Erik Kristopher Myers is a writer and filmmaker based out of Baltimore, MD. His close association with CaptainHowdy.com (and the now-defunct BloodyNews.com) has led to numerous critical writings on the Exorcist franchise, and earned him the first screening and exclusive interview regarding Paul Schrader’s then-shelved Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist in 2005 (reprinted this fall ball Centipede Press). He is the acclaimed director of the multi-award winning 2011 independent thriller Roulette (roulettefilm.com), and is currently at work on the academic study William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist III: From Concept to Novel to Screen.
1). ROBBENT.COM: Let’s get right into it. Can you give us a synopsis of Roulette?
Erik Kristopher Myers: Roulette tells the stories of Dean Jensen (Mike Baldwin), a wheelchair-bound man in the early stages of what appears to be multiple sclerosis; Richard Kessler (Will Haza), a bitter alcoholic unhappy with his dead-end office job and dead-end marriage; and Sunshine Howard (Ali Lukowski), an evangelical Christian who strays from the path of her faith and into a freer, albeit darker world of sexual liberation. Their stories, seemingly unconnected, are told in flashback, gradually moving toward their respective climaxes during a game of Russian Roulette, in which all three — strangers to one another prior to this encounter — are participants.
These three tales are told in fragments, moments in time that are rhythmically and structurally interwoven with the game of Russian Roulette that has brought Dean, Kessler and Sunny together. Who are these people, really? What faces are they hiding behind masks, not only from the world around them, but from us, the viewer? How did they come to be here for this final shock treatment that ends with a literal ‘Bang’…?
2). ROBBENT.COM: What inspired you to make Roulette?
Erik Kristopher Myers: I’ve written a number of screenplays, one of which was always planned as my debut. It had a fantastic hook, and big ideas that could be executed on a (comparatively) small budget. Nonetheless, it was still a “studio” indie: cash was essential. Armed with storyboards, concept art and a thirty-page promotional packet that outlined how I’d pull this off and guarantee a strong financial return, I began shopping it about. I received several bites, one of which was from a very famous director of horror films who was interested in directing. The problem was that it was my baby, and I knew that if I could just secure the budget, I’d potentially wind up knocking down some doors and ensuring the next film, and the next, and so on and further. Yet everyone I spoke with said the same thing: “You’ve done some shorts, won some awards, good for you; but no one is going to trust a film this potentially lucrative to a nobody from Baltimore. Not gonna happen.” So I made the decision to hang onto it. Yeah, selling might have helped me get my foot in the door; but it might also have landed me in Writing Land, where I’d be giving out all my best ideas to other film makers. It was a huge gamble. A number of people considered it career suicide (and I had a few sleepless nights where I felt the exact same way); but in the end, I realized I needed to make a film immediately. Something dirt cheap, held together with Scotch tape and popsicle sticks. Something really unique and creative and compelling, but shot essentially in my backyard on weekends. So I sat down, poured myself a gallon of whisky, and cranked out the script for Roulette in three feverish weeks during the summer of 2008.
I knew that anyone could (and can, and do) grab a video camera and make films with their friends. What’s more,they sell. So it had to be more than that: a Film with a capital F. Inspired by R. Budd Dwyer’s televised death, Roulette is an ambitious suicide thriller with a large ensemble cast, numerous interlocking storylines, and enough controversial subject matter to keep viewers talking long after the credits run. No politically correct stone is left unturned: the film examines the effects of religion, addiction, disease, gender identification, infidelity, and abortion; and most notably, the effects of chance, whether in one’s everyday life, or in the odds of a five-shot revolver going off during a game of life or death. And all of this in less than two hours.
In the end, the mantra has always been: show ’em what I can do with nothing, and then let ’em imagine what I could do with a few bucks. Time will tell on the latter front…
3). ROBBENT.COM: What sparks your creativity?
Erik Kristopher Myers: Most of my inspiration comes from the things that frighten me, or make me uncomfortable: The big “what ifs” in the universe. “What if someone I loved was struck down by a disease? What if they were killed in an accident?” From there things take on a life of their own. My work tends to be very dark, so naturally, people assume that means I’m very dark. To some degree, yeah, maybe; but overall, I tend to approach storytelling less as an active participant than as the observer who then translates it for everyone else. I allow characters to make their own decisions, suffer their own consequences, and shape their own destinies. My job is to maintain the three act structure of the story, but other than that, I’m often as surprised by plot twists as the viewers are. But other than opening a door on a topic and allowing the characters to step inside, I tend only to document.
One thing I utterly reject in practice is the tendency of writers to tell their own story, which typically comes across as very transparent, very narcissistic, and completely one-sided. It’s like the struggling screenwriter whose wife leaves him — who then writes the story of the struggling screenwriter whose vicious bitch of a wife leaves him: it’s not only entirely self-serving, but it’s going to be a romanticized, utterly biased account of something that, frankly, nobody cares about. Any time I sense myself drifting in that direction, I smack myself around a little and remind myself that I’m just as human as everyone else, which is the heart of good drama: real people making real decisions with real consequences.
4). ROBBENT.COM: Who are some of the filmmakers (past and present) that you draw inspiration from, and why?
Erik Kristopher Myers: My first real introduction to independent film making – and specifically Baltimore-based independent film making – occurred when I was fourteen and a friend of the family leant me John Waters’ 1974 film Female Trouble. This was early, nasty, grungy Waters, back when his work had teeth so sharp they drew blood. I was never the same, creatively. I was dabbling in script format, and my ideas were either epic in the Tolkien tradition or in that of very “serious” horror: The Exorcist, The Omen, et al. Female Trouble was so different. It was almost cinema verite, due largely to the guerilla nature of the production. It was cheap, effective, and affecting. Suddenly I realized that I didn’t need Industrial Light and Magic (Editor’s note: George Lucas’ visual effects company) to tell a story: I needed compelling people in a compelling situation. Whether or not they flew around in spaceships or drove a car was really beside the point.
My appreciation for indies is also extended to big budget franchises directed by former indie film makers: George Lucas with Star Wars, Peter Jackson with Lord of the Rings, Sam Raimi with Spider-Man. Love their movies or hate them, they were (at least in their initial incarnations) the product of that indie world, whatever their success may have led them to later become. I’d love to be able to do a large-scale film (I’ve written a few); and guys like Jackson show that such a transition can occur without any sacrifice of standards.
5). ROBBENT.COM: What was it like working with Mike Baldwin?
Erik Kristopher Myers: First off, let me take this opportunity to sing the praises of all the cast members who took part in Roulette: Mike Baldwin, Will Haza, Ali Lukowski, Michelle Allegra Murad, Taylor Lee Hitaffer, Jan-David Soutar, Troy Russell, Frank Moorman, Brian St. August, Leanna Chamish, Mark Kilbane, George Stover…It’s a long list. Mike is the star of the film in that he has top billing; yet being an ensemble with three interweaving storylines, I’d be remiss not to mention Will Haza and Ali Lukowski on the same level. All three are amazing, and gave so much of themselves for this film. There’s some pretty heavy content, and more than one sex scene, something all three partook in. They’re total pros.
Speaking specifically of Mike Baldwin: J65 Productions, who shot and crewed Roulette, is owned and operated by Director of Photography Jamie Bender and, at the time of shooting, also co-owned by Mike. I knew them both from film school. J65 provided necessary equipment such as a second camera, lenses, lights, a crane, and other toys (such as a custom dolly built specifically for the film that could be sized to match some very difficult locations). Mike handled most of the lighting, which ranges from natural to stylized, particularly in the “Suicide Room” sequences
(where the actors are playing Russian Roulette), which he often did while acting! How he divided his focus so effectively is really a mystery to me; but his work never suffers for it. His storyline is easily my favorite — on paper it’s great, but he added dimensions to the character of Dean that I hadn’t anticipated. When we first began shooting, he was trying to create a creepy character as memorable as Heath Ledger’s Joker, and together we attempted to do just that. It was very gratifying to hear more than one person state, after a sneak preview in Baltimore last fall that they wanted to go up and tell him how much they enjoyed his performance but were too afraid of him to say anything…! In reality he’s just the nicest guy, so while he may not get too many autograph requests, he accomplished his goal as a performer.
6). ROBBENT.COM: What are three of your favorite films of all time, and why?
Erik Kristopher Myers: I’m all over the place: The Exorcist, Boogie Nights, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Nosferatu, Brokeback Mountain, Goodfellas, An American Werewolf in London, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Prestige, Excalibur, Lord of the Rings, the Hammer Dracula flicks…I’m not tied down to one genre, though I do gravitate toward the darker stuff. One of my goals with Roulette was to create a scene that would rival the masturbation with-a-crucifix sequence from The Exorcist and the shower scene from Psycho: something would absolutely send the more squeamish viewers running for the exit, but more through inference than repulsive effects: If it could have a psychological anchor, then so much the better. Based on early response, Roulette’s “Baby Scene” may be a contender for Most Horrible Movie Moment Ever.
7). ROBBENT.COM: What was it like working with Michelle Murad?
Erik Kristopher Myers: Michelle’s involvement is an interesting (and somewhat painful story). In late 2009, we were largely finished with the film, and prepared a Baltimore premiere. However, at the fabled eleventh hour, we had a contractual dispute with one of the supporting actresses, rendering us powerless to use her scenes. This meant that either the film was going to wind up shelved…or I’d have to pull of a magic trick the equivalent of David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear. Under legal advice, we deleted those scenes, which was roughly twenty percent of the film, and went about recasting the part. The first hurdle was getting the cast and crew to re-commit to such a lengthy re-shoot (and in some cases, weight loss, weight gain, or other dramatic physical transformations); then, once that was accomplished, I had to get the same locations back again and under the same seasonal conditions due to the film’s aggressive continuity. Again, I got what I needed, but the true revelation was Michelle, who sailed into her audition on a ray of sunlight during what was my darkest, lowest point. She revitalized me, the cast, the crew, and most importantly, the film itself. Her energy and enthusiasm raised the quality of the production, and she turned a nightmare into an opportunity to improve the film. She’s fantastic.
A lot of this drama was captured in real-time, via documentary footage. Early in the production, I had approached award-winning film maker Ethan Meyer, who would ultimately work on the crew in numerous capacities, about shooting a feature-length documentary detailing the process from beginning to end. In the end, what he began producing was a series of behind-the-scenes featurettes, each roughly ten minutes long, and hosted on a dedicated website. Currently, there are sixteen episodes. Luck of the Draw: The Making of Roulette is totally Ethan’s – it’s his baby. And that baby has been a fantastic way of generating interest over the past year, and will ultimately appear on the Blu-Ray. In addition, it also provides those of us who lived the process the ability to disconnect from the film and remember what was going on just outside the frame, good and bad.
8). ROBBENT.COM: What are some of your hobbies besides making movies?
Erik Kristopher Myers: Writing, directing, producing and editing take up most of my spare time. Most of what’s left over goes to my wife, Laura, without whom there would be no Roulette. She produced the film alongside me, and contributed the wardrobe and production design. This project has consumed the bulk of our married life together, so I make a conscious effort to give her any and all of my attention when I’m not working. If I can squeeze in a little time to fiddle around on the bass guitar, read a comic book or play a video game, then I consider myself a lucky man, indeed.
9). ROBBENT.COM: What other projects do you currently have in the pipeline?
Erik Kristopher Myers: Apart from capping off Roulette, I’m in discussions on my previously-mentioned screenplay that I’ve been hanging on to all this time. I’m also continuing slow work on a labor of love called Film I, which is a documentary I shot as a film student that I am expanding to feature length. I also contributed the screenplay for a local production called The Devil’s Playthings, a horror film I wrote with my wife and Roulette co-producer, Laura Myers. But priority number one is my pet project, which I hope Roulette can finally demonstrate my qualifications for directing.
10). ROBBENT.COM: And last but not least; why should people watch Roulette?
Erik Kristopher Myers: Watch it because it’s a great story with great characters, and one hell of a controversial shock ending. Watch it because there are films out there that come from a different artistic place than Transformers 3.
Watch it because it’s genuine, it’s gritty, and it’s dark as hell. I didn’t want to make a horror film, however much I may love the genre, to serve as my calling card. Still, my love of all things uncomfortable is certainly present: the film has some very nasty and troubling ideas running around within it. But I was more interested in tangible horror. Vampires are fine. But you know what’s really scary? Finding out you have a disease. Not being able to pay the bills; unwanted pregnancy, addiction, and Infidelity. To me, those things make a shuffling zombie look like…well, a shuffling zombie. The only reason people can’t outrun zombies is because they decide to go back inside the old, dark house. You can’t outrun unemployment in a depressed economy.
Many thanks to Erik for knocking it out of the park with this interview. Great stuff Erik!
Check out ROULETTE using the links below;
Roulette’s trailer: HERE
Roulette’s facebook page: HERE
Roulette’s official website: HERE
IMDB page: HERE
Luck of the Draw: The Making of ROULETTE: HERE