“Total Freak” | Interview with Andrew Ellmaker

| February 6, 2015

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Being at summer camp has an absurd duality, being that you’re at the mercy of nature, trapped with other awkward kids in a sanitized experience mitigated by counselors and parents that feel so far away. Ok, so my experience wasn’t so hot. But at a certain point during what can only be described as a bizarre trip, especially if hormones are raging, something’s gotta snap. So it happens in Andrew Ellmaker’s short film Total Freakwhich takes pubescent anxieties and turns it up to 11. 

Made at Columbia University School of the Arts, Total Freak will screen at the SF Independent Film Festival (SF Indiefest) in the Shorts 2: No Regrets  showcase at the Roxie Theatre. We caught up with filmmaker Andrew Ellmaker to learn more about his mysterious tale.

Hey Andrew! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

From the age of ten to twenty nine, I was in love with every girl I saw. Even if I didn’t actually want to kiss them, I would understand why someone else would want to. Now, I’m happy to be married and explore the pursuit love and infatuation in fiction.

Total Freak seems to be somewhere in-between a coming-of-age tale, a summer camp comedy and a fabulist horror tale…but somehow it all melds very well! Tell us about the film.

Good to hear it all goes together. I love romance and comedy and suspense. There is something about being young that leads to overwhelming crushes on people that look good from afar, but up close there can be something mean and dangerous about them.

Total Freak

Total Freak

What inspired Burger Boy?

Burger Boy is based on my personal experience. As a kid, I worked on art projects that didn’t always make sense. And if I tried to show them or talk about them with other people, it didn’t go well. Burger Boy has something beautiful to share, but because he lacks basic social skills he stays away. Safer for everyone.

Tell us about your production. Can you walk us through the process of scouting your location and the shoot?

The producer Brian Birch and I went to see five summer camps and found Camp Lakota to be the most attractive and accommodating to our budget. Every camp gave a tour in a golf cart. When we saw Lakota, the sun was setting and everything was golden.

Total Freak

Total Freak

How did you cast the film?

I worked with Alison [Jaye Horowitz] on another short a few years before. At the time she was twelve and when my wife and co-writer recommended to cast her, I thought she would still be a child. She wasn’t.

Alison Jaye Horowitz

Actress Alison Jaye Horowitz in Total Freak

Logan [Riley Bruner] arrived for a test shoot we did. He had a natural talent, cinematic movement and a curious vulnerability that worked very well.

Logan Riley Bruner

Actor Logan Riley Bruner in Total Freak

What is it like working with young actors?  From past experience, did you approach it any differently than working with adults?

The young actors were just like adults. They always helped to inspire moments that I was worried would feel stale. Alison was always joking around making me laugh. It was a real collaboration. I remember on the first day Logan discovering the movements of this character. A dreamy-eyed creeper.

Tell me about the tone. When I saw this at the Columbia University Film Festival a few years back, people were howling in laughter, gasping and cheering.  Like I mentioned before, how do you work to meld humor with dread?

Being a teenager, wanting to kiss a girl, and having no experience is scary and hilarious. I really didn’t know if the ending was going to work, [but] I was prepared and willing to be like Burger Boy, the creature that no one understands.

"Total Freak"

Total Freak

Hardest part of the production? How about the surprisingly easiest?

The hardest part of the production was running out of money in post production. I had big dreams for VFX and most of them came true, but I had to let go of many ideas because of budget.

The surprisingly easiest was the background casting. I thought we were only going to have a large number of background teens for a couple days, but because they were having fun they kept coming back.

Maybe it’s the summer camp setting and the stylized aesthetic, but the film reminded me a lot of Wes Anderson, 80’s horror, maybe Carrie. What films and filmmakers do you look up to?

When I was a projectionist at the Brattle Theater in Boston one of the first films I projected was a faded print of Klute. The magenta hue stuck with me which explains the pink color of this film. The VFX were inspired by the Korean movie The Host. Filmmakers I look up to would be a long list. A short list could be: Nicolas Roeg, Speilberg and Cuarón.

"Total Freak"

Total Freak

What was it like co-writing the film with Emily Ragsdale? 

I think the only reason the film feels human is because of Emily. I trust her more than myself.

How much of the film changed during editorial?

The film story didn’t change at all during the edit. A few voiceover lines were sharpened. The editor Jeff K. Miller definitely helped to bring out the comedy. I’m very critical of performance and some moments that I thought felt false, he encouraged leaving them in.

"Total Freak"

Total Freak

Without giving away spoilers, talk to us about the VFX. Have you used them before in previous projects?

I hadn’t used CG elements like these before. The budget was tiny and I wanted so much. There were tons of drafts of each effects shot. I remember giving notes frame by frame. A few shots were cut because they weren’t convincing.

Can you tell us about your budget and how you raised funds?

The money came from freelance jobs I did as a cinematographer and education loans. The production budget was around 19k and post production was probably 5k. I think the post budget was probably a little more than that. The VFX became an unhealthy hobby and I would spend my lunch money just to make them better.

TOTAL_FREAK-POSTER

Switching gears, when did you first know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

I remember seeing a Tarkovsky movie about fifteen years ago, Ivan’s Childhood. The expressive frames were what I had been trying to accomplish in my photography and I realized that what I loved about photography was not just compelling images, but ones that lived in dramatic circumstances.

What are other jobs did you have either prior to filmmaking or while at school?

Graphic designer, photographer, projectionist, popcorn maker, hostess.

Talk to us about your Columbia experience. Were you considering any other schools?

I briefly considered other schools, but the Columbia interview was great. Either the sun was in my eyes or I cried because it felt so right

"Total Freak" filmmaker Andrew Ellmaker

Total Freak filmmaker Andrew Ellmaker

Who were your favorite professors and why? How did they influence the film?

Tom Kalin and Eric Mendelsohn. They influenced the film by spending hundreds of hours screaming at me — helping me to understand how composition changes emotion; how to make a clear visual sentence.

What is your advice to prospective film students picking a school?

Do what feels right. Find someone to marry when you get there.

What’s up with your interest in hot glue, X-Acto knives, and muffins?

I like all projects big and small. Using X-Acto knives makes me feel like a cat who has played with yarn. Hot glue is more of a metaphor for being open to all crafts. Trying to explain my love for muffins would take too long. The short version is they are another project that is never finished.

What’s next?

Emily and I are currently writing a feature comedy where three friends go camping and get wrapped up in a plot involving angsty scientists and a dinosaur.

Andrew Ellmaker is a Brooklyn based filmmaker and cinematographer. He is shooting short films and commercials while writing his next project with his wife.

Total Freak screens at the SF Independent Film Festival (SF Indiefest) in the Shorts 5: An Animated World showcase at the Roxie Theatre on Sun, Feb 8 @ 2:45pm and Tues, Feb 10 @ 7:15pm.

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