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SCREAM QUEEN LEANNA CHAMISH DOES IT ALL

by Thomas M. Sipos, L.A. bureau chief.  [June 6, 2003]

 

 

[HollywoodInvestigator.com]  With the astonishing success of The Blair Witch Project, the prevalence of inexpensive video gear, and new distribution channels via the internet and DVD, indie filmmakers are producing low budget horror movies at an ever-quickening pace -- providing exciting new opportunities for actors seeking their Big Break!

That's the shocking conclusion of the Hollywood Investigator's exclusive interview with rising Scream Queen Leanna Chamish (star of Harvesters, Stakes, and Vampire Sisters), who reveals how YOU too can successfully pursue your acting dreams!

First off, you don't have to live in New York or Los Angeles!  Chamish, based in her native Baltimore, finds much work in corporate & industrial films, commercials, and voice-overs throughout Baltimore, DC, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

It also helps to be born into (or close to) the profession.  Born to a broadcaster Mom, Chamish began work as a radio board operator, disc jockey, and announcer, before becoming a video editor and "beg-a-thon" host at Maryland Public TV.  There, she met cameraman Kim Moir, who cast Chamish in his film, "Sinsitivity" -- Chamish's first film role.

Soon after, she spotted a casting notice for producer Don Dohler and director Joe Ripple's Harvesters.

 

* The Casting Process

 

"I saw the casting notice for Harvesters on computer bulletin boards and email lists for actors, and the Maryland Film Office announced the auditions on their phone hotline as well," said Chamish exclusively to the Hollywood Investigator. "I was cast in Harvesters, Stakes, and Vampire Sisters through Don and Joe's rigorous audition process. There are often multiple callbacks, and even people who've been cast in a Dohler/Ripple film before cannot take anything for granted."

But despite dreams of stardom, many seasoned actors are wary of low budget, non-union filmmakers. Some grindhouse filmmakers have shady histories of ripping off cast and crew and investors; others are fronts for sleazoid pervs; and still others have no track record and likely never will. Before auditioning, Chamish investigated Dohler and Ripple's Timewarp Films through a well-connected friend.

"I never would have auditioned for Dohler had it not been for a chance encounter at the Baltimore Science Fiction Convention," says Chamish. "I was lying on a couch in the lobby, resting, when a vampire came by. He commented that I looked comfortable. I invited him to join me.

"We chatted and I realized from the way he talked that he must be in broadcasting too, so I asked about his background. It turns out the vampire was Dick Dyszel, a.k.a. Count Gore de Vol, host of 'Creature Feature' on WDCA-TV. I didn't watch the show because I had poor reception of channel 20, so I had unwittingly become chummy with a celebrity! Dick mentioned acting in horror films made by someone named Don Dohler. For some reason the name stuck in my mind.

"When I saw the casting notice for Harvesters, I called Dick and asked about Don's talent, his sets, whether he was fair to his actors. Dick told me working with Don was a wonderful experience and that Don was an extremely decent man. Had it not been for Dick, I might have thought the whole low budget horror audition announcement sounded fishy or was posted by amateurs. I would have avoided it."

Dohler is a minor legend in low and micro budget film circles. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dohler published Cinemagic, a magazine devoted to special effects and makeup for super-8 film hobbyists. Says Chamish: "I think the guy who did effects makeup for Evil Dead said he learned the trade from Cinemagic. Director Mark Redfield began as a 17-year-old kid helping on Don's films. He was known as Mark Supensky then." Dohler also created the underground comic character Pro Junior.

At the audition, Chamish avoided name-dropping. "I thought about telling Don that I knew Dick, but didn't. I figured it'd be better to just audition my best rather than try to schmooze. Part of the audition script included a scream, and Don seemed impressed by my scream!"

Chamish has moved up at Timewarp. In addition to acting, she now also assists Dohler with casting.  "I help out at auditions by reading lines against the auditioning actors. I have also been privy to some meetings at which Don and Joe have selected actors and I am honored they trust me enough to let me see that.

"The casting process begins with posting an audition announcement to actors' websites, email listserves, and phone hotlines. A large space is rented. At a reception area, actors fill out forms with their statistics and personal info, and whether or not they are willing to appear nude. They are taken one by one into a room where Don and Joe sit behind a table. I or someone else reads lines with the auditioning actor while a camera tapes the session. After these auditions, Don and Joe schedule actors for callbacks -- often two or three callbacks!"

Even for a non-union film shot in Baltimore, competition is fierce. At times, hundreds of actors audition at Timewarp for a shot at stardom.

Finding acting work requires constant networking and self-promotion. At the Maryland Film Festival, Chamish met Baltimore film legend John Waters. "I hope my work in Don's films shows I can be kooky and kinky enough for John Waters. I sent John a DVD of Stakes, but I don't know if he got it, much less watched it. George Stover, who's been in all of Don's films and some of John Water's, always sends tapes or DVDs of his latest Dohler flick to John.  So maybe one day John Waters will discover me!"

 

* Preparing a Role

 

Harvesters is the tale of a psychotic family that farms kidnap victims for their organs -- thematically similar to a more literal people "farming" in cannibalistic Motel Hell. As in Motel Hell, Mother's Day, and the horror films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Harvester's psychotic characters sport dementedly gleeful grins.

"The backstories that Joe and Don tell me about my characters help me develop their personalities," says Chamish. "For Harvesters, Joe told me that my character, Betty, was in a mental institution and that she loves viciously killing people.

"However, Herbert [her hubby] won't let her kill because she goes wild with slashing and chopping, and messes up the organs, and then he can't sell them on the black market. Betty resents this and looks forward to a chance to hack people apart!  A lot of people comment about the glee on my face when I slash a throat. That's because my character, Betty, is so happy to finally get a chance to chop chop chop!"

Preparing for Stakes, Chamish was glad to read earlier drafts of the script. "Even if a scene or idea doesn't make the final script, knowing them often helps me play the character. With the Vampire Queen, the first scripts had a plotline about the Queen wanting to have a baby. If she could mate with another vampire, then the baby would be a powerful vampire pureblood.

But the Queen finds she is sterile, so decides to breed the pureblood baby by mating bodyguards, Raven and Dragus [Syn Devil, John Michaelson]. I held those ideas in mind and I think they added depth to my portrayal. I tried to add maternal urge to the scene where we kidnap the child, and a sense of mysterious purpose to the sex scene with me, Raven, and Dragus.

"My favorite scene was where I give a rousing speech to my vampire hoards, telling them to go feed and multiply. I tried to play it like a megalomaniacal dictator, over-confident and drunk on power. In the back of my mind I had Napoleon, Hitler, and a little Eva Peron. That monolog is a juicy bit for an actress!"

In addition to her role as Vampire Queen, Chamish also body-doubled for Melanie Johnson, who was a no show when her dad died. "When she falls over backwards and her legs pop up, that is really me. Those hands and arms that are being staked to the ground in that scene are mine."

 

 

* On a Non-Union Set
 

Like many low budgeters, Timewarp Films is non-union; Screen Actors Guild (SAG) members cannot appear in their films unless they choose financial core status. SAG frowns on financial core actors, but these actors qualify working in both union and non-union films, though they are barred voting in SAG elections or running for union office. Jim Waltz, a financial core actor, has appeared in Timewarp films.

"Timewarp sometimes pays actors up front, sometimes on a deferred basis, but the pay rates often fall below what union talent would get for the job," admits Chamish. "However, Timewarp runs a fair and safe set. There is nothing unprofessional or dangerous going on. In fact, since Joe Ripple is a police detective, the set is the safest it can be, especially when it comes to guns and pyro. And Joe tolerates nothing that could be interpreted as sexual harassment. Nude scenes are handled on a closed set with minimal staff, and anyone who does not need to look is made to look away. I usually chaperone the women who are appearing nude and stay as their helper on set."

Film production is grueling, especially on low budget sets. "Everyone has other jobs so we don't often shoot on weekdays," says Chamish. "I knew going in there would be long days.  Having worked on other films and videos, and having been an extra in big budget movies, I knew what to expect, so I can't complain about the hours. There were a few days where scenes had to be done in uncomfortably cold weather. Don and Joe go to whatever lengths they can to avoid that, but sometimes it can't be avoided. Don is calm, methodical, open to suggestions. I have never seen him get angry at anyone."

Because non-union actors and crew often donate their time, one of the biggest hurdles for low budget filmmakers is finding good locations. Like others before them, Dohler and Ripple often film inside their own homes. "There are a bunch of people they call on, too," says Chamish. "We find private properties that people let us use for free, and they get re-used in film after film. My friend Sally's barn has appeared in two films. Don's lawyers' office has appeared in three or more films.  I've gotten to know people at Maryland's Film Office; they told me there are lots of people with interesting properties that are dying to get their locations featured in films."

Much of Stakes was filmed at a nut roasting factory. "We had Joe's birthday party there, with the food laid out on sacks of peanuts," says Chamish. "Since it is a place for roasting, packing, and shipping nuts, there were no couches or beds. We found out, though, that sacks of peanuts can be pretty comfortable to sleep on. At night, in the alley or garage areas, we'd see mice and rats. We felt like we were living in a nut roasting factory. At least we always had snacks. Just walk up to a cashew conveyor belt and grab a handful!"

Local authorities have been cooperative with Timewarp Films, partially because of Joe Ripple's day job as a police detective. "He phones in our activities to the right folks," says Chamish. "For Harvesters, he told the county police we were going to stage a store hold-up so no cops would misinterpret what they saw. With "Alien Rampage," Joe informed the local cops there would be high speed car chases, to prevent the actors from being arrested for speeding.

"We almost had a run in with the law in Stakes. Two actors playing detectives pull guns and walk down an alley. A police car drove by, and the cop must have seen our 'detectives' pull their guns, because the car drove by again. Joe yelled 'cut' and into the street flashing his badge. The cop was already on the radio asking for backup! Joe quickly resolved the situation, and we got back to work."

 

 

*  Budget & Equipment

 

When itemizing a film's budget, the big studios include equipment and soundstage rental -- even when renting such items from themselves; a conflict of interest whereby studios charge themselves high rental fees, pushing their own films into a "net loss" so that profit participants need never be paid. Studios can afford to release such "money-losing" films because that money is often "lost" to another studio division -- one that needn't share its profits with anyone.

Accounting is less "creative" in low budget filmmaking. Says Chamish: "It is kind of hard to give you a solid figure for the budget, since Don and Joe and Mitch (the sfx guy) don't take salaries and don't charge for their time. They use a lot of equipment and software that's already their own, and was not purchased specifically for the films. 

"But I can tell you some of the 'raw costs,' the actual outlay. About $25,000 was spent on Harvesters, which includes a new video camera. $30,000 for Stakes, including another video camera.  Vampire Sisters cost $15,000, mostly on new lights and gels. For all these films, there will be future outlays as the people who worked on deferment get paid.

"All were recorded on miniDV video. Harvesters was shot on a Canon GL1. Stakes used a combination of the Canon GL1 and the Canon XL1S. And Vampire Sisters used the Canon XL1S. All films were shot in frame mode, which helps achieve the look of film because of the progressive scan image. A black pro-mist filter was used over the lens in almost all shots, contributing to the film look.  Don switched to a fog filter for some shots on Stakes.

"Don edits on his Mac using Adobe Premiere 6.0. All audio mixing and the creation of the separated tracks needed by the distributors is done in Premiere, too. For sfx software, Mitch Klein uses Lightwave, Illusion, and Adobe After Effects.

"Music was composed by Don, Joe, Mitch, other crew members, and our musician friends. Don purchases off the shelf production music as well. Joe and Don used Sonic Foundry software that offers music loops and lets you create compositions. Don also likes Symphonic Adventures music library/software.  Mitch knows how to use midi and synthesizers; he composed about five main music sequences in Vampire Sisters."

 

 

* Distribution

 

With more independent films being produced, it's harder for them to find theatrical distribution.  Nabbing screen time at prestigious film festivals (e.g., Sundance, Slamdance) is also increasingly competitive. But while occasional genre films such as Pi triumph on the festival circuit, like most low budget horror producers, Timewarp Films doesn't even try to compete for festival awards, instead targeting horror's traditional channels: conventions and direct-to-video.

"Stakes was shown at the 2002 Horrorfind convention in Baltimore and the audience loved it," says Chamish. "Timewarp sold DVDs and I greeted fans, signing posters and giving out buttons. I felt like a real star! I wore the Vampire Queen vinyl outfit and posed for lots of pictures that weekend!" In a few weeks, Timewarp's Vampire Sisters, in which Chamish plays a detective, will screen at the Baltimore Science Fiction convention.

Stakes and Harvesters direct-to-video releases were handled by Key East Entertainment domestically, while Amsell Entertainment handled international distribution. Some Hollywood and Blockbuster video stores also carry them. Timewarp films on DVD carry 30 minute "making of" featurettes, much of it shot by Chamish (who also does still photos on set), then edited by Ripple.

Apart from handling publicity for Timewarp, Chamish is publicity officer for Women in Film and Video of Maryland. "The membership is almost half men, a very good thing. The future of women in the field depends on women and men working as equals. But we still maintain the focus of helping women by inviting accomplished women speakers to meetings, and by raising scholarship money for women. We also have networking events.

"I've really gotten into the horror film scene, which is a long way from the horror virgin I was before Harvesters. Count Gore de Vol and I have been going every year to Horrorfind in Maryland. A lot of videos on his website come from Horrorfind, where I tape him interviewing celebrities such as Bruce Campbell, Dee Wallace Stone, Brinke Stevens, Ken Foree, and Michael Berryman. The Count has been a great source of advice on how to keep sane while pursuing a movie career and how to handle niche celebrity. He's fantastic, I just adore him!"

Copyright 2003 by HollywoodInvestigator.com.

 

More exclusive info on Leanna Chamish in the Weekly Universe's Girls In Black. She may be contacted at: chamish@ari.net.

 

 

 

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