News Column

Billings filmmakers creating zombie movie on next-to-nothing budget

November 17, 2013


Nov. 17--Standing in an empty, dusty South Side warehouse strewn with trash, 15-year-old Caitlin Schneider and 10-year-old Kyle Wick-Johnson shook their hands back and forth as they waited, excited and a little impatient.

The Billings youngsters, wearing tattered and dirty clothes, had a few minutes earlier been misted with fake blood from a spray bottle -- their faces and arms coated in the chilly liquid, along with loads of latex and makeup -- and tried to snap the cold of a brisk early October morning out of their arms and hands.

But these are things a pair of zombies can't really worry about for too long. With a call of "action!" from nearby, they rambled toward a narrow doorway with a handful of their zombie cohorts.

And then they did it again. And again. And again.

"Don't be afraid to touch as you hit that doorway," Trevor Styles said from behind a camera after a few takes. "You're zombies, after all. You're not supposed to care about that."

So goes a day on the set of "Hobbes and Phil vs. Zombies," a feature-length film produced, filmed and cast almost entirely in the Billings area.

Written and directed by Styles, the movie follows a pair of slacker friends named Hobbes and Phil -- played by Aric Weber and radio

personality Jason "Big J" Harris -- who, 15 years after a zombie apocalypse, get roped into an adventure that could save the world.

Styles, who made another local zombie movie called "Way Darker Than You Think," described the new effort as a "zomedy," or a mash-up of zombie and comedy films.

Even though he didn't want to do another zombie movie after "Way Darker," Styles said the idea -- pitched by Weber, with a script finished in January -- appealed to him.

"I gave the script to a few friends and colleagues around town and had them make some changes or suggestions," Styles said. "We just kind of took off with it."

Preproduction ran from February through June, when filming started. They hope to wrap this month.

DIY spirit

The process of making this movie isn't like filming a Hollywood flick. It's all local, there's no budget and nobody can commit to it full time. They have day jobs or school or families to worry about, so they give up nights, weekends and the occasional weekday.

"It's definitely a labor of love," said Chris Candelaria, a producer and cinematographer for the movie. "We all have to make these kinds of sacrifices for this."

But those challenges also sparked a do-it-yourself creativity from the start.

Styles, who earned a film degree at Montana State University and works as a title officer, enlisted the help of family and friends who share his passion. They include his wife, Brikotah Styles, as a producer and actress in the film; Candelaria, a childhood friend; Randy Kelly Jr., as producer and cameraman; and Eric Warren as a producer, sound specialist and still photographer.

The only nonlocal actors are a pair of hired pros in actor Timothy Quill, who's been in all three of Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" movies and cult favorite "Army of Darkness," and singer and model Trisha Lurie.

All told, more than 150 people helped with the movie, most as extras filling out the zombie hordes. Almost nobody, including producers, got paid for their work.

"The rough (budget) estimate is $8,000," Styles said. "Which is definitely a 'no' budget number. I believe a 'micro' budget is estimated at $250,000, so to even think about doing something of this magnitude on a budget of $8,000 is insane."

But even with no pay -- outside of doughnuts on morning sets and a name in the end credits -- and despite long days on set in often-uncomfortable makeup and outfits, those involved are excited.

"It's not every weekend you get to be in a movie in Billings," said Wick-Johnson, an extra cast as a zombie. "Especially a zombie movie."

"Are you kidding me?" Schneider said. "This is awesome."

Creating the look

On the day Schneider and Wick-Johnson joined the cast, about a dozen people showed for the shoot at 5:30 a.m. after an open casting call for extras. Filming was done at a pair of empty warehouses in a field off of South 27th Street.

They sat down with Jamie Candelaria, lead makeup artist and costume designer, or one of a pair of other makeup artists for at least an hour to transform into their shuffling, flesh-eating characters.

Before "Hobbes and Phil," Jamie Candelaria's creative outlet was decorating cakes. She'd never done movie makeup and didn't know how to do prosthetics. She volunteered because she is married to one of the producers, Chris Candelaria.

"I've been in one of the films as a zombie before," she said. "But I've never done (the makeup) before. I learned a lot of the zombie makeup from YouTube and lots of trial and error. We all just kind of sat around and played with it."

That inexperience doesn't show in the final product. Through layers of latex, makeup, sprays and blobs of cotton balls, the actors look the part. They've got graying skin and reddened eyes, blackened veins, an exposed jawbone or eye socket, cracked and flaking skin or a neck wound.

The extras provide creative input during the application.

"Everybody who comes is so excited about doing it so we try to do something with the makeup that they like," Candelaria said. "We listen to their suggestions."

Low-budget blood

Nearby, the crew spent a full day filming a few action scenes that will take up maybe a few minutes on screen.

In one scene, Brikotah Styles' character fights off a group of zombies, with the crew filming the 30-second scene over and over to get it just right.

It's an action scene where the character fires a pistol, and she squeezed off blank rounds in about a third of the takes, each shot cracking loudly through the empty warehouse.

On a bigger-budget set, they'd probably use what's called a squib to simulate the bullet impact, complete with sprays of debris or blood.

Due to the budget and federal regulations, that's not an option for the "Hobbes and Phil" shoot, so the crew found another way to make the bullets-and-blood splatter for zombie showdowns.

They rigged plastic hoses to a handful of canvas vests and cut a penny-sized hole in each hose. Attached to the bottom is a valve, which connects to a carbon dioxide cartridge and a trigger.

When they need the splatter and spray, they pour fire-engine red washable paint into the holes. The actors wear the vests under their costumes. Producers lay out of the camera's view and pull the triggers on the hoses, releasing the CO2 and rocketing the paint out of the pre-cut holes.

The result is an almost comical and messy but effective burst of red paint from the actor's body.

"We've tried a lot of different ways and this works the best, by far," Warren said.

More professional

The crew has faced its share of hurdles, including abrupt location changes, cast and crew changes, weather and fatigue.

"There are a lot of restless nights and bad eating," Styles said. "It's definitely taken its toll, but I love the process and I love doing this."

Styles wanted to film in a practical style, focusing more on the filming and less on special effects after. Each scene must be meticulously filmed, often many times over, with a focus on good sound.

"It's a lot harder this time around," Styles said. "A lot of that is because we were doing it with the mentality of, 'It's just for fun,' in the first movie. This one, we went into it thinking, 'This is a sellable idea.'

"We just took a more professional approach this time. Judging by how we go home filthy and exhausted at the end of the day, I'd say we accomplished that."

Brikotah Styles agreed. She said it's more organized and professional this time, but also that the tone remains light.

"It's still just hilarious," she said. "We have such a great cast and crew. It's going to be great."

Trevor Styles' first zombie film premiered at the Babcock Theatre in 2011 to a large, raucous crowd and he hopes to do something similar with "Hobbes and Phil."

The editing process will likely take almost a year -- about 10,000 shots need to be edited -- meaning the premier won't be until September 2014 at the earliest.

Styles hopes to present the finished product to studios to see if they're interested in buying it. Even if nobody bites, Styles said the opportunity to create "Hobbes and Phil" in Billings is worth the effort.

"Films don't really happen here all that much, and I want to change that," he said. "If people love doing it, I want to give them the opportunity."


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