The key to making a successful movie in San Antonio is to not make a San Antonio movie. That’s what the team behind SA’s latest local “infected” flick (“fast-moving zombies” to people who don’t care about the semantics that fuel IMDB message-board flame wars), The Killing Strain.
“We’re not making this as a San Antonio film,” says Ron Zimmerman, executive producer and director of photography. “We’re making it as a film. We’re not competing against San Antonio films; we’re competing against LA films, New York films, London films.”
Though director Daniel Maldonado is quick to add “film is not a competition,” five minutes talking with any serious filmmaker proves that’s not true at all. The Killing Strain — which Maldonado explains draws as much inspiration from Resident Evil video games as it does George Romero — isn’t really on an even playing field with Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later (if budgets were boxing-weight divisions, Strain would probably qualify as a welterweight), but the filmmakers’ Balboa-like ambition to contend with the best has definitely led to a higher-quality project. The few moments of noticeable overreaching common to indie genre films — a couple of computer-generated explosion effects that look a little less believable than what you’d see on a Syfy original, and a few lines of dialogue that could’ve used another draft or a little doctoring — are counteracted nicely by elements that most likely wouldn’t have been present had Maldonado, Zimmerman, and Allen Green — the film’s other executive producer, sound engineer, and co-author of its screenplay — been content with a limited local release. Characters you can care about, a real-deal smaller-scale explosion you can feel, a CGI helicopter that’ll make you do a double take, Max Valencia’s impressive makeshift set design, and gooey gore (mostly in the form of blood-spurting zombie headshots) are all excellent exhibits in the case for setting your sights beyond a single-night screening for your buddies and grandma. In advance of the film’s midnight showings this weekend, Maldonado, Green, and Zimmerman sat down with us to explain how they turned some footage Maldonado shot on a whim in a Castroville cornfield into a feature-length, high-def horror flick they felt confident entering in the Toronto Film Festival — a film shot exclusively in the San Antonio area with an almost entirely SA-based crew. From this conversation, we gleaned a few tips for local filmmakers who don’t want to be limited to making local films.
Nobody will disclose a specific dollar amount (Green describes the budget as “less than half a million dollars,” and Zimmerman laughs: “Significantly less.”) but The Killing Strain’s creators had access to resources our average reader probably doesn’t. Money is part of it. They had enough for a crew and catering, and to pay a modest fee for location use, makeup, and effects work, but not much else. The team got more mileage out of what Green calls “personal currency,” the value of experience and contacts gained from years working on sets.
It isn’t like Maldonado shot that first footage (which became the film’s rough-draft trailer and caught the attention of not just Green and Zimmerman, but also a rep from Sam Raimi’s Ghosthouse Underground) on a Flip camera he’d yet to read the manual for: He’s been shooting films since high school, and worked as production-assistant and other odd jobs for nine years.
“It did help me to work from the ground up, because if somebody said, ‘I need somebody to do set construction, or hold a boom pole’ I knew how to do it,” Maldonado says. Recently he’s found work as a DP, or a lighting technician, on commercials, feature films, and Friday Night Lights.
Green transitioned from playing music to a career as a recording engineer after a weekend gig helping a friend wire the edit bay for a TV fishing show, which eventually led to jobs recording sound for commercials, TV pilots, national nightly news segments, etc. “It’s been like an eighth-grade field trip ever since,” he says.
Trinity alum Zimmerman, a Director’s Guild member, turned a gig editing KENS newsreels into a production job and eventually a DP credit on cult documentary DOA (the inspiration for Sid and Nancy) after KSAT assigned him to shoot footage at a concert by “a band called the Sex Pistols.” He was gone for six months. Now he shoots for ABC News and National Geographic.
And none of them had to move away to do it. When work takes them out of town, it’s more often driving to an assignment in Odessa or Corpus than catching an early morning flight for a breakfast meeting in LA.
“They tend to use crews regionally,” Zimmerman says, “so … you work Texas as one market.”
They packed the 45-man crew with the industry acquaintances they’d made who were willing to ply their various trades (in 110-degree weather, no less) for friend rates (aka “little to no money”), which brings us to our next point.
Contrary to a popular excuse for the number of films made here, there are industry professionals working locally, and we don’t just mean Austin.
“Basically to me, `the lack of crew in San Antonio` is a myth fabricated by people in other cities,” Maldonado says, “so they can keep all the work for themselves.”
As his own resume proves, you can find experienced people right here in town, especially if you’ve followed step one up there and put in the work required to make industry contacts. But there’s a catch: “If you get professional people in, you have to pay them,” Green says. “Compared to what they’re used to making, it was low, but we also chose to shoot the slowest time of year for commercials and things like that `August` so they would work for us.”
Failing that, you have to at least give them something to eat if you expect them to stay onset, and they get pretty sick of pizza every day. The biggest expenditure in the film’s budget was food, Green says, but Maldonando adds the film’s director and financers were often the ones going hungry.
“It’s a lot of struggle,” he says, “and a lot of suffering. A lot of nights where you eat bread and water.”
Robert Rodriguez famously proclaimed you don’t need a crew, which is fine if you’re the kind of multitalented workhorse/genius who can make El Mariachi for less than 10 grand. Zimmerman is convinced that Maldonado would’ve been capable of a similar feat.
“Daniel could’ve made this film by himself,” he enthuses. “He’s like Spielberg or Lucas. They can pick up the camera, they can shoot, they can direct the actors, they can write the film, they can edit the film. … He doesn’t need other people to do it. … It sure helps to have other people, though.”
Maldonado agrees, at least with the last part. The short film he originally called Killing Field and shot with a skeleton crew looks nowhere near as impressive as the finished product, and he would’ve been awful lonely, and incredibly overworked, in that cornfield by himself.
“Honestly, I’d still be out there,” Maldonado says. “It would have taken that long.” •
The Killing Strain
Midnight, Jun 18-19
Santikos Palladium, Silverado, Mayan
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.