Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Chat with Bill Mulligan, the Writer Behind the Surprise Convention and Festival Hit 400 Ways to Kill a Vampire - by Jerry Chandler


Indie filmmaker Bill Mulligan isn’t really anti-vampire, but before starting on his short film script for 400 Ways to Kill a Vampire he certainly wasn’t their greatest public advocate either. When hosting convention panels up and down the East Coast convention scene or participating on blogs where the topic of the vampire came up, he was known for describing their biggest problem as being that they were the “big whiny pussies” of the monster kingdom. He would also occasionally make fun of the vampire’s susceptibility to a seemingly endless array of ways to die, from the forcible intrusion into their chest of a well placed stake to the accidental tripping and falling into the wrong kind of bush. Being a vampire fan myself, though admittedly not of many of the pop culture vampire stories of the last 15 years that have seemingly worked so very hard at living down to his criticisms, I was a little skeptical when I’d originally heard that he was working on a short film about the killing of vampires. 
 
But then I got an early DVD copy of the finished film, and, I must admit, I was rather pleasantly surprised. Now, I wasn’t surprised that it was good. 400 Ways writer and star Bill Mulligan has always shown a talent for writing entertaining stories for film, especially when there’s humor mixed in with the horror, and director/editor Christine Parker has improved her craft by leaps and bounds with every directorial effort under her belt since 2007’s Forever Dead. 
 
Together, along with a number of other people along the way, me included in the very smallest of ways, their Adrenalin Productions has been creating a long list of highly entertaining and, occasionally, highly thought provoking indie horror shorts as well as truly enjoyable full length feature films. Based on their now ten year track record, I had no doubt that it was going to be a good effort on their part. I just assumed that his treatment of vampires and the vampire legend would be less my cup of tea than their other films have been.
It turned out that I was wrong.

While he might not treat the vampire as quite the monster that they have the potential to be, his treatment of them is in line with some of the classic Hammer Horror films of old, and, like in those films, he complements the threat of the vampire with an equally interesting vampire hunter. The result is a truly enjoyable short film, and one that has been throughout 2014 winning awards for Best Film and Best Actor in places like the Killuride Film Festival and ConCarolinas as well as Best Regional Short at MonsterCon.

The style of the film is a bit old school. If you’re looking for something that feels like everything a Twilight styled vampire film isn’t, you’ll be more than a little comfortable here. The story itself is pretty simple and fairly straightforward. A vampire hunter goes looking for a vampire. A vampire goes hunting for a victim. They each find what they’re looking for, but, by the end of the night, they’ve each also found way more than they bargained for.

One of the things that makes 400 Ways to Kill a Vampire work so well is the attitude of its vampire hunter, Vordenberg, played by Mulligan himself, treating vampire hunting as very much a working class profession, a career job that he’s been in for far too long now to see as glamorous or sexy. As such, the character has a rumpled, lived in feeling that’s reminiscent of such classic monster hunters as Carl Kolchak. And, like Darren McGavin before him, Mulligan plays the character very much rooted in reality with Vordenberg’s attitude reminding the one of a veteran soldier or career police officer who has been there, done that, and developed an odd sense of humor about the job. But that humor does not belay the character’s seriousness with regards to the essentials of his job.
Much like any other longtime employee in just about any other organization, Vordenberg has issues with his boss. That’s an interesting concept here though since, due to the nature of the organization he works for, his ultimate boss is God. But even there he doesn’t show surface signs of taking either his boss or his issues with him too seriously, at one point chastising a vampire’s blasphemy by telling him to watch his tongue and pointing out that while he may not believe in the old guy, he still has to work for him.

But one of the things Vordenberg, and Mulligan in the writing, takes seriously is his dedication to the mystical side of his job. With a nod to modern favorites like the Dresden Files, any magics seen in 400 Ways are practical, procedural, and dependent on the ability of the caster to have the proper materials on hand as well as the time to perform them. There is only one moment in 400 Ways where a rabbit is essentially pulled out of a hat, a trick with a light bar for those who finally see it, and that is technological in nature and not in the often overdone manner in stories such as this of playing the magic card to get out of a tight spot or writing jam.

There are some nice little touches here and there throughout the short dealing with vampire lore and the modern world. Mulligan acknowledges the aspect of the legends that claim that you cannot take a picture of a vampire. He then proceeds to take a picture of a vampire with a quite satisfactory explanation as to why we couldn’t do it then while being able to do it now. There’s also a nice bit in the film explaining how the mail can be used to torture and kill a vampire. That’s not anywhere near as silly as it sounds. If anything, it’s actually a bit gruesome.

Vordenberg’s vampire adversary in the film is played by the enormously talented regional actor Michael Williams. Williams is literally one of those people who is just one right set of eyeballs seeing his talents on display away from getting a viable shot at becoming a nationally known star, and he does an extremely good job with showing off his talents here. When we first meet his vampire, Williams exudes the menacing attitude of an apex predator walking amongst the sheep. Nothing in his performance, from every twitch of body language to every glance, is a throwaway or wasted. By the end of the film, after effortlessly displaying a wide range of character traits for his vampire, running from furious anger to sadly pathetic, you actually feel a little sorry for him and the choices that led him to the fate that awaits him.

There are two other member of the cast, Amber Teachey and Mina Edgerton, who, for spoiler related reasons, I can’t really discuss. I can say that their roles in the film act as pivotal turning points in the story as well as laying the groundwork for more to come.

Christine Parker’s direction is tight and crisp, and her natural feel for visual storytelling is strongly on display here. Her skills as an editor are sharper than ever as well. The FX work, practical and in camera, is simple and basic, it is low budget, guerrilla filmmaking after all, but it’s all well done and works excellently in the film.


And now, without further ado, a short Q&A with Bill Mulligan:
 
Jerry Chandler/Needless Things: Your background as a diehard genre film viewer is hardly without vampire films, but this was your first time playing in that sandbox. Did the process of working on this film change your views on the vampire genre at all, and, if so, how?

Bill Mulligan: I have given Jerry all kinds of abuse over his love of vampires for one simple reason—he’s one of my best friends and that’s what guys do. I actually love vampires as antagonists. I love the mythology and rich back-story they bring. 
But my old school take on horror movies is that they should (usually) be about the people, not the monsters, and lately there’s been way too much of vampires being treated as something to aspire to. I don’t think we should encourage people to want to become vampires in much the same way I would not want them to become tapeworms. Which is exactly something Vordenberg would say.
It’s rare to find a film like Let the Right One In where the filmmakers successfully manage to make the viewer a little sympathetic to the plight of the monster, without ever denying that they are indeed monsters. This is something that seems to permeate pop culture these days, the best shows—Breaking Bad, perfect example—have us identifying with the bad guy. My sympathies will always be toward the victims, not the criminals.
That said, having dipped my toes into the sandbox I am now buried in it, trying to expand the story and yes, beginning to see things from the vampire’s POV. And Vordenberg’s hatred of vampires is not nearly as absolute as it may at first seem.

JC/NT: As someone who has cited one of the problems with the vampire genre being overuse, what finally got you to consider taking the plunge into the blood pool?

Bill Mulligan: Since so much of the vampires stuff lately has focused on the vampires it seemed like going back to the Hammer approach of making Van Helsing the main character offered some possibilities.
The problem with making monsters the focal point of the monster movie is that they are limited. With zombies, obviously, nobody wants to actually watch a show called The Walking Dead that is about nothing except dead people walking. Vampires offer a lot more potential but you usually come down to 2 extremes—the lonely mind numbing existence of the creatures brilliantly portrayed in Shadow of the Vampire or Let the Right One In or the really irritating “Vampire Nation” goofs of Blade and Underworld. (Mind you, I loved all those films).
Humans are fascinating creatures all by themselves. Tossing in some fantastic element, vampires, zombies, whatever, should offer even more opportunities to tell a good story about people.
I was also obviously influenced by listening to audio books of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, which my stepson got me into. Initially it was just the general world of Dresden, the way magic is seamlessly incorporated into the real world. By the time we had to put Vordenberg’s general look together he ended up with a duster, a leather hat, a cane-sword… I had originally thought more along the lines of Captain Kronos but he ended up with a lot more Dresden (if Dresden spent a good 20 years drinking heavily in crappy hotels as he tours the world killing vampires). 
 
JC/NT: 400 Ways to Kill a Vampire has been becoming quite the little award collector for both you and Adrenalin. Did you and the others involved in the filming ever even entertain the notion that it would become as popular on the festival and convention circuit as it has when you were filming it out in the middle of nowhere in North Raleigh?

Bill Mulligan: I didn’t but I am always amazed and gratified when anything I write clicks with people. There’s a good bit of comedy in it and comedy is terrifyingly tricky. You can have what you think is a great gag and it gets crickets. And the difference between a joke working or not working can be as subtle as a few frames one way or another. Which is why Christine deserves a lot of credit for her editing (editors get way less credit than they deserve, most filmgoers have no idea how much of what works is due to the choices made by the editor).

JC/NT: This was supposed to be, I believe, a one weekend shoot. Can you tell us a little bit about it, what you did or didn’t like with the shoot it, and a little bit about what you like about indie filmmaking in general?

Bill Mulligan: That sound you hear is everyone laughing at me. I honestly thought it would be a one, maybe two day shoot. I’m an idiot. The worst thing that ever happened to me was reading that Roger Corman wrote and filmed The Terror in 3 days because he finished a film early and had Boris Karloff hanging around for a couple of days. That factoid has ruined me for life, I start thinking “Hey, we have a cast of 4 and one set, so we should be able to knock this out and get home in time for Doctor Who.
It took a good 4 or 5 days to shoot. Well, nights actually and therein lies the problem. Nighttime, outdoors, a bit chilly and poor Michael had to spend most of it sitting on the cold, cold ground stuck to the thorns of a Hawthorne bush. I’m amazed he doesn’t beat me about the head and shoulders with a tire iron every time he sees me.
That is one consideration when filming vampires; you have to shoot at night if it takes place outdoors. Night doesn’t last forever, the sun eventually rises with an almost daily regularity, and the cast and crew tend to peak by 3 or 4 am. You start getting a bit loopy. It’s a sad state of affairs when you can’t remember your lines and you’re the one who wrote them.

Lighting at night takes FOREVER. Everything takes longer than it should and then somebody trips on a cord and you are stuck in pitch blackness in the woods, surrounded by marshy ground full of stump holes and rabid possums.



JC/NT: Without getting into spoiler territory, it’s safe to say that 400 Ways laid the groundwork for more stories set in that world in general and following Vordenberg in particular. Care to clue everyone in on whether there are more nights wearing Vordenberg’s duster coat in your future?

Bill Mulligan: I have fallen deeply in love with the world of these characters. I had a few general ideas about Vordenberg and Eddy and the ladies but no real intention to explore them. One and done. But people kept asking about what happens next and Michael kept asking for a sequel where his character could maybe do something with a tire iron, and I’d walk on broken glass to hang out with Amber and Mina, so I started thinking about it… I had a long discussion with actress Katie Carpenter as we drove together to a convention in Tennessee and the pieces started to fall into place and I came up with what I hope people will think is a GREAT storyline.
The problem is that it is so far becoming a very long storyline. One has to be realistic. Indie movies need to be a reasonable length, nobody is begging for me to make Erich von Stroheim’s original cut of Greed, with vampires (though how cool would THAT be?). So… I’m going to finish the script without regard to length, then take a look at the finished story and make some hard choices. Can it be cut down without losing too much? Do we explore an alternative platform like a webseries? Do I take a section from it and make another short? At the very least I will novelize it. I am lucky to have at least one friend who is a superb writer when it comes to novelizations of screenplays.

JC/NT: Time for plugs. Can you briefly tell us what else is going on with Adrenalin Productions as well as any other projects to look out for involving the other talents from 400 Ways?

Bill Mulligan: Christine Parker is busy editing Fix It In Post, our 4th feature. I’ve seen some of the bits she has finished and she’s doing a great job. It will definitely be the best looking feature film we’ve made. I’ve been writing a few short film screenplays and we’ll see if anyone else finds them worthwhile. Alan Watkins is always planning something and I hope to do something with him and Paul Cardullo over the summer. The last few years has seen the indie film scene in North Carolina really taking off and there has been a lot of crossover between the various groups. So you see people from Mad Ones Films, like Jaysen Buterin, acting in an Adrenalin feature, Shane Terry appearing in EVERY production (often in more than one role), everybody wanting to work with Brett Mullen (who’s Bombshell Bloodbath looks like it might be the big breakout hit among this group of filmmakers), etc etc. There is far more cooperation than competition, which is the smart way to do it (and ends up making a lot more movies).
As I’ve met more and more people making indie films I’ve had the chance to contribute, in any small way I can, to a lot of cool projects. It’s incredible how much good work is being done. I’ve been blown away by some of the acting talent that is out there. Michael Williams, great as he is in films, is a revelation on stage. He did a post apocalyptic version of Hamlet that should get its own movie, man that was amazing. I saw Lily Nelson and Miles Snow, two of the leads from Fix It In Post, in the play Closer and you realize that you are witnessing performances the equal (or better) than anything you will see on Broadway. This isn’t hyperbole.
I can’t believe that North Carolina is unique. I’ll bet that everyone who reads this lives somewhere that has lots of talented people who could make some amazing films. If this is your dream trust me you can do it. Find some like minded people, start small, have fun, get better with every project. Don’t be looking for wealth and fame. If they come, great, but the goal should be what it was when all we had was a campfire and a long night ahead of us; tell a good story.

400 Ways to Kill a Vampire is available on DVD through the Adrenalin web store (found at http://www.adrenalinfilms.com/apps/webstore/) or at any the Adrenalin Productions table at any convention or festival they’re attending. It’s also making the rounds through the convention and film festival circuit on the central east coast region as well as a few others. 
 
Its next showing is scheduled for Mysticon in Roanoke, VA, along with the first early screening of their newest feature, Fix It In Post, which is still being fixed in post, on February 28. If you see them listed at your local convention or film festival, check them out.

2 comments:

  1. Christine Parker (Director and head of Adrenalin Productions) just let me know that the store link is acting up. If you can't get an item through there, email her for information at the following-

    cpparker2@gmail.com

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  2. My deepest gratitude to Jerry for the article and to the folks at needlessthingssite.com for publishing it.

    If anyone gets out to Mysticon or ConCarolinas this years, please look me up! Love to chat about watching weird movies or making weird movies!

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