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On Tuesday, December 6th, Lionsgate is set to release writer/director Mel House’s latest genre offering, Psychic Experiment. Featuring an all-star cast including Katie Featherston, Debbie Rochon, Adrienne King, Reggie Bannister, Glenn Morshower, Kathy Lamkin and Shannon Lark, the flick is centered around an idyllic, small, self-sufficient community which seems like the perfect neighborhood on the surface.
After all, everything you could possibly need is within walking distance. But eventually the pastoral exterior conceals a dark past and an even darker secret, and as a group of individuals – each with their own ties and agendas with the town and each other – converge on the enclave, strange things begin to happen. Very strange things. Strange enough to test – and then break – the very fabric of reality itself.
In honor of Psychic Experiment‘s upcoming home release bow, Dread Central recently caught up with House to get the lowdown on the film which has been three years in the making, his experiences while working on Psychic Experiment and what’s up next on his ever-busy production slate.
Read on for our exclusive interview with House, and look for upcoming interviews with Psychic Experiment stars (and DC staff favorites) Debbie Rochon and Adrienne King coming very soon!
Dread Central: Tell us a bit about Psychic Experiment and where the story idea came from.
Mel House: Psychic Experiment basically focuses on a small community that has cropped up around a research facility. But back to the story: it is slowly revealed that the facility is doing strange experiments on the townsfolk – in fact, the town exists almost solely to be this giant Petri dish for the facility. The experiments (psychic in nature, as you might gather) are heavily steeped in weird MKULTRA type psy-ops, with an eye toward weaponization. Between the folks at the facility mucking with people’s heads, the types of people they muck with, and the people that are out to stop them (or steal the technology for themselves) – let’s just say wackiness ensues and by “wackiness,” I mean lots of body horror and killer dolls, of course.
Similar to what we have down here in Houston with NASA and the Clear Lake area, I guess and the initial idea was to have it be a walkable community (hence the original title, Walking Distance), but that stuff started falling by the wayside during every step of production – due to either losing locations, time constraints, the first edit, or the final 93 minute cut. As you can imagine, when cutting down a 2 hour film to 93 minutes, all the “walking” is what goes first! So when Lionsgate wanted to change the title, I had no problem with it as it had mutated into a different beast.
Oddly enough though, Experiment began life as a zombie film back when I started writing the script as Walking Distance in my college years. I’d spun in a lot of personal demons in there, stuff I was dealing with at that time in my life – crappy childhood, girl trouble, homesickness, relationship tension from being multiracial, etc. Most of that stuff stayed intact on through to Experiment, actually but at any rate, there hadn’t been a high-profile zombie film in a while – the only two I remember from back then are I, Zombie and The Dead Hate The Living. Over the course of the decade or so that went by until we actually were prepared to make the movie, there was the whole zombie resurgence with 28 Days Later, Shaun, Land, etc. After seeing 28 Days Later, I was like, “That’s a pretty definitive statement on this zombie thing…I’m not even going to try to go this route.” So I searched for something else to wrap the story around and stumbled onto something much weirder, and with hindsight, more my taste these days. So I guess it all worked out.
Dread Central: Was this always a movie you intended on making independently? What were the positive aspects of working independently, and what kind of challenges did you face making Psychic Experiment on your own terms?
House: Yes, it was. Initially I was going to even try and make it for WAY less than we did- like unrealistically less- which James LaMarr, my co-producer, still gives me crap about that on a regular basis. But I had no delusions that we could make this crazy flick in any manner other than on our own. Fortunately, we rooked in enough like-minded individuals so that it became- well, I wouldn’t say ‘easy’ but definitely ‘do-able.’
Of course we had the obvious freedom of doing what we wanted to do without worrying about pandering to commercialism (for better or worse). And we could cast who we wanted, which for me amounted to “people I loved watching as a kid that I want to work with now”. This is a recurring theme for me. Oddly enough, that freedom and the ensuing sales process taught me TONS about the whole ‘business vs. art’ paradigm- but that’s a whole other interview. I’ll just say the process was not unlike when they let Amish kids go nuts for a year to decide whether they’re in or out, except that our particular Devil’s Playground was about three years long.
Drawbacks were the obvious ones- little money and little time- because when you don’t have enough money there’s never enough time. Realistically, there were a few hitches with the practical and visual effects that I think would have been avoided if we had had the budget to bring on bigger houses, but that wasn’t the reality of the situation. You do what you have to do and make what Faustian bargains you have to make to get things done with what little money you have, get to the finish line, and hopefully lick your wounds and learn your lessons later. Additionally, we’re all wearing five or six hats during the production – I wasn’t just the director, I was building sets, part time “VFX supervisor” (quotes around that for a reason), gun wrangler, etc. Melanie (Donihoo) not only acted in the film but was also UPM, craft services and more or less location manager too. There was very little sleeping going on.
Dread Central: Talk a bit about your casting process and what everyone brought to the table in order to bring your story in Psychic Experiment to life.
House: Well that was kind of a crazy ride. As I mentioned, I initially wanted to try and shoot the film for uber-cheap. After James let loose with a few resounding peals of laughter, he said ‘If I can get you a little more money, who would you like to put in the film, within reason?’ And that’s when things started to take off because I could really go after the people that I envisioned as I was writing the roles.
I had already written (or re-written) a lot of the roles with local or regional actors that I knew already in mind. Theatre folks I knew, actors from other local films I’d seen or worked on, actors that were in Closet Space and so on. Lisa Stanton was always meant to be Melanie (even before we knew one another that well) and the role of Mark Kincaid was written for Omar Adam after I met him in my college English class. I think I started writing the Jennifer role for Shannon Lark after I met her at a convention and saw one of her short films. So between James and I we kind of placed actors that we knew into roles that were either ready-made for them or a good fit. The only role we auditioned for was that of Cole because I didn’t really know anyone that fit what I had in mind. We had a handful of guys read and Denton Blane Everett knocked it out of the park.
With folks like Debbie Rochon, Glenn Morshower, Kathy Lamkin, Adrienne King and Reggie Bannister – those overtures grew out of the conversation with James where he suggested we ‘take it to the next level’ and get some genre names. Of course I was ecstatic and just started reaching out to these folks. I’d seen and been around Debbie a lot at conventions and things, and I thought she’d be a good fit for Marie. At the time I hadn’t seen her play the evil mother-type role but now I think she’s done it a few times.
Reggie was another one I pursued – I just started thinking about genre guys that would be cool to see play against type by taking the Joseph Webber role but also find someone that would get the weird layers within the character – since the character of Webber is a recently-paroled pedophile, I could see how an actor might be turned off by that (this was pre-Little Children). Reggie and I spoke at length on the phone, and he got it- I mean, he got it in ways that even I hadn’t considered so we were stoked to get him. Adrienne I met through a mutual friend and timing was everything there. She was looking to make her comeback and I was looking to make my written-as-a-man bad guy into a woman! Then the folks like Glenn, Kathy, and Katie Featherston were people that James knew through his agent or through the Dallas film scene.
Getting Katie for Psychic Experiment is actually a funny story – and it involves Uncle Creepy. While promoting Closet Space at conventions I kept hearing big scary tattooed guys (including Creepy) talk and talk about this Paranormal Activity movie and how awesome it was. Keep in mind, this was when it was playing festivals, so no one but the horror crowd knew about the flick. At any rate it kept coming up and I kept hearing about it and I was like ‘Wow, something’s going to happen with this flick.’ Little did I know, right? So cut to 2008 when we’re preparing to shoot this movie and James suggests a friend of his that he acted in a short film with for a role that we had yet to cast. He sends me the link to the website and it’s Katie’s site with PA clips on it.
I was immediately like ‘James, we’ve got to do this, she’s in Paranormal Activity.’ He was like ‘Paranormawhatsit?’ Again, keep in mind this is 2008. But I think at the time the buzz was even that they might remake PA so we had no idea what was happening with it- only that something would, based on how folks like Uncle Creepy were talking about it. And that worked out pretty well for us, of course, for the obvious reasons but also because Katie is awesome. She perfectly embodied the Elspeth character in Experiment and All these pieces kind of fell into place for us. I would hesitate to call it luck, as there was a fair amount of Machiavellian calculation involved.
But blending the cast was interesting since we had genre vets and ‘new’ faces all thrown together in the same scenes. I was a little apprehensive as to how it would all go down, or if we’d have any ‘I can’t work under these conditions’ moments. But the genre vets were very gracious and generous and the new blood brought their A-game (new blood being a relative term as they are all steadily working actors) so the melding of the two groups was pretty seamless.
Dread Central: Can you walk us through how production went on Psychic Experiment– any hiccups along the way?
House: Surprisingly enough, production went fairly smoothly for the most part considering that we had to shoot for 30 days spread out across three months in the Houston summer of 2008. So obviously it was hot as hell but we got through it best we could. The only hiccups were some of the practical FX we mentioned – a few of the gags proved to be too complicated to shoot during the main production so we pushed them back to post pickups and then Hurricane Ike hit the weekend that we were scheduled to shoot.
Fortunately, we were spared by Ike but a LOT of the locations we had shot at – especially the ones in Galveston – were nearly destroyed. They’ve since been built back up though which is great. I wouldn’t want my crazy horror/sci-fi flick to be the last living document of the Strand Business District. But aside from the above, the only time we ‘hiccupped’ was during the post and sales process. We had some VFX issues which we dealt with then Activity came out and caused a small feeding frenzy (since we were Katie’s ‘next’ movie at the time). This led to our foreign deal, but it took a while to close the Lionsgate deal – they wanted me to trim the movie down to 90 minutes or thereabouts (from 2 hours).
At first I didn’t know if I could do it mainly because I’d lost perspective by that point. However I took some time away from it, sat down one weekend and promptly cut out 15 minutes in the first sitting. It was an interesting experience and another invaluable learning one. I’ve got to note that all they told me was “make it 90 minutes” so Lionsgate left it entirely up to me to do the final cut which I thought was pretty damn cool because I got a Lionsgate movie out of it as well as a ‘hard knocks/high stakes’ editing course. You can’t beat that.
Dread Central: You had to wear a lot of hats in order to get Psychic Experiment made- how hard was juggling so many different aspects of production?
House: To be honest, it was hard to let go of a few of the aspects. Having come straight up through the most guerilla of guerilla filmmaking experiences, I was used to doing damn near everything. With me it’s much less of an auteur trip than it is an insurance policy because who’s the one person I know I can depend on? Myself. So I’d take on most production aspects on past sets up to and including set construction because no one else would do it, you know?
Back to letting go- we were fortunate to have been able to hire an awesome crew to work with us on Psychic Experiment so I could easily let go of DP, gaffer, sound, AD duties; things like that. Paying folks does bring a certain level of accountability with it so it’s a lot different than working with a volunteer crew or your college buddies. In most cases, you can afford to get folks that do a WAY better job than you ever would if you were to take those tasks on and everyone we got were heavy hitters so there’s no doubt in my mind that I was safe in delegating out those tasks.
The music and score were interesting because I wanted to see if I could write the score and assuming I could, there were parts of the movie that I felt like I had to score (other musicians will probably get what I’m talking about). There were personal beats that I just wanted to really put my stamp on. However I knew that if I faltered my co-composer Dwayne Cathey, who is a much better musician than I am, would be there to make it work so there was a certain amount of middle ground there for me as well.
Dread Central: How did it feel when you found out Lionsgate picked the movie up for distribution?
House: I think I punched a wall out of happiness. Not kidding. Watch the movie, I’m a miswired emotional mess. But ill-advised wall-punching aside, that was essentially the best possible outcome for us, and I couldn’t have been happier. Everyone knows Lionsgate, they recognize the logo, so there’s a certain level of legitimacy and validation that comes along with it. I’ll always remember that I got the phone call the night that Melanie and I went to see Paranormal Activity 2 which of course, is very fitting.
Dread Central: So what’s up next for you?
House: Well, next up for us are several things. Imago- which is a film I co-wrote and produced for my director friend Chris Warren- is now in post production and looking to get done by the end of the year/beginning of 2012. That one brings back a LOT of the Experiment cast and crew and also adds Lisa “I Killed Freddy Twice” Wilcox to the mix. Can’t wait to get that one done, it’s also good and weird.
We are also about to debut a comedic web series titled Placeholders in the next few weeks. It focuses on a public access station and all the wackiness that ensued when I worked at one back in the late 90’s with the usual suspects from Experiment and Imago returning. Placeholders also gives me a nice outlet to vent a lot of my frustrations about the industry, my place in it, my trajectory, and on and on. It’s been a tough road so far, but misanthropic comedy makes the journey so much smoother and includes everything from ghosts, fringe pornography, Russian mobsters, and musical numbers. Great fun for the whole family.
Finally, the next big project is a feature film titled Soon, A Light On. I’ll be writing and directing again, and it’s easily my most ambitious feature to date on a number of levels though the story is much simpler than something like Experiment. This one is a ghost story that takes place in New Orleans in an old plantation house. A writer mysteriously inherits the place, coincidentally just as he’s going through a divorce and strange things start happening, dark forces are awakened, and everything goes askew. I’m definitely going for more of a classic vibe with this one – Ghost Story, The Innocents, stuff like that. But we’re planning to shoot this one on location in early 2012 and I’m not sure how much we can say about the cast, crew or our plans for this one yet as it’s still in the early stages but I guess to say that it’s my dream cast wouldn’t be overstating the matter too much. Big emphasis on ‘dream.’
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