Associate Producer, Michelle Paster, throws Q&A towards the Producers: John Blythe and Andrea Adams.
Michelle Paster: Why Amityville – why did you decide to get involved in the project?
John Blythe: I am an entrepreneurial film producer and am President of Film Regions International, Inc. I’ve always had appreciation of ‘haunted house’ stories such as House of Haunted Hill, The House That Dripped Blood, Poltergeist and 1979’s The Amityville Horror starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder. My Amityville Horror is a documentary; not a horror flick, but I believe the horror audience will appreciate it.
How I became involved with this project is unique. I had remembered this Unsolved Mysteries case I saw at an early age involving an alleged haunted house in Horicon, Wisconsin back in the late 1980’s. So in June, 2009, I was researching this story and came across an editorial by a filmmaker named Eric Walter, which he was discussing the similarities to that story with the infamous Amityville story.
When I emailed Eric, I indicated the Horicon story would make a great horror film, and it was something that I had thought about wanting to put on FRI’s future film slate. It was when I realized he was living in Santa Monica that we both met up and discussed that particular story. During the course of our discussion, he had indicated that he was in communication with an “unnamed person” who was somehow involved in the Amityville case. Eric would be flying to New York to meet this person.
About a month had passed and we met up again and he stated this “person” was Daniel Lutz, one of the children who lived in the actual Amityville house on Long Island. This house haunting inspired the best selling novel and the entire film franchise. Seeing that this was an untold story about an already world renowned case, sparked my interest. I offered for Eric to join my company in order to raise enough financing to get the project off the ground.
Andrea Adams: I was working a day job in development that I felt underappreciated in and so therefore, it was becoming thankless. One weekend, a college friend, Nate Hoeft, asked if I might be interested in meeting with his friend, who was looking for a producer for a documentary he was doing. Having produced many independent projects in my spare time, I was intrigued but somewhat turned off by the documentary aspect, figuring it was a dry topic. However, when I met Eric and John, they pitched me their vision and showed me a seven minute sizzle reel of Daniel Lutz. I was captivated by the subject, the inherent interest in Amityville, as well as Eric’s intensity and knowledge about the subject.
MP: What specific skills do you add to the project?
JB: Coming from a business and administrative background, I was finishing my studies in entertainment business management at UCLA. I was focused on the legal/business and financing affairs of independent films. This includes all of the boring stuff for pre-production nobody else thinks is interesting, but very essential and important to any film project, such as complying with state and federal laws in raising capital for a production to private placements and the contracts you need for sales representatives and distributors.
My Amityville Horror is officially the first feature under the Film Regions International banner to have 100% American financing. This is the first FRI picture I have worked on in an elevated hands-on capacity. All of the previous FRI films were either international productions or co-productions from other countries including Canada, United Kingdom and Indonesia.
Overall, my role on this project originally involved helping Eric prepare financing agreements with our investors, setting up meetings with the International Documentary Association, as well as preparing the budget. It was never my intention however to produce this project on such a committed level.
MP: How do you feel about this now?
JB: My original plan was to serve merely as a consultant and a representative for Film Regions to protect its initial investment in the project and to see that it found additional financing and began production. Has this project built up additional experience having served as a producer? Yes. Getting out of the comfort zone so-to-speak, and with the team that we have, a great deal of work has been completed and each of us has a specific trait that we can contribute to the best of our ability, and every independent feature film needs that kind of setting. Unfortunately, too many independent films have only the “creative” force, as in someone who can write a script and direct, and that’s great, but it doesn’t get anywhere, unless you have the other ingredients and those include someone with a bit of a business background, a legal background, a financial background and a sales background. I think we’ve got those traits with the current production team and I do feel good that the film is moving into the completion stage.
AA: Being that Eric and John had been working on the film for several months prior to my involvement, I was able to bring a fresh perspective into the project. Since Eric has been involved in Amityville research for quite some time, I feel that my general lack of knowledge on the subject prior to doing the documentary really helped to drive home what we were going to have to do to engage the average viewer. I also think my energy and extreme level of organization has helped. I am good at putting together agendas for our weekly production meetings, task delegation and recognizing what’s important to focus on when we have a time crunch.
However, I do not forget about things we want to accomplish, no matter how trivial. So whether we’re holding off on a promotional idea we’ve thought about in favor of finishing some other aspect of production or whether someone ordered a latte with soy milk, my detail orientation helps keep things humming along, even though there are definitely chaotic times. It’s hard to quantify everything I do or have done for the film at this point, but I also think that I try to make sure Eric, our director/editor and the third producer, doesn’t get bogged down in things someone else can handle, which might otherwise distract Eric from editing the film.
MP: What is one crazy/unexpected/fun memory from production?
JB: Oh my God, there are dozens of stories… how many hours do you have? Well, this is perhaps the most demanding production I’ve ever worked on thus far on the independent level. Perhaps the one crazy (if not, most horrible) memory from set involved the first phase of filming in New York in July 2010. The heat and humidity was awful. I’m a California native and grew up in the Central Valley and Mojave Desert region, so I’m used to dry heat and 110 degree weather in the middle of July. But, I’m not privy to humid weather.
After the very first day of shooting, I was sitting in the hotel room of Marlon Wallace, our behind the scenes interviewer. I became dehydrated and nearly passed out. I had to ask Marlon and the co-producer, Matt LaCurts, to help me to my room because I could barely walk. From then on, the entire week of shooting, I suffered from hot and cold sweats, headaches, constant nose bleeds and frequent coughing. It made my job that much more difficult to perform.
The day of filming in front of the actual house however, I think might be the most memorable. Eric and two other crew members were shooting Danny walking in front of the Amityville house, while I sat in the car with other crew members down the street and waited. At least on one occasion, a car came by and the motorists screamed at Eric and the crew for filming in front of the house. Apparently, Amityville doesn’t like this kind of publicity and would rather forget the matter, but our presence as a production in the area was nothing new.
The owner of the house came out and confronted Eric and the crew about filming in front of his property and in the middle of the fiasco, Danny said, “I’m Danny Lutz, and I am the Amityville Horror…”. It may have not immediately registered with the owner of the house that he lived in the house at the time of the haunting, but it will register eventually if he ever decides to see our documentary film.
AA: I definitely cannot say that I expected one of our subjects to have pet roosters that lived in the house. It was certainly grating to hear them crowing throughout our shoot. All I could do was cringe and think of our audio, as the subject had made it abundantly clear that the roosters would not be moving. However, we’ve been able to edit around it or with it, so hopefully it adds some character to our film.
We also had a day where we weren’t able to confirm our afternoon location until basically the day right before we were supposed to shoot. It was difficult because we were trying to coordinate a reunion between several people who had originally been involved with the case in the 70’s and not everyone’s calendars were aligning – we managed to secure access to all of the potential subjects and lock down a location, but unfortunately it required a company move from Queens to Brooklyn at mid-day. We also didn’t have time to file the proper permits to be allowed to park our equipment trucks and transpo vehicles, so it was a mad dash to be able to load and unload equipment while illegally double parked. The location we ended up shooting in was a nice brownstone that reinforced our “animal” theme due to all of the big game trophies decorating the living and dining room. Great visually, but rather difficult to maneuver around with all of our cameras and lighting.
MP: What have you noticed is the relationship between Eric and Danny?
JB: I think Eric as a director and someone who has extensive knowledge about this case has made Danny relate more easily in terms of trust. It would be different if Eric was just a typical everyday independent filmmaker. However, the relationship is positive and negative. On location, Danny would get along fine with Eric and then at other times, there would be major disagreements, so the relationship I think has gone both ways on a number of occasions.
AA: To be perfectly honest, it feels very love/hate to me. I do think there’s a certain amount of trust there, but it’s got to be difficult for Danny to understand how another person can be so interested with something that happened to you. Especially when it’s something you probably would prefer not to speak about.
Knowing this, Eric respects Daniel and his feelings about what happened to him, and I think this shows in his treatment of Daniel and his story. At the same time, I think Eric and Daniel can rub each other the wrong way, much like brothers who know too much about each other.
MP: You previously touched upon this, but can you explain further how funding came to fruition?
JB: Initial funding came from FRI. My initial plan was to conduct a private stock offering for FRI to finance a film slate for the company’s business plan; Amityville was one of these films. However, this failed to draw enough support and instead, FRI had to form Lost Witness Pictures as a limited liability company specifically for this project. Eventually, we lined up contacts in New York who were interested and this lead to Eric and I flying to Long Island where we held meetings with private investors. We presented copies of our business plan and our private offering for the film. We ended up getting enough support because these investors were hooked on the project. The financing trickled in from there. Pierce Law Group was very essential in helping us with the necessary financing agreements.
MP: What have you learned about your work style and collaboration through pre-production and post? What are the hopes for distribution?
JB: My work style has been rather hectic since I’ve come on board. Again, this was not a project that I was intending on serving as a full time producer. Conflicts do develop when you are trying to balance responsibilities of a company as a whole when other films require my attention.
However in terms of my style, I learned to take things one step at a time and it made my job easier in the long term. It is better to have multiple people involved that can contribute taking on responsibilities since the film is close to completion.
AA: I definitely can’t say all that I’ve learned just yet as we’re still in post, and I’m still constantly trying to finagle our responsibilities as it comes to meeting with sales agencies and publicity firms. I also want to ensure we continue to make and keep deadlines. I learn more about myself daily and how to successfully wrangle an independent nonfiction production. I like to be at least kept in the loop of, if not involved directly, with all aspects of production, and it’s hard for me sometimes to let go of control. For example, the editing process is very nerve-wracking, as it’s a process Eric has to go through on his own since he, besides being the director with the vision for the final piece, he is also the one most intimately familiar with the Amityville story. I can schedule viewing sessions where we watch cuts and give notes; I can hire people to help out with some aspects, but at the end of the day, it’s his story and his editing process. I have to work around that, with very little transparency until there’s finished bits to view. With the storyline of a documentary revealing itself in the editing process, this has been much harder than I had anticipated. At the end of the day, I trust the director’s vision, so I’ve got to stop trying to push all of the time.
MP: What is the best & worst thing about working on an independent feature of this nature?
JB: Compared to other independent films I have worked on over the years, it is difficult to try and assemble the footage and put it into the final story format. It is really a question of how to structure it. With a typical independent film, you have the script and you can put things into sequence. It is easier to get the final cut in the can, but a documentary is reality based and you’re constantly reviewing hours and hours of footage.
With this project, there are sequences in which things are shot in the moment, but it is meant to be a serious piece and trying to structure a story around the footage is a challenge. It is up to Eric to pick out the scenes he feels is the “best fit” and develop the story with what he has at his fingertips.
A documentary film is more of an on-going process and some of the film happens “in the moment”. Whereas, in a typical independent film, you have deadlines, you have a minimum time schedule to film, or have completion bond guarantors breathing down your neck.
I think most people believe documentaries are easy to film because they are very loose and have a more limited crew and don’t require all the red tape that goes on in a major feature film. Maybe these are with filmmakers who consider projects as “passion pieces”, but working behind the scenes and sometimes observing a filmmaker trying to actually structure it once you have the footage in front of you, can sometimes become very trying.
AA: The best and worst thing about working on an independent feature of this nature is we have to do everything ourselves. I love it, but it can be overwhelming. We of course have help, but nowhere near what it would be like if it was a larger budget or a fictional piece. I’d agree with John in that the post process has been trying for the reasons he brought up and I mentioned earlier.
MP: What is your personal opinion about the paranormal/supernatural? If it conflicts with Danny’s, the Lutzes’ or the Amityville media, how do you separate that from the film production?
JB: My opinion of paranormal/supernatural is pretty neutral. I think we are not supposed to know if there is another world or if ghosts really exist, possibly until we die. Admittedly, I do agree that some people on this planet may have the ability to see things and understand things, better than the average person. In Danny Lutz’s personal experience, it is unfair for me to say nothing happened because I was not there. But then again, I’ve never had that kind of experience to make a formative opinion on all things paranormal/supernatural, so I keep a distance and respect for Danny.
AA: My personal opinion about the paranormal/ supernatural is simple. It’s that we simply cannot know for sure whether or not anything else exists. There are still things we are discovering about nature, our brains, DNA, space, etc. It stands to reason there are abilities humans have that are unknown. It also stands to reason that there could be more to the world than what we can see or measure empirically right now. It is presumptuous to state definitively that this is all there is.