Hello readers, Ruth here! Welcome to another interview edition featuring two Minnesota filmmakers, Frank White (writer/director) and Jason P. Schumacher (producer).
For those of you loyal FC readers, you might be familiar with Jason’s name as we’ve featured him before when I interviewed him for his short film This Is Home, and he’s also the director of Hearts Want which I wrote and directed.
Corporate researchers go behind the back of their mysterious employer to test the telepathic abilities of a traumatized girl and her father.
The Chairman is a retro sci-fi/horror short about the intersection of business, media, and the supernatural, created by Minnesota filmmakers Frank White and Jason P. Schumacher, and featuring an original analog-synthesizer score by UK composer OGRE Sound. Frequently compared to the works of David Cronenberg and Paul Verhoeven, The Chairman is an attempt to dig below the surface of the late 20th Century retro aesthetics currently marbling popular culture, particularly when it comes to the horror genre. Instead of mere nostalgia for the analog era, the 20-minute short film seeks to explore how it underpins a mythology for our digital present.
The Chairman premiered at Cinepocalypse 2018, where it took home awards for best actor and actress. Other awards from its ongoing festival run include best editing and VFX from the 2018 Northern Frights Festival, and best horror short at Motor City Nightmares 2019.
The Chairman is now available on Amazon Prime!
Interview with Frank White
Q: Where do you get the idea for this film that deals with a telepathic experimentation?
Frank: I’ve always been fascinated by ESP and the paranormal, in spite of being a skeptical person by nature. When Jason convinced me to make a short of my own, I combined that with a roughly sketched thriller I had been working on about a father being forced to watch horrible things happen to his family over CCTV. The evil corporation angle came from yet another unfinished story, so the core of the story is very much a family of orphaned stories. I don’t like to let an interesting idea go to waste.
Q: This is your first time directing. How’s that experience been for you? How has your background as a writer/editor assist you in directing?
Frank: Directing with a full crew is certainly intimidating at first, but we had a talented and enthusiastic bunch of people who made it a great first time experience for me. Plus we got extremely lucky with weather and locations, so I was able to focus on filmmaking rather than solving problems. Having edited narrative shorts before, I was familiar with most of the nuts and bolts of putting a scene together, and since we had a leisurely pre-production phase, I was able to do a great deal of planning for the shots I wanted, while also leaving some room for improvisation when circumstances demand it or a crew member comes up with a great new idea to try. The most helpful thing about being an editor is having some experience with struggling to put scenes together that didn’t get fully shot, and in the end I only gave myself one problematic scene as a director that I had to get creative with to put together properly as an editor.
Q: There’s a particularly intriguing scene in the film involving a bunch of extras in a lake. Would you tell me a bit about shooting that?
Frank: The big lake-ghost tableaux in the middle of The Chairman was a combination of careful planning and fortunate conditions. We had a series of ghost extras for other shots, which gave the make up artists time to get people ready one at a time, and since the ghosts don’t follow the usual laws of filmmaking continuity, we didn’t have to worry about keeping their positions constant between shots. It had been a wet, gloomy day for the shoot, which was ideal for our mood and lighting, and also had the bonus of keeping passersby away from the beach. I had a stockpile of towels and foil blankets on hand to keep people warm, but the water was surprisingly pleasant. (I spent a good portion of the day wading in it myself.)
Once we had all the extras ready, the weather decided to give us a perfect cloudy sky complete with shafts of light, and the camera crew hustled to get the jib ready just in time to get the shot. The hardest part of the shot ended up being keeping the kid ghosts focused, so it did take a couple takes to get everything right, but I couldn’t have asked for a better end result.
Q: There’s a vintage 80s feel to the film, even the grainy texture of the look. Is that deliberate and what’s the reasoning behind it?
Frank: The Chairman has a vague period feel of somewhere around 1990, which is mostly rooted in the movie’s analog media motif. There are a lot of CRT television screens and VHS equipment in the background, and the period look let us have a lot of fun with costumes and production design. ’80s aesthetics are always popular with millennials (and I have a soft spot for them), but we wanted to be a little subtler about it than most retro productions. So rather than loading the script up with references or going way over the top with period costuming, we tried to shoot it more like an ’80s movie, which meant things like using a lot less camera movement than we otherwise might; with the exceptions of one jib and two steadicam shots, everything is shot entirely on tripods. After that, we used color correction, artificial film grain, and an analog synthesizer score to enhance the retro feel.
Q: You also wrote the script for this. Was there anything that you had to change for the film that would make it work better cinematically?
Frank: Since I wrote The Chairman from the ground up for myself to film, it was all ready to go from the shooting script. Some dialogue got axed while editing for pacing reasons, but otherwise it’s all on screen as intended. It was quite the journey from the first draft to that shooting script though. I initially wrote without any thought towards budgetary concerns, but fortunately a lot of the stuff that would have been wildly expensive to make (there was a biomechanical monster at one point) was cut out while streamlining and focusing the narrative.
Interview with Jason P. Schumacher
Q: I saw on IMDb this is your 11th short films you’ve produced? What is it about this project that set it apart from the other projects you’ve produced?
Jason: I’d say, the scale and ambition of it. We had to create our own evil corporation and the marketing for two of their products. It is also a period piece with period appropriate locations, costumes, and technology. I’ve done a few period pieces before, but not with this many characters and locations. The biggest difference from previous projects though, is that The Chairman has various supernatural elements that we had to use special effects and cinematic language through editing and camerawork to convey. We had to figure out how we wanted to portray ghosts and psychic energy in the world that that we were creating.
Q: This film is a horror/sci-fi, are you a big fan of this genre? What’s your favorite sci-fi/horror films?
Jason: I love any good film that makes me feel like I’ve just had an experience. Frank really introduced me to a lot of horror films and directors in college when we were roommates. One of the first movies we probably watched together was John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which is a masterpiece. It has incredible and disgusting practical effects but it also has equally compelling scenes of characters just being paranoid and suspicious of one another. I’m a huge fan of the Polish horror fairy-tale musical, The Lure (2015). It manages to be this completely weird fusion of things that still hits me on an emotional level. The Orphanage (2007) scares the heck out of me and also manages to be a soul crushing character study.
Frank and I both are excited about this new resurgence of arthouse horror that’s been happening; The Witch, Us, Hereditary, Susperia. We try to go see as many of those together in the theater as we can.
For Sci-Fi, I like a lot of the standards. Robocop, Arrival, Ex-Machina, and The Matrix all come to mind. I’m also a huge fan of the original Twilight Zone. Lately, I’ve been wanting to watch more animated Sci-Fi films because Paprika (2006) might be my actual favorite Sci-Fi film. Iron Giant, Ghost in the Shell, and A Scanner Darkly are also great.
Q: I know you have dealt with casting for most of the films you directed/produced. How’s the casting process go with this one as there’s quite a big ensemble?
Jason: Well, we held a big audition and saw a lot of people! I know a lot of actors in the Minnesota community but I actually didn’t know anyone that we cast before we met them for The Chairman. I’d met Tessa Meath (Samantha) briefly at another casting session and thought she had the most incredible speaking voice. I thought she’d be perfect for the part of Samantha, who’s needs to communicate a lot with few words. James Detmar (Vincent), I’d had seen in another audition where he was playing someone commanding and intimidating. His performance was so effective in that other audition that I was a little nervous reaching out to him, but he’s an incredibly kind and lovely person. All of our cold, cruel baddies in real life, are some of the nicest people around. There’s some very funny behind-the-scenes shots of them smiling and laughing in the abandoned office set, under the menacing lighting. I auditioned Jeremy Frandrup previously for This is Home and really liked him.
Q: You’ve collaborated with Frank quite a bit on short films. How much input do you have in this film in terms of the story?
Jason: Frank has been behind-the-scenes on pretty much all of my films and the other stuff we’ve created at GreyDuck. This was his time to jump in, direct, and lead a project of his own. I like to think my biggest input was just to keep asking him “When are we gonna make this thing?” But the story and script are entirely his creation. Earlier drafts of the script were longer and so we had discussions about what to cut. There was another supernatural experiment that survived many drafts of the script, but ultimately had to be cut because there wasn’t enough time to clarify what it was, without distracting from the main experiment that the story revolves around. Hopefully, in the future, we can expand the world of The Chairman and tell other stories involving Pantheon and their other products, either in a feature film or some kind of mini series.
Q: What kind of challenges did you encounter making this film and how did you overcome them?
Jason: The whole thing was filled with a lot of new challenges. But with how big and ambitious this film was, all the people involved, and all the moving parts, it was actually a joy to make. I thought the biggest challenge was going to be the lake scenes, but because we were so worried about them and planned so carefully, they actually weren’t that bad. The biggest challenge was probably the darn elevator towards the end of the film. There’s a moment where 2 characters exchange some dialogue while leaving the elevator and another character steps in and takes it to the top floor. The building that we used for the Pantheon headquarters was a highly secure building, so we needed someone on staff there to swipe their security badge for every single take. And, course, the elevator doors would shut automatically at just the wrong time. Everyone remained relatively patient and we got through it, but it all took far longer than anyone expected. Beyond fighting with an elevator, I just had to be really prepared and to help clearly communicate Frank’s ambitious vision to everyone involved, so that they knew what we were aiming for and could bring their own skill and artistry to it, to bring it all to life.
Check out The Chairman‘s teaser:
Thanks Frank & Jason for chatting with me!