Interview: Eric Pham’s Battle with Sony Over Slenderman-Esque FLAY
Dread Central is thrilled to bring you an exclusive interview with Flay director Eric Pham. As we reported last March (link below) Pham had to seriously battle in order to bring Flay to fruition. To recap:
In 2017, Eric Pham was contacted by Sony Pictures who claimed his horror film infringed on the studio’s copyright of the fictional character Slenderman. Two years later, after winning a court case against the mega-studio, Pham’s film has been released in his hometown of Austin.
Related Article: Sony Frees FLAY from SLENDER MAN Lawsuit!
Below, we speak to the veteran VFX man turned filmmaker about the ordeal and his past work with Robert Rodriguez.
Flay is now available on VOD. The screenplay was penned by Matthew Daley and stars Violett Beane, Elle LaMont, and A. Michael Baldwin.
Dread Central: So, Eric, before we get into Flay, tell us about your beginnings. How did you get your start in the industry?
Eric Pham: As a creative, I started out as a fine arts painter and visual designer working in Brussels, Belgium for five years before moving to Los Angeles. I knew that I wanted to become a filmmaker and the easiest transition into the field for me was visual effects, specifically compositing. It was all about learning specific softwares that were used for feature films and applying my own sense of visuals.
As I worked in VFX, I began to write, direct and produce my own projects. My first short film was called Kat and it was shot on location at the building where I worked. Because it was my first, I didn’t expect much after submitting to a few festivals. I still remember opening a letter one day and was completely shocked at what I read. I had won a $10,000 Grand Prize out of all the film categories at Showtime Network’s Alternative Media Festival. As you can guess, it gave me a nice boost of confidence to keep me on the path of being a filmmaker.
DC: What was it like working with Robert Rodriguez?
EP: Working with Robert was an ideal training ground for me as a writer/director/producer. I was part of his core team of about six guys who handled all of his feature films’ conceptual development, pre-visualization and visual effects at Troublemaker Studios. Robert is such a creative powerhouse and has a very unique way of working. He bounces from one thing to another in a seamless way that just inspires you to try to do better and reach the next level. Robert is also a musician and so when you hear guitar strumming in the hallways, you know that he is making his rounds to see your work.
After working on dozens of feature films and studios in Hollywood and then with Robert, I could see why Hollywood budgets are often overblown and become unnecessarily excessive. The biggest thing that I learned from Robert is how to be efficient with workflows and making the most out of any shoot. For instance, the green screen stage was on the ground floor and we were on the 2nd floor. It made for easy and fast communication when production and visual effects teams are so close to each other. I even had a camera feed from the stage to my office so I can immediately assemble visual effects shots on the fly and tell Robert what was working and what’s not.
DC: What was your biggest contribution to one of Robert’s films?
EP: It has to be Sin City. I remember loving Frank Miller’s works as a writer and artist since I was young, especially the series of Sin City graphic novels. I was elated to find out that Robert would be directing and that I would be a part of it. There were seven graphic novels and a lot of different stories to choose from. By chance, Robert and I were at the snack room alone together and we started chatted about Sin City. I asked if he had written the script yet and he told me that he was still figuring out things. Keep in mind that was pretty early in the process. The whole team were given copies of the seven graphic novels and everyone was still reading it. I was the only one who had already read all of them years before. I couldn’t help myself and told Robert my favorites and what I thought were the best stories, “The Yellow Bastard”, “The Hard Goodbye”, and “The Big Fat Kill”. Robert nodded and didn’t say much. I think he agreed with me because those stories ended up being the basis for the first Sin City film.
For the look of the film, I was very closely involved in the development of color and style for the proof of concept piece that became the guide for the entire film. The first meeting about Sin City was in Robert’s office. He asked us from the core VFX team, “So how are we going to do this?” This was only my 2nd film with Robert after Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, so I was kind of the new guy and didn’t want to overstep my bounds with the senior guys. I kept silent as I waited for the others to speak first. Silence. No one said anything. It was a long, most uncomfortable 20 seconds that you can imagine. Someone finally spoke and mentioned that we could do it all with CG. There was a blank stare from Robert and then more silence. I finally blurted out, “There’s really only one way that you can do this. To do it right and match the look of the comic, we shoot the characters with real actors on green screen and backgrounds would be in CG, except for the bar scene. That’s the only way you can control everything in terms of matching the graphic look. The images that Frank Miller created are masterpieces and all we have to do is follow it, frame by frame. You wouldn’t even need storyboard artist. The comic is the storyboard.” From there, I was a big part of creating the final color and look. Robert shot the proof of concept which became the opening scene for the movie and the rest is history. Sin City was also the first feature that I had three separate credits: Main Titles Designer, 2D Supervisor, and Color Timing Supervisor.
DC: Is there a film of Robert’s you’d wish’d you could have been involved in but weren’t?
EP: It would have been cool to be involved in his first feature film, El Mariachi.
DC: When did you decide to go off on your own and make your own movies?
EP: The day that I decided to go on my own and make my own movies was the day after I saw Blade Runner in the theaters. To actually do it was a different matter. It took decades to master visual effects, know all the ins and outs of production and post and eventually learn how to be your own executive producer and raising the funding to make your own movies. That’s a whole other topic of discussion.
I started Phame Factory in 2006 as production and post-production company after Sin City while still working as visual effects supervisor on other feature films. After writing five feature screenplays and directing commercials, music videos, and other shorts, I felt confident enough to move onto features. My first feature, a teen comedy called Action News 5 was truly a trial by fire! I was asked to fill in as a director three weeks before the production date because the original director had dropped out. As someone who learned that preproduction and prep is key to running an efficient production, I really had no prep yet I still said yes. I’m an artist at heart and I have no fear when it comes to creating in the moment and dealing with chaos. I was literally helping to fine tune the script and do stick figure sketches for storyboards on the night before or on the day of production. Overall it was a great experience for me because I felt at home in the director chair, working one on one with actors and crew. I hope to see it the final version someday. It’s still in limbo somewhere. I wasn’t the main producer on it so I have no control on its release.
DC: And the idea for Flay came from?
EP: You can say that it came from many other faceless ghost mythologies from around the world including the Japanese Noppera-Bo, Russian folklore, Taino culture, the Chinese Hundun and the crowdsourced Slenderman. For me the origin came from when I was about eight years old in Saigon, Vietnam when I actually saw a ghost. I was looking for my parents and went to their bedroom. All I remember seeing was a man in white pajamas in the corner without any facial features. I froze in place, beyond scared. I peed in my pants. As soon as I can get my body moving again, I quickly ran way. This image haunted me for many, many years after.
I’ve also had a long fascination with American Indian stories and myths. Flay was a perfect opportunity to create an origin story around that subject. As an immigrant myself, I love exploring American history, and besides Last of the Mohicans or Dances with Wolves in the early ’90s, there aren’t many movies about American Indians and their brutal treatment at the hands of settlers in the early 19th century.
DC: Now, before we go any further, we better touch on this. So, Sony Pictures stopped the film from release at one stage because they said it infringed upon their rights to Slenderman? What happened there?
EP: As a large international corporation with thousands of lawyer at their disposal, Sony had all the rights to defend their copyright claims and stop any independent filmmakers from releasing a film with a similar looking character to their Slender Man just months before their release. Cough, cough… I’m not being sarcastic at all and I can’t really talk in specifics. Sony and, or rather, Mythology Entertainment do have the right to the name. Any name can be trademarked if proven and approved for use.
In my opinion, the problem is when they claim to own the likeness of character such as a faceless head in a black suit. It’s such a generic feature and it’s not the first time of its use, especially when it’s borrowed from other cultures centuries old and seen everywhere in the modern day. So, do all retail stores have to pull their faceless mannequins in suits from their stores? The second problem I see is that Slenderman is one of the first true internet created and crowdsourced character and story. Dozens and even hundreds of people have contributed to the Slenderman mythology and image by adding their own stories and photoshopped pictures over the years and yet one company claims they own all of that? It’s like saying you own the look of Santa Clause and no one else can use it. Again, this is just my opinion. I may be off but what Sony was claiming doesn’t make sense to me. To resolve this, my company Phame Factory sued Sony to sort out what Sony could claim it owed. In the end, Sony settled, leaving Phame Factory free to distribute Flay.
DC: Are you happy with the resolution?
EP: As happy as I can be without wasting millions of dollars for Flay’s legal fees. A year after Slender Man was released, I’m happy to finally have the legal right to release Flay. My mind is also free to pursue other projects, which is more important to me.
How far did it set you back though? Did the case hurt the film?
EP: It’s a lot of wasted money and time that I can’t take back. We had a tenth of the budget that Slender Man had and yet we achieved a big budget look and had a much more interesting story. Did that have anything to do with it? I’m not sure but I think it definitely hurt the film because we would have been the first to market.
DC: Tell us about the look of your villain character – you obviously designed it?
EP: Yes, the look and origin of Flay was based on history at the time when American Indians were scalped and flayed for money and retaliation by settlers. Religious groups also felt the need to assimilate and convert young American Indians by replacing their native clothing in place of suits for men.
DC: Did you play with lots of different looks and designs before settling on that one?
EP: Not much, the designs were mostly inspired by researching a lot of archival photos in the National Archives. I spent more time designing the practical and visual effects of Flay.
DC: And was Flay always intended to be a one-off or do you hope you might get to do a sequel?
EP: Flay was always intended as a series. I want to explore more of Flay’s past as an American Indian Shaman and his tribe before he was tortured and cursed as a spirit. The script for the sequel is in development and we’re working on funding and financing it.
DC: Besides the screening they’re having for it in Cannes – and congratulations on that! – tell us where it’s screening?
EP: Thanks, I appreciate it. Flay will also have a limited screening in Austin, TX at the Spider House Theater beginning May 26th and through June. We’re also looking to expand to other cities next. For details, check out the Facebook page.
Have you seen Flay? What do you think of this interview with Eric Pham? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram! You can also carry on the convo with me personally on Twitter @josh_millican.