An Interview With Writer/Director Hal Masonberg
by Carrie Murphy
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Let's start with the most basic question here... What happened? How did this smart, adult-oriented horror film end up being... well, something different?
[Laughs] Okay... Well... Clive’s producers knew from the start that we weren’t interested in making a typical Clive Barker film. That was laid out in our first meeting and reiterated many times over. I’m not interested in making those films. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, it’s just not who I am as a filmmaker. It doesn’t appeal to me. The reason they claimed they were interested in making THE PLAGUE was precisely because it wasn’t a Clive Barker film. “Clive Barker makes Clive Barker films,” we were told. As it was explained to us, what they wanted to do was to create an avenue for smart, adult horror films of all shapes and sizes. They kept using the Clive Barker produced GODS AND MONSTERS as an example. Obviously nothing like a Clive Barker film, but a film with a horror movie theme. Now I don’t believe they were lying because the next three years of development certainly reflected most if not all of our desires. We were all on the same page and we were all excited about what we were making. I even wrote up an official director’s statement per the production company’s request outlining my approach and intent. And this statement accurately reflected everything we’d been discussing and working on. Everybody got a copy and everyone agreed this was the film.
And what exactly was Clive Barker's involvement in the project?
THE PLAGUE was an original script. It wasn't based on any of Clive's work. It existed for a good 5 years before Clive's production company, Midnight Picture Show, came on board as producers. That said, Clive himself seemed to have very little involvement with the project. I only met him a handful of times and it was almost never to discuss the script. Turns out, after we made the film and the producers showed him an early cut, he hated it. Or so I was told. I never actually got to speak with him. And not for lack of trying, mind you. One of the main producers for Clive’s company confided to me that he was totally confused by Clive’s reaction. He thought it was as if Clive had never read the script. Through so much of development and pre-production, production and post, we were told repeatedly by Clive's producers, “Don’t talk to Clive. He doesn’t know what’s going on.” Well, that should have been a big red light for us, but you get so caught up in the fact that you’re actually making your film that you push aside all those warning bells that go off in your head.
So when did you realize that you'd lost control of the film?
I walked into the editing room the day after my contract ended and was told point blank by one of the producers, “We’re cutting down the characters and making this a killer-kid movie.” When I inquired as to why we were suddenly changing from a character-driven film to a standard horror movie, the answer I got was an astoundingly condescending, “Cause this is a ‘horror’ film called ‘The Plague’, not ‘The Tom Russell Story’” [Tom Russell being the film’s main character].
You hear horror-stories (pardon the pun) like this all the time: films being taken away from their writers and directors by producers, studios, etc.... How did you react when this happened to you?
Honestly, it was the most painful experience of my adult life. I know that’s hard for a lot of people to understand. I mean, I’d get the comment, “Hey, it’s just a film. You’ll make another.” But I’d spent 8 years trying to get this film made, not to mention a lifetime of dreaming and fighting to get to a place where I could make a film. ANY film! So to fight this hard, to invest so much of myself psychologically, creatively and physically, to be so passionate about this film, and then have it taken away and turned into the very thing I was making the film in reaction to… Excuse the cliché, but it’s like giving birth to a child and having it taken away from you and given to abusive parents. It’s devastating. You can’t just let it go and move on. There’s real pain involved.
In trying to process what happened, I spoke to a studio producer friend shortly after I was taken off THE PLAGUE. This producer’s known me for a long time. Twelve years or something. I was telling him what had happened and how in shock I was and I was talking about how I think I’m easy to work with, how much I love to collaborate and how conscious I am of not letting my ego get in the way of what’s best for the film, and he stops me and says, “You know, you’re not actually easy to work with.” Of course I’m surprised so I ask him what he means. He tells me that I have very strong opinions and that I’m not afraid to voice them; that I’m willing to fight for what I believe in. “In this town, that’s considered difficult”, he explains. Then he goes on to describe how they came about hiring the director for their last big blockbuster movie. “He doesn’t have any opinions of his own. Or if he does, he doesn’t voice them. He does exactly what we want.” Now understand, this producer realizes exactly what he’s saying. He explains to me that this same school of thought is the reason that film wasn’t any good. Yet they’re making a sequel and they’ve hired the same director again! And this producer doesn’t expect the sequel to be any good either!
Why do you think this happens? Obviously there are people working in the industry who genuinely want to make good films, no?
Absolutely. But there’s a sad thing that happens to a lot of people in Hollywood. I’ve watched it happen to friends and I’ve struggled not to let it happen to myself. The first things most artists give up in exchange for success are the very things that made them passionate about wanting to make films in the first place. It’s something Cassavetes noticed and often spoke about. I watched it happen on this film. I watched a guy who was passionate about making a smart, adult horror film—someone who fought alongside myself and my writing partner for three years- turn silent when it came time to stand up for what he believes in. He allowed the film to be turned into what he himself described as “not the film we set out to make.”
There are different definitions of success. There’s personal success and then there’s financial success. And the two aren’t mutually exclusive. But you’ll find very few people in Hollywood- at least in my experience- who will choose personal over financial. If a popular filmmaker makes a couple of films in a row that aren’t as wildly successful as his or her most successful (and we’re talking numbers here), they’re suddenly seen as being in need of some kind of intervention. They’re told they need to “reinvent” themselves. Even if that person’s films are still turning a hefty profit, they’re not as successful and therefore they must be slipping down some dark, artless chasm. An agent quoted in a recent NEWSWEEK article on M. Night Shyamalan suggested Shyamalan reinvent himself by directing “some big, great script that a studio is trying to get to someone like Spielberg” instead of continuing to write his own scripts. There’s no room to grow as a filmmaker with this attitude. To suggest that anyone’s salvation lies in following in someone else’s footsteps is ludicrous. Despite what you think of his films, Shyamalan’s definition of success seems to be making the films he wants to make; saying the things he wants to say. You shouldn’t have to change who you are in order to be successful. That’s a trap. I would consider myself more “successful” making lower budget films, than making successful “big-budget” blockbusters that really aren’t very personal for me.
However, there are many filmmakers out there -working both in Hollywood and outside- who manage to make films from their hearts, films that are considered by many to be great "art".
And thank God. The Academy gave the Lifetime Achievement Award to Robert Altman a few years back. Hollywood has a long history of honoring the people in our lives that take chances and succeed. But it also seems to me that, at the same time, they try and squelch the life out of any potential future honorees!
Altman managed to make his own films his own way. And they’re nothing like anything else out there. They’re certainly not marketable in a way that most studios know how to market. And lord knows the guy made some films that just fell flat on their faces, both financially and, some would say, artistically. But we wouldn’t have all those brilliant films he made if he didn’t constantly take chances. And when you take chances on a regular basis, you’re bound to come up with some films that just don’t quite work the way you’d like them to. I guarantee you, if Altman had made a film and secretly gave it to a young unknown director who brought it to a studio, they’d tell the guy that the film is a mess and needs to be dramatically altered. They wouldn’t know how to market it unless they could call it “A Robert Altman Film”. They’d tell the guy he just simply can’t continue making films like this if he wants to be successful.
You almost have to make your films despite the system. In my experience, the word “artist” is a dirty word in Hollywood. They throw it around like they understand it, the whole while trying to wipe the taste from their mouths. I just read a recent quote from some anonymous “blockbuster” producer that stated, “When someone is given total artistic freedom, the result is usually bad.” I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s not the environment I want to be making films in.
Which leads us to the next question, how DID you manage to finish your film despite having been removed from it?
I knew from the get-go that I needed to finish the film no matter what. A lot of people I spoke with seemed confused by this. I was told no one would want to see my cut, that it would be a waste of time, etc., etc. But I knew I needed to finish it for me. And it would have an audience, if only my friends and family, then so be it, but someone would see this film. Hell, I wanted to see this film! So I took the digital dailies I had on DVD [the film was originally shot in Super 35] and transferred them into Final Cut Pro and started editing the film from scratch. Since I was now making the film for only myself, I no longer had to compromise my vision. Understand, when I was working with Midnight Picture Show and Armada [the film's other production company], I knew there would be compromises and was prepared and willing -not just willing, excited- to go down that path. This had become all of ours, not just mine. But something shifted in post production. Something that wasn't being discussed with me. Even after I was removed from the film, I offered my services in helping the Clive Barker guys attain their goal of satisfying Screen Gems, but I was told that my ideas were "shit" and that they didn’t want or need my help. I was blown away. These were guys I'd been working with for three years!
So I spent the next six months putting the film together. Unlike the 7 weeks I’d spent in the editing room before I was taken off the film, this time I really got to study the dailies. I knew every frame that was shot, every actor’s nuance, every angle, every breath. And I started to see not only the film I’d written, but more important, the film we’d shot. There are so many unexpected moments that happen during production; things you could never plan on: something an actor does, or the Director of Photography, or the Production Designer, the weather, for Christ’s sake, an unexpected moment of creative inspiration from yourself or someone on the crew, or simply a moment of panic or necessity that allows you to do something different that is quite simply better than what you had planned. Whatever it is, it’s what you find yourself with in the editing room and once you wrap your head around what’s there instead of what’s not there, you suddenly realize what you actually have and it starts to take on a life of its own. Editing really is another stage in the process of writing and directing the film. It becomes somewhat of a different animal simply by nature of existing in a different format. It’s no longer in your head or on paper. It’s now on film. You can actually watch it, manipulate it. But it takes a little while to get there. At least it did for me. That first week in the editing room, I thought I’d die. There was so much we didn’t get, so much that had been left to second unit that just seemed unusable, that I thought we’d never be able to put a decent film together. We were only given 20 days to shoot this thing. Ten days less than we were told we needed! But even then, as I started editing, I found myself becoming excited and surprised by what I was actually able to do. Once I ended up on my own, it was like another door opening. Suddenly, I found myself having a whole new relationship with the material, with the film itself. Now I can’t imagine doing another film and not allowing myself to have that intimacy with it.
I started teaching myself how to do effects; people removal, rotoscoping, green screen work, you name it. I did the sound design myself, mixed and created the temp score from other sources and made it work almost as well as if the score had been written specifically for THE PLAGUE itself. I discovered that this part of the filmmaking process was one of my favorites and a part of the process I never want to live without again. Here’s more joy, more excitement, more passion. Here’s the little boy with his super 8 camera!
The last thing I expected when I was kicked off this film was that I would discover something greater than if I had remained on board.
So now you have your cut of the film and the producers have theirs. What's the difference?
The film the producers put together is a completely different film from the one we made. They threw ours out, it seems, and started from scratch. They changed the structure, the intent, almost all artistic and storytelling choices that we had made, both in the script and in the cutting.
Oh, my writing partner and I.
I storyboard extensively. A lot of time and energy is put into these choices. They’re not just random. Cutting back and forth between scenes, making connections between shots... Their cut of the film does not reflect who I am as a filmmaker nor Teal and I as writers. The only thing that remains are my compositions, the images themselves. But even those don’t connect the way they were designed to and many are not my preferred takes. Even veteran cinematographer, Bill Butler, wasn't invited to color-time his own work. He's still waiting! Now, of course, none of this means that [the producers'] version is bad. It's just not my vision.
So what would you say to people who are curious about the "producers' cut" of the film known as CLIVE BARKER'S THE PLAGUE"?
Go out, rent it, buy it. It's out there. Just know what you're seeing.
So, after going through this experience on your first feature film, what words of advice would you have for other first-time filmmakers?
It’s taken me a while to understand that the fantasy I had about making films in Hollywood was just that. A fantasy. I carried with me from childhood a notion of making films in a certain environment. And I thought for many years that environment was Hollywood. But after 18 years in the film industry, I’ve slowly discovered that in order to be the filmmaker I want to be, I have to let go of the fantasy. It’s like growing up to marry the person of your childhood dreams only to discover that the two of you are not very compatible and you don’t much like each other! Doesn’t mean you can’t still have a happy marriage. It just won’t be with that person! Once you let go of the fantasy scenario (and that’s not easy, let me tell you), a whole new world opens up.
I happen to be atrracted to the idea of making genre films. And those films are often seen as simple entertainment, not as character pieces or films with something to say. At least not nowadays. That makes it especially hard for me to work within the Hollywood system. But if your passion is telling stories, growing as both an artist and a human being, and taking chances that might yield something that reaches people on some deep level, then go do that. Don’t be fooled by someone else’s definition of success. If your definition of success is to keep working and making money, then do that. Both are valid. But know which one you want. Which one will make you happy. And if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get both. But there’s a good chance you’ll only get one. So which is the most important one for you? Which one would you need to still consider yourself “successful?”