When I do these interviews I’m constantly reminded of why I love films and the people who make them. Whenever I’m prepping for an interview I always tell myself, “I’m not spending more then an hour on the phone.” Well, in this case, with the producer/director of “Transylmania,” I disregarded that once again. Scott and I traded countless stories of our trials and tribulations about the movie biz. And… two and a half hours later, with ten pages of notes and my phone battery dead, I sat there not regretting one or 160 minutes of my time spent talking with him about film.
Scott, of Scott and David Hillenbrand, filmmakers with multiple successful and profitable movies, including the National Lampoons franchise of “Dorm Daze” and “Dorm Daze II,” took his valuable time to talk about all the esoteric details of his new film, “Transylmania.” Once again I salivated and asked questions like a nerd in the front of class with the thick glasses. When we finished, he said to me, “Man… if you need any help with anything, let me know. I believe in the bond between us filmmakers. It’s about taking care of each other.”
After he said that, that’s when I finally figured out why I love filmmakers so much. We’re of a certain breed, it’s like we have a different blood type then normal people. We have this DC blood type, for Delusional and Crazy. With those kind of different genetics it creates a certain bond between us. We’ve all gone through the bad times; waiting to be accepted into a festival (I hate you Sundance), living off of hotdogs, sleeping on a friends couch, working 22 hours straight, or racking up a huge amounts of credit card debt. All these sacrifices and for what? Just to be called a filmmaker…
I want to thank Scott Hillenbrand and all the other DC blood type filmmakers for extending themselves to one another, and for sharing their tidbits of film knowledge and stories with the film community and me. Quite frankly, I consider myself the richest poor guys I know. And… I’ve grown to moderately like eating hotdogs for three meals a day.
Why this film now? I’m suspecting that after the success of “Dorm Daze,” you were like… a cruise would be nice. Hmm, “Dorm Daze 2,” College at Sea. Then, after that one was successful, you were like… a vacation to Europe sounds like a good time. Maybe a castle in Romania… “Transylmania”…?
Our movie National Lampoon’s “Dorm Daze” had become quite a success. People seemed to really like the movie. We were getting a lot of emails about how the fans would like to see the specific characters again. We looked at other companies like Newline, Lions Gate, and Trimark. We always dreamed about building franchises like they had done. So, we thought, how about we bring some of the same characters from “Dorm Daze” back again in their next year of college. What if they now they are on a semester at sea on a cruise ship.
So after we shot “Dorm Daze 2”, and had quite a bit of success with that as well, again we kept getting a lot of fan mail about certain characters like Rusty, Lynne, Newmar, and the Stoners Pete and Wang. So we figured what if we spun those characters into a new film, and had them study abroad in a Castle in the town of Transylmania. This was before the “Twilight” scene hit big, so we weren’t trying to go for that trendy vampire market at the time either. We ended up having some crew members who were either from Romania, or had direct ties to it. So they mentioned actually trying to find a castle in Romania. And that’s what we did.
We were trying to stay away from the modern horror spoof movies that spoof specific movie titles. We wanted to do something that we loved and grew up on. We were greatly influenced by Mel Brooks genre of movies that don’t spoof specific sets of movies, but spoof the horror genres as a whole.
You gotta tell me. How cool was it to hang out in a castle?
There were ten castles to look at and we sent someone out to go and shoot footage and take pictures of all of them. The pictures never really did justice. When we went to see the castle we shot at, it felt like a pilgrimage just to get to there. After several flight connections, a train, and an eight-hour remote drive through Romania and the historic lands of Transylvania, we finally get to this run-down little town in the middle of nowhere. We were a bit let down, then… we see this magnificent, almost pristine 800 year-old castle glistening over the horizon. It was magnificent. We kept finding ourselves asking, “Is this real?”
My brother and I ended up going to the castle weeks before the production crew, to start storyboarding and deciding where every frame of the movie would be shot. We had an entire castle to ourselves for six weeks. It was great.
Did you have any sword fights? Two guys in a castle together all alone. You had to! And not sword fights in a gay way.
Hehe… How couldn’t we have had non-gay sword fights? My brother and I were basically in 800 year-old castle by ourselves for six weeks. It would be gay if we didn’t have sword fights.
Seriously, the whole trip and experience was a lot of fun. We got to take all of our actors on European vacation, literally and figuratively. We decided to try to bring a little realism into the living arrangements. We thought, what if like the movie, we had all of our actors stay in the same hotel together, so they too, would be able to experience the trip together, just like in the movie. We really felt that all of them staying together in the same place bonding together really lent itself toward the characters interactions and relationships in the movie. Plus, they got a lot of really great stories and adventures out it. It was kind of like a real college dorm in a way.
If we can, we try to bring that kind of philosophy to all the movies we do in some way. We had this scene in a strip club, and the actual stripper just didn’t show up, so we had a little time to kill while finding another available stripper to fill in. So, we made the decision, that since in the story line the characters were suppose to be a little toasted, then why not let them do a little method acting, and let them get into their characters. In the end, we really thought that the booze added to the scene.
I ask this question every interview I do. It’s my favorite. There’s a story behind every film, whether its how the money got raised, how somebody died making the film, or how something went terribly wrong. What’s the story behind this story?
I’d say it’s about what it’s like to work in a foreign country. It was communist country not but twenty or thirty years ago. You could actually see exactly what was built after communism stopped and the new age started. Another thing was the language barrier. There were things that they would say, like, “It’s okay, It’s okay.” Well, to them that means it’s good. But to us, okay, just means, it’s okay… So we had to get use to certain things like that. Because, we definitely didn’t want things just to be okay…
Another story behind the story was putting the whole thing together. We got to pick out the trains. In saying that, we got to pick every car that would be in the train scene. They would set up these sets of tracks running parallel to each other. One of the tracks had the train and the other was the camera train, with the camera apparatus used to shoot the train-to-train shots. We asked if we could see the actual apparatus. They said, “No problem, it’s okay, it’s okay”. They still didn’t show us to the last minute. They finally took us to see it. It was this cart with this little scissor-lift looking thing that would go up 30 feet in the air. It was a bit scary. We had a lot of little experiences like that over there.
Another thing was, we used a lot of 2ks, 4ks, 10ks and even 20ks to light a lot of the scenes in the film. That’s what I call BFL’s (big f*****g lights). If we had shot those scenes in the states we would have used balloon type lighting. We would have never lit it that way. By doing that way we were able to achieve a really cool look that we felt really served the film well in the end.
Okay… here’s the story behind the story…
We raised 10 million dollars for the advertising of this film. We ended up getting outspent four to one by other films at the time. So if we were putting up 10 million, they were putting up 40 million to advertise their films. It was heart wrenching. Because the test screenings scored so high, we really felt like our movie was going to do well in the theatres. That’s why we feel that when people see it on DVD, or pay per view, and they really like it. They are going to wonder why they didn’t get to see it in the theater. And we remain optimistic that it’s going to ensure us a cult following with the film.
Did you see the “Hot Tub Time Machine” movie? “No”… Me either. Everyone who did see it thought it was pretty funny. They spent around 45 million on advertising. They only did 38 million in the box office at five weeks. Don’t forget, out of that 38 million, they only get about half of that. Plus, they spent close to 35 Million to make it. What seemed like a commercial success wasn’t financially that big of a success. So, a lot of things can happen when you chose to put the money out to go theatrical. Personally, I don’t know anyone else who raised 10 million for advertising, for a film that was only made for five million. So, I know we’re doing something right.
What was it like dealing with such a big budget in media and advertising?
We hired Palisades Media to do our media analysis and buying. Their team does an analysis of who our core audience is, and where we should advertise for those people to see it. It turns out that women seemed to like the movie just as much as the guys. That was the reason we decided to go with a different artwork with a picture of the guy, instead of the typical hot chick. That artwork tested really well with both sexes, so we went with it.
Over all, we got killed in the four to one in media exposure by a few other movies that were in the theatre around our release date. They say someone needs to see your trailer commercial seven times before they decide they want to actually go and see your film. If your people are seeing your movie trailer 7 times, and your competitions that are being seen 30 times, then it’s hard to compete against that.
Did you do any viral marketing?
Yeah… sort of. There was a leaked video released by someone we didn’t know that went viral and reached over a million views. It was from the Garza twin sisters audition tape. Apparently, they got into this hissy fit with each other about which what part they wanted to play. Well, someone took the video clip of that little tiff and leaked it on the web. When we found out about it we were pissed and wanted to take it down. But our media guys said it was getting a lot of hits and to leave it up there.
At what point did you decide to do a theatrical release?
That’s a good question. As we were filming it, it looked really good, and the actor’s performances were turning out really good as well. So we were excited. Then, when we finished it and started test screening it, the audience scores were very high. All except, the audience was a little upset about not knowing what happens to the characters. So, we decided to do that and raise another 800k and reshoot the opening and ending.
After we re-edited the movie with the new beginning and ending we then brought the film to the infamous Paramus, NJ for a screening. Paramus is where the Weinstein’s and other big time studios test their films. It’s known to be a really harsh audience. The right kind of mixture of people to get a consensus of how the rest of America will view the film. Larry Gleason, the head of our theatrical distribution company, Full Circle Releasing said, “ If it works here, it’s a good indicator that it will work anywhere.”
We were eating in a nearby restaurant when the market research guy came in with the scores and said. “They loved it… These are the kind of scores you need to go theatrical.”
So the next thing we had to do was to figure out was how much we needed to raise to make a successful model. We knew in order to compete with the big boys that we would have to be smart about our advertising, scheduling, and release dates. Another big thing is we were hoping that no other theatrical movies blow up and become a hit around our release. When that happens the theaters don’t want to take the film out of the theatre, and don’t give up screens for your film. So the best thing to do is to look 4 to 6 weeks before and after your release dates and see if there’s anything too close to your genre, or if it might have a chance of blowing up. You want to stay far away from those two things. In our case, nobody really expected “The Blind Side” to be such a box office hit. That movie really hurt us, as well as “Brothers.”
With “Brothers,” everybody thought it was going to be released by Lions Gate in about 500 theatres. The consensus was that no one wanted to see a war movie in America at that time. So, if you noticed, they took out just about every war scene in the TV commercial campaign. They made it out to be more about the drama between the family. Everyone was wrong about how they released it, and so were we. Lions Gate ended up releasing it around 2000 theaters with 30 Million in promotions and advertising.
Here’s another story behind the story. So, I’m reading Vanity Fair article about Ryan Cavanaugh, the mogul behind Relativity Media. He has this algorithm where he picks what movies are going to be successful by a number of things; what actors are in it, how good the script is, how easy the logline is to sell, and etc. By taking in all of these things he assesses how well it will do financially. Well, “Brothers” was one of those films that didn’t meet the criteria of his algorithm, yet he loved the screenplay that he funded it anyway. A pet project we came to learn… Oops…
Okay… one more story behind the story. Years back, the very successful Screen Gems, the genre division of the studio, said they wouldn’t do any more screening to critics, because they generally tend to hate the genre pictures. Our LA publicist said don’t let “Transylmania” get reviewed by the critics using the Screen Gems methodology… We didn’t want to risk damaging our opening. So, instead, we did 20 word of mouth screenings for the specific target demo, with no critics allowed… All of them do reports on how well it played. All the reports were the same as the testing. They went really well, kids loved it, and the people thought it was funny.
But, in Orlando, there was a reviewer who asked if he could come to the word of mouth screener. He was told no, you’ll have to wait. So, he must have sneaked in any way. The Field Marketing Agency said he must have had a disguise on, because they knew him very well. He ends up writing a scathing review that went as low to talk about how the producers must have cheaped out on supplying heaters for the actors, because on some scenes you could see the actor’s breath from the cold.
Then his review went from one paper, to fifteen other papers that just took it and pasted on theirs like it was their own reviewer’s opinion. Next thing you know it gets leaked all across the internet and so forth. All this from one reviewer from Orlando, but it seems that the country is lining up that “Transylmania” is no good.
Tell me about how you and your brother broke into the biz, and what it’s like working with your brother. Did you ever have to call mom on him?
My brother and I have always worked on everything together, even as kids. At one point, he was a magician and I was the bumbling assistant. So one day, we decided it was finally time to make a film. So we applied for about fifty credit cards and we walked around to bank to bank and got a cash advance on each of them. At one point we were both carrying man purses with up to thirty thousand dollars in them. By the end of the day, we walked out with $250,000 cash. We put that money into an account, and then we made a film. That’s how we made our first movie. It’s the American dream, if they’re giving us these credit cards, why can’t we make a movie with them? We ended up playing festivals, and selling it and breaking even. Through all of that, we made really great contacts. And eventually we secured investors for our next film. We made a movie called, “King Cobra,” for 735K. It was a movie about really big snakes. Some people were a little hesitant about making a giant snake film. But, then came along “Anaconda,” and we sold it to Trimark, and we were the only movie besides “The Blair Witch” that got a million dollar advance for our film from ’97 to ’98. Once again, the investors got their money back, and that’s how we got the money for the next one. We’ve done it all by ourselves through equity financing. People who know people. We’re sharing our beliefs that this is a good project, and we are able to attract people to that. Knowing that we care about the projects and try to do good things and make good movies. We also try to do projects that we feel will be profitable and satisfying for us to make. There’s something to be said about dealing with good people. We’ve been lucky and have dealt with a lot of great people in this industry.
In a perfect world, if all the Hollywood bullshit didn’t exist. What kind of movie would you want to make?
We have two features that we are super excited about. The first took 18 months to develop.
We did an adaptation of “The Black Arrow,” by Robert Lois Stevenson, he wrote a little book you might have heard of, “Treasure Island.” The adaptation of “Black Arrow.” which has been translated into comic books in many languages. It’s basically his take on the “Robin-Hood Legend.” We decided to turn it into a “Batman Begins meet Robin-Hood” kind of feel. The feel of the screenplay we call a dark popcorn film-on the edge of PG-13. We played around with a lot of modern things that were being invented by Da Vinci at the time and made some real weapons and contraptions for that time. The guy who wrote it for us, John Coven, who just finished working with Michel Gondry on “The Green Hornet” as the lead story board artist, did a really great job on it. We figured we could make it for 20 million in Eastern Europe, and make it look like it was done for a 100 million.
The other project that we are very excited to do my brother came up with, “Adrenaline Rush.” We’re having it made in to a graphic novel right now. We figured we would do our own graphic novel, then turn it into a movie. It’s about a good Latino kid in the hood, who’s a kickboxing champ, and his father is the LAPD chief of police cracking down on the locals gangs. The gang, kills the mom in revenge of the father getting in the way of their businesses. The son ends up getting into the gang out of anger. He does a robbery, and gets shot. When he gets shot, it’s one shot out of a million chance. The bullet gets lodged just above in his adrenal gland. It instantly gives him a shot of adrenaline when he needs it. The kind of adrenaline that will allow you to throw a car off somebody. So, with that power he becomes this urban superhero. No tights, capes, and urban gangbanger look superhero… It’s pretty cool.
Good luck with your film Scott and thank you for your valuable stories, information, and time.