Ahockalypse Now! The Making of a Hockey Themed Zombie Movie
Editor’s Note: This is a special guest post by Wayne Johnson. I asked him to write about getting his film from script to screen – I urge all of you to check it out: Ahockalypse
How does one get to the place where making a film like Ahockalypse is possible? That’s a good question. I could say, we just decided one day to do it and that is that. But that is not really the full answer. You see. It takes a lot of buildup to get to a place where you write a script in about six weeks and then jump right into pre-production. Then, shoot the whole film in fourteen days and work on post while launching a marketing campaign all at the same time. Also, figure out distribution, build all the deliverables and get it rendered out, all on a shoestring budget with a total crew size of about twelve people. That kind of thing takes practice. Years of practice. Not only practice but a lot of hard work.
I think my story really starts there. Hard work. The audience, when they see a finished film, should have very little idea or feeling of how much work it took to get it in front of their eyeballs. And really they should not care. That is a huge deal that anyone in the arts needs to understand. The audience does not care if it took you twenty years or twenty minutes. But, I’m not writing this for them, I’m writing this for us, filmmakers, artists, storytellers or as I like to call myself, a Picturemaker. So I’ll talk about the work.
When the Producer for Ahockalypse, Craig Patrick, called me up with his idea for the story I immediately started seeing scenes in my head as he talked about the basic plot. That’s how I think. I see it. Sometimes full realized scenes. I credit this ability from playing Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs for years. I have a highly developed visual imagination. That is key to being a Picturemaker.
Then, as the conversation went on, I started thinking about the logistics of putting the film together. After making over a dozen films I fully understand the importance of planning. You don’t make an indie film without proper planning. You don’t make any film without it for that matter. This was August of 2016. I was working as Production Manager for a cartoon show for Amazon Studios called Danger and Eggs. I had about three more months on that show before I could work on Ahockalypse and Craig needed us to start shooting late February 2017. That was not much time. I’d have to write it in November or December and immediately move to pre-production in January. So of course I agreed to do it. My only condition was it needed to funny.
After wrapping up on Danger and Eggs, I started on the writing part for Ahockalypse. Now my process is something that works for me. I’ve read about tons of writers and how they work. Everybody has got their magic formula. The real magic is writing. Just do the damn work. I always write an outline first. It’s based on a twelve paragraph structure Linda Seger outlines in Making a Good Script Great. I find that as a great guide for me and I’ve used that process on everything I have written. I’ve written about seven full screenplays and dozens and dozens of treatments. Once I have the plot figured out I move onto a more fleshed out treatment that goes from a couple pages up to a dozen or more pages of story.
Now when you are working with other people, like a Producer who was also finding financing, you need to collaborate. I think a lot of Picturemaker’s have a hard time with the idea that other people will bring ideas to the film. You gotta get it in your head from day one that filmmaking is not like being a painter or a poet. It is always a collaboration from the beginning. And you need to learn, fast, what battles to fight and what ones to skip. I’ve worked with hundreds of creatives over the years and not playing well with others will get you nowhere, fast.
Anyway, I would write my ideas, talk to Craig and we would tweak stuff. Craig was a Hockey player all his life and owns a couple teams. So he had some character archetypes in mind that I used to flesh out the main characters. I added a few supporting characters based on what we needed to keep the story going. Then we had long hard discussions on what was funny.
Funny is so damn personal that it is almost impossible to agree. So we looked at some films that we could use as a model for humor. Also, I started reading Hockey Chirps online. I found them to be funny, juvenile, and raunchy. I loved that stuff. Perfect contrast to the safe space bullshit our culture is going through.
After a few weeks we finally had our treatment of about sixteen pages of story. All the scenes roughed in and big moments fleshed out. Then we had to get it signed off by the star, Barry Melrose. Would he like it?
Now this is again another aspect of understanding how to collaborate. Barry is going to be in the film. Barry has a reputation. Barry wants to be in something he likes. Lucky for us Barry liked it and only had one thing to add. We added a gag from his days as a player. What a relief. Barry could have hated it and forced changes. He had the leverage but he was super cool and liked what we had done. Now I had to write the script.
It was the middle of December. I needed to have a final draft by the second week of January so we could do the breakdown, and start to really cast this thing. I sat down and wrote four hours in the morning and cleaned up what I wrote over an hour or two in the afternoon. Now that does not seem like a long day but part of my process is thinking. When I get stuck, I stop. I take a walk, do the dishes, or vacuum and think through the problem. This is what works for me. Four hours typing is about all I can take before I’m just typing nonsense. But I still managed a few drafts in about three weeks. I think I did seven drafts total.
The story was figured out, but there was still a lot of work to do. Biggest thing was that everything the characters needed to say needed to make sense, as well as making sure everything is planted and paid off. I love the film Dodgeball That movie is a great modern reference for plants and payoffs. It also has a highly formal structure. That’s a sophisticated story, technically speaking. I used that as my model for writing. Another aspect of writing for indie films is that I was actually going to make this thing. So I had to write it in a way that I knew, no matter what, I could actually shoot the scene.
All the writing schools and books talk about writing a script without thinking about logistics or budget. Fuck that. Want to guarantee your film never gets made, write one that doesn’t fit with your skillset and resources. You want to make a movie, write it so it can be made with what you know you can get, otherwise be prepared to compromise and cut a lot of it out. I managed ninety pages. I hoped it was enough. I had to move onto budgeting and scheduling. And you really can’t do those two thing accurately without a completed script. It was the second week in January…
The next step in the process is so crucial. It’s important to get this right. Breaking down the script and building the schedule. This is the bit most Indie Picturemakers don’t get right. They skim over this, they don’t pay attention to detail and they have no clue on how long something actually takes. Now that last bit is the toughest one to learn. I have directed and produced four features and about a dozen shorts over the last twenty years as well as have produced hundreds of other video projects. It has given me one critical skill. I can estimate how long something will take me almost to the minute. I know its a weird claim, but it’s true. I guess it’s just something I’ve developed over the years. But even with that ability I’m not a tiny detail guy. So I know I needed some help with this so I called in Peter Mariutto.
Peter is a talented guy with a quick wit and an attention to detail. We had worked together on Danger and Eggs and managed to deliver over four hours of animated content to Amazon, so we knew how to work well together. Peter would serve as the Production Manager and the AD for the film, as well as many other duties I’ll get into later. We used a plug-in for Final Draftthat allows you to do the breakdown digitally and then built our initial schedule. At the same time Craig and I talked budget and what we would need. We used Google Sheets and other free Google stuff to coordinate everything and I used a budget sheet I acquired years ago to build the budget.
There is another huge aspect of picture making that people ignore, legal stuff. Contracts and legal help is a necessity on every project. You have no idea where your film might end up. You have no clue how much it might make. You also have no idea what could go wrong. And with out paperwork and some insurance, you could be royally screwed. Not just during production but years later.
I had met a great Entertainment / IP Lawyer years ago on another venture that did not work out, Gregory Perleberg, currently of CKR Law. He was able to help with getting our basic contracts in order and take care of some other things that every film needs and no one thinks about until it is too late. It also helps that Greg and I had worked together on some other productions, so we both understood what was essential and what was not to help save costs. Bottom line, every Picturemaker needs good legal council. Your lawyer will be needed well past distribution. The average lifespan of a film is about twenty five years. And now with streaming services, it could be infinite. Make sure you and your property are properly protected. And if its not, call Greg today, (310) 400-0110.
Locations are hard. The big question I had from the beginning was the ice arena scenes. This was a tough one. We considered renting a ice arena but the cost was looking very high. Also we had limited access and we would have to make a lot of travel accommodations for the Hockey team. This is where having a good producer who is good with people comes in handy.
You see, as I mentioned, Craig Patrick owned a hockey team, the Austin Bruins. I had made several trips to Austin, Minnesota to see games and meet with Craig about the film. One day as we went around town talking to some of the vendors, I learned a very critical piece of information. Everyone in Austin knew Craig. People on the street, the wait staff at the restaurants, the vendors we were going to use, all knew him. But more importantly, everyone liked Craig. I knew right then that we should shoot in Austin.
A critical factor of making Indie films is being able to have a secure location to shoot scenes. Renting a studio is almost impossible. Getting permits is another almost impossibility. But, if you know people, and you happen to be liked by them, then you can get a lot for very little. In this case the people of Austin were overwhelmingly helpful in letting us shoot there.
Craig was able to make a deal with the arena his team played in and also make a deal with the city to shoot on the streets and parks near the arena. It was a huge advantage. Not only that, Craig managed to secure a local hotel and they gave us the entire second floor and their parking lot for an entire night. Now we found the “perfect storm” of good connections. But one tip is, shoot somewhere they don’t make movies, and treat everyone with respect. Be kind and bottom line, just ask. You’ll be surprised at how many people are willing to help.
Casting of the film is always an exciting but difficult time. Lucky for us Craig and I have both made a few other films and had a stable of actors to call up to fill some roles. Also, since I had made a few other pictures I had a track record that people could look at to see that we knew what we were doing and that it was going to be a professional production. It is important to build a reputation. Now I’ve made some mistakes but building a reputation of being a professional is crucial. You need that. You get it by doing what you say you are going to do.
So the cast came together nicely. We got one of my favorite collaborators on board, Alex Galick who was in my film The Horrorand Kaylee Williams from Craigs film Black Creek. We also found some real good first timers, Jesse Renicky as Jonesy and Lindsey Kuehl as Girl #3. Nicole Fae also helped with casting and helped finish out the main cast with Gabrielle Arrowsmith, as Mrs. Johnson, Squall Charlson, as BJ and my long time good luck charm, Troy Lafaye, as Coach Blackjack. Troy has been in every film I’ve made since I met the guy about twelve years ago. So I always write a part for him in mind.
With the schedule so tight we did not get much rehearsal time. So my biggest direction for the cast was that they had freedom to improvise the gags and dialogue and make the written material funnier. And they needed to know their lines when they came to set. I’m not tied to dialogue in any way unless it is to fulfill the plot point. I guess in a sense I don’t care what the characters say as long as it’s in character and it helps get a laugh.
Man, did this cast deliver. They were able to bring the material up and really sell it. I’ve never laughed so hard on set or in the editing room for that matter. I knew we had the right cast from the first meeting. Everyone involved was really into it.
Before I shoot anything I storyboard. I storyboard every scene. I plan camera moves I figure out as much as I can so I have an idea how its going together and I have something to show the DP and everyone else involved how the scene may go. Now, I also know that shooting an Indie film limits what you can do, and locations may change and weather plays a part. But I still never start a day shooting without boards, even if we have to toss them out because of a situation. I think it is a necessary part of the artistic process to storyboard as the director. I don’t give it to the DP and make them do it, I don’t hire a storyboard artist, I do it and sometimes collaborate with those people, but I’m directing the movie first, in the boards.
The reason is this. You get a chance to cement the ideas into everyone’s head of how things are going to play out when you show them pictures. Even crude pictures. It gets everyone on the same page. It also gives you yet another chance to rewrite the story. I often rewrite the script in this phase. I cut scenes I change dialogue I add new scenes and I rearrange the film. It is an important part of the process of refining the film as you go along. I know some people don’t use them. I think that idea is completely ludicrous. You need as many opportunities as possible to make your picture better and the storyboard is one of those necessary steps.
Now, we had to put a crew together with some pretty reliable people. Principle photography was going to be nine days. The rest would be B-Roll or pick up shoots totaling about fourteen days in all. That’s fast as hell, Roger Corman fast. So you had to have people on the crew that you know. And you have to have people that know you are not insane. Well, they at least they wouldn’t call me insane until they had a few beers.
So, I called up all the people I’ve worked with before. I got Adam Natrop and Mark Kasper to Co-DP the film because of scheduling issues. Both of whom I have worked with for more than ten years. I got Keith McGregor to do sound and my trusted allies Nicole Fae and Tanner J to deal with Make-Up and hair. Then we filled in the rest with a couple newcomers to my usual team. Will Moses as AC, Peter Mariutto as AD and Props Manager, and anything else that needed to be done, Ryan Schaddelee to do a few practical FX for us and my pal Marshall Johnsonto help out doing a bit of everything, including being a stand-in for Bruce the Bear in a few scenes. Most days on set the crew was no more than nine people. We had a few PA’s from the local college IPR to help out on the big arena days, and some extra MUA’s to help with make-up for extras. But other than that, it was tiny. Obviously I carried my own gear and got my own coffee on this. And when we didn’t get pizza I did the catering. As Director I did whatever I could to help. I loaded gear, I help set up lights, whatever needed to be done, that I had time for, I did. We all had to do the job of about fifty people. Thats real Indie filmmaking.
We did our first half day of shooting in February. We have a flashback scene that was a gag where we needed to shoot a guy riding a snowmobile on a frozen lake and so we had to get out and shoot while the ice was still safe. We still hadn’t finished all of the planning and casting but this was a funny bit. The DNR stopped by and was concerned about how close the snowmobile was getting to the camera crew. Apparently there is a law that a snowmobile can’t drive within fifteen feet of a person. But we told him what we were up to and he thought it was a cool idea and went on his way.
The police are usually cool when you just tell them what you are up to. We shot another film in a little town one Summer where the cast was in full military gear carrying AR15’s and a bunch of other weapons. We just called the local police and told them what we were doing and they just said “Cool, thanks for letting us know.”
Our first night of principle photography, with the main cast, it was two degrees outside. Minnesota is tough regarding weather. And in March, it is unpredictable. It was a huge gamble to shoot in March but we had little choice. It could be sixty and sunny or below zero and a blizzard.
Two degrees is really cold. But one thing that saved us that night was that there was no wind. No breeze. Nothing. At that temperature any breeze would have dropped the temp on the skin into negative numbers. Then frostbite sets in in about twenty minutes. Bad stuff happens to the skin in below zero weather. I’ve shot scenes in negative twenty degrees before with a windchill of about negative forty. It’s hell. You can shoot for about ten minutes before you gotta run for cover and warm up. We got lucky, no wind. We brought out the propane heater, kept a blanket nearby for between takes and powered through with one of the funniest scenes in the film. The zombie on crutches bit.
As with all Indie productions there is unpredictability. I got a call from Craig and he was very excited. Famed Hockey legend Kelly Chase was in town and somehow Craig talked him into being in the film. He called me on a Saturday and we had to shoot the scene, that did not exist yet, Monday.
So what do you do? You write the scene and plan the shoot. I decided to make it the hook of the film. That significantly changed how the whole beginning of the film would be put together. I wrote it and Craig and I rewrote it then cast it and I got the crew together. I storyboarded it and the next day we shot the scenes we needed. What a huge opportunity. Kelly was great and it was a fun scene that allowed us to bookend the film with two great Hockey players. Kelly up front and Barry at the end.
We had a beautiful spring morning the day we shot with Barry. We found a great location not far from Downtown St. Paul and shot along the Mississippi river. The day went really smooth. Barry was was one of the humblest famous person I had ever met. He was just a regular guy. The night before we met him for drinks. Just hung out and got to know him.
We shot two twelve hour days in the hockey arena. The first day the game stuff and the second day was the end of the world stuff with blood. This was a bit of a challenge. We had to do over 120 camera set ups each day, on ice. That’s where our camera and our process really helped out. Craig had a Red Epic that shot 5K. We knew we were authoring in 2K. So I knew we could cut in on shots. So that helped us for coverage.
My manner of shooting a scene, unless I have it planned as a montage, is Master shot, then Medium Shots then close ups and last any inserts needed. I always start with a Master for coverage and never move on until I have an entire scene covered, even if it takes two or three Masters to do it. Its old school thinking from the film days in case there is a problem in the developing process. But I also see it as insurance. I assume, we are never going to get to reshoot anything. I assume that I have one chance to get it all. That’s how I work. And we back up everything immediately.
One of the most difficult aspects of the shoot was the scenes with lots of extras and the hockey players. You see, filmmaking takes a long time. And the motto on set is like the motto of the Army, “Hurry up and wait.” So when you are working on a small film and people are volunteers, the magic of making a movie wears off after about four or five hours of sitting and waiting. And when you add any make-up to the process that turns into seven or eight hours. It’s hard to manage that when the entire crew is involved in shooting. You don’t have anyone to keep them entertained or explain what’s going on.
The hockey players got frustrated a few times and we had some extras go home on us. All I can say is that I explained to them the best I could what to expect. But when you’re not paying extras you can’t ask much. A few slices of pizza and some pop don’t go to far with some people.
Each day and each location was a race against the clock. We paid our cast and crew hourly and cut people when they were done. I felt this was better than a flat day rate. It kept us all honest about time. If I said we were working twelve hours or eight hours that’s what we worked and if we went over it was a cost for the production. It kept us on time. I hate going over. And we only went over one night on Ahockalypse.
Probably the most fun I had was our shoot with Cole Eckert and his team for all the Bruce the Bear Martial Arts scenes. I met Cole a few years back when I was teaching at one of the many colleges I’ve taught at. Cole is world champion Martial Artist and a really great guy. He runs his own dojo near the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin. I asked him if he could not only do the stunt work for Bruce, wearing the mascot costume, but also if he would coordinate the fight scenes. Cole jumped at the opportunity. He and his team worked up all the fight sequences for us and then trained our two actresses Jess Johnson and Casandra Ha how to fight in them too.
What a blast we had! We shot the big fight first and worked down to the running bits. This was the first really big fight scenes I had ever shot. And theses guys did an amazing job on it. But what was really bad ass was the bit in the hockey arena on the ice. Cole worked with a few of the hockey players and then they did that whole scene, including the kicks on the ice. No injuries. I really think you could only pull that off with Minnesotans. We spend nine months of the year walking on snow and ice, we got the skills.
We managed to get all principle photography done in nine days and wrapped up the rest of the needed material over a few pick-up days during post production. It was an amazingly speedy achievement and I am very happy with what we accomplished.
When working on this type of film you don’t have the luxury of time or money. You gotta be fast and lucky. In all of that I only cut one scene because of time. I cut a scene where the Zombitch Jenny rallies her zombie army outside the arena. I just combined it with their entrance onto the ice arena which is much better scene anyway.
I love to edit. I use Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Editing gives me a chance to rewrite the story and refine it a bit. Editing is the last rewrite. It is obviously the most important part of the entire process. However, I knew I needed to have a skilled editor work on this to keep my eye fresh. I wrote the script, directed and co produced it. I needed perspective. So I got my longtime friend and collaborator Jeremy Wanek (rhymes with cronic) to cut the film.
To help with the process I did all the logging and acted as his assistant editor. So I did the first rough cut of the film and worked out a few scenes that I had specific ideas for. I edit something on every film I work on. I love being able to get in and just show the editor what I mean by cutting it. It helps that the director of a film understands editing. You cannot just leave it up to the editor to handle. Maybe you get to work with someone you trust like I trust Jeremy and maybe you don’t. You really need that skill in your pocket.
However, after the logging I wanted to do something a bit different. I wanted us to cut . I wanted to have a trailer that honestly showed the tone of the film. We had cut a teaser really early on and that was a good set up. But we needed something to one, market the film with and two, show the audience what they were in for.
So the trailer starts off with the Hockey team winning the cup. Then it shows the zombies coming to life and starting their terrorizing attacks. Then we cut to an open toilet and Jonesy pissing all over it. That was a very direct statement we were trying to make to our audience. It basically said, it’s not a zombie film. It’s not a hockey film, its a comedy. We then cut into the funny bits. I wanted to test out the audiences reactions to it. Needless to say, they loved it!
The blog Upcoming Horror Movies launched the trailer on their site and the trailer got out to thousands of people. In about two weeks we had over one hundred thousand views and had about twenty different articles written about the film with almost no effort on our part. Maxim, Golf Digest and tons of other sports bloggers and news organizations wanted to know what the hell we were up to! So after that we knew we could get away with the comedy angle. Wow! What a gamble. But hey, that’s art for yeah
After logging and my first rough cut was done I handed it over to Jeremy to work his magic. Jeremy has cut about fourteen or so features over the last five or so years. He’s also a great VFX artist. So he jumped in and what was important about this collaboration is that he understood the humor. He also understood we needed to not pull punches. We wanted our best stuff to be Ahockalypse Funny!
He worked on the film for about a month or more before I saw his first cut. Then Craig and I gave some general feedback and he cut more. I think Jeremy did three cuts before we started to meet weekly at my home studio to get into the details.
We cut on the film for about three or four months. Then finally we had picture lock and handed it over to our sound designer and moved onto Color Grade and VFX at the same time. I run a company called Blackspace VFX and we have done about six or so feature film VFX projects including Universal Studios remake of Dementia 13. We also did a film called Shockwave Darkside that was shot in stereo 3D and did over 1000 VFX on that film in 3D. So we have a lot of experience. However, we needed the VFX to fit the tone of the film. This is a controversial part of the process.
NOTE: Horror fans HATE CGI blood. They just hate it with a passion. But, we had to use it. We had time and money for three practical FX. One of which didn’t really work well. We had access to very few extras for zombies. So having hundreds of zombies on set was pretty impossible. So I had a choice. Dig in and make a lot of complex VFX or keep them within the tone of the film. I chose to keep them funny. Meaning, they could be a bit cheesy.
My logic is this. If you are not into the film by the time my character Gordon, looks directly at the camera and says, “Dead end.” Then no amount of amazing CG magic was going to make you like it anyway. This movie, for me, has always been about the audience having a good time and laughing their asses off. That’s it.
Another point I would like to express is this, how are we supposed to compete with the greatest FX artists in the world on a shoestring budget? And furthermore, how are we supposed to come up with something the audience has never seen? My only idea on that was to cut Jenny’s head straight down the middle with the hockey stick. Ryan Schaddelee made that head and brain thing look so gross. I loved that!
We brought in Pete Coleman to compose and original score for the film. Working with Pete was a great pleasure. It was only the third time I have been able to work with a composer directly on a film. I told Pete what I was into. Mainly the mood I was going for. I asked for a mix between the Army of Darkness theme and the theme to Ed Wood. I think he delivered that type of feel wonderfully in the opening theme of the film. He really helped set the tone of the film and added just the right punch I think we needed. The movie really fell into place with the music and I really love what Pete did
The rest of post was pretty standard stuff. I worked with our DP Adam Natrop to get a look in the Color Grade of a gold feel that went with the team colors. Jeremy worked with the sound designer to get the sound FX right and then finished off the endless list of deliverables needed for distribution.
After a lot of discussion and rejecting a lot of offers Craig decided to use Distribber for the distribution of the film. Distribber runs everything through their own QC process to help insure that it passes the standards for all the platforms we were going out on.
The only problem we had was with the trailer and iTunes content policy. We had to cut the trailer back and replace a bunch of fun shots to get it on iTunes. Seems ridiculous, but whatever. Now we can market our original trailer as “The trailer Apple would not let you see!”
We used Rev to do our closed captioning. I can’t recommend them enough. I’ve used them on three of my features now. And then we rendered all of our assets and uploaded them. That took about a month and a half. So plan for that if you are making a film.
Now we technically started the marketing right away. One of the very first things we did as soon as the script was being written and production dates had been picked we built a Facebook page for the film, set up Twitter and Instagram and all that jazz. My pal and graphic design wizard, Marshall Johnson, designed the poster for the film, our iconic hand gripping the puck. That got us going. We started inviting everyone in our network to like the page. Then we started reaching out to our audience, hockey fans.
You see, this is critical. You MUST have an audience in mind for your film. You MUST also find an audience, especially for Indie films, that has been a little neglected. Now that’s not always the case, but that’s a damn good way to start.
Hockey as a film genre has been underserved in general. Maybe the first Goon film was the last good Hockey film besides the documentary Ice Guardians featuring Kelly Chase. So that was Craigs genius about making this film. It was wide open.
During production we slowly built an audience, focusing primarily on Hockey fans. Then we dropped the teaser and a few months later the full trailer. We grew our fan base on Facebook from one hundred page likes in the first few months to over five thousand leading up to the release of the film.
Another thing we did was to enlist all of the cast and crew to help promote the film. They have all been so wonderful in doing this. Lindsey Kuehl even did a cool photo shoot for us dressed in character as Girl #3.
We have been invited on podcasts, done interviews, received a lot of praise from the Horror audience and have many other promotional events planned over the next few months after the release of the film.
I see it this way. It’s a marathon, not a sprint for a Indie film. We gotta just keep telling people about the film and help people find it. Like the old days. We gotta get the word of mouth going. As I write this we are a few short weeks away from the NHL kicking off again, Halloween is coming soon too and what could be better than the Ahockalypse DVD stuffed in every stocking this Christmas.
P.S. I mention “Luck” a few times. What I mean is that luck is where preparation meets opportunity.