Shriekfest 2011: Exclusive Q&A with Filmmaker Micah Levin
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.
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