Editor’s note: CultureMap has partnered with the Lone Star Film Festival to publish a series of filmmaker interviews conducted by LSFF organizers.
Writer/director Tony Blahd pulled from his interest in cults and Heaven’s Gate to tell the story of a desperate cult leader who concocts a fake prophecy for his followers to make a movie in Rover (or Beyond Human: The Venusian Future and the Return of the Next Level). The film screens at the 2014 Lone Star Film Festival in Sundance Square at the AMC Palace 9 on Thursday, November 6.
Lone Star Film Festival organizers spoke with Blahd about the inspiration behind and the process of making his first feature film.
Lone Star Film Festival: What attracted you to the Heaven’s Gate story and the decision to relate that to the plot of Rover?
Tony Blahd: The film sort came about in reverse. I was living in this amazing church and wanted to make a film about it. I knew the church was being demolished in four to six months, so I set myself to it.
I wanted to first make a horror movie, because the dilapidated church was a great stage for that, so I delved really deep into cults, something I have always been fascinated by. I realized after writing about 30 pages that I don’t actually like horror movies, but I love cults.
In my research, I found dozens of creepy Heaven’s Gate YouTube videos (including the ones of “Randall” shown in the film). In one video in particular, some of the Heaven’s Gate cult members discuss a movie project they were undertaking called Beyond Human. They had made concept art, had a script and were pitching to studios. The film was never made, but I was fascinated by what it may have been.
LSFF: This is your first feature film, and a strong subtext of the film is about the process of filmmaking. Is that something you set out to do from the beginning, or did it creep its way into the film as you were going along?
TB: I had never written anything before, so during that writing process, the questions I had usually just ended up in the script as questions. It’s really nice to have the safety net of writing about low-budget film. All of my anxieties and thoughts about the project just ended up going straight into the dialogue.
Another benefit of the film-within-film subtext was the visual effects style. I had no money to pay an effects artist and personally I had very little experience with visual effects, but I still decided to learn for the film. I think that worked out perfectly because the unrefined style of the FX shots really matches the aesthetic of how the cult in the film probably would have wanted it.
LSFF: You make great use of a somewhat limited space in the dilapidated church. Can you speak to the setting for Rover and the creative ways you developed the atmosphere?
TB: A friend and I began leasing that abandoned church about 10 months before I began developing Rover. We made the money for the film hosting concerts, parties, film shoots, etc. And for about six months, I lived in the parsonage.
By the time Rover came about, I knew every nook and cranny of that place. I knew which places would be great for which scenes. It also helped that our key crew (DP, producer, production designers, costume designers) all lived in the church with me during prep and production. The designers scoured the church and sourced a lot of props from things left behind.
LSFF: As the screenwriter and director of Rover, did your vision of the script differ from the final product?
TB: It definitely differs in some regard. We cut a few scenes out of the beginning and a few out of the middle. But the same basic story is still there.
LSFF: The score lends so much to the atmosphere of the film. Can you tell us about the music in the film?
TB: Heaven’s Gate was not a technophobic cult like many others are. For that reason, I was really drawn to the sounds of early electronic music and manual synthesizers. I really wanted Kraftwerk — a pioneer synth band from the ’70s — but their catalog is a bit expensive.
So I looked for other artists that had that same manual synth, airy sound. The tracks I chose all sort of match that aesthetic in someway, and I gave the composer a lot of Kraftwerk and other early electronic stuff as reference. The score was composed pretty much entirely on synthesizers, which I think was a new process for the composer.
The 2014 Lone Star Film Festival takes place November 5-9 in Sundance Square in Fort Worth. For more information, visit the festival website.