By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Independent auteurs often face time constraints when putting together their small-budgeted projects, but DEMENTIA PART II was a special case. The movie, in theaters this Friday and on VOD/digital platforms June 1 from Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting, was pulled off in record time, and we spoke to writer/director/producer/editors Mike Testin and Matt Mercer (the latter of whom also stars) about how they did it.
It all began when Josh Goldbloom, who ran Chicago’s Cinepocalypse festival, challenged producer JD Lifshitz of Boulderlight Pictures to complete a feature film, from concept to a closing-night fest premiere, in a month. The result is an in-name-only sequel to Testin’s 2005 DEMENTIA, starring Mercer as Wendell, an ex-con who takes a gig doing odd jobs for an elderly woman (Suzanne Voss). She at first seems friendly and welcoming, but soon it becomes clear that she’s not all there, and Wendell discovers her dangerous side and some nasty surprises around her house. Shot in black and white with a mile-wide streak of dark humor, DEMENTIA PART II has a lot more going for it than the uniqueness of its production, as Testin and Mercer (who also discuss the movie in RUE MORGUE #199) explain below.
Mike, had you considered making a sequel to DEMENTIA prior to the dare?
MIKE TESTIN: I had definitely never considered anything in the first film to necessarily be in need of revisiting. I still laugh thinking about what might be going through an unsuspecting viewer’s mind during those first few scenes.
Did either of you have any hesitancy about attempting to make a movie in a month?
TESTIN: It became all about making this an enjoyable experience, which unfortunately isn’t always the case in filmmaking. To be able to do this with close friends who were just as excited by the idea as we were made for an incredible time.
MATT MERCER: JD and Josh made this bet at FrightFest UK a couple of years ago at the same time I was there with a film, and moments later, I was walking down the hall of the Empire Cinema in Leicester Square and saw JD waving me down and yelling from across the hall, “Matt! You wanna act in a movie?! Like, maybe next week or the week after?” I was confused and said, “Maybe? What the hell are you talking about?”
He explained, and I thought it sounded ludicrous. Then Mike called me a week or so later, saying JD had asked him to make it. Mike convinced me it could be a fun experiment, and we could split all filmmaking duties right down the middle–which, with the timeline we had, was the only feasible way to finish it. For about a week, I was resistant to the idea because I thought it was impossible with our schedules. But when Mike and I started tossing around ideas, and laughing at the ridiculous things we were coming up with, I got excited. A challenge like that can become a drug once you commit. I quickly got obsessed with seeing what we could pull off, and I liked the idea of a completely ridiculous, oddball, unrelated sequel.
How did you settle on the storyline, and the shift in tone from the first DEMENTIA?
TESTIN: It came to us in sort of a roundabout fashion. Originally, it was focused on an ex-con who was tasked with going door to door, informing the neighborhood of his arrival, but we quickly realized that wasn’t putting us in a position to shoot it as quickly as we needed with our tight turnaround. We instead favored a tone we both liked and considered achievable given what we were working with, which was a blend of early Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson by way of a ’60s television vibe.
MERCER: Right. That tone, combined with a Corman schedule and sensibility. Four- or five-day shoot. Actors who were all our friends. Tiny crew. And a single location. Luckily, Mike and I have similar aesthetic tastes, and find discomfort hilarious. So the particular blend of horror and comedy in this story was right up our alley–that sort of Kafkaesque nightmare.
What was behind the decision to shoot in black and white?
MERCER: It fit the aesthetic, but also we could use whatever lights we had in our respective kits, or whatever sources we borrowed, and not worry about differences in temperature between the lights, since it’d be monochrome. We just had to play with contrast, not color, in postproduction, which we were doing ourselves. Also, Mike shoots black and white like a boss.
Was it difficult to pull together a cast and crew so quickly?
TESTIN: For the most part, we were the crew. Outside of us, the crew consisted of Matt’s mother doing a plethora of jobs, an occasional production assistant and finally our sound recordist, Hutch [Alexander H. Hutchinson]. It was extremely tight, but it allowed us to move quickly and have the freedom to alter our shooting plan on a daily basis.
MERCER: Having a crew that small seems like it’d be tiring, because you’re doing almost every job, but also you don’t have to communicate much or field many questions. You can actually move very quickly. So while Mike was framing shots and putting up lights, I would talk to the actors, do wardrobe, set a gag or whatever else was needed. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had on a film.
In terms of cast, we called up our friends and frequent colleagues Suzanne Voss, Graham Skipper and Najarra Townsend a few days before we were scheduled to start. We got lucky because they were all into it, and said yes. Despite the speed and intensity of the shoot, it was also a great hang with everyone. What’s amazing is, they all received the script at about 8 p.m. the night before our first shoot day–because that’s when Mike and I finished our last draft!–and they all came in fully prepared, ready to go, off-book. I think Graham came in top of the first day with 11 pages of lines, and nailed it. He shot his entire role in half a day. We were very lucky to have kind, talented actor pals who wanted to be there on such short notice…and we didn’t have to extort them in any way.
How long did it take to write the screenplay, and then shoot the movie?
TESTIN: I believe we spent about seven days on the script all told, and the very next day jumped into our shoot, which was initially four days and we later added a pickup day. Incredibly, I don’t think we ever went into overtime, even though we were trying to pack somewhere between 12-15 screen minutes into each shoot day.
MERCER: Then, during the edit, Mike and I would send scenes back and forth, trade off, and then we came together at my place to lock it all in and do sound. David Labovich did an incredible, diverse score very speedily. He totally understood the movie and was game to play.
How did you find Suzanne Voss, and did she have any qualms about the extremes of her role?
TESTIN: I had worked with Suzanne on a short film a few years ago called THE SALESMAN. She was terrific in it and amazing to collaborate with, both on that and in DEMENTIA PART II. She was really a catalyst for us pushing forward with this crazy challenge. I’m not sure what we would’ve done without having someone like her to lean our silly ideas on.
MERCER: I don’t recall her having any qualms. She’s a very centered, creative person, and also wanted to “go there” in terms of her condition and the extremes of the plot. She has a great sense of what will work on screen, and we always tried to keep an open channel of communication. I do recall one challenge for her and I both was emotional continuity. We were bouncing all over the place in the script, not shooting linearly, so we’d check in with each other about what levels of energy we’d be at for each scenario: “How absurd should this moment be at this point?”
How did you divide your duties over the course of the project?
TESTIN: We split up the writing process in the beginning and then Matt handled most of the producing while I finished up with some script details. During production, I handled the camera and lighting while Matt continued with the producing and obviously performing.
MERCER: We’d also confer on set about what we thought we needed for the edit before each scene, and just try to get those shots. Sometimes I’d try to force some wacky-ass coverage on Mike that we didn’t have time for, but all in all it was a really smooth shoot. The editing was pretty much a 50/50 split as well, and then when we had it mostly put together I played with some effects and flash cutting in certain sequences, and sound design and mix. Mike did the contrast, David did the score and that was it!
TESTIN: Time management was the biggest challenge–and to go with that, the struggle to come up with ideas that were possible within our extreme time restrictions.
MERCER: I agree, wise use of time was huge. The week of prep leading up to the shoot was a mad dash of errands, bouncing between the 99-cent Store for props, the grocery store for crafty, our pals Josh and Sierra Russell’s makeup effects shop to borrow prosthetics and intestines, etc. And all the while, making phone calls to cast, crew and potential location options.
My biggest heart attack occurred during preproduction. About four days before the first shoot day, after a harried search for something affordable and the right size, I’d secured a rental property, a large house, for the main shooting location. I was up front with the owner and told him we’d be shooting a film there, and he was cool with that. Amazing, especially on such short notice. Then, the day before the shoot, he called me and said, “Hey, Matt, just wanted to let you know: We’re gonna be jackhammering the sidewalk and front porch of our place on Tuesday. It’ll only take a day or two, and we can’t reschedule it. Would that interfere with the shoot?” Shit. Of course that would make sound recording impossible. I thought, “Great. That’s it. We’re fucked. We don’t have a house, and we’re gonna have to rewrite this thing for one of our small apartments.”
And then I remembered: my buddy Rob, who I hadn’t talked to in ages, had just bought and renovated a large, gorgeous craftsman house in Mid City, LA. It was a real Hail Mary, but I somehow found the strength to call him that afternoon, with my insane request. I will never forget him asking me, “Well, when do you start shooting?” and me saying, “Um. Well, tomorrow morning at 9 a.m.” There was an eternity of dead silence on the other end, and then I heard him say, “OK.” Rob literally saved the movie. He is a saint.
And then we slathered his new house in slime and blood.
Would you ever attempt to make a film this quickly again?
MERCER: I’d be open to another quick project, but maybe not quite this fast. But the freedom and fun it afforded is the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle scenario that comes once in a blue moon.