Oh the horror!

Back in the summer of 2018 as I was running through the trails of the Staten Island Greenbelt, it dawned on me that this would be a great place to film a horror film. I began to imagine a homicidal maniac doing some very bad things to teenagers, then one of the teens escapes and runs for her life with the maniac in close pursuit. After I finished my run, I went back to a specific area that would be a great location to film. It was a babbling stream along a secluded riverbank. I took out my cell phone and began filming how the scene would play out. While filming, I walked through the entire route of the scene from beginning to end. I imagined the actors starting at the river bank, then running through the woods and up a series of hills to really give the film a sense of dread.

After being inspired by that experience, I planned to film a horror short and enter it into the Single Take Film Challenge. With this particular challenge, entrants must film a scene from beginning to end in a single take without any video editing involved. As I continued to brainstorm the scene, I decided that I wanted the “survivor” to eventually outrun the killer, or at least make my audience believe that. I wanted to end the scene with the survivor coming face-to-face with the killer in a shocking way to catch the audience off guard.

In order to achieve this, I had my friend Anthony Marazano volunteer his car. At a specific point, the actor playing the killer would secretly veer off of trail and head straight for the road. He would then jump into the car and Anthony would drive him to the spot where the final action would take place with the killer suddenly becoming face-to-face with the teen survivor. This would shock the audience when they see that the survivor really did not outrun the killer after all.

As a background actor who has been in well over 150 film and TV productions, I have made friends with many actors. Seeing his profile photos on Facebook, I chose my friend Michael Lewis Smith to portray the killer. Michael is a handsome devil when he smiles for a photo, but when he doesn’t, he has that cold killer look. My daughter Emma, a teenager at the time, was going to portray the survivor and her friend Julia was going to portray the victim who gets axed to death by the killer.

The night before the shoot, I find out that Julia could make it to the shoot. I quickly scrambled to find a replacement. Fortunately, my daughter’s other friend, Andriana, was available. I told Andriana that she was going to get killed in the scene. It would involve fake blood dripping down her face while she lay on the ground in the woods. She was okay with that.

One important special effect that was required for this scene to really have an impact on the audience was to have fake blood shoot up onto the killer as he axed his victim. I had no idea how to do this, so I went to a New York City Filmmaker’s group on Facebook and asked how one would shoot blood up toward the sky. Filling a toy water plunger with fake blood was the answer. I had my friend Anthony Martinez be in charge of that. He would hide behind me as I filmed the scene, then just as the killer whacked his axe into the victim’s body, Anthony would shoot a load of fake blood up towards Michael’s (the killer’s) face. Anthony would immediately shoot another load of fake blood onto the face of the victim to show in the most graphic way that she was dead. Once my camera focused on the killer, it would pan down to the victim’s bloodied face for full impact.

I had an old broken backpack to be used as a prop. The backpack was placed on the bank of the stream as a portent to show that something bad was about to happen. I filmed the scene using my cell phone camera attached to a clip with a single handle that made it easy for me to hold as I followed the action through the woods and up the hills. Since I had no steadicam, I used my own body as the steadicam, something that was not easy to do on irregular terrain. I began filming the scene by literally walking through the stream. The scene continues onto the bank, then you see the broken backpack. A few beats after that, you see my daughter tied up to a large tree. She is trying to break free and escape, but is unable to. The camera turns 180 degrees to reveal the killer dragging his unconscious victim to bank of the stream. He drops her body to the ground, picks up the axe, then whacks her body. Blood goes everywhere. The camera turns back towards my daughter. She witnesses this violent murder and this time tries even harder to escape. She gets out of the ropes and begins to run for her life. The killer turns around from his kill and begins to chase after my daughter. After running through the woods for a good two minutes, she comes to a quiet road and thinks that she finally outran him. Slowly turning around, she finds herself face-to-face with the killer. He slowly approaches her, then the camera pans to a tree with a “Missing” sign on it.

For those who love to see the process of making a film, below is the unedited footage of the entire 6-minute scene. Following that is the finished film.

The Lovely Woods (unedited)

We filmed the above sequence in three takes. I did not want to go beyond three takes because each take was six minutes long and required my daughter to do a lot of running. I got the footage that I wanted, but now it was time for post-production work.

Once I had the footage we needed for the day, I went home and uploaded the raw footage into my desktop computer. I used iMovie as my editing software. This film short now desperately needed both a soundtrack and sound effects to really make it pop. I decided to title it The Lovely Woods and start the footage slowly moving up the stream with peaceful music to really throw the audience off guard once the violence began. I found a website that offered free sound effects and music. I had to listen to many different effects to find those that would be most appropriate for the scene.

Since I filmed the footage on a clear and sunny day, I decided to darken the film to make it feel more menacing to the viewer. Finally, I added ending credits to give all of those involved the credit they deserved for helping me make it. I found an upbeat, but macabre song to play during the ending credits and was able to get permission from the artist for me to use it in my film. Without his permission, I would not have been able to include it due to the rules of the competition.

After I had submitted it, my film eventually became a semi-finalist in the competition. This was a great surprise to me and is a great motivation for me to want to make more films in the future.

Here it is in its finished form:

The Lovely Woods (final version)

Even though the film is far from perfect, it was a great experience for me and the crew of volunteers who helped make it a reality. I want to thank Anthony Maranzano, Giovanni Maranzano, Yolande Rose, Emma Pesin, Andriana Strontsitska, Michael Lewis Smith, Anthony Martinez, and Jacky Lee. I’d also like to thank musician Harley Poe for giving me permission to use his song in the film.

Post-production shot of (from left) Anthony and Giovanni Maranzano, Yolande Rose, Emma Pesin, Andriana Strontsitska, Myself, Michael Lewis Smith, and Anthony Martinez (Jacky Lee not pictured). With the amazing Staten Island Greenbelt behind us.

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