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Horror Business: Indie Horror Filmmaking Lessons from PLEDGE

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Pledge is a recent indie horror gem from filmmaking team Mark Rapaport, Daniel Robbins, and Zack Weiner. Best friends since high school, they went on to make low-budget horror movies under their innovative indie production company, Stag Pictures. Prior to Pledge, Stag Pictures put out Uncaged, a teen werewolf horror thriller from 2016.

The film follows three hapless college kids as they attempt to pledge for a highly exclusive fraternity and are subsequently subjected to a sadistic gauntlet of unspeakably horrific hazing rituals. It mixes humor and horror in a well-balanced and thoroughly engaging narrative with main characters you genuinely care about. At the same time, Pledge manages to effortlessly delve into themes of elitism and bullying in a way that’s timely and relevant without being heavy-handed. 

In addition to being a downright great time of a movie, Pledge is a prime example of an intelligently produced, lean and mean indie horror film that looks and feels way more expensive than it actually is. It also introduces a particularly strong horror mythology that is ripe with possibilities for sequels. I’d personally love to see Pledge unfold into a franchise!

We sat down with Daniel Robinson (director), Zack Weiner (writer and actor), and Zach Byrd (one of the main actors) from Pledge, and explored their key lessons of indie horror filmmaking. Before we begin, here are three key insights from the guys of Pledge.

  • It’s all about the Director of Photography (DP). Your DP is the person who can make your low-budget movie sing with production value. Have you ever started watching a super low-budget movie, and because of the low production value you find yourself completely checking out? It feels snobby to say but in order to psychologically believe a movie, it has to have a level of quality that translates to believability. This is critically important when making your first few films. The low-budget look can be a kiss of death for first-time filmmakers which is why it’s so important to imbue your movies with the highest production value possible. So take the time needed to find yourself an incredible Director of Photography, because they are the one who is going to show you how to make the movie you want to make.
  • Turn your cast and crew into a brain trust. If there’s a technical challenge on set, a flaw in the script, or any kind of hiccup during production, toss the challenge out to your cast and crew to help solve. When filming, you have dozens of creative people all around you, and chances are, someone on your set has dealt with the same issue before or will approach the problem from a different perspective than you. Your job as the director isn’t necessarily to have all the answers. Instead, your job is to find all the answers. Your cast and your crew can be your best problem solvers and collaborators. Not to utilize them is a wasted opportunity.
  • Create a director checklist. Dan has a whole list of specific pieces of advice and insight from other directors. For every movie he works on, Dan picks five specific insights that are relevant to that movie and he turns them into a checklist. Then he checks off each point every day of filming to make sure he is maximizing his opportunity as director. Dan also took a cue from what Coppola did on The Godfather and got in the habit of writing out all the potential pitfalls of each scene to ensure they worked as well as possible. If you’re reading this, you probably read director interviews and watch feature-length commentaries, so start your own list. EVERNOTE is a great way to do this. Wouldn’t you want to walk on set with a checklist of advice from people like Coppola, Scorsese, and Tarantino? Make your list, and keep it with you when you shoot.
  • Key Resources: 
    • Books Mentioned: Making Movies by Sidney Lumet, Kazan on Directing by Elia Kazan, Rebel Without a Crew by the incredible Robert Rodriguez (personal favorite), and Go into the Story, a screenwriting blog series by Scott Myers on The Blacklist 

Dread Central: Guys, thanks for being here.

Zack Weiner: Thank you for having us.

DC: So let’s talk about Pledge. How did the movie come to be, how did you guys come together? How did this thing get made? What’s the story behind it all?

ZW: Well, Daniel and I and our third producer Mark, all went to high school together. We have been making videos since I was a freshman in high school and Daniel was a junior. We made a movie called Uncaged. Daniel and Mark wrote, and Daniel directed, and I acted in it and it was a really great experience. So we wanted to do it again, and I had this idea for a horror comedy about hazing.

Daniel Robbins: Yeah, the one bad thing is that we really wanted to shoot in July, ’cause we had everything going, and he came up with the idea in late April. So it gave us a really short timeline to get it made.

DC: Oh wow.

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DR: Even on set the script still wasn’t fully done. Zack calls it an evolving script. So the actors complained that they never had a chance to learn their lines overnight, but others would say that it kept them on their toes, because they would get pages on the day and have to learn the lines immediately.  So it led to a nice electricity.

DC: Was there a lot of improv because of that?

DR: Yeah. But improv in the French sense: from the script, which led to a lot of good lines. It was an important lesson, at least for me, not to be so precious with these lines, ’cause a better one’s a better one. 

DC: Pledge seemed to speak to larger symbolic themes of today. There’s obviously an element of elitism and Trump-ism in there, and bullying. Were you trying to tap into any of that at all? Or was it the collective unconscious or whatever you wanna call it?

ZW: I think it was the collective unconscious. I mean, I was on a bus going to see a Trump speech. I thought it was a novelty at that point and I was curious what it would be like. I thought he was never gonna speak again, so I was on my way to a Trump speech when I had the idea.

DC: That’s crazy.

ZW: So maybe it was subconsciously, but consciously I thought it would make for a fun story.

DR: And that’s what we really focused on, just getting the story as fun and upsetting as possible.

DC: Nice.

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DR: All these frat movies are about acceptance. We tried to make it about something different, to keep it interesting, so for us it was about elitism, and that’s the underpinning of the movie.

DC: Nice. Would love to go back to Uncaged. How did that come about? That was essentially your breakout film, right?

DR: Breakout is a generous word. It was our first film. That was my third year at NYU, and over that winter break, Mark and I, we were roommates. We decided that we really wanted to make a comedy movie, but then my friends at BoulderLight Pictures, JD and Ralphie, who made the horror film Contracted, they said, “If you make a comedy, it will be the last film you ever make.  You’re not gonna get your money back.” So we said, “Okay, what should we do?” They said, “Make a horror movie.” So we came up with Uncaged. We made it for a very low budget, and we shot it in three and a half weeks.

DC: Whoa.

DR: And then it sold to RLJ who sold it to Netflix. That was back when Netflix was taking pretty much anything. It was on there for two years and we learned a lot.

DC: Nice. How did you pull all the financing together in the beginning?

DR: It was all friends of friends. Family friends, and a lot of me, Mark and two of my other good friends.

ZW: And micro donations.

DR:  Yeah.

DC: Oh that’s awesome.

DR: People putting like two grand, or five grand. 

ZW: A hundred dollars, from a lot of dentists.

DR: One thing that also helped for a lot of people chipping in money was we had the sales agent, our friends BoulderLight, locked on beforehand and they had a good track record.  So it seemed like a pretty safe bet that we would get some channel.

ZW: A lot of people said no, since you can invest in any asset in the world, you don’t wanna put your money in a film–and I would always go with the pitch: “This movie is gonna be so good, this is how much money you can make.” But once I changed it to, “Okay look, even if it’s really bad, we’re making it for so little, that you’ll get it back.” Then people were like, “Alright, here.”

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DC: The branding scene was so brutal, it may have been the hardest part of the movie to watch.

DR: We weren’t sure if that scene would ever work, so when we looked for an editor, our two producers, had the idea of narrowing it down to four or five. Then we sent all of that footage to four editors and they all cut a version of the scene, and we went with the editor who had the best version. That was Nik Voytas, in Burbank.

DC: So you weren’t working with a super high budget.

ZW: It was $180,000.

DC: No way.

DR: 10,000 Kickstarter.

DC: Holy shit, really? $180? Damn, it looked amazing! Easily looks like something Blumhouse could’ve made.

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ZW: Yeah, a big part of that is William Babcock, who’s the DP. He knows how to make something look really good on a budget. Yeah, we looked for someone who’d be able to do that.  One of the reasons we liked him a lot was that his experience was mainly gaffing, and a lot of DPs obsess over camera, but cinematography is maybe 90% lighting and then 10% knowing the camera–so knowing that, we felt, would give him a big advantage.

And in his reel, he had a real POV of what he was doing, where some reels would just be well-lit and kind of have even lighting, and you could tell they had a pretty traditional lighting setup, but he would do things like, light a whole scene with one key that’s behind the character. And we said, “This guy can make things look a little more stylized,” because the whole movie takes place indoors. We knew that someone with that lighting creativity would be good and he was just awesome.

DR: One other thing about it. Going into production, I was really scared giving away a script that wasn’t fully finished. But I think the best possible thing is not having a full plan, but surrounding yourself with not just talented people, but opinionated people. We had a lot of arguments on set.

DC: What kind of arguments?

ZW: The way we would block the scene lines, I had some actors that would argue with me about monologues that I’d written, and they would try to rewrite with me. 

DR: In the final fight scene when—(SPOILER ALERT) Zach Byrd over here survives and he has to kill Max. In the fight, he needs to get a knife and we just couldn’t figure out how to get him a knife in a realistic way. And everyone was pitching these ideas … eventually we came up with the idea of, if the other guy gets stabbed in the right way and he falls near him, he could take the knife out of him. Ideas are a lot cheaper than I realized.

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DC: So you pretty much punted the brainstorming process to the entire cast and crew?

DR: Yeah, and everyone was pitching ideas. But I’ll also say, to give it a caveat, the reason you’re able to have these creative conversations and still get it done is having a badass like Jeff Shiffman as your AD.

ZW: Without Jeff Shiffman, we would not have gotten the movie done. Sometimes you had to say “Okay, someone has to make a decision here. We have to move forward. We’ve gotta get things in the can or we’re not going to get through everything.”

DR: The AD is the most important hire on a low-budget indie, ’cause they’re really the captain of the ship, that’s about the schedule and making the movie happen. An AD that can work your resources in the right way and be creative and make the movie a lot better. 

DR: And the last crew member to shout out is Clarisa Garcia-Fresco, who is the production designer.

ZW: Everyone on set contributed something. Whether it was a small idea, a line, a piece of set design.

DC: But that ownership has got to be really inspiring for the crew, because they feel like they’re a part of something and that their voice matters, and because of that, they’ll naturally work way harder and have more faith in you and appreciate you as the director/producer. So yeah, I think there’s something huge to that idea.

DR: Yeah, it’s true. If you give people autonomy and a sense of ownership, then that’s a pretty good environment for them to do their best work, so this knocks out auteur theory where one person has the whole thing in mind from start to finish. This was really just collaborative and it’s crazy.

DC: Sounds like it’s a fine line though, you have to project authority and they have to know that you have a vision and a plan or at least they need to think that you do, but you also need to be the kind of director who isn’t so precious about their ‘vision’ and can take good ideas and utilize them, and listen to other people when they have input. It sounds like that is the ideal balance for a happy, healthy, productive set.

DR: Yeah, you said that better than me. Thank you.

ZW: I think production value is something where you use your limitations to your advantage. My dad would always tell me about Knife on the Water. Polanski didn’t have a lot of money, so he filmed it all on a boat. And automatically, the film becomes about the tension of how you don’t want to go off the boat. 

If you can get talented people working for you, that doesn’t have to be where the money goes. Finding the right location creates this built-in production value and then you really can catch on.

DR: And just a lot of close-ups, because an actor takes up most of the frame. The rest is out of focus and the shot looks the same. But once you go to wides that’s when you’re gonna show your budget.

ZB: You just gave away the secret sauce!

DR: Yeah so keep it tight as long as you can, like Good Time is pretty much all close ups.

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DC: So, seeing the movie in its finished form, what would you have invested more in, and what would you have invested less in? I don’t necessarily mean money. It could be time, effort, energy or money…

ZW: I think we could’ve invested more in sound … It was all done by one person, so it took him a really long time. We probably could’ve finished the movie, like, six months earlier. Because getting that right really takes a long time. 

DC: Where did you shoot, by the way?

DR: We shot the film in an Airbnb in New Rochelle, New York. So that’s like thirty minutes north of here and the drone shot was near Ramapo College in New Jersey.

DC: Did the Airbnb hosts know you were filming a movie?

DR: Yeah, we thought about telling them it was a rom-com but we had to be transparent.

DC: It’s a mindblower, that that whole fraternity house was somebody’s home.

DR: Yeah, an Airbnb, you can stay there for $230 a night. But it did look completely different, ’cause Clarissa did incredible work to it.

DC: Did you guys all live in the house as you filmed?

DR: Yeah, I lived in it. 

ZW: I was with Mark, the producer, at our friend’s house, who was the third producer. So it was a lot of housing arrangements. This really was the tone of the overall movie, accepting a degree of unpleasantness and not getting along.

DC: How long were you guys filming?

DR: Eighteen days.

DC: Oh wow, that’s a quick shoot.

DR: The last thing to invest time in is the cast, ’cause finding people is really, really hard and it takes a long time.  So we started casting before the script was even done, because we knew that it would take a few months to find these incredible dudes, like Zach Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Aaron Dalla Villa, Cameron, Joe, Jean-Louis. 

ZW: The internet’s your oyster if you do it right. Like Backstage and Casting Networks.

DR: It just takes a long time.

ZW: Yeah, also, ultimately, you don’t want to get hooked on types. We were very open to types. That was our starting point and the general archetype of what we were trying to fill, but there’s so many thousands of people. We were looking for how much of their actual personality they could bring into it, which I think went a long way.

DR: Yeah, it’s great seeing both of them in the same scene together ’cause Zach Byrd is one of the most well trained actors that I’ve ever worked with. He has like two degrees, he’s like a machine and he can just lock in immediately. And then Zack Weiner’s the most untrained actor that I’ve ever worked with, and he kind of buys into the Aaron Paul method of acting, of “Oh, I just pretend to be the part and hopefully it works out,” but he’s very good at improv, because in Zack’s household everyone just says whatever they want, so they don’t really tie themselves down with inhibition. So Zack is really good at just responding to exactly what’s in front of him with a genuine reaction. It works really well on the scene. And then they made for a great dynamic together.

DC: There was a lot of good chemistry among all of the actors. Did you guys do a lot of rehearsing?

DR: We would talk about the scene and get a lot of the improv or script ideas correct before we started shooting, but we kind of just rolled with it for a while. We did one read-through before the movie with the whole cast, and then we started.

DC: Were there any books or resources that legitimately helped you with your careers?

DR: The two directing books I’ve read were KazanOn Directing and then Sid Lumet’s Making Movies. Those were the two books that I think helped the most in terms of advice. And this is a new thing, but video essays are incredible now.

DC: Video essays?

DR: Yeah, they’re channels on YouTube that dissect film and show technique. I can learn more there than I have in classes at NYU. 

DC: That’s cool.

ZW: For me, Rebel Without a Crew. And Werner Herzog, some of his quotes are so funny … but the thing I took away most, is there’s no excuse for it not to get done. As long as you have a camera and people are working with you, it should get finished once you start it. 

And from a writing perspective I’d say, the biggest help is Into the Story, Scott Meyers’ blog. … He had a rule. You read one script a week, you write seven pages a week, it was some, like, algorithm of what you do per week. So from reading that, which was 2016, I’ve been trying to keep some version of that.

ZB: I come from the academic perspective, but I do think ultimately that you just have to find the process that speaks to you the most, and that’s going to be something that’s very individual to every artist. For me, I had a couple of teachers that just brought things out of me that I didn’t otherwise understand, on my own.

There’s a book I really like called The Actor and The Target by Declan Donnellan. He’s a Russian theater guy that sort of takes the Meisner technique and puts it in a different light. It’s helpful because not every actor on set’s a Meisner actor, so you can’t really rely upon a lot of those techniques that are pretty quintessential.

ZW: Last thing is, lose your mind. I think it helps to just literally be crazy and don’t worry about your ideas making sense. Don’t worry about them being smart.

DC: Just go.

DR: Throw a high volume of ideas that are emotionally important to you and when you’re crazy, you’ll have a lot of things that are emotionally important to you that don’t make sense. No one else understands why it’s important to you. I know it’s kind of a weird idea.

DC: No, it makes sense, though.

DR: The last thing for directing, I have a whole fifty-page doc of all these insights I saved from other directors. Then I narrowed it down to one checklist that I could just have every day, of things I don’t forget. I only remember parts of it, but the first is, “Never give in.” ‘Cause I’m always tempted, if I’m tired or if I feel guilty just to say, “Okay, that’s good enough,” and I always need a reminder, “No, don’t give in, it’s the only chance.” 

And Michelle Mclarin, who directed a lot of Breaking Bad episodes, said that one thing you need for every scene is to know your way in and out. Which is just really practical advice, like what’s gonna be that opening shot and what’s gonna be that ending shot. Then everything in between can be in flux, but you have to know that way in and out, and then that can kind of calm you and you can figure out the rest. 

And when Coppola was making The Godfather, he had a list of five things he needed from each scene. One was a summary, the other was pitfalls of what can ruin the scene.  So I tried to make one of those for each scene. Like knowing the exact purpose, then knowing what can ruin it and trying to avoid those.

DC: That’s cool. How’s the film doing, by the way?

DR: Pretty good. We’ve gotten a good reception. We’re going to Hulu. So we’re happy about that and we’re hoping we’ll find a larger audience there.

DC: Awesome.

ZW: IFC Midnight’s been awesome.

DC: Yeah, how did they get involved?

DR: The film got into Fantasia and they saw it at Fantasia and just bought it. And they’re in New York, so we love that.

DC: So what’s next for you guys?

ZW: We are doing a couple of things. Daniel and I are both working on screenplays right now and we’re trying to finish the next one.

DR: Yeah, we’re competing for what the next project will be. 

ZW: Pretty much.

DR: Whoever finishes first is what it’s gonna be. And hopefully we can afford Zach Byrd’s increased salary for the next one.

DC: Cool! This was a whole lot of fun guys. Congrats on Pledge!

ZW: Thank you!

Written by Nick Taylor

Nick Taylor is a producer and journalist specializing in horror cinema. With a background in marketing and PR, in addition to writing for Dread Central Nick hosts a horror-filmmaking podcast called The Nick Taylor Horror Show. The interview-style podcast explores the techniques, strategies, and key pieces of advice for aspiring horror filmmakers, straight from the minds of some of the latest and greatest names in horror today (Joe Dante, Mick Garris, William Lustig, Joe Bob Briggs + more).

Nick is currently producing a documentary on Steve Johnson while working on Zombie Road, a feature-length immersive zombie movie on the Oculus Rift platform that integrates film & real actors into a cinematic video game platform in virtual reality.

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