This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 284: Director Elle Callahan Talks About Her New Horror Film, Head Count.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #284 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screen writer and blogger over at www.sellingyourccreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing Elle Callahan. She just directed a horror film called Head Count. She’s been working in the business for a number of years, mostly in the sound department, but is now breaking out in directing as well. Stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes, or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing director Elle Callahan. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Elle to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Elle: Thanks. Pleasure to be here.
Ashley: So to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Elle: I grew up right outside of Boston and I just loved telling stories though I moved on to LA when I went to [inaudible 00:02:06] and went to USC’s School of Cinematic Arts for undergraduate college and then I have stayed in LA ever since working in the industry.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. And what are some of your first steps to actually turning this into a professional career? I noticed on IMDb you have a lot of experience in the sound department. Was that a good stepping stone to being a feature film director? But maybe you can take us all the way back. Just how did you get those initial jobs, professional jobs in industry and then talk about sort of your path to getting to the point where you were directing Head Count.
Elle: Great. So I started actually as a PA. I worked in visual effects on some big studio movies… Just PA jobs are the lowest of the low on a movie, but you ask them to get you in the room with people and you start learning and observing. So I worked in post-production on some Marvel movies and Disney movies and Amber movies and I worked a lot with editorial crew and started to really get into liking sound editing. And for me I liked but didn’t love, I still wanted to direct, so I worked for two and a half years in the studio system just putting in all my hours and my whole life into that, and then I just kinda saved up enough money to take a year off and work on my own thing.
So I left having met a lot of amazing directors and producers and post-production people and I went off to do my own thing knowing that I could return to that if I needed to and if it didn’t work out I would have a lot of good people to support me. So yeah, I took the year off to start doing Head Count.
Ashley: Perfect. Let’s dig into Head Count, that’s your latest feature film. Maybe to start out you can just give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is that film all about?
Elle: [laughs] It’s about a group of teenagers that go out to the Joshua Tree Desert and they accidentally sermon a paranormal presence that seeks to ritualistically murder them all over the course of the three day weekend. Yeah [laughs].
Ashley: Where did this idea come from? What was the genesis of it?
Elle: Well, I love folklore and I love magic and monsters and I knew that I wanted my first movie to be a monster movie. I think the fun and I being from the East Coast, when I went out Joshua Tree with some friends for like a three day weekend and I just thought it was a very unique landscape that I had never experienced before. I thought it would be an amazing cliff to set a monster movie. So I kind of meshed those two things together. I took my experience that weekend and [inaudible 00:04:59] the monster into it and then that’s the idea for the story.
Ashley: And so you have a shared story by credit on the screenplay, and then Michael Neider actually wrote the story. Maybe you can talk about that a little bit. What did that relationship actually look like? Did you guys kind of develop an outline together and then he went off and write the script. Were you giving him notes the whole time? Maybe just talk about that a little bit.
Elle: Yes, Michael and I are really good friends, we went to school together. He was originally when I went out to Joshua Tree and kind of gotten fired he was on that trip as well. We both sat down and I created this monster and I said, “Let’s put that into that weekend that we had, and we created the characters a little bit together and then he went off and wrote a draft and he would then send that draft to me and I would give him notes. And then we did I think four drafts like that. So he had a lot of freedom away from me in between, and then I would come back and we would talk about the story together and like what was also realistic in terms of making a movie that we could shoot for a certain budget because it was a lot budget movie. So we both went into it with that in mind as well. But having that weekend together out there and Mike shared experiences to draw from and having that jumping off point and a big level of trust between us as friends really helped create a partnership.
Ashley: Sure. So it sounds like from the very beginning you… number one you knew that you wanted to direct this. You guys weren’t trying to write a script and then sell it. You were writing something that you guys wanted to go out and produce yourselves.
Ashley: And then also it sounds like you knew that, at least roughly you knew what kind of budget you would end up having once you got this thing written. Is that fair to say or did you expect to go out and do a lot of fundraising?
Elle: No, no. We wrote it for a very specific budget range. And I think that’s why it was able to work so well, was we weren’t trying to do anything crazy ambitious because we knew what we had at our disposal to push and make the most of what we had. So we were writing a realistic script for it.
Ashley: Sure. And so let’s talk about just shooting. That’s the first thing as if I were to put on my producer hat and somewhat come to this project, it would scare me a little bit to shoot at Joshua Tree just because it’s a national park and I’m sure you need specific permits so you’re liable to get the range or run your often stuff. Maybe you can talk about that. Did you have experience shooting there, did you do a little research before you wrote the script just to make sure that shooting there would be possible on the budget that you had and that sort of stuff?
Elle: Yes and no. We just wrote it assuming that we could do it, but with the freedom to switch it. If it had to be a different dessert then that was okay. Joshua Tree itself wasn’t integral to the story, it was just the desert setting in general. But we’ve had friends that have filmed in Joshua Tree before like [inaudible 00:08:03] and stuff like that and we knew that it was a very easy process being able to shoot on a national park. Obviously there are many considerations to kick in but it was actually cheaper to film there than most locations in Los Angeles, so we were able to use that money that we saved with permitting to have a medic and an extra ranger and to make sure that everyone’s being very respectful, like extra PAs to make sure you don’t go near certain plants that are protected. So there were a lot of extra things that we had to do to be respectful but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
Ashley: So why did you decide on a horror movie? It sounds like your initial reaction was just that you enjoy these movies, so that’s the kind of movie you wanted to make. You’re working in post-production, did you start to meet some distributors and talk to them at all, was there some business decisions where distributors were telling you yeah, a low budget horror can sell? Was there anything or was it just purely just that you enjoy these films?
Elle: I mean, I think it’s a little bit of both. I worked on… when I was in the studio system the most fun I had on a movie was a horror movie that I worked on and anything that you do I think you should have fun doing. So I kinda wanted to chase that. At the same time making a low budget movie, statistically horror has a higher return on investment, so it’s an easier pitch to investors to invest in a lower budget horror film rather than a lower budget drama, because you get more bang for your pocket. It’s easier to create scares and things like that and you don’t have to lean so much on getting big name talent. Really it’s all up to you to create those scary moment and those scary moments will sell and that’s easier to do in the lower budget range.
Ashley: Yeah. So let’s talk about just for a minute, getting the money together to go and shoot this. What was your strategy to raise the money? Was it self-financing, did you have some angel investors that you knew were lined up? Maybe you can just talk briefly about that.
Elle: I wasn’t super involved with that process. I had my producer handle that, but we pitched to anyone that would listen to us for a year, and eventually found investors that were willing to roll the dice with us.
Ashley: Yeah. And what did you need?
Elle: It’s just consistency. We had a lot of… we learned a lot throughout that year. But just keep going at it and just keep pitching.
Ashley: Yeah. And what did you need to provide to these producers and ultimately the investors as a first time director coming on to do a feature film? Did you get any pushback on that and what did you need to prepare… a couple of short films? What was sort of your background and what was you pitch to these investors?
Elle: Yeah, we shot like… a lot of it is passion. I think as a director you are pitching yourself, you’re pitching your passion. That’s what you bring to the project. And having worked with big directors too, that helped kind of make [inaudible 00:11:15] a bit having worked on bigger studio movies and having that experience. And then also we shot a little kind of like teaser trailer for it to show the style that it would be in, and we made a big pitch book and lots of visuals and things like that to show the world. And having a big… also having a concrete plan about how you’re gonna sell the movie at the end of it. Because at the end of the day it is the investment like any other product.
A movie is a product, so having a really firm grasp on the whole of it, like how you sell it as well makes you a more pitchable director because it’s like you’re coming in and know this [inaudible 00:12:01] and just the creative side. I think knowing all aspects of it makes you stronger in whatever you’re doing, so yeah.
Ashley: Yeah. And I’m curious, I know as someone who has done a little bit of directing myself, there’s always this feeling especially when you’re newer to it, of just having that confidence and everybody’s kind of looking to you, “Okay, what’s next, what are we gonna do?” Where did you get that confidence to go in there and just say, “Okay, I am gonna be the director of this feature film?
Elle: I think it was [laughs] just… I don’t know, maybe it was something else. I’ve always had just the passion. If you love the script, you have to love your script. You have to be the person that is it’s mother, it’s father and then you just have to love it unconditionally and just bring that to everything that you do.
Ashley: Yeah, sound advice.
Elle: Because I love Head Count, I love my monster and I love all the characters.
Ashley: How can people see Head Count, do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Elle: I do. So, it’s coming out this… what day is it? It’s coming out on June 14th, which is a Friday ad it will be in some theaters in LA and then On Demand and digital platforms.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect. And what’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing in your career? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing I’ll round up for the show notes.
Elle: I am pretty active on Instagram. It’s just my name Elle Callahan. I’m shooting my next movie actually right now, this is one of my days off from it, and I usually post. I like to post a lot of behind the scene stuff to get people more interested in that kind of stuff rather than just what they’re seeing on screens. So yeah… that’s where I am.
Ashley: Well, perfect. I’ll get your Instagram, I’ll round that up and congratulations already getting into your second film and congratulations with Head Count as well.
Elle: Thank you. Yeah. Hoping you guys will watch it, it’s pretty spooky [laughs].
Ashley: Sounds good. Thank you very much, will talk to you later. Bye.
Elle: Okay, bye.
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Every script will get a grade of pass, consider or recommend which should help you roughly understand where your script might rank if you were to submit it to a production company or agency. We can provide an analysis on features or television scripts. We also do proofreading without any analysis. We will also look at a treatment or outline and give you the same analysis on it. So if you’re looking to vet some of your project ideas this is a great way to do it. We will also write your logline and synopsis for you, you can add this logline and synopsis writing service to an analysis or you can simply purchase this service as a standalone product. As a bonus, if your screenplay gets a recommend or a consider from one of our readers you get to list the screenplay in the SYS Select database, which is a database for producers to find screenplays and a big part of our SYS Select program.
Producers are in the database searching for material on a daily basis, so it’s another great way to get your material in front of them. As a further bonus, if your script gets a recommend from one of our readers your screenplay will get included in our monthly Best Of newsletter. Each month we send out a newsletter that highlights the best screenplays that have come through our script analysis service. This is monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of over 400 producers who are actively looking for material so again, this is another great way to get your material out there. So if you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.
On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing producer Steve Longi. He’s been a producer for years and we talk about his career and how he got some of the films produced that he worked on. For instance he was instrumental in the development of the Mel Gibson film Hacksaw Ridge, and we talk in depth about how that project all came together for him. It’s a great example of how a producer discovered a story, in this case Steve, found this story, really liked it, really championed it for a number of years and eventually was able to get it produced, turned into a major Motion Picture. So it’s a great example sort of how a producer finds a writer and how a writer can go a long that journey with a producer and ultimately end up with a big, major Motion Picture like Hacksaw Ridge. Keep an eye out for that episode next week.
That’s the show, thank you for listening.