Indie Horror Month Interview: Writer/Director Christopher R. Witherspoon Talks Rage, His Previous Life as an Effects Artist and More
For his feature film debut Christopher R. Witherspoon takes to the streets of Portland, Oregon to unleash his own inner demons in the violent thriller Rage, which features anonymous stalker "The Biker", who hunts down an unsuspecting man after a harmless taunt results in vicious terror.
Writer/director Witherspoon also stars in the flick as the faceless killer, and in honor of his newest project Dread Central caught up with the up-and-coming filmmaker to hear more about his career as well as his experiences working on Rage and what's up next for him.
Read on for our interview with Witherspoon below, and for more check out the official Rage website.
Dread Central: For those who may be unfamiliar, can you tell us a bit about your background, what got you into filmmaking and your career before Rage?
Christopher Witherspoon: As far back as I can remember I’ve wanted to make films. I love film, it comes in second only to the love I have for my three children. As a kid I was exposed to all kinds of movies, every genre… dramas, westerns, Blaxploitation, comedies and my favorite, horror movies.
I actually started making my first little movies shortly after seeing Star Wars for the first time. It blew me away and impacted me so much that I asked my mother to buy me a film camera and she did. My first camera was a Bolex 280 Macrozoom Super 8 movie camera; I was around 11 or 12 years old and I went nuts filming everything I could and after a while I started scripting ideas and used my family and friends as actors. The majority of my little films were horror and sic-fi flicks; one of these days I have to visit my dad’s house in Los Angeles and dig through all of my old boxes and see if I can find those movies.
Before Rage I worked on many films, in a variety of positions, over the years but one of the coolest jobs was working as an effects artist. Many years ago I met awesome effects guru John Carl Buechler at a Fangoria Convention in Los Angeles; he was one of the celebrity guest there. Anyway, when I got the chance I cornered him I showed him this little puppet creature that I had made and he thought that it was cool enough to invite me to visit his make-up effects shop. On the day I visited his shop, I met Bob Kurtzman, Everett Burrell and Howard Burger who were already working there; I had a great time and by the end of the visit he offered me a job.
During my time there I worked on films like Re-Animator, From Beyond, Ghoulies and many others. They were really cool films to work on but the one that I had the best time working on was Re-Animator, it was a blast. My main job was creating some very low-tech mechanics for the fiberglass under structure of the Dr. Carl Hill severed head; I incorporated some mechanics that gave the head some basic movement- blinking, moving eyes and some mouth movement. I remember it was a lot of hard work and long, long hours but definitely worth it.
After my time in effects, I went on to work on producing and directing commercials and music videos. I also developed a children’s television show called "Hubble" that fell apart a week before it was to start production and that kind of soured me on the business for a while. Several years after that I decided to make a feature called Middle Man, a drama which did the film festival circuit back in 2004, but that was about it. In 2008 I started my company Big Screen Ventures and ultimately made Rage.
Dread Central: So what inspired you to make Rage? Can you talk a bit about your approach to the story and how much did real-life road rage play into this story?
Christopher Witherspoon: The decision to make Rage came about because the project that I really wanted to make would of cost too much money to produce so I decided to make a much smaller film. Working from a very, very limited budget standpoint I understood that whatever film I selected to produce was going to have to meet a certain criteria. One, it was going to have to have a limited cast and two, the story itself would have to take place over the duration of just with the locations being kept to a minimum. Although these three things where very important, they were not the only determining factors but they were some of the most important when budgeting.
For instance, a bigger cast would mean more people to pay and more mouths to feed and having the story itself take place over something like a 12 or 24 hour period saves money on things like wardrobe. Continuity is easier and keeping the production limited to only a few locations is a big money and time saver. A couple of films that did all of this successfully were The Cube and the first Saw film; the only one of these rules that I did not totally adhere to was the 'limited locations' rule.
The idea for Rage came from two places but neither was from a real life road rage incident. The first was from things that were taking place in my personal life at that time; for two years my children’s mother and I had been going through a horrible custody battle and anyone that’s ever had to do this will tell you it’s a very, very traumatic process. It was during this time that the idea for Rage started to form.
The second part came from the Steven Spielberg 1971 film classic Duel; the friction between my ex and myself came from the fact that I was having an affair and she found out and that brought about a very destructive end to our relationship. Regretfully our three completely innocent children were the biggest victims of the whole affair and as a filmmaker, the only way for me to deal with what was happening was to write about it.
Also, for me to be interested in a project I have to find some way to connect with it on a personal level so I started thinking about how the decisions that I made caused so much destruction to not only my life but the lives of those closes to me. Also around this time, I was up late one night and Duel happen to be on television so I watched it and was amazed that after all these years it was still such an effective movie.
At that point I had an epiphany, which I believe was very cathartic in retrospect; I took the things that happen in my personal life and formed the majority of the subtext of the film and Duel would serve as the inspiration for the surface story. For example, the idea of being pursued by a faceless antagonist who wants to destroy you for reasons that you are not completely aware of; once I had this concept in mind the script was very easy to write.
Dread Central: I thought it was pretty impressive that in addition to writing and directing, you're also the killer in the movie. What made you decide to tackle the role and was it hard juggling roles that required you to be in front of and behind the camera simultaneously?
Christopher Witherspoon: I get this question a lot and I always tell people that it’s definitely not a vanity thing or that I’m some kind of control freak. I wear a lot of hats on my films because of necessity; I’ve never had a lot of money to work with so instead of having to beg someone to come on board and perform a job for little or no money I have found it easier to just do it myself. I fit the physical build of The Biker (6’2”, 250lbs) and I’ve been on motorcycles my whole life. Plus I was going to be there every day anyway and most importantly I worked for free.
It wasn’t too hard doing several things at one time because when you love doing something as much as I love making films; it just never feels like work. Doing all of the things that I did on Rage seem natural to me and wearing multiple hats just means that you have to do a lot more prep work.
Dread Central: So how did production on Rage go; any difficulties along the way?
Christopher Witherspoon: To be honest things went pretty fantastic and I believe that was because I had some pretty awesome co-producers in Darrell Smith, Suzanne Mitchell and Shawn Smith. They worked very hard to make it easy for me to focus on just making the movie and I also think it was because the actors and I had a very good rapport with each other and talked at length about their characters before we ever filmed a single scene; this was another big part for why things also worked so well.
Dread Central: A lot of the movie and the marketing for Rage has this 'throwback' vibe to it; how intentional was that (and it is all badass by the way) on your part?
Christopher Witherspoon: Well I’d have to say yes, it was intentional because in a sense the 'production style' of Rage is kind of who I am; the films that I love the most were made in the 70’s and the 80’s so those films from that era heavily influence me- films like The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, Jaws, Friday the 13th- and the list goes on and on.
Dread Central: Tension was the key to the success of Rage I believe; did it resonate with you while making the movie just how much tension and atmosphere would play into this story or was that something you realized in the post-production process?
Christopher Witherspoon: Yes, even during the scripting phase I wanted Rage to have a great amount of tension and suspense. My all-time favorite director is Alfred Hitchcock and I’ve always been amazed at how he was able create so much tension and suspense in his movies. It is something that I will always try to inject into my films.
And yes the editing process was a great opportunity to enhance those scenes with tension in them; it is very interesting at how a movie gets to its finish product. It is very true that when making a movie you have three periods of great opportunities to drastically affect the overall tone of a movie; the first is when you script it, the second is when you shoot it and the third is when you edit it.
Dread Central: What's up next for you then? Any plans on staying within the genre in the future?
Christopher Witherspoon: I will most definitely be staying in the horror genre with my next film and most likely every film after that. Next for me is a horror anthology entitled The Twilight Hotel and as I mentioned before, I originally wanted to make The Twilight Hotel before Rage but it would have cost too much to make and I just couldn’t raise that kind of money. Now things have changed a bit.
The idea for this film came out of a question I’ve asked myself for years- what would have happened if Alfred Hitchcock had directed episodes of the Twilight Zone? The story takes place in an old 1920s rundown art deco hotel where people of dubious character check into and must deal with their personal demons, literally. The film will have all the trademark suspense and mystery of Hitchcock and the surprise twist endings and supernatural aspects of the Twilight Zone; it’s going to be a great movie and we’re also hoping to spin it off into a cable series for somebody like HBO or Showtime.
And if there is anyone who was disappointed that Rage didn’t have enough gore in it then they’ll be happy to hear that this film is going to be very, very, very gory. I hope to have funding in place as soon as possible and am looking to start production by the end of the year.
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