I recently had the opportunity to view Head Trauma Productions' indie horror film, Dead Weight. The film tells the story of Charlie and Samantha, young lovers estranged due to a planetary epidemic. Charlie promises to find his true love, despite hundreds of miles apart, setting the tone for his chaotic and dedicated journey back to the arms of his beloved. Check out the review at the following link.
The good folks at Head Trauma were kind enough to entertain some questions regarding the stars, the story and the film making process of Dead Weight.
Welcome to the interview. Can you tell me what inspired you to write this bleak, end of the world, apocalypse meets love story?
Adam Bartlett: Thanks for taking the time to interview us!
John Pata: Yes, many thanks!
AB: I had been hoping to write a longer story after spending years writing prose and lyrics for bands. Once production on John's old project--Among The Dead, where I was set to play the part of one of the main characters--fell through, I began considering a screenplay as the format I wanted to write for. I began fleshing out ideas for a few stories, and one of those became Dead Weight. I have always been drawn to stories of survival that aimed more at your heartstrings with character than at your stomach with gore. The Dark Tower, The Road, much of Tolkien's writing, the first six issues of The Walking Dead, those were all very influential in my desire to craft a story.
JP: Adam and I worked together at a screen printing shop I co-owned (which I later sold to make Dead Weight), and one day he presented a few bullet points for a story; there's a guy on a journey, civilization has crumbled, two timelines that move in opposite directions, and a couple other minor ideas. He knew I was devastated by the misfortune of Among The Dead with a filmmaking void I was looking to fill, and we began throwing around ideas. First was to figure out why this character, Charlie, was traveling. We obviously settled on him trekking through the barren wastelands in hopes to reunite with his girlfriend, Samantha. From the first day of outlining, we knew we wanted to take a serious approach about what could happen to humans when you take away everything they know. As we've previously joked about, we also have no faith in humanity… Which is kind of true.
Dead Weight is really a small story in a global scope. I like how you communicated that context. What were the keys to making that work?
AB: I think the key for us was to make the story seem claustrophobic and focused despite primarily taking place in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Although Charlie is outside, traveling through the wilderness, he is very much trapped. He couldn't very well survive if he struck off on his own, he isn't necessarily free. He is bound to this people and to his journey. On top of that we made the film all about the characters, and their interactions with each other, and I think that helps keep the story grounded. It's a story people know, a guy in search of the girl he loves. A journey to reunite with the only thing that matters in life. People can fundamentally relate to that, and the emotions Charlie goes through before and after civilization crumbles.
JP: Using the Jaws approach in depicting the destruction of civilization definitely worked to our advantage too. By the "Jaws approach," I mean by not showing everything. Quite frankly, we didn't have the budget to show the product and aftermath of the viral outbreak that wiped out most of the population, but you hear about it frequently. In the opening, we see the news reporting the attacks, throughout the film there's multiple mentions to not seeing other survivors often, cities are overrun by the infected, the borders being barricaded by military personnel, etc. By hearing this sort of information over the course of the film, we hope the viewer can visualize this world of characters live in. The mind can fill in the blanks better than any budget ever could.
We can't give away spoilers here, so give me your initial feelings. How did you embrace your one true love leaving for one last, desperate hope for survival?
Joe Belknap: What you seem to be asking is how we approached the idea that Samantha is Charlie’s last hope in a post-outbreak world. We approached it as an obsession of sorts. I don’t know that I see the relationship between Charlie and Samantha as a healthy one. Before the outbreak occurs they seem to be on the brink of a break-up (Samantha more than Charlie, though both aren’t willing to admit it). I like to think that they were very much in love at one time, and it’s those memories that make it so difficult to break away from what has become an unhealthy, strained relationship. The outbreak escalates this, and their plan to meet is hobbled together out of a sense of desperation.
Mary, if the viewers are anything like I was, they will completely buy your performance during the intro, throughout the flashbacks, and beyond. How did you tune in to Samantha's desperation?
Mary Lindberg: Adam and John were very clear about what kind of emotions they wanted from each character in every scene... In the first scene, Samantha didn't know what was going on completely - nobody did. I just imagined that Samantha had gone to work like any normal day, but things maybe felt off. Maybe a few stories, news broadcasts, and videos had been shared throughout the office.. once the office had locked us in was when a solid amount of panic had set in. Plus I was wearing dress clothes, and that always puts people on edge.
What was the major challenge during filmmaking?
AB: It might be easier to address what WEREN'T the major challenges during the film. Nothing blew up, no one got seriously injured. That's about it. Anything else that could've been a problem was surely a problem. But, to us, independent filmmaking is almost entirely problem solving. Addressing an issue and finding a way to solve it or work around it, while still somehow telling the story you want to tell in the way you want to do it. Adaptation. But a good friend of ours, Cory Udler, once said something that rings so true with me. He said, "Every independent filmmaker could use two things: another day and a thousand more dollars." That perfectly illustrates the struggle in any independent production. Time, money.
JB: Everything, essentially, but that’s a boring, nonspecific answer. I’d narrow it down to the schedule and the weather. We had a very strict schedule that we simply could not deviate from because everyone involved had put their lives on hold to be a part of Dead Weight. We had, I believe, 7 days in April where we filmed all the survivor scenes. We picked up the Charlie and Samantha scenes the following August. We had to get everything in those short time frames. If we didn’t, there was no possible way to get our cast and crew back together at a later date. It was do or die. Knowing that put a bit of a strain and a sense of urgency on everyone involved.
And the weather. You can’t talk about Dead Weight without talking about the weather. Christ, man. All the outdoor scenes we filmed offered up some sort of weather related challenge. Insane winds. Smoke inhalation from a long campfire scene. Mountains of snow dumped on us in the middle of April, which then proceeded to melt very quickly, which threatened to change the scenery drastically.
JP: Not to mention the 90+ degree weather we had for all three days of flashbacks in August...
ML: Extreme weather conditions.. Although the flashbacks were filmed in what at times seemed like a sauna, I think the true challenge was the thunder-snow and wind that the cast and crew trudged through for days.
JP: Time was persistently against us, like it is with every film. We wanted to shoot the post-apocalyptic narrative at the end of winter, yet before spring fully bloomed. Joe was student teaching the year we filmed (2011), so that meant the only time he was available was his spring break, April 17-23. That meant we had seven days to shoot 70% of the film, and with our cast and crew being from all over Wisconsin and Chicago, it would be almost impossible to bring everyone together for an extra day or two. In other words, we had seven days and that was it. If we didn't have what we needed by that last day, there's no guarantee we would. That adds a lot of pressure and stress, especially when, for example, your third day brings an unexpected blizzard that dumps a foot of snow on you in a matter of hours, all while you're supposed to film one of the most emotionally tense scenes in the film outside. Instead of canceling the days scenes (because there is no time to make them up), you retreat to a gas station in the middle of nowhere for two hours, trying to find new locations and a way to rewrite the scene due to the weather. So now instead of a wooded area, the group seeks shelter in a basement, and instead of a clearing, the scene now takes place in an old barn. Bottom line, that blizzard was the best thing that could have happened (visually speaking, the film takes on a whole new look, and all of us became not just a group of people making a film, rather a an unstoppable unit) but it was also the worst few hours of our lives.
Our viewers love a look at behind the scenes. What is the best story you can take away during filmmaking our viewers might not hear?
AB: Best story? I feel like that would be impossible for me. So many memories that I think are the best, and then I remember 5 more that will be key moments in my life. The last three years really stand as one immense experience that I feel very lucky to have lived through. Writing, producing, promoting our own feature-length work has been terribly stressful, but ultimately also rewarding beyond all measure. The people made this experience as special as it was. The relationships forged by Dead Weight are what I think best stories one could hope for. I have a sincere love for everyone that had a role in this film, bringing our characters to life. The cast and crew are my favorite story, everyone who sees the film sees the result of my favorite story. The passion of the people involved.
ML: There are too many, but one of my favorite moments was a point in filming where minimal counter-space led to a three foot sub in the bath tub.
JB: Because of our insane shooting schedule, much of the cast and crew lived together in John’s place during filming, which has the very awesome quality of existing above a comic shop. We all spent every minute together, whether we were shooting or just being at “home.” The camaraderie that emerged was just amazing. I remember on what I think was the last night before the last day of shooting the survivor scenes, I couldn’t sleep. I was so damn exhausted. Spent. It was 3 in the morning, and I had to be up in a few short hours to film for the last day, but the ungodly, incessant snoring of a beloved crew member kept me awake. I took my sleeping bag and pillow, and I went downstairs into the comic shop. Delirious, I browsed the racks before leaning against the wall at the bottom of the stairs. I thought about the week of shooting. I thought about how weird and unpredictable and surreal it was that I had even became a part of this project. And I thought about the people I’d met, and how much I loved them. And then I fell asleep, on the floor of a comic book shop at 3 in the morning, with the biggest, dumbest smile on face. I don’t know if it’s the “best” story I have, but it’s a memorable one for me. That was a good night.
JP: Someone has to play the role of the non-sappy person here, so it might as well be me. (Seriously though, there's a reason this question is difficult to answer and we could all go on and on and on about this experience. It was life changing, we started as friends, and in some cases strangers, but came out as a family.)
On our fourth day, after gale force winds (day one), inhaling campfire smoke that attacked everyone's eyes for five hours (day two), an almost production ending blizzard (day three), we're now filming on a fully functional farm. Due to increasing temperatures, the snow is melting and we're all standing ankle deep in slush and manure. In the scene, Charlie sits down and chats with some new characters, Harrison and Ellen. It's a very dialogue heavy, serious, and pivotal scene. That entire time, there's a donkey standing no more than twelve feet off camera with an erection the size of a grown man's arm.
Head Trauma has been active, productive, and excellent in recent productions. Where can our viewers expect to see the stars and producers of Dead Weight next?
JP: A lot of us are always up to something, whether it's film, music, art, and/or theater. Aaron Christensen (Thomas) and Steve Herson (Harrison) are working together again, starring in Red Clark's adaptation of the Stephen King story, Grey Matter, which I helped out on for a brief bit. As for my projects, I'm prepping a short film that we'll be shooting in early spring. It's a incredibly dark and grim tale about a man trying to accept and deal with heartbreak. Jake Martin, who played Roy in Dead Weight, will be filling the lead, and only, role. There's another script for a short I was recently offered, which I hope to shoot this year. As if that's not enough, I've begun writing (what I assume will be) the next feature. I haven't said too much about it yet, but it's safe to say it will be another character-based film, all the while being quite different from Dead Weight and requiring much more practical effects. I know some people like the "meet game," the closest I can say is The Evil Dead meets I Am Legend (the book, of course). Aside from that, I am the president of a non-profit theater in Oshkosh, WI, so we're busy planning our 2013 season, which will include the fourth annual Oshkosh Horror Film Festival (taking place in October).
AB: I have been running a record label for the past five years or so called Gilead Media that specializes in dark & heavy music on vinyl. Doom, black metal, sludge, etc. Since the label has been on the back burner for the last 2-3 years while we focused on filmmaking I intend to take 2013 to kick things back into gear and release a bunch of great new records. Aside from that I'm also working on doing research for another two stories I plan to write over the next 2-3 years. Most likely a couple novellas, and perhaps other short stories to be collected together. All this alongside my continued full-time work managing a screen printing shop in Oshkosh, WI. As of right now there are no solid film plans for me, but that doesn't means something won't pop up. At this time I don't intend to direct anything over the next three years, but writing isn't out of the question and producing seems fairly likely if John--or any of the other indie filmmakers we've made connections with--need help on any upcoming projects.
JB: I can only hope that they’ll have room for me to be a part of it...