Interview with Tony Elwood
One of the most striking modern horror films I’ve seen in recent years has to be Cold Storage (2006), a film which showed at the Dead By Dawn festival in Scotland in 2009, and blew me away with its slick delivery and deeply-unsettling plot. The film charts the short-lived freedom of a woman named Melissa, leaving her deadbeat boyfriend and deciding to go it alone before a sudden accident cuts her new life brutally short, and throws her quite literally into the path of a solitary and disturbed loner by the name of Clive Mercer… the rest of the film unfolds in a way which had me on the edge of my seat, surpassing all of my expectations. The director of Cold Storage, Tony Elwood, is a veteran of the indie horror scene and since making his debut feature, Killer (1989) has cut his teeth on many aspects of film work, such as editing, writing, visual effects and acting roles including a small role in Evil Dead 2. Tony was kind enough to talk to us about his work to date.
Hellbound Heart: Firstly Tony, thank you very much for talking with us.
Tony: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for doing this.
Hellbound Heart: I’d like to start by asking you about your early filmmaking days. You mention on your website getting into filmmaking through making short films on an 8mm camera. What sorts of films were you making back then? Do any of them survive?
Tony: Back in the 70s I was fortunate enough to get my first camera, an 8mm film camera. My Dad bought it for my birthday. I started searching for film stock the next day and found some at my local Camera and Hobby shop. I got together with my brothers and shot a Sci-fi film called YOG, The Creature From Outer Space. It didn’t matter to me that a Sci-Fi film for my first film was way over my head. I just started building the spaceship out of pot lids and anything I could get my hands on. I made the creature out of a large plastic bag filled with red water… It was such a mess, but the excitement that I derived from seeing the frames projected on my bedroom wall caused me to go into a filmmaking coma. I was hooked. That was the best thing my dad ever did for me. After that I migrated to Super 8mm film. I was fortunate to have met 3 amazing people as a kid: Mark Kimray, Mike Kale and Michael Prevette. We started our own Super 8 film companies, shooting films almost every weekend. Most were 3 to 8 minutes long, everything from kung fu films, horror to stop motion animation. Creating these films were what I think helped me become a film director/writer/editor. They were my film school. Many of them do still survive, although the colours in them have faded somewhat. At some point, I plan to put them on DVD, before they crumble to nothing.
Hellbound Heart: Was there ever any question about what type of films you wanted to make?
Tony: Not at all. I knew that the horror/thriller genres were my cup of tea. I love the design of these types of films, from the scripts, music, effects and cinematography… you get to experiment a lot more with these genres… make the genre your own. You can see a John Carpenter film and know immediately that John Carpenter made the film. Same with Hitchcock, Spielberg and Raimi.
Hellbound Heart: Your first feature length film Killer (1989) was made on a shoestring budget – less than $10,000 in fact – which must have been a very steep learning curve! In hindsight, are you pleased with how Killer has stood up?
Tony: Has it? I still like that film. There’s a grittiness to it that’s a factor of both the lack of money and the fact I shot it on Super 8. After working on Evil Dead 2 with Sam Raimi, he kept telling me to just make a movie. I was trying to get a larger budget film off the ground at the time, but had no luck obtaining the funding. Sam kept telling me to grab my Super 8 camera and just shoot a film… so I did. I partnered up with a good friend from Gastonia, Tony Locklear, and we went door to door and raised the budget on our own. The actual budget was $9,500.
Hellbound Heart: Is there anything positive to be said about working to a very tight budget?
Tony: Yes, it keeps you on your toes. I had to wear many, many hats. Not only did I direct, but I also lit, did sound, and props. I also did the make-up effects, along with Andy Boswell. He played Ashe, the lead in the film; I met him on Evil Dead 2. He was such a talented person; I knew having him involved would take the film to the next level.
I also had the luck of having worked on about 8 motion pictures before doing Killer. I worked as a make-up artist, built miniatures, worked in the optical lab and even acted. Having worked with so many actors made getting Duke Ernsberger, Jeff Pillars and Terry Loughlin on my side an easy task. I just told them that I was making an ultra low budget film on Super 8 and that I couldn’t pay them. I asked them if they would come on board. Did they ever. They even helped lug lights and C stands around, whatever was needed. It was so great. I’ve used these guys in all my films. They are my posse.
Hellbound Heart: Let’s talk about Cold Storage (2006): I saw this film at the 2009 Edinburgh Dead By Dawn Festival, where it deservedly won the audience award for Best Picture. But you had a hell of a wait to make this film. Could you tell us a little about the film’s background?
Tony: First, let me thank you for saying that. I was so nervous about being at that festival. I wasn’t sure how the audience was going to handle the film. All the films that led up to the screening of Cold Storage were amazing. I just didn’t know if audience would accept it.
Fortunately, they did. Thank God. I enjoyed watching the film with that crowd, they were having such a good time with the film that I was able to relax and enjoy the film myself for the first time ever.
My writing partner Mark Kimray and I wrote the script shortly after Killer. I think it was 1989. I had come up with the idea back in ’84, while on a 3-day trip back from Los Angeles to North Carolina. It was night and I was travelling through the curvy Appalachian Mountains at 3AM and I kept thinking to myself, “What if I was to lose control of my car and go off a cliff and die?” Who would know? Then I started thinking about, “What if someone found me and decided to keep me as a buddy?” The rest is history.
Then Misery came out in 1990. Oh well. No way in hell that we could compete with that film. Even though I knew Cold Storage was a very different film, everyone we tried pitching the film to would say that it had been done. So, we sat on the script. Once in a while, I’d try to resurrect the project, but because of the subject matter, we couldn’t find funding. Who wants to invest in a love story about a mountain hermit falling in love with a dead girl?
In 2003, Executive Producer Bert Hesse, Producer Paul Barrett, and I began raising money for another script called Cold Chill. Don’t ask me why I keep using ‘cold’ in the titles. It just worked for this project so well. It was a higher budget “haunted school” picture. We had a partner who was going to come up with half of the funding if we could get our half. Well we got our half raised, but the other half feel through. Two years down the tubes…
2005 came and we went back to the drawing board. I asked Bert if it might be possible to go back to our original investors and see if they might be interested in Cold Storage. It could be done for the half we raised. It was an amount I felt comfortable spending on the picture. I knew it was still risky, but a risk I was willing to take. Almost all the investors came on board. We suited up and started preproduction of Cold Storage, 21 years after it was conceived.
Hellbound Heart: Nick Searcy’s performance as lead character Clive Merser was brilliant – he lent humanity to what could have otherwise been a ‘bogeyman’ role. How soon did Nick come on board with the project?
Tony: In 1992 I had begun working on my second picture, Road Kill. Sean Bridgers, who played the lead in the film, told me about his best friend Nick Searcy. He thought Nick would just kill the part of Stupid the Clown. I said ‘get him’. I had seen Nick in Fried Green Tomatoes and loved what he did in that film.
We only had Nick for a day… so we did all the dialogue stuff first. Then we came back and dressed Andy Boswell up as Stupid for the non-dialogue pieces. Worked like a charm. Nick and I hit it off immediately. I remember pitching him the idea of playing Clive Merser while he was getting his clown make-up on. I know he must have thought, “Right kid, you’re going to make another film after this turd hits the fan? Dream on.” But he was very gracious, and said, “Send me the script.”
So, fifteen years later, once I got the word we had the green light for Cold Storage I sent Nick the script. He accepted the part, even after doing such amazing work in so many blockbuster pictures. Nick still has that “Let’s make a damn movie” attitude that I just love. No matter what the budget, if the concept is worth doing, Nick will do it, and put all his effort behind it. We worked for several months on Clive’s character. Nick wanted him to be sympathetic, as did I. I wanted the audiences to root for Clive. He’s not a monster… he just does things his way. And his way can be seen as monstrous to some, but not to Nick and me.
I’m so glad Nick accepted the part. If anyone other than Nick had played Clive Merser, the film would have been a disaster. I really believe that.
Hellbound Heart: You made a late addition to Cold Storage by adding an opening scene that frames the relationship between two of the characters. Tell us about this. Were you happy with the outcome?
Tony: I did in fact shoot a new scene. I’m not sure how I feel about it. We had no money at all left to do it the way I really wanted to. But all the sales reps and distributors kept saying that we needed some type of effect at the beginning, something to catch people’s attention, so I came up with what I thought was the best idea, and that was to show Clive and Luther [two characters who meet again in later life during the film] as young boys, to get a taste of why Clive is so terrified by Luther. I think the scene works, but I still don’t feel it’s necessary to the story. Conor McCullagh, my amazing special effects make-up genius who did all the effects work in the film, created the shotgun-damaged head of the dead hunter from scratch. He did it for free, because he believed in the film that much. He was such a blessing to have on the film. His work is top notch!
Hellbound Heart: Often in films, horror or otherwise, it seems to be acceptable to portray characters from the Southern states of the US in a very stereotyped way. You seemed to be questioning this misconception in Cold Storage; the characters may be flawed, but they’re not just two-dimensional ‘hicks’. Was this deliberate at all, or did it happen organically?
Tony: I grew up in the South. I know these people like the back of my hand. Stereotypes do exist, but all stereotypes have many layers. I love when someone see a character and think they know how they are going to be portrayed, and then the character does something against their expectation. I give them a bit of the stereotype, and then show the other aspects of their character. Everyone is a stereotype. I don’t care who you are; we all fit into a mould of some sort. But as you know, moulds are always broken… patched back together again, so when you pull the next character out, there are small cracks in their surface. That’s the stuff I like. The small cracks.
Hellbound Heart: Tell us a little about the “decay” special effects you used on Melissa (Casey Leet) – which were pretty sickening, by the way…
Tony: Thanks… Again, the amazing work of Conor McCullagh.
Conor and I set down and talked about how Melissa’s beauty would slowly begin to fade. I told Conor that after Melissa took her last breath in the front seat of Clive’s station wagon, we’d never see much of her face again. I didn’t want the film to be about seeing a rotting corpse. That would have made the film unbearable. I wanted the audience to see Melissa, who Clive calls Rosalie, as a character in the film, even though she was dead. I wanted people to get inside Clive’s head and see the body as a living entity, just as he saw her, so you would totally forget she was dead. But when Clive begins to see the clues that Rosalie might be turning, we allow the audience to see along with Clive. This was planned out to the T. Conor started out using just makeup on a double’s hand, then he created a full size replica of Melissa, so we could start to see deeper effects of the decay.
We actually had 3 Melissa bodies. One we nicknamed Spongy. She was for the neck-breaking stunt. The other 2 bodies were for the two stages of decay. The work was amazing. I remember coming into the set one day by myself and seeing the badly-mutated body of Melissa laying on a table, dressed in the wedding dress, and it totally creeped the living shit out of me. That’s how good Conor’s work is.
Hellbound Heart: What have been the reactions to the film in general so far? Will it get a UK/Europe release?
Tony: We’ve just been out on DVD for about a month here in the US. So far, so good.
We still are being asked to screen the film at festivals even now that it has been released. We got asked to screen at the Fantaspoa Film Festival in Brazil this July, and we have a special screening in October in Los Angeles for the Film Courage Interactive.
Our Sales Rep is actively pursuing the UK/Europe and Asian markets as we speak. Keep your fingers crossed.
Hellbound Heart: Horror movies can often be looked down upon by mainstream audiences, and definitely by critics. If you wanted to make someone think again about the genre, what are some of the films you might recommend, and why?
Tony: I’m really a big fan of Hitchcock. His films really were the catalyst that made me decide to become a filmmaker. Psycho, The Birds, and Rear Window, so many classics. Critics really didn’t care for these films because they were considered popcorn movies. But today, they are considered classics. Time has a way of changing options. Look at Halloween. When it came out, most critics ignored the film. Some hated it, but after it became successful, changed their minds and gave it praise. That’s cool. I’ve done that myself. But my opinions don’t make or break a film like a critic’s review can, or, should I say, could. Critics are becoming a thing of the past with the advent of Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Fans can tweet instantly, in less than 140 characters and within seconds their opinions are sent out to thousands of followers. Now their words can make or break a film. You can’t worry about that sort of thing when you are making a movie that you are passionate about, like I was with Cold Storage. I knew many critics and people wouldn’t care for the film. It’s a hard film to swallow for some. That’s fine. I didn’t make it for them. I made it for me, and the hopefully millions of people who dig it. That’s the best you can expect these days.
Hellbound Heart: Finally, can you tell us a little about planned future projects?
Tony: I’ve got several projects that I’m working on currently. Nothing real solid as of yet, just writing, pitching scripts, trying to raise money. Same old story. It never gets easier, that is, unless your film makes millions the first weekend. I’ll let you know as soon as I get the green light for the next one!
Hellbound Heart: THANK YOU Tony, and we wish you the best of luck!