Published on December 11th, 2011 | by R. O'Donnell0
Film Director Travis Betz Talks Love, Zombies, and Summoning Demons
Travis Betz is not your typical horror film director. He, like so many of my favorite directors, sees the world in a very unique way, and he bottles that vision to present something I’ve never quite seen before. If original content was valued as much as the cookie-cutter horror remake, talent such as Travis Betz would be getting the big budgets other mainstream director’s take for granted. Yet despite and possibly thanks to those financial limitations, Travis has embraced his challenges with all the gusto and finesse of a mystical Carnival ringmaster, giving birth to a truly inimitable presence and welcomed addition to the world of horror and Cinéma Fantastique.
The horror Film Joshua was a pretty ambitious first feature, how did it go from concept to production?
Travis: Ambitious is right. I’ve made 4 feature films and it’s still the biggest thing I’ve ever done in terms of location, cast, shot on film, full crew…so yeah. It all started when I realized I had lived in Los Angles for 2 years and still hadn’t made a damn thing. Since I’m a fan of people like Raimi and Romero I already had great role models providing inspiration for me to suck it up and make a movie (thanks guys). Of course I had no idea what it really took to pull it off. I had next to no experience behind the camera. Up to that point I was a writer and actor. I had written the script for Joshua and knew that it was what I wanted to make. A devilishly dark horror film! I showed it to a couple friends who then decided I was a sick fuck. To me that was a sign that the script was ready. Luckily I had an amazing support group who jumped on board with me. Jessica Petelle and Jeremiah Jordan became my producers and Ward Roberts was on board as my lead actor. Between the four of us we started Drexel Box Films and made Joshua our first project. We spent a few months trying to get Hollywood interested in funding it, but everyone who read the script either thought it was too dark or they didn’t want me directing. So we flipped them the bird and decided to raise the money the old fashioned way…begging our friends and family members! Before we knew it we were all back in Indiana shooting in the woods. It was really amazing. Every day I would look around and wonder how the hell it all happened and how the hell was I in charge of it all. We shot 26 days (still my longest shoot) and had the time of our lives. It was like summer camp and to this day I still work with a lot of the same people. For a first film of any kind I could not be more proud or nostalgic.
After Joshua, traditional horror took a backseat to a more avant-garde pallet, why is that?
I’ve been asking myself that same question. I’m not actually sure, but I think it was just evolution of an artist. When I started out I wanted to make crazy cool horror flicks, but when it came time to make more movies I noticed that I started putting gore humor into them, as well as looking at unique ways to tell a story. When I first started writing Lo it was originally going to be a very scary piece, but as I wrote I kept telling jokes. I couldn’t help myself. I realized how tragic the story actually was and that made me want to put in the humor all the more. I love people like Peter Greenaway and Lars Von Trier who make what they think is beautiful or ugly or tragic. They remain true to themselves and not the machine that would have them make movies otherwise. That kind of freedom appeals to me and I like to insert a little of it into my own films. I’m not saying my work is anywhere near that avant-garde, but I like to think there’s enough spices in my cooking to be considered so.
All your films have a wonderful theatricality to them, where did that influence come from?
I love the word “Theatricality.” I actually grew up in the theater. All through middle school and into college I had the stage in my blood. I was even going to go to New York and pursue it. I love how theater is amplified. Emotions are always slightly bigger and the audience reactions are audible. There is a gratification to it unlike film. The thing is, I fucking LOVE film. So that won out, but I honor my theater past in my movies. The whole “All the world’s a stage” makes it into my themes. That’s the wonderful thing about cinema. You can blend art forms together. Art forms rule.
Being that your work is so theatrical, have you ever thought of writing for the stage?
I actually have. I have written, directed and produced many short works for the stage and even a full length musical. This, of course, was many years ago back in Indiana. I would love to someday get back to it. Right now my focus is on cinema, but with that said, I am currently adapting Lo for the stage. We’ve had many requests from theater companies to do so. I was lucky enough to see The Book of Mormon on Broadway a couple months ago and it completely re-energized my love for what theater can be. I’ll be back…oh I will be back damn it.
Your work reflects a wicked sense of humor, too. Will you continue going for laughs and why?
I mean, I just love black humor. I think humor makes scary scarier and sad sadder…if that makes sense. Humor is so personally human and when done right is more powerful and honest then any other form (in my opinion). The funny will stay in my work always. That’s not to say I won’t make another Joshua type film, but for right now I am enjoying blending the light and dark.
Define your working relationship with your cinematographer, and your favorite(s) to date?
I’m extremely lucky in this department. My current (and forever) cinematographer is actually my girlfriend. She was originally a still photographer but I nudged her into the world of moving pictures and now she’s hooked. Shannon Hourigan is her name. She’s one of those people who can pick up a foreign object, look over it for a few minutes and then start to figure out how it works. She has an incredible eye for composition and detail. What’s truly great is that we live together, so I have the luxury of having my DP at my disposable any time I want. To date she has shot my web series Bartokular, my feature film, The Dead Inside and Ward Robert’s feature, Dust Up. She has also done a large handful of short films with me. Our working relationship is pretty great. We rarely spat on set. She knows that I have a specific vision I want to translate and she takes that vision and makes it all her own. It really blends well.
My favorite current cinematographers…I love Hoyte Van Hoytema because Let the Right One In was beautiful. Sean Bobbitt for Hunger. Harris Savides for Birth and Zodiac…and I mean who doesn’t love Roger Deakins?
The creature in LO is wonderfully designed. How did that develop?
It didn’t “develop.” We summoned a real demon. I just thought it would add to the flick. OK fine, seriously. Lo was a tricky one because I wanted him to be a creepy demon, but at the same time the audience had to fall for him. My special make-up effects life master, Tom Devlin, and I talked at length of what to do exactly. We decided that he should represent humanity through death. That he should be sort of skeletal. We originally had a huge horn on his nose but soon realized that it was silly and less relatable. The rocks on the back of his head was Tom’s idea, since he was from the Earth.
Talk about The Dead Inside, and why you choose to do a horror musical?
Mostly because I love horror films and I love musicals. To NOT make a horror musical would make much less sense. The Dead Inside came from a very dark moment in time when both myself and Shannon couldn’t get inspired to create. We had both made a few failed attempts but nothing from shooting from the well. It wasn’t until Shannon got sick and started moaning (in the non-sexual manner) in her sleep (and it scared the living piss out of me) that the wheels started turning on a ghost possession story. I love movies with that theme, but I always thought it would be interesting if we could relate to the “evil” entity inside our protagonist. I wanted to explore why a ghost or demon would take over a person’s life and how they would justify doing so. It didn’t start off as a musical though. At first (like Lo) it was going to be a straight horror film…but damn it if I didn’t start having fun with zombie sub-plots and stuff. The musical elements came in when I saw my lead actress, Sarah Lassez, doing karaoke one night. It just clicked. I knew I wanted it to be a musical. I knew I wanted and needed the challenge. I grabbed Sondheim by the balls and went from there.
I’m in love with Sarah Lassez! Her work in LO and The Dead Inside was delicious. How did that collaboration come about? Are you planning any future projects?
Delicious! She’ll love that. Sarah is great. Such a unique actress. There’s something really fascinating about the way she works on screen and that’s exactly why I found her for Lo. I was trying to find a perfect girl to play April. It was a small, but hugely important role. One day I was watching this very strange film (I watch a lot of these kinds of films) called Mad Cow Girl. She was the lead. Her character was slowly going crazy and eating a lot o raw meat AND killing actors who she thinks are ninjas…and stuff. I knew from that film that I wanted her to be in my movie. We found her agent and sent the script. She read it, loved it and the next thing I knew we were talking shop over margaritas. Since then she’s become part of the crew…which means that yes, we will be working together again, I am sure.
Love plays a major role in all of your films, why is that? In your world, how do romance and horror fit together?
I think love is such an interesting topic. For so many people it is, on to itself, a horror movie. The way everything can be so amazing and how it can turn on you in a second. How powerful it is. It can make you smile, cry and kill. And this isn’t just love for a man or woman, but you could go as far to say love for a deity, love of power or even love for yourself. All forms of love can be twisted and perverted…and when they are, it is really sick. I focus a lot more on personal relationships because I find it the most tragic. When people truly love each other and the audience can feel that to, then when bad things happen we can really take them on a ride. It’s odd, because even though many of my tales end on a somber note, I do think that the ultimate message is uplifting. That love conquers. That love survives even in the face of evil. Even if the lovers are taken from each other forever. There’s something about this tragic yet happy ending that moves me to craft stories around it.
You have an original eye for horror, and you’re always thinking outside the box. What inspires you and whom?
Aw shucks. Thanks! I really just try to stay true to myself and not think about a demographic. I am a firm believer that if I am happy with what I am creating then there will be an audience for it, because happiness in your work translates.
What inspires me: Bad movies are a good start…and that’s not a knock on them. I think people who make movies who have no means, connections or help, but make them anyway are so damn inspiring it hurts. Sure, many of them turn out pretty bad, but there’s so many that you can feel the love behind. Good movies are also a wonderful source. Can’t get enough good movies.
Who inspires me: It’s a laundry list really. I grew up on Sam Raimi, John Landis, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter….on and on. More recently though I love people taking risks like Duncan Jones, Charlie Kaufman, Ti West, Pascal Laugier…on and on
Not only do you write & direct, but you’ve acted in several film projects (little Big Top, Dust Up) which do you prefer?
Writing is my first and deepest love. Creating the world straight from my mind. All alone in my office. A good beer at my side. Writing is awesome. I love acting as well, but it’s not something I pursue. I’m more then happy to act in someone’s movie but I don’t have head shots and I don’t audition. My focus is filmmaking.
The same holds true for editing. You’ve edited your last two features. Why did you make that choice?
To me editing is a lot like writing…actually, rewriting. Same world though. Me, alone in my office. Beer at my side. Only this time I am writing with visuals and there are a number of different ways I can play each scene. It’s so rewarding when you bust your ass on a scene and it turns out better then you imagined. Writing and Editing are my two favorite parts of filmmaking. I also have control issues. I love seeing my film through from start to finish. I’ve heard all the arguments about fresh eyes can really give a movie new life…and I do agree…but my films are very personal to me. They are an extension of me. I feel it’s only right that I man-handle them. I always have multiple test screenings for fresh eyes and notes, and for me that’s enough of a difference.
Your work is so imaginative that names like Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children, Amélie) and Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) come to mind. If you had their budgets, what would you create?
Well I am tickled pink to be mentioned in the same sentence as them. I’m not sure I would ever know what to do with a budget if someone gave me one. I’ve been in the trenches for so long! The thing is, I have many scripts written that are just collecting dust because they need money. These are stories I’m dying to tell but sadly I must wait. When I do have that kind of funding though, be prepared for some pretty crazy stuff. I love working in the low low budget world, but the minute someone gives me a shot with more money, I’m going to have a grand ol’ time.