Interview: Carl Smith & Jeffrey McLaurin (Tales of a 5th Grade Zombie Slayer)

Interview

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As a blogger who does this solely because I find it fun, it’s a real treat for me when talented filmmakers whose work I enjoy not only share their work with me, but also allow me to pick their brains.  Carl Smith and Jeffrey McLaurin are 2 such filmmakers; after falling in love with their shorts for their web series Tales of a 5th Grade Zombie Slayer (reviewed here), I got the opportunity to sit down with both of them via email to discuss their projects, influences and how a mutual love of film brought 2 people together and inspired them to make their own.  It’s an insightful interview and I’m sure you’ll all enjoy it as much as I did.  Carl and Jeffrey aren’t just incredible filmmakers, they’re incredible guys too, and that really shines through in the interview.  Enjoy.

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1) Hey guys.  Tell us about yourselves and how you hooked up.

CARL SMITH: Oddly enough we initially met on a social media site. I was reading some blogs Jeffrey had written about wanting to make the move to California to work in the film industry.

JEFFREY MCLAURIN: Yeah, I was writing a lot of blog posts about my life at college, my plans for after graduation, and my plans for getting started in a film career. I guess Carl stumbled across my profile, read all my blog posts, and decided to contact me to talk film.

CS: I decided to email him really just for encouragement.

JM: We discussed our favorite films, my moving plans, and just became online friends with no intention of meeting or working together. It was literally just two guys that met online to discuss their love of film.  After I moved to L.A. the person I was supposed to room with bailed, so I was staying in a hotel blowing through all my cash. As my luck would have it, the writers strike also hit and the film industry tanked. I wasn’t sure what to do and I was running out of money quickly.

CS: I have a production designer friend who lives in L.A. and set it up for Jeffrey to stay with him until he could get on his feet.

JM: With no productions happening I wasn’t really getting work, so I contacted a guy I knew in San Diego and he got me some gigs operating the RED camera. This was particularly exciting because this was back when the RED One was all the rage and no one really had access to them. I was able to travel the world sort of operating/babysitting this magical machine.

CS: It would still be some time later before we actually met in person.

JM: Yeah, we still hadn’t met. Then I was talking about how I needed to go to the dentist, but I had no insurance. Carl told me that he had a friend of the family that would see me where I could make cash payments, which was perfect!  So we actually met in person so he could take me to a dentist.

CS: Yeah, kind of funny looking back on it now.

JM: The possibility of us making a film was still low on the radar. I kept being sent out of country to help others make their films, but it wasn’t really as satisfying as making my own.

CS: Yeah, and here I had dabbled in some film productions off and on over the years, but mainly helping out others as well.

JM: It was while I was on a three month job in Kazakhstan in 2008 that Carl and I started really discussing getting serious, about making a film of our own.

2) For those who haven’t seen Tales of a 5th Grade Zombie yet, how would you describe it to them and what makes it different to other zombie projects?

CS: Hmmm, I’m not the greatest when it comes to pitching, but it’s simply a series of different zombie short films that were created for a web series.

JM: To take a quote directly from your review “It’s The Sandlot meets Dawn of the Dead.”

CS: Yes, that was great! I think what makes ours different to other zombie projects though, is that it’s set in a world of children only.

JM: We’ve all seen how adults handle this situation, we wanted to throw all that out the window.

CS: Yeah, all the adults are completely wiped out by the virus, they just die and do not resurrect.

JM: We wanted it to be the kids that are alone, which is horrifying in and of itself to both parents and kids. We’re talking about kids that are approximately 9-11 years in age. Not having an adult present in a scary situation amplifies the intensity for the kid.

CS: For some of the children the virus has no affect on them at all, and than those that are infected, they become zombies. Then you have those that also become zombies after being attacked by infected children. With adults out of the equation, this leaves you with kids vs. kid zombies.

JM: Yeah, so its how would they handle these situations where it’s literally kill, or be killed?  How will they find food and protection at this age when it’s always been provided to them? Those were the questions we wanted to explore with this series.

3) Watching it, I thought it had the spirit of what I like to call ”treehouse movies”, which is a phrase I stole from Jason Eisener.  But it was like watching kid adventure movies like Monster Squad and The Goonies with some much darker elements.  What were some of your main inspirations behind Tales of a 5th Grade Zombie?

CS: Jason Eisener’s ‘Treevenge,’ I loved his short! I hadn’t heard his phrase “treehouse movies” before? I like the sound of it though. But wow, to even be mentioned with the likes of Monster Squad and The Goonies, what a compliment that is, seeing as those are two of our favorite movies.

JM: Growing up I was Mikey from The Goonies, or Gordie Lachance from Stand By Me. Those kind of outsider kids, yet bad ass in our own way, off on awesome adventures with their friends.

CS: Yeah unlike kids these days, where it seems for the most part many are indoors, missing out on that outdoor adventure of growing up.

JM: We had initially wanted to make a drama, something a little more serious with some depth, to say something to the world. But as we talked we kept circling back to horror and how much it means to the two of us. I think part of that is because often this love of the horror movie community consists of us outcasts. We sort of form our own family and cover each others backs no matter what. So we gave in and decided to shoot a horror film, but not zombies.

CS: We felt zombies had already kind of run their course.

JM: Once we started discussing all of the sub-genres of horror, and based on our minimal budget we were going to have to go with slasher, haunting, or zombies.

CS: Hah, in the end zombies won.

JM: We laugh about it now, but we actually made the film we didn’t want to make. We both love horror though, and it’s really a go to genre for indie filmmakers because it’s easier.

CS: Yeah, in the sense of getting recognition.

JM: But yeah, subconsciously I would say that you’re spot on with the mention of The Goonies, Monster Squad, even a Stand By Me. But we never decided those were the films we wanted to emulate, although we’re extremely pleased that it happened that way.  Our main source of inspiration was really trying to do something different. We knew we were living in the world of zombies, a world that had been inhabited by filmmakers a thousand times before. We wanted to make sure we did something that people hadn’t really seen before.

CS: Yeah, you could say zombies have been done to death, but then think about the opening to the 2004 Dawn of the Dead reboot, with the opening where that little zombie girl is coming into the bedroom that early morning. That was some scary shit, and it was different!

JM: Obviously there are elements that every zombie movie ever made will show, but we felt if we weren’t able to think of a new way to show it to the audience, then it was tabled. We felt that would be disrespectful to an audience that’s giving us their limited time.

4) Speaking of inspirations, who are some of your favourite filmmakers and what are some of your favourite movies?

CS: Oh this is always one of the toughest questions, ha ha.

JM: Yeah this is a really tough question for me too because I never know what the asker really wants to know.

CS: For me I’ve always found it so hard to pinpoint favorites. If I was to go off the top of my head, first would be Steven Spielberg. He has done such a broad range of filmmaking from terrifying like Jaws, to adventures like Indiana Jones, and just amazing dramas like Empire of the Sun.

JM: Yeah, when I look at the landscape of filmmakers obviously I’d love to have the respect and ability to call the shots that Steven Spielberg, or Christopher Nolan has. If I were not me, and I had to live the life of another filmmaker and die with their catalogue representing my life’s work, I’d always choose John Hughes every time.

CS: Yeah John Hughes is another director I admire dearly, and it was such a shame the day he walked away from the business. I don’t feel another director has yet to capture the world of teenagers like he did.

JM: Although Hughes only directed 8 films, they were the soundtrack of a generation and will continue to be relevant to kids long after his passing. That’s the kind of legacy I would want to leave the world.

CS: I agree. But if were talking the horror side of movies, I’d say director’s like Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter, George Romero, and Sam Raimi are just a few of my favorite directors. For movies, oh gosh, that’s endless! Carpenter’s Halloween, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Fulci’s Zombie, An American Werewolf in London, Cronenberg’s The Fly, The Devil’s Backbone… I could just go on and on.

5) A web series is a great approach for a story like Tales of a 5th Grade Zombie Slayer.  What’s the likelihood of it becoming a full series in future and how can we support it?

JM: Currently we have 8 episodes filmed. You actually got a preview of quite a bit with Day 1 and Day 57, which will both be broken down into two parts when we release them online.

CS: We initially started Tales of a 5th Grade Zombie Slayer as just a single short film. We had a moderate film festival experience, but the discouraging part I found with those was that you’re really reaching a small audience, and most of that audience is other filmmakers pushing their own films. A friend of mine asked why didn’t we take it to the internet, rather than film festivals. That’s when we were like, duh, why didn’t we? So we regrouped, and that’s when we decided to expand on it and make it into a web series.

JM: Both of us are really passionate about 5th Grade Zombie Slayer and want to expand the world much larger than it is.  We have additional episodes written, feature film script outlines, comic books and possible novellas.

CS: Since this was all self financed, the funding limitations on this project have challenged us with hurdles to say the least. It has taken us much longer than we had anticipated.

JM: We both understand the power of crowd funding, but we’re both really uncomfortable with the idea of asking people for their money on a project they know so little about.

CS: Yeah and now we’re in the final stages of editing the remaining episodes, and we decided we’re just going to throw it out there to see what kind of response we get.

JM: Once the web series goes live, we’ll encourage people to share it with their friends and let us know what they think about the episodes.

CS: Yeah, we already have the other completed scripts that were never produced.

JM: First we want to make sure people have the opportunity to really see who we are as filmmakers. What stories we’re trying to tell with the web series before asking for any sort of funding, which would allow for better production value.

CS: If people want more, I’m pretty certain will be back.

6) What has the reaction been like so far?

JM: So far the reaction has been really positive which has been a sigh of relief.

CS: We had one of our best experiences at our last festival, the Horrible Imaginings Film Fest in San Diego. It was actually a diverse audience of regular attendees and filmmakers. That was our most positive festival, and we premiered Day 57 to a sold out audience. We were a bit shocked when we walked away with Second Place as voted by the audience in our category; Short Film: Zombie & Creature Feature. It’s a tight festival unlike others we participated in, and the festival director Miguel Rodriguez was on point. I believe he’s begun accepting submissions for this years festival, I highly recommend this fest to other filmmakers.

JM: Yeah, it’s tough when you make a project that you really believe in and then send it out to the world to be judged. I know it sounds completely cliché and I feel terrible for saying it, but it really is like sending your kid to school on the first day.  You worry that the shots aren’t just right, or that the acting is a bit stiff, or any of the other million small details that go into a completed film.

CS: Really our best reaction has been from reaching out to the online audience like the Scream Factory and Horror Block contests. Both of those experiences have been great.

JM: We also had the additional fear of the internet reacting negatively to our young actors. We went back and forth about disabling all comments on the episodes when they’re all released online.  It might sting, but we can both take criticism of our work, and we can use that criticism to make us better filmmakers. But the internet can be a nasty mean place, and we want to protect all the kids who busted their asses helping make this web series.

CS: Yeah, we just don’t want their experience ruined by some anonymous internet jerk saying things that no one should say to any human being.

7) The young actors were all fantastic.  Where did you find them?

CS: Oh I can’t speak highly enough about our talented cast from both DAY 1 and DAY 57, and the ones you haven’t seen yet.

JM: We got extremely lucky with our cast. All of them were relatively new to filmmaking. Some had been extras or had done some stage work, but most were pretty green.

CS: As you’ve seen two of the episodes, you know that the cast varies with each one. No cast will be the same for it’s selected DAY. For DAY 1 our cast was comprised solely from auditions that we held with postings on craigslist.

JM: Yeah, we really laid it out that this was a casting call for kids only, however the content could be considered objectional for some. We were honest with the parents up front that some scenes could be brutal at times, and that the kids would have to be comfortable with it themselves. We weren’t looking to cause any nightmares just to get the episodes made.

CS: If you’re unaware, talent agents look at craigslist too, and they will forward you more talent than you can handle. It was tough to narrow it down, but boy did we make the right choices. With DAY 57, we again went to Craigslist, had a couple former zombie cast members from DAY 1, and then also cast some of our friends children as well.

JM: Fortunately we had a huge response.

8) What have been your biggest challenges when filming Tales so far?

CS: Money!

JM: Money has always been our biggest challenge. We love the web series, and we’re proud that it turned out to be what it is.  But we both know that it could have been better had we been able to have a larger budget.

CS: Our biggest expense has always been food to feed the cast and crew, followed by make-up and blood, plus plenty of other expenses along the way as well. Because we were a very indie production with a limited budget, the best deal we could work with most all of our talent and crew was well stocked craft services and a credit. This truly has been a labor of love by everyone who has worked on this production.

9) Tell us about the comic book companion to the story.  Is it available for purchase yet?

JM: Issue 1 of the comic book is nearly the same story as the DAY 1 episode. It is unfortunately not for sale yet though.

CS: Yeah, we had the story and hired an outside artist to bring the comic to life. We were pleased with the first issue, but again budget came into consideration.

JM: Issue 1 has some slight variations, but it follows DAY 1 pretty closely.

CS: The comic book artwork is completed, but finances for physically printing our comic have been the current obstacle. I actually held a couple of yard sales last year to help raise some money, but we’re still short the printing costs. We had our fingers crossed for winning some of the cash prize money from the Horror Block Monstrous Movie Contest, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

JM: Once the web series is out there for all to see, if the response continues to be positive, we’re considering a crowdfunding campaign for the remaining printing costs.

CS: Yeah, we have a completed product, now we just need the rest of the finances to bring it to life in print. If that’s well received we would love to expand on the comic book as well.

JM: We’ve started looking at new artists who will work at a reasonable price. If you know of anyone, please feel free to give them our contact info.

CS: Or any artists reading this looking to do a comic, contact us!

10) What do you guys have in store for the future in terms of projects?

CS: Of course we would love to have the opportunity to come back to Tales of a 5th Grade Zombie Slayer, but right now we’re looking to do our first feature come this summer.

JM: Assuming everything goes as planned that is.

CS: Hah, yeah.

JM: We have some of the roles for that already cast. It’ll be a coming of age drama about high school aged kids this time.

CS: Even more exciting is we’ll be working with some of our same Zombie Slayer cast of kids, so we look forward to teaming up with them again. This story is set in the summer time and will also have some superheros. It’s a bit of a change from zombies, but again we think we have something a little different to offer with this script.

11) Thank you for the interview.  Any final words before we wrap up?

JM: First we’d like to thank you for the interview, and for giving us this platform to share a bit about us in your space. This has been really awesome and something we greatly appreciate.

CS: Yeah, I’d like to say thank you Kieran for taking the time to sit down with us, you brought some great questions to the table. For your readers, we hope we were interesting enough for you to want to come give us a look.

JM: Other than that we would love for people to go follow our Twitter and Facebook accounts, give us some of your feedback on the webseries.

CS: I’d like to give a shout out to our makeup supervisor Yoni Baker! This guy has been with this production since its early phases and we appreciate him immensely. Plus all of our talented kids need a holler too, we love you all!

JM: We’re both very passionate about film, especially the indie community, and we always look for opportunities to help out other filmmakers.

CS: Oh! And all those parents who came with us on this journey too! And the comic book artist Dustin Parr!

JM: Anyone else?

CS: Actually yes, a remembrance to Ryan Carter and Micki Forsyth Phillips who worked with us on this project.

JM: Yeah… Okay here are the plugs.

Follow us on twitter @5thGradeZombies

Like us on Facebook at Tales of a 5th Grade Zombie Slayer

Watch us on Vimeo at Zombie Slayer Films

CS: Hah, THANKS EVERYONE!

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