of tailored off over the last three years, four years, five years maybe. I think there is only so far that you can push it before someone becomes desensitized to it, or bored with it, or whatever. Again, everyone has their different tastes in horror and I have no problem with that but for me it is more about the story than shock horror. And as you noted, at the time, sure, Frankenstein was shocking and having to see him over the period of two minutes drowning the girl, and throwing her in the lake, you were like “Enough!” Your mind filled in the rest. But I like that kind of stuff! I like it and I don’t shy away from shocking stuff in terms of contents of the story. But I also don’t feel that you need to see every little thing. You can leave it up to your mind. Every genre does it in its own right but horror tends to be a little more pronounced.
R.R.: What are your thoughts on the current state of horror in cinema at the moment?
P.D.: Horror is very trendy in America cinema, actually that’s not true, internationally as well, but we got a lot of shifts going on right now. We are kind of at the tail end the vampire trend and zombies are a big thing right now. Even werewolves have started to make a comeback which I was pleased to see. We are still in the pseudo documentary stage and the found footage. I get a little tired of the trends and I’m always on the lookout. Horror is so popular there are people out there always looking to push it to a new level and find a new way to do what we do. I’m anxiously awaiting what that big sleeper hit is going to be. You know, fresh totally out of the box that will start another trend. I’m just anxiously awaiting something new and not to harp on it because there are other horror films out there but Let the Right One In, man that’s what it was for me. Something fresh, something new, and that’s what I’m always looking for, some independent filmmaker out there to come out with something that will knock people’s socks off. And it will happen! Thankfully horror is rich enough that you will know it will happen. It’s not a genre that you know is going away or even have trends that will play out. There’s got to be something else.
R.R.: What has been your favorite film that you have made to date and why?
P.D.: You know I get asked that a lot. I don’t have one. There are some that are better entertaining and more well done than others, but I’m really proud of each one of them all because each one represents me taking on a challenge in their own light. That is often how I choose my next script; if I haven’t worked with child actors in awhile, I’ll work with child actors or if I haven’t worked with a certain set up of lights or a certain location, or an ensemble cast or whatever I want to be challenging myself on, that’s what I’ll do. Each film is another step on my cinematic education so they all represent a piece of that. But I don’t have any one favorite.
R.R.: What is the biggest lesson to any aspiring filmmaker that you cannot stress enough, if they want to go out and start making movies?
P.D.: That’s the most common question that I’m always asked. There’s a ton of small bits of advice that I could give because I’m sure what they’re going to be saying is “Where do I just start? Do I go to film school? Do I not go to film school? What is the first job I should get? Just how do I put my pieces in place?” I’ve written a couple of articles on that. But if I had just one piece of advice, when I say it people just go “Wait, what? That can’t be right.” It’s this: make sure you really love it. Filmmaking and loving filmmaking are two very, very different things. That is point one to note! When you actually want to be a filmmaker it takes a tremendous amount of sacrifice and patients. You need to make sure that you still love it when you come out to L.A. or New York, or wherever and you are not making nothing and you are not living the most flashy lifestyle, cause you just don’t have the money to do that. You are working whatever job you can work, usually multiple jobs and multiple internships and trying to meet people to put your pieces in place. It is not all that glamorous at first and the odds of you making it are astronomically against you. There is just so many people out there, especially in the digital platform where everyone can make a movie now. There is just whole of ocean of people vying for very few amounts of spots. You got to make sure that you love it, even if you’ve been in the business for 20 something years and you’ve never got that feature done and all you’ve done is make a couple of low budget shorts meanwhile you are working at Wal-Mart or wherever. That happens to an awful lot of people. So the people that came to the business with stars in their eyes who are into the glitz, the glamour, the fame, and the fortune and all that stuff, the problem is they are in for a very rude awakening. Now I don’t say that as a way to detract people from coming out, come on out! Come on out here and give it your best shot. My only purpose in saying that is to make sure that they have their priorities in the right order and they are coming out here for the right reason, cause if you don’t, you are going to know very quickly. For a lack of a better word, “tuck your tail between your legs” and go home after six months or three years or ten years. I know a lot people who have done that. It boils down to this being something that you really want to do, that you love story telling, you love the blood, sweat and tears that go into it. If you do, you’ll be okay, you may not be a big star or make a ton of money but you’ll be fine and doing something that is fulfilling to you. In terms of everything else all the other details they will fall in place, meeting financiers, all that kind of stuff, all the good independent filmmakers learn that on the go and whoever is reading this, they will learn that too. You have to come out here and you will learn that as you go along. You need to know all that from the bottom up anyhow.
R.R.: What is the next thing for Dream Seekers Productions?
P.D.: Well it is another horror piece that I finished shooting a couple of weeks ago. It is very short and simple that I wanted to do to stay sharp for some upcoming feature work that I have since I hadn’t directed anything for over a year until Little Reaper actually. What I can say about it without giving too much away is that it is going darker, it kind of taking on the darker elements of playing around with paranormal elements like Ouija boards and things like that. So it is a crazy little project called, Daniel, and I think people will like it if they like what I’ve done before, they will like this too!
Please explore the following links for more about Peter Dukes, his work, and Dream Seeker Productions.
Facebook: Dream Seeker Productions
YouTube: Dream Seeker Productions