The Incredible True-Life Story of Making a (Crappy) Movie

An independent film crew ventures into the land of the occult and produces a movie best left unseen.

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An unsuspecting man finds himself in the throes of a nefarious cult led by an eccentric madman, where outsiders are lured into the “family” by its members to be scarified in a pagan ceremony. Sound familiar?

Most movies about cults involve a neutral character tricked into some demented ritual. It’s just how these things go. Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Wicker Man (1973), The House of the Devil (2017), and Midsommar (2019), to name a few, share this motif. The Invited isn’t a movie I like to revisit or think about. It had turned out far different from planned, which is often the case, good or bad. The movie was a lesson in dwarfing expectations. There was early potential. We had a dedicated cast and crew. I was given the opportunity to write and direct. The forces of the occult, however, are sometimes best not trifled with. 

The Invited was produced by DBS Films, an Orlando-based publishing company I’ve written for since 2014. Around 2016, Brendan (the boss) wanted to branch out into filmmaking, specifically hour-long horror movies we could make and stream on Amazon. Our small team of writers and graphic designers were thrilled. We would soon be making movies. After an understandably rough start, The Invited was ready for production, only to be sunk by ineptitude and an impossible shooting schedule. There were also several real-life murders on set, and we have yet to find the real killer. 

One of the brightest stars in the horror genre today is Mike Flanagan. He’s the prolific writer/director behind Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and the quality thrillers Oculus (2013), Hush (2016), and Doctor Sleep (2019), adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name that was the sequel to The Shining. I’ve made plenty of movie shorts with my friends since childhood. I even applied for the UCF Film Program at one time and was rejected. They must have known I would make The Invited some day. I had much better luck with Writing Program and spent the next eight years or so earning my Bachelors in English and Masters in Creative Writing.

I learned to read and write good

Flash forward to 2017, and I’m preparing our third feature for DBS Films, The Invited. This wasn’t going to be a carefree shoot with friends like the old days. This was going to be something different, involving a sizable cast and crew.  I can’t say for sure how much the movie cost to make. Most of the budget went toward renting the camera, lights, and sound equipment. The actors we hired were mainly film or theater students who worked for free. It was exposure for them, gaining experience. We got lucky and found a fancy house to shoot in, which perfectly represented the cultists’ opulent dwellings. 

The homeowners were the parents of a friend of Brendan’s brother. It wasn’t the isolated lake house described in the script, but it was located by a lake, which was good enough. They had agreed to let us shoot there over the weekend. The movie gods had graced us so far during pre-production, but two days was not a long time, when most of the scenes took place in and around the house. That was of no consequence at the time. We had nice-looking place to use for free. The rest would have to fall into place. 

The cult house

We held auditions at Full Sail University. Turnout was nice, as many aspiring young actors were no doubt be enticed by our movie poster and flyers promoting this next great “horror movie for Amazon Studios.” The funny thing about auditions is that you truly appreciate the process and those who show up, at least I did. I wanted to give the roles to everyone, but we were looking for talent. Some people seemed to just be looking for something to do with their afternoon. I can’t blame them for trying.

Curtis, the lead male role, proved hardest to fill. In fact, we didn’t fill the roll until about a week before shooting, using the same reliable actor from our previous movie. The other main roles included Sandy, the girl who manipulates Curtis, Demetri, the leader of the cult, and Blake, Curtis’s friend who tries to steer him away from their influence. There were about a dozen other actors brought on to play cult members and other minor roles. They were all impressive, especially Sandy and Demetri. There was a time when I believed everything would work, but as the old adage goes, an idea can sound promising on paper before it’s stripped down and bastardized into something hideously unrecognizable. 

Cults were most prevalent in the later part of the 20th century. The Manson family, Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate are some of the most notable in modern history. They remain fascinating subjects of investigation to this day. The psychology behind collective mind control and manipulating people to do horrible things is counter to our instinctual belief in individual thought. None of us would think that we’d be susceptible to such tactics. We’re much too smart for that.

Novels like 1984 and A Brave New World explore this notion of collective dystopia. Their tales seemed strictly cautionary until social media came along. Nowadays people will do anything for attention and mass approval, just name the challenge. Technology is our current mind control. We hold up cell phones at concerts, eyes on the screen, as we capture what’s right in front of us through tiny screens, with the need to capture every moment. We demand that our robot butlers be more empathetic to our needs. Well, maybe that’s just me.

Movies that acquire a following over time are often referred to as “cult movies.” Everything from Plan 9 from Outer Space to John Carpenter’s The Thing have gained their own unique cult status, in that they were largely overlooked upon their initial release. To this day I still haven’t seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show in its entirety, which usually comes to mind when talking about a “cult film.” Movies about cults can also be cult movies, but unless it’s the Nicholas Cage remake of the Wicker Man, they’re usually classified as horror.

I discussed the idea for our cult movie with Brendan during our weekly Friday Happy Hour brainstorming session. We talked about movies like avid sports fans. I expressed my view that a budget was inconsequential if one had all the right elements. The idea was everything. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978) had proved as much. They were both independent films and have remained two of the finest horror films ever made. The Blair Witch Project (1999) practically re-invented the found-footage genre with its “less is better” approach. I had no allusions of greatness, but I still wanted to tell a decent story.

Brendan and I discussed a scenario where a guy meets a girl via a dating app, only to discover that he was manipulated the entire time. This wasn’t exactly treading new ground, but there was something there. My friend and co-worker Erika helped outline the script and kept me from going too far off the rails. We had our three acts fleshed out and under a hundred pages, but it was still too much. There were too many characters and locations for a four day shoot. Well, The Blair Witch Project was shot in eight. Why couldn’t we do it in four? Our business model was to shoot fast and move on. Camera rental wasn’t cheap.

Erika attempted to storyboard the script, but it was too time consuming. We probably wouldn’t have followed it anyway. Most scenes were shot “on-the-spot,” with a minimum of rehearsal or blocking. The best (or worst) thing you could say about the movie is that it was made. Shooting was rushed, only for the footage to sit dormant for months before editing began.

I spent weeks editing a rough cut, bottle of whisky not far from my grasp. I was thrilled to see the scenes come together, painstakingly trying to salvage a good take here or a moment where the camera didn’t shake or lose focus. “This is going to be great!” I said from editing station, though such enthusiasm was relegated to personal bias…and the whiskey.  

Other than issues with lighting, cinematography, sound, directing, special effects, editing, and plot, “The Invited” is borderline watchable. Unfortunately, it’s also a boring film, which is the greatest sin of all. We were learning as we went along, and it shows. Here are some takeaways:

  • Planning is crucial
  • Have a realistic shooting schedule
  • Factor time for staging, lighting, rehearsal & blocking
  • Hire a script supervisor
  • View filming in progress
  • Review footage between scenes
  • Watch the weather forecast
  • Plan for the worst
  • Keep everyone fed
  • Hire clowns to keep things “light” on set
  • Stomp around like a madman
  • Study story structure from Tom Cruise’s 1986 Cocktail
  • Take cast & crew to vacation in Bahamas

You’ve heard about the speed of light and sound. The speed of time while shooting is even faster, from the minute you start. We shot The Invited all day and night as quality waned. If something doesn’t look right while filming, then it probably doesn’t look right on screen.  The camera can’t hide everything. I was completely reliant on our Director of Photography (DP) and his expertise on framing shots and which lenses to use. By the time we finally reviewed the footage, due to months of delay in getting it properly formatting, I was flabbergasted to find focus issues, jerky angles, and certain shots we had completely forgotten to get. I assume the DP did the best he could given the chaotic shoot. We had pushed him hard. By the end of the shoot, I don’t think he cared, and neither did I.

Preparing for bar scene shoot at The Lodge, Orlando, FL

I knew what I wanted. It was supposed to be an atmospheric, creepy little movie about a pagan cult who lured unsuspecting kids to their doom through the guise of friendship and popularity. The cult was made up of a wealthy outcast named Demetri and his followers who shared a remote mansion together. Every so often, a new member must pledge loyalty to the cult by luring in an outsider, gaining their trust,  and then sacrificing them in a nightly ritual. Curtis had been selected randomly by Sandy, a cult member to be their sacrifice. But nothing says, “pagan cult ritual” like a circle of goons in cheap cloaks and halloween animal masks. 

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