THE QUANTUM TERROR is an Epic of Horror Filmmaking - Interview with Director Christopher Cooksey
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Independent, and what may be considered “underground”, horror films are delivering millions on their production investment. And many of those filmmakers want a worldwide rights deal with Netflix, which typically pays a $250,000 flat fee for low-budget horror, often enough to cover a producer’s costs with a small profit. But that digital market has largely dried up as Netflix buys less, preferring to make its own scary movies in-house. On the extreme low-end of the scale, there is a business for horror that recoups its entire investment online.
But what if you aren’t working with a budget of $50,000 and above? Suppose you’re nowhere near that kind of budget and have no hope of landing a deal with Netflix? It may help to call in all the favors you’ve ever earned.
I recently spoke with Christopher Cooksey, director of the upcoming THE QUANTUM TERROR, who isn’t making a film for the love of money. It’s all about the nightmares.
TO BEGIN, LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR LOVE FOR HORROR. WHAT IS IT ABOUT HORROR THAT ATTRACTS YOU - WHERE DID YOUR LOVE FOR HORROR COME FROM - WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE HORROR BOOKS?
First of all I want to thank you for the opportunity to express my excitement for not just horror but the act of creation in general. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that it's always fun to talk about your interests. It's like being an explorer, always discovering new treasures.
As far as my love of horror goes, that's a complex question with an ever-evolving answer. My earliest memories of horror were of nightmares I'd have as a toddler. I remember the physical sensation [of] having my bed picked up while I was sleeping and then dropped. That happened many times while I was dreaming. The majority of my dreams were of being in very dark places, lit only by sources that I couldn't see but I was sure would harbor monsters. Maybe that's some subconscious remembrance of being in the womb. In life I remember coming across some really weird old films that would show me just enough to make me curious before my parents would change the channel. The film From Beyond sticks out in my mind. These things made me curious but I wasn't able to look into them. I'll never forget my mom coming back from seeing Aliens in the theater. She wouldn't let me see it because it was rated R but she gave me a full rundown of the movie. That alone was enough to have me sleeping with the covers over my head for months. As a teenager I was freer to see for myself what these things were all about and discovered that there were fascinating people behind these imaginings. I'm looking at H.R. Giger's paintings, reading Clive Barker, Anne Rice, Alan Moore, Ray Bradbury, Lovecraft, I'm watching all the great "making of" specials on TV about the films that have captured my imagination and I'm thinking, "Hey, if these guys are making all of this amazing stuff then why can't I?" That was the hook. The promise of being able to add to the pool of mystery, of the deeply felt emotions that come with the scares, the promise of adventure that lay just past the threat of death. What I didn't realize at the time is that there's a rabbit hole you have to dive down to be that person. Now, the attraction of horror is the deep dive into trying to understand the big questions. I believe that most people who know me well would probably say that I'm an optimist. I actually have a deep aversion to nihilism, which I've seen many of my favorite franchises and creators fall into. I suppose it's easy to look at the world as a horrible place full of terrible people because that's easy to put all that into its little box and say, "Well, that's how it is and that's that" then at least feel complacent that you've figured it all out and move onto other things. For me, it's the opposite. We've gone from being these primal beings, just following our nature, to becoming civilized. From that we've created abundance and altruism the likes of which this planet has never seen before. We've learned to not only protect ourselves from the savage garden from which we came, but to cultivate and examine it. Now, we've come to realize that we'll never be fully indivisible from it and that doesn't sit well with everybody. It's making a lot of us kind of crazy to think that we're not perfect pictures of goodness. Within each of us is the capability to be a monster. Even in our quest to navigate the minefield of morality we can do monstrous things in the act of trying to assure our peers that we are within the upper echelons of said morality. It's a terrifying prospect if you can confront it. Most people don't want to and I don't blame them. It can be paralyzing and torturous to think about. So we have horror stories. We can chew these ideas into a pulpy metaphor that is more easily digestible. We can assure each other that even though venturing out from the light of the primal campfire may result in most of us getting eaten, it is possible to survive and come back with something that will help more of us survive in the future. It may even help us understand how that monster lurks within us all and that trying to slay [it] completely, rather than figure out how to tame it, would probably result in it growing bigger. It's here to stay one way or the other, I think, but through the stories we tell each other we can understand how to maintain mastery over it.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND AS AN ARTIST. YOU’VE WORKED FOR/WITH STUDIOADI. HOW MUCH DID THAT INFLUENCE YOUR CURRENT WORK?
Again, it all goes back to when I was a kid. I loved drawing stuff from the movies I'd watch and then when I discovered comic books I wanted to be a comic book artist. I worked at a comic book store where a lot of pros would get their weekly floppies and there would be signings. I met people like Paul Smith, Mike Barron, and Frank Miller. Paul lived not too far away and would invite me to his house to show me how he'd draw comic books. Outside of that, I was always making haunted houses in my garage every Halloween, and before fan films were a thing I tried making an Alien movie by making miniatures and props. That didn't work out because my friends lost interest and it was one of them who's dad owned the video camera. From there it's kind of a blur. I was always getting talked out of what I wanted to do by well-meaning or manipulative people. My parents didn't want me to draw comic books because they didn't understand how you made a living from that. My comic book friends scared me out of approaching Hollywood because that meant I'd stick around and draw their stories. As a result I was in a kind of semi-paralysis, where I did a little of everything but wasn't sure how to follow through on anything. It took me years and years to get out of that rut and I don't mind saying that I think Alec Gillis at studioADI was kind of my savior. If he reads this I hope he doesn't find that too awkward of a statement. I was already trying to find my way into independent filmmaking by doing some short films but they were never quite working out. By the way, if this sounds familiar to anyone reading, don't' feel bad. You just have to keep doing it. You'll figure it out. Anyway, I was on a break from my job at a place called Lamps Plus where I worked in the catalog department. ADI was a couple of doors down and someone was outside their building, painting this giant head. It looked like a female manga character. I ran back to my co-workers. We were all into stuff like that and we all came running back to check it out from a respectful distance. By then Alec and his partner Tom Woodruff were also out there. They waved us in and gave us a tour of the place.
[David cutting in here for just a sec. Are you friggin’ kidding me? Anyone who knows horror and/or sci-fi knows studioADI. For those guys to wave over a small crowd of curious neighbors who should be busy selling lamps is one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard.]
There it all was. Everything that ever inspired me. The Alien fighting a Predator. The worm from Tremors, the bugs from Starship Troopers, and I'm standing in the middle of it all, realizing that I had seen this place and these guys before in all the behind-the-scenes documentaries I had ever watched. Later that year I moved to Texas but Alec had given me his email, so we kept in touch. Then he created his movie Harbinger Down, an homage to the films we all loved, like Alien, The Thing, and the 1980s Roger Corman knock offs that Alec himself had worked on with people like James Cameron. I got to help out with getting it off the ground and into the public eye. Later, when I moved back to California for a year, he and Tom hired me as their director of social media. That's the short version. Everything within those experiences told me that this is what I needed to be doing and that I had to let go of the fear that had kept my brain so addled for so many years. If you have a vision and you can see a path to accomplishing it, then it's up to you to make it happen. I should note though that Alec and Tom are also very shrewd business people. Everything they ever do comes with a plan that includes understanding who the audience is and how they can bring their vision to them in a way that they'll want to pay the price of admission. I won't say that I didn't think of this stuff beforehand but to watch them in action really drove it home.
TALK TO US ABOUT YOUR PROCESS OF SCRIPTING: DID YOU ALWAYS KNOW THE QUANTUM TERROR WAS A STORY YOU WANTED TO TELL - DID YOU IMAGINE IT ORIGINALLY AS A MANUSCRIPT FOR A BOOK, OR WAS IT ALWAYS A FILM IN YOUR IMAGINATION BEFORE YOU BEGAN THE ARDUOUS JOURNEY OF PRODUCTION?
It was always meant to be a movie. I believe that if you're going to cram a story written for one medium into another, you're going to have to either fundamentally change it, or you're going to kill it in its crib. Film is an audio/visual medium. The interaction with your audience creates an experience. If I were to have approached it as a novel it would have made for either a very confusing read or a self-important narration on... well, I won't say on what because I made it into a film to avoid that. At the time I was so inspired by ADI's Harbinger Down that I pretty much wanted to make a film that would sit nicely on a Blu-ray shelf with it. I was just so excited by the prospect that consumer-grade technology was at a point where I could take everything I had learned over the years and create something at home. I compare it to being a little kid, finding your dad's boots and trying to walk around in them. They may be too big but you know you can grow into them. In this case these were the footwear of Tom & Alec, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Sam Rami, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and pretty much every other filmmaker I ever watched. It was really also a kind of continuation of teenage me trying to make that Alien fan film. I wasn't ready then but now I was coming back home and leaving for a new adventure. From there writing the script was a lot like dreaming. I'd write a draft, realize what I was actually subconsciously doing, and then riffing on that. That's what the whole process became from shooting, to editing, to VFX. I wasn't writing a story that I wanted to be about something, the story was coming alive and telling me what I was about. I think all stories need to be like that to some degree. Don't write the story you think needs to be told, write the story you need to tell. Be honest with yourself. That's why I'm not a big fan of the Hollywood system. Sure, you can benefit from getting notes back on your story from trusted people that you work with, as I did from James Hudnall and my producer Doug Mayfield, but I'm appalled by the idea of a room full of executives that don't have an artistic bone in their body, filing the teeth of a project into dull stubs.
[Amen to that.]
THE QUANTUM TERROR HAS BEEN AN EPIC JOURNEY FOR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY. TELL US WHAT IT MEANS TO HAVE THE SUPPORT OF IMMEDIATE FAMILY AND ANY EXTENDED FAMILY, FRIENDS, ETC.
Haha, well, even my kids are asking me if it's ever going to come out. It's a left-field question I get hit with at the dinner table sometimes. It's been a fantastic experience though. My wife has been the very best. She's actually the unsung silent partner in this all. I've had other people try and act like this is something I'm putting her through, the burden of being married to a delusional would-be filmmaker, but in reality this movie and the projects afterward have all been decisions we've made together. When you're making something like a movie you have to be on the same page as to who's doing what, as well as understanding that in order for it to work you're in it for the long haul. If she didn't believe in all of this it would have become apparent as we went along and [it all fell] apart. Really, when you do something like this everyone's true colors come out, especially when it starts to show that it really can be successful. My supporters on Indiegogo, the professionals that I asked for advice or favors from, and my family have all been very patient when the chips were down and have shown real pleasure in seeing my successes. In turn others who were used to benefitting from my talents in service of what they wanted became increasingly negative and angry. That was a hard lesson to learn. Some people can seem like your best friend as long as you're doing things their way. They're even fine if you're doing things your own way but failing because then they can hold it over your head as a reason you should be listening to them. They can treat your thoughts with head patting apathy, but if you succeed by ignoring their advice they lose their damn minds. I'll give you the number one red flag for that right now: If they start screaming doom and gloom as you head towards prosperity, chances are you're on the right track and they're panicking that they can no longer manipulate you.
LET’S GET TO THE STORY OF THE QUANTUM TERROR ITSELF. WHAT IS THIS FILM ABOUT? HOW PREVALENT IS LOVECRAFT’S INFLUENCE?
H.P. Lovecraft along with David Lynch and a little bit of Lewis Carroll is the foundation of The Quantum Terror's narrative, but at this point I'm almost hesitant to call it Lovecraftian outside of marketing. It's an easy word to use because people know it and can instantly understand something of what they can expect and in those terms it's accurate, but they're also going to get something they've never seen before. The biggest influence Lovecraft has here is in the idea of forces beyond our understanding and creatures that we could only hope to struggle to comprehend. However, I'm using many of the archetypal images from Carl Jung's theories of psychology to express those ideas too. After all, isn't our own psyche a largely incomprehensible mystery? Here we are struggling to understand ourselves as individuals, while this great Cthulhu-like behemoth known as the collective consciousness looms over us. On the surface the story seems like it'll be pretty straight forward. The main character, Sam, has been a bit of a wild-child, while her twin sister was off at grad school, studying quantum physics. Suddenly, she has one of these moments where she decides it's time [to] reinvent herself and be a grownup, but in a way that's a very naive way of approaching things. She leaves a woman she was romantically involved with heartbroken, confused, and without answers. All of this is compounded by the fact that her sister has disappeared. Maybe she's been murdered, maybe she's gone crazy and run off, but strange circumstances surround everything. Her ex-boyfriend claims his interest in the occult crossed over into her quantum mechanics equations and that she claimed to be talking to beings from another dimension down in the underground tunnels by his house. So down into the tunnels they all go; the sister, the weirdo, the ex-girlfriend, and the ex's tagalong new boyfriend who is probably just there in an attempt to make the other [jealous]. Of course, you know they're going to find more down there than they bargained for. That's the plot, but I won't tell you what it's really about because I really wanted to make one of those films that let the audience know that how they personally perceived the characters is just as important as how the characters perceived each other. If I've done my job right the audience may even get the scenes that they are active participants in the story itself.
WHAT WAS HARDER: GETTING STARTED OR BEING ABLE TO KEEP GOING?
Getting started is always way too easy for me. I jump into projects like a fool who doesn't know how to swim, running to the ocean. Keeping it going is hard only in the sense that making a movie is a tremendous amount of work. I have never stopped pushing to finish this film, but when you're working with such a low budget and relying on people who largely are working for free or way below their rates, you have to do it according to their availability and ability to access resources. Their families and rent come first. There have been people who have offered to help and then had to bail because their needs dictated it. I'm grateful for every single one of them. Without them none of this would have happened at all. The fact that they believed in me enough to want to help at all is a gift. It helped me learn what I need to do in the future to do this all again and keep it going in ways that will make it happen faster. It's been a struggle, but through struggle we learn to get better and appreciate what we have.
WHEN INSPIRATION WAS WANING, WHEN YOU FELT CREATIVELY SAPPED, WHAT DID YOU DO? HOW DID YOU STAY FRESH?
I know a lot of people won't believe this but inspiration isn't a thing for me beyond the excitement I feel for what I do. I suppose I could say that inspiration comes from other people's work. If I see someone else's project and they're doing something cool it makes me want to keep creating, but I'm never at a loss when it comes to creativity. That comes from forward momentum. I don't get hung up on a concept or too precious about how things should be done. I do a lot of self-reflecting and metaphors for what I'm thinking about seem to jump up in front of me. Those metaphors become ideas, joyous scenarios that dance and play their flutes and lead me off into unknown territories with them. I think the trap is in believing that you have something important to tell the world that it doesn't already know. Everyone gets hung up thinking their art is going to make some sort of sweeping societal change for the better. To me that's like trying to drive with the parking brake on and wondering why you're not getting anywhere. Don't try to have answers. Just be thoughtful and understand that you could be wrong about everything. I think that works because your audience is thoughtful too, and you capture their interest by showing them that they're not alone that way. Within that you might help them discover something new about themselves. That's what will keep them coming back.
HOW MUCH DO YOU HAVE TO COMPROMISE AS AN INDEPENDENT FILMMAKER BECAUSE OF FINANCIAL RESTRICTIONS?
I once heard it said that no matter how much money you have you'll always have financial restrictions, because as your budget gets bigger so does your movie. In a way, having very little money freed me to experiment with ideas that would have been struck down as too cheap for a bigger budget film but work just as well, if not better. The real restrictions were on casting and time. If I would have had more money I would have been able to put out a nationwide casting call and shoot the whole movie within a few weeks. As it was the casting process took forever because it was all fairly local. When I finally did find the right cast and crew they were only able to drive into Austin from Houston and Dallas on weekends because I could only pay them the minimum rates. As a result we shot the film over months. However, the upside is that everyone showed up hungry to prove themselves. Kristin, Paula, Matte, Jordan, Val, and Dimitrius all worked their butts off while they were there. They believed in the material and we became a little family, giving it our all, wanting to show the world what we're made of. I really couldn't be prouder of them. The same goes for Janna Green who did makeup, Heather Lowe who created our miniatures, and our director of photography Anthony Gutierrez. Talk about budget limitations. He knew that I only had an old Canon 7D to shoot on and from there it became about just getting the best shots no matter what the quality of the camera. Now I'm working with Derek Hunt on the audio and he's also pulling out all the creative stops. This film has all the more heart and creativity for having these limitations. When the soul of a movie is how much money you throw at it that's not really any kind of soul at all.
WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO DELEGATION?
If I know someone who's better at doing something than I am I give the task to them, sometimes even if I've done it already. If they are unable to do it then I take back the task and get it done. This happened sometimes because the people who offered to help would have things come up that they couldn't ignore, and because I wasn't paying them I couldn't blame them. For the most part I had everything laid out [and] broken down into parts so I could just point to something like a segment of script or storyboard and say, can you go do that and bring it back for me to shoot. Jenna Green and Heather were the best for that. I'd tell them what I needed and they would come back with fantastic miniatures and puppets. Paul Kattie of Make-Up Effects Group in Australia did some fantastic photoshop work that just blew me away when he was available, too.
DESCRIBE YOUR OWN PROCESS OF KEEPING PRODUCTION ON SCHEDULE WHEN YOU WERE ABLE TO KEEP A SHOOTING SCHEDULE DURING PRODUCTION.
Going back to the budget, it was more of an "It happens when it happens" approach. Of course we wanted to keep shooting going. I broke down the script into segments, figured out how many days I needed each actor together or separately, and then planned around their availability. There was so much second unit I could do on my own because I was working with puppets and miniatures, so filming just kept happening. If I needed a shot that didn't involve an actor I could just grab my camera and get the shot because the set was in my garage, in my house, or somewhere just outside of it. The real challenges came after, in post-production. I'd have to stop for computer problems or if I needed to take a job to keep the bills paid. Life would get tough, especially with all the moving around we did, trying to keep rent down. The audio turned out to be a much larger challenge for Derek and I, too. So a two-year project has turned into a five-year one. That's been emotionally challenging, especially when you have people who like to start proclaiming this to be some form of proof of failure. I think that the schedule is never going to go the way you think. You just have to try to keep it in the best shape possible and keep moving forward, no matter how long you think it's going to take. Finish the damn thing no matter what, even if it's terrible. I think of all the damned unfinished "masterpieces" I hear others talk about that will never get done. Those are the real failures. No one can do anything with part one of anything, no matter how good it may start and neither can anyone else.
WHAT DID YOU FIND TO BE THE MOST IMPORTANT QUALITY IN BOTH YOURSELF AS AN INDIE FILMMAKER, AND YOUR CAST AND CREW? WAS THIS A MATTER OF CALLING IN FAVORS FROM FRIENDS? WHO STEPPED UP?
I don't know if it's a quality but I wouldn't have been able to do any of this without my passion and excitement for the act of creation. When I worked at studioADI they told me that they hired me because I was a fan of the movies they'd worked on. That was partially true, but if it were just about the movies I don't think I would have had the energy for any of it. It was because I was in the presence of people who shared my love of everything that came with that act of creation. Just to put things together, solve problems, learn new tricks, do anything that created a cool moment that put you into a world that didn't really exist but still manages to mean something to people watching, experiencing what you've created. That's what I feel I share in common with every single person who stepped up to help, whether it be with their acting, builds, or logo creation. It's like we all chipped in a piece of our soul to create a new soul that has a life of its own.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR CAST: WERE THEY ABLE TO BRING YOUR VISION TO LIFE AS YOU IMAGINED IT - DID THEY SURPRISE YOU - WHAT DO YOU HOPE FOR BOTH THE CAST AND THE CREW?
That's the great thing about casting. When you find the right actors they bring you solutions to problems you didn't even know you had. When I cast Kristin as a woman in a relationship with another woman I didn't know that she was in fact gay. She told me that I had written the most realistic lesbian character she had ever read in a script. When I cast Paula Solinger, who is Argentinian, she told me that it was great to be playing a character who wasn't an over the top Latina. It never even occurred to me. I cast them because they gave me the best auditions. That's the way you've got to do it. I didn't even write the character as a lesbian because I wanted to make a lesbian film. Your sexuality or your skin color should never be a film's gimmick, yet we see it so often. I hope people don't see my story choices as trying to be "current year". There's a reason why I made those choices that have nothing to do with... well, I won't say anymore because I want the audience to decide what it means to them. What I will say is that Kristin and Paula saw a chance to shine as those characters and they went for it in the best possible way. Matte Blackwell, who has since gone on to be in AMC's The Son, Alita: Battle Angel, and Fear The Walking Dead was just about the most amazing antagonist I could ever hope for. He saw my vision and cranked it up to its fullest. Jordan Brinkman had one of the toughest roles. In real life he's this really fit man's man and here I was making him play this kind of wimpy guy tagging along with a woman who's using him to make her ex [jealous]. The way his story plays out is really heavy stuff and because he was such a passive character he didn't have a lot of lines. He almost had to be a pantomime, like a silent film character. Val Mayerik came in as a last-minute replacement for another actor who had to cancel. He got the script on Friday and showed up on Sunday ready to go. Now he is the character. I can't see it being any other way. Dimitrios Pulido, who has also been in a lot of stuff, like Sin City, I only had for one day. He was amazing. He knew all of his lines as well as everyone else's and nailed it. What I truly hope is that when this movie comes out they will be seen as the stars. For all the work I did on this movie they are the ones that the audience will experience the story through. I seriously look forward to seeing someone come up to one of them with a DVD or a poster and ask them to sign it because their character meant something to them.
WHEN DOES THE QUANTUM TERROR PREMIER AND WHERE CAN WE FIND IT?
We're in talks with a couple of distribution companies right now but as of yet no release date. We're also still cleaning up audio and the VFX. I'd say the best thing, for now, is to follow The Quantum Terror on Facebook, Instagram, and find me on youTube under Christopher Moonlight Productions. That's where I'm releasing all of the trailers. There are two teasers up right now with a full trailer coming very soon. There's also a lot of behind the scenes stuff for people to check out if they follow me on those platforms. I'm very excited about this film. It's been a spiritual journey. I've learned a lot about myself, including that I still have so much to learn. I'm grateful to everyone involved in a way that I can't express. Thank you for these wonderful questions.