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Interview: Pop Skull’s Peter Katz and E.L. Katz

“Pop Skull is very unique, because it progresses from an intimate mumblecore movie into more of an intense psychological ghost story. Another selling point is that it was produced for less than it usually takes to shoot a low budget music video.”

For a website that prides itself on championing indie films and filmmakers, we here at really missed the boat with Pop Skull, an award-winning – jury awards at the Boston Underground amd Indianapolis International film festivals – ultra-low budget experimental thriller from director Adam Wingard (Home Sick). Since its release on DVD this past July, Pop Skull has been steadily – and deservedly – gaining a reputation as a visually powerful psychological horror film. This isn’t your typical gore- and effects-laden ninety minutes that passes for horror these days (though Wingard is adept at that too…see Home Sick for proof). Pop Skull can best be described as a thinking man’s horror film, a story that offers a look into the psyche of a disturbed young man who is haunted by ghosts – his own inner ones as well as a couple of actual spirits.

Lane Hughes stars as Daniel, a young man who has become addicted to over-the-counter drugs after his girlfriend breaks up with him.  He swallows whole packages of pills and cough medicine to help dull the pain.  At the same time, we learn that Daniel’s home is haunted by the ghosts of two brothers who commited suicide there after murdering a woman in the backyard. We’re left wondering whether his house really is haunted or whether the apparitions are just an effect of all the pills Daniel is popping.  Regardless, Daniel must break free of the ghosts that haunt him or step over the edge into madness.

Loosely based on events in his own life, Lane Hughes co-wrote Pop Skull with E.L. Katz (Autopsy). There are some familiar elements, like the “loutish-but-means-well” friend (Brandon Carroll, Home Sick) who tries to help Daniel through his tough time and the friend’s girlfriend (newcomer Hannah Hughes) who of course starts to fall for the sensitive Daniel just before he hits rock bottom, that expose Pop Skull as not having the most original of plots, but it’s the way the story is filmed by Wingard that makes it visually unique. 

The viewer really gets a sense that he’s tripping along with Daniel, experiencing a kaleidoscope of images and scenes that melt together and mess with the mind, all while leading to a cohesive idea as we come down from our high.  The DVD incldes an “interview” with Hughes and Wingard in which they sit in front of a camera in somebody’s garage and shoot the breeze about anything and everything, a slew of deleted and alternate scenes with intros by the two, five short films and one music video directed by Wingard, and A Minute of Your Time, which is a short film by Jim Ether that influenced the visual stye of Pop Skull.  Throw in a refreshingly self-deprecating audio commentary from Wingard and Hughes and you’ve got yourself a pretty nice experience.  Unless, that is, you’re prone to epileptic seizures, in which case you’d better steer clear of this one.  Really.

Pop Skull Interview

Despite our tardiness in noticing the buzz around Pop Skull, the film’s producer Peter Katz, who is part of some interesting research into ‘neuromarketing’ in cinema (look it up), and writer E.L. Katz were gracious enough to answer a few of our questions.

Jason Widgington: Horror-wise, Pop Skull is quite a bit more subtle than much of your previous work with director Adam Wingard, notably Home Sick, which is pretty much straightforward horror. E.L., can you elaborate on the differences between creating the two films?
E.L. Katz: There was a considerable amount of time between the two productions so I think our heads were in a different place. With Home Sick we’d basically spent a year of our lives working on an ultra brutal, ultra gory, ultra ridiculous splatter film. I think we’d had our fill of that flavor and didn’t want to repeat ourselves. As much as we dig bloody hardcore horror, both of our cinematic interests are pretty varied. Adam loves art films, and experimental stuff, while I’ve always loved atmospheric ghost stories, more psychological stabs at horror. This was an opportunity to sort of blend both of those genres together, without relying too much on latex or Karo syrup.

With Home Sick  the goal was just to be as outragous as possible, and try to keep the pace going… we were dealing with an extremely slow crew, so we only managed to get off a couple shots a night. This really limited our coverage. We soon decided that if we were only going to have the barest amount of shots, we might as well fill them with the craziest, most disturbing imagery possible. The performances were bigger, the gore-set pieces more shocking; even if we couldn’t have the slickest or most coherent film… we could at least go for the throat.

With Pop Skull there really wasn’t a crew at all. We got off a million shots a day. We were working with video instead of film, so the process was obviously smoother, and less complicated, but we’d really learned that the more people you rely on, the more your hands are tied. We were able to craft the movie we wanted to make. It was really in our hands… we could get tons of footage, tons of takes. We had a bunch mroe options, which can be a challenge of its own, but ultimately gave us the freedom to really zero in on a great film in the editing room.

Pop Skull Interview

JW: Pop Skull has a rather large Internet presence and quite a few people seem to know about the film. It’s rare that a film made for so little money garners such attention. What would you attribute to that success? What was French production company Wild Bunch’s involvement?
Peter Katz: Pop Skull is very unique, because it progresses from an intimate mumblecore movie into more of an intense psychological ghost story. Another selling point is that it was produced for less than it usually takes to shoot a low budget music video. That struck a cord with respected journalists from Variety,,, and many others. Pop Skull‘s positive word of mouth helped us get into film fests all over the world from AFI Fest to Rome Festival. Wild Bunch did a great job marketing our film around the time of AFM, foreign markets, and helped us get out to various film fests. 

JW: What would be your advice to filmmakers on producing award winning indie films for only a few thousand dollars?
Peter: I would recommend focusing on the horror genre because there will always be a passionate fan-base and journalists to get behind your release. Theatrical horror remakes with fifteen million dollar budgets and huge marketing costs can’t take as many risks to challenge their audience. On the other hand if you are making a movie for $3,000-$100,000 do something inventive. Playing it safe can make your project look like a low budget knockoff of a Hollywood flick.  

Using young talented actors that are yet to be recognizable, I feel, can be an advantage. No one knows what they are capable of yet and you can afford them. For instance Lane Hughes who played Daniel brought something new to his performance that we wouldn’t be able to find anywhere, also with Brandon Carroll as Jeff, and Hannah Hughes who played Morgan. 

JW: What was it like expanding on Lane Hughes’ semi-autobiographical material by applying horror sensibilities and story elements? What other changes did you make?
E.L.: It was a unique challenge. The character that Adam and Lane created stayed the same for the most part. Initially the ‘ghosts’ were just shadowy figures in the background that were never explained. Since our lead character was on pills the whole time, I didn’t think audiences would ever buy that something else was going on beyond him just tripping out. I thought it would be more compelling if there was a chance that something unexplained was happening in the house, it would keep the audience guessing a little. My goal was also to make sure that the supernatural element was backed up by a cool story that the audience could constantly use as a reference point, so that no matter how far out shit got, they could feel connected to what was going on. Creating the back story also motivated many of the third act plot-points and ultimately the ending. I knew that this was going to be an experimental narrative, with mostly improvised dialogue, so I wanted to make sure that there was still a real spine to the thing, and a definitive ending. Before I was involved nobody died; the lead character just ended up sort of emotionally defeated, which didn’t seem to be enough of a payoff. Murder is a great way to go out. I also consolidated some of the characters – initially Brandon Carroll’s character lived with two girls – so I consolidated them into one, which really helped pump up the tension between the trio of friends.   

JW: What ghost films inspired you for the creation of Pop Skull?
E.L.: Strangely enough, I was more inspired by Larry Fessenden’s film Habit, which I thought really grounded a supernatural concept in a believable setting. David Lynch flicks, and 70’s character driven ghost films were also a huge influence. Adam and I also spoke extensively about films like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death as a reference point.

JW: What’s next for the Katz Brothers? Can you tell us about any projects you have in the pipes right now?
E.L.: Well, we’re collaborating on a killer comic book idea that we were developing for a little while with AMC. Sort of a Bad Lieutenant with zombies. I have a project with Sam Raimi (Spiderman, Evil Dead) called Dibbuk Box that is going out to directors. I just wrote a very scary horror/thriller for Peter Block, the producer of all the Saw films. It’s called Dark Corners, and I really love it. It’s a very violent, very suspenseful take on the “blind girl in peril” genre. 
Peter: Collaborating with my brother on Dead Beat and working on other comic titles that I’m excited to reveal next year. Also, I’m organizing Zombie Con, a day/night event dedicated to the undead.

For more info on Pop Skull, visit the official site.

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