M. L. Miller here with an interview with director/writer/actor J. Van Auken about his first film REVELATOR, a genre bending film combining noir, horror, and superheroics. Further down, I’ll post my review of REVELATOR, but first here’s what J. Van Auken has to say about his film…
MLMILLERWRITES (MLM): First off, for my readers, can you describe REVELATOR in your own words?
J. VAN AUKEN (JVA): REVELATOR is really about letting go. It’s about a man clinging to the things he can’t let go of after losing his fiancée, stuck in a life surrounded by people who won’t let go of the people they’ve lost. John Dunning is metaphorically and literally haunted every day, and REVELATOR is the story of how he deals with it.
MLM: What was the inspiration for REVELATOR? While it seems a lot of aspects are from detective noir and horror film genres, but this also seems a little like an origin story for a comic book. Are you a comic book reader and if so, what comics (and films of other genres) inspired you?
JVA: I think there are a lot of obvious borrows in the story, but the seed of it began with hearing stories of far-off, isolated communities around the country that held to old traditions regarding funerals, and the idea of a man who attends them professionally. I don’t get to [read comics] as often as I’d like, but I do run across some interesting runs from time to time, often borrowed from more adamant friends. I will, however, admit to lining up on day 1 for both volume releases for Marvel’s DARTH VADER series.
MLM: You wrote, directed, and starred in this film. Was this out of necessity or are you just a glutton for punishment?
JVA: Much of that came with the need to do as much of it myself as physically possible. When you have as limited a budget as I did, you rely on friends and favors for so much. The downside to that arrangement is that other people’s attention has a limit, and I’m always wary of asking too much of anyone. In almost every e-mail sent out during the process, I tried to make clear that I needed the whole thing to be as painless as possible for everyone else. While that might read as magnanimous or naïve, it was a shrewd decision born from the countless times in my career as a DP that I’ve seen smaller productions grind to a halt because not everyone’s in it for the long haul. I was investing years of my time and all of my life savings into what was ultimately a commercial product, so the producer part of my brain kicked in and wanted to ensure that we couldn’t be shut down by any one piece of the machine not functioning. The idea was simple; make the most key personnel all one guy, who will always, always be on time.
On a very cynical level, when dealing with a film this small, the number of people who can realistically benefit from it is limited. “Exposure” isn’t really a currency here. If I was really going to put everything into the project, and bank not just my career, but my livelihood in general on it, I did want to make sure I could showcase myself as much as possible. I have to underscore that it really did cost me a lot, in money and relationships, to complete. The only hard barrier there was my own capacity for punishment, which I’ve found is, uh, significant.
MLM: Describe your experience bringing this film to life? How did you get it from an idea banging around in your head to an actual movie?
JVA: It was early 2015, and I came off a string of tough projects and was re-evaluating a lot. I thought it was about time to see if I could make for myself the kind of opportunity that I’d been hoping would come along on its own. So I had a loose idea in a notebook and the money saved up, and years of favors to call on, and it suddenly clicked into place that it might be possible to make a feature work on my own. I outlined and preproduced at the same time, fitting each to the other in terms of feasibility. By the time there was a draft, I knew everything in it could be gotten, and budgeted accordingly. It wasn’t really real until I set the dates on a calendar and started sending the draft for notes, and then approaching people with it. The feedback, unexpectedly, was very positive. Everyone who read it wanted to be on board, and so it picked up steam from there. We shot in December 2015, and a rough cut was done by February. Unfortunately, that’s when the tough part began. I’ve worked as a DP my entire career, and so usually at wrap, my involvement with a project is over. So, it was a lot of stumbling and grasping at straws as I moved out of post and started trying to get the movie seen.
MLM: I’m always interested in the transition from script to film. What was the biggest challenge for you during that transition?
JVA: It might have been a consequence of the limited number of people involved, but I found it’s all the small details that were chipped away by the time we were shooting. The original shooting draft had so many little touches to it that hinted at a larger world, and deeper connections between characters. But, reality has a way of asserting itself, and so when we were actually on set and most concerned with just making it through the shot list at all, I didn’t get to pay as much attention as I would have liked to those minor additions. Things like very specific wardrobe choices, placement of objects on tables, etc. On the page they were really telling, and I miss them on every re-watch. Some remain, though! Pay attention to people’s neck ties.
MLM: Your portrayal of John Dunning is really unique. What were your thoughts on developing this character and realizing him on film?
JVA: I tried to ground it in how I would react if I were terrified 100% of the time. John literally can’t trust what he sees, and pre-supposes that everyone means him harm. What little sleep he gets is on a bench, and he self-medicates frequently. Most of his behaviors are like the stop-gap actions of an addict between fixes. Luckily at the time we were shooting, I was already lacking sleep, and scared everyone resented me anyway, so I had a lot to draw on.
MLM: I also liked Mindy Rae who played Valerie Krueger and she also is quite a unique character. What went into her character’s creation? She’s not your typical sidekick and her relationship with John is truly unique.
JVA: I love Mindy. She’s done things as a performer that are no-shit fearless. She was the first and only person I wanted for that part, and had she declined for any reason, I would have legitimately done a different movie altogether. I built up and revised and refined the character of Valerie solely around being good enough for her to say yes to. I was very, very conscious through the process that Valerie would be perceived first as a female lead in a horror film, and that that there are a ton of implications that go along with that in the current social climate. There was a list of tropes I had that I wanted to either avoid entirely, or ideally subvert, and I think that’s what makes the character stand out. Mindy and I had long conversations about it, and about how we didn’t want it to be like so many of the other things we’ve both done. We never ‘qualified’ Valerie, like you’ll see in many films with the token ‘tough girl’ character. She has no impetus to be tough, she just is as a person, and acts accordingly. She’s smart, and never has to explain that, like it’d be some kind of shock; she just carries herself as competent.
MLM: I can totally see this film be the launching point for a haunted detective series. Was that on your mind while making it?
JVA: I wish! There’s most definitely a through-line to the world that I see taking place over a few stories, but I’d never imagined any ‘franchise’ opportunity for it. At the heart of it, I always imagined the greater story is about two trains, John and Valerie, on an inevitable collision course.
MLM: The one thing I criticized the film about is that there are occasions where the sound if a bit off–specifically during stressful events for John himself, who is a low talking, mumbling type of character. What is it like reading criticism like this here and in a few other reviews I’ve read online? Is there anything at this point you can do to fix this or would you not want to do this?
JVA: Oh I fully empathize with almost every criticism I read. There’s no harsher judge of the final product than myself, so when I read someone has some issue with it, I can only chuckle and agree. No matter how much distance from the product I get, it’s still impossible for me to see it for much more than an amalgam of my own failings. Regarding the sound specifically, I can only say that no matter how sure you are of the people you hire, or how much you pay, or the time you give them, sometimes the product isn’t up to the standard you want. Even people who are generally competent at their job can fail to perform, and you as the head of everything can’t be over everyone’s shoulder all the time. Sound especially is something that can prove so difficult to salvage and so expensive to replace, that after enough time the cynical business-owner part of you has to take over and declare what qualifies as ‘good enough.’
MLM: What is it like to finally finish this film and have it seen by people?
JVA: Surreal. I have no baseline for this experience. I’ve directed shorts before to (very) little fanfare, and I’ve DP’ed things that have gone up at many festivals, but this is all very new and strange. REVELATOR has been my sole focus for years, and all of a sudden, there’s nothing left to do. And then I google it, and people are talking about a thing I did, and I’m floored. The first reviews came out in the LA Times and LA Weekly, and they were talking about the movie in terms of it being a real, actual film! They were critiquing it in terms of what they expect from a movie showing in a theater, instead of head-patting me for a good effort. They disparaged it in the way they would any blockbuster they expected more of, and that’s when it hit home that the whole thing was real. For me, this has been a personal project I was doing with my friends, but to these objective observers, it was a legitimate movie. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud.
MLM: Every film is a learning experience, what did you learn with this one that you’ll take to your next project?
JVA: So much of this, I was doing for the first time. Everything outside of the physical production was me learning as I went. If I ever do another film, I’ll at least be able to retrace my steps and save so much of that time and energy. I at least know now the pieces of the puzzle and the order they go in, and hopefully wouldn’t make the same mistakes.
MLM: What’s next for you? Another REVELATOR film, I hope!
JVA: I have absolutely no idea. It all comes down to finding who wants to work together. A lot about the way we made REVELATOR I can’t really do again. It was self financed, and entirely self produced; I don’t have a way to do that a second time. I do have a lot of developed material I’d love to see get made, including a follow-up conclusion to REVELATOR, titled REVELATION MACHINE, but it’s a matter of finding a way to make any of that happen.
MLM: Last chance, why should folks take a chance and check out REVELATOR and where can we find it?
JVA: If you want something different and surprising, a horror film with a strong mystery, and an indie film unlike anything else you’d expect from the genre, I’d recommend REVELATOR. Also, REVELATOR with the Director and DP commentary is my preferred viewing experience.
MLM: Thanks so much! I could totally see this film expanding into something like a ScyFy series or something like that. Hopefully the right people will check it out! My review of REVELATOR is after the trailer!
New On Demand, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vimeo, Xbox, Steam, Vudu, Youtube, and DVD from Midnight Releasing!
Directed by J. Van Auken
Written by J. Van Auken
Starring J. Van Auken, Mindy Rae, Lillian Solange Beaudoin, Barrow Davis-Tolot, Shelly DeChristofaro, Joe DeSoto, Josh Harp, Galen Howard, Justin Johnson, Kate Johnson, Ben Kientz, Alex Klein, Davison Locksley, Greg Lucey, Phil Miler, Patrick Peduto, Catherine Picta, Ramiro Quezada, Rosalie Roder, Yazemeenah Rossi, Charley Rossman, Josh Robert Thompson, Nicholas Thurkettle
Find out more about this film here, @revelatormovie, and on Facebook here
REVELATOR feels like a dark and seedy style comic book, mixed with equal heavy doses of noir and the supernatural. Usually this would make for an uneven stew of a film, but it manages its parts well to make an enthralling, yet imperfect little broth.
John (writer/director J. Van Auken) sees dead people and gets paid handsomely by people who believe in his power to communicate with their recently deceased loved ones. When a former client dies, she shocks her surviving relatives by leaving John an entire island. Knowing that no one has ever died on the island, John accepts the inheritance which enrages the other relatives and puts a target on his back. Meanwhile, a reporter named Valerie Krueger (Mindy Rae) looks to make a break by writing a story attempting to debunk John and his abilities, but this only puts more people on John’s tail. With former clients and pissed off relatives after him, John finds more problems when the ghosts he sees are beginning to actually see him back.
I could see REVELATOR being some kind of ScyFy detective series. It’s a fun concept that is familiar enough in that he has the same powers little Haley Joel Osment had in THE SIXTH SENSE, but Auken’s introverted performance gives the character a much more intriguing character to play with. Auken is great as John, slump shouldered and often mumbling out his words so as not to draw the attention of both the living and the dead. While occasionally it was difficult to actually hear what he is saying, Auken plays this complex character with conviction. Rae is equally likable as John’s sort of sidekick, first out to disprove his abilities and then finding herself relying on them in order to survive. Add in some creepy smiling ghosts, some tattooed faced goons, and a couple of angry relatives and you’ve got a supernatural gumshoe flick that meshes genres seamlessly.
REVELATOR becomes a bit extraneous in the final act. As I said before, while John’s character is fascinating, the fact that he mumbles is occasionally difficult to take, especially when it seems like there is something important to be heard. Occasionally, the film goes into the realm of weird simply to go there and those scenes feel like the most ingenuine. Still, this is a really nicely constructed and expertly realized supernatural noir thriller with elements of super heroism, but none so over the top to distract. I’d love to see more cases for the REVELATOR as there are still a lot of ghosts out there to haunt John and Auken has created a character and world worth revisiting.