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He knows what scares you: A Q&A with filmmaker and MPI founder Doug Schulze

Douglas Shulze

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What scares you? Filmmaker Doug Schulze knows what scares him, and he knows what scares you, too. Whether it’s getting stuck under the frozen Great Lakes or being caught in a zombie nightmare, Doug knows how to tell a story that will keep you up at night. 

In 2009, Doug co-wrote and directed Dark Fields, a film about a cursed farming community who offers human sacrifices to appease an evil spirit that haunts the rain. The movie starred David Carradine, Dee Wallace and some very scary entities. Then in 2011, Doug gave us Mimesis, a movie that brought Night of the Living Dead into the 21st century when a group of convention goers found themselves unwilling recreating that classic movie. Because that’s not enough, they also face a zombie siege when they attempt to flee.

Born in Detroit, Doug ultimately ended up in Waterford. From there, he attended Eastern Michigan University where he received a BS in Cinematic Arts. In 1998, he started the Motion Picture Institute (MPI), which offers extensive filmmaking and acting classes.  Doug has also co-wrote and directed horror movies; his most recent film is called The Dark Below and stars Veronica Cartwright. The movie is set beneath the frozen Great Lakes and was filmed during this year’s very brutal winter.

Doug was kind enough to speak to Metromode about his new film, MPI, and the art of moviemaking in the Mitten. 

Okay, let’s start with an easy one—what was the scariest movie you ever saw?
Well, the Exorcist and the original Alien got me the most as a kid and stuck with me long after viewing. For years I wouldn't watch the Exorcist again. 

I was terrified that I was going to be possessed. One day, I must have said something because my aunt said, “Jews don’t believe in possession. What are you worried about?” and I replied, “Yeah, I’ll be the one Jew in history to get it.”
Right! John Carpenter's original Halloween was probably the most scary fun I've ever had in a movie theater. There's a smaller independent film that came out of Australia (Snowtown) that is just so disturbingly realistic that I'd have to rate it among my top ten. 

Did you always want to work in film or was it something that you decided to do once you were in college? 
I was making short films long before college. My dad took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was 6, and I pretty much knew my career path from then on.

What are some paths that an aspiring filmmaker can take?
The paths for an aspiring filmmaker are many and diverse. Today there is literally no one way to launch a career in this business. You might make a killer short film that gets you noticed, or you might toil in the low budget independent feature arena for a decade before hitting a home run. College drop outs can make it just like elite film school grads with famous movie industry parents. For every traditional success story there are as many, if not more, unconventional stories. The one commonality seems to be the undying passion. 

Tell me about the Motion Picture Institute.
MPI is a full licensed trade school that serves as a kind of incubator for aspiring filmmakers. We have a year-long program for filmmaking and acting. More importantly, we mentor our graduates and help guide them into the industry as they start their careers; we continue nurturing talent long after graduation. For instance, I'm currently helping a filmmaker who graduated MPI over a decade ago as he prepares his first feature. And we have about a dozen grads working on the Superman Vs Batman film right now. What's great about MPI is the network of alum who are working all around the world. We get students from as far away as India, Africa and Norway and as close as Oakland county. The age demographic is equally diverse. We have recent high school grads and retirees, all sharing the same passion to make movies.
 
Why are independent films important? As we move towards corporatization of everything, what can independent films offer that “mainstream” films cannot? 
In the 70s, 80s and 90s, people looked to the independents to push the envelope. You'd go to the drive-in theater to see exploitation and cutting edge entertainment. Today it's different--you can see all the gore you want on Walking Dead. I remember being a kid and needing to go up the road to the local cinema to sneak into the R-rated films to see Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, but kids today don't need to do that. So indy filmmakers need to be smarter and wiser. 

I'm a teacher and I have found that kids seem to have very little knowledge about the past. I mean, I knew stuff from the 1950s and '60s that my parents talked about, but kids seem to have no awareness of anything before 1995. Mimesis brought Night of the Living Dead to this century. Are “kids these days” watching the classics? 
I agree with you. Most young kids who love moviemaking and are thinking about a career in film have never seen Citizen Kane or The Godfather. However, the ones who are truly serious and go on to find success do watch the important films. It's almost a kind of litmus test—find an aspiring filmmaker who has seen all of David Cronenberg's films and you keep your eye on her because she's going places. 
 
How has the blows to the Michigan film incentives affected the local industry? What would be your pitch for keeping or even improving incentives? 
Well, they actually haven’t gone away completely. They were just reduced from 42% to a lower amount. This lowered amount has reduced the carpet baggers and fly by night film schools that cropped up, promising to get you a career in the next six weeks. 

The pitch for continuing them is to look to at Georgia or other states where the film incentives are working. We just got off on the wrong foot, but things have settled and the state did recently renew the incentive, just at a lower rate.
 
How can we attract more filmmakers to Michigan? 
We do already. Marvel is here right now. Michael Bay keeps returning. Disney was here with Oz, then there’s Into the Storm, Reel Steel. You can't get much bigger than that. Michigan just needs to be Michigan. 
 
Production companies who have worked in Michigan acknowledge that there is quality talent here, just not a lot of it. Why do you think that is?
I believe they are referring to the infrastructure. And honestly, sometimes they just don't know where to look so they assume we don't have it all, but we do. The wise producers know where to find us and others and we've been supplying more and more crew to the productions. And we are connected to the infrastructure…it's really just a question of knowing where to look and who to call. 
 
Metro Detroit is so spread out that it is hard to find creative density (like Chicago or NY) have. Is there any community within Metro Detroit that serves as a focal point for filmmakers? Could there be one? What's the best way for someone on the outside to find his/her way in?
I might be criticized for saying this but Detroit and Michigan as an art community in general can, at times, be very close minded. I've heard this from out of town filmmakers more than once.  As far as a filmmaking community you need to come out to MPI. We'd like to think that we're an excellent haven for independent filmmakers! 

How has social media affected how an aspiring filmmaker gets into the field, finds distribution, and gains recognition? 
Social media has been mostly a good thing for independent filmmakers. It's allowed many who might have never gotten noticed to get some form of recognition.

But distribution is changing rapidly and not for the better. The BitTorrent pirates have mortally wounded independent filmmaking as we once knew it. Independent filmmakers that used to make films for a couple hundred grand would be able to sell their films overseas and make a modest profit. Now an independent film that makes back its budget is considered a hit. This is due to the fact that the DVD market has pretty much dried up overseas, and it's all because of pirating. So those fools who think that file sharing and watching movies for free doesn't harm anyone are dead wrong. It’s not going to affect Transformers Part 244 that has already made a billion dollars, but for the guy like me who scrape together money to make a movie only to see it being pirated even before it’s released...they’re taking food out of my kid’s mouth.

When I was in school, you could work at the local TV station, and you could take theater classes at a variety of levels. Nowadays, one of the first cuts are to the arts, especially to acting classes and theater programs. What do we need to do to stress the importance of the arts in schools?  
We're an automotive state and always will be. The arts are considered a form of entertainment by many who live here and nothing more. And sadly, when times get tough the entertainment is the first stuff to go. In other states and countries they see art as something more than entertainment—many actually see art as an extension of the soul and a necessary part of civilization. It allows human beings the ability to dream, and how we evolve. Even Einstein knew it when he said "Imagination is more important than knowledge". 
 
Your most recent film, The Dark Below, is set underwater and only has a few words of dialogue in it. Is this an homage to silent films? What was the inspiration for this? People have two second attention spans and want constant action, things constantly happening…how do you market something like this? 
No, it's definitely not an homage to silent films. It's not a silent film at all. It is light on dialogue but that's not the gimmick or anything. I was inspired by a childhood fear; a real experience I had growing up. I agree with you regarding attention spans or the lack thereof and trust me when I say this entire film was designed with that in mind. Much of its gimmick is still being created so I can't say too much now. I can assure you that it will deliver and am confident it will find an audience. 
 
I know you don’t know where it will end up, but do you have any favorite film festivals where one might be able to see your films? 
There's a really cool horror festival on the French Riviera called La Samain du Cinema Fantastique. And in Estepona Spain there's a great fantasy film fest we've been to. California has two great ones, too—CineQuest in San Jose and Shriekfest in Los Angeles. I'd love to screen at SXSW, TIFF, Berlin or Venice. Hopefully, The Dark Below will take us somewhere exciting next year!
 
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