Monday, March 24, 2014

Interview with Kyle Rankin, Director of Nuclear Family, Infestation, etc.

He's currently running a Kickstarter for a new zombie comedy film with Ray Wise called Night of the Living Deb. Be sure to check it out here and pledge! You can even read the first 16 pages of the script, and trust me, it's going to be good!

1. I really loved Infestation. How long did it take to write that and what sparked the idea? It really reminds me of Aliens sometimes.

Firstly, thanks for watching AND for the comparison to a great film. It took me about two months to write a first draft. Then, when Mel Gibson’s company (Icon) got involved, I did more polishing while we were casting and pre-producing. The idea started with a visual for an opening scene, and also a common question screenwriters ask themselves: ‘what if?’ In the case of Infestation it was ‘What if a normal guy wakes up encased in a cocoon and has no idea how he got there?’

2. How were you able to get that film financed?

I sent it to a producer I know and he brought it to Icon. Like a lot of luck in the film business, it was all about timing. Icon had recently had a meeting and decided to make a lower budget genre film. I’m just happy they were willing to fund a genre hybrid (horror/comedy) because that tends to scare away the big studios.

3. You shot that movie in Bulgaria. Was that just for budget reasons? I actually had no idea it was filmed there so it definitely turned out well.

Thanks. Bulgaria was a great place for us because every production dollar meant more. We were able to get cool locations, a smart crew, nice accommodations, and talented US ex-pats to fill our smaller roles. All this while also experiencing another culture. It was a fun learning experience.

4. Were you involved in the distribution of Infestation? Any tips for filmmakers trying to get a widespread distribution deal?

That was all Icon and their affiliates. As an indie filmmaker myself, I certainly understand how difficult it is to get your films out there. I guess my only tip would be: make the best movie you possibly can... not one you CALCULATE the masses will buy, but one you feel passionate about.

5. Do you recommend finding a sales agent or going to any of the film markets?

I never hired a sales agent because they always asked for money up front. If you’re anything like me, you’re broke by the time your film is finished because you’ve invested everything into it. I’ve also never been to a film market for the same reason: they cost money. What I have done is the film festival route... and it’s paid off for me. I found folks who liked and passed along my work and THAT led to distribution, and I’ve also paid for more festival travel and entrance fees by winning money at this or that festival. It can be a great way to connect with like-minded people.

6. Have you heard any horror stories about distribution deals gone wrong?

Yes. I’ve even experienced one myself. There are a LOT of disreputable distribution companies out there that prey on desperate artists. In my case, the company made about $50,000 off of my old films... then produced a bogus report saying that that’s what they paid to make copies of my film and send it out, etc. My advice to anyone would be to enlist the help of a lawyer. If a company is legit, this won’t scare them away.

7. How did you deal with nudity on set? Was that as awkward as everyone says? Anything that helped make that process easier?

It can be a bit odd, but I always insist on a closed set with a skeleton crew when nudity is being shot. This way, the actors feel they’re being taken care of, and you can mitigate uncomfortable feelings.

8. Any chance of a sequel to Infestation?

That would be so much fun... but probably not. In the end, it must not have made enough money to get a sequel greenlight. That’s what sequels are all about: money, based on the original title's performance (domestically and overseas).

9. What are the most difficult challenges you've faced as a filmmaker?

Money would have to be number one. Heck, it may even be two and three, too. I have an endless stream of ideas and several screenplays ready to go... I also know a gaggle of talented actors who would love to be working more. With money, I’d simply go film to film without stopping to gather funds.

10. How did you overcome them?

I told myself that I’d never overcome the access to money hurdle unless I wrote scripts that people and companies wanted to pay for. This isn’t easy, but I’ve had the pleasure of making it happen several times. The thing I’m trying now is Kickstarter... because I love the idea of interacting directly with my backers and creating a product I love.

11. Provided they have the time and the money, do you think directors should rehearse with their actors before filming? Why or why not?

Yes. Time on set is usually so limited, so any discussion about character, situation, motivation, etc., that can happen beforehand is only going to benefit the final product. The first few days of a project can also be stressful as far as getting on the same page with the actors, so if there’s already agreement and accord... rehearsal time pays for itself.

12. What do you think is the key to collaborating with actors?

Being fun. I think of them as children, but I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. They are pretending, so anything I can do to facilitate and elevate that activity is going to help the film. I’m a task-master where my crew is concerned, but not my cast... I don’t want to mess with their freedom of thought.

13. Any advice on how to deal with egos and difficult crew or actors?

Once or twice I’ve pulled someone aside and asked if they’d rather leave than be part of what we were trying to accomplish. This is an important discussion to have. I mentioned treating actors like children, and that also means acting like a parent myself. Part of being a parent is setting and maintaining firm boundaries.

14. How do you get your actors comfortable so they can give the best performances possible?

As director, I set the tone on set. I can’t, for instance, joke around with everyone and then later discipline someone for laughing and ignoring their job. In that same vein, it’s my job to keep everyone safe. You mentioned physical nudity earlier, and it made me realize there’s also emotional nudity. It wouldn’t feel good to an actor to get emotionally nude in a scene and then see a crew member, say, looking at their phone and laughing at some text. It wouldn’t make them feel honored and cared for. It’s my job to make sure everyone’s on the same page in regards to creating a comfortable space.

15. What is it like working with Ray Wise?

Super fun. We’re old friends, so it’s like hanging out and laughing with a good pal.

16. Do you give him much direction at all or just let him do his thing?

I let him fly for the most part. After all these years, we’ve built up a shorthand, so if I need him to tweak a performance... I just say one or two words and he gets it. Similarly if he wants to tell me something, it’s done sometimes just with a look.

17. How did you first meet Ray Wise and get him aboard your initial project together? You guys have collaborated quite a few times.

I was a broke 25-year-old in Maine and read an article about how to get your short film noticed. It mentioned zeroing in on ONE actor you respect and courting them. I picked Ray and sent nice letters to him and his manager. He ended up liking a short script I sent, so he flew to Maine for a weekend and acted in my film. I was blown away by the kindness back then... and I still am when I think back on it.

18. Any suggestions on how to find good actors? Did you use a casting director or contact agents or actors yourself?

It’s very difficult to get to actors, but sometimes you meet someone who KNOWS an actor, or you run into someone out and about (a benefit of living in LA). Also, I never do a shotgun approach to casting. Instead, I pick, say, the five people I need that I think will be great (names within reason considering my budget) and I go after them, sometimes through their representation and sometimes using other means.

19. What do you think is the biggest mistake of most indie filmmakers?

Not making a film that fits into a specific genre. When you’re unknown, a great way to get noticed is to make a film that has its feet firmly planted in a particular mold. For instance, I think that making a kickass horror movie is better than making a sci-fi romantic comedy (if getting noticed is your goal). Blends are difficult to get distributed and even tough fits for festivals... as they want to program similar films together in blocks.

20. What is your process like for working with a composer?

Fun and exciting. I’ve worked with a great composer named Steven Guntheinz on my past few films and he’s a treasure. It’s important to me that film scoring aid and magnify the emotions I’m going for in a particular scene instead of telling the audience what to feel. Steven understands that.

21. What kind of guidance do you give him? How do you tell him what kind of music you want?

Instead of being specific about instruments I want to hear or anything, I give him emotional notes the way I would an actor. Since he’s an artist, too, he then feels free to pull something great from his heart.

22. What have you learned about the business side of moviemaking?

Mostly that I’m not very good at it. I think it’s tough for artistically-minded people to understand business and how to sell their own products. It’s something I’m working on and, I’d like to think, getting better at... but man, it doesn’t come naturally.

Kyle Rankin and Dario Argento

23. How crazy was the Project Greenlight experience? I'm sad that show isn't around anymore.

Me, too. It was crazy because I moved from Maine to LA and then 8 months later I’m in Park City with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck saying they’re excited to work with me. It was a rollercoaster. The filming itself was a lot of fun... I didn’t love how I was portrayed in the show, but all that’s lost to the ages now. The best things it did for me was give me lots of experience... and get me an agent, manager, and lawyer.

24. Why did you choose Kickstarter to finance Night of the Living Deb?

It’s a challenge. I wanted to see if I could crowdfund something. I ALSO want to make this special film the way I want to make it. I don’t want notes from studio suits because they need to justify their paychecks. I believe in this story, and I want to be personally responsible for this film’s destiny.

25. What are the most helpful books you've read on filmmaking and screenwriting?

I immediately think of two: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and The Conversations with famous editor Walter Murch. They’re both wonderful and have influenced me greatly.

26. What's the most important piece of advice you'd give an aspiring filmmaker?

That it’s important to make an entertaining film. I know this sounds simple, but it’s a lesson I had to learn. My first film was a slogging, dark, emotionally heavy movie because I thought that’s what great ART was supposed to be. Now, I make films that please me but I also ask myself ‘is this something people would spend $12 to see?’ Or: ‘Is this something a couple would be happy to pay a babysitter AND buy their tickets to see?’ If I can envision people spending the money, I want to make something they’ll enjoy and tell their friends about. I don’t want them to go home feeling like they need a shower or, in general, regretting their choice.

Thanks for the support & interest, Doug!

Thank you so much, Kyle!

And don't forget to visit his Night of the Living Deb Kickstarter!


  1. That was a great interview, Doug. He had some great advice there, and a good insight into the making of low budget films. Sad to say I've never seen anything he has made, but I will definitely seek him out now.

    1. Thanks! I'd recommend Infestation. It has quite a bit of CGI but it's done pretty well and mixed with practical. More than that though, it's a good funny movie with characters you can root for, Ray Wise is awesome in it (actually I think all of the cast is good), the horror works too, etc.

  2. Hello Doug,
    I was looking for some informations on Maurice devereaux and one thing lead me to another to your blog. Nice i,terview and nice blog? I read some pages and we seem to share taste in horror movie (exept on waxwork that I love too much and its sequel but I also love full eclipse Anthony hickox didn't do anything wrong in the 90's (warlock 2 is better than the first, sundown is excellent and hellraiser 3 has some scenes). Well anyway nice blog and I also agree on infestation on of the few film of the last decade I remember fondly.
    A French new follower

    1. Thank you, Fabien! I still want to see Waxwork's sequel. I haven't seen Sundown... I'll definitely have to watch that.