Interview with David Axe, Serial Filmmaker: the Making of SHED
I’ve asked David Axe for an interview about the movie that premiers tomorrow - on March 1st, 2019. I happen to be in the movie, playing a party guest who kills it (or, rather, gets killed) in a unicorn costume. First, I had to reschedule. Then, I ran into David at the Whig. We were both a bit too inebriated to conduct the interview, but had a fascinating conversation about David’s core principles.
He told me that his discipline stems from his desire to make a movie each year. David said that he has a full-time job and spends his own money to produce the movies he makes. He does his job as quickly as he possibly can, without sacrificing too much of his creative energy - which he saves for making movies after the paying work is finished. He said that estimating the total time that is required to finish something is important; so is following through by taking daily action. It was a very spirited conversation (in every sense of the word), and we were able to reschedule the interview to talk a little more specifically.
We met again on February 14, the Valentine’s Day, at Fall Lines, a new bar in Five Points replacing what used to be Delaney’s. I asked David about his inspiration for the script. He told me that the scenario for the SHED was based on the Gullah legend of Boo Hag, a skin-stealing monster.
According to the legend, Boo Hags are similar to vampires. Unlike vampires, they gain sustenance from a person's breath, as opposed to their blood, by riding their victims.
They have no skin, and thus are red. In order to be less conspicuous, they will steal a victim's skin and use it for as long as it holds out, wearing it as one might wear clothing. They will remove and hide this skin before going riding.
When a hag determines a victim is suitable for riding, the hag will generally gain access to the home through a small crack, crevice, or hole. The hag will then position themselves over the sleeping victim, sucking their breath. This act renders the victim helpless, and induces a deep dream-filled sleep. The hag tends to leave the victim alive, so as to use them again for their energy. However, if the victim struggles, the hag may take their skin, leaving the victim to suffer. After taking the victim's energy, the hag flies off, as they must be in their skin by dawn or be forever trapped without skin. When the victim awakes, they may feel short of breath, but generally the victim only feels tired.
An expression sometimes used in South Carolina is "don't let de hag ride ya." This expression may come from the Boo Hag legend. “
David: I didn’t want to make a “Boo Hag movie”, because that sounds boring. It would also have to be a period piece, which we cannot afford to do. So it’s a Boo Hag story without being a Boo Hag story. We show them in the very first scene of the movie. So it’s never a question of are there really monsters.
A traditional horror movie with cultivated mystery would start with some woman walking down the alleyway and something would surprise her, you don’t see what it is, she screams, and the camera pulls back, and you don’t know what killed her, and then at the turn of act 1 you discover: ‘Oh! It really was a monster! OMG!!!’ - but… That’s NOT the point of THIS movie, so we show you the monsters in the very first scene.
The movie’s not about surprise, it’s only 80 minutes long and it’s not an exploration of ambiguity. The only thing I was really trying to achieve was to create a few relationships, mostly romantic. There are several couples, there are two threesomes - monsters and humans. I wanted to get each of those relationships to talk about love and what love means to them - and then to violate that expectation.
The monsters are in love. They’ve been together forever; but one monster changes her mind about what she wants in life. Our human threesome, they’re in love, then one of them gets replaced by a monster! So we sort of get to shatter the definition of love that these people settled on and take them somewhere new.
I’m not saying this is a profound exploration of love - it’s not. But that is the governing impulse of the whole movie in terms of structure and character and everything: love, love, love.
I reminded David about what we discussed earlier at the Whig: “You said that you work with that you get in terms of resources and location. So how do you work that into the vision that you have, or do you adjust the vision to match what you are working with?”
David: If you are making a movie with no money, you better not have a very highly rigid vision - because your vision will probably exceed your resources. I had faith that we could create something coherent. If our vision was our starting point and we followed the vision through with certain availability of resources to an endpoint, then we’d still arrive at something worthwhile
I don’t have a super rigid conception of what a movie is. I mean, when I write the script, I can see it very clearly from frame 1 to frame 1000 - it’s actually way more than that, so to frame 10,000 more like - almost as a picture… But it doesn’t mean that I’m married to that or disappointed when the end result isn’t that. And as we begin moving through production, your performances, your location, the weather, the lenses you’re using, how your effects are working out create… We begin to see what kind of movie we’re getting. And I’m cool with that.
By the time we were halfway through production on SHED, I no longer remembered how I imagined it, because I was happy with what we were creating; and now that we have 99.9% finished product, I’m very happy with how it looks, how it feels…
If we’d do it all over, would I do it differently? Yes. But considering that we had nothing and made a movie out of nothing, we did an extraordinary job.
Katerina: So about a few unexpected circumstances…
David: People quitting?
Katerina: Yes. How challenging is it from a standpoint of directing the production, and also from the standpoint of editing the movie?
David: It’s the biggest danger, the biggest risk. This is not the first time I had to deal with cast and crew flaking.
I used to think that it would destroy the movie… And it endangers the movie, but does not necessarily destroy it. I think you have to assume, going into making a $25,000 movie, that somebody is going to quit. Now the question is - do they quit early or do they quit late? The later they quit, the harder it is to fix. Unless of course, they quit late enough where you got enough footage that you can make something out of. If they quit really early, then you can simply recast them and keep moving. If they quit really late and you don’t have all your scenes, you’re in trouble. It’s very difficult to backtrack all the cast, but we did that.
David talked about a cast member that left the production of SHED unexpectedly. He said that the incident forced him to make edits he otherwise wouldn’t make, and to reshoot six or seven scenes which was not easy to do. It messed up the scheduling, the workflow - and still, he was not able to remove the actress completely. David recast the role, and “through creative editing and cropping, we were able to make it work - I think!…”
David: Let me put it this way - during production, I would live in a constant state of terror that somebody is going to quit. I would wake up every morning knowing that there is a good chance that I’m going to have a message on my phone saying “I quit”. And that does happen, and it did happen 2-3 times on SHED.
And then, when it finally happens, the adrenaline kicks in, and you go into crisis mode, and just figure out some f’ing way to solve the f’ing problem. But yeah, it’s a HUUUUGE problem.
Katerina: Is it a Columbia-specific problem?
David: No, I’m sure it’s not, not at all. But, I will say this - in most cases, it’s tied to substance abuse, and Columbia has huge substance abuse problems. We’re not unique in that regard but…
All I know is that it’s a problem when you’re making a movie, and at the same time it is not realistic to expect people not to drink and do drugs. Why would I expect that? I drink and do drugs. All things in moderation.
Katerina: But otherwise, how would you rate Columbia in terms of producing an Indie film here?
David: I like it! I mean what do I know, I’ve only ever made movies here. But I like it because there is no permitting - so legally you can shoot in public places and nobody can stop you; as long as you are not breaking any laws. It’s cheap. Just doing anything, any free time, getting around, parking cars and things like that can be a lot harder in other places. Here it’s not hard.
Columbia has a little bit of everything I think that you need to make a movie. We’ve got urban spaces, we’ve got wild spaces, we’ve got new and old. Also, I live here and I know people and I can ask for favors. If I went to some town where I didn’t know anybody, I would be f’d. Because I can’t call any favors, I don’t know where to sneak around, I don’t know if I’m going to get in trouble doing X, Y, or Z… I’ll just say that Columbia is not prohibitively difficult in making a movie.
Katerina: You’ve made 3 movies now, including SHED. Are you seeing any difference in how you make each as you progress?
David: Yeah, I’m getting better at it. I made the Theta Girl with Chris Bickel, and we were both utterly lacking in experience or realistic expectations. We got really lucky, it turned out really well.
I made Azrael, the sequel to the Theta Girl and it was really hard and I’m not really pleased with the results - but that’s alright, learning experience! Then I think with SHED I got a lot better at this.
Katerina: I liked what I saw at the Wrap Party for all cast and crew!
David: The thing you saw at the Wrap Party was raw. I just slapped six scenes together - so yeah, it doesn’t look like that anymore. And you’re in it! You’re invested. But imagine being just some random stranger. Imagine trying to convince them to come see your movie. And… They’ve seen movies before, and then they watch your movie. It’s a lot harder to impress them. They don’t know - or care! - that it was hard to make that movie, and that it cost $25,000. They are used to seeing the movies that cost millions of dollars. They never see the movies that fail! They only see the movies that succeeded enough that they wound up on the big screen. So… for the general audience we are making a barely passable movie.
Katerina: But I think we are in the community that cares!
David: Yes. But I would like people outside of Columbia see that movie also. So that’s our challenge! It it is really hard!!! Because making these movies is really, REALLY hard. Making any movie - FINISHING a movie is really hard. Making a good movie is even harder. Making a good movie with limited resources is a herculean task. But we’re getting there.
Katerina: Going back to our earlier discussion at the Whig - you said you have a quota, making a movie a year. How did you arrive at this number, and how is it possible to finish a movie each year?
David: It’s a good round number. And it is possible! Because it takes a year to make a movie. 3 months to write, 3 months pre-production, 3 months production, and 3 months post-production.
It’s not unique to just movies - if you want to do something, then just do it! And since all doing requires time, you should estimate how much time it will take you to do something, and then take the time to do it.
Katerina: But what about the inspiration?
David: Oh, I have a lot of ideas. It’s just about picking one. I also don’t really believe in inspiration.
In terms of choosing an idea, go for the one that sticks with you… Also the one you can pull off! I would like to make a giant Star Wars space odyssey that is epic. We’re not going to do that in Columbia, SC on a budget of $25,000 *laughs*
We gotta make something that is rooted in this space, with these people - that I can make with the equipment that I can afford to buy and with the experience that I can realistically acquire on my own. So, you know… It’s not going to be a SyFy epic. I’m making small movies with small cast - and we gotta be able to make them quickly!
Katerina: Do you already have an idea for what you’re going to be making next?
David: Well, I think about one movie at a time. When we began wrapping up SHED, I started thinking about different ideas. An idea would come to me, I’d write it out - it may work, it may not; I’d throw it away, and keep thinking.
Katerina: How many hats did you wear in the making of SHED?
David: Writing, Directing, Photography, Editing, Sound Design, Special Effects - everything except for acting.
Katerina: Have you thought about inserting yourself into the movie as a character?
David: No, I don’t like acting - but also, how could I? I have to work the cameras! And I never wanted to be an actor.
Katerina: Do you want to continue making movies in Columbia? Or do you have aspirations to go somewhere else?
David: I want to make a movie a year. I’ll go wherever I’ll need to go and do whatever I need to do to make a movie each year. I’ll do so until I can’t anymore or lose interest.
Katerina: Do you ever lose interest?
David: Yes. But not quickly. In order to make a movie, you have to sustain interest long enough to pull it off. So if your fancies come and go each month, then you are never going to finish a movie. If they come and go every ten years, it’s a different story.
Katerina: What’s your personal feeling about SHED, without too much self-criticism?
David: It’s fine. We got lucky. It looks good. The main things are - it needs to look pretty good, it needs to be audible, the dialogue is important, sound effects, music…
It looks pretty good, mostly because we shot it at night with some pretty good lenses - it has a consistent look. Warm, dark and hazy. It sounds good because I got a lot better at mixing sounds over the past three years…
And it’s WEIRD! That’s important because if you’re making a super low budget horror movie, there are thousands of them, right? So, GO BIG! Try to do something weird! And our movie is a polyamorous monster movie with a lot of latex skin effects. It’s got the weird thing going for it. I’m happy! I’m actually very happy because we made a good movie.
I’m realistic about where it’s going to go. We are going to send it off to festivals for a few months, get some reviews. Then we are going to slap it on the internet, print some DVDs, and we’re done!
At the end of the day, if we’re lucky, 10,000 people are going to see it and we can all be very proud of ourselves - and move on!
That’s the whole thing. Nobody’s going to make money. Nobody is going to get famous. But, you know - we get better at it, we can be proud of the work that we did, and I can continue on and make another movie!
Katerina: Have you always known that you wanted to make movies?
David: Yeah! I always liked pointing the camera at things. When I was a little kid, mom and dad bought a VHS camcorder - it was in the mid 80s. Me and my brothers would run around and make like war movies and stuff… We’d make fake guns and run around and shoot at each other with the camera on. My best work ever! *laughs*
Making movies… I didn’t realize that you can just DO that! Until like five years ago. It occurred to me that people make movies! And that those people never - or often - have any idea of what they’re doing. So I thought, a bunch of a*holes made movies, and if those a*holes made movies, I can make a movie! So I’m 40 now, and the main thing that I learned in life is that nobody has ANY idea what they are doing - all the way up to the people that are in charge of the world! So why not try a thing? Because sometimes a*holes succeed in doing GOOD things! We’re a*holes, maybe we can succeed too!
Katerina: I think this is a good stopping point for the interview…
David: “Worst interview ever!” *laughs* So you’ve tried to interview me twice and I’ve been drunk the entire time…
For those of you who didn’t get enough - I asked David two more technical questions:
Katerina: Do you have the DVD making process figured out in advance?
David: Oh yeah, that’s not hard. You create a certain format of file - and that requires special software. Then you simply ship it off to a company that prints DVDs and BluRays. You’re going to end up buying a couple thousand, so you’ve got to pony up the money as part of the expense; a few thousands of dollars. So you you print, you know, two thousand DVDs or whatever - and then they ship them to you. You either find a retailer that can be the front for distribution, or you can warehouse them on Amazon. You can make them on demand, but it would be a lot more expensive for the buyer. I you want to get your DVDs down to a realistic price, like $15 or whatever, you gotta buy them in one big block. And that’s what we’ll do.
I don’t want this to be prohibitively expensive for the small number of people that want to own a copy. It’s going to be a very small number of people, and we should not put obstacles in their way, you know what I mean? We need to make it accessible to them. And then we’ll have streaming options like Vimeo and YouTube where you can pay a couple bucks and watch the movie. And somebody will pirate it. And that’s fine! All that means is that somebody really wants to see your movie.
These things are only a problem if you are making a movie to make a profit. And I’m not. I expect to lose all the money that I put into this movie. If I’m VERY lucky, I will recoup a little bit of my investment, but… Some people have hobbies, I don’t. It’s not about money.
Katerina: How did you come upon the space where we shot the movie?
David: I talked to Mike (Amason), Mike said he knew somebody who had a lot of different properties that might work for us. I went out there and talked to Melissa (Drake) and we looked over all of the available spots she had.
We got very lucky. The whole thing was dependent on location. And piecing it all together, there was a small chance that either we’d have to build the shed, which would have been very expensive, or shoot the shed and the party from two different locations, which would have been a scheduling nightmare. So… We got kind of lucky. It was all in the same place.