Dorothy Booraem is a video production multi-hyphenate from Lincoln, Nebraska. In addition to creating several film and video shorts, she is also the writer and director of the Asian-influenced horror feature Wake the Witch (available on Netflix). As the COO of Unfiltered Entertainment, a privately owned production company, she has helped in fostering a creative community of artists who specialize in genre content. Her newest project, Blood Rites, is a well-shot, micro-budget horror feature that she co-wrote, produced and directed with the help of her dedicated team. In spite of our underwhelming review, Booraem generously gave her time (and refreshing sense of humor) to speak with Planet Fury about working with a low budget, her creative process and embracing negative criticism.
How did you get started making movies?
How did I get started making movies? Like this… I was working at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder on the costume/prop crew. It sounds lame now but, at the time, theater was as close as I could get to film/movie making. As hard as it is to believe now, when smartphones have put a tiny studio in everyone's hands, there was a time when it was difficult to get access to video cameras, much less film cameras. In my case, my parents already thought theater was a poor choice for a career, so film school was out of the question and… blah, blah, blah. So there I was in Boulder, walking to work, when I saw this guy with a video camera, shooting the set build for Merry Wives of Windsor. I made a beeline for him, drawn by the camera, and introduced myself. His name was Sam Hill. Turned out he and a partner were making a documentary of the festival and calling it In the Belly of the Bard. I was fascinated. I peppered him with questions about the camera and the shoot. He was nice enough to give me answers.
Over the summer, I weaseled my way into hanging out with him and his partner throughout the shoot and the editing process. At the end of the festival, Sam got me a gig as an assistant art director on a film called Redneck that was shooting in Nebraska. A low-budget thriller, Redneck was written and directed by Shane Kuhn. Sam was the production manager and Matthew Libatique, fresh from his first year at AFI, was the cinematographer. We shot for two crazy weeks in Blue Hill, Nebraska, and I soaked information up like a human sponge. Sam went on to direct CSI Miami, Matthew to lens films from Pi to Iron Man, and Shane wrote and directed Drive Thru, a fast food horror flick with a Morgan Spurlock cameo. Shot on 16mm, Redneck was my first real filmmaking and moviemaking experience, and pretty much defines my start in the making of movies.
Your first two features are in the horror genre. Is horror something that has always appealed to you?
Well, my parents wouldn't let me watch horror movies when I was little. I had a pretty overactive imagination, so they worried about exposing me to all that violence and gore. I can appreciate their concern, but the funny thing was our daily life was steeped in the creepy, dark and disturbing. We lived in an old house on the edge of this small town in South Carolina. It was isolated for real, out among the pine forests. The house had belonged to the owners of a local funeral home. When we moved in, we found coffin shells in the outbuildings and bottles of embalming fluid under the kitchen sink.
At the time, my mom was into real-crime stories and murder mysteries. She liked to discuss what she was reading over the dinner table, describing the crime scenes and pondering the criminal motives. She was also a strong Christian who believed in demon possession and speaking in tongues. So my childhood was well-seeded with all the elements of horror movies. I never thought of it as horror, like the movies my folks wouldn't let me watch. But later, surprise, surprise, when I started telling stories I found that I was drawn to the dark and horrific. I guess it just feels like home to me!
What were some of the films that inspired you to pursue filmmaking?
Well, obviously White Chicks. That movie is amazing in its scope. Seriously though, it's the crappier films that actually inspired me to pursue moviemaking. Like most children of the late-20th century, I love movies. The big ones that swept me into their world and made me forget my own name [include] Star Wars, Bull Durham, Die Hard, Jaws, Point Break, Near Dark [and] Wings of Desire, just to name a few. In my mind, puny humans didn't make those; they sprung, fully complete, from the head of Zeus, or some shit like that. Even movies like Clerks and Blair Witch Project, which I knew were made by humans, left me with the impression that I did not have the money, equipment or people resources to tell stories at that level.
Everything changed the year I saw Ti West's The Roost and Fear of Clowns by Kevin Kangas. I thought both of those movies were so so so very bad. But both could be rented from Blockbuster, just like any studio movie, and that's when I realized, "My god, if these guys can make movies like this and get distribution then anybody can do it." Big props to Ti and Kevin. Without them, Wake the Witch and Blood Rites would never have been made. You can blame them for that too, if you like.
How did Unfiltered Entertainment come about?
My producer buddies Andrew Johnson and Chad Haufschild decided to set up a production company for the making of all kinds of narrative media. They were doing it for realz, with all the paperwork and tax IDs and everything, but they didn't have a name yet. So one night, we were all hanging out, drinking beer and trying to decide what to put on the business cards. Nothing was really sounding right. Everything was too intellectual.
There was a lull while everyone tried to change their approach to the naming game. Andrew started reading the beer label out loud, first the ingredients, then the description "unfiltered." "That's it!" Chad yelled. We all looked at each other and nodded, "Yep, that's the one." And so, Unfiltered Entertainment was born. That's one of the many reasons why beer will always hold a special place in my heart. Without it, I'd probably be making films under a production company named "Synergy Productions" or "Bubble Up Entertainment."
You both wrote and directed your first featureWake the Witch, which you've stated was influenced by J-Horror films like Pulse. How close was the finished film to what you had envisioned in the script?
Yep, J-horror was a big influence on Wake the Witch. The film I was most influenced by was Kairo (a.k.a. Pulse). I loved the bizarre plot details like the need for red tape and the dots on the computer screen. I was fascinated by the lack of camera movement, compared to American films. I liked how it wasn't Hollywood-polished in location or set design. It seemed very real. The story and the convoluted philosophy behind it felt fairytale-like. You had to pay attention when you watched it. Those were the influences I wanted to draw from.
How close was the finished Wake the Witch to my vision? I'd say there were places where I thought it happened, that fairytale mix of real and horrific — the scene where the girls find their way through the woods onto the railroad tracks. When Karen and Deb are lost in the woods. When Deb climbs the ladder down to the witch's cave. Other bits, like Trixie's breakdown or the apartment scenes with Brent, maybe not so much.
What was the budget for Wake the Witch? Were there any problems you encountered working on a low budget?
The budget for Wake the Witch was around $10,000. But it's not like we had the whole chunk of change to spend on shooting. It trickled in over the entire production from pre- to post. The thing about microbudget is that if you plan really well and have good resources, you'll be able to execute everything the movie needs. There won't be a moment where you have to send everyone home because you can't feed them or you can't afford a new camera battery. You'll have planned for everything and, most importantly, you'll know what you can't do.
Honestly, the biggest problems we've encountered in low-budget moviemaking is that without money, you can't "rent" commitment and expertise from your crew. That means dealing with people who show up with no experience, excited to be on a real movie set, only to discover it's actually hard work and not that exciting. They drop out after a few days, but you still need someone to run audio or push the dolly.
Or it can be worse. We had an experience on Blood Rites with an audio guy who took equipment home with him to "get familiar with it" and then didn't show up on set the next day. He wouldn't answer his cell and he wasn't at his apartment. We punted and, after a couple of hours lost to wrangling up alternate equipment, we got the shoot up and running again. He showed up a couple of days later pleading a sick friend and a night lost to the tequila devils, then claimed he had no idea what happened to the equipment. We never saw any of it again and felt like complete morons, because we never should have let that equipment out of our sight. The irony was that of all the people who responded to our crew ad, he had the most audio experience, so it made sense to bring him on board…at the time. [Sighs.]
I'd like to believe that with money to rent people's time and energy, they'd be less likely to bail, or bail and steal. Maybe I'm fooling myself, but I'm at a place now where it seems like people's time and experience are the real resources needed to make a compelling visual story. Fuck the Red or the 5D or whatever cutting-edge camera is being pushed as the key to good moviemaking. It's the people that are at the core of creating amazing visuals. Moviemaking is a lot like a team sport, and without the dollars, it's hard to get good talent to play on your team.
Some of the internet reviews for Wake the Witch are pretty harsh. Do you read online reviews of your films? If so, how do you deal with some of the more passionate observations?
Whew, yeah, people have hated on Wake the Witch. I think one of my favorite harsh reviews comes from Planet of Terror. Mr. Cortez gave it zeroes across the board and called it a "turd of a movie." Ouch! Sometimes the harshness is hard to understand when other movies that seem similar in quality and execution get rave reviews. The thing about the harsh ones that bugs me the most is that they leave me feeling like I did a terrible job but give me no indication of how to do it better. Not saying that it's a reviewer or commenter's job to help me be better; I'm just saying that's what's frustrating about the harsh ones. In the beginning, I would read comments and reviews, then go right to my dark place. It wasn't pretty. Now, thankfully, my UE partner Chad reads them. He'll tell me exactly what they say without sugarcoating anything, but it somehow seems kinder coming from him.
[Writer's note: Below is a screen shot of the, uh, descriptive Planet of Terror review for Wake the Witch. Once again, indie filmmakers: 0, snarky internet wordsmiths: -1.]
There were so many hate reviews that initially we wondered if we should try to ignore or hide them. Then I remembered that the reason I saw The Roost and Fear of Clowns in the first place was because someone told me they were "the worst movies they'd ever seen." I mean, I specifically went out and rented those movies because of that. That's when I decided we should embrace the harsh comments, quote them on our Facebook, put them out there for people to see. I figure it means people watched the movie, at least part of it; it made them feel a strong emotion — granted, not the one I was hoping for — and they're creating some word of mouth for it. And I gotta appreciate that. Gotta. Appreciate. That.
What was the inspiration for your newest film Blood Rites?
Two films: House by the Cemetery, which was the first horror film I ever saw, and Dario Argento's Deep Red. We went straight giallo on Blood Rites, possibly to the detriment of the movie because most of the people who watch it may not know or give a damn about the giallo style — it's kind of old school. We liked the dramatic kills and saturated color palette. And we certainly cribbed from the story style that intertwines mystery around supernatural/paranormal murders with a touch of religion. I was a fan of the zoom, 'cause it feels so '70s. Chad liked the contrast of rural and urban, which often seems to show up in giallo. Ultimately, the giallo subgenre lends itself to visual style on the cheap and it don't get better than that for micro-budget horror.
You co-wrote Blood Rites with Chad [Haufschild]. Did you enjoy collaborating with another writer? Was the process any easier, or harder, compared to writing your previous script?
Here's how the Blood Rites co-writing went: Chad came up with the story and the plot points. He wrote several of the opening scenes, the crime scene and the convenience store scene. Then he gave it to me. I was in Pennsylvania at the time, taking care of a relative, so every day I had a couple of good hours to write. I wrote the rest of the scenes, colored in the characters and wrote the dialogue. At the end of each day I would send Chad the new scenes I had written and he would make his own edits. Once the first draft was finished, we went over the whole script and made the final cuts.
It actually was an easier writing experience than Wake the Witch because I had such a strong sounding board in Chad and less responsibility to create the full story. You'd think after a sweet experience like that I'd want to write everything with Chad, but some of my story ideas are so out there that I like to work on my own, then spring the finished scripts on him and be like, "Oh this little script? It's just a story about vicious elf tribes that live on highway islands and eat hitchhikers. It's nothing, really."
You put the cast of Blood Rites through some pretty gruesome setpieces. Did any of the actors express some trepidation about the violence?
Wow. Why don't I have any stories about this? Let me think… Nope, I was incredibly fortunate that the actors on Blood Rites were all "sure, I'll roll around naked in dirt and sugar blood for hours" or "sure, that sweet grandmotherly lady can puke blood right into my mouth for 5 minutes, no problem." Looking back, I can't believe no one expressed any concerns about the gruesome stuff. Actually, the word "gruesome" makes me think about one of my earlier movies, a short called Chaos and Fortune. I had filled a kiddie pool with a mixture of cooked spaghetti, coffee grounds and vegetable oil and I wanted the actor playing "Fortune" to writhe around in it. He was horrified and I had to spend half an hour talking him into it.
After that, I decided that it's easier for most people to be cool with gross-outs if fake blood plays a part in it. But food? That's just disgusting. So, coming back from that tangent… That takes care of the "gruesome," but the "violence?" Nope, I've got nothing there either. No one had any concerns. Maybe fake blood makes it feel more like dress up when you're making it, so it doesn't seem so violent from inside the process.
Are there any upcoming festival dates for Blood Rites? And are there currently any distribution plans?
On the festival side, we've submitted Blood Rites to the Tucson Terror Fest, the Chicago Horror Festival, Polly Grind, the Atlanta Horror Festival and the Mile High Horror Festival. Fingers crossed that we get into one of them. On the distribution side, we're in talks with two companies — one for Video on Demand and the other for international distribution. Hopefully both of those will work out, maaaaybe sometime in the fall of 2012.
Your newest endeavor is an online comedy series called On the Inside. Can you explain the concept and how the show came about?
My friend Mike Crawford wrote a comedy web series called On the Inside. It's about a guy named Gill whose brain goes on vacation and leaves the appendix in charge. The interior life of Gill's body is all anthromorphosized so his appendix is a 20-something doofus, his penis is played by a hot chick, his brain is a not-so-super villian, etc. As the appendix tries to figure out how to run Gill's body on the inside, Gill finally meets a girl he really likes on the outside. Hijinks ensue.
I thought the concept was really funny, basically a bunch of poop and dick jokes surrounded by a story with a lot of possibilities. The scripts were tight too. So I told Mike I'd be about helping him make them if I got to direct. Turned out I got to produce, shoot and edit too. It was a great experience, really different from horror features… Less focus on the visual effects and visual storytelling and much more about the characters and their interactions with each other. It was also cool directing someone else's story. I could never have written On the Inside, it's not nearly dark enough to come out of my fevered imagination. But it's a damned funny concept and I'm really glad I got the chance to bring it to life.
Anything you'd like to share about your next feature project?
It's still up in the air. I've got a cannibalism story I've been working on. Chad's got a finished script that's Groundhog Day meets Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And we're talking about doing low-fi sci-fi horror. Like if Aliens had a ten thousand dollar budget, or maybe cannibals on Groundhog Day have a chainsaw throwdown on a space ship with aliens that are attempting to impregnate them. If the character arcs come together and we have enough gore, I think it could work. Really.