Interviews: Shant Hamassian Talks About His Horror Short Night of the Slasher And Indie Filmmaking
Shant Hamassian’s viral short film Night of the Slasher took the 2015-2016 festival circuit by storm. Shant was kind enough to spend some time talking with The Movie Sleuth, offering his refreshingly candid insights into the entertainment industry and giving sound advice to young artists looking to break into the scene.
TMS: What got you started making films?
SH: I’ve always had an artistic side. I used to draw comics, read comics. I love writing. Anything in the creative realm was something I was into. While I was going for my bachelor’s, I was doing concept drawing, that was my path, but storytelling is something that is a part of me. Comics are sequential storytelling, I thought, why not do that too. Evil Dead 2 really influenced me. In college I started making films while taking tons of jobs in the industry. I’ve done everything…except scoring.
TMS: So a Renaissance approach? Learning how each piece of puzzle works?
SH: It helps me collaborate with people are who are amazing at their roles, lets me understand their work load, creating a better experience for everyone.
TMS: So, Night of the Slasher. Carpenter. What other influences are there in the film? Anything that is not obvious?
SH: On the surface, it’s a slasher film, maybe a satire or homage to Halloween, but, I was highly influenced by Spielberg. It’s a one take. He’s great at doing long one take scenes without the viewer realizing it. It’s not like Inarritu or Cuaron where they want you to know. Spielberg is subtle.
The beer drinking scene, I totally ripped that from Raiders of the Lost Ark with Marion. It starts on a wide and then we push in and get to the close up. What helped me make my “oner” decisions was watching YouTube vids of people breaking it down on how to do them. It’s so much easier and more fun to do one long take. The editing, the pacing, the flow is easier; the actors drive the story instead of forcing it in edit. You get the edit the day of. For the fake inserted cuts, you choose with chunks to use. It cut together in two hours when I had all the footage.
TMS: The Beer drinking scene. Imperial Stout…was the choice intentional?
SH: The choice of that beer was that it’s the type of beer that people get excited about it. You always see Bud Light and larger beers in films. I thought it would be cool to put a smaller beer that people get excited about it. Creatively, the color of the bottle, if our actors weren’t able to drink a lot of it we could play with the color in post-production. But our actress, Lily Berlina actually drank all the water. She drank like 22 bottles of water during the takes. She put herself through a lot of physical challenges and pulled it off. The other reason, anyone who’s tasted that beer, knows it is not easy to drink quickly. It shows she’s a badass and will do whatever it takes to take this killer down.
TMS: Indeed. She has the checklist, but the entire film seems like a ritual.
SH: Yes. In exorcism films they do a ritual to bring out the demon. In a slasher film, the ritual is the occurrence of things that attract the killer in the film. I was also thinking about real life victims who have been traumatized and could find other outlets to deal with their pain, sometimes people drink, do drugs, and have sex to deal with the demons and in this film, that is exactly what she does.
TMS: How did you do the casting?
SH: We had a different actress before Lily. Two weeks before shooting she dropped out, didn’t believe in the project and was worried it was going to hurt her career. I told her it was a sophisticated slasher film. It sounds cheesy, but the presentation will be artful. What if this goes to Sundance or goes viral, it did. What if this gets made into a feature? Studios and agents have had this conversation. So Lily comes in. We used a casting company, free for the film makers, a lot of actors signed up. 20 people signed up, but it’s raining in LA so it’s a horrible storm! (laughs). Only 10 show up. Lily was the second. After the audition, we called and asked if she could start immediately. We rehearsed three times. We went to the mall to look for the right fit of clothing. She was very generous with her time. She didn’t know us. She threw everything into it. I would work with her again in a heartbeat and I hope to. I fully trust her.
TMS: What about Adam Lasar, The Killer?
SH: So Scott Javore played the bait. Adam, who helped us produce, played the killer. We made everyone audition, we don’t hire friends. We always make fun of how Adam got nominated, he won best villain and we never see his face! We would joke about that all the time. Adam is not a stunt guy, but he pulled out the role, that crazy spider walk, his legs were really sore after doing that for a few takes. It was like lightning in a bottle. We had all the right people, none of the money, but all the right people. The film almost fell apart several times. The camera fell apart on first day of shooting. We had to call all our contacts to get a new one. So many things went wrong. A lot of people think they did it in one take! No, this film was so hard, harder than a feature I once worked on. One of the craziest things I’ve ever worked. I blame it on lack of money. Money makes everything easier.
TMS: Did you think about crowdsourcing?
SH: No. I had some money. My family gave me some money. I didn’t want to wait, to spend a month campaigning. Crowdfunding sucks, it’s not fun. It’s too much begging. You have to think about the reward systems, mail out stupid crap you come up with, but you have to make it, how much is it going to cost to make those things….If I had tried, I wouldn’t have made the movie when did. We shot this in mid-December before everyone left town. If you have some money, just go and make it.
TMS: Do you think the whole experience, making it, marketing, getting out to festivals, etc. Does it feel like a hustle?
SH: It is a hustle. I think by not crowdsourcing it saved my energy for all the hustling. I do give a lot of respect to filmmakers who do the funding, I donate, and I share whenever I can.
TMS: I think a lot of people aren’t ready for the hustle.
SH: Here’s the biggest problem with industry as a whole. Anything entertainment or art. There is a divide of information. The creator wants to just create and the business people want to do their part. The fact that it is divided and people don’t have access to the entire piece in order to be successful makes you dependent on each other. They don’t take time to self-promote. I took the time to research, looked at a ton of short films. What worked, what didn’t work. I looked at the entire short film market as a whole. I had a game plan. I wanted to get into as many festivals I could. Quantity over quality. Minimum 100, Maximum 150 festivals. We got into 175. Oscar qualifying film festivals. Publicity is really important. After I had enough accolades, that’s when I decided it was time for publicity. I worked with a publicist and we found the right titles, the right things to put out there with the best articles with best slogan and art and that is when it started spreading like wild fire. There was a plan; I didn’t just throw it out there. No matter how good your film is, if you just put it out there, it will vanish. You have to have a marketing plan in mind.
The crazy thing is that learning more and knowledge is discouraged in the industry. In all the meetings I was in, you know how many times I was about my marketing skills? Zero. They asked me about my art skills. I’m like do you know why you’re talking to me? My film went viral because of the work I did. They want creatives to not meddle in the business stuff.
One of the producers of an Oscar winning film told me that even with representation, all of the accomplishments were due to their own work. People who are successful think outside the constructs of the industry. They learn business plans; learn everything outside of being a filmmaker. It’s overwhelming, people want to be identified as what they do, I’m a writer, and I’m a director. They feel that if they’re good at something else, it marginalizes them. You won’t be less of a film maker if you’re good at law, etc. Get good. Be a renaissance person outside of being a film maker. Don’t wait for a handout; it’s a huge waste of time. I don’t like the industry standard way, it’s like winning the lottery. You have to be chosen, not because you earned your way, someone picked you over everyone else. It has nothing to do with capability.
The most important thing is how to sell it, how to take it to the market. So many people can make films, the end result is subjective. How do you frame it? So that is what I’ve been working on. How to make a big splash, a huge debut.
TMS: I think that is very sound advice for people looking to break into this. The proof in the box office, where we see not great films making money.
SH: Even just making profit. Even with good and bad reviews. So many script writers worry about their product. 12 years a Slave got torn apart and then Brad Pitt’s crew loved it. If anyone says they can teach you how to write a script that will sell is lying. Look at the market. There’s not a guarantee. What I’m doing with my creative path…how you can create guarantees in high risk business. I’ve been doing a lot research about that. I did it with the short film, it worked. So now I’m trying to find ways to make things more profitable and still give me control. It involves Night of the Slasher and other projects.
TMS: I was going to ask, what is next? That you can talk about…
SH: Make half a billion at the box office (laughs).
TMS: Is it a feature?
SH: Yes, but I look at it as intellectual property. Here’s what a distributor will tell you, one that will give you good advice. I heard this at a seminar. Think of your project like a bundle of sticks. One stick is transportation, one stick another thing. Don’t give the bundle away. I realized that the bundle is part of another bundle. Graphic novels, video games, merchandizing. We are now in the more IP driven business. King Kong is more than just one, two, three movies. Disney knows this the best. They put it on TV, a toy, they have so many versions of the same thing, and there are so many audiences.
A graphic novel will come out first, Walking Dead is an example. Sales of the novel go up when the show was announced. Sales went through the roof when the show premiered. When one form gets popular it informs the other version to get popular. If you can figure out how to make your IP start off one way and then have it turn into something else, that is where you will make a huge profit. If you’re smart, have a good lawyer, someone who knows how to protect your rights that is the ideal thing. Walt Disney never sold Mickey Mouse. Ownership is what’s important. That is the next correct step, when artists take more control. If you can figure out how to turn it into a world of characters, source it out to many different mediums, then you have something that could take care of you for the rest of your life.
We went off on a tangent.
TMS: No, it’s awesome and I think it’s something young artists need to hear.
SH: They should also learn how to do taxes (chuckles).
TMS: Going back to the film, my personal favorite part is “the look”. Was that planned? Right at the end, when he peaks back in.
SH: The stare. Yeah, that was a funny thing I thought…Until next time! The silence and the stare say it all; I thought it would be pretty fun. It’s you and me, I’m gonna get you next time as the parents are coming in.
TMS: You talked about Spielberg, Evil Dead 2. Any favorite films or directors?
SH: My favorite, very biased film is Back to the Future. It’s my comfort film, made in the year I was born. I recently saw a classic film that I never got around to watching and now it’s one of my favorite films of all time. Apocalypse Now. There’s a three disc version a friend let me borrow. I devoured the entire thing over a weekend, it blew me away. Coppola’s soldiering fight to make this film, over so many obstacles that is true, pure cinematic expression. He fought to get this made. It’s the flip side of Heaven’s Gate. Heaven’s Gate failed, his film could have failed, but it succeeded. It blows me away on every level, intellectually, emotional…but objectively, as a film maker, the story behind it is what makes it incredible, what it took, he was willing to shoot this film in a war zone. I love that it’s Heart of Darkness, The Odyssey, the sirens they’re the playboy bunnies, the napalm guy (Robert Duvall) he’s the Cyclops. It’s a movie I will be rewatching a lot, revisiting for the rest of my life. I have lot of respect for it. I don’t think I could appreciate it as much as I do now. The more mature with the medium you are, it blows your mind.
TMS: Is there anything that you’ve never been asked that you want to talk about?
SH: Actually, one more piece of advice: The more successful you get, the more you attract people in your life that have no business in your life…be careful about that. I love interacting with my fans, I do my best to keep up, but then there is the people who want to get involved, they come to you…this is how you have to determine what is going to be a business relationship. Someone comes to you and says I have this thing…they want you to do the work, but if someone comes to you and wants to collaborate, they want to help you, that is closer to the thing you want instead of someone asking you to make something for them. You don’t have to team up with a producer, make your thing and you will attract the people you want who will help you with progressing your project.
Be careful with who you talk to. People will come in and give you advice, they try to get entangled. Always make sure the terms are very clear before you interact with people in the industry. I’ve had great mentors who have given me advice, but people constantly try to get their clutches on your project.
TMS: So you’ve hinted at it before, but is the possibility of a full length Night of the Slasher real?
SH: Anything is possible!
TMS: Thank you so much for talking with me. It’s been an honor.
SH: Thank you for inviting me, I appreciate, it’s an honor for sure!