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aaron pictureDirector Aaron Vanek

March 4th, 1997

I suppose all films start the same way as the work that eventually took the title of The Outsider; that is, as unholy visions of creatures better left buried break the gossamer walls of sleep and begin haunting your waking world until you need, nay, MUST exorcise yourself of such searing obsession through the painful but cathartic process of filmmaking.

Or something like that. I discovered Lovecraft in high school, where he became the greatest thing since Dungeons and Dragons. After reading the story The Outsider, these images appeared in my head; images of a man walking down a dirt path, but a man whose face we could not see. In fact, we are seeing through the eyes of the man. Without filmmaking knowledge, or opportunity, these images lay dormant until I began serving my sentence at the film graduate school at Columbia College in Chicago. It was here that the stars were again aligned, and the images, left so long in the dusty recess of my mind, surfaced again to take an inhuman grip on my psyche.

I soon knew that The Outsider would be a film I was going to make It was the first film I ever wanted to make, it just took me seven years to get to it (I have a big backlog of films I have to make. I think I'm on number four now).

Unfortunately, the faculty at Columbia College are less-than-tolerant of horror films (or any film that is not in the genre of "personal tragedy" or "art wank"), so I lied to my class instructor about what I was working on. Besides, I already had a friend of mine, Andy Ashcraft, storyboard the film for me before the first day of class, based on a script I wrote during the break between my first and second semesters.

For the script, I decided to take the idea of someone who was unaware of his true heritage. In the original story, the narrator is a monstrous creature, and always has been. Part of the problem in following the original plot was making the entire movie first person (i.e., you see through the character's eyes), for it could be very distracting. So I opted for the story of a man who was drawn to arcane and forbidden books, a recluse, someone outside the norm. I could show this person's "real life" through flashbacks, which could be seen in the normal "third person" view normally seen in films. I decided that this main character would come back from the dead, but not know that he was dead. He does not know who he is, but he is drawn to a certain place. As he walks toward it, he begins to remember. As he gets closer and closer to his destination, he finally realizes who he is, and what he has become.

Along with the voyage of self discovery that was in the original story, I decided to keep the same conclusion that Lovecraft used, namely, that the narrator revels in his alieness, and refuses to hide in his subterranean shell. In the script, I tried to capture that feeling in the film's closing lines: "I know why I was brought back from the nether world. To learn the final lesson. I never was a part of the world of light. Death has cleansed me of that lie. I can now feel this dark planet turn beneath my feet. I know, and I smile."

Unfortunately, voice over is not something that should be depended on for meaning in a film. So anyone who isn't paying close attention can be easily lost.

The script, which I hid from my instructor until the last minute (when she did give some genuine good comments), went through three drafts.

Casting was easy, and I chose Herb Lichtenstein, who was, is, and always shall be, a little strange, and Kathryn Grady for the part of the woman. David David Katzman played "the other man," and I also cast a second woman, Rebecca Masternak, who was to appear in one scene. Rebecca was wonderful: on time, eager, willing to wear a tight dress and corset, scream and fall down for multiple takes, but I cut her out of the picture, because her scene was far too confusing. I still gave her a tape of those outtakes, however.

The biggest question I'm asked is: "How did you do the makeup?" My answer? Luck, fate, and chance. I managed to dig up Harvey Allen Dickson, a young freelancer who dropped out of Columbia College a few years before I got there. When I talked to him on the phone, and he started quoting prices of latex, I knew I found my makeup artist. Like any full face prosthetic, Herb needed to have a cast made, so Harvey slapped goo over my lead actor, let it dry, then pulled it off, and began construction of the mask. On the day of shooting, it took about four hours and two people to fully cover Herb with the mask, which consisted of a full head piece, a chest piece, and two hand coverings (I still have one of the hands). After we wrapped (at about 2am, early for most film shoots), it took another two hours to get Herb out of the mask, and he still chides me about the fact that he was picking gummy glue out of his hair for weeks. (Note: I have a neat little video of Harvey making the mask for any makeup aficionados)

One of the big decisions I had to make in the film was about the ghoul. The lead character seeing himself as a ghoul was the big finish, the money shot. But I didn't want to linger on the ghoul, because I hate showing special effects just to show off the effects. Everything has to have a reason behind it. We had shot much more footage of the ghoul coming into the bedroom, but I only used about 20 seconds of it. I later added one shot of the ghoul walking away in the cemetery, a shot I would rework if I ever made the film again (note: the cemetery scene was shot after the climax, so the ghoul mask had already been cut up the back to get it off Herb's head, which meant we had to tape it shut again and raise Herb's shirt collar so you couldn't see the tape. During the cemetery shooting, we were losing light fast, and Herb had to turn his head to the right, but walk straight while wearing a grimy, flaking monster mask in this cold cemetery at dusk).

Some other production notes: the total cost was about $2,500 for the seven-minute film, at least 80% of which is in finishing costs (making prints).

Kathryn, the lead actress, sprained her ankle just before shooting, so all of her scenes had to have her sitting or laying down. Which was fine, because she's about a foot taller than Herb, and that was an easy way to get around the height difference.

The dead bird that you see on the stairs before the mansion (which, incidentally, is really the Evanston Historical Society, who, blast them, would NOT allow me to film inside), was an actual twitching almost-dead bird I found while shooting. Not one to pass up a good shot, I picked up the bird (carefully, wearing gloves), and arranged it on the stair for shooting. I left it there for someone else to find afterwards.

One of the scariest shots in the film was the last, the breaking of the mirror. I bought three mirrors, each about a foot square, and propped them up in this old basement. I had Harvey (the makeup guy) slap one of the ghoul hands on me, and then pre-scored (cut) the back of the mirrors. I held a nail in my fist, and the cinematographer overcranked the film speed, which gives a slow motion effect (unfortunately, not slow enough for my tastes). I punched through the mirror as we filmed. I wasn't cut, but it is a shock to have glass flying all over your body. I did three takes of this. So twenty-one years of bad luck for a seven-minute film.

The inhuman scream of the ghoul I created by taking a sample of a South American fruit bat, slowing it down, and then layering that same sound twice on the soundtrack, but about two seconds apart, so the scream starts, and then a "chorus" comes in behind it. Or so I hope.

The reaction to the film was mixed: my class instructor hated it, completely at a loss as to why I would put makeup over my actor. However, a few people at the first screening enjoyed it, and one kid of age seven said it scared him, which made it worthwhile.

I sent the film to the first annual Chicago Underground Film Festival, hoping to get some free passes to the fest, never expecting it to get accepted. After I heard they would screen it, I quickly went through the finishing process of film (a tedious, expensive procedure), before I realized that the voice-over on the soundtrack was almost completely unintelligible. Since the film is totally incomprehensible without clear voice-over, the CUFF screening was rather anti-climatic. However, I re-mixed the soundtrack and transferred the film to video so I could screen the film two years in a row at a regional science-fiction convention.

Finally, thanks to the Web, I encountered Beyond Books, and managed to screen it again at the first annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. Two years after the film was made, I finally had a perfect screening.

If anyone has any comments or questions, or would like to see the film, write me at: AaronJV@aol.com.

beyondsm picture Last updated using a PowerWave 604/120 running MacOS 7.6, FileMaker Pro 3.0.3 and Frontier 4.2 on Thu, May 8, 1997 at 7:11:32 PM. Send comments to hpl@beyond-books.com.