One of the things that we set out to do when we started the Vault was to feature and promote local music. In the past several years of my life, I’ve come to the realization that one of the easiest things to do to support your community is to spend money on local enterprises. To quote my buddy RJ Wall, who runs Dahlia Presents and Chefs Night Off and is a tremendous supporter of all things local, “70% of every dollar spent at locally owned restaurants goes back into the community.” You can apply this to not only the food you eat, but also to the bands you support, the beer you drink, and even the movies you watch. I’m not saying don’t go to the theater to watch this week’s big blockbuster, but if you want to watch movies that are remarkable and different from the norm, it’s worth exploring to see if you have a local filmmaker in your community who could use your support. So this Halloween, instead of re-watching the same scary movie you watch every year, do some research and watch an independent horror flick produced in your area or a nearby one. Chances are that you’ll discover something special and help your community at the same time.
One of the notable filmmakers in our independent scene is Scott Schirmer. Scott received accolades for his hit horror flick Found, which centered around a young boy discovering that his brother is a serial killer. It won several film convention awards and earned Scott national recognition. He followed it up by producing the slasher flick Headless with Forbidden Films and Gentleman Monster Productions, and The Legend of Wasco for Viva Pictures. In 2016, Scott teamed up with Brian K. Williams to form Bandit Motion Pictures. The company went on to produce Space Babes from Outer Space, Harvest Lake and Plank Face with Scott directing the latter two. I was fortunate enough to chat with Scott about how he got his start, his films, and more!
Indy Metal Vault: To start off, can you tell us about your background and how you got into film-making? Was there a particular film that sparked your interest in movies or one that was especially influential?
Scott Schirmer: I started writing and creating narrative media projects when I was in grade school. I won contests and received a lot of positive reinforcement from my teachers. They really inspired me to keep writing, drawing, and creating things. Through upper grade school until half-way through high school, I illustrated all the projects. It wasn’t until my final year of high school that I was able to finally make a live action video. And in college I got to do a lot more video and even 16mm film. And I’ve continued at it ever since. I knew I would be a filmmaker since I was in fourth grade, and I’ve been on that path ever since. The Empire Strikes Back is really what first got me fascinated with film. I was six when it came out and it just gob smacked my little six-year-old mind. They were selling souvenir magazines about the movie in the theater lobby, and my mom bought one. I think after reading some of that and seeing the behind-the-scenes pictures, I decided there’d be no cooler job on Earth than making movies.
IMV: From our interview with Bandit Motion Pictures partner Brian K. Williams, he stated that you formed the company after working on Harvest Lake together. What made you decide to start your own company and what are some of the hurdles you had to overcome along the way? What’s been one of the biggest insights you’ve gained from developing, producing and distributing your own films?
SS: You have to form a company that will legally own the film’s copyright if you ever plan to license the film to any third parties, so forming Bandit or any company has really just been out of necessity. Brian and I thought we’d probably make more movies together, so we put Bandit together for the films we’d make. Harvest Lake was such a great experience, I was ready to make a lot more movies with Brian.
Hurdles along the way? I never felt like we had any significant hurdles at Bandit while we made Harvest Lake, Plank Face, and Space Babes from Outer Space. The biggest challenge was also a great blessing, and that was working with someone who was every bit as committed, thoughtful, creative, and hardworking as I was. Brian and I worked equally hard at everything and complimented each other so incredibly well. We would have days’ worth of conversations about certain issues, and we’d quadruple vet every decision we ever made. And as wonderful as that is to have such a like-minded person to work with, it can also become very frustrating. Some of our conversations turned into heated arguments, and we’re both very stubborn sometimes. At times like those, I have to be honest, I wished Brian weren’t as invested. But it really just meant we had to argue our opinions harder and more clearly. And I’m sure it made the movies better.
The greatest insight I’ve gained? Right now I’d say, don’t give away exclusive hard format rights to your movie. Keep those rights so that you can make copies yourself and sell them wherever you want. That will save your ass some day. Most distributors don’t care about hard formats anymore anyway, so don’t give it to them. Indie filmmakers are capable of selling between one and two thousand copies of their films in one years’ time. That’s chump change to a distribution company, but not to an indie filmmaker. Keep that right, and make that money! I would also say forget about trying to make any North American distribution deal if you’re in North America. I keep talking with other filmmakers, and we just can’t find a single North American company worth their word – we’ve all been screwed by every company out there, it seems. But most of us do get paid by overseas distribution companies. Ask for a flat fee – because they’ll cook the books on profit sharing anyway. Get the flat fee and get it up front, before materials are mailed to them. I’ve done it that way twice now, and it’s definitely the way to go.
IMV: I also asked Brian what he would tell people interested in pursuing independent filmmaking and he said “run away” and that it’s like “climbing a pudding mountain in banana peel shoes.” Do you agree with him? If so, what keeps you going?
SS: I do agree with Brian. It’s the stupidest business decision you could make. The film industry is imploding and free falling on all levels, from Hollywood on down to us micro-and-no-budget filmmakers. People simply do not value film like they did in the past. Young people in particular will not spend a dime on entertainment today. Piracy and torrenting is killing our ability to make a living. Brian and I have both built up fan bases that have kept us afloat, but we’re both concerned about whether or not those bases are going to grow. I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet, but I live every month, project to project, with the very real possibility that this won’t be able to sustain me much longer and that I might have to give it up as a full time job. I have to release two movies a year right now to just barely survive. I made twice as much money at the day job I left to start filmmaking full time. It’s a huge sacrifice. But it’s my life-long passion. I don’t want to die unless I know I gave it my absolute best shot.
IMV: Have all of your films been shot in Bloomington and Monroe County? What’s it been like working there and how has the area impacted your movies?
SS: Everything has mostly been shot in Bloomington and Monroe County, though we’ve been to Louisville before. I may be shooting in Michigan next year, too. The best thing about shooting here is that no one cares. You don’t really need permits, though I always try let the authorities know what’s going on so nobody gets surprised. The worst part is how prudish and conservative everyone is around here. Even a liberal town like Bloomington really frowns at what I do. A local film festival told me they almost didn’t take my movie because it had foul language. And when you tell anyone you’re making a ‘horror’ movie, they really turn their nose up at you. I was part of a horror film festival for over five years here, and the city tried so hard to ignore it was ever happening. Getting permission to use locations is hard, because as soon as they hear ‘horror movie’ they immediately assume it’s a ‘snuff film’ or something truly abominable. I shoot here out of necessity, not because I like it. Not anymore.
IMV: Your first feature film Found received a lot of critical praise and won quite a few film festival awards. It also spun off the hit slasher picture Headless. Were you surprised by how well received the movie was and looking back, what is it about the movie that you feel resonated so well with fans?
SS: My expectations for Found were that we’d show it to a few audiences, maybe enter two or three festivals, and we’d use the money we made from our premiere screening to make a thousand DVDs and try to sell them at conventions. I had made several movies before Found, but I never released them. So everything was new to me, and I expected very little. But once Found won Elvira’s Horror Hunt and a few other festivals, things really snowballed in a wonderful way that I’ll probably never experience again. Our festival acceptance rate was 1 in 2 festivals, which is unheard of. It’ll never happen again. And as much as I regret making our North American distribution deal, the company did get us coverage in USA Today, placement in Walmart, and reviews in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. Found got out there into the world in a way that probably nothing else I ever do will be able to achieve. I’ve made five other movies since Found, but at conventions, it’s still the one people have heard of or have already seen. I think it also has staying power because it’s based on a good goddamned book. Todd Rigney’s story is one that really resonates with horror fans. There’s a lot of nostalgia in the movie, and I think the time was right for another coming-of-age movie, too.
IMV: I’ve heard the words “genre-defying” used to describe your movies. After watching both Plank Face and Harvest Lake, it’s evident that these are not your typical horror movies, with both films being more cerebral thrillers with fantasy aspects. Was it a conscious effort to create something outside of the norm for these films or did it just come about naturally using your own voice as a filmmaker?
SS: I’m just being true to myself, following my instincts. I’m trying to find my own voice as an artist, so I don’t want to imitate anyone if I can possibly help it. I feel like it’s also easier to do a straight exploitation movie, to revel in the gross parts, or the lurid parts, and to not give the audience anything beyond that in which to find meaning or grab onto emotionally or intellectually. I love horror, even exploitation horror like Headless, but I think it’s a wonderful challenge to give even those kinds of films a little extra depth or dimension. Audiences think they know why they like horror movies, and so do marketing departments. People take for granted the importance of character, emotion, and meaning. They’re harder to quantify and qualify, but I think they’re important.
IMV: In particular, Harvest Lake is kind of a piece on sexual inhibitions tucked away in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers plot. What made you decide to tackle this topic for a “horror film” and what’s the reception been like?
SS: Sexuality is at the heart of every movie I’ll probably ever make. It’s as wonderful as it is horrifying to me. It governs our lives, segregates us, regresses us to base animals, and gives us something to rise above. Harvest Lake is probably the purest exploration of that idea, because the forest is luring the characters into a sexual union. But it’s mysterious and scary – should they resist or succumb? How will sex change them? For the better, the worse? It was fun to make a movie that dealt with it so openly.
Brian and I really didn’t have expectations for that movie. We were more conscious of marketing with Plank Face and Space Babes, but with Harvest Lake, we just wanted to make it and not worry about what people thought. It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal or a big movie. In fact, I was supposed to be directing three movies back to back to back that season, and Harvest Lake was the smallest, weirdest, most unlikely movie of the three. And as luck would have it, the other two movies fell apart and we were left with just Harvest Lake. But fortunately, whatever compelled us to make it, also seems to have struck a chord in audiences. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but we’ve been thrilled with the feedback about that one.
IMV: What’s next for Bandit Motion Pictures? Are there any new pictures in the works that you can talk about?
SS: Brian is working on film projects in Atlanta and I am working on my own projects up here in Indiana. I hope to be shooting my next film in January. We may or may not make any more movies under the Bandit label. It just depends on where life takes us and if we ever work together again. He and his family really, truly hated living in Indiana and they ran screaming from it, all the way down to Atlanta. They’d visited there several times, have tons of friends there, and they are just eating up the scene down there. So while I’m sad I lost my business partner – one of the two greatest collaborators I’ve ever had — I’m happy that they’re all happy down there breathing pea soup for air.
IMV: Also with Brian living in Atlanta now, are you planning relocate as well? How has his relocation affected the company?
SS: I don’t want to move anywhere where the temperature is warmer. I’m miserable enough during the summer in Indiana. I would die in Atlanta. Just die. Wilt like a flower and die. If anything, I’d move further north. I love the cold and I love the rain. For whatever reason, they greatly impact my mood – they cheer me up. Heat and humidity destroy me. They inhibit creativity and my ability to concentrate. I’m not planning to leave Indiana any time too soon. But my lease is up next summer, so you never know. In the meantime, Bandit is just going to be still for a little while, I think. But its founders are both still very active.