Toren Atkinson

Aaron Vanek is an independent filmmaker who has done two, count 'em, two short films of a Lovecraftian taint, both of which have been shown at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon. His creative writing teacher at UCLA thought he was a Satanist, and he interned for Film Threat and Midnight Graffiti magazines, as well as for Roger Corman. He turned down an assistant editor spot for Sci-Fi Universe to go to film school in Chicago. Now he's living in L.A. and trying to raise funds for his third foray into Cthulhian Cinema.

Toren Atkinson: Tell us about The Outsider.

Aaron Vanek: The Outsider was my first film, based on HPL's story of the same name. It was really the first film I ever wanted to do. I read the story in high school, and thought, with no prior film knowledge, "This would make a good short film." Seven years later, in Spring '94, I finally made the picture. My teachers hated it because I put makeup on my lead actor. My instructor asked, "Why did you do that, why did you put makeup on him? You can't see his face!" BECAUSE HE ROSE FROM THE GRAVE, YOU DUMB TWIT! Anyway, her last film was a documentary about Iranian immigrant women trying to survive culture shock in the US. Can we see a difference in taste here?

TA: What invaluable experience did you get from that film, and what interesting things have you learned from film school?

AV: Oh, may the Great Old Ones take me away. Well, the most valuable experience I learned from The Outsider came when it was accepted into the Chicago Underground Film Festival that same year, in the summer. I submitted it on a lark; I thought every submission, whether it was accepted or not, would mean you got two tickets to the festival, and I wanted to go and harass the Film Threat guys who were going to be there. Lo and behold, they accepted it! When I talked to one of the programmers about it, I asked him, "Why did you accept it?" and he answered, "Why not?" The Outsider was, up to that point, just a homework assignment! All of a sudden, the wonders of the universe opened up to me, and I subsequently went insane. I realized that I wasn't a film student, I was a filmmaker taking classes. That sounds pretty vain, but I mean, I learned each film has value outside a grade on a report card. And since the faculty all hated it, it was great to find this audience who appreciated it. I learned that you can make just about anything, and SOMEONE will watch it, and maybe even like it. What's funny is, at the end of the year, all the grad students go through this thing called a "focus review," where the faculty evaluates your work over the past year. I submitted The Outsider, some forgettable script, and a critical essay on Dario Argento. Their advice to me was: "Stay away from horror films until you find out what your themes really are." So the next thing I shot was on video and called R is for Roaches. It's this gratuitously gory piece about cockroaches with severed heads (both human and cockroach). Basically, a "fuck you" to the faculty. Overall, I learned that your themes and visions are your own. Create what you believe in. Through my second and third year, I started thinking of film school more as a supercheap equipment rental place than anything else.

TA: And then you shot My Necronomicon.

AV: That was summer of '97, just before I moved from Chicago. I was torturing myself about my final thesis film (which will probably never be completed, so I won't get my MFA), and I got the itch to shoot something. I was laid off from my CD-ROM designer job, and had a lot of time on my hands plus some old film sitting in my fridge that I wanted to burn off. So I figured, I've got about 7 minutes of black and white film, what can I do that's short? Hmmm, if I make it Lovecraftian, Andrew will show it at the second Portland HPL fest, and I can also screen it at NecronomiCON in Providence, which had already accepted The Outsider (its fourth public screening, after being shown at a Chicago sci-fi con for 2 years). So the muse said "do this." I wrote the script for My Necronomicon in 15 minutes, scammed the school's camera, lying that I was doing some tests for my thesis, and shot it in a day. I used the contacts I gained from working for Screen magazine, a Chicago trade that's like the Hollywood Reporter or Daily Variety to get some cool post production help (like a professional film-to-tape transfer and a colorist who costs $750 an hour) for free. Kirsten, my girlfriend, made the Necronomicon book, and we shot in the actor's apartment. I borrowed a blue screen and begged some time from a friend and fellow film school student who was an assistant for a big commercial post production house. He stayed after hours to put the CGI effects in (what a god!). We came in just under the wire -- my friend sent the tape ahead of me, and I didn't see the final version until the day before it was to screen at NecronomiCON.

TA: What kind of response did you get to those two films?

AV: Most Lovecraft fans like them, but I think they'll like anything that takes the material seriously, which I try to do. My Necronomicon is the better of the two, even though it's shorter. My favourite comment came from the woman who was the video room projectionist at NecronomiCON. She was on this panel called "Why Lovecraft movies suck," and I snuck into the back as it was going. She said, "Aaron captured the spirit of Lovecraft better in two minutes than most movies that take two hours." I thought she saw me come in and was just saying that. Turns out she really liked it. I'm still amazed.

TA: Why should anyone care about H. P. Lovecraft?

AV: He's one of the grandpappies of horror. It's good to look at him historically, coming out of the Great War. He was part of the nihilism and cynicism that pervaded a lot of literature of the time. Here's a guy that said, "It doesn't matter." But he put names and octopoid faces to our fears, he personified it. Like Copernicus proving the Earth is not the center of the universe, Lovecraft confirmed that we're less than a speck. Good to see things in perspective.

TA: What are your favourite films and directors?

AV: Blade Runner's my all time fave. That's what science fiction is all about: looking at the human condition; examining who we are, what we are doing, and more importantly, what we are becoming. David Lynch is my current fave director, screw what everyone else says, I like him. Terry Gilliam's cool, and Scorsese, Welles, Hitchcock, Coppola (up to Apocalypse Now), and Kubrick. I know, they're all English speaking directors, but most foreign films put me to sleep (excluding Asian cinema, and Luis Bunuel, Fritz Lang, and FW Murnau).

TA: Tell us about your new project.

AV: It's my third HP Lovecraft adapation, and it's a half-hour flick based on "Shadow Over Innsmouth." I was looking and looking for another HPL film to do. I started one that wasn't based on anything, and took place in modern day. It was crap. I had another idea of doing one that was slightly related to SOI, about a couple who gets trapped in Innsmouth on their way to a wedding. But it seemed like a bad episode of Moonlighting or X-files, so that never even reached the treatment stage. I was re-reading SOI for inspiration for the couple movie, and when I finished the story, SHOGGOTH! there it was. SOI ends with the narrator saying something like, "I'm gonna go bust out my cousin now and we're gonna go back to Innsmouth and jump in the sea and worship Dagon." I thought, what a great way to start a movie! The narrator with bulging eyes and skin slime, springs his cousin from an asylum. So I have them heading back to Innsmouth, where we get a flashback story from the narrator that roughly follows the text of SOI. But there's also a group of Call of Cthulhu-like investigators out to stop them from reaching their deep one brothers. . . .

TA: Who will you be working with on this one?

AV: I'm calling in all favours on this one to get it completed in time for the 1998 HPL Film Fest in Portland. Andrew Migliore (the fest director and a filmmaker in his own right) is co-producing it, and so far I managed to get a lot of my old crew members on board: the cinematographer who shot my two other HPL films, the makeup artist from The Outsider (who just finished creating some puppets for Jim Henson Productions), my old roommate who did the music for two of my other films (a Seattle jazz musician who's into freaky bizarre stuff like the composer Penderecki), a CGI artist friend who did the effects for the Casper sequels (he's working on the third of the series now), the guy who runs the "Propping up the Mythos" web page will be doing some props, and I hear even the Thickets are going to go nuts around me. Only someone already insane would do this film. That must be me.

TA: L.A.'s not a very Lovecraftian locale. Where will you shoot?

AV: No, LA is right out. We're going up north. Either Portland Oregon, where Andrew is, Vancouver, where the Thickets are (and great discounts for filming, thanks to the Canadian government), or somewhere in between; I've got some friends in Seattle. I still want to shoot a Lovecraft film in Providence itself. The city is beautiful, even though it's gone to pot in places. But that's too expensive, and the only guy I know on the east coast just moved to Maine. I hear there are going to be full-fledged Deep Ones bobbing their misshapen heads out of the water. How will you pull that off? If we have money, we have a horde of guys in masks. Chances are, though, it will be CGI, or maybe even a combination of the two (a few guys in masks, and then using the computer to digitally replicate them into a horde). I don't exactly know yet. We summon them?

TA: Any message you're trying to convey?

AV: Well, I had already finished the first draft of the script. I checked out the "Thickets" web page, and read the interview with author Kevin Ross in POI [The People of Innsmouth] # 20. He mentioned that he found that the ending of "Shadow Over Innsmouth" frightening because while the narrator physically defeated the deep ones with the sub attack, he still "loses" in the end because of something totally out of his control: his heredity. I thought about that for a while, and I tried to bring that theme out stronger in the second version of the script. I wanted the narrator's fight to retain his humanity to be more evident. It's in the story, but I want to see it in the film. It's like Rosemary loving her baby at the end of that film (Rosemary's Baby a classic): it's Satan, but it's also her baby. Nature vs. nurture, man.

TA: It's my understanding that you're broke! Isn't film kind of expensive? What will you do to raise money?

AV: I already sold my soul, so that's out. I have a little bit of my thesis money left (what I've been using to live off the past year), and Andrew is kicking in some cash. There's interest from one mail order catalog distributor of mythos stuff to pre-order some tapes, so hopefully we'll get something from him. Next is begging and pleading with friends and relatives. I'm hoping the Thickets can help with a fundraiser, and I implore, beseech, beg, threaten, cajole, and in every way supplicate myself before the Lovecraft fans throughout the cosmos to help out in any way they can. I know everyone's broke, but maybe if people pre-order tapes, or send donations, we can get this done without sending me forever into the Sarlac Pit of debt (film school was NOT cheap). Every little bit helps. $20 can probably feed three crew members for a day.

TA: Friends, join the Vanek trust fund and pitch in to help with this most noble cause, won't you? If you want to help by any means, be it services, finances, or immoral support, please contact someone involved in the project (and that includes me, Toren, of The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets). If you can think of any fundraising ideas, we'd love to hear them. The best we've come up with so far is a limited print run of a promo film poster painted by myself, and possibly an auction of the original (would anyone commit to purchasing prints if we did this?), but there's also our Innsmouth Bake Sale, pre-ordered VHS copies, and who knows how many other ways you can be a part of this exciting movie magic. Yes, we are looking for extras. Contact us at: Aaron Vanek, 3787 Maplewood Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90066-3550, email Andrew Migliore, BEYOND BOOKS, c/o Innsmouth Project, P.O. Box 8521, Portland OR 97207, ph (503) 234-3822, fax (503) 234-8450, email Toren Atkinson, 302-1015 West 13th Ave, Vancouver BC, V6H 1N1, Canada, ph (604) 737-HATE, email


© 1998 Edward P. Berglund
"An Interview with Aaron Vanek": © 1998 Toren Atkinson. All rights reserved. Reprinted from The People of Innsmouth # 25.
Graphic © 1998 Old Arkham Graphics Design. All rights reserved. Email to: Corey T. Whitworth.

Created: July 1, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004