Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Digging Up The Dirt with KillDozer and Michael Ballif (The Witching Season, They Live Inside Us)

From time to time we all get lost in the "streaming maze" where every title just starts to melt together in a never ending loop of "what should I watch?!". One night in early October I was trapped in such a maze until one title complete with amazing poster art work stuck out and screamed WATCH ME!!!! I am  happy to say that I did. That title The Witching Season on Amazon Prime. A horror anthology show that was so fun and made with so much love that I had to dig up the dirt on how it came to be. 

KillDozer: What inspired you to bring The Witching Season to life? 

Michael Ballif: It really spawned from my love of anthology shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps. Those were my first real introduction to the horror genre when I was a kid and they always stuck with me. I loved the idea of making my own version of something in a similar realm, though targeted more towards adults who grew up with those shows. I also felt like creating a series would be a great opportunity to work with new people. I've been lucky to have made some lasting relationships from it.

KD: The Witching Season is obviously a labor of love. What did it take to get funding and bring it to the screen?

Michael: What little we had to work with was all self-financed, but it was practically a zero budget production. Most everyone who worked on the project did so for the experience, I think. And although the budget was small, we wanted to make sure we didn't cut any corners and made this thing look as good as it possibly could. The series' existence is a testament to the passion and love everyone involved dedicated to make it happen. 

KD: Did you have all the episodes written before you started production? Was this always meant to be a series?

Michael: It was always intended to be a series but I only had the first episode written and ready to go initially. I knew I wanted it to be a variety show of horror, sprawling various sub-genres from one episode to another. I felt like a slasher film would be a good way to start things off, because traditionally they are somewhat straight forward in terms of story and suspense. Of course, "Killer on the Loose" has its own unique Witching Season twist, which we tried to create for every episode. It ended up being a great template to set the tone of what future episodes should look and feel like. 

KD: Was it an obvious choice to place the series during Halloween or did you ever question how you would set the stage for The Witching Season?

Michael: It was the other half the equation, really. When I decided on doing an anthology I knew there needed to be something unique about it. I fell in love with the idea of capturing stories that happen during the "Witching Season", similar to how Tales From The Darkside would tell stories about the darker side of life. I am also fascinated by the Halloween season and (attempting) to capture the aesthetic that comes along with it. 

KD: I've seen the series described as "fueled by nostalgia", do you think this is a fair description? 

Michael: It's definitely intended to be a bit of a "throwback" style series. Something you might have found on TV in the 80's or 90's. Of course that's all the rage now with shows like Stranger Things, but at the time we started making TWS it felt pretty unique. Not that I'm complaining; I love Stranger Things, and I think it's cool that more and more stuff like this is getting made. 

KD: How did you go about choosing writers for the series? Was there anyone you reached out to that was unable to work on The Witching Season?

Michael: Originally my plan was to write and direct every episode. But as post production on the pilot began taking much longer than I had anticipated, I asked James Morris (who plays the "masked killer" character in the first episode) if he would be interested in writing the script for episode two. That way he could be writing while I was finishing up the edit. He took a short story I had written about a killer rabbit and adapted it into a screenplay. When I read the script I genuinely loved it but was so clearly in James' voice that I felt like it made the most sense for him to direct it himself. Fortunately he agreed and ended up writing the screenplay for and directing episodes three and five after that, and I took on the rest. 

KD: Do you have any personal favorites amongst the episodes?

Michael: I ended up doing the cinematography for the entire series, but "Princess" was the first episode that I shot and didn't direct myself. It was also the first project of this scale that I had ever worked on in this way, and I think for that reason it stands out the most. As filmmakers, we tend to get so close to the things we make that we can't really see them the way an audience does anymore. It's the one episode I can look at the most objectively, so I enjoy watching it. Plus I think it came together really well. James and the cast did an excellent job. 

KD: What is casting like on an independent project like this? 

Michael: We shot in our home state of Utah and utilized a number of local Facebook groups to set up auditions. That was one of the best ways to find new people. But we also worked with actors who we had either connected with or worked with in the past. We even had actors reach out to us because they heard about the project and wanted to be a part of what we were doing. There are a lot of talented people in the area that we've been fortunate enough to work with.

KD: As far as special effects go, did you know what you wanted to go with in terms of digital vs. practical? Were you held back by your budget or does a small budget inspire creativity? 

Michael: I think you're absolutely right about that. I find that having a smaller box to work within forces you to be more creative. I tend to think that if you can do an effect practically, in camera, that's usually the best way to go. But sometimes pairing a practical effect with some digital enhancement can yield some fantastic results too. The best example of this is in "Not Alone" where the alien creature appears in the corner of the room. For that effect we simply had our actor wearing a pure black spandex suite. He also wore long paper fingers. You know the kind you'd fold up in elementary school? Like that. But we spray painted them black. The effect of the creature only worked when I went into After Effects and darkened the corner of the room so you could barely see what it was in the corner. If you were to look at the raw footage you would laugh at how ridiculous it looked. 

KD: Has the series opened up the door for future projects? 

Michael: It definitely has. It allowed us to build up a small following of friends, fans, and family who ultimately helped us finance our first low budget feature film, which is in production right now. Just about everyone involved in The Witching Season is creatively involved in the making of the film in some way.

KD: What has been your experience with genre fans watching the show? Have you ever screened anything from The Witching Season in front of a theatre crowd?

Michael: From what I've seen, it seems like most die-hard horror fans understand what we were trying to do with it. It's been really cool to see people react to a project that felt so weirdly personal to me. I honestly didn't know if people would be into it or not, especially the Halloween element. But people seem to enjoy it. 

We submitted every episode to a number of different film festivals around the world and have been fortunate enough to attend a few of those screenings. One of the most notable was the Utah Film Festival in 2018 where "They Live Inside Us" screened for a packed crowd. It was awarded "Best Utah Made Film" at the festival, going up against even some big budget feature films. That was a big moment for me. 

KD:  How were you able to get The Witching Season on Amazon? Are you happy with that decision?

Michael: Amazon launched their Video Direct feature a while back, which allows independent filmmakers to release content to the site directly. It's a pretty amazing resource to have. I compare it to a filmmaker in the 90's having the ability to walk into a video store and place their film on the shelf to be rented to the public. It's pretty unheard of and offers the ability to tap into a huge marketplace filmmakers otherwise would need to jump through many, many hoops to get into. It's been great and has really helped us get the series seen by as many eyeballs as possible. 

KD: What can fans expect next? Where can we go to follow your work and stay up to date?

Michael: I'm wrapping up production on my first feature-film right now, which is called They Live Inside Us. It is an adaptation of the fourth episode of The Witching Season taking the same concept of the short -- about a writer who goes to a notoriously haunted house to find inspiration for his next project -- but expands upon many of the ideas. It takes everything I love about horror and Halloween and compiles it into a movie that I think genre fans are going to love. I am hoping for the film to be released at some point towards the end of the year. I am also planning to do a second season of TWS at some point in the near future, once this feature is complete.

You can stay up to date with progress on that and other projects through my production company Witching Season Films.

KD: If you could combine The Witching Season universe with any other film universe what would it be and why?

Michael: I'd love to make a Goosebumps film set around Halloween time, but for adults. Any takers?

KD: If you could erase any of the recent horror remakes from history which would it be?

Michael: I don't like to hate on remakes, but I wish the recent IT remake was scarier than it was. I enjoyed many parts about it, but it just wasn't scary and the opportunity was there. 

KD: What films have you seen in the last 2 years that have inspired you?

Michael: Hereditary has been majorly inspiring to me. I love that movie. Also, Justin Seaman's The Barn is amazing.

KD: What is your favorite piece of film memorabilia?  

Michael: I wish I had some cool film memorabilia but I really don't. The holy grail would be to own an original screen-used Haunted Mask from the 90's Goosebumps TV series. That'd be rad.

Check out The Witching Season streaming on Amazon today!


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