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Interview with 'Penny Dreadful' Filmmaker

November 20, 2006 -- Steve Biodrowski pens a feature about Richard Brandes of the AfterDark film fest title "Penny Dreadful."

By Steve Biodrowski

PENNY DREADFUL takes its title from a Victorian form of literature that often wallowed in melodramatic excess and prolonged action (because writers were paid a penny a word and dragged everything out in order to make as much money as possible). Screenwriters Diane Doniol-Valcroze and Arthur Flam felt it suited their story because it features a girl named Penny (Rachel Miner) caught in a dreadful situation: she has a phobia about automobiles, but she must take refuge in one that’s broken down in the middle of the woods, leaving her at the mercy of an unrelenting psycho killer lurking outside.

Producer-director Richard Brandes optioned the script and rewrote it for what is essentially his feature-film directing debut, after years of writing, producing, and/or directing direct-to-video and made-for-television titles. The finished film, which also stars Mimi Rogers as Penny’s therapist, is an effective combination of slasher-horror and psycho-thriller that tries to do for the automobile what Hitchcock did for the shower in PSYCHO.

The film is one of a slate of titles screening as part of the After Dark Horror Festival this weekend. “After Dark: 8 Films to Die For” is an attempt to use theatrical exposure as a platform to generate interest for eventual release on home video. It also gives horror fans a chance to see some interesting independent horror films on the big screen, along with a theatre full of like-minded viewers. The festival will offer audiences a chance to vote for their favorite, which will receive additional theatrical exposure, including a possible solo release in January next year.

Mr. Brandes graciously took a moment off from his busy schedule promoting the festival and answered a few of our questions about the film and its inclusion as part of the After Dark festival.

You’ve written many of your previous projects. Why did this script appeal to you so much that you wanted to direct it?

I love thrillers and horror films, and I thought the concept for this was really original, something I'd never seen before. Just as importantly it is character-driven, which really appeals to me as well. You really get to sympathize and root for our protagonists and hate the villain. I also liked the challenge it represented in terms of how I would have to direct it. So much of the fear and suspense is psychological and comes just as much from what you don't see as what you do see, which I feel is always a big plus for these types of films and really amps up the terror and suspense.

What changes needed to be made to get the script to the screen, and what were your contributions to the script as a writer (as opposed to director)?

Obviously, Diane Doniol-Valcroze and Arthur Flam came up with something I thought was pretty special, which is why I optioned their script. Ultimately, though, I felt we needed to get into the heart of the story quicker than we did in the original script. I also thought the story should take place over one night as opposed to several days, and I wanted to flesh out the lead characters and their relationship a little more, as well as add a few more scary beats, like the thing with the video camera for instance, so I essentially did what they call a “Page 1 Rewrite” with those goals in mind.

Visually, the big challenge presented by the script was making a film set mostly within a very confined space, a car. How did you meet that challenge?

For me the key to telling this story, and doing so in an interesting way that would keep the audience engaged and hopefully on the edge of their seats, was to try to put them right there with Penny, in her shoes so to speak, and have them feel as if they are experiencing the same fear and terror as Penny is experiencing in as much of a real time fashion as possible. I didn't want the audience to experience things as passive observers, outside looking in, but instead wanted them right there with her, inside looking out. Fortunately from the feedback I've gotten from people who have seen the film, it sounds like we accomplished that very effectively.

When so many low-budget films are being shot digitally now, what are the advantages of shooting on 35mm and then doing the post-production in the digital realm? What did you achieve that you might not have got on camera otherwise?

I'm still a big fan of shooting on 35MM, so that was pretty much a given going in – especially since we were shooting mostly nights. We actually shot on Super 35MM, because it allowed us to shoot more film for the money, and I knew I was going to finish digitally and do a Digital Intermediate, which meant I would not be cutting the negative. I wanted to do a digital intermediate primarily because of the advantages it allowed me in post with my color correction. The options are just broader and more diverse, and that's reflected very nicely in the look of this film. It's tricky, though, when you go back to finish on film. Your color timer has to be familiar with the digital world as well as film.

How did the film end up as part of the After Dark Horror Fest? With only a few days in theatres, you can't make much money, but how does the theatrical exposure help you and/or your film? Does this open more doors for you, or increase the film's prospects when it comes out on video?

We were in the process of exploring several options for a theatrical release when Courtney Solomon saw the film and asked us to be a part of Horrorfest. Being a fan of the genre myself I loved the idea of a nationwide, theatrical, weekend event for horror films and knew the huge fan base for these types of films would love it, too. Even though the film would possibly only be in theaters for one weekend, I appreciated Courtney's vision and the idea of spreading the risks of the costs of a theatrical release among 8 films. A wide theatrical release these days needs to be supported by a P&A budget of at least a minimum of around $20M, which can be cost prohibitive for smaller indie films. It can also mean that even though your film is shown in theaters, the studio that puts up that kind of money needs to get "right side up" before you ever see any potential revenues. Once you do the math it quickly becomes apparent that a theatrical release can bring with it considerable risks. A theatrical release will usually help drive sales higher on DVD and in the other markets, though, and that's where an event like Horrorfest can make a difference. Because of the publicity and the high profile Horrorfest has given these 8 films, the DVD sales should be considerably higher than for straight-to-DVD titles, and it should even make a difference on television later, as well as in sales overseas.

What do you think your chances are of winning the "audience favorite" voting?

I think Penny Dreadful has a great shot at winning the “audience favorite.” Judging by the audience reactions who've seen it so far, it's a real crowd pleaser and delivers what's expected from the best of this genre. It has an original, very frightening hook, with lots of what I call those moments of heart-stopping suspense and terror, the acting is superb, and the overall look and production value is very big.

Finally, what's next for you after this?

I have a book that has been optioned that I will direct, but I can't go into any further detail now, other than to say it's based on a very disturbing and terrifying true story that I think will be quite controversial and shocking.