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Fright Flicks

MAKING A HORROR FILM IS NEVER EASY, but shooting the latest Haxan Films fright flick, Seventh Moon, in Hong Kong presented a set of challenges that producer Gregg Hale, 43, could never have prepared for. He just put out one fire (literally, a set caught fire, but was easily contained) and now this.

An angry village elder wants to evict the entire cast and crew from town because in preparation for a shoot they posted signs referencing ghosts. A Chinese crew member is trying to reason with the villager, but Gregg doesn’t need to understand Cantonese to know that it’s not going well. For some Chinese, ghosts are not just the stuff of legends and horror films. Deep-rooted superstitions about restless spirits still exist in modern-day China, which is exactly why screenplay writer and director Eduardo Sanchez chose this location for the shoot.

Seventh Moon follows the plight of an American honeymoon couple, played by Amy Smart and Tim Chiou, after the thrill of celebrating the Hungry Ghost Festival in China turns into something sinister.

Hale describes the film as “intelligent and subtle.”

“It’s not a gory, hack-and-slash film,” Hale says. “It’s a thoughtful, grown-up horror film that delivers a lot of creepy moments, but doesn’t make the audience feel they are being pandered to as though they are 13 years old.”

The film took five weeks to shoot, and Hale’s thankful that wife, Adrian, and daughter, Amelia, were on location with him during four months spent in Hong Kong. Son Deckard was born after they returned to the States. Hale believes in a healthy balance between work and family.

The making of Blair Witch
Neither Hale nor Sanchez tries to predict the success of Seventh Moon. They gave that up 10 years ago when their first feature film, a little, low-budget horror movie called The Blair Witch Project, became the most profitable independent film of all time.

This year, the 10th anniversary of the film’s release, Hale is introspective.

“So much of that experience from 10 years ago is fresh in my memory,” Hale says. “Blair Witch was, in my mind, the last attempt to make the filmmaking thing work. Up until that point, I had spent every dime I had on making films (shorts and music videos) and didn’t have anything that resembled a career.”

Just before making Blair Witch, Hale was working in Los Angeles as a set dresser on the comedy TV series MADtv. He finally felt like a responsible adult who held down a steady job with good pay and benefits, but he found it unfulfilling. Hale had wanted to be a filmmaker since he saw Star Wars at age 11, and he wasn’t ready to give up the dream.

That’s how he went from sunny L.A. to freezing in the middle of a field out East. But he was thankful to have a gig producing Sanchez’s brainchild about three college students who set out to make a documentary about the legend of a 200-year-old witch rumored to haunt the Black Forest of Maryland. The hapless trio become hopelessly lost in the woods and are stalked by a mysterious, supernatural force. They are never heard from again, but their camera is recovered a year later. The faux documentary with its shaky, handheld camera footage is presented to the audience as The Blair Witch Project.

Hale didn’t have high hopes for the commercial success of this cinematic experiment where the actors did the shooting. The movie flew in the face of everything he knew about filmmaking, but he was having a blast working with Sanchez and his other old film school pals. He was producing with Robin Cowie, and Sanchez and Daniel Myrick were co-directing.

The mix of personalities proved to be a good one. For instance, Hale acknowledges he can have a short fuse, while Sanchez is cool-headed.

“Each of us has strengths and weaknesses that mesh up in a certain way,” Hale explains. “All three of us complement each other’s temperaments and skill sets really well, and we have fun working together.”

Blair Witch didn’t follow the lead of typical, modern horror movies that are often nothing more than a gore-fest interspersed with blood-curdling screams. Hale believed in the film, but would it sell? Maybe their weird little hair-raiser would get on cable television.

Then a miracle occurred that seemed as supernatural as the events in the film. The Blair Witch Project cast such a spell on moviegoers that it became a runaway blockbuster, grossing a whopping $248 million at the box office worldwide. It surpassed Hale’s wildest expectations and landed him a Nova award for outstanding new producer from the Producers Guild of America.

Every indie filmmaker’s fantasy is to have his or her movie selected for screening at the Sundance Film Festival, subsequently have Hollywood movie moguls fall in love with it, and distribute it around the country. Everyone rides off into the sunset with pockets full o’ cash. Ten years ago, Hale and friends were living that dream.

When Blair Witch premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, it was acquired by Artisan Entertainment for $1 million. The company was so bewitched by this cinematic underdog that it sank big bucks into polishing it up technically. Soon it was playing in multiplexes around the country. A savvy Web marketing campaign led some to believe that the mock-documentary footage was real and that the actors were actually missing. All the prerelease hype made the film even more of a “must see.”

Hale says he knew they had made it when he went to an Orlando theater and saw that Blair Witch was playing to sold-out crowds on 10 screens.

“The theater manager took us to the projection booth to see the craziness,” Hale recalls. “There was something about the concrete nature of seeing that print roll from one projector to the next that made me think, ‘We may have something big here.’”

Hale wouldn’t trade his Blair Witch experience for anything, but there is a downside to having such spectacular, record-breaking success so early in one’s career. Every film he produces now is compared to Blair Witch. Hale says he can live with that.

“We carved out a little piece of film history that will always be ours,” Hale says. “Even if people call it a one-hit wonder, I’m satisfied with that.”

Wilderness training
Oddly enough, one of Hale’s major contributions to Blair Witch didn’t come from anything he learned in film school, but from what he learned while serving in the Army’s Special Forces. Like the characters in the movie, Hale knew what it was like to try and survive in the wilderness, and he was keenly aware of the psychological toll of the experience. Hale and the film’s directors decided to try and extract some of that raw emotion from unknown actors Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard by having them camp in the woods like the characters they were portraying.

“We wanted to break them down a little bit, so it would be easier to sink into the same emotional state their characters were in,” Hale explains.

Constantin Stanislavski himself probably could not have devised such an intense method acting exercise. The actors were soon missing their warm beds, baths, and hot meals, making their days long and their tempers short—the exact effect the crew was after.

Each day, the actors were given provisions, batteries for the camera, and a film canister with a note inside telling them where their next destination was and what time to be there. They relied on a GPS (Global Positioning System) for guidance. The canister also contained directing notes explaining what the characters were feeling about each other so they could improvise accordingly.

For eight days, the trio hiked through the woods shooting their reactions to various challenging situations created by Hale that he calls “obstacle courses.” The characters were supposed to be stalked by an evil force, but the actors were really stalked by the film crew that was forever trying to think of new ways to frighten them.

One morning, the actors awakened to discover their camp surrounded by creepy “stick figures” hanging from the trees. One of the film’s clever devices is turning ordinary objects like tree branches and rocks into something evil and, therefore, terrifying.

Roaming through the woods during the Blair Witch shoot took Hale back to what he describes as an “idyllic” childhood in Henderson. As a child, he used the home movie camera his parents bought him for Christmas to shoot horror movies, with titles like Demon Slayer, in the woods close to his home.

He was usually the director in charge on his makeshift movie set, shouting “action” and “cut” to various monsters and zombies, friends he had cast to chase his sister through his fantasy world.

“Being out in the woods always sparked my imagination, whether it was the idea of danger or the idea of adventure,” Hale says.

Hale relishes his Blair Witch glory days, but he doesn’t live in the past. Promoting Seventh Moon, which comes out on DVD this month, is what’s on his mind these days. Hale says the release comes from Lionsgate and it should be widely available.

Who knows if Hale will ever have another box office smash, but as a filmmaker passionate about the horror genre, he looks forward to a future rife with heart-stopping terror and nail-biting suspense.




GREGG HALE’S KENTUCKY ROOTS

Hale’s family still lives in Henderson. “I come home very frequently and I love it there.”

Hale attended East Heights Elementary, North Middle School, then Henderson County High School.

“I had a fantastic educational experience growing up that really contributed a lot to the formation of my career. I still work on film projects on a regular basis with a friend from Henderson, Bently Tittle, who lives in Los Angeles. I co-wrote the only feature I have directed (so far), Say Yes Quickly, with a friend from high school, Rachel Davis Thornton.”

Hale says, “I’m also still good friends with two of the guys I made films with back in middle and high school, Neil Kellen and Bart Nunnely, who live in Henderson and are still making their own films.”

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