An interview with Dominic Saxl, the creator of Deathcember
An interview with Dominic Saxl, the creator of Deathcember
After the success of its Halloween Horror Nights, Grimmfest is about to present Xmas Horror Nights, two nights of feature films and shorts. I’ve been given the opportunity to talk to some of the people behind these films, and the first of those is Dominic Saxl. He, along with two friends, has produced Deathcember, an anthology of micro-short horror films following the advent calendar theme. The idea was his too, and he directed one of the shorts.
After brief small talk about the weather and Saint Nicholas, a tradition which I’d not come across until watching Sint a couple of years ago, we went straight into the interesting structure of Deathcember. “Originally, we ordered twenty-seven films at the beginning, to make sure we ended up with twenty-four, in case someone dropped out. And that actually happened: we had Chelsea Stardust lined up to direct a short, an amazing one, a Christmas take on Fight Club, actually. It was one of my favorite scripts. But then she had to finish off two feature-length films at once – one for Hulu and the other was Satanic Panic – so she couldn’t make it. Then we got in Alyosha Saari for another fallback option, and he made Ring My Bell, so we ended up with twenty-seven fine little films. We decided that it was a little too much and cut it down to twenty-six, to include Boxing Day, and did a Marvel: one in the mid-credits and one post-credit segment”.
I confessed I’d accidentally fast-forwarded through the mid-credits one at first. “That’s understandable: it’s a long credits sequence! I mean if you look at Isaac Ezban’s film, it’s only a few minutes long, but there were a hundred people involved in making it. And with twenty-six of them, it takes a while. Ring My Bell isn’t in there now, it’s a short that we use for promo purposes. And at some point, there was a different version for festivals. The world premiere turned out to be at San Sebastian, then we got feedback from other festivals that it was way too long to be programmed in one slot, so we made a version with two separate features, one 77 and one 75 minutes long, and they can show them over two nights if they want.
“You’ve seen the fully integrated version, which has my piece at the start. I’m not entirely happy with it, I mean I love the story, but don’t love the way it looks in the end: it’s at the start simply because it introduces the advent calendar. The festival version opened with a big name and a lot of splatter, Pollyanna Macintosh; and in that version, Ring My Bell is at the end of volume one, and They Used To Laugh and Call Him Names is at the end of volume two. So the festival version has twenty-seven shorts, and we left it up to the festivals which version they showed: half of them said we’ll show the 145-minute version and the rest decided to show it in two halves. The US version decided not to include A Crappy Christmas, so instead, the US one has They Used To Laugh and Call Him Names instead of the claymation one, and instead of that post-credit one, they have Ring My Bell.” So Grimmfest will be showing the preferred version for its UK premiere.
I asked Dominic Saxl how he gathered all the contributions: did he invite certain directors and writers to come up with something or was he simply open to submissions? “It was a mix of approaches actually. I first had the idea in 2016 and talked to my friend Ivo [Ivo Scheloske], who’s been in film distribution for many years and he said, “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea.” But we realized the budget we could muster ourselves wouldn’t be enough, we’d need to get funding. We have a third partner, Frank [Frank Vogt], who has his own post-production facility and he’s already brought a dozen films through German funding processes. Ivo was in touch with quite a few filmmakers from his career, and I knew some directors through my writing with a film magazine, so we knew a few to simply ask if they were interested. There were a number of different occasions, for example, we met Trent Haaga in 2017 at a German film festival, and he was one of the first to be definitely included. We met Bob Pipe and John Lynch at a German short film festival and we had a night out and talked about our idea, and they were into it. So the number of directors who were interested rose, and we even got a few to write letters of intent, we got a few treatments from directors and then we went to the funding board. They said, “Yeah, it’s a great idea, we won’t fund it.” They said we need to go into more detail, treatments and letters of intent weren’t enough: they needed at least ten fully-fledged scripts. They invited us to try again, which was a rare thing: usually, if they say “you’re out” then you’re out. So we changed tack and had to talk to directors about writing scripts without certainty that it would even be made. Thankfully, most of them were. We’re particularly thankful to Chelsea Stardust, who put us in touch with most of the American directors; and we got a few more directors in Sitges 2018, after we got the green light, we met Isaac Ezban there, Lazar Bodroza and Sadrac González-Perellón and a few more, because we saw their most recent features and said to ourselves we must get these guys on board. They were totally up for it, so we went home, sent them contracts; and the month after, production started, so by the end of November, we had the first two finished films, from the Spanish directors. We got some bigger names, like Ruggero, Pollyanna, and Lucky McKee through Yazid Benfeghoul, who was one of the producers on Sky Sharks and editor for Deadline magazine, which I write for. We had ten more directors than we had space for, also a few who were interested but couldn’t, such as RKSS from Canada, and the guys behind Synchronic. Maybe if there’s a second part, these people will be in. We gave these people all a budget and a brief of two to five minutes, some went slightly over, and we told them to finish by end of March 2019, which most of them managed.
“The world premiere was set to be in Dublin, at the Horrorthon, and fifteen minutes before our screening, there was a power outage and the cinema had to be evacuated. But then two weeks later, we were in San Sebastian, it was Halloween and a fantastic atmosphere.”
I asked Dominic about the Kickstarter; was each segment funded individually? “No, actually when we started the Kickstarter, we knew that we already had the funding from the funding board and we had our own personal money and a few private investors, so we would have been able to produce the film without the Kickstarter. But we wouldn’t have been able to get good animation, and also it helped get the film out there, with dedicated fans to get the word out. It was a wild ride, though: we started the Kickstarter campaign on December first and we wanted it to be like an advent calendar, with a new director revealed each day, but Kickstarter isn’t really made for such an approach, and some names hadn’t quite been confirmed when we started. It was interesting, and I hardly slept at that time.”
Dominic had sent me a press pack in advance of this interview and confidently said it would answer all my questions, but I still knew little about him. “I’ve been a horror fan forever. My parents were divorced when I was a little kid and every second weekend, I went to my father’s, and you know the kind of situation: he tried to show off his money and always took me to the cinema. One of the first films I saw there was Piranha 2, and I got hooked. One of the first bloody films I saw was a pirate copy of Evil Dead, which was strictly forbidden in Germany until about three years ago. I’ve built a big film collection over the years and studied film theory at university. I started to work in advertising: that’s my day job, writing commercials. So I’m well used to writing short films that come easily to the point, but the job isn’t fulfilling. So I write about films on the side, because I love that, and I love telling people what I think. So with my job in advertising, it was only natural I did all the campaigns and marketing for Deathcember. I’ve started writing scripts more recently and I’m definitely more into the writing than making a film look good.”
I suggested that as a lifelong horror fan, it must have been a dream come true to gather all these terrific talents and put together Deathcember. “Oh totally. I still find it surreal, still in awe for people like Lucky McKee and Trent Haaga, talking to these people, discovering what nice guys they are, and getting to know them. We’ve been in close contact with most of the directors, except for the Korean director (who doesn’t speak English, so we communicate via his British producer) and a couple of others. It’s really like family, we talk and email a lot, and have seen quite a few in person. It’s been amazing.”
I liked the variety, especially the range of cultures represented in Deathcember, which seemed to justify the length of the film, though there was only one Asian film. “I know, we did try to get a film from Japan, the guy who made One Cut of the Dead, but it’s really hard to communicate at times. We did try via this Japanese film festival in Frankfurt, but there’s scope for more another time. We’re hoping for one from Australia next time, and maybe even one from Africa.”
I didn’t want to be so crass as to ask Dominic’s favorite Deathcember segment, but asked instead for his favorite Christmas horror? His DVD collection was right next to him and apparently, he has a whole section for Christmas horror. The original Black Christmas is a clear favorite (“did you know the meaning of the German title is Jessy staircase into Hell?”), though he’s not yet got to the latest remake. Spilling DVDs from their shelves, he reached for another love: Silent Night, Deadly Night: “I’ve just got the new British edition. It’s got everything I love about Christmas horror, but also everything we didn’t want in Deathcember. A Santa with an ax in the snow has been done so much before. We did talk to the directors about what not to do, but apart from that, they were free to do what they wanted. I mean in a few cases, we talked to them and gave them feedback, like their idea was close to another film we already have. And Sam Wineman offered two different scripts, and BJ [B.J. Colangelo] and Zach [R. Zachary Shildwachter] offered us like five different treatments so we could pick what we liked best.”
I asked also about Dominic’s favorite anthology film, and of course… “The ABCs of Death, that’s no secret, it’s been a huge influence. I like the second part more actually, and having interviewed Ant Timpson last year, he told me that they had refined their process of finding better scripts when they did part two, so that was kind of inevitable. When I first saw it, I was blown away, it felt so fresh and unique. I wanted to combine anthology and Christmas horror into one, so that’s what we did. I love V/H/S too actually, but that took a little time to grow on me, it hurt my head and my eyes at first in the cinema. Oh and Tales of Halloween is another I love. I love many anthologies: I’m a guy who rarely switches off a film before it’s finished, and in an anthology, the segments are never that long so you can never get bored.” More swapping tips: I recommended Dark Stories and he recommended Scare Package to me.
Deathcember has achieved four awards in its festival circuit so far. We talked briefly about the impact of COVID-19 on festivals and Dominic was thankful that the film had been finished last year, so had visited several events before the pandemic arrived. There are still a few more to come, including Panama, Razor Reel in Bruges, and one in Hollywood. His head is understandably spinning, but I had to ask what’s next. “We really want to do a sequel, that’s no secret. But this one cost us a lot of energy and right now, we feel that we need to lay back and relax a little. We’re just three guys who do this in our spare time. With all the different timezones, you have to work around the clock. I love it, but it takes a toll. Then, we need to make some money back, and we still need to pay some people back. Hopefully, by then, the pandemic will be under control, so indie filmmaking will be a bit easier. Once that happens, I’d love to do a second part. We already have some interesting names who want to be a part of it. It will be slightly different, maybe with twelve longer pieces… I’ll tell you a bit more next time. Maybe summer next year.”
The UK premiere of Deathcember will be included in Grimmfest’s Xmas Horror Nights event on 12 December 2020, and is already available on VOD in the USA.
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