(This interview was originally published on December 4, 2011 at The Rogers Revue. Photographs by Michael Parsons, all rights reserved)
Sevé Schelenz isn’t your typical horror director. When I met with him to discuss his new film “Skew”, it felt more like I was picking the brain of an author than that of a filmmaker, particularly the way he explained the use of imagery and layering in his work. “Skew” begs our imaginations to run amok, proving that a less-is-more approach can prevail over the effects-laden fare that has saturated contemporary cinema.Though “Skew” is his first feature film, Sevé’s sapience seems on par with that of a veteran filmmaker, an unusual wisdom that is certainly reflected by the many awards the film has picked up along the festival circuit (including Best Feature at Urban Suburban Festival and most recently, the Indie Spirit Award in South Africa). I was fortunate enough to catch the screening of the film at the 2011 Spooky Movie Festival in Washington, DC, but not before talking to the Canadian director about his inspiration, technique and our mutual appreciation of John Carpenter.
Michael Parsons: In a nutshell, how would you describe “Skew”?
Sevé Schelenz: Well, the tagline is, ‘Three friends go on a road trip and they don’t come back’. The thing about “Skew” is that it’s more of a psychological thriller than a horror. There are horror elements, but it’s a puzzle. You have to pay attention… and there are clues from the very beginning.
MP: When did you get started with filmmaking?
SS: Right back to childhood. Basically, I convinced my parents to buy me a video camera. Back then it was all VHS, we didn’t have Mini DV yet. I had a big clunky VHS and recorded everything I could. Eventually, I started making films with my friends.
MP: So it was a natural progression?
SS: Yes. From that, it was, hey what are you gonna do in life? You gottta pick something for University, and it just happened to be film studies, which my parents didn’t seem to think was a good idea. My dad was in the military and my mom was a receptionist to make ends meet. So this wasn’t really a traditional path to take.
MP: Where did you study?
SS: I went to York University in Toronto, it was a five year program. When I graduated, I decided that I wanted a change and moved to Vancouver. So I worked in the industry doing grunt jobs. I was a tape operator, I was doing dubbing from tape to tape and learned the editing system in the facility. I found that being an editor was the best inspiration to become a filmmaker. You can do almost anything in the editing process. I was able to understand how I could change things. From that I could work backwards…and I started writing. Eventually I thought, I gotta do it, I gotta make a feature.
MP: So how did “Skew” come about?
SS: Two days before a road trip, I came up with this great idea. [I thought] how do I make a film that’s going to look cheap but the audience will also accept that it looks cheap? And the whole ‘found footage’, POV hand-held video thing came to life. I went on the trip and I wrote a very rough draft in four days, finished the final draft in six months and then six month later began shooting. Five years later, we completed it.
MP: It seems like the production process was pretty lengthy.
SS: Pre-production took a while, but I wanted to be completely prepared. The reason it took five years to complete was really because of the effects. I couldn’t afford good effects, but I had friends of friends who were working visual effects for television shows. They said they could do them, they just had to do them when they had time. So I had to wait. We finished Skewin 2010. I showed my sales agent the movie and he said that it would be a slam dunk sale. [Laughing] I thought that sounded very ‘Hollywood’. The next weekend was AFM (American Film Market). Turns out that the weekend before, “Paranormal Activity” had opened, which was the highest grossing low-budget horror movie ever made. We thought, great, we’re going to sell this thing easy. Not so. Every production house had put trailers together for movies that didn’t even exist saying ‘Hey, we can make this found footage stuff.’ By the time the distributors got to our table, they didn’t want to hear it. We sat in limbo for a year. It only came to light when we showed up in Australia for Night of Horror Film Festival [this past March]. After that it was a bit of a domino effect, and now here we are at Spooky Movie.
MP: How did they treat you in Australia?
SS: Amazing. [Laughing] I was their ‘one and only international guest’, that was always the joke. Really, all of my festival experiences have been positive, everyone has always welcomed me with open arms and been very friendly. But as far as my favorites, Australia is definitely up there.
MP: Which horror film do you think stuck with you most from childhood?
SS: I would have to say “Halloween”… everyone has that one film that always scares the hell out of them.
MP: You said you’re not necessarily a horror buff. You just wanted to make a feature, and “Skew” happened to be the product of that.
SS: That’s right. Before that, I’d written some comedy features. Having said that, I had such a great experience [making “Skew”]that I’m working on another horror film now. I’m not writing this one, I’m only directing. I have a partner, she’s writing it. It’s going to be a little more traditional, and by that I mean the camera and the lighting… no hand-held stuff. It’s going to take a little more time to shoot. And there’s going to be a lot of blood and T & A, probably what the kids are going to want to see… [laughing]. When I say kids, I mean over 18.
MP: So you might follow kind of what we grew up with, the ’80s slasher flick?
SS: I want to do that, but a little smarter. I still want the audience to think. I can’t get away with what I did in “Skew”. It’s really multi-layered inSkew, and it’s asking a lot of an audience to keep up with it if they’re not particularly interested in that kind of film. I’m not a fan of the dumb horror.
MP: How far along are you on this one?
SS: We’re in the third draft stage right now. The goal is to have a final draft by December 31st and start pre-production in January. Basically, it’ll be 3-4 months of pre-production and then we’ll get right into it. That’s the hope, anyway…. until I actually see the final draft and know whether it’s too ambitious or not.
MP: When you’re trying to build a career, it’s obviously a passion project. I’d imagine there’s a lot of emotion and frustration behind that.
SS: Sure. Even the frustrating stuff is fun though. In the end, the writing is the hardest part. It’s funny, I feel that the last name [to be shown] in the opening credits should be the writer, not the director. In the grand scheme of things, without a script you’re not going to have a movie. Without a good script, you’re probably not going to have a good movie.
MP: Is technology becoming less expensive? In the sense that independent guys like you have access to a quality that 20 years ago would have been out of the question?
SS: Absolutely. Everything [back then] was shot on film. We didn’t have a digital format. In film school we were shooting in 16mm… they introduced the video program while I was there. They had to separate film and video into two separate studies.
MP: Where do you think you benefited the most?
SS: I think the best education is watching movies and learning from them. I’ll read script books, [from films like] “Swingers”, and see how things translate and try to figure that world out. “Blair Witch Project”… I watched that six times, once with director commentary. Because I wanted to see what created that tension.
Many thanks to Sevé Schelenz. Be sure to look for “Skew” on Netflix.