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,
Sisters), who reveals how YOU too can
successfully pursue your acting dreams!
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,
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.
she spotted a casting notice for producer Don Dohler and director Joe Ripple's Harvesters.
* The Casting Process
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,
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."
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.
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.
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."
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!"
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.
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!"
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.
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!"
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.
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!"
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
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.
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."
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."
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!"
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.
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
* Budget & Equipment
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Tell Us What YOU Think! -- On Our Message