Pink Bicycles and Folding Chairs: An Interview with Microbudget Movie Maker Joshua Kennedy
Horror movie maker Joshua Kennedy knows how to make imaginative movies with little or no money. He made an homage to '70s airline disaster films without a plane -- but with plenty of folding chairs.
I feel a certain kinship to Joshua Kennedy. Not that I achieved anything near what he did by age 25. But I made my first movie at age eight and by the time I was 12-years-old I was shooting films regularly on weekends with my friends. I grew up acting and directing plays for school and formed a small community theater company during my first year in college. I always felt that I was ambitious and driven, but boy was I wrong.
Kennedy made his first film at age five. By the time he was 16, Kennedy had his first feature film, 2010's Attack of the Octopus People released on DVD. If I had my first feature film released on DVD by age 16 I would've called it a day and retired fully content that I had done it all. But Kennedy was just getting started. Over the next decade he made more than a dozen feature films, almost all of which were released on DVD as well.
He has been nominated for four Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards and was the recipient of Monster Bash's prestigious "Forry Award" for Lifetime Achievement in the field of classic film. A lifetime of achievement in 25 years!
Born in Edinburg Texas, Kennedy grew up in a creatively supportive household. His parents Gus and Ana as well as his sister Kat Kennedy often work in front of or behind the camera in many of Kennedy's projects. After spending his high school years producing films and plays with a very committed group of friends, Kennedy really flourished when he arrived at Pace University in New York City. He took advantage of the large pool of acting talent at Pace to form a kind of stock company for his films and moved quickly to make full use of all the resources the school and city had to offer.
Seven of his films were produced during his years at Pace University. All of them are extreme examples of how to make imaginative films with little or no money. Just imagine attempting to make an homage to '70s airline disaster films without a plane. But Kennedy had a hallway plus some folding chairs at Pace and the confidence to make Airline '79 (2015) work.
Unlike most young filmmakers, Kennedy doesn't wait until he has the right budget or resources to make whatever he is inspired to make. He has the ingenuity of a desperate community theater director armed with a few wobbly flats and leftover costumes from last year's production of The Music Man.
So Kennedy fearlessly turned NYC into Victorian London for The Return of Sherlock Holmes (2016) and depicted the city after the apocalypse in his homage to The Omega Man (Sagal, 1971) The Alpha Omega Man (2017). He did this by sneaking shots on Sunday mornings when the streets would be empty. Faced with the problem of finding the right car for his last-man-on-earth hero, Kennedy finally settled on a bicycle. The fact that it was pink was not a problem.
Kennedy is first and foremost a rabid film fan. But the kind of fan who appears frustrated by his place outside the screen. His films express a passionate desire to commune with his favorite films and filmmakers by making new works inspired by them. The films are often very funny but they are not merely parodies. They may often be tongue in cheek but the love for the films he is inspired by is the main driving force.
(Courtesy of Joshua Kennedy)
The filmmaking craft is not flashy or showy. Like many of his favorite filmmakers, Kennedy is interested in telling the story through his actors. The films exist in the purely cinematic world of '50s sci-fi monster movies, Hammer gothic horror, and Ray Harryhausen fantasy epics. Not that this represents all of his inspirations. You would be excluding many others like Nigel Kneale, Terence Fisher, Roger Corman, Mario Bava, Charlton Heston, disaster films of the 1970s and perhaps one film, in particular, The Gorgon (Fisher, 1960).
The Gorgon is his favorite and the inspiration for at least two of his films, The Night of Medusa (2016) and his most ambitious project to date, House of the Gorgon (2019). Kennedy's House of Gorgon is an homage to Hammer Films featuring an impressive cast of Hammer veterans. Martine Beswick (Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde), Veronica Carlson (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave), Caroline Munro (Dracula A.D. 1972), and Christopher Neame (Dracula A.D. 1972) all made the journey to Kennedy's home state of Texas to appear in the film.
For Kennedy, House of the Gorgon is both a leap forward as well as the culmination of many years of making cinematic homages. It's a tribute to the Hammer Films style in general and Terence Fisher, the studio's underrated ace director in particular. The set designs by Lauro Hinojosa and Noe Ramirez, the lighting design of Rosa Cano and the wonderful James Bernard-inspired music score by Reber Clark all help to recapture the very specific mood and style of the Hammer House of Horror.
Joshua Kennedy was very kind to take some time out of the many screenings of the film in the US and UK to answer a few questions about his process and his love for classic horror and science fiction cinema.
(Courtesy of Joshua Kennedy)
These interviews are trying to focus on the almost quixotic endeavor that is microbudget filmmaking. In a way it shouldn't exist as anything but a hobby but can it be more than that? Do you see a path to making micro or low budget films as a business or career? Or do you see the whole thing differently --the creative thrill of making the films as an end to itself.
A quixotic endeavor is actually the best description! Personally, I just really enjoy the creative thrill. If you're getting into independent filmmaking to make money, I think you're in the wrong profession!
Can you remember the first time you were aware of the role of the director in movies?
Probably when I noticed Alfred Hitchcock's name get twisted during the main titles of Psycho. Why did it get twisted? Why is his name important? I clearly had a lot to learn, but you must forgive me at age six!
You were able to secure distribution for Attack of the Octopus People when you were just 15. What inspired you to make it and how did you get it released on DVD?
Well, I've been making films since I was five years old. When High School came around I was surrounded by like-minded theater and film students who were just itching to do something creative. A low budget 1950's monster movie just fit the mold perfectly. Luckily, Alpha Video is run by a chap named Steve Kaplan who is a huge classic monster fan and he fell in love with the film immediately.
(Courtesy of Joshua Kennedy)
You went to Pace University in NYC and it seems that you were able to turn the school into a kind of studio backlot. What was that experience like? Was there any difficulty transitioning your methods from your high school days?
It most certainly was my own personal backlot, Ha! If anything, Pace and NYC just provided me with a much larger canvas… and much more production value! Here I was surrounded by actors and actresses from all over the world – and if my high school friends were itching to do something creative, you better believe my fellow college students were 100x more interested!
Your family seems not only to be very supportive but often directly involved with your work. Especially with the 2016 short film, The St. Augustine Monster, which seems to be a Kennedy family production. What's it like working with family and in particular with your sister Kat Kennedy, who is very involved both on-screen and off?
Oh, I am incredibly blessed to have such a supportive family – they are easily my number one fans. The great thing about my Kat – who now works for NASA – is that I hardly had to give her any direction because she always knew what I wanted. Remember, when I was making my films at age five, I only had her to play all the parts!
She was the first to teach me scheduling at a very early age. I can still hear her giving me commands in her four-year-old voice: "I'll give you five minutes to shoot all of my scenes".
You have directed theater as well as movies and it seems to me that there is a strong theatricality that drives your work regardless of the medium. How important has theater been in your life?
Very. You learn so much when you perform in front of a live audience: timing, comedy, drama, horror… I recommend it to anyone who wants to be in this field. Film and theater overlap in so many ways.
(Courtesy of Joshua Kennedy)
What is the Communities in Schools Summer Circus and your involvement in it?
The CIS Summer Circus is this crazy idea that my Dad had about 20 years ago which involved placing at-risk students with gifted-and-talented students and have them put on a theatrical production over the course of two weeks. As you can imagine, the experience for these students is life-changing.
Over the past few years I have taken over directing these productions and they have only become more outrageous with time. We've done The Ten Commandments, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, King Kong, and we just finished a production of My Fair Lady.
Part of the charm of your films are the very imaginative ways you solve challenges of production design, prop, or special effects, often with the kind of simple solutions or abstractions that are more common in the theater. What was the most challenging scene or sequence you've ever done? Was there any problem you had particular difficulty solving?
Oh, every film is a challenge and at the end of the day, I'll take low-budget creativity over big-budget CGI. I'm particularly fond of the empty, plague-ridden NYC shots in The Alpha Omega Man. I'm supposed to be the last man on Earth – and I decide to shoot these scenes in the busiest city in the world!
My sister Kat was on camera and we would sometimes spend an entire morning getting one shot of me on a bicycle. There were always pedestrians, cars, trucks, going by… it was nerve-wracking and I wanted to make sure I got everything IN-camera – no CGI.
Luckily, our hard work paid off and the opening shot literally got a gasp from the audience at the premiere.
(Courtesy of Joshua Kennedy)
I'm very interested in your process and your team of regular collaborators. At Pace, you created a kind of stock company of actors such as Madelyn Wiley, Carmen Vienhage, Bessie Nellis, Jeremy Kreuzer, Haley Zega, Traci Thomas -- not to forget your sister Kat Kennedy and perhaps most of all-yourself. Do you often write with certain actors in mind? Is it important to you to create and foster a community of talented artists to collaborate with?
I was so blessed with my Pace stock company – all of them were pure dynamite. I much prefer writing with actors in mind. I remember when I was going to make Dracula A.D. 2015, I felt bad that I couldn't cast all of my stock company that semester.
In response to this, I wrote The Vesuvius Experiment that utilized the other half of my stock company. We shot back-to-back. My goal is for an atmosphere of relaxation and fun on my sets and with returning cast members it's always a blast.
What is your approach to directing actors? Do you rehearse the movie before shooting?
Even with the time crunch involved in low budget filmmaking, I must admit that I love rehearsals. I always try and find time to rehearse a scene before it is filmed. I can throw in my ideas, hear ideas from my actors, try different things.
Sometimes a scene on the page just doesn't work on set and I'll ask my actors to improvise something. More often than not they'll come up with an idea that is much better than anything I could think of.
Do you find it difficult to direct and act at the same time? How do you go about this if you are working on a very small budget and also doing the cinematography?
It's actually much less stressful for me to act in my own films because I am the only person I can trust to show up, have their lines memorized, and know their characterization every time.
(Courtesy of Joshua Kennedy)
How long does a typical film take for you to finish? From idea to script to premiere?
It honestly really depends on a lot of factors: actors' schedules, my schedule, the opportunity to film the idea, etc. I think the quickest turnarounds were my films at Pace: Dracula, Vesuvius, Airline… I'd say four months from writing the scripts to premiere. Not long at all… and I still had class and exams to study for!
Do you consider your resources before writing or do you let your imagination take the lead and then try to figure out how to shoot the script? This becomes even more intriguing when I think of The Return of Sherlock Holmes and Airline '79, where you have a Victorian London setting on the one hand and an airplane on the other!
It definitely helps to consider resources while writing… But as I said before, I'm making these films because I love to. In the summer of 2014, I was incredibly obsessed with the Airport films of the '70s. That semester I made Airline '79 with no budget, little costumes, and, most of all, no plane! I was just so in love with the genre that I had to make it with no care for the consequences.
Once you've written the script, do you tinker with it throughout production or stick pretty closely to it?
I much prefer to stick closely to the script while shooting. These films are shot so quickly that there is really no time to be rewriting major plot points on set.
How detailed are your plans before shooting? Do you storyboard/ shot list and plan out blocking in advance or work that out on the day?
I like to show up on set completely prepared with storyboards and blocking ideas. Again, there can be no wasted time.
(Courtesy of Joshua Kennedy)
One of the most difficult challenges is scheduling. Actors are often volunteering their time and have jobs and other responsibilities that may hold priority. How do you deal with scheduling? Like Orson Welles often did, do you occasionally shoot scenes featuring several actors separately and cut them together during editing?
Scheduling is honestly my least favorite part of making my films. Actor A can only be here from 10-11:30, Actor B is running late, Actor C can get here at noon but has to eat because it's his lunch break… Gah!
I have definitely cut together scenes with actors who never worked together. I also read that Welles liked to wait until his actors had gone home to shoot his own close-ups. I completely understand his mindset behind that – and I admit that I've done the same on numerous occasions.
Many filmmakers are obsessed with gear and tech often to the point of forgetting the point of these tools. You seem to have avoided this obsession entirely and focused on what matters: the content. But your films have become more technically proficient over the past few years. What camera do you currently shoot with and how do you record sound?
Ha ha! I'm glad to hear that I have seemingly improved over the years. Currently, I shoot with a Canon 70D and use a Rode Microphone… but I've never been one to unduly praise equipment. It's not how great your camera is, it's the story you tell with it.
Dracula AD 2015 is lots of fun. It was great to see just how you would bounce the pieces of AD 1972 and other Hammer Dracula movies into the NYC surrounding Pace University. It also seems to be a pretty large success on YouTube with over 300,000 views. Do you see YouTube or streaming as a potential way to build an audience and make a profit through self-distribution?
Most definitely. YouTube has allowed me to showcase my work to people all over the globe…. Something seemingly impossible 15 years ago.
When I was a student in NYC, a complete stranger came up to me in the hallway and thanked me for making a YouTube Pace University Freshman Orientation video. He told me it was the deciding factor for him in choosing a school. The student was from Brazil!
(Courtesy of Joshua Kennedy)
Regarding distribution, you have had a long relationship with oldies.com/Alpha New Cinema for DVD releases. How does one work with a distributor like Alpha?
They've been wonderful to work with. I'll send them a DVD of my latest project and, if they enjoy it, they'll immediately start working on the DVD art. I approve it and they'll take care of the rest.
Terence Fisher has long been one of my favorite filmmakers. I am still amazed at how underrated he remains. Is it true that Fisher's The Gorgon is your favorite film? It has influenced you enough to make two films inspired by it -- The Night of Medusa and House of the Gorgon. What is about that film and Terence Fisher that you find so fascinating?
Oh, yes: The Gorgon is my favorite film of all time. I can't really pinpoint exactly what it is about his films – the atmosphere, the blowing leaves, the very simple setups… his films are just comforting to watch.
The St. Augustine Monster is an expressionistic silent film in the style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. What were the challenges in making a silent film?
I think every filmmaker should make a silent film at one point or another because it really forces you to think visually: How can I convey a story without dialogue? Also, I wanted every set and prop to be painted on cardboard to convey the feeling of German Expressionism. It was an incredibly thought-provoking experience and I hope to do another silent film soon.
Low-tech special effects from The Vesuvius Xperiment (2015) (Courtesy of Joshua Kennedy)
House of the Gorgon seems to be a much larger scaled endeavor than your earlier work. What were the unique challenges of this project? Did you use a larger crew or did you continue to handle most of the production duties yourself? How long was the shoot?
(giggles maniacally) The great thing about House is that all of my actors were available the entire time. There was no need to worry about Actor A having to leave by 3pm, or Actor C running late… we were all trapped in this one banquet hall!
Honestly, there was no other way we could do it. We shot the whole thing in six days. For the first time, I had a real technical crew waiting in the wings to help move sets and props. I enlisted the help of genius lighting designer Rosa Cano to light the film – she designed all the lights for a good number of my stage productions. Having people I could trust to take care of some of the duties I usually would take care of was a great load off my back.
Did you design and construct multiple individual sets for the production or did you put together a unit set to redress and repurpose the way Hammer often did?
A bit of both actually. Master designers Lauro Hinojosa and Noe Ramirez built this fabulous Bernard Robinson-inspired castle in the middle of this ballroom. Other sets were built, filmed on, and then replaced. The cave specifically became the room at the inn, and then the interior of the train.
Did you rent a warehouse, garage or soundstage for the production?
Yes, it was the La Antigua Revilla Banquet Hall normally used for graduations, weddings and big celebrations.
With such accomplished performers and cult icons as Veronica Carlson, Martine Beswick, Caroline Munro, and Christopher Neame in the cast did you find yourself altering your working methods at all?
Not particularly, no. I was more concerned with passing out from sheer fan-boy delight!
You made a smaller scaled film after Theseus and right before Gorgon called The Fungus Among Us. It almost seems like it's a return to some of your earlier '50s inspired monster movies meets Faster Pussycat Kill Kill! Was that always planned to be your next film after Theseus or something that came together quickly while waiting to start Gorgon?
This is kind of a funny story: House of the Gorgon was on the distant horizon and I had a few months of waiting. This was going to be difficult: how could I keep myself from going crazy with anticipation before this monumental film? Easy. Make a no-budget monster movie with my friends to eat up some time.
And thus, The Fungus Among Us was born. I'm actually quite happy with how the film turned out!You went the crowdfunding route for both Theseus and the Minotaur and House of the Gorgon. Did you find crowdfunding to be an effective way of financing your productions? Will you continue to do it in the future?
It's a lot of work, but it definitely helps.
(Courtesy of Joshua Kennedy)
You've worked with composers Tom Milligan and Reber Clark recently. How do you communicate your ideas with them? Do you have them score the films after they have been cut or use tracks they compose while editing?
Luckily, both men are creative geniuses and I've been blessed to work with them – hopefully on many more projects! I really like for them to see as close to a final cut as possible before they start writing any music. Then, they go off and work their magic with very little input from me.
Again, they are tremendous. They both "get" me and usually know exactly the music I am thinking of. One of Reber's cues for House of the Gorgon literally made me cry when I first heard it. It was exactly what I had wanted.
Cowgirls VS Pterodactyls is your second collaboration with stop motion animator Ryan Lengyel following Theseus and the Minotaur. How do you go about planning scenes incorporating stop motion and live-action? Was the stop motion work done before or after the live-action?
A lot of detailed storyboards and a lot of long emails! With both Theseus and Cowgirls the animation was done after the live-action. Ryan is a God: I have no idea how he juggles raising a family, a day job, and animating these beautiful creatures. He's unbelievable and I'm delighted to be working with him again.
What is your concept for making Shakespeare's Richard III on a microbudget?
I'd either go in the direction of really big production value a'la Olivier's film, or the incredibly bare low-budget direction of Ian McKellen's Macbeth. We'll just have to see where the tide of fate takes me.
What are your goals for Gooey Productions in the future?
If I could have a nice chunk of dough in the bank to continue making my films my way, I would be ecstatic.
If you had an opportunity to shoot a slightly larger scale feature film what would you make?
Oof – a great question! I'm not one to place ideas on the back burner or bucket lists… Maybe a huge Biblical epic?
Why are you drawn to both the aesthetics and narratives of older films?
Again a difficult question. There was such a tangible, larger than life artistry to these older films: big stories, big sets, big stars, big directors. Plus, I'm a sucker for lush orchestral scores and exquisite main titles before the film. Those two things are basically extinct now.
I know you love Terence Fisher and Hammer but what do you think of Corman's Poe films for AIP? And Mario Bava?
Love them! You'll see an incredible amount of their influence in my films, especially House of the Gorgon.
And finally: Is Godzilla better in a rubber suit?
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Many of Joshua Kennedy's films are available from Alpha Video. Dracula A.D. 2015, Airline '79 and The Alpha Omega Man can be seen on Kennedy's YouTube channel. You can purchase a DVD of House of the Gorgon at GorgonMovie.com and find out more about Joshua Kennedy's latest projects on his Facebook page.