Local horror producer discusses filming

Photo by Matthew M Wong

For readers who love the palpable tension of watching scary movies, are huge fans of American Horror Story and complain to their friends on a regular basis that there are not enough suspense shows on television, the fresh new web series Horror Hotel may be the answer to all of those hopes and desires.

Created by Ricky Hess, this anthology series features horrific thriller tales inspired by The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock.

Each episode of Horror Hotel has a completely novel story portrayed by different characters. The series was shot in Atlanta, and many talented young artists participated in its creation, including Tech students who worked on some of the episodes.

Debbie Hess, the executive producer of Horror Hotel, spoke with the Technique about the making of this web series and gave some valuable advice.

What exactly does an executive producer do, and what is the most challenging part of being an executive producer?

An executive producer typically enables and backs up the making of a film project. They often handle copyrights, distribution and contributing financially to the production. Producers remain pretty much behind the scenes and handle primarily business aspects of production, while others become quite active in the entire filmmaking process. The later is the case for my role in the Horror Hotel web series. I share the producer role with my son, Ricky Hess, the creator of Horror Hotel and director of three of the episodes, and Al Hess, my husband and writer to-date of all our episodes. In addition, we had a co-producer on our pilot episode, “Houdini’s Hand,” Errol Sadler of Supremacy Films (Curveball the film).

I primarily handle securing the crew, casting, auditions, media and PR, location permissions, equipment rental, copyrights, releases and distribution. I have also functioned as script supervisor, costuming, scoring several of the episodes and craft services. We all wear a lot of hats on an independent film project.

By far the most challenging part of being a producer is scheduling the crew and seeing that everyone can and does come to set on time and following up to that end. There are a number of key positions that have to be filled, and people have to be committed to do the project. Inevitably, circumstances arise where people have to drop out, and a replacement must be secured quickly to remain on schedule.

This anthology series features horrific thriller tales inspired by The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock.

A producer must keep the project on schedule and make adjustments when necessary to keep moving forward. In addition, the producers must keep moving the project through post-production, which takes much longer than the actual shooting, and they must wrangle all the artists behind the scenes. After the project has finished shooting, the producer is still working.

How long does it take to make one episode of Horror Hotel, from writing the script to post production?

We have a set-time formula we use to shoot Horror Hotel that works for us. Minus the writing (which can take any amount of time really) it is pretty straightforward. From the time we announce auditions (generally three weeks beforehand) till the last shoot day, it takes approximately seven weeks to complete each episode.

One weekend is for auditions themselves, the next weekend is for rehearsal and blocking and then we shoot for the next two weekends. Our episodes run anywhere from 12 to 20 minutes each, but we allow two full weekends to do each shoot. Generally speaking, one page of script amounts to one minute of footage. During the three weeks we are scheduling auditions, we are in pre-production for the upcoming episode: building props, redecorating the set, securing costumes etc.

Since Horror Hotel is an anthology series, we have to recast for each new episode, which makes for more downtime than if we had a typical serial series. The post-production work can vary widely depending upon the speed of the artists working on it. We try to do a lot of the post-production work ourselves. We are capable of editing, coloring, some visual effects and some sound work (including scoring the episodes), which is a huge headache-saver, but also a big workload.

What is the secret to keeping each episode of the series fresh and unpredictable?

We do several things to keep the series fresh and unpredictable. First, by the format alone, using an anthology series with a completely different story for each episode, we can present a story that might be sci-fi, horror, mystery or suspense themed. You may not push the like button on a particular episode, but you will most likely find a number of them delightful due to their diversity.

Web TV is quickly becoming the platform of choice for viewing movies, series, etc.

Secondly, we do bring in some different filmmakers to help with the project, and they have their own style of storytelling and presentation. Brandon “TwoMill” Thaxton, of Supremacy Films, directed the pilot episode “Houdini’s Hand” as well as the unusual “Guillotine” episode. He definitely left his signature on those episodes, and they are amazing! We also brought in recent Tech film graduate Kyle Kukshtel to direct the unique “Invader” sci-fi episode. Reminiscent of an old Ray Bradbury sci-fi movie, the episode utilized a miniature motel model we built with a special effects explosion at the beginning.

Each episode has a very different story. How did you come up with those ideas? Are any of the characters based on people you know?

Each episode does have a different story and each is complete within itself. People seem to like understandable stories that have a reasonable and unexpected conclusion. Our writers come up with all sorts of oddball premises, but most of the ideas won’t work within our setup. It is usually about 10 to one; 10 ideas yield one filmable story.

Ideas for the stories abound, but the creator of Horror Hotel, Ricky Hess, has narrow criteria for the stories he selects. Each one needs to take place mostly within the motel. The stories need to be economical to produce such as using affordable special effects and a cast of a few. Each story needs to be filmable in four days. Dialogue and sound need to be filmed inside the studio set.

The characters are loosely based on a conglomeration of real people and fantasy characters. The camera quickly rolls through a small slice of time, and it is not feasible to develop most characters in great depth. We have to resort to using stereotypical characters that the audience is already familiar with in order to move the story along.

Many students at Tech may want to make a web series by themselves one day, but they probably have no idea where to start. Is there any advice you can give to them?

The process for making a web series is no different than filming a feature film or a television episode. Therefore, you need to know about filmmaking in general to produce a web series. If you are a film student, you will be equipped with most of the knowledge you need or know people who do. If you are not, I suggest you start working as a production assistant on some projects or as an intern. Learn everything you can about making movies. It takes a lot of people to make a movie. Far more people work behind the lens than in front of it. You need to familiarize yourself with directing, writing, operating cameras, lighting, post production etc. At least acquire a working knowledge of these positions.

You can surround yourself with a group of people who do know different aspects of the process. But you do need to learn filmmaking. Web TV is quickly becoming the platform of choice for viewing movies, series, etc. So the future is bright for web series creators!

Harbingers of the future of television, web series such as Horror Hotel are looking to revolutionize episodic visual storytelling. The world premiere of Horror Hotel is on Sept. 26, 2013, at the Porter Sanford Performing Arts Center. For more information on this intriguing series, visit the Horror Hotel official website.