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Outsider Auteur: A Conversation with Eric Stanze

In a field filled with wannbes and novices, Eric Stanze has managed something very rare indeed. He's become associated with quality, vision, and solid cinematic professionalism.  With a body of work that runs the gamut from exercises in exploitation to surreal speculative fiction, he's managed to explore all avenues of cinema, sometimes to his own detriment. "All my favorites are older films," the 31 year old St. Louis resident said recently. "There are not many new movies that thrill me, which maybe hurts my filmmaking career because the things I want to achieve in my own movies are influenced by older techniques that are not very trendy today." Indeed, for someone forging a reputation in the new world order of digital movie production, Stanze stands firmly old school. "The most influential director for me is probably Kubrick, but Romero and Cronenberg are up there too." He adds, "I like many different kinds of movies, from serious dramas, to gory slasher films, to sick 'n' twisted exploitation movies.  What's fun about being a filmmaker is letting all these different influences inspire my work."

Since his arrival on the scene in 1998 with the <b>Evil Dead</b> styled <b>Savage Harvest</b>, Stanze has been totally dedicated to his craft. "I think what drew me to writing, producing, and directing was simply my love for films," he says.  "When I was a kid, the thing I connected to was all the horror and gore stuff.  But I just kept watching more and more movies.  As I got older, I understood and appreciated all the other layers of a movie." For the underground maverick, it's all about the aesthetic. "I got so much out of movies as an art form.  The progression of this was to submerge myself in that art, so that I could experience even more," Stanze explains.  "That's why I started making movies," he reiterates, "and it is why I continue to this day.  I do it to gain a richer experience from the art form."

Like most in his generation, his love affair with the medium started in typical fashion. There were the standard influences and inspirations. "The first films I remember seeing were Disney movies and Ralph Bakshi's <b>Wizards</b>," he offers. However, another major mainstream phenomenon would have a lasting position in Stanze's mind. "The first movie to have significant impact on me was <b>Star Wars</b>" he admits. And it was during his formative high school years that Stanze started taking movies and their making seriously. "I did the usual run of student shorts in high school.  They were very fun, very bad, shot on Super 8 and VHS video."

But after his final student project, a <b>Nightmare on Elm Street</b> inspired effort entitled <b>The Scare Game</b>, was picked up for distribution, his entire attitude changed.  "So here is this ridiculous movie that I thought only twelve people would ever see," he shrugs, "Three years later it's released to home video all over the world.  At the time, this was very exciting.  Today, it is very embarrassing." Seeing his work taken seriously, at least from a fiscal perspective, changed Stanze's approach all together. "That was a turning point," he confirms, "I stopped thinking of it as a hobby and I started trying to build a career."

Drawn as most first time filmmakers to the films of his youth, Stanze saw fear as a subject to admire, not mock. "My approach to horror is to respect it.  Whether it's atmospheric, gory, dramatic, sleazy, or surreal, I don't use the genre as an excuse to half-ass it." He continues, "Horror gives you a wonderfully wide pallet of colors to paint with.  It's stupid to piss that away by snubbing the very genre you're working in." Thus <b>Savage Harvest</b> was born. "I just wanted to make a kick-ass, action-packed, super-cool gory horror movie.  I wonder what went wrong!" he says sarcastically, acknowledging his own inherent limitations - and a borrowed impetus. "When I made <b>Harvest<b>," he said, "I had no voice as a filmmaker yet.  So I was using Sam Raimi's voice instead."

This didn't mean his first feature was completely without originality (all <b>Evil Dead</b> comparisons not withstanding). Stanze did something that few in his position would even attempt. "I like doing research when I write" he admits. "When I was writing <b>Savage Harvest</b>, I really got into the whole Cherokee back-story and I did a lot of research on the Trail Of Tears." It was a creative conceit he would carry throughout the rest of his career. "I jump on any opportunity to introduce authenticity into a screenplay." Stanze says, pointing out that his recently released <b>Deadwood Park</b> contained carefully crafted and detailed reenactments of World War II battles. "Lots of research went into those sequences," he points out.  "I think this is a fun part of screenplay writing.  You get to become a temporary expert on something that you're writing about."

Making a minor splash upon release Stanze sized up his options. He knew one thing was certain - his follow up would have very little to do with possession and young people in peril. "I don't like making the same kind of movie repeatedly.  After making a pure-bred horror movie like <b>Savage Harvest</b>, I needed something different." It was also time for him to take stock as an artist and creator. "I started trying to find my own voice as a filmmaker," he points out.  "Making something very experimental, surreal, and difficult to categorize was the best way to start searching for that voice of mine." The result became his first critical masterwork, the existential sci-fi splatter fest <b>Ice from the Sun</b>. Visually stunning while walking a very fine line between pretention and ambition, it would signal Stanze's career as a serious filmmaker.

"The plot of the movie was very odd and somewhat dependent on the viewer's imagination, so unconventional visuals that were open to interpretation seemed like the best tools to use in telling such a warped story," the director clarifies.  "What I've learned about creating such imagery is to force it less and rely on nature more.  If you can find something otherworldly that exists naturally, and maybe light it or shoot it in an interesting way, it will look better than any set you build or CGI you design." Working within a familiar format also helped. "From a production standpoint, Super 8 film was the best we could afford," he concedes.  "I knew Super 8 would have a grainy, smeary, contrasty look.  I knew a lot of it would come back from the lab scratched up.  I chose to marry my financial limitations to the style of the movie." Indeed, Stanze even pushed the inherent pitfalls of his celluloid foundation.  "I would never say 'Oh, man, we gotta re-shoot this scene because this roll came back scratched!'" he insists. "Instead I would say, 'Okay, this scene is gonna have scratches in it now!' and I would unspool the film and scratch it up even more!

<b>Ice</b> was also the film where Stanze expanded his attention to other production details. "Because I think so much about environment, atmosphere, camera angles, and editing, I think I've gotten a reputation for not being much of an actor's director," he argues. "In contrast, all the actors I've worked with seem to have the opposite opinion of me. The need to immerse your self in all elements of the production is crucial to any success." "The fact is," Stanze says, "all of the layers are important.  Focusing on set design and lighting, then ignoring your actors is a huge mistake." Not that everything was planned in advance. "Not all of <b>Ice</b> was tightly mapped out.  But it was more than it should have been.  Those crazy montages were not planned out much, but every angle where an actor is saying a line or going through specific action was planned out tightly, way in advance." There are pros and cons on both sides. "Sometimes, thinking on your feet yields better results," according to the director, "and forcing shots that don't work just because you're afraid to stray from the shot list is a bad thing."

Of course, once he completed the project, it was time to change gears again. <b>Ice from the Sun</b>'s enigmatic structure was replaced by a craven cat and mouse between a serial killer and his victim called <b>Scrapbook</b>. "(The late Tom Biondi) cooked up the idea of the movie, but I think even he was surprised at how unflinching I was prepared to be with the whole thing," Stanze states. Telling a brutal tale of sleazoid sex and extreme violence, he knew he had his work cut out for him. "Mostly, it just came down to being honest about the movie and making sure the actors were on the same page as me.  This started months before shooting." Working with Biondi and female cast member Emily Hack required everyone being in sync with the movie's purpose. "I quickly understood that both Tom and Em wanted the same thing out of <b>Scrapbook</b> that I did," Stanze states.

He explains the process this way: "Once we were all on set, I did very little to prepare the actors for the really intense stuff.  We all knew that those attack scenes would be better performed if they sort of just welled up and slammed into us out of left field." It required a leap of faith from his cast.  "The actors just dove in head-first and let the fear and the adrenaline drive them.  If we prepared too much before each take, there would be a tendency for Tom to be too timid and gentle.  Em knew her reactions would be more real if she didn't prepare for those attacks emotionally."

This didn't make the graphic moments any easier, especially for Hack. "It was more about trust than it was about dialogue or going over blocking," the director admits.  "We communicated a lot, but always in very general terms if we were discussing how a scene would be shot." There was also a lot of improvisation. "Most of my directing, for both Tom and Em, happened while camera was rolling.  Both of them were pros about staying in character as I told them to do different things while a take was being shot." It was quite an adventure.  "Spontaneously going into new areas as I instructed them, without cutting camera, without breaking character, and without stopping to think about it, gave an extra layer of realism to those performances."

Indeed, <b>Scrapbook</b> became another benchmark in Stanze's continuing career arc, showing audiences and insiders that he was capable of a brutal, uncompromising vision. But once again, the budding auteur rubbed against the grain, creating the odd anthology effort <b>The Severed Head Network</b>. A collection of short films (which the filmmaker admits "function as bad distractions when we should be focusing on our next feature"), its creation was haphazard to say the least. "(Everyone involved) just kinda sat back one day and realized that we had made a number of shorts over the years.  We decided to put 'em all in one place," he admits. Between music videos, clear cinematic tone poems, and the occasional dive into standard narrative, the compendium created even more intrigue. In response, Stanze appeared ready to push the very limits of the genres he loved the most.

An experiment in extreme eroticism and baser brutality, <b>China White Serpentine</b> used its unusual lover's triangle motif to delve deep into a highly exploitive level of sex and violence. The careful balance between the two "was intentional," Stanze admits. "The erotic stuff was the bait and the evil was the sharp hook." Narratively traversing into far more graphic terrain, Stanze and co-director Robin Doe purposely exceeded their own expectations. "We just paid attention to what we were doing.  We were commissioned to make a sleazy, violent exploitation movie and we decided, fuck it, let's make it a good movie too." Of course, the same old production problems lay in wait.

"That film was produced under the most undesirable no-money, no-time circumstances, but I'm really proud of what Robin and I did with it," he admits, "I still consider that movie quite an achievement." The lack of budget also mandated specific aesthetic aims.  A last act series of chainsaw murders was reserved for the end because "we didn't have enough money to put non-stop gore effects throughout the whole movie," Stanze points out, "and the story didn't call for that anyway.  And putting most of the violence at the end wasn't a strategic decision.  That's just where those events happened to land as the screenplay evolved."

Such a strategy stands as the director's standard philosophy regarding onscreen gore. "If the best thing for your movie is to show as little as possible, then absolutely show as little as possible." But Stanze doesn't shy away from excess. "However, if graphic sex and/or violence is ideal for telling that part of the story," he says, "or ideal for achieving a tone the director wants, then there should be no limits. A lot of filmmakers have strange rules and boundaries that they set for themselves.  They want to be that guy who never uses graphic violence, or never uses sex, or never makes a movie without these elements." That doesn't appeal to this director. "I think it is really stupid for any filmmaker to use the word 'never' when describing how they want to shape their eventual body of work."

It's a stance that supplements his approach to scriptwriting as well. As Stanze puts it, "the script is extremely important.  It's the foundation that the rest of the movie will be built upon.  Also, for a director who is also often his own writer, I view the screenplay as the first note of communication between a director and his crew." But that doesn't mean everything put on paper is perfect. "I also acknowledge that the screenplay is the phase of a movie's development in which I've made the most mistakes.  Not only have I needed a lot of practice to become a better writer, I've also never had ample time to write," Stanze admits.  "I've never been paid to write a screenplay, so my writing always gets jammed into those brief spare moments between all my other responsibilities." The cure? "Today, I set large chunks of time aside just to write," he confesses. "I turn the phone off, I stay away from my email, I lock myself away, and really focus on the screenplay.  The quality of my writing has improved tremendously."

Proof of that arrived with his latest film, the atmospheric and moody <b>Deadwood Park</b>. After <b>Severed Head</b>, and a sequel to <b>Savage Harvest</b> (which he executive produced and acted in), Stanze was struggling for the next direction in his creative journey. This story of a town plagued by the haunting memory of a notorious child killer seemed like the perfect vehicle to expand his artistic approach. "On my past movies, I think I would compromise a little more quickly when budgetary restrictions occurred," he admits.  "Not that I didn't care about the other films, and not that I wasn't obsessive about them, but when my resources were limited on those past movies, it would kick my ass a little more." But <b>Deadwood</b> was different. "I was more experienced, so I knew how to work around those restrictions better, and more importantly, I was more stubborn and picky.  I thought about (the film) on every possible level and I was determined to not let any level lack."

The result was an epic exercise in fear that stands among his best, most polished films. "The production value in that movie is a direct result of tenacity, ingenuity, and old fashioned hard work from the entire team making the movie," he adds. From an abandoned amusement part to a dilapidated farmhouse, his vision was vast. "We did not have the money to build those sets, so we had to find existing locations to shoot at," he says. "This was, to say the least, difficult." There is also a wonderful level of suspense in the film, something Stanze was very careful to control. "Much of creating a tone of dread and a creepy atmosphere is understanding how all the visual details work," he suggests.  "You need to know what visual details support that atmosphere, and also what will erode it." No detail went unattended.  "I knew there were certain colors and textures that would drain the atmosphere out of a shot," the director offers, "so I worked closely with production designer Jessie Seitz in making sure those colors and textures were minimized or eliminated."

A great deal was accomplished in post production as well. "I let each movie dictate my editing style," Stanze clarifies. "Each movie has an editing rhythm that I try to discover while editing the first few scenes.  <b>Deadwood Park</b> did not want to be one of those slam-bang, rapid-fire, sensory-overload horror films.  It wanted to be slower, so I let it be slower, more in the style of a 70's film." It's all part of his philosophy of film. "I've been criticized for this," he admits, "not really because of the cutting pace, but more for spending so much time showing off the environment the story takes place in.  This makes Stanze angry. "Today's audience wants to get to the next plot point, the next line of dialog, the next CGI creature, the next sexy close-up of the hot young actress, etc.  I really don't like that kind of forced editing."
Yet Stanze still has his critics, even inside the business. "Anytime a director uses odd visuals and unorthodox techniques, he gets criticized for being self-indulgent and pretentious," the director states. "Recently, Jim Van Bebber, director of <b>The Manson Family</b>, told me he thought <b>Ice from the Sun</b> was a little pretentious because of the story and dialogue." Stanze was taken aback. "This surprised me, because I was sure any pretentiousness one would see in the movie would be due to the visuals and editing." After further discussion, Van Bebber hit on something. "Jim explained that maybe I was a little too young to be writing such deep and serious dialog when I wrote <b>Ice</b>, and that it was my lack of life experience that made the dialogue ring sour.  This was a new one to me, though I did believe his theory held water."

It's what makes outsider filmmaking such a long learning experience. "On most of my past movies," Stanze states, "I understood that I was still a student more than I was a filmmaker.  I probably wouldn't have known what to do with it if someone had actually given me a proper budget.  However, that has changed." His most recent effort provided some insight. "Though I felt like we spent every dollar in exactly the best way possible on <b>Deadwood Park</b>, the lack of a bigger budget did feel like it was hindering me from time to time." He continues, "Today, yes, my ambitions are being clipped by lack of funds.  However, the situation will only improve very slowly, if it improves at all."  It can be very frustrating, though. "This is what I do for a living," he chides.  "This is my full-time, 80 hour a week job.  But people who put money up for these movies expect me to pay the rent with my satisfaction in a job well done.  They see how I've survived crushing budgetary limitations in the past and they say, 'well, just do that again, Eric,' knowing they're going to profit from my movie many times more than I will."

Still, it hasn't lessened his enthusiasm one bit.  "I've learned a lot about the industry, and that's good.  I can hold my own in negotiations better than I could even five years ago," Stanze feels. But there's a cloud that still hangs over it all.  "It's just a shame that growing older, gaining more experience, and becoming a better filmmaker seldom seals the deal on a successful career.  It just means there are more people grabbing for the money your movies generate." It's not cynicism so much as a real passion for creativity and motion picture process. "I get irritated when critics, or the filmmakers themselves, criticize a movie for being self-indulgent, Stanze says.  "What the hell other kind of filmmaking is there?" It's a personal position that supports the overriding purpose of the artform, in his mind. "All filmmaking is self-indulgent.  Nobody gets forced to make a movie at gunpoint.  We are all here because we chose to be here for our own personal reasons.  In varying degrees, this is all self-indulgent.  Nobody is feeding the homeless or curing diseases by making movies." If anyone could, however, Eric Stanze would be an exceptional candidate. He's a legitimate outsider auteur.

- Bill Gibron

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