Eric Stanze must be one of the hardest working fellas in indie horror films today, having produced, since 1994, twenty titles through his company Wicked Pixel Cinema. An even more impressive number considering Stanze directed nine of these titles, and lent his writing, editing, acting, and cinematography to numerous others (while still finding time in recent years to blog for FEARnet). His latest work is Ratline, a stark thriller that couples the truly-life story of the Nazis' obsession with occult ritual to that of two women on the lam after killing their boss. (The film is now available on DVD from WickedPixel.com and on Amazon Instant Video.) I caught up with Stanze recently and asked him just how much of Ratline was based in reality and what other elements inspired it. Check out our conversation after the jump, as well as an exclusive clip from the film.
How did Ratline begin? What inspired it?
One general idea behind Ratline was to make something like a feature length "X-Files" episode, in terms of story, but do it very gritty, very adult, very NC-17. Some have noted the '70s grindhouse tone to Ratline. I am inspired by films from the late '60s through early '80s, including those seedy exploitation films, but I didn't want to make another "retro grindhouse" movie that essentially parodies that kind of film. I love other films that have done it in recent past, but I didn't want to take Ratline down that course. So our movie gravitated toward being a more serious, giallo influenced flick - pulp cinema that plays everything straight so that it sells dark and sinister.
You've said part of your intention in making it was to create "a garish exploitation film with an intelligent plot. A splatter film with well-written characters." What are some of the films like this that influenced you?
I'm fascinated by films that are written, directed, and acted well, but also contain a lot of violence, gore, and/or other exploitation elements. Too often, when there is nudity or gore the attitude of horror filmmakers switches over to not taking the film as seriously, and the movie goes from an attempt at art to an attempt at brainless entertainment. Or the presence of gore suddenly means it must be a comedy. I enjoy brainless entertainment and, occasionally, horror comedy, but that's just not what I wanted Ratline to be.
I don't see why you can't put violence, gore, nudity, and/or lurid subject matter in a movie and still aim for crafting a work of art. I grew up watching David Cronenberg, George Romero, and Dario Argento; all of whom did this brilliantly. They directed intelligent, artful films that didn't dumb things down or add extra cheese for the people in the audience who were just there for the bloodshed. Films The Exorcist and Texas Chain Saw Massacre also influenced me on this level.
Cronenberg may be the top culprit in terms of influencing the tone of my movies. He takes obvious delight in the lurid subject matter, as I do, yet his films always treat the subject matter seriously, and they rise way above the typically low-brow regard for such content.
We watch these films because of a catharsis we achieve. It can be fun, like riding a roller coaster, but it can stimulate a few brain cells as well. We are drawn to horror, violence, sex, and shocking subject matter because it is how human beings are wired. I admire filmmakers who try to tap into this on an intellectual and artful level, and not just make films that mock this aspect of human nature.
How much research did you do into the Nazi's occult/paranormal program (which you reference in the film)?
I did quite a bit of research. I enjoyed taking our rather outlandish story ideas and grounding them with historical fact. So the research was important to me, not just on the Nazi paranormal experimentation, but on that era in general. As often as I could, real events, names, and places were used to root Ratline's fictional narrative in actual history.
Did the Nazis perform something like the human-sacrifice / blood ritual seen in the film?
Yeah, it's pretty creepy. It isn't an often-told tale, but my research did turn up accounts of the Nazis actually doing these things. In Ratline, we say the Nazis decapitated people as a way of opening some form of supernatural portal, to see through time or gain some other insight. I didn't make this up. Of course, ya gotta decide whether you believe these things actually happened or not; but these story elements did not spring from my imagination - they came from my research.
Ratline has a very strong sense of place and season. Can you talk about the Missouri towns in which it was filmed, and why they were chosen?
Ratline was primarily shot in the real town of Hermann, Missouri. In the grand tradition of independent filmmaking, I wrote in this Midwest community because it was something I had access to. I was already cultivating Nazi occult story ideas when I was told that our friends on the inside in Hermann could grant us access to virtually the entire town for purposes of shooting a movie. I jumped on the opportunity and began to write Ratline.
I embraced the history of this town and let certain layers of our story be influenced by it. The town was, in reality, a German colony established to preserve German cultural heritage - a beacon for German immigrants - and today Hermann still embraces and exploits these German roots, thriving as a tourist getaway. Making Ratline, I really enjoyed the idea of Nazi nastiness slithering around this modern, touristy, Americanized version of Germany.
You've worked with Ratline's star Emily Haack before. She has a nice haunted quality. Is that part of what led to her casting?
Generally, when we make a movie, we cast the net pretty wide and audition a lot of people. Ratline was a smaller project for us, however. The writing and our pre-production were extremely rushed, so casting and writing meshed somewhat. I wrote most of the parts with specific actors in mind, including Emily.
She brought the same youthful energy to the part that she displayed a decade previous when we shot Scrapbook - while maintaining that nuanced, haunted depth that I think is generally achieved by actresses much older than Emily. There is a lot of history and experience, highs and lows in those eyes. She is an outstanding actress, and for every minute she was on the Ratline set, she was an absolute joy to work with.
How about Emily's co-stars -- Sarah Swofford and Alex Del Monacco?
I had not worked with either of these ladies before. For a few years I was hitting the horror conventions hard - for a while, I was appearing as a guest at a new convention in a new city every month. It was through these conventions that I met Sarah and Alex.
Sarah Swofford and I were both guests at a horror convention in Little Rock, Arkansas (the Full Moon film fest and horror convention), and that's where we met. Sarah had delivered a great performance in a horror-western called Sugar Creek. We connected right away and stayed in contact. About a year later, we were both guests at the same convention again - this one in Dallas, Texas (Texas Frightmare Weekend). At this point I think we started talking about a feature I was going to make called Seizure, which never happened because the funding fell apart. We made Ratline instead, and for my friendship and working relationship with Sarah, it was a blessing in disguise. There was only a tiny dayplayer part available for her in Seizure, but when I wrote Ratline, I did so with her in mind to play "Penny" - so she got a much bigger part.
Alex Del Monacco and I were guests at a convention in Louisville, Kentucky (Fright Night film fest and convention). She was already a successful glamour model, the blonde bombshell you'd see in a bikini posing by a hot-rod in a pin-up calendar, and she had done some Playboy videos too. All very "glamour" modeling - yet she insisted that she wanted to play a role her fan base would not expect. She wanted to do something very gritty, and play a character that had to go through some really terrible shit. This impressed me. I love it when people take chances and explore new territory in their lives, their art, and their careers. Staying put in your comfort zone is for wimps.
Jason Christ is an interesting choice for an almost Terminator-like antagonist. Were you looking for someone who had that tenaciousness?
Jason Christ and I co-wrote the screenplay together. I had him in mind to play "Frank Logan" all along, but I didn't verbalize this to him until we'd finished the script, if memory serves.
First and foremost, in casting "Frank Logan" I wanted to stay the hell away from movie-Nazi stereotypes. To me, Frank's background as a chameleon who could acclimate to any community because he's been hiding from the law should inform the character more than his SS background. We knew some great actors who could have played that part, and who really sold "Movie Nazi" - but that wasn't what I needed. In addition to being the right fit for the part, Jason is an exceptional actor. Until Ratline, he had never been given a chance to play a lead role - even though I'd been working with Jason for twelve or thirteen years. The right project and the right character finally came along and I knew I wanted Jason to play this part.
Unlike many low-budget independent genre films, Ratline has some wonderfully realistic blood and gore. What's your secret?
First: Get a great effects guy who is willing to work his ass off. For Ratline, it was newcomer Jim Wayer.
Second: Push that effects guy ten times farther than he anticipated going. If it doesn't look good enough the first time, re-shoot it later, even if that means an additional 50 hours of work for a one-and-a-half-second shot. And if I think we can get away with adding more effects pickups during post-production, we're gonna do it. Jim probably wanted to strangle me by the end of Ratline - which means I was doing my job properly. A lot of people probably get frustrated with me when we are making a movie, because I do push everyone - especially myself - extremely hard. But after the movie is done, everyone is happy that I pushed them, because it created a better film that everyone can be more proud of.
Third: Enhance those effects shots with skilled editing. You can really screw up some great effects work in editing. There are no CGI gore effects in Ratline, so we had to get it right when we shot it, then edit it in exactly right so that the violence would have maximum impact. Sometimes, you cut three frames too soon and it's just an awkward flash, but if you hang on it three frames too long, it looks fake. Working on a limited budget, maximizing what Jim did in front of the lens with editing was important.
On behalf of heterosexual males everywhere, a quick note of thanks for having Suicide Girl Amanda Pemberton writhe naked in blood.
You are welcome. Yeah, that may be one of Ratline's flaws. Those "Satanic Cult" characters were written to be as unlikable as possible - lame and annoying, in fact. But there is not much unlikable, lame, or annoying about Mandy's little routine with the blood.
Can you see a sequel for Ratline? It leaves itself open for one. If so, do you have any scenarios in mind?
A sequel was not in my mind when we were writing the script. The "openness" of the ending is just what felt right. The script came together very, very fast - except for the ending, which we struggled with. There were six different endings, maybe seven, and nothing felt right except for the one that was the most open and ambiguous. We ended it the way it ends because, as writers, we knew it was right - not because we were looking ahead to a sequel. However, it has led to a lot of fans asking us what we have in mind for a sequel.
I think Ratline is a remarkable achievement considering the limited resources, financial and otherwise, that were available to us. However, it is a low budget indie film with no big names in it. Despite the fact that the movie has received amazing critical acclaim, I'm guessing it won't send film studios racing in my direction with funding for a sequel - which is fine. I'm focused on future projects now, not on what additional material we can mine from the Ratline story. But hey, if someone shows up around here with a desire to see a Ratline sequel, and they've got a check in one hand and a pen in the other, I'm all ears.
What's next for you now that Ratline is complete? Can you talk a little about your plans?
I wish I could talk specifics, but there is nothing solid to report. When we began pre-production on Ratline, there were no other options on the table. It was make Ratline or do nothing at all.
However, even before Ratline post-production was complete, opportunities started opening up for me all around the country, and I'm now nurturing all of them, waiting to see which opportunities turn out to be dead ends, and which ones catch traction.
I hope to do more 2nd Unit directing like I did for Stake Land, and I see those prospects forming on the horizon; and for a couple of other films, I'm attached as a producer. All of these opportunities may spark to life at the same time and I'll be overwhelmed. Or, none of them may happen at all, which is why I'm also developing other projects and looking for other films I can attach to. It was frustrating, before Ratline, having virtually no options, so right now I'm happy to have too many.
One last question – in real life, what's your greatest fear?
The big thing that upsets me is anything medical. I hate hospitals, I don't trust doctors, and any discussion about the most common, mundane medical issue will get me woozy. I can rip someone's head off in a movie in a graphic, horrific way, and enjoy every second of it. But if I overhear someone discussing a urinary tract infection, I'll probably pass out. Adding to the irony is the fact that my mom is a nurse.
Thank you again for taking the time to answer these questions, Eric! I'm already looking forward to seeing your next film.
You are very welcome. It has been a pleasure!