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Shriekfest 2011: Exclusive Q&A with Filmmaker Micah Levin

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In writer/director Micah Levin’s indie thriller Opus, seven strangers show up at an empty house to star in an independent horror film, none the wiser of the misdeeds to follow. Each of the seven cast members are hand-picked from online submission videos by a mysterious director to be part of an unscripted horror film.

But as one by one the cast members start to turn up dead, the remaining actors begin to turn on one another and, once they realize that the house is locked down from the outside, scramble to find out the truth behind the mysterious “production” in the middle of nowhere. In the end the survivors learn that they’re about to pay the ultimate price for their Hollywood dreams as each of the deaths are being recorded by the maniacal director, who’s hoping to make the ultimate “killer” slasher flick.

Micah Levin’s Opus is set to kick off the 2011 LA Shriekfest International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival on Friday, September 30th, at 7:00 pm. Dread Central recently caught up with the up-and-coming director to talk about his transition from the world of haunted houses to the world of filmmaking, where the idea for the improv-infused thriller came from and what he’s learned about the business along the way.

Check out our exclusive interview with Levin below.

Dread Central: Since this is your feature film debut, let’s hear more about what drew you in to filmmaking?

Micah Levin: When I was younger, I loved performing magic and creating stage illusions; in fact, I even used to perform at parties as a magician. I started playing around with my parents’ VHS camera and realized I could create an endless amount of effects with it. My friends and I used to make short films and screen them for our peers.

One of my producers on Opus (Andrew Bird) and I have been making films together for over ten years now. We also worked together as actors and built haunted houses every Halloween. I loved the process of creating a world from nothing and scaring a bunch of kids in the process. Hitchcock was a huge inspiration for me when approaching Opus because I find myself really drawn to films with creative set design and art direction. My brilliant production designer and long-time collaborator Brent Mason literally built most of what you see in Opus with his bare hands. To me the filmmaking process is really just one big magic trick.

DC: Talk a bit about the idea behind Opus and how you came up with this rather unique storytelling approach.

Levin: I wanted to make a film that was partially improvised that could also be executed on a tight budget, a film that was scary but also had a unique killer and perspective as well. My brother and executive producer Seth Levin had the idea to make the camera the villain, which later evolved into the director.

Our other producer, Mark Cramer, and I also met while acting and wanted to create a production that gave a lot of creative control to the actors. We wrote a rough script and never showed it to any of the actors. They were literally in the same shoes as their characters, showing up to set with no clue as to what would happen to them next. A lot of the storytelling came from putting the film together in the edit. I wanted to make a film where the direction and editing was as much a part of the narrative as the characters. I love the power of editing and wanted to create a film that highlighted that.

DC: Did the fact that a lot of the movie would require your actors to have improvisational skills change your casting process in any way?

Levin: Yes. We had actors come in with only a brief character description and the concept that the film would be heavily improvisational. They sat in front of a camera and answered questions about themselves in character. I would improvise along with them, asking questions based off of their responses. This required them to think on their toes to try and give depth to these roles.

For call-backs I had actors show up at night to a warehouse, this time standing in front of a larger camera and bright light. I wanted to mess with the actors a lot and test their level of comfort. At one point I would whip out a giant knife and have them beg for their life. I really got to see them use their instincts and have fun in the process, and even a good amount of the audition footage made it into the final film.

DC: How was your first feature filmmaking experience like then? How did everything go during production- did the improvisational aspect add to your filming time at all?

Levin: The experience was amazing! I was very lucky to have an incredibly talented team surrounding me, several of whom I went to Emerson College with. I was also very lucky to have veteran filmmaker Brett Leonard (Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity) as our executive producer, giving input and advice along the way. I edited his last two films, and we become close friends in the process. Brett really believes in taking risks and supporting young indie filmmakers.

I had a lot of freedom to play on this film because I wasn’t restricted to either a script or a studio. As the editor and director I was able to shoot very efficiently because I knew I would be the one putting all the pieces together in the end. We shot the whole film in only twelve days, and I utilized my time by shooting most of the scenes from single angles with long takes. That’s how I was able to give my talented D.P. Elie Smolkin time to set up and light each shot and keep the process moving quickly. The whole crew had to improvise along with the cast, which made the production process really enjoyable.

DC: What would you say was the biggest lesson you took away from making Opus?

Levin: I learned a lot about sound. The warehouse we shot in was right next to a construction site so randomly during scenes we would hear terrible pounding noises that caused the whole set to start trembling. We actually ended up recording some of the noises and layered them into parts of the film because it freaked us all out, and I learned a lot about ADR and rerecording voices because of this. It’s a very challenging process and required lots of editing later in post, but I’m really proud of the team at MegaTrend. They did a fantastic job with the sound in the end!

DC: Congratulations on being an official selection for several prominent genre festivals! How have things been going during Opus‘ festival circuit run?

Levin: Thanks! It’s been great to see the film up on a big screen with an audience. It plays really well in a crowd, and we’ve had fantastic responses so far. We screened at the Backlot Film Festival last month and took home the award for Best Feature Film. We also received best editing and production design at the L.A. Art-house Film Festival not too long ago. I’m very excited that the film will be opening Shriekfest Friday and more horror fans will have the chance to see the film, too.

DC: So what’s up next for you then after Shriekfest this weekend?

Levin: I am working with my team at MMM on developing a science fiction feature that I want to do next, based off of a short film I made called Gro2. I really want to play around more with the science fiction genre, although I also have some more horror concepts up my sleeves. But you can follow what we are up to next by going to MovieMagicMedia.com or on Facebook here.

For more information on Opus, make sure to check out the official website here or give the flick a “Like” on Facebook here.

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The Open House Review – Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here

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Starring Dylan Minnette, Piercey Dalton, Patricia Bethune, Sharif Atkins

Written by Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote

Directed by Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote


Mere weeks, even days, after effusively beating Netflix’s original horror content drum (The Babysitter, Before I Wake, Creep 2), I’m here to confirm that The Open House is emptier than an vacant bomb shelter. Cold, unappealing and thoughtlessly plotted to the point where “generic” would have been an improvement. From the moment we’re welcomed into Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote’s scripted imprisonment, it’s nothing but loose floorboards and busted plumbing. The home invasion genre has rarely been navigated with such little attention to detail, asking for our suspension of coherent storytelling early, often, and without earning the right to be deemed mindless genre fun. Not even Ty Pennington could save this extreme renovation disaster.

Dylan Minnette plays Logan Wallace, a track star and student who must find closure after watching his father fall victim to a fatal car accident. It is his mother Naomi’s (Piercey Dalton) idea to spend a little time away from their suburban home – escape those painful memories – so they retreat to her sister’s luxurious mountain getaway. The catch? It’s in the process of being sold and open houses are on the regular, so Naomi and Logan must vacate their temporary premises on certain days. It’s after one of these very showings that Logan begins to notice slight changes around the house, and he fears that an unwanted visitor may be in their midst. Guess what? He’s right.

To understand how little The Open House cares about conscious blueprinting, just read the poster’s tagline. “You can’t lock out what’s already inside” – right, but you could have prevented them from coming in, or checked the house to make sure they weren’t squatting, or explored numerous other possibilities to avoid this scenario. The mansion’s realtor allows prospective buyers to come and go but it’s not her job to make sure no one’s hiding in the basement? Naomi can’t even keep track of the *single* visitor she lets look around the house? It’s infuriating to see so many people neglect safety out of forced coincidence because the script couldn’t rationalize the killer’s entry any other way – a confounding strike one.

This is also a film that admits no reasoning for why its own murderer has targeted the Wallaces, or why he stokes a violent fetish when it comes to open houses. We never actually see his face, just his imposing handyman-looking attire, nor do we savor any kind of tangible backstory (his family died during their own open house and he suffered a psychotic breakdown – just give me *something*). His undefined form never demands curiosity like John Carpenter’s “The Shape” once did, because scripting is nothing more than bullet notes for basic horror movie necessities. Here he is, your bad guy – too bad he’s introduced without fear, handled without originality and unable to characterize beyond torturous kidnapper dotted lines. He’s just, you know, a guy who sneaks into open houses and kills – COMPLETE WITH A FINAL PAN-IN ON AN OPEN HOUSE SIGN WHEN HE MOVES TO HIS NEXT TARGET [eye roll into infinity].

Every scene in The Open House feels like an afterthought. “Ah, we need a way to build tension – how about a senile local woman who lives down the street and wanders aimlessly into frame?” Overplayed and in no way suitable to most her inclusions, but sure. “Oh, and we need inner conflict – what about if the breaker-iner steals Logan’s phone and frames him for later acts?” I mean, didn’t Logan canonically lose his phone even before Naomi’s mid-shower water heater issues – but sure, instant fake tension. “How are people going to believe the killer is always around and never blows his cover – think they’ll just buy it?” No, we don’t. Worse off, his cat-and-mouse game is dully repetitive until a finale that skyrockets intensity with jarring tonal imbalance. This closing, dreadful end without any sort of redemptive quality. More abusive than it is fulfilling.

If there’s anything positive worth conveying, it’s that Minnette does a fine job shuffling around as a character with severe sight impairment. The killer makes a point to remove his contacts as a final “FUCK YOU,” just to toy around a bit more, and Minnette frantically slips or stumbles with nothing more than foggy vision. Otherwise, dialogue finds itself ripped form a billion other straight-to-TV Logo dramas about broken families, no moment ever utilizing horror past a few shadowy forms standing in doorways after oblivious characters turn away. You can’t just take an overused subgenre and sleepwalk through homogenized beats…case and god-forsaken point.

Even as a streamable Netflix watch, The Open House is irredeemable beyond fault. The walls are caving in on this dilapidated excuse for home invasion horror, benefiting not from the star power of a temperamental Dylan Minnette. I have seen most involved players here in far better projects (Minnette’s stock has rightfully been skyrocketing, Matt Angel in The Funhouse Massacre, etc), but this is bargain bin theatrics without a fully formed idea. A nameless villain, doomed nice guy (Sharif Atkins), woefully unaware plot advancement – all the worst cliches found in one rage-quit worthy effort. Anyone who makes it through deserves an award…or a dunce cap.

  • The Open House
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Summary

Unless you’re irrationally afraid of cold showers, The Open House fails to deliver on a premise that can be summed up by no more than two lines of text.

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Michael C. Hall Buried in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary

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Now here’s an audio book we can REALLY get behind! Entertainment Weekly is reporting that former “Dexter” star Michael C. Hall will be narrating the first ever unabridged recording of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Sometime’s audio is better!

Readers have been asking for this audiobook for a very long time,” Stephen King said in a statement. “I know the listening experience will be worth the wait with Michael as narrator.

We’re thrilled to finally bring Pet Sematary to King’s audiobook fans,” Simon & Schuster Audio president and publisher Chris Lynch added. “Michael C. Hall is a perfect match for this timeless story, which has long deserved an unabridged production.

The unabridged audiobook of Pet Sematary will be released by Simon & Schuster Audio on March 27. Speaking of Hall… you know he would make a pretty friggin’ good casting choice to play Victor Pascow in the upcoming Pet Sematary remake. Just sayin’.

BUY IT NOW!

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Saw-inspired Game Play With Me Sets a Trap on Steam

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Saw fans have a lot to be happy about right now. In addition to Jigsaw being teased for Dead by Daylight, a new Saw-themed game called Play With Me has launched on Steam, and although it’s not officially connected with the franchise in any way, developer Airem promised that they created a videogame which looks and plays as though it were made by Jigsaw himself. As you can tell from the trailer and screenshots, the production values and overall quality of Play With Me appear to be considerably higher than most other indie horror games released on Steam, and you’ll probably be very happy to see that Airem took the time and effort to create stylized hand drawn environments rather than using purchased assets from the Unity Store.

The killer behind the sinister traps in Play With Me is known as the Illusion, with the player taking control of investigative journalist Robert Hawk as he tries to fight his way through a series of sick and twisted obstacles created by the lunatic. The voice acting in the trailer was a little cheesy, although we see at 1:09 that the player will be tasked with using a kitchen knife to cut open a dead body (presumably to retrieve an item hidden in the cadaver’s stomach), which is not an image you’ll be forgetting anytime soon.

IQ Publishing are offering a 15% discount off Play With Me for those who purchase the game before January 24, so Saw fans might want to mark that deadline in their calendars and purchase it from Steam before the time is up. After all, it can’t be worse than Konami’s awful official Saw videogames.

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