Shriekfest 2011: Exclusive Q&A with Filmmaker Travis Betz: The Dead Inside
In the horror musical The Dead Inside, we meet tortured young lovers Wes and Fi, and while their love for each other burns strong, artistically their hearts have been locked in a box for years. Wes is a burned out photographer paying the bills by shooting weddings, and Fi is the writer's blocked author of a series of zombie novellas called "The Dead Survive."
When Fi begins to show signs of schizophrenia, Wes does everything in his power to help her get better. Strange behaviors and breathing patterns escalate; soon he discovers that darker forces lurk inside her. Afraid and completely lost, Wes has no choice but to imprison his girlfriend until he can figure out what to do with the evil that has taken over his true love.
Dread Central recently caught up with writer/director Travis Betz on the eve of his screening at the upcoming Shriekfest Film Festival in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 1st, at 9:30 pm to talk about his unique horror musical, putting a twist on the ever-popular zombie subgenre of cinema and his distinctive approach to storytelling.
Dread Central: Can you talk a bit about where you came up with the story for The Dead Inside, and had you planned to make it a musical from the start?
Travis Betz:Funny story actually. Both my girlfriend and I had been creatively dead for quite some time. We kept trying to get inspired, but nothing was clicking. One night I woke up to one of the creepiest sounds I can ever remember hearing. The woman I love was sleeping next to me, but it sounded like some horrible entity was trapped inside her and trying to communicate. She was making this moaning sound (no, not sexy moaning), and it was damn creepy. I shook her awake and told her. She shrugged me off and went back to sleep. The minute the Sandman reclaimed her, she was doing it again. Inhale. Moan. Inhale. Mooooan. This went on for almost a week. I had to sleep on the couch because I couldn't get any sleep. Turns out it was a rare condition that occurs sometimes when people catch a bad cold, but damnit if it didn't sound like a ghost was pushing on her lungs.
This opened up a conversation about possession, and the more we started talking about it, the more we realized that we were excited and inspired! Ideas began to flow, and I was putting the story together in my head...but it still wasn't coming out onto paper (computer screen, the paper of the future!). It wasn't until I saw my lead actress, Sarah Lassez, on stage singing at a karaoke bar that I realized I had always wanted to make a musical, and this had to be the missing piece. And it was! The minute I decided my characters would break out into ghostly songs is the moment I was able to start writing. From there, all went rather smooth.
DC: With zombies being everywhere these days, was it tough to put your own twist on that subgenre in particular- which I feel like you succeeded at?
Betz:Thanks a million! That means a lot. I don't think it was really all that tough, mostly because when you really step back and look at it, this isn't a zombie film. This is a movie about three lost souls (two alive and one dead), and since the zombies live in the character's head, they can do anything I wish them to do. In this case they are an extension of our leads.
The thing Romero always does so well is use zombies as a mapping device for other issues, emotions and characters. I think that's when zombies work best. In the case of The Dead Inside, they represent our leads who feel dead and trapped.
DC: When you have a movie that's just a cast of two, I would think it's safe to say that you have to be very confident in your actors. Can you talk about what your casting process was like?
Betz:Since I knew when I started writing that it was a two-person story (two actors who end up playing three characters each), I immediately started thinking of who I had in my bag of actors that would rock these parts. I knew I wanted to use Sarah because I had worked with her in a previous film of mine, Lo. Not to mention I saw her singing when the final nugget of inspiration struck so I put her in my pocket while I was writing and I liked visualizing her as the story unfolded. She's an actress who will bring everything she has to the table even if you are chaining her down to said table.
The male lead was a bit trickier. I had a lot of great actor friends I knew would knock it out of the park, but the problem was that many of them were not strong singers. At the time I was still answering phones at a management company, and the guy who ran packages for that company was an actor who just happened to sing. I had gotten to know him pretty well over the couple years we worked together and had even seen in him some stage shows. There was something about him that was very similar to the character I was writing. He was a good guy, a fun lovin' guy, but a guy who was nonetheless in a dark place in his life creatively. I watched him for a couple weeks and decided that he was my man. Both actors said yes, and we pushed forward from there.
DC:I think it's safe to assume between all your different projects that you have a very distinct storytelling approach to the horror genre, and I was wondering if you could talk more about that and what influences you as a filmmaker.
Betz:I grew up (like so many in my genre) with The Evil Dead and An American Werewolf in London. Those two films alone educated my senses and told me that movies can be different. They can be fun and horrifying. They can be risky and have heart. They can even be rough around the edges. All I have ever done while writing or shooting is tried to tell a story that interested me. I've never cared for the demographics or the international market or proper structure of storytelling- those work for some people; I just don't like 'em. I like being me. Sure I'm dirt poor, but damnit, I really like what I do. I try as much as I can to stay true to myself. That might cut me off from the general public, but it has given me a very amazing fan base of passionate people and artists. I could never honestly tell you where or how or why I tell a certain story; I know the types of filmmakers who I admire and that helps a lot.
But at the end of the creative day I just do what inspires me and whatever is in my head that has to get out.
DC: I know Lo ended up being a rather successful independent film for you. Were there lessons you learned while making that film that you were able to apply while making The Dead Inside?
Betz:Time management would be a big one. We shot Lo in five days, and in hindsight that was silly. I lost a lot of great shots in that movie because of our time constraint. With The Dead Inside we spaced it out over two and a half months on the weekends with no definitive end date, and our plan was that we would shoot until we were done.
DC: I noticed that you also do quite a bit of acting, too- is there a role (writer, director, producer) that you prefer more? Can you also talk a little bit about Dust Up with Amber Benson because I thought it sounded rather interesting.
Betz:Let me start off by saying that Dust Up is gonna blow your mind. I'm very proud that I was asked to be a part of that movie. I am not an actor by trade, but I do rather enjoy it. I am not trying to pursue a career in it ( I don't have head shots and I do not audition), but if someone is kind enough to want me in their movie...well shit, let's play!
Ward Roberts was that guy this time around. I had cast him in Joshua, my first feature film, and also in Lo. We also used to do improv comedy together in college so we're very comfortable writing for each other. He gave me a super awesome part as a meth head desert rat named Herman, and we spent over a month in the desert shooting that thing. I have recently seen the locked picture...and it's bad fucking ass. It's a modern western/action/comedy with loads of fun violence.
All that being said, the role I enjoy most is the writer. I started off as a writer, and it has always been my favorite.
DC: Lo was another feature of yours that has been a part of the Shriekfest Film Festival- how good does it feel to be back with The Dead Inside?
Betz:It feels like giving an old girlfriend a booty call and then realizing that you actually really like her and maybe you two should get back together. We had a great time at Shriekfest two years ago, and we took home the audience award. I was thrilled when we were asked back with The Dead Inside. They really treat the filmmakers great, and I love that it's in L.A.
DC: What's coming up next for you now that The Dead Inside is making the festival rounds?
Betz:Lots and lots! I currently make one short film every week and post it on Thursdays on my YouTube channel. That's been a blast as I get to write and direct a new story every week, but it's also exhausting. I am also currently in pre-production on a pilot/web series I am creating that will be in the horror-comedy genre. Aside from that, I am just starting the new script for a sci-fi comedy I would like to shoot next year. I am busy as hell, and I kind love every minute of it...except when I don't love every minute of it...but that is rare.
For more hit up the official The Dead Inside website!
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