Behind the Scenes

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The ultra low-budget indie film that prefigured BLAIR WITCH.

By John Thonen     December 10, 1999

To no one's surprise, the most successful horror video release this Halloween was THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which racked up tape sales in the millions and easily dominated the rental charts. However, the most interesting chiller to hit the video superstores in some time has just become available to renters. If you were one of those impressed with the originality and effectiveness of BLAIR WITCH and dazzled by its threadbare budget, then you'll question all those first impressions when you see the film that cost a fraction of its budget and virtually mirrors its story line, yet was completed nearly a year before. On November 30th, THE LAST BROADCAST went into wide video release.

To say that there are striking similarities between LAST BROADCAST and BLAIR WITCH is like saying the Olson twins look a little alike. Both are 87 minute, shot-on-video offerings from a pair of young filmmakers, one of whom, on each team, has a Cuban heritage. Both films take a cinema verite, mock-umentary approach to telling their story, and both deal with found footage to unveil the mystery of three filmmakers killed while searching a remote wooded area for a legendary supernatural being.

After BLAIR WITCH began garnering massive national publicity, BROADCAST co-directors Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos were bombarded by calls from lawyers eager to get involved in the expected lawsuit against BLAIR's creators. But the makers of LAST BROADCAST aren't out to make a quick buck through a legal settlement. They want nothing more than to have their film seen and judged on its own merits.

'Sometimes it's kind of a drag to keep being compared to Blair Witch,' says BROADCAST co-director Lance Weiler. 'The two films have striking conceptual similarities, but besides that, they are really quite different movies. The film we made is so much more than just three people lost in the woods.' To be certain, BLAIR WITCH succeeds, or fails, solely on its straightforward and simple structure. There is no subtext to bog it down, or buoy it up. It either works for you, or it doesn't. Until its unexpected ending, LAST BROADCAST may be less likely to scare viewers, but it is far more likely to intrigue and involve them.

Weiler and Avalos' film deals with the brutal deaths of the hosts of a paranormal-oriented cable access TV program called 'Fact or Fiction.' When the show's ratings began to falter, hosts Steven Avkast and Locus Wheeler (played respectively by filmmakers Avalos and Weiler) decide to stage a show based on the Jersey Devil legend that will be broadcast live from the remote Pine Barrens, where the creature is rumored to dwell. Avkast, Wheeler, crewmember Rein Clackin and oddball psychic guide Jim Suerd enter the woods, but the broadcast goes awry and the image is lost. Rescuers find only Suerd alive, covered in his teammate's blood. Then, as LAST BRAODCAST's publicity materials explain, 'It took the police two days to find the body parts. It took the coroner four days to put them back together. It took the jury only one and a half hours to sentence Jim Suerd to life in prison.'
Weiler and Avalos' film is comprised of a 'work in progress' by documentary filmmaker David Leigh. Leigh's film is an investigation of 'The Jersey Devil Murders,' and the further into the mystery he gets, the more convinced Leigh is that Jim Suerd, who has since died in prison, was innocent, and that his documentary can clear him.

Film school friends since 1989, Weiler and Avalos conceived the film during one night of 'drinking a beer together and saying, 'Why don't we take the equipment we've got and just make a movie,' according to Weiler. The decision became an amazingly liberating one for the team. 'Filmmaking has always been such an elitist profession and demanded such incredible amounts of money,' Lance explains. 'Instead, we set out to make a film for nothing and failed by $900.00.'

To complete a feature film for under a thousand dollars, Weiler and Avalos knew they couldn't make a standard feature, so the idea of an artificial documentary seemed a perfect alternative. Lance explains, 'We had some ideas about what truth is in a world of reality based programming, which fit very nicely into what our limitations were. The Jersey Devil became more of a metaphor for technology and media instead of some guy dressed up as a monster.' As Avalos explains on the film's website, 'In spite of its label, 'Reality TV' is not reality. It's something being edited, sound effects added, voice over, commentary, whatever. But you end up with something else. Don't call it reality.'

Lacking the money to pay actors, it became a forgone conclusion that Weiler and Avalos would play the lead roles, with friends and family tackling the rest of the characters. 'The film was scripted in the sense that we knew what was going to happen and where, but not all of the dialogue was tightly scripted. We used a combination of scripting and improvisation, depending on the actors' skill level. If they couldn't work well with scripted material, we'd give them a list of what their character knew and what we were going to talk about. Then we'd start and gradually entangle them in it, so that you get these awkward pauses and perplexed looks, which give a very real feel to the footage.'

The new desktop technology then becoming available to filmmakers became a part of the production at every stage. Instead of conventional storyboards, Weiler and Avalos used a digital camera to shoot pictures on location, matching the planned camera angles and action. Those frames were then digitized into a computer and later printed out as perfect storyboards for each sequence. Weiler and Avalos soon found that their seemingly crippling lack of money was little handicap. 'I know it sounds strange,' Weiler says, 'but because money wasn't an issue, it began to seem like we had a lot of it. We were making use of our limitations, and it gave us an incredible feeling of creative freedom.'

Weiler and Avalos would next tackle their project's post-production, a task they would finally finish in August of 1997--a grueling 7 months after the end of their sporadic, 28 day shooting schedule. Weiler estimates that only about 80% of the final film existed when production stopped. The filmmaker's axiom, 'we'll fix it in post' didn't apply this time. Weiler says that he and Avalos were actually creating in post. 'We created the newspaper articles in the film. The police crime scene video, which was shot with a lock down camera and one person changing clothes to be all the people in the shot. The crime scene photos you see were actually us in digital pictures against a white wall. Then we'd go in and create all the blood, dismembered body parts, all of it with Photoshop software.'

While their goal had initially been only to create a film for, as Avalos once put it, 'the cost of a good home stereo system,' the duo soon became aware that what they had done was also historic. Weiler and Avalos had completed the first digital feature film--a title that was only the beginning of many 'firsts' the team would ultimately claim.

Having completed their film, Weiler says that they next faced the problem of how to exhibit it. 'Normally, to take it on the film festival circuit you'd spend $30 to 60,000 to convert it to film. But this was a $900.00 movie. So we kind of jokingly took the attitude that we were going to be pure to the digital integrity of our project. Be true to the ones and zeros,' he laughs.

The team researched the state of digital projection and found that it was possible to present the film in that manner. They wrote a number of projector manufactures who were utilizing Texas Instrument's state of the art digital technology, asking if they'd be interested in being involved in the first digital premier of a film which itself was a digital creation. No one responded. As their planned theatrical premier neared, Weiler took a different approach to their plea for free equipment. 'I sent out all the form letters again, but this time I mailed each company a letter that was addressed to their competition. It looked like a mailing mistake, but it let each of them know that if they didn't get involved, they might be letting their competitors grab the glory. We started getting calls immediately.'

THE LAST BROADCAST, the first digitally created feature film was now the first digitally exhibited feature, claiming yet another historic place in the birth of a brave new world of filmmaking. But Weiler and Avalos weren't done making history yet.

In October of 1998, the film was digitally distributed to five theaters around the country. A digital copy of the film was encoded and then transmitted to a satellite 22,300 miles in space, where the signal was amplified, creating nearly 6 gigabytes of video and audio information which was then bounced back to earth, and received by satellite receiving dishes atop the five theaters involved in the premiere. Long before George Lucas would garner considerable publicity for digitally presenting THE PHANTOM MENACE in several theaters, Weiler and Avalos had already claimed the first such broadcast, putting their name on yet another bit of film history.

Today, Weiler and Avalos are inspiring filmmakers around the world to follow in their footsteps. 'We've been to 35 different cities, 16 countries, 19 film festivals,' Weiler says. 'This month alone it will be playing Korea and Taiwan and soon in New Zealand and Australia. We went with it to Belgium and there were literally people seated in the aisles.' Weiler explains that the excitement following THE LAST BROADCAST's international showings isn't strictly a result of the film's own considerable merits. 'In Belgium, I believe 5% of their own product is shown theatrically. 80% of the rest comes from the U.S. The filmmakers there are excited because this new technology means they can make their own films, tell their own stories and have them shown in their own countries.'

It is this ability to exercise greater control of a film's destiny that most excites Weiler and Avalos. 'When you make a film, you want to reduce the compromises to your vision, but in film, before you know it, you've blown your shooting ratio and have to start cutting your script. That day is past. Of all the projects I've ever done, this is the closest to what the original vision was. That's what so exciting about this new technology. Instead of having to follow this cookie cutter mentality-'well, if I do a film that's a combination of this film that people liked and that film that people liked, then people should like my film'-you can make the film you want to make and get back to telling stories instead of having to be based everything around marketing and profit potential.'

While Weiler and Avalos know that BLAIR WITCH creators Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick viewed THE LAST BROADCAST prior to completing their film, they play down the question of plagiarism. 'Filmmaking is like any other art form,' Weiler explained. 'Nothing is truly original. Everything is borrowed or influenced. I can't say what changes they might have made after seeing our film. There's only a couple of people who can answer that. But I think, as a filmmaker, if you see something that is similar to your project, you have to look at it and decide what you can do to make it different. My guess would be that they decided to make it more first-person. I think the original version may have looked more like THE CURSE OF THE BLAIR WITHC,' he says, referring to the short subject derived from unused BLAIR WITCH footage, which initially aired on The Sci-Fi Channel and more recently was released on video.

In a unique move, which in many ways mirrors the film's history, THE LAST BROADCAST not only told its tale first; it actually beat Blair Witch into the video stores. As has been the case throughout the film's life, its limited October release, in Hollywood Video stores, didn't receive as much hoopla as did BLAIR WITCH's video release, but Weiler believes his film will draw growing attention in the months to come. The November 30 video wide release will include a DVD with considerable bonus material, including behind-the-scenes production footage as well as material on the legend of the Jersey Devil, which is also on the VHS. 'We've sold it to pay cable, and later it'll be on HBO and after that on Bravo,' an enthusiastic Weiler says. 'We never envisioned what would come of it. We thought we'd get together with friends and family, eat some pizza, drink some beer and make this thing. We never expected to travel the world, get written about in magazines, make film history and get caught up in this huge controversy. It was really just an in-between project. It's opened a lot of doors for us. We're a lot better off than what we were 3 years ago.'


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