Dead@17 Comes up Short

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Last year, director and former BF columnist  Mark Steensland released a short film based on Josh Howard and Viper Comics' cult favorite series, Dead@17. We turned to Steensland to get more insight into the movie-making process.

Scroll down to the bottom of the article if you want to watch the short in full...

BROKEN FRONTIER: How did this fan movie come about?

MARK STEENSLAND: I was looking for a follow-up to my last short film, called Lovecraft’s Pillow, which was based on a suggestion by Stephen King. That film has done quite well for me, getting a lot of notice -- mostly because of King’s name -- getting invited to film festivals, and so on. I realized that I had set the bar pretty high. In other words, I needed something else with the same kind of juice.

I’ve been a fan of Josh Howard’s since Dead@17 first came out. I met him at Comic-Con in San Diego early on. Then I actually used Dead@17 in a media class I was teaching and he helped with that. And then I interviewed him for the column I used to write at Broken Frontier. So while we weren’t trading birthday presents or Christmas cards, we enjoyed trading e-mails every once in a while.

I had been hearing a lot about film-makers making their own break by creating short films that were parts of larger projects. I suppose the most famous example is the guys behind Saw. They made a cool short version of Saw and used that to attract cast and budget and so on. So I started thinking about a similar tactic and I thought of Dead@17.

BF: Has that tactic paid off at this point?

MS: Several people inside Hollywood have taken a look at the film. And we’re working on getting it to the company who actually owns the rights to make a feature film out of Dead@17. Of course it’s a real long shot, but they are trying to get the movie set up as we speak, so there’s a chance we could be involved in some way.

The other thing that I knew from the beginning was even if this company does not involve us in any way, I’ll still be the guy who made that Dead@17 short film, and that’s paying off already in the attention we’re getting from film festivals and other outlets.

BF: After having seen the film, it’s clear you stayed very close to the story of the original mini-series. Why were you so interested in making a short film about Dead@17?

MS: Once I had this idea, I obviously wanted to get Josh’s permission and blessing. I know a lot of fan films are not made with permission, but I really wanted to involve Josh because I hoped that I could get the rights to make the full feature version and use this short as a way to promote that idea. So I wrote to Josh and asked him and he said he would love to see it. And I really saw the original comic as a template for making the film. Staying true to the source was very important to me, mainly because I thought the original was so compelling and would make a great short film. It’s practically like a storyboard anyway, so why throw that out?

BF: Still, you tweaked certain parts of the comic (dialogue, scenes, etc.). How did you decide where to stick to the plot and dialogue and where to take some leeway?

MS: That was one of the biggest challenges. I wanted the movie to hang together on its own as a short film while still hinting at things to come. So we compressed some of the action from the first two issues and then re-staged things slightly as well to give it a greater sense of continuity.

I suppose the biggest change was in the cemetery scene where we replaced Noel Raddemer with Detective Falcone. But in the context of the short film, it just wouldn’t have made sense to introduce a character for one scene and then have him disappear. I should also say that in all the reactions so far, no one has really said much about our changes. Josh loves the movie. In fact, he liked it more than I expected him to which was a great relief to me. And I think it’s because we were so true to the comic in so many other ways that the things we did change seem almost invisible in comparison.

BF: Did your time spent writing for BF help in any way in making this a reality?

MS: Absolutely. The interview I did with Josh really helped strengthen our relationship, so that was probably the biggest way. In a more general way, however, I would say that writing about the process of writing can help you become a better writer. It’s not the only part, of course, but it helps you to check your ideas and test what you’re thinking. It’s one thing to think something and imagine it’s a good story; it’s quite another to tell somebody else your idea and get honest feedback on it.

BF: What was the casting process like?

MS: The casting process was a real challenge. Some of the smaller roles weren’t so critical, but the main roles of Hazy, Nara and Elijah were. Again, because I wanted to stay true to the source, I had to find people who actually looked like the characters the way Josh had drawn them.

Thankfully, Josh’s style allows some flexibility, but we still were very limited. Both of the girls in the leads (Jessica Ciccone and Katelyn Gracy) had to have their hair cut and dyed. Jessica, who played Hazy, went through the most substantial transformation. Her hair was really long and red and she chopped it all off and dyed it black. And obviously the willingness to do this was a big part of winning the role.

BF: Aside from their willingness to change appearance, why did Jessica and Katelyn get the nod?

MS: Don’t get me wrong, the appearance issue was a big one, but acting ability was the real deciding factor. I had auditioned Katelyn and cast her before I ever got to see Jessica. But once I saw the two of them together, I knew that it would work. And that chemistry between them was very important, especially since the film starts with them together in the car.

BF: Was it difficult to find a way to bring the undead to life on screen?

MS: The zombies ended up being one of the easier parts of the movie, mostly thanks to "Monster" Mark Kosobucki, who served as make-up artist. He also appears in the movie, as the zombie who gets the axe in the head. And he is an incredible graphic designer as well - he designed our poster.

BF: How much time was put into this project from start to finish?

MS:I can hardly even guess about the number of hours I have put in - still putting in - to this project. I started at the end of February and I finished the movie in the early part of June. And now we’ll be promoting for the next year or so. But when you’re working with no budget, like I was, you have to do everything yourself. And that means a lot of hours.

I built every prop you see in the movie. I designed every costume. I built the sets. I designed some of the special effects. I edited the whole thing and then I completely reconstructed the soundtrack by myself. Almost every sound effect you hear is performed by me - footsteps, clothing rustles, page turns, bed sits, car doors - I spent many many hours re-recording all those effects and then cutting them in one at a time.

On a bigger movie, these kinds of tasks are assigned to specialists, but I was on my own here. Now that isn’t to say that everyone else involved did nothing. We all worked very hard and put in some very long hours. But that’s what it’s all about. And you’ve got to have the dedication and willingness to do that if you want to compete because I can tell you that your competition certainly does.

BF: Was Dead@17 creator Josh Howard involved in any way?

MS: Like I said earlier, Josh gave me his blessing at the beginning. But the best part was when Josh began to see what I was doing in terms of prop building and location scouting and I think he realized how true I was trying to stay to his vision. Then he really got on board and used his own website to promote the movie while we were still making it, which is a pretty big leap of faith. Once he saw the finished movie, he was really, really pleased. And he’s continued to be very generous. In fact, we arranged a special panel for him at Comic-Con this year where he will talk about Dead@17 and show the film.

BF: And what about Viper? Did they do more besides giving you their blessing?

MS: I’ve never had any contact with anyone from Viper, other than Josh. I don’t know how much they even know about the project.

BF: What plans do you have for the property from here on out, now that post-production is completed?

MS: Part of the way into making the movie, I asked Josh about the movie rights and he told me that another company already owns them. At first I was disappointed because I realized my idea of getting the rights myself wouldn’t work. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it might be a good thing because it meant somebody in Hollywood was already interested in making Dead@17 into a movie and if my version was as good as I hoped, as I said earlier, I could use it as a kind of audition tape.

So we finished the movie and then we started with an on-line sneak preview that lasted only 48 hours and was hosted by Dread Central.com. That went very well and really got the buzz going. We’ve got some great reviews out of that, both from fans and from people who had never heard of the comic before.

We’re also going onto the film festival circuit. We’ll be having our world premiere at FrightFest in England, which is the biggest genre film festival event in the UK, and then we’ll go from there. I’ve entered it into about 15 other fests, but we won’t hear from all of them for several months. And like I said, we’re getting the film to the company who owns the movie rights and is in the process of setting the movie up with a studio right now, so it’s a real long shot, but you never know.

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