Shellter
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An award winning Director and Cinematographer, Dan Donley has worked in the LA market for twenty years. Dan’s has shot literally hundreds of TV commercials and worked on other feature films including Shadows, Magus, Azira: Blood from the Sand, American Werewolf in Texas, Chinatown Connection and Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. His prime-time television work includes “Martial Law”, “Thieves”, “Invasion” and “24”. He also freelanced for "Entertainment Tonight" for five years.

Dan has taught TV/Film at Cal State Los Angeles, Saddleback Community College and has guest lectured at AFI. He is a member in good standing of Local 600. SHELLTER is Dan’s sophomore directorial effort.

AN INTERVIEW WITH DAN DONLEY

Why did you make SHELLTER?
A couple of reasons. I wanted to make a horror film that was really, well, horrifying. A film that would affect an audience physically. And I wanted to make a film that had something to say.

What do you mean affect an audience physically?
A film that would make people squirm in their seats, make them turn their faces away from the screen and would change them after watching the film. A film you feel physically and mentally.

You’d really have to make something terrifying to get that reaction.
Especially these days. There are three different “CSI’s” on the air these days with scenes of torture, killing and death that would have been “R” rated 20 years ago, that now play in the children’s hour in the afternoon on TV. So, what’s left for a horror director to shoot? How far can you go without crossing the line?

Does SHELLTER cross the line?
No, I’d say Cannibal Holocaust crosses the line, not so much for the snuff film feel or the rape scenes but because they killed real animals on screen. If you haven’t seen Cannibal Holocaust, it’s about a group of filmmakers who go to document something scary and all that’s left is the footage they shot. Sound familiar? It was the 1980’s Blair Witch Project.

How’d you get started as a filmmaker?
I was working on my Master’s degree in Psychology and a community college catalog came in the mail. I was looking for something fun to do and decided to take a film course. The film course was full but the video class had space and the rest, as they say, is history.

You never took a film course?
I did later. I had a natural inclination for camera work and was hired as an instructional aide. After I got my Masters, I started teaching and my first class was advanced filmmaking. While teaching I started to freelance, doing a work up in Hollywood and shooting action sports for ESPN.

You were working in Hollywood. Did you do any major films?
Well, the biggest film I ever worked on back then was Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. At that time about half my work was as an electrician and I got hired as Best Boy. But the DP decided not to do the film, so I got hire as a grip. Then I left for two weeks to DP a Disney video. When I came back I gaffed the (uncredited) second unit and finally became first unit gaffer.

The two different shoots really galvanized what I was doing in my career. Even though making features was fun, the hours were insane. With Leatherface I shot 6 day weeks, 12 hour days, shooting mostly nights and ate 3 meals a day off a catering truck. I was only credited as an electrician and the pay wasn’t great.

With Mickey, I was the DP, the pay was pretty good, the hours were reasonable, we stayed in nice places and ate good food. My wife was pregnant with our first child, we had just bought a house and I found a deal on a b-stock Betacam. The decision wasn’t hard which way to go.

You got out of features?
Yeah, I bought 3 Betacam packages and opened an edit bay with Mike Harrington. I've known Mike since college and we did mostly commercials, automotive and corporate work. I also freelanced for “Entertainment Tonight” for five years during this time. I still work with Mike, in fact, he was editor on both SHELLTER and SHADOWS.

What was your next move?
I bought the Sony HDW-F900 Cine Alta HDCAM. I had to search for different revenue sources to support the F900, so I started to shoot independent films.

Now you were doing the fun stuff.
Yeah, but not with the Hollywood budgets. I was so used to the Hollywood way of doing things, I couldn’t even imagine making a feature for less a million dollars. But I started working with creative independent filmmakers who really did know how to get the most bang for the buck. The experience completely changed my perspective.

How did you end up making your own first feature, SHADOWS?
I was complaining about some film my wife and I had just seen, and she said, “Can you do better?” And the gauntlet was thrown. SHADOWS was the result.

SHADOWS is a horror film?
I was told by sales agents that the only genre you can sell without known talent is horror. I labeled SHADOWS as a horror film and it has horror elements but it doesn't have enough for real horror fans. SHADOWS is really more of a psychological thriller. And people always say how funny the film is.

The actors were really great, it cost me very little (as films go) but the most important thing was how much I learned about the distribution side of the business, which I knew nothing about.

What did you learn?
I learned that the hard work begins after the film is finished!

SHADOWS was accepted into a non-horror film festival where it came in second in the Best-In-Festival category, losing to a film that literally cost a million dollars. I had interest from five different sales agents and distributors, choose one to represent the film and thought my work was over. I was wrong. I also learned it’s up to the filmmaker to create buzz for the film. I recently got the film back and I'm looking over different distribution opportunities for the film.

And then you made SHELLTER.
SHELLTER is almost a reaction to SHADOWS. I was determined to make this a real, no holding back horror film. This is definitely a serious film and what is best described as visceral. People who watch find themselves squirming in their seats, palms sweating and groaning out loud involuntarily.

One day when we were editing the rough cut, I thought maybe I had gone too far. That night I watched the news. The top story was about a man who threw his four kids off a 200 foot bridge into a river. The second story was a woman who had starved and murdered her four children and was living with the corpses. Now, that is horror. I’m afraid to turn on the TV news because it's usually worse than anything I can imagine.

That’s very sobering, and so is the idea behind SHELLTER.

SHELLTER is really about what normal people will do in an abnormal situation, like the people who manned the Nazi death camps. This includes both German soldiers and other prisoners. We still struggled to understand how one human being could do such terrible things to other human beings, especially to fellow inmates.

You would guess that less than one percent of the population was capable of such psychopathic atrocities. But you would be wrong. Research has found most normal people, people just like you and me, would commit similar inhuman acts if ordered by our superiors. Like the tagline says, "What would you do to survive?" Don't fool yourself, you'd do anything.

Tell us about the cast.

Cari Sanders, who plays Zoey, is a real trouper. She was disappointed about not being really bloody the first couple of days of production. I told her “just wait”. With each spray of blood, the nurse’s uniform became more sticky until it was practically glued to her body. Every time Cari moved she would remove another layer of skin.

Doctor Will is really funny guy. His day job is as a jock on one of those morning radio shows. Two days in a row he got up at 3am, did his morning drive show, drove 50 miles to the studio and shot for eight hours and then drove back to San Diego. I don’t know when he had time to go over lines.

Maria Olsen gave a great read as Sassy but lobbied for the part of the Nurse. She wanted the challenge of doing the completely non-speaking role. And then we found Kurshila Martini who brought a new level of creepy to Sassy.

I had worked with both Adam Fleck and Alex Petrovich in SHADOWS and had them in mind when I wrote their parts. Another person who I’ve worked with many times is Vinnie Bilancio. Vinnie is not only an accomplished actor but a filmmaker in his own right.

Michelle Blum, Elizabeth Carlisle, Christine Little, Beth Hettig, Katelyn Gault, Leah Grimson, Sherri Gulley, Brittney Daylee, and my favorite, Kelsie Stevens were each so focused and they were all great. The time shooting was short and intense and each brought their “A” game. I remember Erin Rae Miller crying real tears, and Sophie’s amazing performance shooting the electrocution scene.

Every filmmaker always says “the cast was great,” and this time it was really true. I told the cast that I shoot fast and if we were going to make it through a very tight shooting schedule they would have to be professional, show up on time, know their lines and hit their marks. I wasn’t disappointed. Everyone was great.

What about the crew?
Filmmaking is a team sport. You can be the greatest director with the greatest cast but it’s all for nothing if you don’t have the people with the technical know how to tell the story. I like independent filmmaking because you get to work with a small, intimate crew. You don’t feel like you’re just a replaceable cog in some big machine. Crew members really have a sense of ownership because each and every one makes a gigantic contribution to the film. These are experienced, talented people that really wanted to make something special.

Having the right cast and crew also makes it fun. And horror films are fun to make. Nothing is funnier than using a toilet brush to spray blood on an actor’s face who knows what’s coming and isn’t happy about it. Well, maybe Will's "sex face" when he was dry humping the exam table. In fact, now that I think about it, there were a lot of funny moments. Making horror films is like sex: It's fun to make if don't mind getting a little sticky.

 

  Last Updated 11/22/08