Tina Illman may be the producer and star of the horror film Reeker, but she wasn't necessarily a fan of the genre to start with. "I watched horror films when I was younger, I think because I wasn't allowed to," she says. But when she and her husband, writer-director Dave Payne, set out to make the terrifying new thriller, she found herself digging up every horror film she could find. "Our Netflix list was hysterical," she recalls. "And we learned there's definitely a formula involved."
Elements of Reeker, which had its world premiere at an oversold midnight screening at the SXSW Film Festival, may seem familiar: There's the car of horny college kids, an abandoned motel where they find themselves stranded for the night, and a mysterious creature hunting each one down. But there's also an unexpected vein of humor, genuinely shocking moments, and a killer villain called The Reeker, a hooded figure with deadly appendages who finds creative ways to off his victims.
At the center of the madness, on and off the screen, is Illman. A petite actor with a South African accent, Illman trained for three years at the Drama Center in London, which makes her distinctly overqualified to run screaming around the desert while a monster chases her. Reeker marks her first starring role in a film, and it was also her first time tackling the production end. "I'd produced a short film years and years ago [that] I'm not proud of," she says, laughing. "It was a great learning curve, though, and Reeker was also an incredible learning curve, because Dave and I did so much. We had to; when you're making an indie movie you have to cut costs."
Payne had already accumulated credits as a writer-director with films such as Just Can't Get Enough and Criminal Hearts, but he was looking for the opportunity to make a film with creative control that carried his own mark. Meanwhile, Illman was interested in the producing side. "I said, 'What do we need?'" she recalls. "We needed to raise money. So we put together a business plan, and Dave wrote the script. We decided on a horror film, just because we didn't want to make one of the independent movies that sort of disappears. We wanted to make something commercial and sellable and fun and entertaining." Adds Payne, "My favorite horror films have always been scary, funny, and smart. So basically I set out to frighten the pants off people, make them laugh, and give them a story thick enough to chew on but easy enough to swallow."
The filmmakers were able to raise the money through private equity from two investors, with whom Illman says she was very frank about the risks involved. "We had a comprehensive business plan, and I was very honest about the unpredictability of the movie industry," she says. "I said to them, 'If you can't lose it, I can't take it, so be very sure.'" Apparently, they were sure. She says, "We got the money, and we celebrated for about five minutes, then went, 'Oh, f*ck, now we have to make the movie.'"
Fortunately for the filmmakers, Payne already had a reliable crew he had worked with before, including director of photography Mike Mickens, who had worked on five previous films with him. "No one worked for free; everyone got paid," says Illman. "But everyone worked above and beyond [what] they were worth." The film was shot on 35mm using Arriflex cameras rented from Clairmont Camera and lighting equipment rented from The Leonetti Company over the course of 30 days in Lancaster, Calif. The filmmakers shot the daytime scenes first, then shot the nighttime scenes that make up the majority of the movie. "We were all living like vampires, waking up at 2 p.m. and shooting until 6 in the morning," she says. "It could be a tough shoot. We were in the middle of the desert in winter at night, and it was 9 degrees out while we stood on the top of an RV that's turned to ice. The big direction on the film was, 'Don't act cold.' You could see condensation coming out of our mouths, and Dave would say, 'Chew on some ice!'"
Another challenge Illman encountered was balancing her acting job with producing responsibilities. "I think the producing kind of took over a little more than you want it to," she admits. "I'm writing checks and asking what happened to the generator, then have to act three seconds later. It was tricky." Fortunately she was playing a character Payne had tailor-made for her. "Thank God he did, because producing and acting was quite a task, so I convinced myself, 'Well, she's uptight and South African, so no acting required.' It's me."
She also offers high praise to her co-stars, who include character actor Michael Ironside in a supporting role. "I think so many projects can be broken by the egos involved," she says. "We were blessed with a great crew and awesome actors who made our lives blissful." She credits casting director Jamie Sparer Roberts with filling out the cast and suggesting that they offer Ironside, who didn't audition, a role. The casting sessions were one area in which Illman felt her actor and producer responsibilities might conflict, so she opted not to sit in on them. "I didn't want there to be some weird rift between producer and actor," she explains. "I saw tapes and I weighed in, but I really deferred to Dave and Jamie." Payne, for one, has nothing but praise for his producer and leading lady. "Becoming a producer was a natural progression for her career," he says. "Often when you're directing, you feel like you're alone on the set, the only one fighting the good fight. Tina manages to create the space for me to get more creative stuff done by keeping the outside forces at bay."
Cold locations in the Antelope Valley aside, the shoot ran relatively smoothly, and Payne proposed when the film wrapped. "We got married between principal photography and locking picture," says Illman. "I think he thought, if we can make a movie together and not kill each other, it was a good sign."
Reeker was shot on a 35mm film stock called three-perf, which means there are only three perforations in the film instead of the typical four. Because of this, filmmakers can fit more images on less film and save approximately 20 percent on film stock. One disadvantage is that projectors aren't equipped for three-perf, so the film is laid onto four-perf film when the negative is made. This was one of many new factoids Illman had to learn as Reeker was made. "You kind of learn it as you go on, and that's the best way to learn it, because the deadlines are very real, and the demands aren't theoretical or hypothetical," she says. "You just have to learn them."
To edit the film and complete the more than 360 special effects shots, the filmmakers founded a special effects company called Studio K, based out of Burbank. The film was cut on Macintosh computers using Final Cut Pro, and the HD transfer was done by Encore Video in Hollywood. It was completed in time, to a rousing audience reception at SXSW, where a varied audience was in attendance. Although the demographic tended to skew to young horror fans, there was a broader appeal than one might expect. "There were five women from Washington State in their late 40s or early 50s who saw it," Illman says. "They were big fans, and they came again."
While Reeker makes the festival circuit—it's scheduled at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York this month—Illman and Payne are considering future projects. "Reeker's probably going to dictate some stuff for us," she says. "There's a few different avenues we can go down." And she doesn't rule out producing again, though preferably not on a project she's also appearing in. "I was quite surprised by how much I loved the producing side of it," she says, adding that maybe she's always had a knack for the job. "I had an agent in South Africa who told me I was too bossy to be an actor, that I should be a producer." BSW
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