Talking horror and indie filmmaking with promising newcomer Troy Escamilla, the talented writer/director of “Stirring” and “Party Night”.
Last year, my film “Waffles” was selected as a finalist at Motor City Nightmares Film Festival. It allowed me the chance to go to a director meet and greet with the other directors that had been selected as finalists. Not many of the directors really talked to Jake Phipps (my buddy) and myself, but one guy did take the time to introduce himself. That person was first-time horror director Troy Escamilla.
I did not really know his story at first, but after doing a little research I found out he was a bit of a success story based on money he had raised from crowdfunding for his film Party Night. Once I found out we came from similar backgrounds with our movie making, it prompted me to contact him so I could pick his brain.
The following interview with Troy Escamilla was an attempt to give future or upcoming writers/directors a little insight to the process from a successful indie movie maker.
INTERVIEW WITH INDIE FILMMAKER TROY ESCAMILLA
What are your three favorite horror movies?
This is tough because, besides my number one choice, which will always remain the same, the list changes frequently and really depends on my mood. But for today, I’ll say: 1. Black Christmas, 2. Poltergeist, and 3. Suspiria.
Who is your favorite horror movie director?
Ugh…another tough choice. I absolutely love Hitchcock and how he was able to so skillfully craft suspense. However, I am huge fan of Dario Argento. His attention to detail and use of lighting and color to create mood and atmosphere is masterful. And Suspiria remains the most beautiful horror film ever made.
Who is your favorite villain/killer?
Gotta go with the slow, stealthy and silent Michael Myers!
What made you want to do movies?
I’ve always loved to tell stories. I started writing short stories when I was in second or third grade and would beg my teachers to let me read them to my classmates. It goes without saying that I’m also a big lover of film. (Little known fact — I’m am Oscar buff! Ask me anything about the Oscars…..for real. Do it!)
In high school, I learned screenwriting and wrote my first feature script. I quickly realized that I loved the craft of screenwriting. It suited my writing style very well, so it became a passion. Ten…heck even five years ago, I would have never imagined that I would actually make a film.
Seeing so many talented and driven indie filmmakers that I follow on social media jumping in and getting their films made any way possible inspired me.
I honestly felt like the Party Night script was something special. Being a massive 80’s slasher fan myself, I believe I effectively injected the script with many nods and homages to other films and that other slasher fans would have a blast with it. So, I guess the direct answer to your question is that I want to make movies and tell stories that other genre fans will enjoy.
You didn’t go to school for film, so how did you figure out how to make a movie?
My first day on the set of Party Night was actually my first time ever being on a film set. The interesting thing is I wasn’t initially supposed to direct the film. I hired a director because I was well aware of my lack of experience. However, after two days, it was clear this person was not going to work out at all. So with the cast and crew on set and a very tight shooting schedule, I pretty much had no other choice than to step into the director role.
Come to discover, I actually enjoyed it! I wrote these characters, so it felt very natural and “right” to work with the actors to bring them to life in the manner in which I envisioned while writing the script. But to more to your question — I learned a ton from my cast and crew.
Everyone on set was passionate about the project. My cinematographer was extremely patient with me and had no issue taking time to explain his process. The cast, who were each AMAZING, were also patient and very comfortable offering suggestions and stepping into other roles when needed. I also learned a lot about practical effects from my special effects make up artist.
I guess what I’m saying is that I learned to make a movie (A) by doing it and more importantly (B) by bringing on people who had the experience, passion, drive, and patience to assist me achieving my vision for the film. You’re definitely only as good as the people you surround yourself with, and I lucked out. I’ll always be grateful to the cast and crew of PARTY NIGHT for what they taught me.
Once your script is written, what is the next step in your movie making process?
Revisions. And even more revisions. When I complete the first draft of a script, I step away from it for at least two weeks. I then revisit with with a fresh perspective and begin the revision process. I made revisions to the Party Night script for about a full year before settling the final draft that we used to shoot the film. Stirring went through about five revisions in the course of about two months.
With a final draft, I then begin to estimate budget and think about funding, etc. Both of my films so far were successfully crowdfunded, which is an awesome tool for indie filmmakers to raise funds, but is also VERY time consuming. And with some many film projects hitting both Kickstarter and Indiegogo, I’m afraid we may be reaching a point of crowdfunding fatigue.
Anyway, once I know I have funding in place, it’s the typical pre-production stuff; casting, location scouting, scheduling. For Stirring, I did all this myself. This may be because I’m a tad of a control freak (not really…..well, maybe), but more so because it was just easier to know that if I was doing these things, they would actually get done. And if anything didn’t get done or was done incorrectly, I knew I’d only have myself to blame.
I guess depending on who you ask, this is either a good or bad mentality to have, but it definitely worked for me with Stirring.
What inspired “Party Night?”
I’m a huge 80’s slasher fan; films such as Prom Night, The Mutilator, Sleepaway Camp, Intruder, StageFright, and Blood Rage are films I still revisit and enjoy today. There is a nostalgia involved with viewing them that I just don’t really get from many modern horror flicks.
The slasher sub-genre especially has seemed to gone through a slight identity crisis the past few decades since the release of ‘Scream’. Slasher flicks that are self-referential and tinged with comedic elements have become the norm it seems. I wanted to give fans something that definitely eliminated these elements and instead is a straight forward, blood drenched film that will provide some nostalgia for 80’s horror fans.
Did you accomplish all that you wanted to with “Party Night?”
Considering it was my first film, I am very happy with how it turned out and at the reception it has received so far. I believe that fans will definitely feel the 80’s vibe and will recognize many of the little homages to other slasher flicks that are sprinkled throughout the film. My goal was to create an effective 80’s throwback slasher film, and I do feel like I succeeded. Hopefully fans will agree!
What piece of knowledge did you carry over from “Stirring” to “Party Night?”
Really, just the overall knowledge of what actually goes into making a film. I knew pretty much what to expect this time around and was much more prepared. I also knew I had to bring back many of the people who helped me make Party Night. I brought back both the cinematographer, Derek Huey, and special effects make up artist, Heather Benson, who has won multiple festival awards for her work on Party Night.
Also, I cast the three male actors from Party Night, Ryan Poole, Billy Brannigan, and Drew Shotwell because I know their chemistry together is absolutely palpable and that this would transfer well on screen.
Additionally, the cast of Stirring was more than twice the size of Party Night, so I knew everything on set had to much more organized and that keeping to the schedule was crucial, but also giving the cast time to bond and have fun together.
One thing I learned from Party Night is that when you allow time cast bonding, it will do wonders for their chemistry on screen together. The Party Night cast genuinely enjoyed each other got along fabulously; when we weren’t filming, they were hanging out, watching movies, getting to know each other, and just having fun. This resulted in their relationships on screen to seem very natural and believable.
The same thing happened during the filming of Stirring, and though the guys had worked together previously and are true friends off screen now, it was great to see that when other cast members joined the set, it was like gathering a group of lifelong friends. They quickly bonded and again, I definitely believe the relationships will seem genuine to the audience.
What mistake did you make during “Party Night” that you made sure not to carry over to “Stirring?” Casting? Budget? Lighting? Sound? Editing? Promotion?
Definitely scheduling. The initial schedule for Party Night was a mess and logistically did not make sense at all. There was so much unnecessary downtime, etc., and we were constantly making adjustments to the original schedule as we went along.
With Stirring, I did the scheduling myself and applied what I learned from my Party Night experience to ensure scenes were grouped together properly and that an adequate and realistic amount of time was allotted. We actually wrapped one day ahead of scheduled, so ended up shooting the entire film in fifteen days, one day less than it took to shoot Party Night — even though Stirring is about fifteen minutes longer.
One thing I do tend to struggle with is the whole promotion process. Stirring is done and is getting some very positive reviews so far. It has an amazing cast including horror icon Brinke Stevens and Helene Udy, so I feel like there is so much more I could and should be doing to promote the film beyond sending it out to a few critics for some advance reviews and submitting it to festivals, which can be a very expensive and disheartening endeavor.
What’s your inspiration for “Stirring?”
My favorite horror film of all time is 1974’s Black Christmas. I love the holiday horror sub-genre and always said if I could make just two films, one would be an 80’s throwback slasher and the other would be a Christmas themed slasher. I actually started writing the script to Stirring right before we started shooting Party Night. My experience filming Party Night certainly had some influence on the script.
As I mentioned, my favorite horror film of all time is 1974’s Black Christmas; I find it to be a truly terrifying film that doesn’t nearly get the credit it deserves for its influence on the genre. There truly is something unsettling and interesting about effectively pairing the most joyous, wonderful and festive time of the year with horror and bloodshed, so I wanted to try my hand at crafting a holiday themed horror film that I felt fans would have a blast with. Hopefully, I accomplished that!
What do you think is your movie making strength?
Interesting question to consider. I’d like to think that I have a knack for creating characters that feel real and that the audience cares about. There’s been a trend in horror lately to feature characters that are widely unlikable. I try to accomplish the opposite and create characters that are a tad more layered and realistic than you typically find in slasher films.
Yes, they may have remnants of the cliches we’re used to seeing (the wholesome and innocent final girl, the cocky frat boy, the stoner best friend), but I attempt to put them in situations and give the dialogue and quirks that make them likable and relatable to the audience.
I believe that when the audience actually likes the characters and can connect to them on some level, it’s going to pack much more of a punch when these characters meet their demise.
Consequently, casting becomes a very crucial part of my film making process, and I feel like I have an eye for selecting the “right” actors for the roles. The best scripts can be ruined by bad acting, so I take this task very seriously. I have no issues at all saying that I am very proud of the strong casts I was able to assemble for both Party Night and Stirring.
Many of the reviews for both films have singled out how good the acting, particularly consider the tiny budgets and short shooting schedules. I’ve been truly blessed to be able to work with some amazing talent, and I’m sure you’ll be seeing bigger things from many of them in the near future!
Are you working on any new projects now that “Stirring” has been completed?
I just recently started a new screenplay. While it’s still definitely horror, it’s going to be much different than Party Night and Stirring. What I am most excited about is that it focuses on certain themes and relationships that are sorely lacking in the genre. I don’t want to give too much away except to say that though it will have slasher elements. It’s going to be much more psychological, but will go to some definite brutal and horrific places.
As I get closed to completing the script, I’ll divulge some more information. But since it will be so different than what I’ve done so far, I want to keep quiet about it for now, as hard as that is!
What would the one piece of advice you would pass on to new filmmakers?
Do not wait around for someone else to tell you it’s okay to make your film. If you have a script that you’re passionate about, do not wait around for someone else to make it into a film. Three or four years ago, I would have NEVER imagined I would have made one film, let alone two. It’s always been something I have wanted to do, and if I would have waiting around for someone’s permission or someone else to take one of my screenplays, it never, ever would have happened.
Also, be prepared for A LOT of work. HARD work. TIME CONSUMING work. Some days you’ll want to curl up and cry. But some days will be among the most memorable of your life. Take it all in. Never lose or compromise your vision or passion. Because the first time you get to watch your film with an audience is magical and electrifying, and it is so worth all the hard work and tears it took.
What’s your proudest moment as a horror movie director/writer?
The one that stands out the most is watching Party Night with an audience for the very first time at Motor City Nightmares in Detroit last April. More than a year of living and breathing nothing but Party Night culminated in this one moment where I’d view the film with an audience who was unknown to me and who were pretty much going into in the film knowing nothing about it.
I don’t think I have ever been so nervous as in those moments when the film started playing in what was a pleasantly quite full screening room. However, their reaction was everything I could have hoped for during key scenes. And when the end credits began to roll, it got a pretty loud and enthusiastic applause.
At that moment, I knew that myself and everyone involved in making the film created something truly special.
What’s your end goal for your movie making?
Honestly, it’s creating a film that other horror fans will enjoy. While it’s important to definitely make the film you want to make as an indie filmmaker, it doesn’t mean much if you aren’t keeping a potential audience in mind during the entire filmmaking process.