Rising auteur Craig Jacobson discusses the beautiful & strange DIY world of ‘ELLIOT’
Films are not an easy task to accomplish in the city of San Francisco. In a city where permits are costly, space is limited, the rent is sky high & the costs only mount with each passing minute/day; we salute the DIY SF film company Dreams for Dead Cats Productions ran by visionaries Craig Jacobson & cinematic partner Cassandra Sechler who are readying the release of their sci-fi thriller, ELLIOT. A work that has been in production for roughly four years in the making, Elliot‘s premiere will be held locally in The Mission at The Roxie Theater October 5 at 7pm where the world will witness a descent into a post-industrial tale of realities, identity, emotion & other correlating existential items.
With a subterranean burrowing cyber-synth soundtrack supplied by Jacobson as well—ELLIOT takes the viewer to what we are told is a mysterious power supply complex where we meet the titular protagonist. In an array of elaborate future-tek costumes, elaborate/completely handmade set pieces & throwback-TRON lighting effects—we are introduced to the main character’s own personal struggle of self-understanding of who they are, where they are, what it all means & the conflicts that follow. Our hero Elliot gets caught in the throes of torment in as the character’s consciousness awakens to find their own identity caught on the divide between the points of innocence & the cognitively awakened states of experience. Immediately after the following viewing of the ELLIOT trailer, read our insightful interview session with filmmaker Craig Jacobson in person:
We have discussed before the early genesis of Elliot, but tell us how long this feature has been in the works and what perhaps was the inciting idea that lead to the film’s longstanding production processes?
Production for Elliot began in early 2014, though pre-production started back around mid-2013. The movie was initially inspired by an orb weaver in my backyard. My film partner, Cassandra Sechler, and I name all the spiders in the garden, and we named this really big one Elliot. I had read that orb weavers eat their webs each night and then rebuild them, and I don’t know how factual that is but it struck me as a very OCD thing to do. This and many behavioral observations I was making at the time sort of intertwined with my interest in Singularity, and how people are changing without realizing it. There’s a growing divide between how people behave in real life vs. on social media, and it’s very disturbing in many ways. Those were the first things that led me to want to make a movie inspired about how nightmarish one’s own reality could become through augmented reality and mental illness.
It was clear to me very early on that I wanted to shoot the movie on VHS. Not for nostalgic reasons; I’m not trying to recreate the 80s here or anything remotely like that. Dealing with a very low budget and the concept of having a world where reality was constantly shifting led me to choose the gritty and glitchy nature of VHS. We were also going to be making the costumes and sets ourselves, mostly from found materials, and I didn’t feel shooting on HD or 4K would lend our production any favors with the suspension of disbelief.
Building everything ourselves and only being able to shoot when we had enough money to rent studio space are really the two main factors in terms of why this movie has been in the works so long.
Tell us more too about the formation of the film company Dreams for Dead Cats, mission statements, focuses, ethos, etc.
Cassandra Sechler and I have been making films together since 2008. We’ve since grown more and more serious about our filmmaking and decided to formalize our efforts under the name Dreams For Dead Cats Productions, which we’ve recently registered as an LLC. We specialize in DIY productions, and we really do handle pretty much everything ourselves with our projects. Aside from our own work, our main goal is to give exposure to the underground artists we collaborate with, both local and international.
Interested in the development process of ELLIOT, how have you been able to maximize your use of film shooting spaces, production spaces etc in SF, and what sorts of efficient tricks have you discovered in the face of any challenges as an independent auteur?
We filmed Elliot pretty much entirely at an artist collective here in San Francisco called Merchants Of Reality. The way it went was I’d rent a small room for two months at a time, one month building the sets and whatnot, and the other month doing shoots in their gallery spaces. They were incredibly supportive and worked with our low budget to make it all happen, and without their facilitation I’m not sure we’d have been able to make the movie.
You definitely have to be creative when you have no money, which is where the passion and the joy of DIY filmmaking comes from. You are constantly challenged to find a frugal way to pull off something that hopefully doesn’t look cheap. One of the best things you can do is make the most of what’s already available to you. My day job is making signs at a grocery store, so I had tons of cardboard boxes and other similar materials at my disposal to build sets out of. All of the walls in Elliot were made from orchid boxes which were flattened and adhered to 8′ x 3′ wooden frames. Certain props were made from various cardboard tubing and other crap I had laying around. You’ll often be forced to employ a lot of very simple and perhaps somewhat unprofessional solutions for certain situations, but such is the nature and beauty of DIY, of course.
If there is anything I can advise anyone trying their hand at a production it’s to plan. Organization is key to running a smooth production. Plan until your brain blows up. Make call sheets, shot lists, schedules, plan meals for the crew, etc. Prepare as much as possible because even when you do, something WILL go wrong, and if you have all the basics taken care of you can focus on solving the problem a lot quicker than if you were just winging it through chaos. On top of that I’d say it certainly pays to be as kind and considerate as you can be with your cast & crew, because you likely won’t be able to pay them much, if anything at all, and it’s honestly the least you can do for their time. If you can’t pay people, at least feed them and make the experience as fun and enjoyable as possible. Check your ego at the door and let everyone bring their ideas to the table too, your production will only benefit and everyone will have a blast.
We’ve talked before previously about passions for Italian horror cinema & trashy 80s flicks but how have you gone about applying & adapting the approaches from your heroes & favorite films into your own work?
Anything that has influenced my filmmaking decisions has certainly come about unconsciously. Since ELLIOT is our first feature film and beyond anything we’ve done before, we ended up doing a lot of things intuitively and instinctively. Only later do you begin to realize some of the things you’ve done were perhaps inspired by certain things you’ve enjoyed long ago. The stuff you actively seek out to inspire you in pre-production doesn’t always end up inspiring you in production. There were a lot of Sam Raimi-type things we just sort of ended up doing in ELLIOT, and while Evil Dead & Evil Dead 2 have been two of the most important movies in my life, I certainly wasn’t thinking about them when we were making the movie. If there was any influence that was a bit more of a conscious one, it would be the use of gel lighting to convey mood & emotion throughout the film, and that is unsurprisingly an inspiration from Dario Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria.
As someone who has collaborated with various artists from a variety of disciplines—in what ways have you found that artists from other mediums have informed your own projects & especially with Elliot?
Some of the earliest mood-setters for Elliot were John Foxx songs, strangely. There’s nothing about the movie that would even remotely suggest John Foxx, but “Metamatic” and the albums he did with Ultravox sort of set the tone for the early planning stages of the movie. Music is always very helpful when you’re starting a project, because it helps transport you to very specific places you’re trying to find, very much a guide to sorting out those initial ideas. Works outside your medium can sometimes have a strong and immediate influence, as they are exotic and unfamiliar.
Future projects in the works from Dreams for Dead Cats?
Once Elliot has had a little bit of a run with screenings we’ll be turning our attention to Cassandra’s next movie, Tearful Surrender. It’s a trilogy of terror based around mythology and the occult which unfolds across three unique stories, all of which metaphors for what it is to be a monster in this lonely world. It’s going to be unlike anything we’ve done and I’m truly excited to be working on it! The movie is currently in pre-production and we’re hoping to begin filming next year in Wales.
Parting words of advice & benediction?
Cover your fucking mouth when you yawn.
Catch the world premiere screening of ELLIOT at The Roxie Theater in San Francisco, Thursday, October 5 at 7pm. Tickets are available here.
Check out the website for further information.