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"The Unwilling": It’s Damn Difficult To Make An Indie Movie Today
May 13, 2018
The Horror movie's Director, Writer, Producer Jonathan Heap on why an incestuous, political, inbred industry makes bad movies and shuts out organic filmmakers
The Long Road To The Making of The Unwilling
At a film festival, Heap among real Hollywood characters
By 2014, Jonathan Heap was fed up with the way Hollywood functions when he decided the only answer was to make his own movie, which became the horror thriller, “The Unwilling” that premiered this month on DVD and pay per view.
If you have ever wanted to make an independent movie then pay attention to what it took for Heap and a handful of friends, backers, colleagues, craftsmen and performers to get “The Unwilling” made and distributed. It will be an eye-opener.
To get it done on a shoestring budget, they took advantage of new digital tools, a cast and crew willing to invest lot of sweat equity and bartered creative partnerships to get everything from cameras to post post-production.
Even so, it was destined that this horror movie – despite winning multiple festival awards - was never going to play in the local bijou, which this article will explain, as a way to show how things have changed in the digital age and what that means to filmmakers, performers and even audiences.
For Heap, this movie is a comeback, a lifeline and he hopes a calling card to get him back into the movie and TV business mainstream.
It has been a long and winding road.
While rapidly rising as a promising, working director during the late 20th century, even earning an Oscar nomination for his short film “12:01 pm,” Heap directed film, TV and cable movies steadily including “Past Perfect,” “Hostile Intent” and “Greenmail,” but his career stalled.
“My manager said they wanted the director that had just won film festivals,” recalls Heap, “the next wunderkind. That was pretty discouraging.”
Heap spent years developing scripts, making short films, working as a director of photography while trying to keep his life together as his career languished.
“The Hollywood experience is one of pounding on doors and walls constantly,” says Heap. “You have to break them down and I realized, finally, you have to make your own thing.”
That’s when Heap stopped waiting for the phone to ring and reached out to friends, industry contacts and past collaborators.
“I couldn’t get a job directing so one day I had this actor friend who had a bit of money and I called him up and said, ‘You know what, we should just start doing a movie. And I need to direct it, and you can star in it.’”
The actor was David Lipper, who after beginning his career in Canada hit his stride in Hollywood in the 1990s with a role on the hit situation comedy “Full House,” as DJ’s boyfriend Viper.
Lipper went on to play everything from romantic leads to villains over the next 15 years with credits in Lifetime’s “The Black Widower” and “Non-Stop” to “Love By Design” with Jane Seymour, portraying a Nazi in “Exodus To Shanghai” and being featured in the TV mini-series “Sons Of Liberty.” There was even a heroic role the horror film “Lost After Dark.”
Like Heap, Lipper was frustrated with the acting work he was being offered at a time and felt he was ready for greater challenges.
So, Lipper was ready when Heap called, especially after he shared his concept.
“It should be a horror film,” Heap told Lipper, “because these, while not easy to sell, may be the easiest to sell.”
Heap’s network included friends he had made while studying filmmaking at Ithaca College, where his interest in making movies flowered. It had begun in his teens with 8 mm movies and at Ithaca grew into bigger projects and a lifelong passion.
Jonathan Heap with Ithaca College pals, Philip Morton (center) and Jim Johnston
His junior and senior year Heap made an intense, fast-paced one hour black and white thriller called “Dark Reflections” with lots of special effects, that took two years after college to complete.
It even had a symphonic score contributed by a friend from his high school days in Greenwich, Connecticut, Stephen Melillo, who went on to record with some of the world’s finest ensembles and conductors, with assignments from over 150 orchestras.
Melillo came on board to do the unusual symphonic score that helps drive “The Unwilling” which is a character study and dark comedy as much as a horror thriller.
“Dark Reflections” had provided Heap’s entry to Hollywood, getting him into a program for promising recent college grads. That was where he used an idea he had been considering for years to make the short “12:01 pm” about a man who relives the same hour again and again until he learns life lessons – earning an Oscar nomination for best live-action short.
Years later Bill Murray starred in the hit comedy “Ground Hog Day” with a similar theme.
For “12:01 pm,” Heap had collaborated with another Ithaca College grad, Philip Morton, and they had continued developing scripts over the years.
Morton has written movies including “Fire Down Below,” which starred Steven Segal, “Fantastic Four,” and “Jack Frost.” He has done movie development at studios including Paramount, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks Animation.
Jonathan Heap, Lance Henriksen and Philip Morton on the set
Morton too, hungered for the chance to do more, to grow to the next level.
“I’m always the one jumping up and saying, ‘Let’s make a movie together,” says Morton, who soon came aboard “The Unwilling” as a producer and creative partner on every aspect of the project.
Morton had an idea for a horror film which featured a haunted box bought at a garage sale that turned out to have a demon inside.
“Heap said I’ve got an idea about a guy with OCD who can’t leave his house,” recalls Morton, “and I said, “Let’s put those together. I’ve never seen that before.”
“The Unwilling,” tells the story of the death of an evil elderly man, followed by a gathering of his dysfunctional, feuding family in an isolated country house owned by a recluse (Lipper) with severe OCD.
It has story elements reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft, Hitchcock, and German expressionism.
Most of the film takes place in that one house where Heap creates a sense of claustrophobia and shows how far human beings can be pushed
An ornate antique box that belonged to the dead father is mysteriously delivered just as the will is to be read. The box uses the Yiddish folk device of a dybbuk - a malicious possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. – that is inside the cursed box.
The "dybbuk" box full of evil created for the movie by Bradd Filmann
The idea of the cursed box has been used in other movies, including “The Possession” in 2012 and a Malaysian movie called “Ezra” last year.
At first, the contents of the box seem to offer each person whatever they have wanted, but actually, it is pure evil that will change their lives – for the worse.
“Some of the challenges with the story were keeping it emotional,” says Heap. “Often with the horror genre, it becomes a story of victims (usually young women) running for their lives (and usually being sliced apart). But I didn't want to just make a slasher movie.”
“It has always been crucial for me to have a deeply psychological character faced with a complex crisis to make any story successful,” continues Heap. “It's even more important in a genre that usually relies on plot turns and violence to compel the audience.”
Heap and Lipper, with Morton consulting, wrote the initial script in a few weeks (with Heap doing rewrites all the way through production), as they did fundraising and brought in more collaborators one by one.
One of the first to come on board was another Ithaca College grad, James “Jim” Johnston, who has been Executive Producer of multiple seasons of MTV’s “Real World.”
Johnston, like so many others on the relatively modest production, took on multiple roles as a minority investor, co-Executive Producer, co-Producer and 2nd Assistant Director.
To kick start the low budget movie project Heap and Lipper each put up $100,000.
Lipper was friends with Bob Daley, Jr., son of the former head of Warner Bros., who came in as an investor.
Another investor Heap brought in was Tony Broccoli, the adopted son of the late Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, famed as the producer of the James Bond movies.
With all that, the production still had less than $300,000 in cash, which even by low budget Hollywood standards was not much for such an ambitious effort.
Heap came up with the idea of bartering small chunks of equity ownership in the production in return for work on the movie, services and other resources.
The available cash was used to pay necessary expenses, crew members who didn’t want a credit or equity, and for some casting.
Barter for a credit and equity was the deal Heap made with Dina Meyer, an actress who became one of the stars of the movie and served as an Associate Producer.
Meyer is known from her role on “Beverly Hills 89210,” as well as movies including “Johnny Mnemonic,” “Dragonheart” and “Starship Troopers,” as well as the playing Joey’s girlfriend on NBC’s “Friends” and many other TV guest roles.
Another key equity partner who joined the team was Julia Verdin, a producer and personal manager who has been involved in producing more than 30 independent movies including “Merchant Of Venice,” “2 Jacks” and “Stander.”
Verdin, who met Heap by accident at the American Film Market a few years ago, also played a major role in arranging distribution for the movie.
Brad Filmann came on as Artistic Director, and gave much of the film its spooky, gothic look, and designed the antique box at the center of the plot. His credits include “The Amazing Spiderman,” “The Artists” and “Fair Game.”
Cinematographer David Stump
One of the most important equity partners to join the production was David Stump, who after a successful career doing visual effects and as a director of photography, stepped up his game on “The Unwilling” as the Cinematographer, and Executive Producer, while also overseeing special effects and much more.
“The concept he had for this film was kind of a shadowy 1940s German expressionism,” said Heap. “He was very keen to push the limits, to not make this bright and shiny, but to get back into a kind of Hitchcock realm.”
Stump was also instrumental in bringing in another equity partners without whom the movie would not have been possible.
That was Gianluca Bertone, who is an Executive Producer. Bertone has extensive experience as a post-production consultant and owns Digital Intermediate and a digital camera and equipment rental firm, Bertone Visuals, which provided state of the art Sony 4k cameras used on the production.
Bertone also played a central role in the visual effects, special effects and every aspect of post-production.
When Heap started his career, all movies were shot on celluloid film, which requires a lot of special handling, more lighting, processing, and costs a lot more than digital.
Today almost all movies are shot and captured digitally.
“We absolutely could not have done this movie without digital,” admits Heap, “especially the post.”
When it came to casting beyond Lipper and Myer, the low budget dictated mostly unknown names, but Heap and the producers wanted to get at least some recognizable actor names.
One of those is Lance Henriksen, who has been starring in horror and sci-fi movies and TV since the 1960s.
Lance Henriksen seen in a poster for the movie
Henriksen is best known for his appearance in “Alien,” on the Fox TV series “Millennium” and as Fleet Admiral Steven Hackett in BioWare’s “Mass Effects” video game trilogy,
Heap shopped for name actors but most were out of his price range. He finally hired Henriksen for one day after the actor said he liked the script and, recalls Heap, felt “he had the right tone and character for it.”
Henrikson’s scene is at the beginning of the movie in a hospital room where he is dying and strange things happen.
The distributor of the movie chose that scene with Henriksen as the key art to sell the movie, even though he is only in the picture briefly, and most of the film takes place in the country house.
Some cast members at a film festival. (L to R) Jake Thomas, Austin Highsmith, Bree Williamson, Levy Tran and David Lipper
Production in that house was done in 13 days – all in a row – and Heap says it was “very intense.”
The film is loaded with effects but many were done in the camera, on-site or using visual effects alone.
For instance, in a scene where it appears liquid is covering the entire house, Stump working on a sound stage placed a black tarp down poured milk across it, then inverted it optically and married it to the scene at the location.
One of the most striking visual effects in the movie has Dina Meyer’s character crossing through a glass mirror, where she is trapped inside and can’t get out.
To get the effect, they used a huge tub of water on a soundstage and a copy of the wall in the house that laid flat on the floor.
“Everything stays flat so we are lowering her almost on a hoist into the water,” said Heap.
Meyer was extended on a kind of diving board over the water and is then hoisted into the water.
“It cuts perfectly with her leaning into the wall which we had shot a month earlier,” added Heap.
For a shot where Meyer is banging from the inside of the mirror and then the mirror shatters, they used a high-resolution shot of her on the set screaming, and then matted that to the glass using a special effects process.
“We were all there on the film set at Hollywood camera throwing rocks at this actual pate of glass with this full-sized frame grab of Dina,” said Morton. “So the shattering mirror was literally the glass shattering.”
Heap set the tone for the production.
“Jonathan is an incredibly collaborative director,” says Morton. “He likes input from his creative partners, who he sees as his cast and top crew people.”
“He comes in with his own ideas,” continues Morton, “but he loves feedback, adjustments, that enrich the whole thing.”
Heap storyboarded many of the scenes involving special effects because they had to match up with the work done in post-production, but other times he gave the actors the freedom to contribute ideas about the flow of action.
“Filmmaking is a very mercurial process,” says Heap. “It changes a lot while you’re making the film and while you’re editing, which is why the idea of not taking suggestions from actors or crew is crazy.”
“Once I set the tone and rhythm I wanted,” adds Heap, “all sort of great ideas came out of everybody.”
“Heap is enthusiastic, bubbly, joking around,” says Morton. “His enthusiasm is contagious.”
“This whole life is confounding and irritating,” says Heap, “but I can still get into that space where I can say, ‘Wow, this is great.’”
Most of the movie was edited at Heap’s home in Los Angeles by veteran editor Bayard Stryker, while post-production was mostly done at Bertone’s facility in Burbank. Stryker’s credits include “Broken Angel” and “The Lost Tribe.”
As soon as it was completed, “The Unwilling” began making the global film festival circuit, and racked up 14 awards and kudos.
It was named Best Narrative Film at the Oregon Film Festival, Best Feature at the Blackout Film Festival, Champion at the Film Playoff Tournament (with acting honors for Lipper and the directing award for Heap), as well as recognition at festivals from Toronto To Copenhagen to Russia.
The real sales effort kicked off in November 2016 when Heap, Verdin, Lipper and others went to the American Film Market in Santa Monica handing out cards and showing a trailer they had cut as they sought a distribution deal, both for the U.S and overseas.
Verdin took the lead on the distribution strategy because she had the most experience, but it was Lipper who happened to stop by the suite of Vision Films, a company based in Marina del Rey.
Vision bought worldwide rights to “The Unwilling,” and then through a deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment’s home entertainment division, set up U.S. distribution through Sony.
That deal was not for theatrical but it covered DVD, pay per view and other ancillary markets which can include TV sales, streaming rights and online rights.
Heap had hoped there might be a theatrical sale but that has become more difficult over the years, as big blockbuster movies dominate the American and world cinemas.
In this case, a major player in horror, Blumhouse Productions, did look at the movie and while the feedback about the film was positive, recalls Heap. They said, “none of the names (the actors) are big enough” for a theatrical run.
There was a time a movie like “The Unwilling” could be sold for at least a brief run in theaters just based on the horror genre, but that time has passed.
Today, indie movies are sold overseas based on the genre and the identifiable actors, which results in pre-sales before the movie is even distributed.
In the case of “The Unwilling,” even with Lance Henriksen, the cast would not be attractive to overseas buyers.
“The Unwilling” is getting mostly favorable horror genre reviews and early indications are it is attracting DVD and pay per view sales action.
Cryptic Rock wrote that “it is a well-crafted story with interesting and flawed characters. It has equal measures of Horror and Dark Comedy moments that break up the tension. The special effects are top notch…and the cast worked well together.”
Heap hopes “The Unwilling” will be his calling card to getting major directing assignments again although based on his past experience that is no sure thing.
He has given his life to have this career, forgoing marriage, children and a regular existence and at times he wonders if it was really worth it.
“Oh yeah,” admits Heap, “I have had horrendous down times when I think I’ve made a horrible mistake, but then I think about my life in that other manor and I just couldn’t have done it.”
Morton has managed to have a home life and kids but he admits it is an up and down lifestyle as jobs come and go. His producing credit on “The Unwilling” has already given him a boost, helping him get producing jobs on TV and in indie film.
Morton has a feature project, "Amortals," currently in development with producer Andrew Lazar ("American Sniper") at Warner Bros, and co created and co wrote the first season of "Malibu Dan," a sit com produced last year for Pureflix.com.
Heap has a degree of bitterness about the industry that has been his life.
“I don’t think it’s a meritocracy,” says Heap. “It’s very political depending on our personal life and social connections.”
“The idea of having a voice, like Hitchcock or someone,” adds Heap, “is absolutely out the door at this point.”
“There are a lot of failures because they’re not letting an artist or even a good craftsman do something that’s organic,” he laments. “It’s by the numbers now.”
“That is why you have to make your own thing,” says Heap. “It took me 17 years to get to that reality. I wish I had done it in 2005 but we didn’t have digital filmmaking then. It wasn’t as easy.
Or as Heap says of Hollywood: “It’s incestuous. It’s all the same people glad-handing each other and giving each other kudos. The industry is very closeted.”
And the truth is, it still isn’t easy. Unless you have talent, determination, connections, money, and luck, you are still numbered among the unwilling.