Last Rites, a cross-genre film of zombie horror and gangster action thriller set in Los Angeles, might not have seen the light of day. But fortunately, the producers of the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival, famous for its daring and eclectic selection of independent films, decided the flick was right for the fest. "L.A. Film Festival was the only festival we applied to, and we got accepted," said director and co-writer Duane Stinnett. "Now we're like, 'Oh, we should apply to some more.'"
In the film, warring L.A. street gangs and the LAPD must decide if they can work together to fight a mob of flesh-eating zombies. Producer, co-writer, and actor Krissann Shipley says, "We didn't think it would be a film-festival type of film. But we thought, 'It's the L.A. Film Festival; why not try it?' Because we wouldn't have to travel anywhere, and just to see...So when I got the call, I couldn't believe it, because it's a zombie film, at the festival. That's crazy." Making its world premiere at the Crest Theatre in Westwood at midnight, Fri., June 30, with an additional screening Sun., July 2, the film also stars Noel G (Training Day, The Fast and the Furious) and Reggie Bannister (Phantasm I-IV), with makeup and effects by Robert Hall (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
Last Rites is the first feature and second collaboration for Stinnett and Shipley, who previously worked on the short The Curio Trunk, which won best short at the Southern California Film Festival. As an actress, Shipley has been featured in The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks, First Daughter, directed by Forest Whitaker and television shows such as Girls Behaving Badly, Urban Legends, and Entourage. Stinnett, whose background is in the video-game industry, recently co-wrote and directed Activision's True Crime: Streets of New York, starring Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Walken, and Mickey Rourke.
Back Stage: What would you consider the genre to be, since Last Rites crosses genres?
Stinnett: Last Rites is an action movie with horror elements. Rather than a straight-up horror film, what's interesting to me is crossing those genres. Films don't mix the two enough. However, we have typical zombie conventions from Night of the Living Dead. We did that because we didn't want to reinvent the wheels and explain our rules as opposed to the zombie rules established in a hundred other films-having those to fall back on is really nice.
Photo: Director/co-writer, Duane Stinnett
Back Stage: How did the story come about?
Shipley: Two years ago, I had recurring nightmares of ghosts and monsters; I couldn't sleep. Monsters come back to haunt me. I decided to write it all down. I talked to Duane about it, and we talked about how we should make a movie. At the same time, I was working on the set of a zombie movie and learned everything I had to learn about a zombie film. After that, I knew how to do it. We had collaborated before so we decided to go for it.
Back Stage: How was the casting process?
Stinnett: There are no stars, per se; it's an ensemble piece. When you have a horror movie, you don't go after any movie stars, and when you have no money, you don't go after any movie stars. We spent six months casting the film, and we did it three days a week consistently seeing 20 to 30 people every one of those days. I think we saw every Latino actor in Hollywood. We have a diverse cast of Latinos, blacks, Asians, and white guys; we just wanted the strongest actors for the roles, and we weren't going to shoot it without those actors in place. We not only cast the roles, we cast the dynamics, and we had them play off each other. It's a B movie, but we have A-level actors.
Back Stage: Duane, with such a large cast, what is your approach to directing actors?
Stinnett: Get out of the way. That's my directing philosophy. Cast the best actors and then get out of the way. That's how it should work: You cast the best actors for the role and you don't have to do anything.
Photo: 'Last Rites'
Back Stage: Krissann, how was your experience as actor and producer?
Shipley: The producing part was really hard.... I had to stay focused as an actress, and they would call me: 'Krissann, you're up.' And then I also had to pay attention as a producer: 'What time is craft services?'
Back Stage: Neither of you went to film school. Was it daunting to take the plunge for a feature film?
Shipley: I never had formal training ever; we did a short and that was our film school. I didn't want to spend four years of my life spending a hundred grand for film school, so what I did was actually buy Back Stage West, and I wrote to 20 filmmakers and asked them if I can do a documentary about filmmakers. They said "come on down," so I went to three different sets, and I did everything I can do to learn about film.
Photo: Actress/producer/co-writer, Krissann Shipley
Stinnett: I directed little cinematica and opening and closing movies for video games. It was my film school: If I look at stuff I did on video games a few years ago, I can't even watch it, it's so horrible. It taught me composition, screen direction, continuity, and so on and so forth, although in animation there is a sort of natural continuity. It really taught me how make movies and how to tell a story visually without confusing the audiences; it became very paramount to me to tell a complete story, and guide them.
Back Stage: What did you learn working with actors on a zombie film?
Stinnett: I learned I need actors who are going to take it seriously and not roll their eyes. Actors who can work in horror are those who won't say, "Oh, it's just a zombie movie; who cares?" But they're actually going to play and take it seriously. We had so many actors who had so many different approaches. Like Noel G, he didn't even read the script; he would come in, look at the sides, toss them aside, [and] he would just start vamping, improvising, but he knew the point of the scene. He would talk to me and figure out where the scene was supposed to go. For me as a white guy who was trying to write gangster dialogue, it was very tough in the script because everything I was writing sounded like a kid from Huntington Beach trying to be gangster. I had my breakthrough when I realized "motherfucker" is a verb, adjective, adverb, and a noun. It took a lot of trial and error until I was happy with it; then we had a table read and there weren't actually a lot of adjustments.
Back Stage: What advice do you have for actors?
Shipley: I feel like it's really good for actors who are struggling, don't know where to start or what to do, who have been at it for a long time and haven't gotten discovered, to produce your own film, and you have more control over the characters. And if you can write, even better. But really, it's really good to produce your own film and put yourself in it.
Last Rites world premieres June 30, 12 a.m. at The Majestic Crest Theatre, additional screenings include Sunday, July 2nd, 4:30 p.m. at the Landmark's Regent.
For more information visit http://www.lafilmfest.com/tixSYS/2006/filmguide/event.php?EventNumber=1447 and www.lastritesthemovie.net/updates.html.