TEN Crew Interview: Michael J. Epstein

Hopefully by now you’ve had a chance to peruse the interviews with the supremely talented and fun cast of TEN. Here’s a little bit more reading for you – the beginning of the crew interview series! They are also supremely talented and fun…for the most part. We’re starting off with Michael J. Epstein, director and co-writer and too many other things to name. Grab some popcorn and pull up a chair. This is a long one, but read on to find out whether there are aliens in TEN, what Michael’s favorite pig is, how he plans to make a $50 million movie on a budget that is, well, less than that, and tons more.

Photos by Rachel Leah Blumenthal

What’s your filmmaking background? I got really interested in film because Sophia and I had been in a number of music videos that we had made with other people for a variety of bands. The first really serious video project that I did was for the Motion Sick. I didn’t direct it; I was in it. It was for a song called “30 Lives.” So we made that, and it was fun, and it became a really useful promotional tool for the band. And people really enjoyed it, so I was like, oh, this is a great avenue for getting to speak to people beyond just making music.

We continued down that path, making some videos, and then we realized that we really wanted to make a lot of videos. We wanted to not just release music but be constantly releasing new music videos. The problem with that is that, at least up to that point, it had been a pretty expensive endeavor to create music videos. So we had the idea that if we could come up with good concepts, we could buy relatively cheap camera gear and equipment, just sort of the minimum needs, and make videos for very little money. The videos would ultimately be intended to reside on YouTube and places like that, so you’re not really worried about the visual quality or film quality as much as with some of our prior work, when we really wanted to get the stuff on MTV and other places. So we started making music videos intended for YouTube as an exercise in trying to learn and get better at making videos, and we just started taking on opportunities to make films.

I had done a music video or two when MJEML was asked to participate in a special private show with a movie theme. The suggestions were to learn some songs from movie soundtracks or songs related to movies. Instead, I decided that sounded way too easy, so I thought, well, we have a week. Let’s just make a movie and play our music to accompany that movie. I had an idea for the movie kicking around in my head for awhile, and basically in two days we shot a 23-minute short, silent film. I guess that was my first film that wasn’t a music video, although it was actually almost like a music video, because it was made for music accompaniment.

And then we did the 48-Hour Film Project, followed by the Trailer Smackdown. In the process of doing all these short films, it became apparent that I ultimately wanted to make a film on a bigger scale. We had so much fun making this trailer that when the people involved in it asked if we could do the full version, I sort of thought, ok, let’s give it a shot, but we can really only do it if we can raise a little bit of money to make it happen. It’s just not going to be possible to afford to do it in a way that I feel good about without raising some money. So we did this Kickstarter campaign, and now we’re making the film. It’s our first feature film, and we sort of came to it by mistake.

Going back further, I’d always loved filmmaking as a kid. I did some messing around with friends with video cameras and taping from VCR to VCR and stuff like that, but this is my first serious foray into film.

Were you also interested in watching films as a kid, or was it more about making them? Oh yeah, I’ve always loved watching films, and part of my desire with TEN was actually to incorporate everything that I like into one movie. We didn’t quite make it – there are no aliens, and there are no monsters, and…what else is missing?

[Sophia: Space!]

Yeah, there’s no space. There’s no science fiction element, which is a thing I really like. But I really wanted to incorporate a lot of the stylistic things, a lot of the B-movie things, a lot of the – I can’t say too much without spoiling things – but a lot of the tropes of things in genres that I am really interested in and really enjoyed as a kid. I was a really big fan of low-budget movies and corny movies and weird movies much more than Hollywood blockbuster films. Back in the day, before the internet existed, it was a really big struggle to find strange movies. You’d hear or read about something, and you’d have to dig around. Video stores wouldn’t have it. Maybe you could mail-order it or find a bootleg copy. I would get weird taped versions with like Japanese subtitles, variants of the American films that I wanted to see, and things like that at science fiction conventions, comic conventions, weird places like that. So I’ve always been interested in that sort of stuff, and I’m hoping to capture some of that sort of feeling with this film.

Who inspires you stylistically? My favorite filmmaker is definitely Alfred Hitchcock, but there are a lot of people I like for a lot of different reasons. He’s the one that I think is the most serious about creating mood and certainly suspense, and he did it in without resorting to cheap approaches. His films aren’t full of jump scares; it’s not solely music that builds to infinity when suddenly nothing really happens. That’s become a thing in modern horror or thriller movies where you kind of feel like you’re being manipulated by the film, and you’re like, ok, they’re just changing the color here, or the shadowing, or the music so that I feel these things, but none of the content of the movie actually really indicates that I should feel these things. And I don’t like that. I feel like that’s just – I’m being used. Whereas in the Hitchcock films, I really feel like you get this sense that the characters are important, the stories are important, the movement of the plot is really the important thing, and the suspense is layered around that. I’ve really always enjoyed that.

I really enjoy David Lynch – especially Twin Peaks. In Twin Peaks, he really mastered the mixture of really, really disturbing, weird, serious stuff with really tongue-in-cheek humor. And you go back and forth between the two in a matter of 30 seconds. You’ll be able to be laughing as hard as you can laugh and then be terrified 30 seconds later. And that’s a really amazing thing. I think that almost nothing other than Twin Peaks has been able to achieve that.

I enjoy people who really take the work seriously and who are trying to develop new ideas or interesting ideas and then explore those. They don’t always work, but they’re always interesting.

Let’s talk more about the trailer smackdown that you mentioned – the competition that ultimately led to TEN. How did that work? How did you come up with the plot? Our friend Sarah Wait Zaranek contacted me and said, “Hey, there’s this trailer competition at the Brattle. Right now in my life I would really like to do a creative project. Would you be interested in doing this? And I was like, oh yeah. Sounds fun. So I signed up, and every participant was assigned the title “Ten.” And then there was a pull-down menu where you had to pick different elements to create the background for your movie, and one of them was genre, so I picked thriller. Another was character, and I picked ghost hunter. An action – I picked slap. And you were the one slapped in the trailer.

Yes. How could I forget?

And for setting, we set it in a castle. The current version of this is not really set in a castle, but that’s ok. So those are all the things that we had, and I thought, ok, this title “Ten” – the thing that popped in my head right away was kind of the very common mystery genre trope of “Ten Little Indians” where you have ten people who are in a space. They’re stuck there, and they don’t really know each other, and they’re all there for suspicious reasons, and you don’t really quite know anything about their backgrounds. And things kind of slowly get revealed. I thought about just that basic idea – not even the plot or the mystery itself, but just the basic idea – and the idea that there’s a killer amongst the group of characters; there’s nobody outside of that group. But you don’t know who’s just an innocent character and who’s really the killer. So just hearing the word “ten” made me think of “Ten Little Indians.” And a lot of times in modern versions of stories, they’ll just take the full name and shorten it, like to one word, and I thought that was kind of a silly thing to do, to just make “Ten.” So the trailer was a little more based on that kind of specific story, and the movie itself has kind of shifted far away from that other than the fact that there are ten people in a mansion who are maybe not what they seem. That’s about it.

Let’s see if you can answer this without giving away spoilers. Where you’re kind of jumping off from this common “Ten Little Indians” trope, what will differentiate TEN from other similar stories? Why should people come to see this? I’ve been calling this a post-exploitation movie because I think what I wanted to do, like I said, was take all the films and genres I was interested in, especially growing up, and kind of smash them together and make something new out of it. Not that I’m saying this is like a Tarantino film, but that’s the sort of thing that he does; he basically pays homage to his favorite weird exploitation and grindhouse movies. We worked pretty hard to make sure that this film is not just a rehash of any specific story. It has a lot of different elements. It has horror elements, it has mystery elements, it has intrigue elements. I wanted to throw in nods to all those different things and then create a story that is complex and interesting.

The goal is so that on the first viewing, you walk out and you say, ok, I get the story – it wasn’t unclear – but there are definitely a lot of details that I wasn’t able to get the first time and a lot of things earlier in the film that I’d like to go back and review since I discovered more information later. We really tried to create a film that has a lot of layers and a story that has a lot of layers and complexity to it while having a kind of basic underlying narrative or plot. I think we also may surprise people with how dense the dialogue is and how dense and heavy the actual thematic content is, because the film is actually a lot about what identity is. It’s sort of like an exploitation film that actually engages in a lot of conversations about more complex issues and more complex ideas. So hopefully – assuming it’s successful – I think people will find that there are familiar elements of it, and that will help them get through the experience easily, but then they’re left with some things to think about, to spend time with after seeing it.

What do you anticipate will be the biggest challenge for you during this project? Knowing when to keep moving forward and not feeling like, oh, we could do this a little bit better. I’ll keep wanting to reshoot the same thing over and over again. We have a limited budget; basically I want to make a $50 million movie, and we’ve got, like, not that much money. But it’s hard for me to back down from budgetary limits in the sense that I’m just stubborn and like, oh, we can achieve the same sorts of things that they achieve in a very expensive movie. I think we can in a lot of areas, but I have some people who will be involved in the filmmaking whose job is basically to stand there and tell me, enough is enough. Move on! Get the next shot. We’ve got to stay on schedule and keep things moving forward.

But the cast is so incredibly good, and we were careful in writing the story to make sure that it didn’t rely on very expensive effects or very complex shots. We don’t have helicopter shots or anything like that. We have limited settings. I think it’s achievable, but that will be the biggest challenge – staying away from being a perfectionist.

What are you most looking forward to? Being done with it. It’s sort of terrifying, actually. I’m really excited, and I think everybody involved is great. I think it’s going to be great. But it also feels like if the whole thing goes badly, it’s my fault. Sort of. I don’t think there’s anybody else to blame. The blame is always going to fall on my shoulders. There’s a lot that could go wrong. I’m relying on a lot of people to do things, and it’s always hard when you’re relying on other people to be responsible and successful, but it’s a really good group, and I think everybody is going to be great. I’ll just breathe a sigh of relief that day we finish shooting, because that will be like, ok, we’ve shot everything we need. We have a limited time accessing the space that we’re shooting the principal stuff in, so we really have to get it right in that time. We can’t go back. There’s no reshoots, essentially, so we have to do it all right. I’m going to be reviewing stuff every night and making sure we get the right shots. But it’s going to be great.

I know you’re doing a million different things to prepare for the shooting week, but how are you specifically preparing mentally? I don’t think I really need to prepare too much mentally. I’m used to working really long hours and really hard. I’m used to staying up all night. I have no problem working like 20 hours a day. If I’m really interested in doing something, I get focused and just work at it, so there’s nothing about being in the game of doing this that’s really different from what I’m used to.

The challenges are really making sure I have the technical knowledge. We have people who are doing some of the technical work, but I’m studying lighting and camera and all of those details as much as I can to make sure that when we’re there, I can help to make it all move as smoothly as possible, that I can convey the ideas carefully. I need to be able to say, here’s the kind of lighting that I want, and here’s an approach to actually achieving that. That’s really all.

And we’re going to run out of time in pre-production no matter what, because there’s always more that you could prepare. I said recently that I don’t know if we’ll ever be ready to shoot this. And Jade, who is one of the actresses, said, “I’m sure you could go right now and just make this movie.” And I was like, you know what, we could. Even if you said, right now, you have to go shoot this, we could make that happen. It’s one of those things where you’re done preparing when the deadline arrives. You’re not actually ever done, but the time will come, you’ll make the movie, it will be what it is.

You really involved a kind of early fan base in the beginning stages of the project, at first through Kickstarter and continuing through social media. How are you going to follow through and keep all these people involved in the process? That was really important to us. We needed to raise money to make the movie, but part of the value of Kickstarter is that we could tell people about this movie at the stage where it was really just an idea. We didn’t even have a script. We were just like, here’s this idea that we have. Everybody give us money, and we’re going to make it! It was amazing to see all those people – I think we had 258 backers – really believe in the project, just based on the people involved and the description and essentially the concept trailer. A lot of people got really excited. And that’s very important to me because especially for a project of this scale, it can’t really be just about self-indulgence. It can’t be a movie that I make for myself to watch. It feels a lot more meaningful to me if it’s a community project. Although we’re the ones that are doing the writing and the filming, it’s really a project that could only exist with the help of those 258 people.

Their names will be in the credits; that’s a well-deserved credit. And over the course of making the film, we’re going to be sending them postcards from the set, and we’re going to be communicating via video and other things. A lot of them get rewards that are things related to the production of the movie. A bunch will get copies of scripts that some of the actresses have been using as their shoot scripts. I’m excited to have all those people involved, and I’m excited that when we finish this movie, we have 258 people who are already knocking at the door to come see it, so when we have a screening, we’re going to sell out the theatre without any work – I hope, anyway. It’s important to me because I want it to be part of a community. I don’t want it to just be a thing I make for myself.

What’s your favorite pig in history or literature? Oh, my favorite pig…it’s funny. This whole pig thing actually arose – I should give credit where credit is due – or blame where blame is due. Sarah, who I mentioned earlier – when we were shooting the TEN trailer, she was like, “Pig masks are so creepy. What if when we kill people, we put them in pig masks?” And I was like, that is disturbing. I agree. We didn’t really have a whole lot of meaning in it; we just thought, oh, that’s a weird and creepy thing. I mean, the reason it’s weird and creepy is because of all the meaning it carries. It’s not like I felt that way in isolation; I was certainly influenced by my thoughts and experience with pigs.

And I know I’m not answering your question, but too bad. I thought it was really interesting that there are all these societal slang connotations involving pigs, like chauvinist pigs, people who overeat, and women being called pigs. I thought that was really a fascinating idea. And to have people being killed and portrayed as pigs, to have that as the whole backdrop for the movie, I thought was a really compelling and interesting idea.

As for my favorite pig, I think my favorite pig…well…it’s not like I don’t know a lot of pigs, because when we were making the Kickstarter rewards, we actually wanted to name every reward after a phrase with pig in it, or a famous pig. It was like, you get the Porky Pig package, or you get the Wilbur package – I think it was called Some Pig, actually. We didn’t call it Wilbur. So we definitely studied our pigs, but I’m trying to think of who my favorite pig would be.

I think I like Piglet. I was always a fan of Winnie the Pooh. He’s a sweet little pig. Winnie the Pooh has a lot of really interesting characters, and I think especially for a kids’ book, the way the characters behave and interact with one another is actually pretty fascinating. So I’m going to go with Piglet.

Anything else to add? I’m just excited to share the movie, and we’re working really hard to make something that people are going to enjoy. We’re really super excited with how it’s turning out so far. I can’t even believe how great the cast and crew are; I’m super excited to be working with this set of people, and I can’t wait to get on set and actually start shooting the thing, because I think it’s going to be an exciting, creative experience for everyone. I think it’ll be great to spend time with everyone. There are all these stereotypes about how actors and directors interact and behave, but I think it’s going to be a really positive experience for us.

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