How We Made a Horror Film in the Desert for $35,000 by VALLEY OF DITCHES Co-Writer/Actress Amanda Todisco and Co-Writer/Director Christopher James Lang

Co-Writer/Director Christopher James Lang and Co-Writer/Actress Amanda Todisco in VALLEY OF DITCHES

 

Film Courage: Where did you grow up?

Christopher James Lang: I grew up in Astoria Oregon, which is best known from the film “The Goonies.” I actually moved around a lot because my dad was in the military, but we settled in the pacific northwest when I was in 3rd grade. As a kid I was surrounded by a misty, dreary climate that I completely fell in love with. My parents gave me a lot of independence as well, which helped me grow into my own person at an early age, cultivating a very interesting, and creatively stimulating childhood. I basically grew up in the woods, the ocean, and the rain, which has had a huge influence on me.

Amanda Todisco: I was born and raised in Boston, MA, which is where I still live today. I was the youngest of four siblings: My brother Billy is the oldest, and Kevin and Theresa are twins. When we were young, my siblings usually took care of me because my mom had to work to support us (love you, Mom!). Billy was less than a year older than the twins, so they had a lot in common, even though the twins were usually evil bullies and Billy often had to rescue me. It left me with plenty of free time to play with the spider in my closet and set up habitats for my caterpillars. One day, my caterpillar died, and it took my mom days to build up the courage to tell me. I laid on the floor with him/her (you could never tell) on my chest and cried for hours. I was sensitive. My siblings were a huge support through that tough time. Theresa made a cross out of plastic knives, and they all attended the funeral procession. That was home.

 

Left for dead in an open grave, Emilia struggles to keep both her life

and her sanity.

 

VALLEY OF DITCHES is available March 21st, 2017 – iTunes pre-order link

 

Watch Valley of Ditches on Vimeo here

Film Courage: What were your plans after high school?

Chris: After high school, I knew I wanted to make films. I had planned to go to film school, specifically USC, but was never accepted. So instead I created my own film education at the University of Oregon, mixing and matching courses from the journalism documentary program, the theater arts department, and English film studies. It was an improvised approach that would become a precursor to my film-making style; making the best of whatever options are in front of me.

Amanda: My plans were to be different. To get away. To write fantastic stories. To thrive in Hollywood and become a famous actress and live in a mansion in Malibu. So I moved to California, and I really missed the rain. I like being able to waste a day and not feel bad about it. I moved back east and went to college, where I obtained a degree in English. I feel like everyone has all these ideas of what they want when they’re young, but they don’t think much about the kind of person this will make them. I still write stories, and I still act. But I’m doing it my own way with my best friend, so I think I’ve at least succeeded in being different.

Film Courage: Biggest supporter in your life?

Chris: This is a hard one. My parents and siblings of course, have always been huge supporters of me through out my life and that has been huge. All of my family really. But because I have a chance to say it, I’d like to point out that some of my most solid support, and thus biggest influences have come from the strong women I’m lucky enough to have surrounding me. My mom raised me to understand that my gender makes me no better or worse than anyone else. She made me not only appreciate, but drawn to strong, confident and independent women. This should be no surprise for anyone who has met my creative partner, the brilliant and talented Amanda Todisco. Her confidence and fearlessness are only exceeded by the incredible support and loyalty she’s had towards our work since we started working together in 2013. Even stronger is the support my wife has shown, who spends her days working for the national cancer institute and nights keeping our life on track. She is the strongest, most confident woman I could have ever hoped to have in my life, and her support has brought me further than I could have ever dreamed.

Amanda: Easy. My mom, my sister, my boyfriend, and my two best friends. My mom is self-explanatory. She did what she had to in order for us to survive. She managed to give me what we didn’t have because she knows magic, and she never said I couldn’t do something. My sister I have to put because she’ll beat me up if I don’t. I like her a lot, too. Rudy, my boyfriend, because he yells at me to get my shit together when my shit isn’t together. Ashley, for always being way too excited about absolutely everything. Lastly, Chris. I wouldn’t have found this road without him.

I lost my brother, Billy, recently, and I just want him to be proud of me. I want to keep this part separate because I need him to know how impactful he has been and always will be. He loved strongly, boldly, and like a child: no strings attached. At the end of everything, I hope to say, “my brother must be proud.” I am proud of him.

Film Courage: Your previous films had been dramas. Why the switch to horror?

Chris: I’ve always been inspired by stories that affect those who watch, or experience them. To me, the genre isn’t important. Allowing your audience to feel a genuine emotion is. In the past, with my other features I wanted to express the bittersweet sadness of loss from old age (Franklin Wunder) and the idea of temporary friendship/love based on circumstance (Our Life in Make Believe). This time around, we wanted to express the dread that lingers from those who experience an absolutely abhorrent crime. So while I wouldn’t call “Valley of Ditches” straight up horror, there are a lot of elements in the horror genre we used that allowed us to express that emotion.

Amanda: YOLO? Gotta try it all!

Film Courage: How big of a horror fan are you? What gory scene from a horror/thriller film causes you to geek out the most?

Chris: I love Horror. All types. Bad Horror, good horror. Creepy, foreboding, haunting, and eerie horror. I don’t plan to make all these types of films, but I can appreciate them for what they bring, and the influence they have on my storytelling. As for the scenes I geek out on the most, it’s whatever makes me feel the strongest emotion. For example, the end of “The Mist,” which is so tragic, I felt it real hard in my stomach the first time I saw it. Probably the first film I felt that level of terror and dread from after watching was “Alive” about the plane crash in the Andes Mountains. Graphic, brutal and gory deaths can be fun to watch, and entertaining, but I give extra kudos when I actually care about the people I’m watching die.

Watch Valley of Ditches on Vimeo here

Amanda: OH, I LOVE horror! I’m a HUGE Rob Zombie fan. Sheri Moon is definitely a girl crush of mine. Unlike Chris, I don’t care about the emotional aspect. I want gore/slasher flicks about Halloween and clowns and guys in masks that don’t die when you shoot them. They walk like they’re strolling through the park, but they always get you. HOW DO THEY ALWAYS GET YOU?!

Film Courage: How did you meet co-writer and actor Amanda Todisco?

Chris: Amanda auditioned for (and was the lead in) my last feature “Our Life in Make Believe.” During her video audition, she sneezed about 10 seconds in, and rather than rerecord she just went with it. I instantly fell for her brazen charm.

Amanda: I was in college, and there was a party going on downstairs in my house. I sneezed in the middle of the audition, but I kept rolling because…there was a party going on downstairs. Don’t tell Chris that. He found it charming.

Film Courage: Who’s idea was it for this story? How did you take turns or each contribute?

Chris: The bones of the story were more on my side. I direct crime recreations for ID network docudramas, and I wanted to make a story that showed the effects these crimes have on the people they happen against. I sent Amanda an outline, and she said “Chris, this is a good start, but it’s kinda boring, and lacking.” So she added a soul to it, filling in the characters with the more religious overtones, and emotionally charged/impactful dialogue. I scaled it back to something that would work within our budget range, and then we passed it back and forth until we hit a point where we were both satisfied with the final version.

Amanda: I’m lazier than Chris. Our work gets done because of him. He wrote a basic outline, and I was like, “Cool. Can I add some stuff?” So I did, and then he did, and then we did that for a while. Chris being Chris got overly excited, which got me overly excited, which led to a lot of FaceTime shots and a pretty bad ass movie.

“We didn’t set out to make a horror movie, but after putting everything together in the edit, we realized it had a lot of horror pieces. I was a little nervous that it wouldn’t be ‘horror’ enough to appeal to this demographic, but because we kept the story so grounded in reality, I think it really heightens the tension allowing people to feel the fear and unease that comes from films with a much higher body count.”

 

Christopher James Lang, Co-writer/Director of VALLEY OF DITCHES

 

 

Film Courage: Would you meet together to write? Or meet up with various versions of the script?

Chris: I used to live in Boston, where Amanda is now, but have since moved to DC. I try to make it up there every month or so, but during the writing, most of our meetings occurred virtually. We’d encourage each other by doing shots of whiskey over FaceTime, and telling each other we’d stop being friends if we didn’t finish our drafts in time. That was a surprisingly effective way of keeping us on schedule.

Amanda: Chris has this answer in the bag, so…moving on!

Film Courage: Do you think it helped or hindered the screenwriting process that the two of you were in separate states at the time?

Chris: Amanda and I are very close and so comfortable with each other, we have no qualms about taking whatever the other has written and running with it as if it was our own. At the same time, we have our strengths and weaknesses. I tend to be better at big picture, plot, story structure, and adapting our script to what we can afford to film. Amanda writes from the heart, and injects pure, raw emotion into the story. So it’s very rare that we step on each others toes, even if we can’t meet in person. I don’t think being apart hinders our writing ability. I would just say the closer we are in proximity, the more energized we get to work together on our projects.

Amanda: I don’t think it matters either way. We compliment each other pretty well. I can be a bit over the top, and Chris is always calm, cool, and collected. We were a functioning bungie cord: I’d free fall into nothingness, and Chris would pull me back to the bridge before my brain exploded. He’s a good friend.

 

Film Courage: You’ve had an overwhelming reception from the horror community? Were you expecting this?

Chris: It’s hard to say. We didn’t set out to make a horror movie, but after putting everything together in the edit, we realized it had a lot of horror pieces. I was a little nervous that it wouldn’t be ‘horror’ enough to appeal to this demographic, but because we kept the story so grounded in reality, I think it really heightens the tension allowing people to feel the fear and unease that comes from films with a much higher body count. So I suppose surprised, but at the same time we had always hoped it could have great cross genre appeal, including horror.

Amanda: What most people don’t understand when starting in film (including myself) is that things don’t just happen. We have the support of the horror community because we asked for it. I can’t tell you how many press kits Chris sent out. When we showed in Hollywood, there was a line for a much more popular horror film, and you better believe I gave a placard to and had a conversation with every single person there.

Amanda Todisco as Devon in Christopher James Lang’s OUR LIFE IN MAKE BELIEVE. Devon lives on the road, alone. Awake or asleep, she’s always running away from the memories haunting her past until a chance encounter interrupts her solitude.

 

Film Courage: You had worked together on Our Life in Make Believe where you say the film was not as marketable as a horror film might be? Why was this 2014 movie harder to promote/market?

Chris: Our Life in Make Believe was tricky, because as a coming of age drama without any recognizable names, it struggles to stand out to those who know nothing about it. However, it has found a good home on Amazon, where our fan base has given it strong reviews, leading to Amazon putting it high on their recommended list. As of now, we average about 100-300 views a day, which is pretty incredible for a film shot on $15k. At this rate, we are on par to make back our whole budget by the summer of 2018.

Amanda: I’m not famous, so apparently that’s a problem. People don’t expect people in horror movies to be famous, so that makes it less of a problem.

Film Courage: How did you finance the film?

Chris: Because I didn’t go to film school, and opted for public university, I was able to make it through college without any student loans. So instead of paying those back, I saved my tips as a bar cook over years to create a film slush fund. That was used to start the production, until my co-producer Kevin found us an outside investor who gave us the rest of the funds to finish our shoot. They signed on the day before we started shooting, which made it possible to add another week onto our schedule and finish principal photography all in one go. Prior to that, we were planning to film half the movie, and then launch a Kickstarter. Fortunately, it never came to that. For those wondering how to find financing, the only advice I can offer is to tell everyone you know what you are looking for. You never know who will jump on board, and it never hurts to ask.

Amanda: That’s mostly a Chris question. On my end, I met someone at a bar who knew someone who might want to give us money. She did, and we got to finish the film.

Film Courage: Your budget was around $35,000 (which is surprisingly low for the high quality production value). What did the bulk of the funds go to?

Chris: The funds pretty much all went to paying our crew, travel, and logistical needs (food, lodging, and supplies). I believe very strongly in paying the crew, even if less than they deserve, because it’s the people you surround yourself with that allow for the final project to be so great. When the people you work with feel appreciated, it really shows up on screen. I can’t thank my crew enough for busting their asses every day, and creating something we can all be proud of.

Amanda: Umm…Chris? He’s got this one…

 

Valley of Ditches from 108 Media on Vimeo.

 

 

Film Courage: Since you live(d) on the East Coast as did Amanda, how did you coordinate the Joshua Tree shoot? Had either of you been to Joshua Tree or a desert setting before?

Chris: I used to live in San Diego, but had never been to Joshua Tree. However, I am well versed in planning shoots, and basically did all my scouting from google earth. I found a rental property that bordered the Joshua Tree National Park, so we could film on their property without needed a federal permit, but still use the park as a gorgeous backdrop.

Amanda: Chris coordinated this. He would send me info, and I’d check it out, but he’s incredibly experienced in location scouting. Chris is good at everything. Did I mention that none of this would’ve been possible without Chris?

Film Courage: Where do the undertones of religion come into play for the story and title?

Chris: This would be a great question for Amanda. We both believe there is something after this life, but she had a much different religious upbringing that I did, which led to her feeding those undertones into the storyline. I absolutely loved what she did in that respect. Oddly enough though, it was me who came across the story of Jorham, and the valley of ditches, which led to our title. It fit so well to the story we were crafting, so we incorporated it into our narrative. I found the story when I was google searching for some temporary photos for our Facebook page.

Amanda: My parents went through a religious stint when I was a kid, and they made me go to this Born Again Christian church. You know, the kind where the pastor prays over you and you’re supposed to fall to the ground all full of Jesus? It was weird, but I also became obsessed with the stories in the Bible. As I got older, I thought a lot about the negative aspects of religion (hate crimes, sexism, war, etc…), and I realized people use it as an excuse for their anger, hate, desire to hurt…to kill. It has inspired a lot of my writing, and when Chris sent me the outline, that was the immediate direction I took. The story of Jorham completed the puzzle. ‘MAKE THIS VALLEY FULL OF DITCHES!”

Film Courage: When you wrote the character of Emilia (played by Amanda) how much back story did you create for her (even if the audience wasn’t completely aware)?

Chris: She definitely has more backstory than ended up in the movie, but I find when I write I over-explain, so we scaled it back quite a bit. Amanda put a lot into her character as well, which is why, even when you don’t get every detail of her past, you still feel those details on screen with her performance.

Amanda: I always try to add a lot of myself into my characters so that they feel more personal, so I would give Emelia baggage from my own life. That’s the stuff you don’t see.

Film Courage: How long did it take to finish the film from idea to post-production?

Chris: We had the idea to make the movie in September of 2014. We finished production in June 2015, and the edit was complete by the end of the year. So about a year and a half from idea to final product.

Amanda: What he said.

 

“I feel like a lot of actors and directors take a militant approach: step here, turn here, say this here, then put your left arm on the table. Firstly, this would never work for me because I’m very uncoordinated. Aside from that, this kind of direction makes me feel like I’m not a real person. I need to feel like a real person in order to pretend that I’m a real person. Chris’ directing style is a craft. He takes what I’ve got and molds it.”

 

Amanda Todisco, Co-writer/Actress VALLEY OF DITCHES

 

 

 

Film Courage: Did it take you longer to finish the film than you thought it would?

Chris: It was actually a pretty quick production, considering it takes some folks years and years to get a film up to festival shape. It helps that both Amanda and I, as well as Kevin our co producer were all very passionate about getting the film completed.

Amanda: It was actually really quick. “Our Life in Make Believe” got dragged out a bit because people had different visions of what it should be. With “Valley of Ditches,” we were all on the same page.

Film Courage: Was there one day in particular where you thought you may not finish this movie?

Chris: Our crew was set up to be lean, and economical. Because most of our set ups where exterior, day, we didn’t have a lot of need for lights. So when we did our interior scenes, or night scenes, it always over-taxed us, and led to some crazy shoot days. But what pulled us through was the bond our crew had with each other, and the knowledge that once we wrapped, we were all gonna hang out and enjoy each others company. To me, having a tight team who all get along and believe in what they are doing can solve any issue the rigors of production throw at you.

Amanda: Of course! The day when we didn’t actually have the money to make the entire movie. Fortunately, our Executive Producer, Rachel, helped to fix that problem. Thanks, Rach!

Film Courage: How would you prepare Amanda for these emotional scenes? How taxing was it for her to use so much struggle and energy in the scenes where she was injured, frightened or upset?

Chris: Amanda is incredible. I say that because my directing style is to have an actor show me their interpretation of the scene on the first take. Then I craft from there so I can use their strengths and input in the final product. With Amanda, she always starts us at a great place, but more importantly, she wants to be pushed, and wants to experiment, and try whatever crazy ideas I or she has. We communicate so well on set, and keep an open dialogue as we film, so in the most intense scenes, if she feels like she can give it more, she’ll ask for another take, and if I feel like we haven’t gotten there, she’s always down to go bigger. It’s a strong trust we have with each other, and while it’s so painful to watch my best friend suffer through these emotions, and struggles, at the same time, I’m blown away by her willingness to leave it all on the court (or the desert in this case) and do whatever it takes to get the shot we need.

Amanda: Chris is the best. He just let’s me act. I feel like a lot of actors and directors take a militant approach: step here, turn here, say this here, then put your left arm on the table. Firstly, this would never work for me because I’m very uncoordinated. Aside from that, this kind of direction makes me feel like I’m not a real person. I need to feel like a real person in order to pretend that I’m a real person. Chris’ directing style is a craft. He takes what I’ve got and molds it. He never makes me do something without explaining why I’m doing it. I need to comprehend my emotions if I’m going to be able to produce them. Why am I sad? Why am I angry? Why am I doing this awkward sex scene? Chris has all the answers.

Russell Bradley Fenton as Sean in VALLEY OF DITCHES

Film Courage: What type of elements were you working with during the desert scenes?

Chris: Wind, snakes and fire ants were the biggest concerns. We had an amazing sound recordist, Matt Thompson, who somehow managed to record a track that required no ADR despite huge wind gusts, and the occasional 4wheeler in the background. Heat wasn’t an issue, because we would break in the middle of the day for a siesta, since the lighting kinda sucks when the sun is overhead, and the heat is at its highest.

Amanda: I hate the cold (I’m a bad New Englander). Nights were tough, and the wind sucked. The heat never bothered me. Fortunately, the crew was always ready to wrap me in a blanket like a baby. Cacti were the real enemy! WARNING: some of them look soft. They are not soft.

Film Courage: How did you pitch the script to your actors?

Chris: I didn’t need to. They loved it. In fact, during Russell (Sean, the antagonist)’s car monologue (seen in the trailer) I actually changed the lines between the audition and the shoot, and he convinced me that the original version was better so we went back to it. I encourage everyone to tell me what they really think, because I believe genius is in the group effort. I know I’m not going to be brilliant all by myself.

Amanda: It was really strange. Everyone was all in right from the beginning. Russell and Jeremy are amazing people and even better actors. It didn’t take much convincing.

Film Courage: What lessons did you learn making this film that you are definitely going to take with you in making the next one?

Chris: The number one lesson I have learned in filmmaking is that your cast and crew are what makes your movie great or bad. It is so essential to have a stellar crew and a talented, and hard working cast in place for the shoot. People, to me, are the greatest resource.

Amanda: Just keep working with what’s working. Most of us will be back for the next one.

Film Courage: What is next for you creatively?

Chris: Next is a screenplay I’ve been working on for about 8 years, but requires a bigger budget than I was able to raise. It’s called Coffebury Lake, and it was a finalist at this year’s Slamdance film festival, which was the only festival I entered it in. It is about a lake where a serial killer would drown his victims and leave their bodies. A year after he’s caught, more bodies appear, and the detective that gave everything to bring him down is pulled back into the case. It’s a mystery thriller, with some supernatural overtones, and I’m really excited to get going into production. Now that my filmmaking level has reached a point where I feel confident tackling a story of this magnitude, we are looking to begin filming in April. Amanda will be both a main character in the film, as well as behind the scenes as a creative producer. Most of the same team will be back in fact, because we bonded so much on Valley of Ditches, I can’t imagine working without them.

Amanda: Chris’ new script, Coffenbury Lake, is AMAZING. Perfection. I’ve never been more proud. We will begin production on that soon, and I can’t wait for the gang to be back together. Additionally, I have a new script, and our Executive Producer, Rachel, has written a pretty great script as well. Chris is ahead of the game, with another masterpiece in the works for after Coffenbury. We’re definitely not lacking in material to produce!

About VALLEY OF DITCHES:

A young woman bound in the front seat of a car watches helpless as her captor digs a grave in the desert ground. The lifeless body of her boyfriend lies framed in the rear-view mirror, a fate she will fight at all costs to avoid for herself. But this is only the beginning of a brutal struggle where survival could be worse than death.

 

 

 

 

About the cast/crew:

Christopher James Lang Director, co-writer and co-producer of Valley of Ditches

Christopher James Lang is a recent east coast arrival. Growing up on the northwest Oregon coast, Chris attended the University of Oregon Journalism school, where his senior documentary on prison work programs (Behind These Walls) won a national Emmy distinction in 2006. Making the move into narrative film making, Chris wrote, directed and produced a 30 min short and an award winning 70 minute feature (‘Franklin Wunder’ SNOB Film Festival best dramatic film) before moving to Boston to pursue a more professional production career. After accruing credits for Lifetime, TLC and A&E, Chris returned to independent film production with his second, multiple award winning feature, ‘Our Life in Make Believe.’ He has since moved to Washington DC where he assembled a team from all over the continent to work on his third feature, ‘Valley of Ditches.’ For this film, he drew heavily on his experience directing true crime recreations for Investigation Discovery and TV One. He is currently planning his fourth feature, a mystery thriller with supernatural undertones.

 

Co-writer, Lead actress – Amanda Todisco

Amanda Todisco is an actress and writer known for Valley of Ditches (2016) and Our Life in Make Believe (2014). She grew up in Boston, MA, the youngest of four children. She has had a passion for performing since she was a child, first starring in plays at a local church and later discovering independent film. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst with a B.A. in English. When not acting or writing, she teaches low-income inner-city middle school students at a public charter school in Boston.

 

 

Lead Actor – Russell Bradley Fenton

Russell has been performing since elementary and high school in both stage musicals and Shakespeare, graduating from the College of William and Mary with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Theatre before moving to Los Angeles to pursue film and television. Russell has studied acting for the past ten years, taken improv at LA Connections Comedy Theatre, The Groundlings, and Upright Citizen’s Brigade. He has also starred in several independent feature films, His latest projects “A VALLEY OF DITCHES,” “ALWAYS WITH YOU,” and “MODERN RUINS” will premiere later this year. He filmed a political ad earlier this year for the Ted Cruz campaign and also an episode for TRUE NIGHTMARES on the Discovery Channel.

 

 

CONNECT WITH VALLEY OF DITCHES MOVIE:

Official site
108 Media Page
Facebook
Twitter
IMDB

 

 

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VALLEY OF DITCHES – A young woman bound in the front seat of a parked car watches helpless as her captor methodically digs a grave in the desert ground. The bloody lifeless body of her boyfriend lies framed in the rear-view mirror, a fate she will fight at all costs to avoid for herself. But this is only the beginning of a brutal struggle where survival could be worse than death.

 

 

 

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