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By Felix Vasquez Jr. | July 20, 2007

“It’s a fine line to walk between laughing at someone and laughing with them. I like to think I achieved a balance and that audiences understand the intention.” – Cullen Hoback

I was introduced to Cullen Hoback last year after I pinch-hit a review of “Freedom State” for Michael Ferraro, a film that featured a prominent billy goat that oddly enough never showed during the actual film. Since then I’ve managed to gain a fondness for Hoback’s films, and become quite a fan, anxiously awaiting another entry into the unusual from the man who just seems to get it. I won’t declare Cullen Hoback as “The Next” anyone, because Hoback is striving in achieving his own identity and that kiss of death is unnecessary with the work Hoback has achieved.

Cullen Hoback has an eye for the abnormal, and succeeds in focusing on folks who are odd, unusual, and unique, and yet can’t help but root for or sympathize with in the end. While we’re sure we should be mocking the folks Hoback places on-screen, quite often you’ll find yourself liking them, and maybe even wanting to meet them. Hoback achieved this with “Monster Camp,” a film I was sure was intent on lampooning LARPers (Live Action Roleplayers, to you), when in actuality, he portrayed them in a humane fashion that managed to act as a reflection on the inner geek in all of us.

Honestly, in all my time reviewing films, I can only really count great indie directors who have the potential to break into the big time on one hand, and Hoback is one of those folks.

Cullen, how goes it?
This question always confuses me. What is your general state of being… in one word? People usually say “good.” I don’t know. Good, I guess.

That’s… good…?

So far you’ve encountered mental patients, and fantasy role players, what’s your fascination with the weird, and the pleasantly weird?
I grew up in a place that tried so desperately to be “normal” that I became convinced everyone there was crazy. So the “pleasantly weird” somehow seems more honest to me… or at least refreshing.

Who or what have been your cinematic influences in your life?
LeVar Burton (that guy from Reading Rainbow) scared the s**t out of me when I was 16. He gave a speech, and in it said “If you don’t wake up every day of your life knowing you want to make movies, or act, or sing… find some other profession, because there’s someone else out there who will want it more than you and be just as talented.” So his crazy-a*s philosophy became a guiding principle. If I had to pick a mentor, it would be the best filmmaker you’ve never heard of; Gregg Lachow. Also Hayao Miyazaki, Tim Burton, Mike Nichols, Wes Anderson, and Miyamoto, the guy who made the classic Zelda. Seriously.

And how did you originally get into filmmaking?
While in the womb, my mother pressed her belly up to the TV.

Where did the idea for “Freedom State” stem from?
I knew this young girl who had broken her leg right before High School. For whatever reason, the district forced her to ride the short bus. Everyone thought she was retarded for the entirety of High School. She was emotionally scarred for the rest of her life. “Freedom State” was somehow spawned from that idea. Amazingly, because kids had seen her ride this bus, she had been deemed “abnormal,” “insane,” and “retarded.” In this case, the illusion of difference ruined this girl’s life. There’s a short bus in the film full of variations of this girl; at least, that’s how the actors approached it. I would ask each actor “Imagine if your life had made a turn at some point, how could you have ended up here?”

“Freedom State” really managed to act as an insight into our perception of normality, were the characters who viewed their wacky world as normal some form of a reflection of your own personality?
I like to think that our imaginations make us who we are. All of the “fringes of society” characters in the film let their imaginations define their reality. Through all the “pretending” I think what truly matters in life is elucidated; love and connection with others… and cornbread.

Megan Murphy was so charming, and yet so bat s**t eccentric and off the wall, where the hell did you find her?
Isn’t Megan Murphy f*****g awesome? She’s Gregg Lachow’s wife (which is how I met her), and totally the best actor I know. Megan works differently than most actors. Every take she brings something different to the table. So while continuity between angles becomes a frustration, you’re given a banquet of emotional options in the editing room. So much of Megan is on the screen. I think of her as sort of a more eccentric Diane Keaton.

What inspired the making of “Monster Camp”?
It was like a real-life version of “Freedom State,” all the same themes and kinds of personalities… but for real. The similarities weren’t as intentional as I’ll make them sound (see my answer to your earlier question). I guess you tell stories about the things that interest you. It’s likely my next projects will contain similar themes; which may be accidental but totally unavoidable.

“Monster Camp” was a very affectionate and true display of folks who live in their own world that we assume are just games. Are you now or have you ever been a LARPer?
I did help out the owner when he was low on monsters as a supplemental “Tentacle,” but I’d never picked up a padded sword before that moment. Maybe it just seems affectionate because I’m most concerned with who the people are. I also love Zelda… did I mention that?

No, not particularly, but that’s another interview for another time. One of the aspects of the film that surprised me was that not all of the LARPers were what audiences perceived them as in the sense of being goggle eyed shut ins; some of the players were actually rather good looking and successful, was this intentional at all?
There’s a spectrum of types, and I wanted to demonstrate the success stories, the tragic stories, and what lies in between. Some people are on their 9th year of High School, gunning for a 10th; others are policemen or doctors. Even the shut-ins get out and find a sense of community here.

In one moment you featured a segment about two of the players and their addiction to “World of Warcraft” and how it has somewhat brought their life to a halt, could this be the hints at a possible future documentary?
I thought about making a doc on the epidemic of WOW and MMORPGs originally, or Second Life. But then I realized, who likes watching people play video games? It’s people sitting at a computer. That’s why the LARPing doc seemed so ideal. People were living out their alter-egos. This was visually much more dynamic, and in my book, almost the same thing as playing WOW but with exercise and a bit more creativity. Plus, I’m sure we’ll see a flurry of docs on these subjects in the not so distant future. I mean, with well over 12 million people playing MMORPGs and Sweden just establishing an embassy in the Second Life Universe, someone(s) have to be working on this.

Did you find it possible to interview and conduct scenes with these folks who seemed to be furiously immersed in their characters? And, were they willing to break down their fantasy scenario and allow cameras on the field?
Most of the players were open to being interviewed, unless their village was under siege or they were supposed to be acting unconscious or dead. This will sound funny, but I tried to be pragmatic and put myself in their position; only asking questions when it seemed like it wouldn’t interrupt the reality of their fantasy.

Did you go into the filming of “Monster Camp” with your own preconceived notions of these people, if so, were they torn down, or remain in tact after filming?
Actually, I expected that these people would be more relatable and less idiosyncratic than they actually were… lots of strong personalities in ye olde “Monster Camp.” I figured this out somewhere between the giant ice-cream cone rocket and the poly-amorous mother.

At one point you featured a father and daughter character team waiting to play in the weekend retreat, were there ever large families playing in these games?
All of Paul’s family (Tinkerstouch) was involved in one way or another. While he was the combat-challenged but oh so lovable player character, his father helped keep the game going cleaning up after people and playing the occasional goblin or undead creature. Sort of like a Troop Leader in the Boy Scouts, but here they allow gays. And his mother helped with sewing up the costumes, so we see less of her.

These looked like very erratic people during the interviews and LARPing; I wonder, were there ever any incidents while filming “Monster Camp”?
When we first started shooting, the Scavenger Rat Guy came up to me and said he wouldn’t sign a waiver. We needed forms from everyone so I asked why. He didn’t want to hand over the rights to his character he’d been working on for 12 years. He was planning on writing a book about the trials and tribulations of his character, Kreager.

I juxtaposed the Nero franchise to the Civil War re-enactments quite often during “Monster Camp,” would you consider that a fair comparison?
I’ve had quite a few Civil War re-enactors (on the East Coast) comment on similarities after screenings… so yes.

Did the Nero franchise ever restart again? I know the creators spoke of restarting it again someday at the end of the film.
NERO has over 50 functioning chapters. In regards to the NERO Seattle chapter, I don’t want to ruin the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it by answering this one. But lets just say, it takes a lot of real work to bring this fantasy to life.

What’s been the reaction to “Monster Camp” from fantasy fans and Nero players so far?
Overwhelmingly positive, including the responses from the people featured in the film. Which hopefully means they felt like I portrayed them in an even-handed fashion. But the folks in the movie get that their activity is odd and have a sense of humor about the whole thing. Some other LARPs out there are much more serious. Some of the people involved with those LARPs think the “Monster Camp” folks are a rag-tag bunch of losers disgracing that which is LARPing; but only those who take themselves too seriously.

How has the festival circuit been for both films so far? Are you currently in any of the festivals?
Better than I could have hoped. “Freedom State” hit up some of the top festivals (and is still slated for a few) and “Monster Camp” is doing even better (with miles to go before it sleeps). Right now, we’re holding out for a really great International Premiere.

How does directing commercials and music videos differ from directing short films?
You have more money… usually. With music videos (especially rap) you’re constantly reminding the musicians that it’s a film shoot and not a party. I shot one scene where the artist was so stoned, he couldn’t even make his mouth move correctly, let alone talk. He just looked like a goldfish going “blup, blup, blup.” But to answer your question, I think a good music video or commercial is a short film.

Are you seeking theatrical or DVD Distribution for either films?
We’ve had a few smaller offers for a DVD Distribution of Freedom State; and several larger offers for “Monster Camp” (along with limited theatrical). We haven’t signed anything yet though… as none of the offers seem promising enough to pay back our debt. A lot of distribs bank on your desire to get the film seen by the world so much so that they don’t pay much. If push comes to shove we’ll self-distribute, but I’d rather go the traditional route.

Can we look forward to more films setting down on the abstract and surreal from you?
I would feel very lucky to get to make another film. I’m working on three scripts right now, one with the producer of “Brick” Susan Dynner and two other comedic films. I think they all deal with the themes you laid out; though they should have more commercial appeal (name actors).

So, where can film-goers look for you next?
In terms of my work? If I’m lucky, look for my next project at the end of 08′. You can also see me on next special edition stamp released in September by the US Postal Service.

What lasting statement are you looking to make in the film world?
Hardest question ever. I’ll let you know in 30 years.

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