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Splat Chat: Ben Rock Director of 'Alien Raiders'

How did Ben Rock’s latest film, a direct-to-DVD release end up playing 13 film fests?  What do True Blood vampires have to do with Alien Raiders and where does John Carpenter fit into all this? It’s just a typical instant message conversation sans the ridiculous abbreviations, right? Well, it’s typical for FEARnet’s fearless Scott Weinberg who hosts a series of instant message interviews with your favorite horror directors. Check out our exclusive interview with Alien Raiders director, Ben Rock now. Alien Raiders is available on DVD today from Raw Feed.

Scott: You directed a film [Alien Raiders] that was always intended to be a DVD premiere, so how did it end up at Fantastic Fest and then twelve other horror festivals?

Ben: I actually have something of a background working for a film festival.  I was the projectionist for the Florida Film Festival from 1996 through 1999.  That festival really delved deep into what was going on in the festival world -- they'd go to Sundance, Toronto, etc. And as a filmmaker, I'd made a bunch of short films in the past and played them at various fests. The last short I made was called Conversations, and it played a bunch of festivals, but one of our best screenings was at the New York City Horror Film Festival -- I saw the power of playing at a niche festival for one's intended audience.  That, and being a huge horror geek myself it kind of stuck in my head and with Raw Feed, there was a precedent for submitting to festivals, just not on the scale that I undertook.  I decided early on that I wanted to target genre festivals, and Fantastic Fest was one of the most prominent ones, and also it was at the beginning of the window that Warner had allowed [me] to pursue -- Late September through December. I had played some of these festivals (like NYCHFF) before, and this time I tried to attend as many as I could, frankly to see how audiences were responding to the film.  It could have been a disaster if horror festival audiences hated it, but they seem to dig it, which is great to know because this film was really made with the genre audience in mind.

Ben: Is that enough?

Scott: No. More!

Ben: The short answer is that it played all of those festivals because Warner let me submit it, and I went hog-wild with the submissions.  I had just finished doing a viral project for HBO and True Blood, and while I was in post I went on withoutabox.com and sought out every fucking festival with the word "horror" or "sci-fi" in them, or had a category for those films, and submitted.  It was a lot of work to do so, but again I wanted to connect the movie to the audience I'd made it for, and hope to Christ that they liked it.

Scott: Give us a brief synopsis of Alien Raiders, as well as a few of your biggest influences, be they filmmakers, films, or specific scenes.

Ben: The simple pitch is a kind of combination of two of John Carpenter's best films:  It's Assault on Precinct 13 meets The Thing.  There's a bit of Dog Day Afternoon in there for good measure.  Basically, at closing time in a supermarket in rural Arizona, the store is invaded by an armed-to-the-teeth group of masked people who SAY they're robbing the place but they keep killing people seemingly at random.   When the cops show up, they hold the survivors hostage, but it becomes quickly apparent that the hostage-takers aren't there to rob the place, they're there to hunt something otherworldly, and any person in the store could be their target.

Scott: Dun-dun-dunnnnnn!

Ben: The single biggest influence, for me, was The Thing.  I probably watched it 50 times during preproduction.  Other films that influenced us were The Hidden, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Assault on Precinct 13, and oddly enough Children of Men, mostly for its brilliant and gritty naturalism.  But I always come back to The Thing.  We have a "test" in the movie to see if our “testee” is infected that's heavily inspired by the blood test sequence in TheThing.  In a sense, to me, that bit was the core of the film, where a lot of the suspense was built. I'm very much a child of the 80's, and I grew up on special-FX makeup-driven horror movies like An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Fright Night, and the Nightmare on Elm Street series.  I loved the idea of making a practical-FX-driven monster movie with really well-developed characters (again, like The Thing), and to basically have a bunch of good guys working at cross purposes and not trusting one another.Oh, another influence both in the casting, pacing, and use of monster that I would cite is Alien.  Especially the casting.  Those people in Alien really felt like they were the real people who would end up in that situation, and to the best of our ability we wanted to construct an ensemble that felt like that one.... Or the one in The Thing.  I'll shut up about The Thing now, as my wife is becoming jealous of it.

Scott: Can genre fans see any of these influences in Alien Raiders?

Ben: I think the influence of John Carpenter is pretty clear, both with the alien test and with the conflict within/conflict without structure using the cops outside.  I also think, based on how our alien works, there's a slight shout-out to The Hidden, or a nod to George Romero inherent in setting the movie in a grocery store -- though I would never say that our grocery store functions on the sub textual level of the mall in Dawn of the Dead.  Other influences are probably more subtle, but there.  I mean, the horror movies of the 70's and 80's basically form the basis of my taste in all films, so I'm sure that we unconsciously stole lots of tricks from what that crop of filmmakers did.  That being said, there's no direct homage in there.  We didn't have enough time to be that clever.

Scott: OK, so Alien Raiders was shot in 2 weeks (with limited funds), but with a high-concept plot, a decent-sized ensemble, and some pretty nifty effects. How'd you pull it off?

Ben: I have no idea how we pulled it off.  I know it sounds flip, but we pulled it off one day at a time, one setup at a time.  We had an AMAZING crew, especially our cinematographer Walt Lloyd (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Kafka, Short Cuts, Pump Up the Volume) and our 1st AD John Pontrelli.  Those two guys busted their asses to keep us on schedule, and Walt is a perfectionist with lighting but he knows how to crank up the speed.  We also had a great, prepared, smart cast who busted their asses to make it all work. Also, our producer Steve Ecclesine (who's no novice when it comes to this, having come from the Corman studios) really encouraged me to be pragmatic, to reduce the film to the fewest gags.  What is a gag?  It's ANYTHING beyond walking and talking, anything that takes special setup time.  Anything from firing a blank gun to a full prosthetic application.  Steve would go through the script and list out every gag as he saw it, and hand me this document, imploring me to reduce, reduce, reduce, and so I did.  I had to become very pragmatic and pick my battles -- when we were going to see something and when it was going to be primarily heard or implied somehow.  The emphasis became one of focusing on suspense more than horror for as much of the film as we could.  I actually think the take-away for me is that the audience tends to lean forward on suspense, provided it's going to be paid off somehow.I have to say, though, every day of the shoot I'd wonder how we were going to get through it all.  I'd look at a call sheet and see that we were shooting 9 pages in one day, and I'd think, "Hey, that's TEN PERCENT OF THE MOVIE, TODAY!"  And there were no reshoots, pickup days, or anything.  We had to get it all right the first time.  No pressure!I'm rambling.  

Scott: Dude, it's all good. Nine-word responses would be the opposite of good. How tough is it to shoot in just one location but still make it look interesting? Talk a little about the supermarket you borrowed and how much damage you inflicted.

Ben: Shooting in one location is obviously very convenient.  You go to the same place every day.  And you run the risk of the movie looking boring.  Walt (the cinematographer) and I decided early on that we would NOT employ one particular time-saving device called "block shooting," which is where you basically shoot all the angles for all the scenes in a given room in a row, not moving the camera.  We hated that idea.  Even though the supermarket has a lot of varied looks (storage, meat locker, aisles, break room, parking lot, etc.), those places start to all look the same if you always shoot them the same.  It's a challenge to bring you back to the same room for the tenth time and make it interesting, but if you are constantly engaged in where you are in the story and what new information the new scene is ABOUT, then that tends to dictate the most logical places to put the camera, how to move it, etc.  Walt and I would meet every day and go over our coverage, always trying to keep showing the audience different parts of rooms as best we could.Also, there's a visual arc to the film, partly enforced by the narrative -- like when the lights go out in the store for instance -- that changes the way you see everything.  As the movie progresses and the alien presence become more menacing, Walt used more green in his lighting as well, and we went darker and darker.  I'd originally wanted to make the store aisles more and more narrow as the story went on, but that wasn't practical. But again, luckily the store offered a lot of different looks.  There's even that fuse room that's kind of like something out of Nightmare on Elm Street and that was just an actual room in the store.  When we scouted the place, I knew EXACTLY what scene we needed to shoot in there. As for the actual store, it's in Inglewood, California, which is basically out by the airport.  It's a very developed area, so we had to do a lot outside to mask off the city just beyond our set since it's supposed to be rural Arizona.  The actual store itself was a closed Von's, and it was about twice as big as anything we'd expected, so we built a huge wall that masked about half the store, and painted the whole place inside to make it look older, more tired.  Our production designer Frank Bollinger busted his ASS to make that place work, and he completely succeeded.  It was unrecognizable when he was done with it and we were able to shoot in 360 degrees.  There was no part of that set that didn't have product on the shelves.

Scott: You were backed by Raw Feed, which is backed by WB, but it sounds a lot like an indie shoot...

Ben: Oh yes.  Warner and Raw Feed have a very good relationship, and when we went to shoot we were pretty much able to make the film we wanted to make.  Warner was EXTREMELY supportive, and I basically answered to Dan Myrick, who was my executive producer.  Dan would come to the set some days, but most days he just let us do our thing.  He was also cool enough to come in and shoot some second unit for us the last week, which was huge.And I know WB cared about what we were doing, as I heard back from them as they watched our dailies.  But they were extremely cool about letting us make the movie we wanted, within our time and budgetary restrictions.

Scott: Random Question Interjection: Since you were the production designer on The Blair Witch Project, is it safe to say that you created the now-famous stick-man figure?

Ben: Yes!

Scott: Give a little history on that and then we'll go back to raiding aliens.

Ben: In the movie, we had that scene where we had to have hundreds of stickmen in the woods.  Dan had come up with this bundles-of-sticks design that looked cool, but there was NO FUCKING WAY I could make hundreds of them in the woods with no power tools basically with one other dude.  We would have needed a production line to pull it off.  I had this book I was using for research called Magical Alphabets by Nigel Pennick, and there was a picture of a rune called the Rune Man.  The stickman isn't the main attraction there, but he's in there.  I went and built one and showed it to Ed Sanchez and his EXACT words (there's video of this) were, "It looks like a pile of sticks tied together!"  He hated it.  I thought I was really letting him and Dan down. But we did it anyway, and the day we did the stickmen, the whole crew came out to help.  Ed made the big shaggy one that's on the back of the video box.  I really thought that Ed and Dan hated the design until I saw the posters they made up for Sundance, which featured the stickman.  Then, of course, when the movie made it big they were everywhere.  It's the most surreal thing that's ever happened to me.I mean, Ed and Dan were on the cover of Time, and Josh, Heather, and Mike were on the cover of Newsweek, but the stickman was on BOTH.  What the fuck?! Blair Witch, no shit, is the most fun I've ever had doing anything of any kind.  It was the most anarchic way you could possibly make a movie, and fairly sadistic to boot.  It was like summer camp.  And when we were making it, we thought that if we were lucky, the final product would play in some film festivals, maybe get picked up for home video or something.  We had NO idea we were doing something that would end up being seen by so many people, and if we had I'm sure we all would have fucked it up.

Scott: What do you think of the movie these days?

Ben: I think it's a very compelling piece to this day, but I'm obviously biased.  I watched it recently on Showtime, and what never ceases to impress me are the performances by the three leads.  I mean, it's obvious, but they ARE the movie.  And at the time, none of them were in SAG, none of them had been in anything that big, and yet they had full trust in us and they were basically willing to be the subject of a kind of cruel cinematic experiment.  It could have just as easily not paid off as well, but their spirit really makes the film work.

Scott: I just made up a new riddle. Question: What does the production designer on Blair Witch do?  Answer: Holds up a sign that says "This way to the forest."  Bahahaaaaaa!

Ben: Ha! You say that, but you should have seen the house before we got to it! Besides, we couldn't afford any fancy SIGNS!

Scott: There was the mega-hype, the box-office haul, the backlash, and now the shelf-life. I think the movie still works, perhaps now even better, divorced from all the hype.

Ben: Yeah, hype can kill anything good.  At Fantastic Fest I spent the whole week telling Keith Hudson how awesome Let the Right One In was, and he wasn't blown away.  One must be careful of hype.  When one gets hype, one mustn't believe a word of it. 

Scott: Well, there's hype and there's legitimate enthusiasm for a good film.

Ben: True. My enthusiasm for Let the Right One In is genuine, but I overhyped it to Keith.  Gotta be careful about that.  No movie ever can live up to "best movie of all time" kind of hype. Though I've seen LTROI about 5 times now, and I love it more every time. I did the same thing when I saw Pan's Labyrinth.

Scott: Two of the best genre films of the past ten years. So this is a good segue ... Alien Raiders has gotten a few good notices from the festival circuit, and it's won a big handful of awards, too. Does this make you worry that people might expect "too much" from your movie?

Ben: Yeah, that's a legitimate concern I think.  Look, I'm extremely proud of the movie.  It was a huge challenge, and that we've arrived on the other side of that challenge with something that horror and sci-fi audiences enjoy is more than I could have expected.  But Raw Feed, to a certain extent, is a little like Roger Corman filmmaking at a studio level.  We had a low budget, but enough to do the job, and 15 days to shoot which is kind of insane.  We all busted our fucking asses to make it happen, and we're happy with the results.  Very happy.  But I think my satisfaction with the project is tempered by an understanding of what we had to overcome to make it happen.  That's not to say that we lowered our expectations -- the whole crew worked hard to put every cent and more on the screen, and we took it all quite seriously, cast and crew included.But at the end of the day, we had the resources we had.  They forced us to use ingenuity to pull stuff off, and it's the kind of stuff that on a larger budgeted film you'd just see a lot of CGI or whatever filling those gaps.  We simply didn't have that as an option. But I could not be happier with the reception we've gotten at the festival level. It's a blast to see it with an audience, especially one as appreciative as the ones you find at genre film festivals.

Scott: I called it a "Rainy Saturday Afternoon Matinee" -- is that a compliment?

Ben: Fuck yeah!

Scott: Agreed. But Alien Raiders wasn't your first choice for a title, was it?

Ben: We always wanted a VERY genre title for the movie.  When we were shooting, the working title was Supermarket, which is intriguing but not "PULL THIS FUCKING DVD OFF THE SHELF AND BUY IT" intriguing.  In post we went with the title inHuman, which we all liked but there was some kind of a legal issue with it, so Warner had us change the title to Alien Raiders, which IS very genre! I think the DVD cover art is very eye-catching and slick.  And the trailer kicks ass.  I've been very excited about the trailer.

Scott: You're happy with the way WB has been marketing the movie?

Ben: Yeah. They bust their asses to sell my movie.  I appreciate all of their hard work, as well as how accommodating they've been with me and my festival run.  I sincerely hope that their choices are the ones that will help the movie find its broadest audience. And I know that's spin, but sincerely the marketing and PR people have been outrageously cool with me, and I know I'm butting into their jobs by wanting to mount a festival campaign, etc.

Scott: OK, here's the standard FEARnet question: (Aside from horrible DVD sales) what are some things that truly scare you?

Ben: Spiders scare the fuck out of me.  When I was in college, I had a pet scorpion and I would handle it regularly (yes, I was THAT guy).  My roommate had a tarantula and I tried to handle it once and nearly shit my pants.  A rational person would probably at least be AS scared of a scorpion.  I don't know what the hell my deal was.Spiders, definitely ... and bad DVD sales.

Scott: So what's next for Ben Rock? 

Ben: The biggest thing I'm working on right now (though it's far from a "go" project) is a mistaken-identity serial-killer movie called World Famous.  Basically Sam Strickland, the most famous killer on death row manages to escape, and the same night a stranger named Calvin Banks  shows up in rural Missouri (where Strickland had killed a bunch of people), bearing a striking resemblance to Strickland.

I'm working with writer Mark Patton and producers Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale, and Eduardo Sanchez to develop the script.

Scott: And what about Alien Raiders: Clean-Up on Aisle 2 ?

Ben: Raw Feed HAS made a sequel to one of their films (Rest Stop,) so if AR does REALLY well, it's conceivable that a sequel could happen, but right now we're all holding our breath to see how it does.  WB says that the preorders are good, but not to get cocky just yet!

I would be all for doing a sequel, but I hope we'd have more than 15 days this time! 

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