Hailing from upstate New York, Jeff Kirkendall has been immersed in the world of horror (albeit a tad reluctantly, at first) ever since a certain great white shark terrorized the small town of Amity some thirty-seven years ago.
An independent filmmaker and actor, Kirkendall has enjoyed a solid run in the horror industry with his production company Very Scary Productions since 1996.
Kirkendall’s 2003 vampire film ‘The Temptress’ earned impressive reviews and has since been considered somewhat of a launching pad for Kirkendall’s work in the genre. With numerous credits to his name and an infectious passion for what he does, it should come as no surprise that Jeff doesn’t spend a whole lot of time lying low.
As he continues working on his current horror celebration, an anthology titled Die Laughing, Jeff took a few minutes to chat with me about his career, his upbringing in the genre and an deep affinity for a dude with a glove of razors in need of some serious burn ointment.
MM: When did you realize horror was your true calling as a filmmaker or film fan?
Jeff Kirkendall: A film that really scared me as a kid was Jaws. I saw it in a theater and was simply not ready for something that terrifying. While it is a brilliant film, that movie actually deterred any interest I might have had in the horror genre for quite some time. When I was a teenager however I saw (the original) A Nightmare on Elm Street on video, which was the film that drew me towards becoming a fan of the genre. It had a compelling, dramatic story with a resourceful female heroine battling a scary monster which really fascinated me. In fact NOES remains one of my favorite horror films to this day.
MM: As a proud member of the independent horror community, who are some of your favorite directors in the genre?
JK: As you might expect based on my first answer, Wes Craven is one of my favorites. Besides being a big fan of his vast body of work I greatly admire the fact that he overcame a lot of obstacles and persevered for many years as a true independent before finally achieving mainstream success. Some other directors I admire for having their own unique styles include John Carpenter, George Romero, Katt Shea, Jim Wynorski, Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava, to name just a few. I think Italian horror is particularly interesting because of the rich visuals and attention to detail in many of the films. The 1985 film Demons (a Dario Argento-Lamberto Bava collaboration) is one of my favorite Italian genre movies.
MM: You’ve written, acted and directed horror. What are some of the unique challenges each of those roles present? What is your favorite aspect of each of those roles?
JK: You’re right that each role has its own challenges and rewards. With writing settling on a story idea can be quite a challenge. Some ideas are interesting but can be difficult to develop into a coherent screenplay. Often I have a gut feeling when an idea clicks, which leads me to start writing. Then I hope that the writing will begin to flow naturally, which sometimes happens and sometimes doesn’t. When the writing does start to “flow”, I definitely know it and that is a great reward.
With acting the challenge is simply a matter of preparing as best as one can (memorization/rehearsal of dialogue, familiarity with the material, thinking about the character, etc.), and then being in the moment when filming begins. As with writing a reward can be a feeling that things (performances) are flowing as you’re doing them. And of course it is gratifying to see a finished film, preferably with an audience.
Directing has a myriad of challenges, especially for an independent filmmaker. Often when I’m directing I’m also running the camera as well. And I’m always considering all kinds of things on set, from lighting to sound to actor performances, and much more. It can get quite hectic, and I always hope I get all the critical elements right in order to produce a good movie. The biggest reward is seeing a film I directed come out as well as I had hoped. Of course with micro-budget movie making just finishing a film is a reward in itself!
MM: ‘Die Laughing’ has been generating buzz across the web. It also happens to be your big project of the year. Can you tell us a little about this film?
JK: Die Laughing is a horror anthology movie. Some stories in it include Die Laughing, The Bad Flower, and The Hunt. The first tale, Die Laughing, is about a killer clown terrorizing a young woman. The Bad Flower is a nature gone awry tale. And The Hunt is about an FBI agent on the trail of a killer in a small town. The movie was shot on high-definition video, produced entirely in the Capital Region of Upstate New York, and features many local actors I have worked with before along with some new faces. For example actors Jennifer Birn, James Carolus, Timothy Hatch and Amy Naple all previously appeared in my vampire feature The Temptress, while Marie DeLorenzo, who is the hostess for Die Laughing, appeared in my comedy film Of Theatre & Bikinis. I was also especially happy to work with well-known horror movie scream queen Deana Demko, who gives a great performance as Special Agent Leanna Stark. I think her fans will be in for a real treat seeing her in a role so different from what she has done before.
JK: I think I’d like to have a long chat with Robert Englund. The reason is because he is a truly unique, modern horror star who has had a significant impact on the genre like few others.
MM: What are some of your favorite horror films and why do these particular films make the cut?
JK: Besides A Nightmare on Elm Street some other favorite films are: Carnival of Souls, 2000 Maniacs (original version), Halloween (original version), Prom Night (original version), Re-Animator, The Thing (John Carpenter version) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. This is just a partial list, but each of these films has compelling characters, style and/or stories. The Thing features groundbreaking special effects as well, while Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was as good as the original Nightmare on Elm Street. It also set the template for Craven’s later Scream films, which arguably changed the face of the horror genre.
MM: You’ve been going strong since 1996. Technological advances have played a huge role in the indie scene booming. If you had to choose, what do you go with- CGI or practical effects?
JK: There is no doubt that technology has provided opportunities to many aspiring independent filmmakers. Affordable digital video has made movie production possible for many people who otherwise wouldn’t have had the means. When it comes to effects however I generally prefer the practical, on-set approach whenever possible simply because they tend to look more realistic. However that being said there are many instances when digital effects can be used to successfully enhance a movie. I think, generally speaking, the best use of CGI is to subtly enhance practical effects in a complimentary way. Another way of putting this is that effective CGI need not stand out to the viewer.
MM: Is there a specific taboo or theme you wouldn’t touch as a director?
JK: That is an interesting question. I haven’t dealt with any taboo themes in my filmmaking as of yet, and have never given much thought to the possibility. I think if a taboo theme were part of a screenplay I was considering producing, it would depend on how that theme was treated in the story.
MM: When was the last time a film truly scared you?
JK: Besides Jaws, I remember being very jolted the first time I watched the original Friday the 13th. That film had some really effective shock moments in it. And other films over the years have had equally chilling singular moments, such as the end shot of The Blair Witch Project where we see the guy standing with his head down in the corner. However I think it has been quite some time since I was truly scared by a film. As I’ve seen more horror films over the years I’ve become increasingly immune to it, and in fact actually go mostly for the excitement and adrenaline rush they offer more than anything else.
MM: Any last words?
It was a real treat chatting with Jeff. I appreciate his time and look forward to many, many more awesome projects from the pride of upstate New York!