Indie Horror Month Exclusive: Christian Ackerman Talks Hell's Belles and More
Just a few weeks ago, Dread Central had the privilege of hosting the online premiere of Christian Ackerman's horror comedy short Hell's Belles which follows two badass chicks that are called upon to battle a demonic entity that has captured a young girl and is holding her as his prisoner.
Starring Ariel Teal Toombs, Mayra Rodriguez, Trista Robinson, Bonjah and James Cavlo, Hell's Belles was also written by Ackerman and produced by Drina Durazo. For Indie Horror Month 2013, we recently caught up with Ackerman to hear more about his latest short film as well as more on his plans to develop Hell's Belles into a feature film project and more. Check out all the highlights from our interview below!
Dread Central: So what inspired you to write this story about these two female badasses that deal with demonic forces?
Christian Ackerman: Well, a few years ago, I imagined a scene involving a gorgeous female mortician driving a hearse. That developed into compiling notes for a feature. Before I started actually writing, I decided to make it into a short and then write the feature while I was waiting for the festival responses. In the short, she works at a small-town cemetery during the day and moonlights with her best friend as a paranormal investigator. In the feature, the girls no nothing about magic or the supernatural, and eventually turn into badasses after being forced to fight a horde of demons. To make the short possible, I shaped the idea into a stand-alone piece that showcases the two lead characters, the supernatural elements, and the style of humor I was infusing into the feature.
Dread Central: You balance a lot of comedic elements in this story but you still have all those supernatural elements at play as well; was that difficult to balance them out since if you go too far one way, you become a farce and if you go too far the other way, you run the risk of losing the humor that really sells this crazy story?
Christian Ackerman: I had to make the situation serious in order to balance the fun. Then I could give the demon a sick sense of humor so he could get a few laughs. The best part about making this short before I wrote the feature was to offer myself a testing ground to see what could work. I was able to sit with audiences and see what they responded to. The interesting part is that each audience reacted to each humorous moment differently. I would see a joke not get a laugh at one screening and get a big laugh at the next. I learned that: one- you can't please everyone every time, two- you have to trust your instincts and have confidence in those decisions, and three- the better you set up an unexpected moment, the better the response you'll receive. My writing partner, Chuck Foster and I used this knowledge to strengthen what we were writing in the feature version.
Dread Central: Talk about your casting process for Hell's Belles and how your actors came on board, particularly your two lovely leads that had some great chemistry together.
Christian Ackerman: I first saw Ariel Teal Toombs (Adria Blackmoor) in a short film while I was working on a few projects with her dad. I then ran into her at a Fangoria convention a few years back. After I wrote the short, I took her to lunch to see if she was right for the character. Her dark sense of humor meshed well with mine and I realized she was perfect to play Adria. Also, seeing that her dad is Roddy Piper, she has an inherent, take-no-bullshit-badass-motherfucker beneath the seemingly innocent visage.
When we held auditions for Helena, Ariel's sharp wit and quick improvisation skills had me laughing my ass off. With that kind of presence, whoever played Helena needed to be just as strong. After seeing about 30 girls for the part, Mayra Rodriguez walked in at the end of the last day. Helena is a tough, vulgar, act-first, think-later kind of girl. She read with our producer, Drina Durazo, and killed it. To top it off, she had the skills, the accent I wanted, and was hilarious. We were sold.
Dread Central: Where did you guys shoot Hell's Belles?
Christian Ackerman: I spent a few days driving around the outskirts of Los Angeles, searching for the perfect barn. I knocked on a ton of doors, went to horse stables, got dirty looks on the back roads of secluded ranches, and saw some scary places. Some friends of mine shot a commercial at a great barn in Fillmore, but didn't have the address. After a long day of asking everyone in town, I found it. I knocked on the door of a nearby house belonging to an elderly couple who almost pulled out their shotgun on me. Luckily, they were nice and gave me the number of the owner, who allowed us to shoot there for a reduced fee. We shot the daytime hearse scenes on the nearby country roads.
Since we had 14 pages to shoot over two 30 degree nights with a skeletal crew, we had no time to mess around. I researched the Farmer's Almanac and found out it had rained an inch total over the past ten years. What happened? It rained on the night we scheduled our exteriors. When the rain finally stopped, we had to haul ass to make our night. Luckily, we bought propane heaters and had crew of friends, so the situation didn't turn to mutiny.
We also had problems with actors dropping out last minute, finding a good weekend to schedule all 25 people, and securing any available friends to crew for our cinematographer, Cameron Duncan (Longmire, Southland).
Dread Central: I thought Hell's Belles has a great slick look to it, can you discuss the shooting style you guys went for, particularly with some of those car shots in the opening which I thought were fantastic?
Christian Ackerman: Thanks! Cameron and I realized it'd be tough to shoot that many pages without being as fast as possible, so we went with a two-camera, handheld approach for a majority of it. I dislike the intentionally shaky, documentary-style of shooting narrative films, so we shot as steady as possible. Of course, having two cameras can be great, but it also causes complications, especially when you have a small crew. I've done many projects with Cameron since college, so I know he can produce a great image utilizing whatever I could afford to give him.
For the moving hearse scenes, we rented a suction cup mount and stuck the camera to the inside of the windshield and to the hood. We mounted a GoPro onto the fender for the other shots. The hearse was fun. I'll be buying one when I get that first big check someday.
Dread Central: I thought the demon make-up was rather impressive especially considering when you're making a short you don't have the biggest budget at your disposal- can you tell us more about the artists behind the creature?
Christian Ackerman: Somehow, I'm lucky enough to have such talented friends willing to help me out. I befriended Dan Crawley and Chris Hampton on Dead and Gone in 2006. They've worked on huge projects like Watchmen, The Avengers, Thor, Star Trek, Benjamin Button, The Hobbit, and True Blood. I wanted the demon to look as badass as possible. If he looked scary, the humor would work. Dan and Chris kicked ass and eventually collected a few festival awards for it.
Also, we can't forget Bonjah, who blew us all away portraying the demon Beleth, and Hilda Marquez for designing his costume. What the hell do demons wear? I have no clue, but we gave it a good shot!
Dread Central: You mentioned that you're planning on developing Hell's Belles into a feature film- what aspects of the story in the short are you going to be bringing to the feature and how do you plan on expanding this world? Will we see more monsters and creatures and adventures for our leads?
Christian Ackerman: Adria, Helena, and Beleth are the characters returning for the feature. Adria is a mortician at her father's struggling cemetery, which is about to be overtaken by their ruthless rival. When a portal opens in the cemetery and unleashes a horde of demons, ghouls and goblins out to collect her soul, she has to regain her father's cemetery while fighting to survive the night.
Chuck and I have had a blast writing it. Our goal is to make it into a trilogy following Adria and Helena's adventures into Hell. Dread Central: Anything else you've got coming up?
Christian Ackerman: In the spring, I plan on directing my next horror-comedy, a haunted house short Chuck and I wrote called Son of a Bitch. In the meantime, we're focusing on finding representation, getting Hell's Belles-the feature made and continuing the short's festival run.
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