Feb 2012

An interview by Frank Woodward

This is an interview Frank Woodward conducted with me several years ago for Monsters and Critics.

Frank’s become a good friend over the years and I’m proud to say that he’s written a film that will premiere on SyFy this month! “Black Forest” on February 25th at 7Pm/6pm Central time.

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By Frank H. Woodward

Over the last year and a half, director Kevin VanHook has helmed four horror films: “The Fallen Ones”, “Voodoo Moon”, “Slayer” and now “Haunted Prison”.

You may have seen VanHook’s work on Sci Fi Channel or Anchor Bay DVD. If you did, you may have noticed how each film strives to be more than just another widget off an assembly line of cheap scares

At 9:00 PM on October 14, “Haunted Prison”, starring Jake Busey and Stacy Keach, will premiere on the Sci Fi Channel . It may be Kevin VanHook’s most accomplished fright fest yet.

Recently, VanHook sat down with Monsters & Critics to share the ins & outs of delivering solid genre thrills under a tight Hollywood system.


QUESTION: What were the origins of “Haunted Prison”?

VANHOOK: I was dealing with some producers where we were going over a group of ideas to move forward on projects primarily for Sci
Fi Channel (and) for Anchor Bay.

In having those conversations, one of the comments the Sci‑Fi guys made was that they really wanted to see a great Halloween film, something with ghosts. And I didn't really have a great haunted house story.

As we started exploring it, we started throwing out the idea, “what if this was more of a prison?” Something that had a darker history and then perhaps it's got this underlying thing about always being this home of executions. There’s been so much death in the prison that that's why the ghost activity was there.

In essence the story of “Death Row”, which is called “Haunted Prison” for the Sci-Fi Channel premiere, deals with a young group of filmmakers in college who have decided to do a documentary on this allegedly haunted prison, Isla De La Roca Penitentiary. As we open up, they’re interviewing the last surviving person who ever actually worked (at the prison). There was a great massacre fifteen years ago and pretty much everybody was slaughtered. This guy survived and went a bit crazy.

(We) then cut to the prison and realize that a group of jewel thieves are holding up inside. The young documentary group also arrives. Both parties think the other one is doing something screwy because almost immediately mayhem ensues as we have people starting to die left and right by the hands of the ghosts and the prison itself.

QUESTION: And that’s where the fun begins.

VANHOOK: Yes. And it’s pretty quick. I mean it’s definitely the fastest paced film I think I’ve done.

QUESTION: With a sizeable ensemble cast. Is it difficult writing for that many characters as well as directing them?

VANHOOK: Rick Glassman and I co-wrote this script based on a treatment I had done. I have to say that Rick did a phenomenal job and I think our work cuts together pretty seamlessly--considering he literally wrote half and I wrote the other half. We both followed the treatment, of course, but it was still wonderful to see what he was doing with the characters.

One of the greatest challenges for me on this film was dealing with the idea that I wanted to create distinctive personalities and voices for this many people and one of the things I’m very proud of is our casting.

We work with a guy named Paul Weber for casting and I do my best to get across to him the types of people I have in mind. He’s cast three of my films so he’s got a pretty good feel for the kinds of actors I’m looking for.

QUESTION: The cast is quite believable and very entertaining and obviously you start off great because you have Stacy Keach on screen.

VANHOOK: Stacy’s wonderful. The role of Elias (the surviving prison guard), when I originally envisioned the script, was one of those roles that could shift among a handful of really strong actors.

(When) Stacy Keach was proposed I thought it’d be great because not only is he a wonderful actor, he’s great to work with. He’s also kind of associated with prison films and that sort of thing. He currently plays a warden on “Prison Break”. Before he walks in the door you believe that he would be a guard.

QUESTION: What about Jake Busey as Marco, the leader of the jewel thieves?

I thought that it would be great to have this kind of person who can pull off the levels of madness. I had seen Marco as being a little bit more of a jerk than Jake begins playing the character. I think Jake wanted to make that arc a little bit more pronounced, you know, a little more likeable at the beginning.

The reality is that even when the character descends into some pretty dark places, he’s still very likable. It’s one of those challenges because you’ve got the guy saying and doing pretty despicable things so you want the audience to make sure that they understand this is the bad guy. But at the same time he’s very charismatic and you enjoy watching him.

QUESTION: Which of course reminds me of the scene where Marco is having a heart to heart with the victim of a license plate cutter. Can you walk me through the brainstorming behind some of the gore scenes in “Haunted Prison”? They weren’t your average slash ‘em up kind of deaths.

VANHOOK: Well, it’s one of those things. If I’m going to sit down and try to create a film that’s in a certain genre, it sounds cliché but I’m really trying to do my best to bring something new to it.

I’m associated with horror to some degree and even in my comic book career, I was somewhat associated with horror.

My films haven’t necessarily been really what I would call horror films, though. They’ve had scary moments. They’ve had suspense and tension and they might even be dealing with supernatural or horrific elements but they weren’t really scary.

“Haunted Prison” I wanted to at least have the funhouse ride kind of scary where it’s fun to watch, but at the same time, you know that something gross and creepy is going to happen.

So sitting down and deciding how we dismember eight to ten people in an hour and a half was kind of fun. I knew almost immediately that I liked the idea of a machine chopping somebody up in itty bitty pieces and then I started thinking, well, what’s going to be in a prison? And the license plate cutting machine came to mind. I thought that was a nice touch.

As far as other deaths go, I worked very closely with Jason Collins and Elvis Jones of Autonomous Effects. They’re outstandingly talented guys.

I also brought in a comic book idol of mine,
Bernie Wrightson. He did designs for some of the ghosts. Bernie’s known for creating “Swamp Thing” and he’s just a legend in the industry. He also drew the original story that inspired “Jenifer”, the Dario Argento episode of “Masters of Horror”.

QUESTION: Were there any challenges in directing these death scenes for television?

VANHOOK: You know, (Sci Fi Channel) could always throw me a curve here in the last week or two, but I have been told that we were approved as is.

I always do coverage for television. I always assume that we’ll get a television sale of some kind and I have coverage in case I have to do another edit.

In the case of “Haunted Prison”, I didn’t have to go to my soft edit. I was able to go with what I was showing on the DVD. The only thing that’s different, really, is the language. There are a few curse words and things that are omitted for the television cut.

QUESTION: When I was doing my research for this interview, I noticed that you’ve directed four films over the last year and a half.

I feel very fortunate and very blessed that I’ve been given the opportunity to exercise my craft this way. The goal is to make each film truly better than the last and I work very hard at that.

With “Slayer” (Sci Fi’s vampire action picture starring Casper Van Dien), I was really determined to create a much higher level of action than I ever had. So we carried ten stuntmen for the full production. I had never approached anything quite like that before and so it was a really great exercise.

In writing these things, I sit down and try to determine how many scenes feel like a good pace or how long can a line of dialogue be before I’m tired of looking at that person. And as an editor, I’m always paying attention to those things and, as a product of that, my scripts are getting more and more lean. There’s a lot more movement in them and that’s what keeps it fresh for me.

That and the fact that you may notice that these four films are all pretty unique to each other.

I’m still just as proud of my first film which was Frost: Portrait Of A Vampire” (starring Gary Busey) which took me five years to get made and was done for two hundred thousand bucks. The same with “The Fallen Ones” which was several years later.

But at the same time, I see where I could have made them better. If I walk away and I say, “I don’t know how I would have done it any better.” then I feel I’ve lost. But if I walk away and see when I made a pacing flaw here or this character was just miscast…

I don’t mind making mistakes. As long as I’m entertaining to the best of my ability and I make each film better, then I’m happy.

QUESTION: You mentioned that you started out in comics.

VANHOOK: Yes, I started off actually as a comic book artist and then in the mid-eighties became an artist/writer.

I started at 17. I began drawing for Pacific Comics which went out of business fairly soon after I began and then I kind of kicked around for a couple of years.

I ended up writing and drawing an original character called Jack Frost which is what I also adapted into to become my first feature film, “Frost: Portrait Of A Vampire”. The
story was that he was a former mercenary turned sort of private investigator. His best friend becomes a vampire. He has to hunt him down and stop him.

And then I was executive editor and vice president of a company called Valiant Comics in the early nineties. And Valiant was the number four comic book company in the industry. Essentially, there was Marvel, D.C., Image and us. And then in 1994, I had decided to become a filmmaker.

I moved to California under contract to write comics and I could live wherever I wanted so I chose San Diego. I wrote three books a month there, sometimes five and worked out my contract for a couple of years and in ’96 I started making “Frost”.

QUESTION: I read that you also did visual effects work.

VANHOOK: I wanted to be more than just a screenwriter and I had an interest and fascination with visual effects and special effects in general, but I had never been a real sculptor. I had never been the guy who made model kits in his garage.
But I read everything about the subject since I was a little kid and watched every, “making of” and. “how to” that I could find.

My wife and a guy from my studio named Chadd Cole decided in 1997 to move up to L.A. and almost immediately we started working as a small visual effects shop. We were on “Conan Adventures” and we did a little bit of work on “Honey I Shrunk the Kids”. We did a lot of work on the features “My Favorite Martian” and “Miss Congeniality.” Along the way, VanHook Studios managed to build quite a reputation as a small boutique visual effects house.

In 2002, we merged with Film Roman, the animation company that does “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill” and re-branded ourselves as Forum Visual Effects, the CG arm of Film Roman.

I became a vice president of Film Roman and then about a year after that, IDT bought Film Roman and Anchor Bay Home Entertainment and formed IDT Entertainment.

The first live action film that IDT Entertainment produced was “The Fallen Ones.” I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time.

QUESTION: Was it around that time that you started working with Karen Bailey, your producing partner?

VANHOOK: Well, Karen Bailey was somebody I met during the making of “Frost”. She actually was an actress in the film. Almost immediately following the shooting my project, she was producing a romantic comedy that she had raised the money for.

She approached me in 2003 to see if I had any interest in directing a horror comedy she had. I kind of countered back with, well, how would you feel about trying to raise money for my giant mummy movie? And so she got interested in that and we worked together trying to raise the money. We went down a number of roads.

I don’t care what anybody ever tells you, it’s rarely easy to raise any amount of money, whether it’s a hundred thousand dollars or a million dollars or more. You’re often promised that it’s very simple and it will happen within the week and that kind of thing. I literally went to fifty or sixty people on “Frost” who fully committed and were ready to go and just couldn’t get them to write the check.

The nice thing with Karen was that she was as sincere as I was about what I was trying to accomplish. She knew my goal was to make better and better films.

She stepped in on “The Fallen Ones”. We originally were bringing on a separate line producer and she went ahead and line produced as well as produced which, for those people who don’t really understand the distinction, the line producer really is the one who’s hiring all the hands-on people, all of the crew whereas the producer oftentimes is just giving a big picture nod and might have some say in casting.

There’re always exceptions to every rule but that’s the usual delineation between those two roles. And when Karen stepped in… to have never done a 1.5 million dollar film was a big deal and she did a wonderful job at it.

QUESTION: And each of your films has been with her ever since.

VANHOOK: Yes. Karen and I formed a company called K
2 Productions.

We’ve worked very closely, you know. Unlike most directors, I’m very hands on with the budgets in terms of time. We’re both extremely hands-on (with) where we think the money should be spent.

My films seem to be very ambitious. Even “Haunted Prison”, while it’s relatively self-contained in terms of locations is (ambitious) for me. Just
the makeup effects and visual effects alone.

(Karen and I) always have this conversation when we hire a new line producer. They always read the script and come back and say you can’t do it for this money and you kind of come back and go, “I can.”

the last three films, we’ve ended up cutting my schedule short by a couple of days. I’ve tried to shoot twenty-four days on all four movies. I’ve ended up shooting twenty-two on the last three because I understand concessions.

I don’t feel it’s hurt the films, but it’s definitely limited a few of the more elaborate sequences that I would have done with more involved camera choreography.

QUESTION: 22 days is probably the bare minimum in which to shoot a feature film. To really get the level of production value your films have been exhibiting.

VANHOOK: That’s the thing. I mean I’m often told, you know, people don’t do them for
more than eighteen days on this budget level. Well, I can’t produce what I produce in eighteen days. We’ve got to figure out a way to cut corners elsewhere to make that happen.

“Haunted Prison” has probably been the most fun to watch of any film I’ve done. From the feeling of terror to the ghosts and the finished visual effects. It’s just been a great ride to take and I’m hoping that the audience has the same kind of feeling.