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DG Feb 06 - Thrills, Chills and EVP: Sci-fi & Horror Director Jeff Carney
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Jeff Carney's newest project is SEIGE OF EVIL, but he's also known in the shot-on-video world as the man behind SHADOW PEOPLE and SINISTER TALES. However, there's a lot more to this man than one might expect and he sat down recently with DARK GALLERY to talk about his work in Hollywood, encounter with Steven Spielberg, and making the most of no budget!

DG: How did you get interested in moviemaking? What were some of your early influences?

Jeff: I was 12 years old when I picked up my first camera and shot something after seeing a Saturday morning kids tv show about how you could do single frame animation and have a glass of milk drink itself and have a piece of pie eat itself. That first camera was a regular 8 film camera. Then about a year later I did a big upgrade, at least at that time it felt like it - it was to Super 8! That camera had the film in the cartridges. You had to send it to Walgreens or Osco Drug for developing. But I remember being interested in movies long before that. I'm told when I was in my crib I would sit down and stare at the tv whenever the original Dark Shadows would come on. Only show I would do that for. So I guess horror was a early interest. The film that actually got me interested in movies was Star Wars. That showed me how fun films could be. The original Exorcist showed me how scary films could be. And then the two films that really sparked my filmmaking interest was John Carpenter's Halloween and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (NOTLD). NOTLD is one of my absolute favorite films of all time. But if you forced me to select my single biggest influence it would have to be John Carpenter. I really like the way his films look and sound - his style. One of the few filmmakers who I can watch just a shot or two of a film and tell you if he made it. Probably one of the most underrated directors today for what he has accomplished. He's a great horror director but more importantly he is just a great director.

DG: Many folks started with super-8 movies or VHS epics as a kid. Did you make any backyard classics?

Jeff: Oh yeah, started regular 8, moved on to super 8, then to a huge camera that would shoot black and white video with sound but the video tape was on a reel to reel on this huge recorder that you had to sling over your shoulder that then connected to the camera. This was before camcorders which I eventually got into. My friends and I would kidnap as many neighborhood kids as we could for a few hours every day and have them be actors or crew members. So we were always shooting something. We did animations with original star wars toys - usually the AT-AT snow walker and would animate it in the snow walking with animated vehicles moving around it. But instead of scratching explosions onto the film we just used gasoline in small amounts in the self built snow caves that the toys would drive around in. Fireworks was another special effect we used. I'm surprised we didn't burn down the neighborhood. We would do horror films where neighborhood kids would be killed off one by one. Chase films where one kid would be chasing another. Of course, we did a cooking show where the host would cut off his fingers and another one called "The Kitchen Floor Massacre." That starred my friend Chris Young who was in most of my productions. He went on to star in the Max Headroom tv series and movies like The Great Outdoors, Book of Love, Warlock 2, etc. The scariest part of all is I have all the footage we ever shot saved onto dvd now. So it will be around for a very long time. Pretty much looked at our neighborhood as our studio back lot where anything was possible.

DG: You attended the University of Southern California film school, right?

Jeff: Yes - I received my B.A. in Mass Communications (TV production) from St. Ambrose University and then took summer film courses as well as the Studio summer internship program at USC. I did it that way since Ambrose didn't have film courses so the experience at USC was great for just film classes. You basically spent every waking and sleeping moment immersed in filmmaking. The film program is outstanding and then of course there is the campus itself. Carpenter shot part of the opening of Assault on Precinct 13 there (which I noticed when I was shooting a film in the same narrow pit where the shoot out takes place during the opening of Precinct 13), Prince of Darkness had campus shots there, and the USC library was Brain's home in Escape From New York. It was a great experience and so much fun. Made some great friends who I still keep in contact with to this day. I spent internship time at Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures. First day at Paramount I was able to walk through some new sets that were going up. After a few minutes I realized I was on the bridge of the new Enterprise from Star Trek Next Generation that had just been put up. I was able to meet and ask questions to various production people (Randal Kleiser who made Grease, Paul Verhoeven who made Robocop, Editor Michael Kahn, Robert Zemeckis, and so on. Even with the woman that was the assistant to Hitchcock. It really gave you great access to the studios.

DG: It's there that you had an encounter with Steven Spielberg...

Jeff: Yes, at lunch one day I literally turned around and met Steven Spielberg as he was heading off to a meeting. He was kind enough to stop and chat with me and then invited my class to his facility (Amblin) on the back lot of Universal. Apparently USC had wanted him to talk to their classes for years but could never reach him. And here a chance meeting on the back which led to the invite which he could have passed on later but didn’t. He kept his word. He couldn’t have been nicer. We went to Amblin and was given a tour by Frank Marshall - his producing partner at the time. We were ushered into a screening room where I sat down in the front row and saw outtakes from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom (Like Barbara Striesand Whipping Harrison Ford on the Thugee Temple of Doom Set!). Too bad they never put that on the dvd. And we were told that Spielberg was pretty busy and probably won’t get in to see us since he was editing Empire of the Sun. After the outtakes screening ended, Spielberg came in and sat down in this huge chair. I can only describe it like a king’s chair with a high back. Right in front of the first row of screening seats. And he stayed for over an hour and a half just talking and answering questions about filmmaking. Anything we asked he answered. No news cameras. No reporters. Here is someone who didn’t have to take the time with film students but actually wanted to because he was just a nice man. That's the key. It didn't matter that he was a filmmaker whose movies made billions. He wanted to spend time with and talk to student filmmakers. He wasn't getting any publicity for it as there were no news cameras and no reporters there. Great filmmaker and a very nice man.

DG: That's a great story. You've mentioned that you've worked on independent films (with budget and without) as well as Hollywood films. What are some of the Hollywood productions you've worked on and in what kind of capacities?

Jeff: As for Hollywood productions - I worked on Field Of Dreams which was made by Universal. I was hired on after being recommended to the producer as a production assistant and then moved up into a driver/assistant to the actors position. I had always heard that the PA job is the job you want on a film set. It really isn't. Driver/assistant is the better job as it has much better pay, complete access to everything and everybody including time alone with key cast and crew members. You are able to learn so much more in that position than a PA. A PA is usually pretty busy doing odds and ends which are a necessity but they don't usually get a lot of good production time. In my position I was on set or with the key people constantly and allowed more insight into the behind the scenes part of the production. It was my job to get the crew back and forth to the set. Get the actors to the set on time. Take care of the actors during the time on set and sometimes during their time off as well. All really a useful experience if you want to produce or direct because these are the people who you will have to spend a lot of time with during production. It taught me a very important lesson - they are just people. Like you and me. If the assistant director needed additional help with crowd or traffic control then I was called in as another A.D. to help out. If they need some additional help in the production office I was sent there. I got incredible insight into a major Hollywood production from all aspects. An all access pass if you will. It was a fascinating 12 weeks working with Kevin Costner, Burt Lancaster, Tim Busfield, Ray Liotta, and James Earl Jones. I mean, come on, how many jobs can you go to where you hear Darth Vader calling your name or him buying you a lotto ticket. Wonderful production and an incredible experience.

I went on to work in the sound department on An American Love which is a two-part, 3-hour tv mini-series starring Brooke Shields. Bix: An Intrepretation of a Legend was a film set in the 1920's about the life of jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke. The film was in competition at Cannes. I worked in the sound department which also was a great experience as I was able to learn about motion picture sound from two of the best sound men in the business Chat Gunter and Rafaelle DeLuca. Not to mention seeing one of Europe's premiere directors Pupi Avati and Producer Antonio Avati work. I ended up enjoying the experience so much I worked with the same sound department and the Avati's on three more films including Brothers and Sisters (starring Franco Nero from Diehard 2), The Room Next Door (an Italian Horror Film), and The Childhood Friend (starring Jason Robards III). All of these were shot in 35mm.

DG: One of your early movies was Sinister Tales in 1988. What was that about? Can you tell us a bit about the production?

Jeff: Probably my quickest shoot ever. I shot it in Betacam in about 4 days. Which is ridiculously fast and I would never do that again. I'm not a fan of short schedules like that. My productions today are usually 4 week shoots. The movie consisted of four stories with a wraparound story. The wraparound was a group of friends getting together to tell the four stories. One story was about a strange visitor who came into a tv news producer's house during a bad storm (the opening was shot at a tv station), another one was set in the 1940's as a woman from a bank was trying to foreclose on a old woman's farm at any cost, third one was about a grandfather who dies but still tries to communicate with this grandson, fourth story was a serial killer who breaks out of insane asylum and finds his way to a house where a young woman is babysitting, and the fifth story is what happens to this group of friends, that told all the stories, at the end of the movie as they play a deadly prank on the school nerd. They all had a horror type theme. It was the first movie I ever sold to a distributor.

DG: Your movie The Shadow People was an X-Files-ish movie. Was the show your inspiration or were you interested in the theme already? Tell us about that production.

Jeff: I was already interested in the theme but I've had people tell me it's X-Files-ish and Blair Witch-ish. It was a very different and fun idea that I liked. Funny part was that when we were in the middle of shooting it, a movie came out called The Blair Witch Project which was shot like a documentary and our movie is shot like a documentary. Hopefully that is where the comparisons end as I'm not a big Blair Witch fan. The movie was about a group of investigators who go to a community that claim Aliens invaded one night and abducted over 1600 people. Then they gather the evidence and interview all the witnesses. It was greatfun to do but a lot of work. It seemed like we had a new location about every three hours on the shoot with about 90 actors. We shot for four weeks and were everywhere from Chicago to X-Ray labs, to hospitals, to offices to a stadium filled with 10,000 people, to a convention center to ambulances to you name it. We just received unbelievable cooperation from everyone. Try staging scenes in a football stadium with 10,000 extras in California. It would cost you a fortune and you wouldn't be able to do it. And here in Illinois it was free because everyone was just really helpful and kind. I enjoyed it very much.

DG: I imagine shooting with 10,000 extras was pretty cool and not something usually found in low-budget pictures!

Jeff: Funniest part was when we were shooting the stadium scenes my assistant, Carrie McDowell, told me she had noticed a local network affiliate tv crew watching us. About five minutes later the reporter came over and asked if we were filming "that movie." I said yes as apparently they had been tipped off. The reporter then asked me what time the ufos were going to fly over the stadium as they were going to go live with it on the ten o'clock news. Mind you this was about a quarter to ten. I had to break the news to the reporter that no ufos were going to fly over tonight as we were shooting background plates which meant the effects would be put in my computer months later. So the reporter didn't have a story for his ten o'clock live broadcast. I never saw a reporter grab a cell phone so fast to make a call to their station. They actually thought we were going to fly ufos over the stadium. I mean come on, even on Hollywood budgets Spielberg doesn't even do that!

DG: Your latest effort is Siege of Evil a horror movie about electronic voice phenomenon. How did you become interested in that topic?

Jeff: Siege of Evil came about after I had some friends who did EVP. They managed to get some voices on tape. One of the voices that they captured in a cemetery said "I'm so cold." And the other voice right after that said "No - just dead."

DG: Creepy!!

Jeff: I looked into it and did some research and found that EVP work has been going on for decades. It's not something new. It's been around for a while. Anyone can do it. All you need is a tape recorder or even a camcorder. You walk around and tape silence. You can ask questions and pause for answers you don't hear. When you play the tape back later and amplify it, in the silent parts of your tape is where you may pick up some unexplained voices. You can do this anywhere - in a cemetery, in your house. It doesn't matter. Trying to communicate with the dead is a interesting concept that can lead to a lot of scary conclusions. So with Siege of Evil, a girl goes to a old abandoned satanic church and tries to do EVP work. When she gets home she has captured voices of the dead on the tape and they are threatening her. So I use the EVP as what lures the evil spirits from this church back to this girl's house where they terrorize her family. I just signed with a distributor and the movie should be out on dvd by Halloween. In fact I just finished editing the trailer for it.

DG: How long did the production take? Was it shot over a long period of time?

Jeff: It was shot over four weeks working 6 days a week. And then several months of gathering audio for sound work and editing. Then a month for doing the music.

DG: Did you do the effects yourself? What kind of software was involved?

Jeff: Yes I do. I use Lightwave made by Newtek for animation. I saw that in use in Hollywood and fell in love with it. It's a great animation program. I also use After Effects, Photoshop, Maya, Aura which is like Photoshop but for video - I also do my titles with Aura. I even did the old fashion black mattes by creating them in Aura and then compositing the special effect animations in the blacked out areas. As wellas doing some rotoscoping. I try to use a little bit of everything. There's always something different you usually have to do and it's good to have the right tools to choose from.

DG: Were there any interesting or creepy stories from the set?

Jeff: When we were shooting in the building that is suppose to be the church in the film - it actually was a old empty school, the lead actress Desiree Muse kept seeing strange lights behind an actor's head (Jim Seward). We even have her complaining about it on camera and trying to touch the lights that she was seeing. That will probably will end up in the outtakes. Never did figure what they were as she was the only person that could see them. Oh, and we found a child's coffin (real one) in the basement of the school. I shot a scene with that coffin after we found it there. That was creepy.

DG: What have you got coming up next? What might fans be on the lookout for?

Jeff: I've been working with an established author on my next project. He's writing it and if I approve the script then I'll be shooting it in August of this year. He has some really creepy ideas and is great to work with. It's a movie about demonic possession that I'm very excited about.

DG: Sounds like you've got a lot going on - thanks for taking the time to chat with us.

Jeff: I feel very fortunate to be able to make films. It's something I have always done and always will do. It's great to find a job that you really love and enjoy then it doesn't seem like work!

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