Within the last couple of months I have been pleased to begin a relationship with Miguel Gallego who is the creative force behind AAAAA!! Indie Horror Hits as well as The Crypt Club. As I reviewed Miguel's websites and read a few interviews with him on the Internet I noted our overlapping areas of interest and common cinematic influences growing up. Thankfully, Miguel agreed to an interview that touched on his work in independent horror films, as well as his thoughts on Disney and horror, myth, and archetypes.
TheoFantastique: Miguel, thanks for taking time out of a busy schedule to respond to a few questions about your work. To begin, can you talk about how you came to be interested in horror films on a personal level, and how did this translate into a career?
Miguel Gallego: Well, the short answer is that I loved movie monsters and wanted to learn everything about them. This curiosity led to learning about films and filmmaking magic, which led to formal film studies and, finally, working in the film industry. You could say that movie monsters were the gateway drug that led to my life as a film addict.
The longer, more detailed answer is that as a kid the Universal Studios’ monsters fascinated me. Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Phantom of the Opera, et al had a dark appeal. They were outsiders and romantic figures of dread, scorn and hatred. As the son of Spanish immigrants living in Anglo-Saxon Canada I immediately identified with these dark, tragic outsiders. More than the rest of my family I really lost myself in films. My doctor father claimed that I suffered from ‘monster-itis’.
Around this time – in the dark ages long before the Internet and DVDs with special features were common - there was a show on TV Ontario (our educational channel) called Magic Shadows hosted by Elwy Yost, the father of screenwriter Graham Yost who wrote Speed. On weeknights after dinner Elwy would show half-hour of a classic feature film and give background info on it. On Fridays he’d screen a chapter of an old movie serial. I watched the show religiously to learn everything I could about the films and the filmmakers.
Elwy Yost later hosted TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies, which paired two classic feature films with actor and filmmaker interviews in between. In the era before every college had a film department it was the best film school available.
I entered university to study medicine, but an elective cinema studies course caught my interest. After that course I knew I wanted to work in film. I had no idea how. Toronto was not yet the production hotbed that it would become. I joined the film society and made my first Super 8 film, Washday, about a laundry monster that terrorizes a slovenly guy. The crowds laughed in the right spots, the film won an award, and I was hooked.
After earning a B.A. in cinema studies I found an apprentice position on the nature show Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness. Within the year I was production coordinating and still catching three to five films a week. Then I went to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles to learn more practical filmmaking.
When I came back to Toronto, the city was starting to swell with film and television production and I was lucky enough to catch that wave. I worked on some direct to video films and TV commercials. I worked a few years in corporate video production. The money was good, but I missed working on dramatic projects. I joined the Directors Guild of Canada and got back onto film sets, working my way up to assistant director. There’s nothing like being part of a band of gypsy film brothers working on a show. It’s as close as you’ll get to running away and joining the circus without having to muck out the elephant stalls. And when your work is done you get to join the crowd to experience the show you’ve worked on.
In time I made enough friends and contacts in the business so that I could put my money where my mouth was and produce my first short film, The Crypt Club. It’s a cautionary tale about peer pressure and bullying inspired by the legend of Black Aggie. Again, themes of outsiders and belonging crept in. It’s funny how you never stray too far from what inspired you in the first place.
Since The Crypt Club I’ve met a lot of filmmakers and found that short horror films don’t have legs. They play at festivals and disappear pretty quickly. I came up with the title ‘AAAAAH!! Indie Horror Hits’ and I started licensing these small horror gems to create a collection to preserve and share them. So a second career track has begun thanks to the love of monsters.
TheoFantastique: You are involved in a number of projects including what you just mentioned, AAAAAH!! Indie Horror Hits, and Crypt Club Productions Inc. Can you summarize your work as a filmmaker and as a promoter of independent horror films through these projects?
Miguel Gallego: Well, it may be a little early to summarize because both ventures are still taking baby steps, but here goes.
Crypt Club Productions Inc. is my umbrella company for film production and other horror based projects. The first film is The Crypt Club. It screened at over 45 international film festivals, and won 18 awards. It aired on TV in Canada and Argentina. I’m currently working on the deluxe archival DVD edition. Once that’s on the market I’ll begin refining some feature film ideas that have been percolating in my brain.
AAAAAH!! Indie Horror Hits is the next project from CCPI. It’s a collection of great short horror films from independent filmmakers worldwide. We’ll be distributing DVDs with about 2 hours worth of films per volume starting this summer. It’s like a horror film festival on disc. And we’re always looking for more great short horror films.
And then there are some other projects that are still in the embryo stage. They’re joint ventures with some other horror folks, but I can’t give out details just yet.
TheoFantastique: What attracts you to indie horror rather than that produced through mainstream studios?
Miguel Gallego: Well, a good film is a good film regardless of its origin. For me the difference between indie and studio horror films has to do with the passion and the vision of the filmmaker and the film’s creative process. I think it comes back to the insider/outsider argument.
Studio films often suffer from committee-think. True indie films are auteur driven. Right or wrong the indie films have a singular voice and a point of view. And that’s refreshing. Most studio horror films are cynical economic exercises. These films are not about storytelling but about marketing and return on investment, which is why the studios churn out re-makes of old films or clones of recent indie or foreign hits. hey’re playing it safe. There may be a high degree of craftsmanship, but very little innovation.
If the indie horror formula of low-budget spectacle with a high profit ratio didn’t work, the studios wouldn’t venture into the unsavoury field of horror. But the money’s too tempting and it helps the studios’ cash flow. It helps so much that several studios created indie-style production and distribution units. But here’s the problem: they haven’t been able to recreate the indie horror phenomenon in their in-house laboratories.
Horror is a lone wolf genre. Its purpose is to howl in the wilderness and chill us. The studios have tried domesticating it for their purposes and created a breed of snarling toy poodles in spiked collars. Basho wrote, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” Studios are treading in the wolf’s footsteps without a clue what they’re searching for.
Now don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of bad, derivative indie filmmaking too. But once in a while a film comes together where the whole is greater that the sum of its parts. A paradigm shift in any field rarely comes from the people who are entrenched experts in that field. It comes from outsiders with a fresh, sometimes naive perspective. That’s why indie horror films matter. I believe it’s where the creative, thematic, and sometimes technical innovations will continue to originate.
TheoFantastique: As I reviewed your website for AAAAAH!! I noticed several films that you have been responsible for, but out of all of them which ones are you most proud of and why (or is this like asking you to choose which of your children is your favorite)?
Miguel Gallego: Actually, the only film in the collection that I’m directly responsible for creating is The Crypt Club. But I am proud of each film in the collection. Let’s just say they’re my adopted kids and I can’t chose between them. Each one is unique and lovable in its own creepy way.
The reason is that there’s an empathetic fraternity among indie filmmakers because we each wrestle with internal and external obstacles to reach our goal of sitting in the back of a theatre watching the back of people’s heads, waiting for their reaction to what we did months - sometimes years - before that moment. The war story details may vary from filmmaker to filmmaker but we all have similar tales of idealism, struggle, loyalty, heartbreak, and sometimes triumph.
Because of all the moving parts involved, the completion of a film – any film - is a minor miracle. And indie filmmakers are doing it with fewer resources than studio films, and a whole lot of heart. You gotta admire that feat, and support and nurture it because it may be the only reward these filmmakers get for tilting at windmills. And where would we be without these dreamers and creators?
While working on my film I was overwhelmed with admiration and gratitude for the selfless people who were helping me create it. It was, and still is, quite humbling. So I was compelled to work even harder to make the best film possible. It was no longer just for myself, but also to honour the trust and faith that these people had placed in me.
I have the same feeling for the films in the collection. These filmmakers have placed their faith in our idea and we’ve got to deliver for them.
TheoFantastique: I was intrigued by some statements you made in an interview for New Voices in Horror where you listed your favorite horror films and you included early Disney films and fairytales in that collection. This struck me in that my own appreciation for these influences is similar and not everyone remembers Disney's dark side and that studio's contribution to America's Halloween mythos from the early cartoons. Can you provide a few examples of Disney's work that you would classify as horror and why you found it significant?
Miguel Gallego: I’ve gotten several comments from people for calling Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs a horror film. This whole Disney horror thing started because I meet people who categorically refuse to watch "horror" films, yet they watch films that contain horror elements but that aren’t marketed as "horror". So I ask these horror adverse people if they like early Disney films. And when they respond, “Of course. They’re great wholesome family films,” I explain to them how they have secretly gotten their recommended daily dose of horror without realizing it.
“See? You like horror. I hid it in the pudding and you ate it. So shut up and eat your scary vegetables.”
People think of Uncle Walt and recall Mickey Mouse and family entertainment. Walt is associated with joy and magic, but Disney’s genius as a storyteller came from his use and command of dramatic elements – including the horrific.
Disney combined comedy and horror to tremendous effect, resulting in a rich, emotionally satisfying catharsis for the viewer. His films alternated bitter and sweet for maximum emotional contrast, but he made sure the sweet was the first taste so you’d settle into the story and identify with the protagonist’s dreams.
Then Disney would introduce the bitter element, and he rarely held back. Disney’s best dramatic spice for family-oriented films was Death itself. Unlike other watered down family fare, Disney’s protagonists faced real and present mortal danger throughout the story.
Walt also made sure that the final taste in your mouth was sweet so you’d come back for a second (and third, and fourth…) serving. The stronger the audience’s emotional experience the more goodwill is generated toward the filmmaker who causes it.
If Walt Disney’s first mark of brilliance was to raise his film’s dramatic stakes to dire mortal consequences, then his second mark of brilliance was to market the films as family entertainment.
You can argue that Walt Disney’s films are not horror because they aren’t presented as such, but I’ll say that the engine that drives several of his animated feature films is pure horror.
Here are some examples to support my nomination for Walt Disney as a master of horror:
Snow White is about a vain queen who orders the murder of her increasingly beautiful stepdaughter. She orders a hunter to bring back Snow White’s heart as proof. When the compassionate hunter confesses the murder plot to Snow White she flees into the now terrifying forest. Learning that Snow White is alive the Queen turns herself into an old crone to deliver a poison apple to the girl. She even has a raven as her familiar. Snow White succumbs and falls into a death-like sleep. The vengeful gang of club wielding dwarves chase the crone through the forest to a cliff where she falls to her death. The happy ending comes when the handsome prince kisses Snow White as she lies in a glass coffin. Surprisingly, no audience has shouted, “Ew! Gross. Necrophilia!”
101 Dalmatians is a cute, cuddly story of a pair of Dalmatian parents protecting their 15 offspring from a witch (Cruella De Vil) who wants to skin the puppies to make a fashionable coat. The puppies are kidnapped and taken to Cruella’s mansion, Hell Hall. The parents find their brood and 84 other puppies in this country puppy mill. A rescue, escape, and chase ensue with the Cruella done in by her bumbling henchmen.
In the original Cinderella story the stepsisters cut off their heels to fit their feet into the slipper to win the prince. Disney omitted some of the gorier elements of the original story, but kept the threat level to his heroine high with a realistic rendering of the cruel stepmother in contrast to the more caricatured stepsisters and secondary characters. This wicked stepmother has a predator’s maternal instincts. She may not want to kill Cinderella, but her cruelty toward her is, perhaps, a fate worse than death.
In Bambi, the mortal danger is presented one third of the way through the film when Bambi’s mother warns him about Man and going into the open meadow. At the midway point a hunter kills Bambi’s mother off-screen in a heartbreakingly stark scene that still chills the pit of my stomach. In the final act Bambi faces Man the hunter, Man’s hunting Hellhounds, and then escapes a raging inferno that destroys the forest. As with many "fairy tales" it’s a story of maturation, which can be both scary and full of wonder. Bambi is born, learns about life, death, love, sacrifice, and in the end becomes a father himself. It’s the circle of life long before it was recycled for The Lion King.
What I find most significant about Walt Disney and his films is that Uncle Walt entertained millions of people, young and old, by making them laugh and by frightening them, proving that horror is an essential part of a balanced dramatic diet. Yet few people consider him a master of horror. And too many people still turn away at the mere mention of a horror film. Pity.
TheoFantastique: I also noted in the interview that you are a fan of mythology and folklore, interests you and I share. How do you explore these elements in your filmmaking and appreciation for the horror genre? And would you agree that we need more filmmakers exploring myth and folklore through film to create dark, adult fairytales much like Guillermo del Toro?
Miguel Gallego: While I studied film in Los Angeles I discovered Jan Harold Brunwand’s books on urban legends and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. These books opened up in me a new appreciation and interest in myth and folklore as wellsprings for story ideas and story interpretation. I grew up with Bible stories and tales of Greek and Roman heroes, but I hadn’t looked behind the stories to see how and why they worked. And now the mechanics of story craft fascinates me.
The Crypt Club was directly inspired by the tale of Black Aggie, which is an urban legend with its origin in the Middle Ages. I used the urban legend as a starting point and built the plot and characters out of that elemental cautionary tale.
Myths and folklore are either tales of adventure and achievement (do something good) or cautionary tales (don’t do something bad). These classic stories endure because they still speak to us. So, going back to the Basho quotation, I go to these stories to seek what those storytellers sought in the hopes of bringing something worthwhile to my stories.
As far as horror, I think worthwhile horror stories are - at their stripped down basics - cautionary tales. They’re warnings to us about unwise choices. Why else would you revel in gruesome horrors? Sure there may be a macabre fascination with the subject matter. But psychologically it’s not a great place to spend all of your time. Henry Frankenstein didn’t hang out with corpses because he liked them. He had a higher purpose, which was to create life. The corpses were his raw material not his intended end product. Unfortunately, I find too many horror films don’t have a purpose beyond causing shock or revulsion.
In the last twenty years we’ve seen a boom in the number of people teaching storytelling and screenwriting. It seems that everyone who has seen a film is teaching how to write one based on a secret insight into the process. I think it’s a great thing that so many resources exist for potential filmmakers. But the funny thing is that all of these story gurus’ theories stem from the same ancient source material: Aristotle’s Poetics. The principles of dramatic storytelling haven’t changed in over two thousand years. They may have been refined, but not drastically altered.
I think it’s important for filmmakers and storytellers to have a sense of history. In the early days of television you had all these great shows written by guys who read books and plays. They brought that understanding of drama and narrative to television. Now, two generations later, it’s people who grew up watching the tube who write the shows. It’s created an inbreeding of ideas and references. I see the same thing happening in horror films of the past ten years. They all take Night of the Living Dead as ground zero.
Folklore and mythology represent the timeless stories and themes of the human heart. Any current story you can point to has an antecedent, and you can save yourself a lot of time and creative energy if you acknowledge and build upon those stories rather than trying to re-invent the wheel. I think the broader knowledge you have the more it can help you bring up something fresh and understand why it works.
So, I think we need to explore myth and folklore to understand story craft – in any genre. And then use these fundamental principles (not pat formulas) to create new myths because today’s solid stories become tomorrow’s myth and folklore. I’ve heard a Cinderella story referred to as a Rocky story. We need to keep revisiting in order to reinvent. We need to understand archetypes rather than recycle stereotypes. Look to the classic source material to see why it worked and then make it your own. If storytellers go back to the classics and draw from the archetypes to create new characters we’d have richer stories instead of re-treads.
TheoFantastique: You are preparing to launch The Crypt Club Deluxe Archival Edition DVD as well as the AAAAAH!! Indie Horror Hits, Volume One. Can you describe these for folks, and where can they pick them up?
Miguel Gallego: Well, The Crypt Club Deluxe Archival Edition will have a crypt load of bonus features, including behind the scenes photos & footage, and material taped during our screening Q&A sessions explaining how we put the film together from idea through filming, post-production, selling the film, festival strategies, and more. There’s also a companion book in the works, The Crypt Club Chronicle.We’ve even had interest from educational sources to use The Crypt Club as a teaching aid on the topic of bullying and peer pressure. The disc will appeal both to horror fans and to indie filmmakers who want to see how we did it.
The AAAAAH!! Indie Horror Hits, Volume One DVD will have about a dozen great short horror films. It’s a mini international horror film festival on one disc. We’ve gotten film submissions from across Canada and the U.S., as well as Mexico, Australia, England, and Spain. Some are high budget, some are low budget, but each film is a real indie gem. If you missed them at festivals this is your chance to see them. I’m really excited about getting this DVD out there and challenging more filmmakers to send us their best short horror films for future volumes. The plan is to launch both DVDs at our booth at the Rue Morgue Festival of Fear here in Toronto, August 22-24. And we’ll have some other goodies available, including The Crypt Club posters, and samples from our new line of Crypt Wear™ apparel.
TheoFantastique: Miguel, it has been a pleasure. I look forward to following your work in indie horror, and if you ever come out to Slamdance as part of the Sundance Film Festival in Utah we need to get together. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.
Miguel Gallego: My pleasure. Thanks for the chat. I’ve been following your blog for a while, so I’m flattered to be part of it. And I look forward to hooking up with you in Utah in the near future. The first round of chocolate milk is on me.