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No-Budget Filmmaking, and the Road to ‘American Exorcist’

When I was 5 years old, I decided that I was going to be a paleontologist when I grew up. I had seen Jurassic Park, and knew for certain that it would enable me to spend my days digging up dinosaur skeletons and, ideally, being in the right place at the right time if some fanciful billionaire needed an expert to come inspect his new theme park. So, I got every book I could find about dinosaurs, became a regular at my local museum of natural history, and set about learning everything I could about this surely lucrative career path. 

It wasn’t until years later, after I realized that perhaps brushing the dirt off of bones and getting better grades in Science class wasn’t up my alley, that it dawned on me what I really wanted. I didn’t want to do the job depicted in Jurassic Park. I wanted to make Jurassic Park. Or at least, get into the field where I could be on set with wonderful tools, talented actors, and nothing but my imagination to limit the kinds of stories I could tell.

American Exorcist

When I was in high school, sights firmly set on college programs that would lead to a career in filmmaking, I knew I needed to make something myself. It didn’t have to be big or fancy, it just had to be a story that I wanted to tell. My first instinct was to pursue a wildly ambitious feature-length opus called The Witness, which was conceived as a hybrid of my three favorite films at the time (Fight Club, Memento, and The Usual Suspects). I had the story mapped out scene by scene, and I knew exactly how I wanted it to look. The problem, I soon realized, was that I had no idea how to make it look like that, or indeed how to make it at all.

So, I scaled things back a bit and settled for a far more reasonable 35-minute dramatic thriller called Dangerous Privilege. I co-wrote it with one of my best friends at the time, cast myself and a number of friends from my high school’s theatre department, and managed to direct, shoot, and edit the thing on my own. It was very much trial by fire, as I was working with a consumer camcorder that I barely knew how to use, learning how to edit on iMovie pretty much as I went along, and coordinating with the Walt Whitman High School staff to film in various classrooms and facilities.

Given our inexperience and frequent cluelessness, it’s kind of a small miracle that the film came together at all. My parents are fond of giving me the unintentionally back-handed compliment that this is the best film I’ve ever made (not exactly what one wants to hear after four years of film school and dozens of projects since), but I am proud of it mainly because it was my first big step towards the life I really wanted. My cohorts and I wanted to tell a story, and so we just went out there and did it. The final product was rough, with blown-out lighting and no real sound quality whatsoever, but there was a certain charm to it that I’ve always appreciated.

(Tragically, the film itself is all but lost at this point. A dispute with the co-writer years later resulted in the original being pulled from YouTube, and my own personal DVD went missing during one of my many relocations since then. Aside from DVDs that were given to the cast and crew 12 years ago, and most of the raw footage, which I still possess but can’t bring myself to re-edit due to its technical shortcomings, there’s no longer any way to watch the film, which breaks my heart to think about. But such is life.)

The next few years (which, coincidentally, was around the time I started writing for The Oscar Igloo, soon to be the Awards Circuit, and where I first started working with our editor, Joey Magidson) were a blur of hyperactivity and experimentalism. I ended up going to Columbia College Chicago for my B.A. in Film & Video, with concentrations in directing and acting, and in my time there I produced a wide range of short films, mini-documentaries, and music videos as I learned the ins and outs of the craft. And you’d better believe I loved every minute of it. For a blooming cinephile who was gradually realizing all that the medium had to offer, the idea of making movies as homework was absolute bliss. I produced a number of shorts during this time that I’m still quite proud of, including Boycotting Time, Chill Dudes, and Lack of Imagination (which are all available in heavily compressed form on Vimeo, should you care to investigate).

During this time, I was also making further camcorder films (or “home movies”, if you prefer) with my friends and family back home in Maryland. These were considerably rougher around the edges than my college output, but helped to refine my skills as a storyteller and, if nothing else, to keep busy. At a rate of 4-5 short films a year during this period, I was risking severe burnout. And unfortunately, this came right around the time I graduated. My final project for Columbia was intended to be a graphic, no-holds-barred look at the relationship between violence and intimacy. The resulting film, Battle Scars, played like a no-budget porno that cut to black just before getting to the good stuff, with some horribly amateurish blood effects and a complete lack of chemistry between the leads. My professor gave it a C, and to this day it is one of the only films I’ve made that has never been released online or given any kind of public viewing (trust me, you don’t want to see it).

After that, came a period that could best be described as an age of uncertainty. I’m hardly the first or the last film student (or college student in general, for that matter) who’s graduated and now has no idea what to do next. My family moved to Florida, and I reluctantly followed suit. I knew I didn’t want to go to L.A. and intern for years, getting executives coffee and hoping for the best. I wanted to be able to make my own, personal films, with more modest budgets, the kind of mid-range fare that was already becoming less and less common. I was used to working with minimal resources, calling in favors from friends and acquaintances, and giving minimal thought to things like permits and marketing. I just wanted to make movies.

But now, for the first time since I’d started, I was in a new city where I didn’t know anybody, I had none of the plentiful equipment I’d enjoyed at Columbia, and after Battle Scars I was feeling somewhat creatively out-of-tune. I spent a year in Prague, teaching English, hoping for inspiration from a foreign locale. And while I got a fair amount of writing done here and there, it wasn’t quite the reboot I needed, and eventually I found myself back in Florida. Reduced to working various retail and customer service jobs, I eventually found a number of local filmmakers, most of whom were in similar positions, with whom I could start collaborating.

The most significant of these was Jaron Wallace, an incredibly talented and inventive fellow cinephile. We started working together in 2015 and, for the most part, we have continued ever since. That year, we formed AfterShock Pictures with some friends and started pumping out short films on a more regular basis. I felt like I was back in the groove again. Some of these early collaborations still had the telltale signs of janky camerawork, questionable lighting, and shoddy sound that distinguishes amateur work from professionals, but we were creating just to create at that point, which felt like how it should be. There are a few films from that time, especially Baking Love and Too Perfect, that I look back on with fondness, warts and all.

It was around this point that I first wrote the script for what would eventually become American Exorcist. A simple little horror-comedy that spawned from the idea of a priest who’s more concerned with documenting his exorcisms than with saving lives, it immediately inspired anticipation and excitement in me. We cast it, held rehearsals, and were nearly ready to go. But a combination of scheduling delays and various members of our cast and crew (myself included) being sidelined with other projects forced us to put it on the back-burner. After that, our creative output started to slow down. Some of our original team moved on to other pursuits, and the momentum that had propelled us through that year ground to a halt. We still put out the occasional projects (a music video for my brother’s band, a documentary for a local community theater), but these were more jobs-for-hire than passion projects.

While Jaron has always been good about keeping himself busy with multiple projects at once (he has found plenty of work shooting and editing wedding videos, served as cinematographer for a recent feature, and has collaborated with a wide range of talent from our local film scene), my own creative spark had become more temperamental, more touch and go. Aside from helping out on the occasional set, I found myself distracted by toxic relationships, family drama, and my own depression and existential angst. In other words, I was going through a quarter-life crisis. Despite transitioning from retail to a steadier, somewhat less-stressful office job, I still felt miles away from my dreams of becoming a filmmaker (no pun intended). Technically I already was one, having produced dozens of film projects over the past decade, but without being able to earn any kind of living from them, and without a willingness to surrender to the gig economy instead of my more comfortable but less fulfilling day job, it seemed like the dream would be forever out of reach.

After taking some time to work on myself, I reconnected with Jaron and we collaborated with a few other teams on a 48 Hour Film Project. If you’re not familiar, this is basically a contest in which a team is tasked with writing, filming, and editing a short film (usually around 7 minutes) within, you guessed it, 48 hours. We’d done these before, but never on this scale and with this big of a crew. We took our Western genre prompt and delivered Heinous, a dark thriller about a marshal confronting a crazed former surgeon. The quality of the entire production was so much higher than anything our respective teams had worked on individually. Emboldened by this, as well as by some fellow local filmmakers who were already taking the plunge (with mixed results) into longer narratives, Jaron and I decided to sit down and start work on our very first feature.

The production and fallout of Gorehound, a horror-romance inspired by film like Heathers and Audition, is a story so long and complicated that it could warrant its own essay. The short version is this: we rushed through pre-production with the bold, but misguided notion that we could shoot the whole thing with virtually no budget, and that we could knock out the entire script within just two and a half months. Six months later, we had shot approximately one third of it, with many of our more complicated scenes still to be figured out. By now, a combination of exhaustion from trying to keep the whole thing organized and pushing forward, as well as tensions with certain members of the cast, eventually boiled over, and I was forced to abandon the project. I’ve never made a harder decision, and the regret and embarrassment I felt for having built the whole thing up only to waste everybody’s time sent me into another depressive episode, from which I would not recover for some time.

Eventually, after everything had cooled off for a while, Jaron reached out and started pitching ways that we could finish it. For the next year and change, we went through numerous options for bringing the film back from the dead, from turning what we’d already shot into the pilot for a web series, to shooting an entirely different and deeply meta second half in which we would have played versions of ourselves struggling to finish the film. Art imitating life imitating art. For one reason or another, none of these versions came to pass, and at this stage too much time has passed to do anything other than start from scratch. As of this writing, the future of Gorehound is unclear. We’ve toyed with the idea of adapting it as a graphic novel, or even turning it into a play (although with the state of live theatre during the pandemic, it may be some time before the latter is viable).

This brings us to last year. We’re still working on the occasional short film, but still smarting from our inability to resuscitate our beloved former feature. And it was Jaron who hit upon the idea of revisiting some of our older scripts that’d we’d never gotten around to filming. So, we decided to shoot two of these back to back. One was a slasher throwback he had written years ago called Preyed Upon. The other was American Exorcist. I dredged the script up after not having looked at it since 2015, gave it a solid once-over, and set about assembling a new cast and crew. Jaron would be shooting it as well as playing a key supporting character, and I even got my girlfriend to take on a small role (call it nepotism all you like, but I maintain that she’s perfectly cast).

We reached an agreement to film at the La Quinta Inn & Suites in St. Augustine, Florida. I saved up a few paychecks in order to pay for the essentials: mainly the hotel rooms, feeding our cast and crew, and perhaps most essentially, hiring a professional makeup artist to make the possessed woman at the center of the film look suitably demonic. The equipment we used was either owned by Jaron or otherwise borrowed. And while there were the usual hiccups one can expect from any film production (one of the cameras we planned on using broke down the day before production, there was an 11th-hour recasting of one of the roles, and there were some mildly heated arguments about whether certain shots would work), on the whole it ran very smoothly and we got everything we wanted.

Now we arrive at 2020. Following an extended editing process, the film finally made its virtual premiere at the Southeast Regional Film Festival, and then its public premiere at the LOL Jax Film Festival, the latter of which was organized by local filmmakers Adam and Monique Madrid, hosted in the planetarium of Jacksonville’s Museum of Science and History (don’t worry, everyone was wearing masks and social distancing). The sheer joy of getting to see the film in something resembling a theater, and of hearing the audience laugh and gasp at all the right moments, was only matched by what came next.

At the awards ceremony at the end of the festival, American Exorcist absolutely dominated, winning a total of 13 awards including Best Film, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, Best Cast Ensemble, and more. Even more shocking was that four of these trophies had my name on them, for Best Director, Best Writing, Best Editing, and hilariously, Best Visual Effects (which primarily consisted of me having Kate McManus turn her wig and jacket around to simulate her neck being snapped). Considering that just a few years earlier, I was in such a downtrodden state that I had all but decided that filmmaking wasn’t for me, this was a pretty massive turnaround, and the sense of validation from my peers (and the festival’s judges) cannot be overstated.

So, what’s the moral of the story here? What have I learned at the end of this lengthy and somewhat indulgent look down memory lane? Firstly, that it certainly pays to be friends with the editor of the website you write for, to the extent that he’ll allow you to write an elaborate puff piece for your new short film to be featured in a space primarily focused on predicting the Academy Awards (seriously, thanks Joey). But beyond that, my main takeaway is that filmmaking at any level is a game of perseverance. My experiences in this realm are neither unique nor especially noteworthy, except that they are mine. We all take a different path to get where we’re going. Some lucky few will go on to fame and fortune, winning Oscars and directing Marvel movies. Countless others will stay in the periphery, directing TV and lower-budget productions, regularly working as essential parts of the machine. 

And still countless others are like me, toiling away in their local film scene, hoping to make something that either gets them attention or at least enables them to move on to the next thing. At this level, the best opportunities are the ones you make for yourself. The best connections are the ones you develop and strengthen over time. And more than anything else, you have to do it because you love it. Because you have stories to tell, whether grounded or fantastical, and because you know, deep down, that you’re the only one who can tell them. I don’t know what will happen next. I don’t know if I’ll ever transcend to a more professional level, or if I even have what it takes to play that game. Right now, we’re working on expanding American Exorcist into a longer series, which I’m very excited about. Time will tell how that goes.

All I know is that as I exited the Museum of Science and History, I walked past their various dinosaur exhibits, and I thought back to Jurassic Park, the movie that made me want to make movies. I thought back to those childhood dreams of being a paleontologist. And in that moment, I knew I made the right choice by sticking with film. It may not be my career just yet, but it is my passion. And right now, that’s enough.

American Exorcist is now available on YouTube. It is not to be confused with the Bill Moseley film of the same name. You can watch my version at the link below:

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Written by Myles Hughes

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