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Bob Doto [Film Festival 01.20.09] movie interview horror

On a freezing Wednesday night in New York City I had the pleasure of speaking with the creative team behind the upcoming and improvised claustrophobic subway thriller SUBHYSTERIA (see here for teaser and further details). In a tiny editing room I met with Leonard Zelig (Director), Javier Perez-Karam (Producer), Robert Alcazar (Executive Producer), and Gustavo Bernal (Editor) and talked with them about everything from finding permits to film inside a subway car in a post-911 NYC, guerrilla filmmaking, and the pros and cons of not telling your cast anything concerning what they are about to be acting in.

Jumping right in…

R: One of the actors in the cast is an Indian guy whom we cast because he worked perfectly for what we were doing. He was a good actor, you know. So at some point I ask, “What else do you do?” and he says, “Oh, well I’m a fashion model.” I think “Oh OK.” It turns out he’s one of the most famous fashion models in India! Thousands of people know him!

L: Yeah. After we posted the trailer, all of a sudden we get a Youtube award for being the number one most watched film this week in India. (Laughter)

R: So India is a place we really want to get to. (Laughter)

J: But in all honesty we have actors from all over the world. We have actors from Korea and Canada. We have actors from Jamaica and Nigeria. It’s a very international cast.

QE: Like your average subway ride in New York.

J: Exactly.

QE: How did you even get access to a subway car?

R: There’s this fire department training facility on Randall’s Island where they have a whole city with cars and buses. In one warehouse they have a mini subway station. It’s a replica of a regular subway station, but the cars are more or less stationary. Of course MTA didn’t even pay attention when we approached them.

QE: Did you approach them first?

J: Yeah, but renting a subway car from the city costs, like, millions of dollars a week. It’s ridiculous, because you have to pay not only the subway, and all the legal stuff, but you have to pay the people who are going to be there. People that aren’t even your crew. There’s all this insurance stuff. Legal crap.

L: One of the biggest chunks of our budget went to renting that facility.

R: But, for such a small budget movie we made sure to treat it like a Hollywood production. Like, “We’ll do product placement!” So we found brands that we could put all over the car. The ones that were already there we just vandalized them, because we didn’t have the rights. But on our end we got Casio, a brand of wine, a clothing line. Chamber of Commerce. Out of two thousand calls, we got eight back. We called Doctor Z. You know him?

QE: Yeah I’ve know Dr. Zizmore since I was a kid.

R: Yeah well we called him and he never returned the call. I was planning to make a fake Dr. Z ad, but it didn’t work. We called for Immigrant Lawyers. You know those ads? They were like “What are you nuts? I have to pay you?”

QE: Ultimately the train was stationary. How did you get the train to move as if it was actually running?

L: We basically put some wood underneath and then jumped on it. Then the whole car does this dum dum dum [moves his hands as if the subways car were rocking back and forth].

QE: So that leads me into the next question. You’ve mentioned guerilla film-making on your website. Is there anything you could say about that in general and how it relates to this project in particular? You paid to use the facility?

L: Yes. We paid for the permit [to use the facility] because it was the only way to do it. But, this is a guerilla filmmaking film by heart. We had a really skeleton crew. More actors than crew. Everyone in the crew had to do so many things. The credits are going to be really funny, because everyone will have done so much. Also, the budget was small, and we had many time constraints. We didn’t have enough money to pay for the location for more days. We had only one make-up person for 16 people! But, at the same time we wanted to gear the project like a Hollywood movie. We were trying to translate the theme of this small project into something bigger. Little by little we are doing it. The movie is not the whole thing. There’s a graphic novel coming.

J: We’re trying to create a franchise. This film leads to a lot of exploitation of other markets.

QE: The actors and actresses improvised their roles. I’m guessing you had a skeleton you worked from. Points you needed to hit?

L: There are different ways to improvise a film. You have the Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies) approach. He goes to a theater. He improvises a film in a theater. He then writes down the results. Then he shoots the movie. Others have an outline and are very strict with that outline where you only improvise the dialogue. In our case we said “Ok let’s make the outline of the film.” We almost got it. However, there was one particular time when the actors did something totally unexpected and that was the moment that we said, “Ok we are screwed,” because we need something to happen and if that doesn’t happen the ending is going to be catastrophic. That night we went back to Javier’s place at 1am and brainstormed from 1am until 5am in order to come up with an idea of how to make the ending work. And in the end it worked. I remember Javier in the last day when we had only fifteen minutes to shoot. Javier was like, “Man you have to tell them what to do because if we don’t have a movie we are f*cked.”

J: Different to the previously mentioned methods of improvisation, “Leorand Zelig’s method” is very organic. He tells each actor about their character without telling them what the rest of the characters are. And the outline we had, the actors did not have access to. So he would throw them in the train. Then he would go “Ok guys brainstorm this scene. This, this, and this all need to happen. Whatever it takes for you to make it happen…that’s your own business.” You know it’s a beautiful method. It brought out a lot of real emotions, but there’s the possibility of losing control of certain things. If you have time constraints…for me as a producer…that can be painful. But for the end result of the movie it was beautiful.

R: That’s a credit to Leonard’s background in theater. We rehearsed with the actors for ten days, not about the movie, but in order for Leonard to see how they would react to each other. Who wants to be the main star? Etc. Every day they did a different set of characters. After ten days, two days before the shoot, Leonard told them person-by-person who they were and they were not allowed to talk to anyone else. We actually almost lost one of the headliners because she was so stressed about not knowing what the movie was about.

L: She didn’t know if she was going to be in the subway car with a rapist or killer and didn’t know how she would react.

J: It’s just not normal for actors to jump into a project not knowing what they came for. She wanted to know how far we were expecting her to go. Even though we had a relationship with this actress from other projects it’s still stressful as an actor when doing the emotions. To go out there and not really know what you’re going to confront. So two days before the shoot we almost lost her.

L: I basically said, “Trust me. There’s not going to be any harm.” And then, she trusted me. She was happy after the film. In those fifteen minutes I was so stressed out. I was feeling the pressure from Javier, the actors, the crew. Who knows how it happened, but it happened.

QE: Do you have any idea when the film will see the light of day?

J: April is the projected day for the release though that’s not confirmed. Final cut should be ready by third week of February.

QE: I always feel weird asking about other projects when talking with people who are so in the thick of finishing up a current project. Anyway, what’s coming up for you?

L: [picks up a stuffed three-ring binder] Our next project is a film called “Secrets.” We’re going to start shooting that on May 4th. And this thing we have here [points to binder] is a portfolio for the next six years. We have features. We have documentaries. We have TV series. This is what Roberto is trying to sell this year. Yes, we have our life planned out.

QE: Can you tell me more about “Secrets”

L: “Secrets” is scripted, not guerilla but indie, coming in under a million dollars. It’s pretty much the story, ugh Roberto tells this better than me. It’s pretty much the story of four different couples living in NYC. It’s fully charged with a little bit of poetry. There is this beggar who is the link between everyone. When he sees a person instead of asking for money he throws a quote, sometimes hitting the core of that person. It takes place in 24 hours. It’s about relationships.

J: About relationships, communications, and trust. It has a very multi-cultural cast as well. North Americans, Hispanics, Brazillians. The website is

L: Actually, we were in the process of doing “Secrets” last summer, but ran into some financial problems. And this is what I love about improv films. We started talking about doing SubHysteria on August 26th. By November 16th the film was in the hard drive.

J: That’s when we came up with the idea. In not even six months we’re already editing.

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Leonard Zelig (13 years ago) Reply

Thanks for the interview Quiet Earth.

This is Leonard Zelig, director of subHysteria, we will be checking this post daily, so if any of you readers have some question about the movie or the process, please let us know...


Hot Fuzz (13 years ago) Reply

When I first read about the film it sounded like an intimate thriller but does the fact that there is a graphic novel coming out and that there is maybe even sequels in the works mean that the story of Subhysteria is actually a lot bigger than just what happens in the subway car? Is there something we're being told about the story?


Leonard Zelig (13 years ago) Reply

Hi Hot Fuzz, this is the deal, subHysteria is the story of just one subway car out of 10, you're right this is a intimate psycho-thriller, the story gets interesting when you start imaging the possibilities...


Hot Fuzz (13 years ago) Reply

Ahh ok. Curiouser and curiouser... thanks Len.


luisa vargas (13 years ago) Reply

Estoy desesperada por ver ya la pelicula la gente en Republica Dominicana esta enterada de esta chuleria que seria genial verla aqui.


Bob Doto (13 years ago) Reply

I'm excited for the Dominican Republic to see the film too!


Claudia Cortez (13 years ago) Reply

Donde y cuando la estrenan... Oye si que son buenos y talentosos... Ojalan vayan a Cannes


Anonymous (13 years ago) Reply

more footage please!


Leonard Zelig (13 years ago) Reply

Para Claudia: La idea es estrenarlo en cines, a nivel mundial, entre Junio y Agosto de 2009.

To Anonymous: We're planning a viral campaign with over 20 short videos about the characters and the method, so stay tune that a lot of footage is coming your way.


Manita (13 years ago) Reply

Estoy orgullosisima de este proyecto! He visto los trailers y ando super emocionada! Espero poder verla aqui en PR, si no me voy a NY a visitar y celebrar el estreno full!!! Felicidades crew! Todo lo mejor para ustedes! Besos para Nano y para todos!!!

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