Friday, 19 April 2013

interview: James Willis

When I moved my review of The Dreaded onto the new website in April 2013, I wondered whether anyone from this obscure indie production was traceable. I was delighted to find writer/producer James Willis and even more delighted when he agreed to answer a few questions about the film.

What was your background/experience before you made The Dreaded?
"My background prior to making The Dreaded was primarily college and the production of a series of science fiction episodes for local broadcast. A group of high school and college students formed the CYFC (Corsicana Youth Filmmakers Club) in 1987 to produce the shows. This was a great learning experience that transitioned into a college class at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas. The last CYFC production was completed in 1989, one year prior to the development and production of The Dreaded."

How did the production come together?
"I was lucky to have a like-minded group of friends and a mentor, Lloyd Huffman (also a previous sponsor of the CYFC), who wanted to devote their time and effort to making a feature film. We had access to the equipment and a great deal of support from the community so we went for it. I remember thinking to myself whether we were crazy for jumping to the next level considering the cost and complications of producing such a project. Basically, we jumped in head first. It's amazing what you can do when you move forward with a project without the advantage, or shall I say the disadvantage, of knowing what you're up against. It was a great deal more difficult to jump into later projects knowing the pitfalls of low budget films."

What sort of film-making infrastructure (if any) was there in Texas at that time?
"Texas was very active in the production of film and television and continues to be today. A number of features, TV movies, series and commercials were being made in Texas at the time. In the Dallas/Fort Worth area alone we had one major film lab, Panavision, studios and many rental houses."

What do you think works well in the film and what bits are you least happy with?
"To be honest, when I go back and watch The Dreaded I cringe a bit. It was so long ago and I easily pick out our mistakes. However, on the other hand, I was twenty-one when we made the movie and learned so much from the project. It was quite an accomplishment for a group our age. As to what I think worked well, I'd say the off-shoot of the traditional vampire story. Rather than pure evil, we created a story about a character that was inflicted with vampirism and hated what he was. I also was pleased with the fight scene and the surprise twist at the end of the movie. Incidentally, the surprise of Frazier's girl friend running off with his own butler was a last minute idea during shooting. I also was very pleased with Paul Pecot's original music, Lloyd Huffman's camera work and Chris Robinson's directorial debut.

"As far as where I felt the film fell down, the faults are easily pointed out. The audio (usually a problem with low budget films) tops the list but there are so many things that can be identified today. With a few exceptions, most of the acting was not great. However, in the actorss defense, they were not professionals. Most of them had only done local theater productions before this film and I was pround of their performance. Chris Robinson, David Blessing and I also contributed to what the director of photography called our 'corny' scenes. Here we were, three 20-something year olds trying to write a film with romantic scenes."

What sort of distribution and critical reception did the film receive?
"We premiered the film in Corsicana in August of 1990 to a great audience. Of course, the film was made in Corsicana so that was to be expected. Most of us moved away to continue college and it was not until 1993 until I made a distribution deal with a distributor of low budget films out of Los Angeles. Everything started out great including a blurb in Variety but things went down hill from there. Although I had the contract reviewed by an attorney and an associate who had produced three features, a contract means nothing if the distributor does not intend to abide by it.

"I soon found out from inside the distribution company and producers of other films, that were handled by the same company, that we were not the only ones who were let down. As soon as I started pressuring the company, the lines of communication dried up. In those days, prior to the internet, it was hard to find out about the shady side of some parts of the business, especially being as far away from the action as we were in Texas. In the end, it would have cost more to sue than the film cost to produce and I chalked it up to experience. It was unfortunate that this happened because the experience continues to haunt me till this day. How can you go to an investor knowing how easy and common it is for your project to be stolen out from underneath you?"

What have you worked on since?
"I worked as a production assistant on both Paramount Pictures' Necessary Roughness (1991) and on Warner Brothers' Any Given Sunday (1999). In between and after, I worked as a producer/production manager in corporate television, worked on a few documentary projects, and wrote and produced a television pilot, West Texas Khaki (1998). Later I got into film exhibition where I worked as a theatre general manager for Regal Entertainment Group, Movie Tavern and Cinergy Cinemas. During that time I wrote two screenplays, Aurora and After the Fact, the later being an adaption of Fred Saberhagen's novel of the same name. Recently, I have returned to production and I am currently the art director of the independent feature Love Land."


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