Kelly Hughes is a living legend of 90s underground grunge horror. It wasn’t easy to be an independent genre filmmaker at that time, but Kelly managed to make a TV series all on his own. Heart Attack Theatre, with over 30 half-hour-long episodes of no-budget horror stories, aired on TV (this was long before Youtube) at a rate of one episode per week. The description of his schedule during this time is insane:
“(…) the schedule I used for the first season. I would write the script on my lunch hour on Friday (I worked full-time at another job while I did this.) Shoot the scenes over the weekend. Edit Sunday night, and Monday and Tuesday when I got home from work. Turn it into the studio Wednesday. And then they would air it that Friday night. And I would already be starting the whole process all over again”
(for the whole interview about his past check: http://www.searchmytrash.com/cgi-bin/articlecreditsb.pl?kellyhughes(2-15)
After surviving this experience, Kelly created several underground features, including the world’s first zombie drag queen movie (featuring Russ Meyer “supervixen” Kitten Natividad).
As a person who always embraces the spirit of innovation, Kelly never misses the opportunity to take advantage of the new methods and ideas that technology offers us. You’ll be able to find his new supernatural series, The Mephisto Box, on Amazon Prime this fall. And he’s just about to release a new website to help the community of independent horror filmmakers to promote their works.
The Fiction Anthology (TFA): How did you manage to survive as an independent horror filmmaker since the 90s?
Kelly Hughes: I kept working! My series aired on public access TV which was non-commercial. But when I started releasing videos on VHS in the late ‘90s, I started to earn a little bit of a profit. At least enough to break even from the expense of video duplication. Not to mention all those glossy video sleeves. I had to order a minimum of 2,500 sleeves at a time. And I didn’t sell anywhere near 2,500 copies of those early videos. But I wanted the boxes to look professional. So I shelled out the bucks.
TFA: What are the main lessons about filmmaking that you learned in that less technologically advanced decade? Do you think having had that experience gives you an advantage as a filmmaker today?
Kelly Hughes: The main lesson is that you need a script. You can’t expect your actors to ad-lib your script for you. And you need to work with dependable people. They need to show up. On time. Focused on your project.
Also, back in the analogue age, it was very time consuming going through video footage. Rewinding and fast forwarding through actual videotape. So you wanted to get coverage. But you didn’t want to do a million takes of something because then it was a nightmare sorting through it all later. So back in the day, I usually did only one or two takes for each shot. Maybe three if we had a technical difficulty.
The advantage it gives me is the confidence to know I can make it through any setback. For example, with my latest project, the night before our first day of shooting, I got an email from one of my lead actresses saying she was dropping out because her fiancé didn’t want her kissing another a guy. And in the script, the kiss was a pretty innocent kiss on the forehead. Not a make out scene. So my first thought was: “You’re telling me this the night before we shoot? Through an email?” My second thought was: “You waited this long to read the script!” I allowed myself a few minutes to freak out. Then I told myself the freak out was over. And that I had to come up with a solution. And not burden the rest of the cast with this. So I contacted an actress who was playing a smaller role. And asked her if she wanted to take over one of the lead roles. And she said yes. And in the long run it was great because she was a much better actress than the original one. So the lesson is: Don’t get stuck on a setback. Solve the problem and move on.
TFA: You were interviewed with other indie and underground horror directors in the documentary Blood on the Reel. What do you think you all have in common? How much contact do you have with each other?
Kelly Hughes: I think we all have an independent spirit. And a twisted sense of humor. We’re not afraid to do whatever it takes to get our projects completed.I have the most contact with them through Facebook. And I enjoy seeing what they post there. And to see which directors have new projects in the works. I’ve had the most contact with Johnny Daggers, the creator of Blood on the Reel. He’s very creative and fun to talk to. And I even interviewed him for an article (which I have to transcribe and finish one of these days.)
TFA: When did you decide to make a web series and why? What are your thoughts about this new medium?
Kelly Hughes: I really enjoyed doing my TV series back in the ‘90s. And always wanted to go back to a regular format like that. Except my old show Heart Attack Theatre was a horror anthology with a totally new story and characters each week. And my new project, The Mephisto Box, is a serial with recurring characters and an advancing storyline. A soap opera with both psychological suspense and traditional slasher movie elements. Like a Lifetime Original movie, but sleazier and bloodier.
There’s an explosion of TV shows out there right now. It seems to be the most popular and creative medium. Especially for horror with all the shows like American Horror Story, Scream, Slasher, and Stranger Things. And watching them in a streaming format on Netflix or Amazon really blurs the line between web series and traditional TV. So it’s virtually one and the same now.
But back when I did my show for public access TV, it was a big deal to see my work being aired to the public (even if it was just local cable TV.) I never could have imagined all the outlets we have today. So I don’t take it for granted. And I remind myself that the future is here. And that I need to take advantage of it. I need to jump back in and create the crazy TV show I always dreamed of.
TFA: How do you work the promotion of the web series?
Kelly Hughes: Promotion is on-going. It happens before, during, and after production. You send out press releases. You post updates on Facebook. You go to conventions and meet people face-to-face. I think we’re all pretty visual, so I use a lot of photos to promote my work. I should probably use Instagram more. But it’s easy to spread yourself thin by using every form of social media. So I concentrate on Facebook.
My favorite form of promotion, though, is interviews. And not just me talking about my work. But me interviewing my cast members. And also writing articles about the filmmaking process. This year I became a contributor/guest blogger for The Huffington Post. And that’s been a great outlet for my articles. My most recent post there is an interview with Alison Arngrim. She stars in The Mephisto Box as Leeza, a satanic high priestess who is trying to escape the trauma of her childhood. Quite a departure from Nellie Oleson, the role she played on the TV classic Little House on the Prairie. So I would say that’s another promotional tool: hire an iconic TV star! You can read the interview here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/alison-arngrim-saves-hollywood-part-1_us_578a67a4e4b0cbf01e9fe0c0
One other thing about promotion…it’s good to be persistent. But don’t make every situation about you and your work. Take time to learn about other people’s work too. And help support other people’s projects. Donate to a friend’s IndieGoGo campaign. Go to a colleague’s film screening. Let them have the spotlight every once and awhile. You’ll get your turn when your project is polished and released.
TFA: Tell us a little bit about your new website. What motivated you to create it?
Kelly Hughes: It’s called HorrorHack.com. It was inspired by my quest to find bloggers to review my work. It was a rewarding, but time-consuming process. I discovered most of the bloggers through links on other bloggers’ pages. So I leap-frogged from blog to blog discovering all these great pages. And learned whether or not they wrote reviews, and whether they accepted outside submissions.
So recently I thought, why not put together a directory where horror filmmakers could find all these sites in one place? It could save them an enormous amount of time. And turn them on to new sources. Besides bloggers, it will also list websites, vlogs, magazines, and film fests—all with a horror theme. You could probably find most of this stuff on your own with a Google search. I just wanted to put it all in one place so filmmakers could find the information efficiently.
TFA: How are you planning on helping other indie horror creators?
Kelly Hughes: Horror Hack will also feature interviews and articles on how to promote your indie horror projects. So I’d like to create a platform for indie horror creators to share their success stories and tips with other filmmakers. We’re not a movie review site. There’s lots of good reviewers out there already. I’m creating something that will help horror filmmakers with PR and marketing. And to help lead them to sources who will be receptive to their work.
Because the bigger issue we face is spending all this time (and resources) on a project, and then no one sees it. With all these outlets you’d think we’d all have a bigger audience. But there’s a glut of product out there: movies, TV shows, shorts, web series. We have to work harder than ever to get noticed.
TFA: How can other independent horror filmmakers contact you?
Kelly Hughes: Through email: email@example.com. But don’t ask me to read or produce your script. I’ve got more than enough of my own scripts to last a lifetime. ☺ Right now I’m especially interested in people who would like to contribute to Horror Hack. Not to promote their own films, but with articles or advice on Horror PR. Or if you have a horror review blog or website you’d like us to list.
TFA: Beyond the pleasure that can come from being scared, why do you think the world needs Horror?
Kelly Hughes: Horror is like fairy tales. Cautionary stories to teach children to be aware of the dangers in the world. People shouldn’t be totally paranoid. But a little fear can be a healthy thing.
There are some pretty whacked out people out there. You meet someone on an online dating site and they turn out to be a stalker. You help someone on the side of the ride with a flat tire, and they push you into their van, and you end up in a box under someone’s bed. You hire a plumber on Craigslist and he turns out to be a psycho who ties you to a chair, robs you, videotapes you, and posts it on YouTube. The stuff that happens in real life is often more disturbing than horror movies. So horror movies remind us to be careful out there. And help us relieve the pressures of modern life in a safe and fun way. Horror movies are fun.
TFA: Do you have any messages to horror fans?
Kelly Hughes: Don’t multi-task while watching horror. If you’re at home watching horror on TV, sit down and give it your full attention. No distractions. No checking your phone. Preferably at night with the lights out.
And don’t start writing your review on IMDb before it’s even over. Go in with an open mind. You might discover some gems if you immerse yourself in the experience. Even crappy horror movies can have sublime moments.
TFA: Any messages to independent genre creators working today?
- Write stories with action. Beware of scenes with two people sitting on a couch explaining the back story for fifteen minutes.
- Don’t shoot in your apartment living room with bare white walls. Find an interesting location (even if it means crashing a hotel lobby, or sneaking into a power plant.)
- Give your audience the genre elements they expect. That’s why they choose a genre film and not a straight-forward drama. If you’ve set them up to expect a slasher film, then go for a bloody body count. If you’re doing a hi-tech sci-fi film, throw in some bells and whistles: robots, bionic eyes, funky laboratories with green lights…whatever fits your story. But don’t forget to give your audience the fun genre elements they expect.
- Work with dependable and agreeable people. Keep the drama on-screen, not on-set. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel desperate. Especially if your actors and crew are working for a deferred payment. But don’t just work with anyone because they are available. If they are consistently late or flaky, let them go. And don’t work with people who look down on your genre. I love working with experienced, trained actors. But if they think horror is silly or beneath them, I don’t want them bringing that condescension to the set. They must embrace horror. (And you must write them a good role.)
- Create your own niche. You have to stand out from the glut of video out there. So why not create your own mini-brand? So that when people see you have a new project coming out, they will already know it will have elements they like. Don’t think of this as limiting yourself. Think of it as a way of developing faithful fans. You could do worse than being pegged as that “Neo-Slasher” director. Or the guy that does those “weird shapeshifter” movies. Or the gal that makes “urban witch mysteries.” Sure, you can always branch out later. But it’ll be easier to branch out if you make a name for yourself first. Think of your favorite writers and directors and what you expect from them. Then apply that to yourself and your career.
TFA: Thank you Kelly to share your experience with us