Exclusive Set Visit and First Images: Chris Ackerman's Hell's Belles
“The idea came to me a few years ago when I began writing a feature horror/comedy around a young female who drives a hearse,” writer, producer, and director Chris Ackerman told Dread last Saturday night on the set of his then-shooting short film Hell’s Belles. “The main character, ‘Adria Blackmoor’, lives a sheltered life as a morgue technician at her grandfather’s cemetery when unfortunately the gates of hell open, and she’s forced to battle a strange assortment of creatures to save her town.”
Hollywood being Hollywood, however, burgeoning filmmakers are keenly aware of the distinct lack of imagination most suits have during the pitching process (a manuscript seldom cuts it any longer in communicating one’s vision), so Ackerman, who previously served as an associate producer on Yossi Sasson’s 2008 horror feature Dead and Gone, took it upon himself to helm a shortened version of his script, which after seven months of pre-production is intended to serve not only as a sinister horror romp but also as his bloody, filmic calling card.
“I decided to make Hell’s Belles to help promote the eventual feature and my vision as a director,” Ackerman continued from the frigid set (the production at the time was filming for two, twelve-hour nights at high elevation in Fillmore, CA, and the temperature was dipping into the low 20’s). “It could be seen as a sequel to my feature-length idea, where Adria Blackmoor and her best friend, Helena, now moonlight as occult specialists who help people rid themselves of the creatures that randomly break through into this realm.”
Of his inspiration, “I’ve always loved the great creature invasion horror/comedies like Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Critters, and Monster Squad, so I decided I wanted to make my own version of that type of scenario, mixed with my twisted sense of humor.”
Joining Ackerman in this endeavor are producer Drina Durazo and producer/assistant director Tommy Bernhard along with cinematographer Cameron Duncan, production designer Matthew Trotter (both of whom collaborated on Dead and Gone), and SPX tech and costumer Dan Crawley (The Avengers) with makeup assist by Jacky Belle (Hinnon Valley), all of whom at the time were bundled up and working diligently given the rather nasty weather and time constraints of Ackerman’s ambitious, and inclement, shoot.
“I checked the Farmer’s Almanac and found that it had only rained a total of one-half-inch in the past ten years here during this month,” bemoaned Ackerman of the deluge that pounded upon the roof of the barn (which served as the location for the majority of Hell’s Belles’ narrative) as Durazo prepped a full-body harness stunt gag mere feet away. “The actors have it tough because their characters are dressed in tank tops and dresses, but no one is complaining! The propane camping heater was the best thing we bought for the set.”
When questioned regarding whether he’s marking his days, Ackerman replied, “Pulling of such an ambitious production with this budget and this short shooting schedule was always a concern, but I’m the kind of person that has such a blind sense of ambition that at times I feel that I can make anything happen. It’s also helping immensely to have such extremely talented friends that believed in the project. Almost everyone on the crew is a friend of mine whom I’ve been working with for years, and we all work on each other’s projects. Tommy (Bernard) and I are both horror fanatics and have made a few shorts together over the past ten years, and he’s the glue that’s keeping the whole production together. This is Drina’s first film, and she’s rocking it like an experienced pro. Cameron Duncan and I have been working together since film school, but this is the first time we’ve worked as cinematographer and director, and he’s just elevated the photography way beyond what I had envisioned.”
As for the cast of Hell’s Belles, Ackerman secured the acting talents of Ariel Teal Toombs (Psycho Sleepover) as Adria Blackmoor, the sexy and feisty Mayra Rodriguez, Trista Robinson (The Human Race), Paul Gebeau, James Cavlo, Buffy Dakan, and Bonjah (who appears as the rather sexually deviant hell-spawn ‘Beleth’).
“I worked with Ariel’s father on a few projects and ran into them a year before at a horror convention,” said Ackerman of his lead’s casting. “She seemed like the type of person I wanted to work with so kept her in mind. I had only seen her demo reel and in a short film when I gave her the role in Hell’s Belles without an audition. It was one of those miracles where she was just a perfect fit. Ariel is bursting with natural dramatic skill, quick wit, and excellent comedic timing.”
A heroine is, of course, only as effective as her nemesis so we asked Ackerman about his casting of Bonjah as the demon protagonist (who at the time was being outfitted with prosthetics by Crawley in the only warm spot on set - and unsurprisingly given the cold, everyone’s favorite destination - the toasty RV/makeup studio).
“I worked with Bonjah on an upcoming web show called 'Video Game Reunion' where he plays the Nintendo character ‘Bowser’,” communicated Ackerman. “His portrayal of Beleth is insane. He’s brought so much to the character while being under such heavy prosthetic, and it’s been a freaky performance mixed with a sick sense of humor, which is exactly what I wanted.”
As for what scripted nefarious activities the demon Beleth plans for Ariel, Ackerman says, “He’s going to take her to hell and use her as a sex slave, and when he’s done with her, he’s going to chop off her head, bathe in her blood, and return the headless corpse here.”
“I had previously worked with our SFX Supervisor Dan (Crawley) on Dead and Gone,” Ackerman said as we made our way to the RV (and the heater). “His talent is abundant. We couldn’t afford to hire a full team to mold and sculpt a demon head so we found a pre-formed prosthetic, and he’s been applying it and painting it masterfully. He also brought in another Dead and Gone alumnus, FX technician Chris Hampton, who these days is working on (the series) 'True Blood'.”
Sure enough, amidst cramped quarters and a bustle of activity (Belle was working diligently to reverse the unfortunate effects of the downpour on the cast’s hair and makeup), Crawley and Hampton were halfway through their physical transformation of Bonjah’s visage, their air brushes in full effect.
Catching up with Ackerman a day following wrap, the exhausted filmmaker told us of Hell’s Belles, “Besides the weather, the shoot went incredibly smooth, even though during the last two weeks before the shoot we lost four of our original actors and half of our budget. Last night we had around eight pages of stunts, demon prosthetics, vomit, blood, pyrotechnics, and the blocking of five characters to do. Somehow we pulled it all off without stressing too much. I had to cut or tweak a few bits because the sun was rising, but besides that we accomplished what I had envisioned. Without the last minute additions and my girlfriend Drina, who stepped in to produce and to help with the budget, we wouldn’t have made it.”
“Once Hell’s Belles is finished, we will be using it to shop around my feature film script of the same name,” concluded Ackerman. “I have a trilogy in mind for Adria Blackmoor. I want to present something fresh to the world with this intelligent, sexy, and tough female character - a strange combination of monster movie, indie comedy, gross-out exploitation, social satire, and balls-out action!”
Dig on the first official Hell’s Belles production stills and more below, and check out Chris Ackerman's official site here for more info.
Got news? Click here to submit it!
Rock the bells in our comments section below!