Many a writer has dreamed of taking up the director’s reins, and shooting their script themselves (or a worthy script that’s caught their eye.) As with many ventures, that’s a task easier said than done. And those that accomplish such a thing? Our collective hats are off to them. Taking a script all the way? That’s impressive, on so many levels. So we invite you now to sit back, read… and learn.
Following, you’ll find an interview with screenwriter Pia Cook, director of the short film “Them That’s Dead“ and writer of feature films “Finders Keepers: The Root of All Evil” and “Blackout“. Pia was born and raised in Sweden. She moved to United States in 1984. She lives with her husband in Florida where they own and operate a small manufacturing business. She started writing screenplays in 2006 and has written over sixty short screenplays and ten features. In the summer of 2012, she directed and produced her first short film, “Them That’s Dead”.
“Them That’s Dead”, which was written by Robert Newcomer, is about three thieves who are in search of lost treasure that was hidden by a dead pirate, Shark Tooth O’Shea. It was written as part of SimplyScripts’ February 2011 One Week Challenge, in which writers have one week to complete a 12-or-less page low-budget horror film with the theme of British or Celtic mythology.
Interviewer Sean Chipman: How did you choose “Them That’s Dead” as a script you wanted to film?
Pia Cook: I loved the script. It was part of a OWC where a director of shorts chose the subject. He picked another winner, but I thought TTD should’ve won.
I went to St. Augustine with my husband over Labor Day weekend in 2011. While we were at the fort, it hit me that I could maybe film TTD there.
SC: What was it that drew you to the script so much?
PC: Everything. The atmosphere. The dialogue. The characters. The twist or reveal.
SC: Let’s talk about your production experience. What different kinds of roles did you take on behind the scenes?
PC: I was involved with everything. I planned it. Cast it. Hired the DP. Storyboarded it. Directed it. Did some of the early editing. Basically everything. That’s not to say others didn’t help out. I’m a newbie and need all the help I can get.
SC: That’s okay. I understand. [Laughs] During the casting process, what were you looking for in your actors that made you choose them?
PC: Well, first of all, where I live in Gainesville, FL, there isn’t a large group of actors to chose from. I looked at some actors from Jacksonville and down towards St. Augustine and found some really promising ones, but I soon decided that it would be better if they lived in Gainesville for rehearsals sake since St. Auggie and Jax are almost two hours away. Robert Newcomer, the writer, did such a great job with the characters, but I had to make alterations to them just because I simply didn’t have a large pool of actors to chose from. In the end, I think they [Micah Blakeslee, Pete Roe and L’Tanya Van Hamersveld] all worked out great.
SC: I agree. They were all really terrific. But, I understand you had some technical difficulties as well…
PC: Yes, we did. All thanks to me being too optimistic and not knowing any better. Turns out this was a VERY ambitious project for someone with limited experience like myself. I’ve read thousands of scripts by now and a LOT of them take place at night and outdoors. That’s cool. I like that myself, but it makes the shoot so much more difficult and more expensive. I’m talking about outdoor shoots now. The first half of the film is shot at Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine. It’s a gorgeous beach with not many people. Perfect for our project. We rented extra lights, but in a setting like that, you really need HUGE lights. Like big stadium lights. If not, the background just sort of disappears. Someone told me that I could just as well have shot the beach scenes at a beach volleyball court at UF. So, that’s something to keep in mind when you write scenes that take place at night outdoors. You need big lights. Big lights cost money! Anyway, as a result, we ended up with some horrendous low light grain issues. I almost scrapped the film due to that.
We also had some issues with the audio at the beach. I used excellent mics, but the sound of the ocean waves were just too loud. Not only were they loud, but instead of sounding like nice little ocean waves, they were a constant crashing roar. The first time I checked our footage I honestly thought we would have to redo all the audio in post.
SC: But you wouldn’t be discouraged. You kept fighting. How did you do that? You know, it’s not looking good, but you keep going. What was it that kept you going?
PC: Well, I was disappointed when I first looked at the footage, but I felt I needed to finish it for the others who were involved. It was an extremely grueling weekend shoot away from home and shot during the nights. We were all really really tired physically and mentally. It just didn’t feel right to scrap it. Regardless of the quality. So, I started searching for fixes in post instead. Ha! We’ve all heard the phrase “fix it in post”. Well, everything isn’t fixable in post, but it can certainly be improved.
SC: [Laughs] I can just imagine. But, of course, it still looked pretty damn good once the final product was released.
And, obviously, the whole shoot wasn’t just doom and gloom. Did you have any personal highlights from the shoot? Any favorite moments of production?
PC: I think if anything, the biggest highlight for me was how everyone gave this everything they had. Despite the conditions and circumstance, everyone really gave it their all. No one complained, grumbled or anything. That to me was probably the coolest thing. I felt we really were in this together and we were going to see it through together.
SC: And, you mostly certainly did. Of course, after the trials put forth by “Them That’s Dead”, can we expect any films in the future from director Pia Cook?
PC: Maybe, but it probably will be something filmed in a controlled environment. Like someone’s house or apartment. It won’t be at a beach at night nor will it be at a National Monument with Federal Rangers looking over our shoulders.
SC: Not feeling that kind of close-range monitoring [from the Rangers] on your next film?
PC: They did their job which was making sure we didn’t hurt the fort. They were very nice though and gave us Gatorades when we looked like we were about to die of heat exhaustion. Remember, we shot this in July. Florida in July is very hot and humid.
SC: That does sound incredibly nice of them and Florida summers, I’ve never experienced them myself but I’ve heard the stories.
PC: Well, the thing was that you’re not allowed to bring food or drinks into the fort because of rats. Yes, rats! Huge ones. And they were everywhere! That was the reason our table with food and drinks was set up outside the fort so those Gatorades were lifesavers.
SC: Oh, man. There were rats, too?
SC: It’s a miracle that the film was even completed, let alone made as well as it was. I think that’s a tribute to you as a director.
PC: Well, it made me feel happy when they said they would love to work with me again.
SC: Let’s talk about the future. Any word on some upcoming scripts you’re working on?
PC: Don’t have much to say about future scripts. I don’t like mentioning them unless it looks like they will be completed. I’ve had too many films that never really made it to the end. It’s a common thing in the film business, I think. I’d rather wait until I know for sure.
I have a couple of shorts, The End, doing the festivals in Europe right now and another one, A Mime Is A Terrible Thing To Waste, about to hit the festivals as well. And I’m working with a Canadian filmmaker to get Covert Careers made.
SC: All right, thank you very much for your time and I wish you the very best of luck in the future.
PC: Thank you Sean!
Want more? Catch the short on Vimeo here!