We recently conducted an email interview with Indie Filmmaker Travis Betz. He has done a number of feature films including: Joshua, Sunday, and Lo. Lo is also available for instant play on Netflix and you can rent Joshua from there as well. He has also recently completed shooting a new feature film called The Dead Inside. In addition to those he has done numerous short films and webisodes which are available at his website: travisbetz.com
-So, first question. Horror films are normally filled with blood and guts and people doing terrible things. So why do you like horror films? And why do you think audiences like horror films?
Betz: I guess I like horror films because of the way they make me feel. One of my earliest memories is sitting down with my family and watching Creature from the Black Lagoon. I remember a surge of excitement coarsing through me at the site of the monster. Its slimy hand reaching up from the depths to grab the leg of the beautiful swimmer. I mean, that’s fucking horrifying and exhilirating. Horror can wake up your senses. Some people just connect better with the dark, the weird and the grotesque. John Landis’ Thriller shaped my life in ways I can only begin to count. The most important thing I took from it was that horror was a genre that could do absolutely anything and stemmed purely from the imagination. Zombies can eat your brains, but they can also dance.
-Who are some people that have influenced you as a filmmaker? And what are some things that have inspired you along the way?
Betz: I certainly have the usual horror influence. Raimi, Landis, Carpenter, Romero, Hooper…their films meant the world to me growing up. Then there’s the other side of weird. David Lynch, Jan Svankmeijer, Kubrick, Polanski, Peter Jackson, Cronenberg and Adam Rifkin. There’s a million others, but then it just becomes a list of names. Who wants to read that? One film that inspired the hell out of me early on was Rifkin’s The Dark Backward. I found it late at night flipping though channels. The dark, dirty world sucked me in immediately. I had never seen anything like it before and even though I was a kid and didn’t totally understand the themes, I still felt them. They affected me. Those types of movies inspired me along the way. Ones that took risks and opened up the genre. Again, I could name tons, but lists are boring.
-What do you think of modern day horror? On one hand the market is saturated in re-makes and PG-13 films. But on the other hand, beneath the surface there are tons of independent filmmakers, like you, and underground films with some crazy, unique ideas.
Betz: I think re-makes can be cool if done for the right reasons. Sadly, most are not. We’d never have movies like The Thing or The Fly if not for re-makes, but those are examples of the films being done right and with great respect to story and tone. It seems most remakes rely on the name alone. But I could bitch all night about the state of modern horror, but there will always be people out there trying new and interesting things in the genre. They might not get as much press as the Hollywood remakes but true lovers with sniff them out. They will be the ones keeping the respect the genre deserves in tact.
-Was everyone supportive of you when you began making films? Parents, friends, relatives? And did the fact that you started off making Joshua, an R rated horror film, affect any of them negatively?
Betz: I am very fortunate. I come form a very supportive family who always pushed me in the direction of my talents. When I made joshua I was nervous about how my family would react. Calling that film dark is not doing it justice. It’s sick. But most of my family put on their best game faces and really supported it. My mother even tried to get her priest to watch it! All in the name of support. It’s not their kind of movie. They are used to the slick Hollywood polish. But I think I could take a shit on a plate and my family would try and help me sell it. So yeah…they are cool.
-Now speaking of Joshua, I just recently watched it and really liked it. Especially the last 20 minutes or so, I was totally blown away by some of the shots and just the tension that you managed to build up. And not to spoil anything, but the ending is not a happy one (although I guess it has good moral values-do what you love, be who you are) but was there any doubt in your mind when it came to the ending and how big of a downer it is?
Betz: I might never have been brave enough to end Joshua so abruptly if it had not been for Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s one of my all time favorite endings and it leaves you with this awful feeling in your gut. So few movies let the audience leave with an actual emotion or physical feeling intact. Most of the time you turn to your friend and say, “What’dya think?” Then they’d respond, “Pretty good.” Then you say, “Yeah., I liked it.” Then you continue with your life. Chainsaw was one of those films that wouldn’t let you wash it off so quickly. The whole experience is disorienting and brutal. I fucking love it! So I wanted to try something similar with the audience for Joshua. I hope in some ways it worked.
-Now lets talk about Lo for a bit. How did you come up with the idea for Lo? Because it really is a whole mash up of different genres and it really works well. But, how did you go from horror, to demonic love story, to comedy, to musical numbers?
Betz: There’s no one technique I used to bounce around. When I write I don’t usually plan the tone, it just happens. When I am writing for myself, meaning I am writing something I love, then it all falls into place. I never sat down to write a horror film, a comedy or a love story. Once I had the idea of telling a story with one man sitting in a pentagram, I let the mood of it all sprout from there. It started out very scary, but the moment I introduced Lo, humor began to spill onto the page. Then midway through, a real love story started to develop. When it was time to write a new draft I saw all the elements and was able to flesh them out into what it is now…hopefully a mess of awesome.
-How many drafts of Lo did you do and how did you go about the writing process?
Betz: With this project it was just two. Normally it goes through more, but we were rushing it into production. I felt with this story it was important to keep the momentum going or the film might not get made. We barely had any money and people were worried about that. Rather then let the mind think unto the point of rationality, I busted through with my head down. We shot the hell out of it and then the smoke cleared. When it did we were like, “Oh….shit. How did we do that?” Even with only two drafts we also had the luxury of good actors who were willing to rehearse it like a play. This helped shape the script as we went along. It was, in many ways, more valuable then draft after draft.
-Lo the film looked great. What did you shoot it on and cut it on?
Betz: We did the Panasonic HVX200. I cut it up on Final Cut Pro.
-Also, Lo the demon, as well as all the other demons looked fantastic. How did you go about designing these characters and how did you manage to make them look realistic on a limited budget?
Betz: All of those accolades belong to my long time make-up effects master, Tom Devlin. I gave him crude drawings and ideas for both the main demons and he ran with it from there. Tom’s true talents lie in making things look exceptional with very little money. He’s amazing like that, not to mention he spent a lot of his own dough on this. When Tom and I work together it’s personal. We are both investing ourselves in something we believe in.
-Was the decision to shoot it almost like a stage play in one area an artistic one or a budgetary one?
Betz: Both. I’d be lying if I said budget was never part of the decision, but it would also be unfair to say that doing it like a play was not completely an artistic choice. They just happened to be a good match. I grew up in the theater and I love the elements of live performance. It is one of the oldest if not THE oldest art form. Ancient man would recount tales through dance by the fire. Stories about God’s and monsters. I thought it would be appropriate to use this old form of story telling and do a tale about creatures that have been around since the dawn. It also allowed us to see humanity through the eyes of the demons and how they view them as nothing more than entertainment. Stupid fools in temporary costumes.
-So you do a film set in hell. How big of a believer are you in God, the Devil, and the supernatural?
Betz: I went to Catholic school until the 7th grade. So basically I had one hell of a great horror education. I would write short stories and the teachers would call my parents in for meetings. They were disturbed by my monster prose and dripping characters. Looking back it seems odd they didn’t recognize the beast that THEY created with all their talk of Hell, horsemen and plagues. After that I transfered to public school. I do not believe in God or the Devil. At least not in the traditional sense. No magic man is judging my actions. I like to think there are great mysteries still out there though. While I don’t believe in ghosts, I do believe that energy can linger. I just don’t think it has a real conscious. I believe in aliens? How about that?
– So you completed the film. How hard was it to get it out there for an audience and how rewarding is it for you knowing that your film is out there now for people to see?
Betz: Getting a film like Lo out there is a real challenge. It’s not an easy film to market and it’s not a film everyone is going to embrace. Most distributors for no-money projects are out there ready to screw you over good. We looked over a number of contracts and only one distributor seemed to want to put the movie out because they authentically loved and understood the picture. SYNKRONIZED picked us up and even allowed us to keep our original artwork. Once the movie is actually released it’s a bit of a dream. It never seems quite real. So far, though, the reactions has been amazing. Half the people love the film and the other half wish the film and its makers harm. I tell you what, I’m happy Lo gets both reactions. The fact that the movie makes people feel the need to talk about it is awesome and it’s exactly why art exists.
-Now, I know you just completed shooting a new film called The Dead Inside. I know it is a horror and I know it is a musical. What’s the basic plot, where did the inspiration come for this film and why did you decide to do a musical?
Betz: I’m so excited about this film that I may leave a little mess on this interview…sorry. The Dead Inside came about when my girlfriend had a real nasty cold. In her sleep she started moaning. It was the creepiest thing I ever heard. She did it for a week and I had trouble sleeping I was so freaked out by the sound of it. We decided that it was a good spring board for a movie. We’d been looking to shoot a feature together (she is my cinematographer) so I started thinking about possession. I hadn’t really written anything worthwhile since Lo and I was finding inspiration lacking. Shannon’s moaning plus the fact that I was in a major rut seemed to marry each other perfectly. It allowed me to map parts of my own current situation over two characters and a ghost. The story is a bit of a love triangle between a man and a woman and the same man and a dead woman. It explores the darkest areas of inspiration and what that inspiration can turn us into. It’s a very haunting tale, but not one without some humor. I’ve always wanted to do a musical but I never found the write project. I had the story for The Dead Inside in my head but something was stopping me from making it. I just wanted 100% on board and had no idea why. Then one night I was at a karaoke bar and Shannon and I were discussing the film. Watching a friend of mine (who is also the lead actress, Sarah Lassez) singing a Beatles tunem it hit me like a falling piano. The movie had to be a musical. The minute I made that choice the inspiration came flooding in and we got right o work. Here I sit today in editing, loving every minute of it!
-And on that note do you compose all the music in your films?
Betz: Sweet god, no! I can’t play a single instrument. It’s a curse because I love music. I do sing, however, and really enjoy writing lyrics. I run a YouTube channel where I put up a lot of my work (www.youtube.com/thereceptionist). Through that I met a young man who was a singer/songwriter. He ran his own channel and we sort of became friends through mutual respect. When I knew I was making a musical I went straight to him. He’s amazingly talented and I was sure he’d rock this movie…and he did! His name is Joel Van Vleet (www.joelvanvleet.com).
-I’d also like to talk about the romance in your films. You seem to enjoy portraying couples and love on screen, why is that?
Betz: I do, don’t I? I guess I just really like love. And I don’t mean in the sappy, bullshit way. Just the idea that there is something so powerful between two people that it can lead to ultimate happiness or ultimate destruction. Love is responsible for some of the greatest and some of the most horrifying acts ever committed. Adding love to the horror equation gives you layers you never knew where there. It causes your characters to make deeper, more personal choices through out the story. Along with all that, I’m kind of a softy…even if my films tend to end tragically.
-How hard is it being an independent filmmaker? Have you ever thought of just throwing in the towel?
Betz: I mean, how hard is it to be a spinal surgeon, or a police officer, or a teacher? Doing what you love is never easy. If you’re passionate about something then it’s gonna take some work to do it right. Throwing in the towel is not an option. I will always make movies, even if it’s for a select audience, because for me it’s personal. I have to do this for myself. It’s what I do and who I am.
-On a final note, we decided to steal the Rottentomatoes Five Favorite Films and one up it. So what are your Six Favorite Films?
Betz: I could sit here for weeks and write this list and it would always change…but two would be rock solid. Evil Dead 2 and Eraserhead. Those will always be my top two films. I’ll throw out four more movies, but just know that as soon as you make this interview public I will want to change them.
1. Evil Dead 2
3. Little Shop of Horrors
4. Let the Right One In
6. Dr. Stranglove