In cinema it is oftentimes the simplest of concepts that yields the most rewarding results. While the splashy – and usually braindead – antics of filmmakers such as Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer may garner a lion’s share of the media’s admittedly short attention span, there are dozens of other more quiet and intelligent films that are also deserving of our collective interest.
Case in point: Exam (review here) (available on Video on Demand from IFC starting July 23rd, 2010). Directed by veteran screenwriter Stuart Hazeldine and budgeted at approximately six hundred thousand dollars, this “job interview from Hell” story offers the discerning and patient viewer a compelling platform from which it addresses a myriad of issues – ambition, drive, morality, ethics, and the lengths that some people will go to get ahead – as well as an eye-catching and inventive storytelling paradigm.
Dread Central recently spoke with the talented writer/producer/director of Exam and got a peek at his answer sheet.
Dread Central: I gotta tell you… I saw Exam and thought it was really great. Going in, I had certain expectations and you shattered them all in a really good way. The film’s playing On Demand, but are there plans for it to come out on DVD?
Stuart Hazeldine: Oh, yeah. There’s definitely going to be a DVD. Originally I thought that they were doing On Demand and DVD sort of “day and date.” It was only about two weeks ago I discovered that the DVD date hasn’t been set. I guess they want to maximize the On Demand interest in the movie first, which is going to dictate how wide they go with it. So, obviously… we’re fingers crossed. We’re very happy to be a part of the new Midnight label. I think that’s a good home for Exam.
DC: Since you also wrote the script, besides directing the film, I have a question about when you write… Do you specifically ‘write to market’ or are there stories you feel compelled to get out on paper and then shop them around later?
SH: Well, I’ve always sort of had a kind of diarrhea when it comes to ideas. [laughs] I always have loads of ideas, and it’s more a case of shutting my mind off than getting writer’s block. I’m equally passionate about all of them so it’s fairly easy to pick the ones that are more market savvy. I don’t tend to think about the market in terms of what scripts people are buying, but I do think about what ultimately would be commercial. So, you stack them as when there’s a combination of what idea are you most excited about at the time, do you want to do something that is more commercial or do you feel that you have yourself the leverage to do something more personal. I’ve flipped back and forth between those poles for the last fifteen years since I’ve been writing and I’ll probably always be that way. The one thing you don’t want to do is to do the same thing out of the gate every time. I normally try to do something different, not just in terms of genre, but in terms of how the market would look at it and is it something different from what I’ve been doing before. Sometimes there’s something that’s structurally different. Like Exam was something I wrote, directed, produced, and financed myself, and that was a very novel way to do things structurally that not many filmmakers do. I definitely wouldn’t finance something unless I thought it could do well financially. I wanted all those different hats I was wearing to feel satisfied with how Exam turned out. I was definitely looking to do something that was fairly commercial, but on a low budget.
DC: Did that wearing of so many hats feel – for want of a better word – schizophrenic? I mean, the writer in you must want certain things and the director in you wants certain things and the producer definitely wants to keep everything on budget…
SH: It’s a lot easier to segment those things than you might think. When you transition from writer to director, you don’t really have to deal with the writer in you protesting against what the director wants to do. You do sometimes find some internal conflict between what you as a director wants to achieve and the money that you know that you have, but still… I didn’t find that to be too much of a problem. What I did find to be a challenge was letting other people around me in my crew know which hat I was wearing at the time. The cast are always hearing from the director, so they don’t have an issue, but the crew – especially your Line Producer – are like, “Are you telling this to me as a Director or as a Writer?” I empathize with [co-producer] Gareth Unwin’s, struggles with that because it’s not something you ever normally encounter. It’s a rare thing and most crews go through their entire lives not having to deal with a director who’s financing the movie. So, yeah… there are a few little things there, but, at the same time, in a strange way… in an ideal world… wouldn’t the filmmaker always be financing it? I mean, a painter paints and he doesn’t need someone necessarily to finance that painting. I just felt like, just because it wasn’t done very often, there’s no reason why we can’t make this work.
DC: I’m curious about the decision to place the film in a single set. Number one… was that done because you needed to keep your budget in mind? And number two… doing so puts you in such a small space, was that sort of a pain to shoot and to keep the camera moving?
SH: It was. There was always a lot of concern about that, but if you can find archetypes in the past that have worked, then you can always take that as inspiration that YOU can make it work. When you look at a lot of these movies that seem like they’re set in one room or are sold as being set in an enclosed location, you find that quite often they are in two, three, or four locations. They just spend the majority of time in one room. So, whether it be Fermat’s Room or Twelve Angry Men, they don’t all literally take place in one room. When I was looking around for movies… the only one that comes to mind – and even that showed a couple of exterior shots – was Fail Safe, the Sydney Lumet film, which I remember watching as a twelve-year-old and being utterly gripped by two guys at a desk with a telephone. I don’t know… I just thought, assuming you have the time as a screenwriter, to have a crack [at it], you have a crack. Then, you read it at the end and if you feel like it works, then you hand it out to other people and if they tell you that it works. Then, you think, “Well, ok… it works on the page and it keeps the tension and the emotion that I want.” Most of the people I handed the script to came back with a similar response which was that they were skeptical when I told them roughly what it was about, but that it would work. Then, when they handed it back, they said, “I completely forgot it was set in one room.” It’s really tough when you’re doing that onscreen because you’re seeing that room constantly. But I still felt that I had a shot at translating that and most people who watch it aren’t too oppressed by the fact that it’s in one room. I think a few people have taken issue with it, but they are by far in the minority. I think the bigger problem was not so much the ‘one-roomness,’ but that it took so long to set up and light the set when we were doing wide shots. When I look at the movie, I don’t get frustrated by the fact that it’s in one room. I don’t regret that. I’m very happy that we did it in one room and we never went outside it except maybe sticking the camera just outside the door once and looking back into the room. What I wished I was able to do was to have the time in my shooting schedule for more wide shots because I think it’s a little close-up heavy at times. Thankfully, not many people have noticed it, but when they have I’m like, “I know… you got me.” [laughs]
DC: But I think that’s ok because the number of close-up shots add to the claustrophobia of the piece.
SH: It does and for some people it added a little too much. For other people, they kind of liked that and go with it. It really depends on how you respond to claustrophobia. But I would stand there and say, “All right, I want a wide shot here” and the Director of Photography would say, “Well, that’s going to take an hour to light OR you can have three close-ups.” [laughs] So, that was very tough.
DC: Now, on the set, did the walls come down so you could shoot reversals?
SH: We had a removable roof and you could remove the walls. Pretty much every larger section of the walls between the columns was a movable wall. We actually very rarely used it, partly because of the time and partly because… I don’t know… For some reason, the angles that we wanted, we didn’t need to do that too much. Sometimes we took the cameras outside the set and shot through the slots for particular close-ups that we wanted. We did remove the wall a couple of times and we had different ways into the set as well, there’s a section of the wall at the front of the set opposite where the door by the corridor comes in on the other side of the room that was often opened. When that was closed, we had one section that opened on one of the back walls. You could either get through the back or through the front.
DC: You also broke things up by using some different lighting elements.
SH: I thought that we could make it like four rooms. We had those four different lighting schemes. The first one, the very directional lighting scheme when they first come into the room, I think looks the best, but it took the longest to light. We spent a disproportionately large amount of our shooting schedule on that first twenty-five minutes of the movie. It took so long. You couldn’t light those shots for more than one camera, so we had a second camera available all the time, but, we would very rarely use it because what would look right in one shot wouldn’t look right in the other. It drove me nuts. Then, once we got through to the final lighting scheme which is there for the last half of the movie, that was kind of a general ambient light and we could throw the second camera in on every shot, pretty much. We made up a lot of time that way and things started getting a lot better, but I did love the way it looked at the beginning of the movie. It looked pretty classy and stylish.
DC: Did you shoot on film or HDDV?
SH: We shot film. We shot thirty-five mil. I tried to do everything I could to compensate for the fact that we were in one room. People naturally assumed that we would shoot HD. I wanted the classiest look I could get and I wanted the most cinematic look, so… a) we went for thirty-five mil and b) we decided to shoot 2.35 widescreen which is normally the epic scale, landscape format and still be great when you’re shooting close-ups. We also made the decision not to use those sort of mid-range lenses that you often find used in TV movies because they’re safe lenses to shoot on a quick schedule. So, the forties and the fifties we tried to avoid as much as we could and we did as many twenty-seven, thirty-twos and as many hundred and twenty-five and two hundreds as we could. It’s a subconscious thing that an audience wouldn’t necessarily recognize. If I could have afforded the time and the money to shoot anamorphic, I would have done that, too, but that was a bit of a bridge too far for a low budget movie.
DC: Since you brought up Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena’s Fermat’s Room and Vincenzo Natali’s Cube earlier, I’ve been reading online that there are comparisons being made between Exam and other films such as Jonathan Liebesman’s Killing Room, Frederic Grousset’s Aquarium, and a title that keeps coming up is Marcelo Pinetro’s The Method. Do you think that those comparisons are fair ones?
SH: Well, here’s the thing… I haven’t seen The Killing Room and I haven’t seen The Method. I only saw Fermat’s Room two months ago. The only one of those movies I’d seen before making Exam was Cube. So, yes… I was aware of the formats of those movies, but… When people are looking at making these links, they always think that you’re referencing some other movie because they can see a connection so you must have watched them. For me, I actively didn’t want to watch them because I didn’t want to be influenced by them. I knew about The Killing Room. The funny thing about that was, when I mentioned Exam to my agent, he said, “Oh, there’s this script that’s kind of similar where they start off with this doctor shooting somebody in the head and locking them into the room.” I was like, “Ok, let me know if they’re going to make that” and just as I was about to green-light Exam, I checked in with him and he said, “No, they’re not making that movie. The financing fell apart.” So, I made Exam and just as we came out and were trying to get into Toronto, I found out this movie existed. I said to my agent, “What’s the deal?” [laughs] He said, “Oh, yeah… the money suddenly came back together.” In regards to the others, I actually didn’t even know The Method existed until after Exam was finished. Some people have said it’s similar, but… You can’t really control the comparisons. All you can really control is whether people liked your movie. But… everything gets compared. Just look at Inception this weekend. I mean, everyone has been saying, “Oh, they got this from The Matrix and the got that from whatever.” I guess that’s more of a grab-bag thing whereas we’re just being compared to other one room movies.
DC: Right, in fact I was going to say that the only thing all of these films have in common is that they’re “pressure cooker” films set in a single room.
SH: At the beginning of preproduction for the film, I was not aware of the pressurized job interview scenario. I thought, ‘everyone remembers school exams, everyone must go through some kind of job interview,’ so that was something all people could identify with. But I think, generally, if there’s any real inspiration to the movie, it’s more Lord of the Flies. It’s not so much about being in one room, it’s more about dealing with the different choices that you have as a human being under intense pressure, to make one moral choice or another moral choice and can we retain our humanity under pressure or do we revert to the animalistic state? Now, while that’s not over original, it’s always an interesting thing to look at. I’m always interested by what happens to morality under pressure.
DC: One thing I thought of while watching Exam – and bear with me on this – is how much the film reminded me of early George Romero. And the reason for that is I recall Romero once talking about how drama was taking a group of disparate characters, locking them within an enclosed space, and then watching them bounce off of one another …
SH: Ka-ching! [laughs]
DC: And that comment kept continually rattling through my head as I watched your film.
SH: I wouldn’t say that I’m a huge Romero fan or a hater. I like some of his stuff, but I hadn’t heard that quote before. I think the quote is entirely accurate in regards to Exam. My story guy, Simon Garrity, came up with the idea for Exam. He had an idea of a bunch of kids who walk into a school exam and all of them find their sheets of paper are blank. At the time, there wasn’t much more than the concept there, but we talked about a bunch of other ideas on the same phone call. At the time, we were basically looking to do a second short film after having just directed my first. And what I liked about it… I like drama that works on different levels. It works on a purely visceral, surface level of ‘what’s going to happen next?’ which a lot of that came from the fact it was a limited time test and if we cut in on a clock and if we make it a job interview et cetera, but I liked the other level of what a blank page brings up in the mind. To me, life itself is a blank page. It is a mystery and we have a limited amount of time. We don’t know how much. We have a limited amount of time to figure out what it means if we should so desire, if not… we can just eat, drink, and sleep until we drop. But, we have the option to figure out whether there is a purpose to be in this world and what purpose might that be, whether it’s political or religious or familial or whatever it may be. I thought, “Wow, that’s interesting!” You put a blank page in front of someone and it’s a Rorschach test without the ink. We actually cut from the movie a speech by the psychologist character, Dark, where she says, “This thing is beautiful. It’s like a Rorschach test, but it just reflects your own prejudices back to you.” I thought it was a little on the nose to keep in the movie, so we chopped it. Not naming the characters in Exam was grist for the mill of what I wanted to do. I wanted to have people who reflected a philosophy. Some critics have said, “Oh, these aren’t real characters, they’re just types.” And I was like, “Duh!” [laughs] So, you’re telling me that you don’t like what I actually tried to do? You don’t have to create living, breathing characters with backgrounds and individual names in drama. Sometimes, you do and sometimes you don’t. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. I wasn’t trying to do that. I wanted a socialist Darwin character which was the character referred to as White. Black was consciously a guy who was trying to be Martin Luther King in a Malcolm X world. I was trying to come up with philosophical archetypes for how different people deal with life.
DC: And isn’t it great that the audience themselves can project their own prejudices and feelings onto these – again for want of a better term – blank slates before them?
SH: What I was obviously trying to have was an international look to the cast even though we were shooting in the UK. I wanted it to feel like these were possibly the smartest people from around the world… even though it was a Eurocentric corporation that was giving the exam. I was hoping everyone in the audience would make their initial assessment of who they would identify with via ethnicity or hair color or whatever. With the names that they have, the audience would very quickly think, “Wow, I look like Black, but I think like White.” I hope that people will actually shift their allegiance from who they initially identified with to identify with the philosophy rather than their look.
DC: Now, without trying to give too much away… I’m interested in the introduction of the infection for which the hiring corporation has developed a potential cure and how it raises the stakes from a simple job interview. I mean, some of these people literally need this job to survive. Was that introduced to add even more conflict?
SH: I think it was partly that I didn’t think that you could get actors into too extreme of a situation when the only thing that was motivating them was ‘the carrot.’ I wanted ‘a stick’ as well. I felt that some people were in there for the carrot, some people were in there for a stick, and that would just add more dramatic interest to it. Also, at the time I was writing, there was a lot going on about Bird Flu. I was doing a lot of research into that for another script and was very aware of just how much the world could change if Bird Flu went lethal. If Bird Flu really broke out, then the world would change on the level of how the world changed when World War II broke out and all of a sudden the way that we’re all living is changed for five years. That was fascinating and obviously AIDS had had a big effect on the world twenty years ago and still affects it now, so the idea of a global pandemic was kind of interesting. What if something that happens in this room could directly affect that? And then, that seemed to feed into what the job would ultimately be about… not to go any further down that direction, but… I think pharmaceutical corporations are getting more and more powerful in the world as our health outcomes are increasingly decided by things like gene therapy. It just felt to me like an interesting way to go and a lot of movies are looking at that right now. Splice is a perfect example.
DC: Even though there are sporadic bits of violence in Exam, it seems fairly restrained. An American version of the same story would probably have had a lot more punches thrown and a lot more blood. Do you think that is a reflection of your British sensibilities, or was that something you just didn’t see happening within the context of the story?
SH: It’s possible that I could have pushed it further, but… I don’t particularly like torture-porn movies. I’m not particularly into Saw or Cabin Fever and that stuff. It doesn’t really do a whole lot for me. I think you just kind of need a reason to do that and I would have felt like I was only adding that stuff for marketing reasons. It definitely doesn’t reflect a personal taste of mine. I’m interested in what happens when extreme good and extreme evil collide, but I don’t want to err toward the exploitative. I just wanted to do whatever felt authentic in the room. Sometimes I think that when you go off into the horror dimension, you can end up sort of alienating people, especially the female audience who are less interested in that. I wanted the film to retain some kind of universality and horror, by definition, is more of a sub-genre. I felt like I’d be closing more doors than I’d be opening in a way.
DC: And, having established these characters the way that you did, I think having them suddenly getting involved in a sudden bar fight would have been contradictory.
SH: Yeah, you know… I checked the responses online from different people who’ve seen it and there is definitely a core bunch of goreheads who were expecting to see buckets of blood and were pissed off they didn’t get it. You know… ‘Sorry.’ [laughs] At different times, there have been various attempts to market the film more like a horror film and I haven’t always had enough of a say in that to say, ‘I’d rather not.’ It was never my intention to do that, I’d always wanted to sell it as a thriller.
DC: I’ll be honest with you… when this interview came about and then I saw the film, I was surprised because while Exam has overtones of horror, I’m not sure I’d label it as a straight up horror film.
SH: I’m more of a chiller fan than a horror fan. I love classic horrors. I love The Exorcist and I love Alien. I grew up on those movies. Alien is probably the single most influential movie on my becoming a filmmaker. I like movies that have people digging their fingernails into the seat in front of them, but I would rather that be an overall sense of dread than simply just gore. I’m not interested in that. To me… I see someone’s head get chopped off and that doesn’t fill me with fear. It makes me go, ‘Eew!’ It’s not what scares me. I did feel that I could create a sense of mounting existential dread in this movie and I think I managed to do that.
DC: Well, the “paper cut” scene is pretty squirmy… So, good job there! [laughs]
SH: I’ve sat in a number of audiences and seen a lot of people turning away, especially women. I think what you don’t see is always going to be more interesting. I mean again, Ridley Scott was always on record with Alien as saying that a lot of people were convinced they were seeing things – including the censors – that actually weren’t there. And Hitchcock was the one who really established that rule… engage the minds and the imaginations of the audience, don’t show them everything. I am much more interested in what you thought you saw or what you imagined than what the filmmaker actually showed you.
DC: Let’s talk about your cast. They’re so strong.
SH: They’re a good bunch of people. I had the luxury of casting the best person for every role regardless of whether they’d been in other movies or not. I did have some slightly better known actors wanting to do some of these roles, but I had the luxury to say no to that. I just thought that if I cave into the pressure of putting a name on the video box when I’m financing it, then… I might as well go home, you know? This is what people would love to be able to do, to have the ability to cast the person they think is right for the role. I’ve always liked those movies you look back on and realize that, now the cast is full of stars, but at the time the movie came out, they were all being discovered. I hope in the future, some of the actors in Exam will go onto bigger things. Obviously I can’t control that, but I just wanted to cast the right people and guys like Luke Mably (28 Days Later) came in. I almost didn’t give Luke a call back because he was very quiet during the first time he came in just to meet me. I think we were behind time and so another actress was in the room as well and he’s kind of a shy guy in real life, so I almost didn’t call him back. I’m so glad that I did because he came in an completely blew me away as White.
DC: You have known commodities… Colin Salmon (Punisher: War Zone, AVP: Aliens vs. Predator) is one that immediately springs to mind and Jimi Mistry (Blood Diamond, The Guru) is another. But even some of the smaller roles, like say Gemma Chan (Shanghai, Dr. Who) as Chinese… was great. I mean, she has a short amount of screen time, but you immediately felt for her.
SH: I wanted to pick someone who you’d be kind of sad that she left the room. [laughs] It felt like that on the set as well. We wanted her around longer. I wanted someone you felt like you wanted to see more of.
DC: Let alone empathize with. The idea that everyone wants to succeed. ‘Oh, this is a test and I’ll do whatever I can think of to pass it’ and then that thing happens to be the absolutely wrong thing to do.
SH: Exactly. That’s the thing we would all do… ‘Ok, screw it. I’ll just write an essay about why I’m the best person for the job.’
DC: Now, I wanted to close out by asking about a couple of things I read on the always reliable IMDB… First off, what is the status of Battle Chasers (based on Joe Madureira’s comic).
SH: It’s kind of quiet right now, to be honest. I love Battle Chasers and did a lot of work on that script. There are two reasons why a studio cannot make your movie. Number one is that they don’t like what you wrote and number two is that they do like what you wrote, but they’ve realize that – when push comes to shove – that it’s not X Men. It doesn’t have the brand of X Men. And that was what happened to us. My draft was really, really liked by the head of production at Fox. We got a real great thumbs up and then we said, ‘Ok, so what happens now?’ They were like, ‘Well, you know… It’s not X Men. It’s not Fantastic Four.’ And I said, ‘Well, why did you buy it?’ [laughs] Oftentimes, the studios buy these things on the hope that there’s a one in ten chance that Robert Rodriguez will want to do it or whatever. And if Robert Rodriguez doesn’t want to it, then it just kind of dies. I would love for that script to come back from the grave at some point. I mean, for me, I’ve turned down some big fantasy projects that have much bigger brands in the last couple of years and, as a screenwriter, I don’t necessarily look for the most high profile projects. I do like high profile projects… I mean, Paradise Lost is one of the most high profile projects you could take on. I just look for something that I think I can ace as well as something that’s going to be different and add something to the genre possibly. What I liked about Battle Chasers was that it’s a merging of the universes of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. It’s a universe in which there are flying robots and energy cannons, but there’s also wizards and dragons and I haven’t seen a hybrid universe like that onscreen. That was more interesting to me than big, fancy movies based on major role playing games or whatever.
DC: And since you brought up Paradise Lost…
SH: Yep, that is still moving forward. It’s been a struggle to get a studio to come onboard because of the religion, basically. There are studios that are seeing the religion as a minus when they should be seeing it as a plus. For me, it’s very simple… I don’t see anybody who went to see Passion of the Christ not going to see Paradise Lost. So, that’s your flaw. Then, beyond that, if you don’t have an investment in that and you’re not in a sort of core religious audience, is there anything else for you? Well, in Passion of the Christ, no. In Paradise Lost, yes! I mean, billions of angels and demons fighting on the walls of heaven, would you not go and see that? The whole thing is… if you want it to be theology, it’s theology. But, if you want it to be mythology, then it’s mythology. Why would you not want to go see it? For me, it’s a spiritual Avatar. When Avatar came out, we kind of went back around and said, ‘Guys, if you want to make an Avatar and you want something that’s ready to go and has had concept art and budgets and visual effects budgets and everything…’ This is not simply a script, it had early preproduction work done as well. Legendary Pictures are one hundred and ten per cent behind it and they really want to get it made. It’s just a case of getting a studio head to pull the trigger. Generally, movies like Lord of the Rings tend to happen because one guy takes the risk. Bob Shaye was the guy who said, ‘We’re going to make three movies of Lord of the Rings’ after everyone else in town passed it, believe it or not. It’s going to be the same for Paradise Lost. One studio head is going to make that decision and it’s going to make bank and do incredibly well and people are going to laugh and joke about the fact that the rest of the town passed. Who knows? It could take another five or ten years, but I think its day is going to come.
DC: What about Alex Proyas’ Tripods (based on John Christopher’s trilogy of novels as well as the BBC television series from the 80s – the first film will be based on the first of the books, “The White Mountains”)?
SH: Tripods… again, we’re trying to find a studio home for that. We developed that at Paramount and it was put into turnaround. It was originally developed at Disney through many different writers and many different directors. I’d been offered it twice when it was based at Disney, but both times I just couldn’t do it. I’d always really wanted to do it because I adored Tripods as a kid. I read all of the books, watched the BBC show, and I loved it. I used to go sit on the North Downs in Surrey and look out across the English countryside and imagine Tripods walking across the horizon, you know? For me, that was just as interesting as War of the Worlds and War of the Worlds was set right around where I grew up. I think that whole ‘Alien Tripods in England’ vibe always rubbed off on me and Tripods is a more modern version of that. It turned out that Alex Proyas, who I worked with a few times, also loved the Tripods books when he was a kid, so we both kind of bonded over that and decided to do it. It was set up at Paramount, but then the leadership has been changing there every five days and the latest leadership decided to put it into turnaround, but Don Murphy is nothing if not a tenacious producer and he will never let it rest. [laughs] Alex and I have put our trust in Murphy that he can find a studio that wants to pick it up and get it made again. We’ve been close a couple of times in the last few months, but we’re still trying to find a studio to do it.
DC: Other than those things, is there anything we should keep an eye out for from you?
SH: Well, I’m writing a huge Biblical epic for Warner Brothers at the moment. Unfortunately, I can’t say what it is. [laughs] But it’s a very ambitious, epic movie and hopefully I’ll turn that in some time in September. I hope we’ll be able to go public with what that at that time. But then… I have to figure out something to direct. This movie for Warner is taking all of my concentration right now. When I emerge from the other side of writing that, I’ll start figuring out what I want to direct and there’s about five or six projects that are candidates. It’s just finding the producer and financing and seeing which one moves forward first.
EXAM can be seen on Video on Demand from IFC starting July 23rd, 2010.
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