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by Josh Pasnak, senior staff writer of The Video Graveyard.

Lance Weiler is an independent filmmaker who, along with partner Stefan Avalos, pioneered the notion of being able to create and edit a feature film in a digital format using a camera and a PC. Their movie, The Last Broadcast, gained notoriety for being the first project completely created in this manner. It also received some attention a couple of years after it's initial release when a certain other flick about documentary filmmakers who go missing in the woods took the world by storm.

After a lengthy absence from the genre, Weiler is back with a vengeance and his new movie, Head Trauma, has been getting all sorts of attention for being one of the better independent genre releases of 2006.


Hi Lance. I'd like to start by talking about The Last Broadcast. It is known to be the first desktop feature film, can you explain a bit about what that means?

Sure, when Stefan Avalos and I started making The Last Broadcast in 1996, most movies were being shot on film. Around that time, a new kind of technology was coming out that would allow you to edit video on your desktop via hard drive. It sounds kind of ridiculous now because so many things can easily take video in and out but at that time it was really kind of a novel thing. We got all excited and built our own systems and started messing around with it.

Stefan had made a movie called The Game and had been kind of screwed over with foreign distribution and I had been trying to raise a large sum of money for a science fiction film that I wanted to make. We were sitting around one day and we had the idea to try to make a movie for as little as possible and make use of this new desktop system stuff that we had built.

That became the basis for what would become one of the first desktop feature films meaning that it was made with all kinds of gear with the idea that anybody could make a movie. When we totaled up the receipts at the end, it was 900 bucks. That was a novel thing because when that movie came out in early 1998, the other side of the spectrum was Titanic which was the most expensive film ever made at the time.

I am assuming that your interest in filmmaking came before your interest in computers.

It was actually kind of both. My dad was an amateur photographer and taught me darkroom stuff and I got my first still camera when I was in either kindergarten or first grade. It was an old Kodak 35 with the flash bulbs that sat on top. Stefan had been making films since he was 12 years old with his family and friends trying to recreate Raiders of the Lost Ark and stuff like that.

I had made around five or six short films to that point and Stefan had probably made about the same if not more and he had also made his first feature film which was shot on 16mm. At the time when we had the idea for The Last Broadcast, I was actually working in the commercial film industry as a camera assistant so I was working with a lot of film.

It was kind of funny because here we were, entrenched in making films, and when the new technology came out it didn't really matter to us that it was shooting on digital. It was kind of like "Oh that's cool, let's just make a movie."

So how old were you when you started doing The Last Broadcast?

I guess I was probably 25 or 26.


Our interview subject, Mr. Lance Weiler

How did you meet Stefan?

I had gone out to California after high school (against my parents wishes) to try to make things work. I was out there for a while but eventually ended up coming back to Pennsylvania. It turned out that there was this amazing local school that had a film program called Bucks County Community College where you could get in for like 200 bucks a semester. They'd give you some film and they had all kinds of gear and you could just shoot movies. The only requirement was that you had to finish a film by the end. It was taught by a really great guy named Art Landry who had worked with PBS and done all kinds of experimental films and documentaries.

Stefan was one of the lab assistants when I was first starting. We hit it off and we would always talk about films and our love of film. We would crew for each other and then one day, once I found that hardware, I said "Hey, why don't we build a computer". That led to "Hey, why don't we make a movie".

So where did the idea for The Last Broadcast come from?

It was a cross between a lot of things. Around that time, there was incredible media saturation with the O.J. Simpson case. There was also a love of TV shows like "In Search Of" with weird paranormal stuff as well as some appreciation for "The X Files". There was inspiration from camping and backpacking in the Pine Barrens and being terrified of the Jersey Devil folklore when I was a kid. Movies like David Holzman's Diary, The Thin Blue Line, and Paradise Lost had some weird kind of influence on the movie that we made and we really liked the idea of media and what you see you can't always believe.

We were really fascinated by how technology was affecting images and what we thought would happen moving forward as it started to be able to manipulate film. We wanted something where we could capture the last moments of these people's lives and then mess around with the idea of what media is and what is truth. A documentary format seemed like it would work.

On the other side of it, we had to think about we could really do. When you do no-budget filmmaking, actors, paid locations, and crew all go out the window so we thought about what we could structure that we could really make. Then Stefan and I end up being the hosts of this public access show and our friends and family are sitting down in front of the camera. We designed the movie that worked within the limitations of what we had.

The film is also known to be the first film to be theatrically released digitally. Can you tell me more about the satellite broadcasting of the film?

When it came time to release the movie we didn't have the money to do a film print . Even to this day, taking a digital format and taking it to 35mm or 16mm is a very expensive proposition. Around that time, we had found a new technology called DLP which is a chip that has all these tiny microscopic hinged mirrors that creates this amazing image. Initially, we had booked a date to show the movie at a local art deco theatre and we thought we'd try to convince one of the companies that makes these projectors to come along and sponsor the screening. It was kind of like cinema from the future meets cinema from the past. We sent out letters and nobody responded so we tried again and I ended up swapping the addresses on the letters so they purposely went to their competitors but I left the original addresses on. When the companies got the letters, they saw that we were talking to other people and so forth and then everybody started to call! We ended up choosing the best projector and we started working with that projection company.

Stefan and I along with David Beard and Esther Robinson started talking about how we could show the movie in more than one place and that gave birth to this crazy, backbreaking experience. Sometimes I think when you don't fully grasp what it takes or if you knew what it would take, you might not do it. That's the beauty of it as it's horrifying and exhilarating at the same time. We jumped right into this thing and started talking to satellite companies and Texas Instruments and eventually ended up pulling together all these sponsors and did what effectively was the first all-digital release of a motion picture. What happened was the movie was beamed to a geo-synchronous platform satellite which sits way above Earth and then it was beamed back down to multiple places across the United States where we had placed dishes on top of the theatres. It came through the dish, was downloaded onto a hard drive on a Windows NT system, and was then projected out via digital projection. It was actually like what is now known as the way Tivo works, you can record it the way you want and then watch it whenever you want to watch it.

This actually helped to create the reference design to what is digital cinema today. Not bad for a guy who was living on a turf farm.

You had received some recognition from Wired magazine at the time, is that correct?

Yeah, it was "25 People Helping to Change the Face of Hollywood". Stefan and I were in there with a whole bunch of heavy hitters.

There are inevitable comparisons to The Blair Witch Project but your film premiered nearly a year before. Have you ever spoken to Blair Witch directors Daniel Myrick or Eduardo Sanchez about it?

I think at the end of the day, it's this thing that lives on in this weird kind of conspiracy. The Internet can take something and in some ways, it became kind of like what the storyline of the movie was. You kind of felt like something was running out of control and people were saying you said this, they said that. The media kind of just went with it but I think its more like if you have a hundred monkeys and they go up onto a mountain, two are bound to come down with similar things. Kids in the woods isn't necessarily the most original concept.

It's interesting how parallel of a "Twilight Zone" universe it felt like. They had seen our film and I think, if anything, they looked at what they were doing and thought, like anybody would, "How do we make our movie different or how do we differentiate ourselves from what these guys are doing?" I've met them and when I say "Twilight Zone" it was really kind of weird. We were at Sundance and they were the first people that we saw there. We also flew from New York to the Cannes Film Festival and Dan Myrick right in front of me on the plane. Although our lives crossed multiple times in that small period, I never really got to talk to them directly about it. From my perspective it was like "It's all good". In the end, we did really well and we broke new ground and both films have their own merit. There's no bad blood, it's totally cool.

In the time since The Last Broadcast, Stefan has moved to Los Angeles. Are you planning on making a similar move or are you going to stay where you're at?

I kind of like where I am. I travel quite a bit and I kind of like having a base away from where the industry is which I think works well for me. Plus, today you're so connected in so many ways that it doesn't really matter necessarily where you live. I've been able to function pretty well being outside those centers.

You're probably given a lot more freedom too.

The beauty of filmmaking, which I think some people take lightly, is the power you get when you pick up a camera and you know that you can make a movie and tell a story and you push yourself and you grow because of it. I can fund it, make it, and distribute it, and I can totally do it outside a system. Once you realize that you can do that, you have what people call independent filmmaking.

In the time between The Last Broadcast and your new film Head Trauma, what were you up to?

I made a number of short films, directed commercials and some music videos, and worked on developing a TV show for Fox for two years. I also started a technology company which I'm a partner in. I kind of mixed everything: a little bit of tech, a lot of filmmaking, and then sometimes some commercial work. I was always wanting to make another feature but waiting for the right time and the right story that I felt I wanted to tell.


One of Head Trauma's many nightmares

Your latest film, Head Trauma, was partially inspired by a car accident that you were in. Could you describe what happened and how that led to the genesis of the film?

In 1994, I was in a head-on collision with a garbage truck. I remember it was January and looking and saying "Wow, it looks really beautiful the way the ice is hanging off the trees" and then I don't remember anything. I was in intensive care for five days and when I came home, I was plagued by these crazy, vivid nightmares of the crash and weird symbolic things. I had sustained a head trauma, broken my jaw, and I was in really bad shape.

In 2003, I thought there could be something interesting there. What if you had these nightmares like I had experienced or even worse and they actually started to cross over into your reality? How would you deal with that and how would it manifest itself? So that became the basis for the story.

Can you give a brief synopsis of Head Trauma?

Head Trauma tells the story of George Walker who's a down and out transient guy who comes back home after 20-some years to settle the estate of his grandmother. When he arrives home, he finds it condemned and inhabited by squatters and he decides he's going to try and save the place. As he goes to save it, he falls and strikes his head and he starts having these recurring nightmares and slowly but surely his nightmares start to cross over into his reality. That's the synopsis in a nutshell.

The abandoned house that you used in the film was a very creepy location. Can you tell me about shooting there?

It was totally creepy in real life! We looked at some 60 abandoned structures before we settled on that house and a lot of them were incredibly disserving. You'd walk in and your gag reflex would go off because there was such a stench. You'd see blood on carpets or walls as well as animal or human fecal matter. Some of the places had bad drug related crimes in them where people had died.

When we found that place, we liked the way that it sat back on the hill, that there was a lot of available light, and in some ways it didn't smell as bad as a lot of the other houses (laughs). Jennifer Nasal, the production designer, did a fabulous job bringing in things and a lot of the junk that is in the movie is actually stuff that was there. A lot of the crew members were nervous about parts of that place. People didn't want to be by themselves in the attic in particular. A woman had committed suicide in the house.

It was a very strange place but I remember when it came down feeling sadness and also being exhilarated that that part of the movie was over. Quite literally, the way we made Head Trauma was like sustaining a head trauma. It was an incredibly ambitious film and to go and shoot like that in an abandoned structure where you're flooding the basement and doing all kinds of crazy stuff was very hard. The place had no heat other than maybe a kerosene heater so it was -12 degrees at times as we were shooting in winter. It was very tough in a lot of ways but the atmosphere seeps through and I would shoot on location any chance I could ever get because I think it's just phenomenal.

The cinematography was pretty great in the film. How did you meet up with Sam Levy and what is his background?

Sam and I worked together as camera assistants. At one point I was contemplating becoming a director of photography as well but I really wanted to write and direct. We were assistants to Darius Khondji (Se7en) on a number of commercials and we worked periodically with Harris Savides who just shot Zodiac for David Fincher. Sam and I are very good friends so we have a good secondhand, it's easy to communicate.

We did a lot of camera tests for Head Trauma and spent a lot of time, in conjunction with Jennifer Nasal, to develop a palette for the film. We looked at Goya's "Black Paintings" and we looked at the limitations of the format and we tried to make it as consistent as we possibly could. I think in the end, the movie has a nice look to it that travels all the way through the film which is very rare for a movie of its size and budget.

How did comic artist Steve Bissette and his son Danny get involved and what was their involvement?

Steven's a phenomenal comic book artist and I had read "Swamp Thing" and various other things that he had contributed to when I was younger. We ended up meeting him one time in Atlantic City at a video show. Steven was a fan of The Last Broadcast so we stayed in touch. When I would talk with Steve and his son Danny, I'd tell them about the story and we started these rough sketches. I found it to be a very organic process.

Growing up, my family would go on a lot of road trips and when we got to a rest stop, we might come across something like an old Chick tract. Jack Chick did these small religious comics that you would find that were definitely propaganda. They had an effect on me and my brother. When you're like 9 or 10 years old and you find a comic you think its cool and then you find a junkie with needles in his arm burning in Hell or something and you think "Wow, that's totally bizarre". These always kind of stuck with me and I thought that it was a really cool story device. I hadn't really seen a comic integrated into a film in a way that I felt had a strong presence within a movie.

You had another famous Steve in the film with Steve Garvey from The Buzzcocks. How did he end up being involved?

Steve is a very accomplished bassist, record producer, and a really great guy. I had met him when I did a music video for a band that he was managing at the time. I asked him if he'd be in the movie and he came out and did a great job for us. It was really cool putting him in the movie, he's got such a great musical history and The Buzzcocks were a phenomenal band especially during the time that Steve played with them.

In general, which part of the production process do you like best?

I love the whole thing. I think sometimes you kind of have to especially if you're wearing all the hats like I had to. I like the problem solving and creative collaboration that comes with being on set. I had initially started cutting the film but I felt like I was too close to it. I really like the collaboration of working with an editor and working with Josh Cramer as well as on the sound on the Skywalker Ranch with Tim Nielsen and Chris Barnett was just phenomenal.

It's definitely kind of like long distance running because you're talking about a project that took like three, almost four years. I'm still involved with in on a daily basis now because I'm distributing it. It's a long haul. You've got to be able to feel like when you get out of bed that it's going to be something that you want to do or that you think you'll want to do three years from now.


The fate of a critic who didn't like Head Trauma

Both The Last Broadcast and Head Trauma have been released by Heretic Films who have been doing some great releases of low budget films. How did the relationship with them come about?

I had a number of offers for Head Trauma but I just wasn't happy with any of them. When we started talking about doing a re-release of The Last Broadcast, I went through the negotiations with Alex Afterman, one of the heads of Heretic, and really liked him a lot. I had the freedom to retain the rights to the work and I had full control over all the packaging and everything. I did all that and all the behind the scenes stuff based on what I wanted to do. It worked out well.

There has been a current trend of remaking old films in Hollywood these days. Are there any old movies that you would have a desire to remake?

One of the first films that pops to mind is Pretty Poison with Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. It was a really crazy movie that had a very limited run and then disappeared. It's been remade but not well.

Unfortunately, I was dismayed to hear that they are remaking The Tenant because I love that movie. There is a chunk of Polanski time where I love his stuff basically from Knife In The Water all the way through to Chinatown where, in my opinion, he can do no wrong. The Tenant definitely stands out, that was one I really responded to. I tend to like to do original work so I don't know if I would want to do a remake necessarily but those are a couple of examples of things I think would be neat.

You're obviously a big supporter of independent filmmakers. Do you have any advice for anyone who is just starting out?

Since I have a wide understanding from script to screen and beyond, I am always asked about different parts of the process. I have recently started something called workbookproject.com. It is kind of a social, open source experiment that is intended to be a resource for filmmakers and helps them understand and bridge the gap between technology and filmmaking. Right now, I'm actually doing a pretty cool experiment on there. If you go to the site, you'll see a banner called FestMob. Because I couldn't go to the Sundance Film Festival this year, I decided I was going to try to capture that experience live so I put together this kind of mash-up of a bunch of services and technology and see what happens. I created this thing where people are using their phones by updating their experiences and snapping pictures and shooting video with their phones and uploading their photos and videos. It's like this citizen journalism from Park City that bridges Sundance and Slamdance and gives you a sense of what's happening right at the moment without having to be blogged or anything.

Is it a pay site?

No, it's totally free and eventually what will be produced is a downloadable workbook people will be able to use whether they are online or offline. It will become a repository of all kinds of information about filmmaking from start to finish. I also do interviews with different people on there. There is an interview there with George Ratliff who has a psychological horror film starring Sam Rockwell called Joshua and I talk to George about how he packaged the movie and how he worked with the actors, etc. I also have an interview with Tommy Pallotta who produced A Scanner Darkly, the Philip K. Dick adaptation with Keanu Reeves. We talk about the process and how that was done. I also talk to lawyers and agents and it's an ongoing information source.

Finally, what are you up to next?

I have four different scripts that I am currently working on - two are finished drafts and two are in the cobbling together phase. They're all psychological horror films and a little bit dark and a little bit twisted. I'm locking to one of them that I really like but I'm a little hesitant to totally commit to it yet in the sense of announcing it. Obviously, my main goal is to not take as many years between films. I'm hoping to be shooting something next year if I'm lucky with a considerably larger budget.

I'm sure that you've got quite a few new fans from Head Trauma.

It's really great to have people actually respond when you work so long. The movie has made a bunch of top ten lists and Rue Morgue Magazine made it the best independent film of 2006. I've been reading that magazine for a while and it was cool to get that recognition from the magazine and its readership. The hardest part when you're small is that you don't have promotional budgets. It kind of has to grow over time and hopefully more people find it and tell somebody else about it.

If people want more information on you or your films, are there any other websites that they can check out?

They can go to headtraumamovie.com which also has a really cool comic. There are actually two other sites hidden under that site as well. You can also link to some of my other pages like the MySpace page that I have and lanceweiler.com.

Thanks a lot for the interview, Lance.

No problem, good night.


Images are by Lance Weiler.