Mikal Discusses Horror Short, Budget Filmmaking In Interview Exclusive

Mikal from Mikal films and DARKLY films answers question on his latest film, the holiday Horror-themed, The Thing on the Shelf. Embedded below are previous releases from Mikal.

Questions were composed by Shadoe Costa, DecayMag Content Contributor


DecayMag: What, if any, challenges do you face when creating your short horror films?

DecayMag.com Mikal Thing On The Shelf, The. Darkly Films

Mikal: Hey, Shadoe! First off, thank you for the compliment. I too love that about shorts. They challenge you to achieve the goal of a horror film without the benefit of 80 minutes of build up before the finale. Also, shorts are fun to make because they take such a relatively small amount of time to put together.

To your question – Creating short films as a zero budget indie filmmaker is rife with challenges, as I’m sure all levels of film making are, but for different reasons.

First, you face the challenge of not having any money to work with. You have to make sure you have adequate equipment for filmings, such as a camera and microphone – That costs money. You have to get actors, and many actors don’t want to work without getting paid. Unless you’re a one-man crew, your crew members want to get paid as well.

Mikal: The next challenge is finding people. You need actors and crew. You can post on craigslist and any local Facebook acting and film making groups in your area and sometimes still come up with nothing. However, after doing this for a while, it may become easier because you’ve hopefully met some great people to work with throughout your searching. Then you can contact those people first when it comes time for your next short.

Then, you have the challenge of finding proper locations for filming. ‘The Thing on the Shelf’ actually was written and ready to go probably 2 years before I filmed it. I just had the problem of finding a good location for filming. Same with the previous one, “No Lives Matter”. That was written a few years ago as well. I drove around quite a few cities looking for the right location. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find a dead-end alleyway in some areas. Another challenge with that location was trying not to look conspicuous, because technically the police could’ve demanded we produce a filming permit at any point. Luckily they didn’t seem to care.

After filming comes the challenge of editing, coloring, etc. Without money to pay Hollywood level post-production crews for this stuff, you’re going to have to learn to do it on your own.

I’d say the ultimate challenge as a no-budget indie filmmaker is getting the final film in front of peoples’ faces. You can post your work on a million social media sites, groups, etc., but it’s ultimately up to someone else whether they’re going to click play or share it with their friends.

DecayMag.com Mikal Thing On The Shelf, The. Darkly Films
The Thing on the Shelf. Still

DecayMag: Are there any filmmaker(s) out there that influenced or inspired the cinematography in The Thing on the Shelf?

Mikal: With ‘Thing’, I’d say I gathered influence from Poltergeist (Spielberg), Dario Argento, A24 films like Neon Demon (and similarly stylized films), and maybe even Mandy (Panos Cosmatos).

The Spielberg influence wasn’t on purpose. After writing the short, I realized that Poltergeist was probably the first time I saw a child in their bedroom get scared by a doll (the clown).

I’ve been watching a lot of stuff from A24 and similar film companies/filmmakers lately, and one of the things that strike me is the heavy use of colored light. This is something that I’ve loved since seeing it used similarly in Dario Argento’s films. You see this surface with the purple/blue lighting scheme in “Thing”, as well as the red light behind the elf.

While I was coloring the short, I was watching Mandy in the background. The washed out scenes of almost pure red influenced me with the red and blue light coloring. I took it to the limit of what could be natural and then stepped a bit over the line to give it a surreal look.

DecayMag: Coming up with an idea for a film is the first of many steps. How do you approach the writing process?

Mikal: I have a few different running lists of ideas. At home, I keep text files with film ideas, short film ideas, ideas that I want to make *soon*, etc. If an idea, concept, title, etc. pop into my head, I add it to the list. If I’m not home, I save it as a note on my phone.

Sometimes an idea will already have a story concept attached to it, other times it’s just a setting or title. Most of the time, I don’t fully write out a script for it until I decided that it’s something that I want to make very soon.

“The Thing on the Shelf” was just a basic idea until I found the right people and location to film it. Then I finished writing it once that was in place. That may sound backward to some, but it’s easy to do when you’re only doing a single scene, one minute film.

DecayMag.com Mikal Thing On The Shelf, The. Darkly Films
The Thing on the Shelf. Still

DecayMag: Were any real-life events a source of inspiration for you to write The Thing on the Shelf?

Mikal: I’ve love to say yes, but, not from anything that happened to me personally. Although technically, the influence came from things I saw in real life. I had the idea as soon as I saw an “elf on the shelf” for the first time. I immediately thought “That thing needs to be a horror film”.

DecayMag: For a short film, The Thing on the Shelf is wrought with different camera angles and tricks. How long did the actual production process take?

Mikal: The entire session took around 3 or 4 hours, but that includes all of the set decorating time. We spent quite a while putting up all the lights, arranging the stuffed animals, setting up the dresser to look how we wanted it to, etc. Then we rehearsed the entire thing straight through for maybe 20 minutes and started filming after that. It’s amazing how much time you can spend on a film that ends up only being slightly over a minute long after editing. Although major budget productions can spend a lot more time than that on individual scenes.

DecayMag.com Mikal Thing On The Shelf, The. Darkly Films
The Thing on the Shelf. Still

DecayMag: Being a musician, I know you take sound quality and editing seriously. What are your thoughts on music in your films and how do you utilize it to produce the desired mood?

Mikal: Some people say that audio is 50% of the film. I think it can be much more than that. Bad audio turns watchers off quicker than anything else. But if you have decent audio and not so great video, your watchers are willing to stick it out for a bit longer.

A lot of people get emotional at a film without even realizing that it’s the audio or music that’s actually pulling at their emotions. For example, Danny Boyle knows how to pull emotion from the audience with music better than almost anybody else.

Watch the sequence in “Sunshine” (2007) beginning where Cillian Murphy realizes he’s alone and has to complete the mission entirely on his own. Pay attention to the music. It wrenches your heart while watching him find a way to do what should be impossible. Another example – The other day I saw people commenting on how ‘beautiful’ the final scene of ‘Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ was. But, not one of them commented on the music. There was a Sigur Ros song playing behind the scene. The music by itself could cause tears to fall from anybody’s eyes with no visual at all.

With ‘The Thing on the Shelf’, I restructured a common Christmas song so that it would slow down, fall apart and hit out of keynotes at specific spots to make the audience feel dread. I hope it worked.

DecayMag: The horror genre is obviously what we focus on at DecayMag but there are many different avenues in this genre. What attracted you to horror?

Mikal: I love film in general, but I’ve always had a much stronger attraction to horror movies than anything else. I can’t pinpoint a single reason why, but I can say that there is a certain type of ‘fun’ element to horror that you don’t find in any other genre. Seeing movies like “Halloween”, “Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Creepshow” for the first time was a magical experience for me.

DecayMag.com Mikal Thing On The Shelf, The. Darkly Films
The Thing on the Shelf. Still

DecayMag: You’ve been in the industry for some time now and, as any budding filmmaker knows, the budget can be a huge restriction. How do you manage the balance between the checkbook and getting your intended vision on the screen?

Mikal: Well, I’m not sure how long “some time” is, but I bought my first real camera in 2012, and have been using it ever since. For now, I concentrate on just eliminating cost wherever possible. There’s a ton of equipment that I want, and that I know would allow me to do a lot more than I currently do, but until I can afford that stuff, I just try to use what I have available to me.

A shining example of that is Simon Cade, a filmmaker / youtuber with a huge audience. He still uses a Canon T3i as his main camera today, despite it being considered a ‘beginner’ camera. The truth is, as long as your equipment meets some minimal requirements and still turns on, you can use it. The main ingredient in your films should be the story, not a shiny new camera.

There’s a Hollywood film school teacher named Dov Simons who used to make some very informative and funny videos about how to make a film. In his “What camera should I get” video, his answer was… It doesn’t f***ing matter. Does it turn on? Does it record video? If yes, that’s the one you use. Want to make a film? Write something that’s 90 pages long and can be filmed in one location. Hit the record button, then hit top 90 minutes later.

DecayMag: Musician, Writer, Producer, Director, Cinematographer; you have got your hand in many different pots. Do you believe this is a good strategy to start as an indie filmmaker?

Mikal: If you have the ability to do all of those things, yes. It’s a way to save money and to get things done without having to find different people to do each of those things. Personally, I started off as a musician and had lots of friends who were filmmakers. I eventually decided to start movie making as well after being an extra in a few big-budget Hollywood style productions and seeing how cool it was to be on set with the directors, cinematographers, etc.

If you have the money to pay people to do some of those other things, or if you can find friends or other people in the film making community who want to make zero budget film with you, great!

That’s one less thing occupying your time, allowing you to spend more time on those other things that need to be done. But yes, it is possible to be a one-man film crew. It saves the time of having to find those other people as well, allowing you to do more in less time.

DecayMag.com Mikal Thing On The Shelf, The. Darkly Films

DecayMag: What is the idea behind MIKAL Films and why did you decide to start your own production company?

Mikal: Honestly, it’s just about branding. Just like being a musician. You have a band or artist name so that people will remember the brand and recognize it when they hear more from you, see your concerts listed, see your music for sale, etc.

If someone likes a film of yours, you want them to be able to know it’s you when they see another one of them. “You like that one thing I did? Well, here’s another.”

I threw a wrench in the machine, though, when I decided to have a separate “sister company” name for horror oriented film. I wanted to keep “MIKAL Films” as my main film company name for branding, but I wanted something more horror-sounding for the horror stuff. I wrote down a million different ideas and settled on “DARKLY Films” (the Evil Twin to MIKAL Films). I took the word ‘darkly’ from the title of my favorite book, ‘In A Glass Darkly’ by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu.

DecayMag: What can we expect from MIKAL Films in the future? Do you have an aspiration to make a feature-length horror film in the near future?

Mikal: I have a LOT of short films that I want to put together still, but yes, I also have a ton of feature-length horror films that I want to produce. Including one that would complete a trilogy of a very famous horror series from the 80s.

DecayMag: Your productions show a lot of passion and patients but everyone starts out as an amateur in any field. What has kept you going in this field and what advice can you give to the filmmakers out there that are just starting out?

If you want to start film making, do it today. You don’t need a great camera, or lighting, or anything. Do you have a phone that records video? Start with that. Take your phone and make a one minute film. Do that several times. If you can, do it once every week. If you did that for a full year, you’d have over 50 short films to your name, and you will probably have learned a LOT about film making. Need lighting? Use practical lighting – Household lamps, your car headlights, the flashlight on your phone, whatever is available.

Mikal: Now, if you *can* afford a little bit of equipment, here are a few pieces of advice on what to buy: Get a DSLR camera that allows you to change out lenses, like a Canon D60 or T3i. You can get these used on eBay for $200 to $300 on any given day. If you have a few bucks left over, get a 50mm f/1.8 lens – The Canon 50mm f/1.8 can be found on eBay for less than $100 brand new. Too much? Get the Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8 for less than $50 brand new. It’s their knockoff of the Canon. It might be good to have a wider angle lens as well, but it’s not absolutely necessary when you’re just starting out. In some cases, the camera might come with a lens or two. Those can typically cover your wider angle lens needs.

But, as mentioned earlier, even more, important than your equipment, is having a story. How do you tell if you have an actual story? There should be three things; An introduction where you learn about the characters, a conflict (a problem that occurs), and the resolution (where you do something about the problem). If you have a short film, you can sometimes skip pieces of this formula. For example, in “The Thing on the Shelf”, you have a minor intro to characters, a conflict presents itself, and then you’re left to wonder what happened because there’s no resolution. That’s the old Twilight Zone / Rod Serling formula of not having to write a third act (resolution) for the story when you have such limited time.

Most of all, though… have fun. *winky finger-gun gesture*

DecayMag.com Mikal Thing On The Shelf, The. Darkly Films
The Thing on the Shelf. Still


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