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Interview with Robert Hall, Director of Lightning Bug

Posted January 22, 2013 10:54 AM by Michael Reuben

Image EntertainmentMakeup artist Robert Hall defied expectations by writing and directing the non-horror and very personal drama Lightning Bug as his first feature. A cult hit on DVD in 2005, Lightning Bug has now been released on Blu-ray by Image Entertainment with a new documentary and an extended version that played the festival circuit prior to the film's DVD release. In the interim, Hall has directed Laid to Rest and its sequel, ChromeSkull: Laid to Rest 2 and is currently directing episodes of the MTV series Teen Wolf, while developing a new film. reviewer Michael Reuben spoke to Mr. Hall about Lightning Bug and the Blu-ray. The following are excerpts from that conversation:

Were you involved with preparing the Blu-ray?

Yes, I was directly involved, meaning I got a scan of the master file from the post house, a 1080p, 10-bit file on a hard drive, which was something like 800 gigs, and they said, "Here you go!" I wound up being the one that had to go in, scene by scene, and make all the edit points—clip by clip, I should say—I re-color-corrected the entire film myself, every shot. It was literally me, punching all the buttons.

What about the mastering of the disc and the arrangement of the extras?

That I did not do. We had a company up in Toronto do that who Anchor Bay has been working with. But I worked with the gentleman who put it together. We collaborated on the look of everything. I thought they did a really good job, especially with an old title.

Let me ask you about the longer version. Did you consider including it via seamless branching instead of as a separate encode?

We talked about doing that. That was my first thought. But they said [that], even with technology now, there would be more of a chance for some kind of delay or stutter with that. So they ultimately decided against it. They wound up doing a separate encode, which is compressed more but honestly I thought it looked pretty good. It's definitely better than your usual "special feature". We did an A-B-C [comparison]. It's pretty darn seamless.

It does look good. It doesn't look as good as the main feature. You can see the difference if you look closely—

There's more compression.

Yes. But you've labeled it an extra, so you haven't advertised it as "equal" to the main feature.

Exactly. [It's] important to note that [the extended cut] is the film we wound up taking out to all the festivals, and it was a mistake on my part, [as] a first-time filmmaker, not really knowing what to cut. Not only was I so close to it from a personal standpoint—I had written and directed it, and it was my little baby—[but also] these were the characters that I grew up with. This was my mom, and this was my real uncle. It was very close to me. So it was very difficult for me way back then to realize what to cut and what not to cut. The longer version of the film is the one that I thought was finished and so we took [it] around to the film festivals. I believe in hindsight that it hurt us a little bit, because it's not the strongest version of the film. That's why I don't call it a "director's cut". I call it the "extended cut". I really feel like the "director's cut" is what I ultimately decided to release with Anchor Bay in 2005. The main feature on [the Blu-ray] is really the director's cut, the preferred cut.

So the "extended cut" on the Blu-ray is the one that toured the film festivals?

It is. That's the one that broke attendance records there. We were a festival favorite. We did well with it. We still took home "best of show" in four, I think, film festivals. But if I'd waited . . . basically, the main difference is there's a subplot revolving around this crazy uncle, who's based on my real uncle, who's now dead. He used to have this paint huffing problem. It's really more of a comic relief character. He wound up not making the final cut of the movie at all. I think you saw him for one final quick piece at the end of the film while waving goodbye. "Who was that guy?" It was all written for comic relief, there was nothing that weaved into the narrative that was super-integral. When I saw the movie later, [I] realized after we'd made the rounds that the sidekicks, the two friends of my main character, were enough levity. Particularly his best friend Billy, I didn't really write him as funny, but George Faughnan wound up adding so much comedy and levity to it that the uncle stuff I had in there was too much. It shifted everything off tonally, and I didn't see that at the time. It took a little while to really notice that.

When in the process did the final cut emerge? Was it after the festivals?

After the festivals and after about six months beating my head against the wall going, "I spent a fortune on this movie! I spent my life savings, and I can't sell it! What's wrong?" I was in a difficult position, because I had all these [feelings] too about the uncle, like "Oh my God, he's my favorite character! He's the greatest thing about the movie. You can't cut him." What do I do? That's the only thing that could really go to streamline it. So it came about six months after the festivals and out of desperation, really. Everybody says they love it, it's touching, they cried, but I can't sell it.

You were trying to sell it for video at this point, I take it.


So the final version didn't emerge until the Anchor Bay DVD?

Exactly. With Mark Ward, who was head of acquisitions at the time.

In your commentary on the deleted scenes, you said you were very satisfied with that cut. It sounds like you still are.

It's definitely the best cut of the movie. It's streamlined. Making a movie is a very strange process, but I think most filmmakers, and probably writer/directors, would agree that, when you make a film, you have three different versions. You have the version in the pages that you hopefully love and feel like everything works. It's cohesive. It's the thing that attracts people.

Then you go to shoot it, and you make compromises and concessions, but also you make amazing discoveries with your talent of how you can make it better or how you can do it differently. "Oh, the grip truck didn't show up, because it broke down." Now you have to figure out something else—you have all of those things. When you're shooting a movie, that's a whole different version of the movie. If you can retain anything close to the script, you're golden, or at least you're in great shape.

Then when you go to sound and editing, that's a third version. So you really have three versions of the movie, and your job as a writer/director is to try to make those as cohesive as possible, sometimes break away from the script version of the movie, because sometimes the script version is not the version you're editing. By the time you get to the editing, if there's anything left of the script version, it's a miracle sometimes.

I want to ask about the soundtrack. What was the film's original format?


Why was a stereo track included on the Blu-ray?

That's not a "me" question. I just provided everything they asked for, and they isolated a stereo [track]. Maybe they're thinking it's for people watching on tablets and [handhelds].

But your original mix wasn't stereo?

No, it was 5.1. That's why the "extended cut" of the movie sounds so good. It's not like I went in and inserted footage. The extended cut was actually "sweetened". We finished that at a real post facility. We had proper [facilities], we had proper stems. When I decided to re-edit the movie to get it sold, we went in and re-conformed everything, but there was always a finished 5.1 version of the extended cut.

That must have been very helpful.

It was very helpful, but it cost me a lot of money!

Did budgetary issues limit the sound editing?

Yes, to an extent. I was naive. I had had ten years of working under other people in Los Angeles, figuring out how to make movies, watching other directors squirm, working with the biggest directors, working with "Corman" directors. So I had really good training by that time, but I was still learning the technical aspects. I learned a lot on this movie. Actually being a director on set I felt I'd been learning my whole life, because that's what I've always done with the effects side of things: create characters, show them how to move, how to walk, what to say, help them come up with their motivations and their backstories. That was all natural. But there's a lot of things that came along with it, the inherent technical process. [Sound] was one of them. Now I know that you need a sound designer. Back then, I was lucky that one of my producers, Kevin Bocarde, got me a good deal on a sound house and said, "OK, these guys are gonna do the mix."

I said, "That's great!" They were a big, reputable company. But what I didn't know, because I didn't have a sound designer to help me collect stuff . . . we'd get into the [mixing] stage, and I'd say, "OK, now Green punches through the window. Where's that crazy buzzing sound I talked about in my script that pans around the whole room?" They were, like, "We don't have that." What I didn't realize is that I'm dealing with mixers; I didn't have a sound guy to create all this stuff. Luckily I'm a little bit of an audiophile, and I play music, bass. I was able to create a lot of these sounds myself at home. So I'd come in the next day and say, "Here's the buzzing sound, put it in." A lot of the sound design in Lightning Bug I actually did myself.

So you appointed yourself your own sound designer?

I had to!

That's the do-it-yourself philosophy of independent film.

I've carried that through my other films as well. I wound up doing a lot of the sound design and score for the Laid to Rest films.

Since you mentioned the Laid to Rest films, let me ask about something discussed in the Afterglow documentary. You went against type by making a drama instead of a horror film for your first feature. Since then, you've made several horror films. Will you return to drama at some point?

I would love to. It's definitely something I have inside of me. I did that as an intentional, calculated move. I love all sorts of films. I'd love to do a comedy, but I do tend to gravitate toward darker dramas.

Lightning Bug is certainly a dark drama.

Lightning Bug is an anomaly. I know there will never be another one of those, for sure. It's definitely its own unique animal. But I would love to do [a drama], in fact I'm working on one now with Jonathan Schaech, an actor I've worked with before. [Ed. note: Schaech appeared in ChromeSkull: Laid to Rest 2.]

Can you tell us anything about it?

It's called Rotten Face, and it's in the Requiem for a Dream realm.

In your commentaries, you said that Halloween is your favorite film and John Carpenter is your favorite director. What non-horror directors do you admire?

I consider Cronenberg a non-horror director, even though he's done a lot of [horror], and I love Cronenberg. He's one of my favorite directors. I love A History of Violence and all of his later movies. He's such a mature, intelligent filmmaker, [and] he's also, I think, a bit underrated. But I also love Oliver Stone; I [liked] his new movie, Savages. David O. Russell, I thought The Fighter was amazing.

In Afterglow, [makeup artist] Steve Johnson speaks with great admiration of how you meld CGI and practical effects. Do you think CGI is overused in today's films?

Sure. Of course it is. It sort of has a bad name these days. It's maligned, and for good reason to an extent. Now, unfortunately, people have a knee-jerk reaction [against it], when I tell people that my company does [CGI]. However, they don't understand the way that I'm implementing it, which is completely different than everybody else. It's not, "Let's work on a $50 million movie and throw the monster in later". We're working on ways to go back to getting most everything "in camera". How do we get as much in camera as possible, and how do we augment it then with CGI? A lot of the filmmakers I'm working with now are my age, and they're coming from The Evil Dead era. They want to get things in camera. There's a backlash to CGI.

Unfortunately, CGI is a big, overgeneralized term. Big filmmakers that have a lot of money use it as a crutch. They say, "We're not even going to waste time trying to get things on set. We're going to add it all later." Or, it's something that's deemed a threat toward my industry. So we're coming and surprising people in the middle and saying: Look at this as a tool, look at this as a bucket of things at my shop that you can use to make our stuff that much better.

The examples that you demonstrated in Afterglow are seamless corrections to Lightning Bug. No one would even know if you hadn't pointed them out.

It didn't even occur to me when I was putting the movie together for Blu-ray that I could or should do any of that, until I started monkeying with the files and color-correcting them. I was looking at certain thing and thought, "Hey, I've got a room full of compositors next door! I could easily fix this letter, or I could easily add a bit more blood so that you understand a little quicker what's happening with his arm after he punches through the window." I could easily do this stuff now that I couldn't do seven or eight years ago. This is an incredible advantage, and I'd be foolish not to use any tools at my disposal to make my movie a little bit better.

Or you could put the Laid to Rest films on the shelves at the video store.

(Laughter) You noticed that!

Yes, and I said, "How did those get there?" Another question about the Afterglow documentary. All of your interview clips are from 2005. Is there a reason you didn't do new ones?

I'm directing Teen Wolf for MTV right now, so I had no time to sit down and do an interview, unfortunately. Guys were helping me cut this thing in the shop, and I popped in to do a quick voiceover, but I had no time to sit down and do a new interview. I wanted to, but I also felt that everything I had to say, other than the new stuff in the voiceover, I had already said. It would have been nice to redo a commentary, but it was just a timing issue.

Judging from this interview, you still have things to say. Thank you!

Source: | Permalink | United States [Country settings]

News comments (4 comments)

Top contributor
  Jan 22, 2013
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Great interview Mr. Reuben.

Thank you Mr. Hall.

  Jan 22, 2013
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I really enjoyed both of the Chromeskull movies and I've been wanting to check this one out, too.

  Jan 23, 2013
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I actually got a copy of the lightning bug BR his company personally pressed before it got picked up for mass distribution. It was sold by his own private company on ebay about a year ago, signed by himself and everything! Also got both chromeskull flicks signed too, he's a good dude!

  Jan 24, 2013
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very nice Interview and i just recently placed an order for lightning bug and now i'm even more anxious to see the film! :-)

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