Monday, May 09, 2016

PHOBE The Xenophobic Experiments (Interview)

PHOBE movie poster
"PHOBE lives! PHOBE lives!"

That's what I would be exclaiming had I been searching for this obscure, long-lost staple of cable TV and finally found it.

However, the truth is that I never even knew this movie existed until a few days ago. Since that short amount of time, it has piqued my interest. I knew immediately that it was something I needed to find out more about and feature on this blog.

I found out about PHOBE on Twitter, following the hashtag #CanFilmDay, which was in celebration of National Canadian Film Day on April 20th. That's when I noticed, the official Twitter account for a movie that until then, was nowhere on my radar screen.

I was able to confirm that Erica Benedikty, the writer and director of PHOBE, was the author of the tweets. I took the opportunity to ask if she would answer some interview questions and she graciously agreed.

Before we get to that interview though, let's get a synopsis and some background on PHOBE.

According to its official website:

When a deadly military experiment goes wrong, SGT. Gregory Dapp is called in to recover it.

The Xenophobic Experiment is a newly created life-form that has been designed for war. These ultimate fighting soldiers brought victory on the Planet Mondora. Once the war had ended, there was no longer a place for them on Mondora. Soon they would be banished to another planet that became a prison for these creatures.

Long since forgotten, PHOBES began showing up, terrorizing the cities of Mondora. A special task force was created to seek out and destroy or capture these PHOBES.

PHOBE: The Xenophobic Experiments is a 1995 TV movie that was written, produced and directed by Erica Benedikty and distributed by TV Cogeco (formerly Maclean Hunter Cable TV). It began as a short film for a college assignment in 1989, which was shot on super 8mm.

Using that as a basis, a script was written for a feature length horror/sci-fi movie that was budgeted for approximately $500,000 until an investor dropped out. The plan was to shoot it on 16mm and convert it to 35mm for a theatrical release. Without the investor, that plan was put on hold.

In 1993, with an opportunity to have the movie shown on community cable, Beneditky rewrote the script, removing the horror elements and making it purely sci-fi. The problem was she would have to do it with an almost non-existant budget of $250. She would however be able to borrow equipment from Maclean Hunter.

The project was given the green light and production began with a cast and crew of volunteers. After it was completed, PHOBE: The Xenophobic Experiments premiered on March 4th, 1995.

On your website, you say the proposed budget was just under $500,000, when an investor took a different direction. What reason was given by the investor and how close were you to actually closing the deal?

Erica Benedikty: The deal was in the final approval stage, if they said yes, I would have gone into production right away. There were several meetings about the idea already so this was a final pitch with budget, shooting schedule and other details. After about a week, they got back to me and decided they wanted to spend the money on expanding their store franchise instead (video chain). They did talk about the store expansion option prior so this didn't come out of the blue as I believe they were truly interested in financing the movie. Of course the irony of this is my movie is still going strong, when's the last time you walked into a video store?

If you did have a half million dollar budget, what amount do you think you would have allotted towards, special effects, makeup, actors, locations, etc?

EB: In my original budget proposal, I had allotted $40,000 to special effects and $25,000 to visual effects with $15,000 being the alien creation. Most of the special and visual effects would have been pyrotechnics, fog machines and other practical effects.

Would you have preferred to keep the horror elements in PHOBE as originally written?

EB: I think I would have love to have made it more of a thriller style but not the slasher movie I wrote. Slashers can be fun but there is not a lot of story to them. I want something with more potential in terms of a bigger story and universe.

You were an employee of Maclean Hunter, correct? How hard was it to convince your employer to let you use their camera equipment to shoot a movie? Were any conditions imposed?

EB: I was an employee of Maclean Hunter. This made making the movie easier as I could now use the gear when it was available. Convincing them wasn't hard as I made a 60 min movie before Phobe as a volunteer to show that I would follow through and finish the project. The biggest thing with a project like this is the shear amount of work. Everyone wants to make a movie or TV show, but don't realize how much of a commitment it really is. The only real condition was that it met the channel guidelines, like being a family/PG movie. So no swearing or real gore, things like that. We did sneak in the one shot of the broken leg, but it was quick.

The actual budget ended up being $250.00. What was that spent on and was it out of your own pocket?

EB: There wouldn't have been much out of pocket really, the $250.00 dollars covered things like pyrotechnics, light gels and items to make the Phobe mask. The big factor was all the gear was at my disposal including editing time. Remember, this was done in a time before everyone had their own camera's. If I had to pay for all that, I'm sure it would have been around $15,000 to $20,000 and possible even more. Of course I would have shot it differently if I had to pay.

How many times was PHOBE shown on TV and when was the last time?

EB: Phobe aired a lot during a 2 year period. Once the show was done it became filler programming so when we had to fill gaps in the schedule it was an easy choice because of the length. I'm not really sure when the last time it was aired but it would have been around the time we switched out from Beta tapes to DVCpro tapes. Maybe around 1999 or so.

When did you become aware that there were fans of PHOBE who were searching for a way to watch the movie and was this what convinced you to re-master the movie?

EB: Over the years every once in a while the station would get a phone call and later emails about this movie that aired about "some alien chasing people around". So I knew people heard of the movie and still wanted to watch it. It wasn't until I received an email from someone in Toronto who wanted to show the movie in a small film festival that I became aware of the scope of fans out there. I was planning on doing something earlier but never really pushed it until that point. Then discovering that I had a copy of the movie that had dialogue on one channel and sound/special effects on another channel, I realized I could re edit and clean up the audio and music.

Who was the band that recorded the music for the movie?

EB: There were a couple of bands in the movie, the first one was the one who wrote some of the music for phobe including the opening scene and the dance scene. This was Jeff Egerter, along with Jerry Dumoulin and Dan Sugan or Gribble Hell - Just made up the name during production. The second band was a local group in the area called Mobilyzer. They had a cassette tape of their songs, I like the music and asked if I could use it, they said sure. Don't know what happened to them over the years.

On your website, it says it took a year to complete PHOBE. What were some of the most challenging times during the film's shoot? Did it feel at times you bit off more than you could chew? 

EB: It did take just around a year to make, which is where the name "Four Season Productions" came from. During shooting I don't think I ever reached that point that I bit off more than I could chew because I wrote the movie with the intent on making it with no budget. When I couldn't get something to work like the "speeder bike chase" at the beginning I simply re wrote that into something I knew I could film. There were 2 big challenges in making the movie, first the audio. The community channel was never meant to make a movie like this so they didn't have a proper gear like a boom pole and shotgun mic or other mics for proper audio. Although after the scene at the "Police Headquarters", the station did by a really good shotgun mic (no boom pole though). This was the first scene we shot and had a heck of a time with audio while using a really old mic on a stick. Guess they felt bad and splurged for a new mic. The 2nd issue still goes back to sound, but in the editing stages. Again not being set up for a movie production there was/still is no good way to do a proper sound mix. Even in the latest 2016 version, I was able to add multiply sounds and layered sound effect accurate up to the frame, I was never really able to properly mix the project through an audio mixer. 

I grew up in Ontario, however it was nowhere near the Niagara Region so I was unaware of PHOBE until recently. Thanks to the internet, not only did I find out about your movie but also about Cap'n Video, another product of the Niagara Region. Are there any other hidden gems that we don't know about?

EB: Not too sure about that, I know there was a horror movie made that started just after phobe and took almost 20 years to make. I don't know the name of it but I believe they released it on youtube. Of course the other fun one was a little comedy show called "X-marks the spot" that was pretty funny. I don't think there are any copies of that floating around. 

What has been the best part of the resurgence of PHOBE

EB: The best part has been meeting the fans and really seeing how the movie inspired people. How people grew up with my movie and thinking of it as a fun child hood memory. Of course watching the movie on the big screen with an actually audience and hearing/seeing their reaction is amazing.

I enjoyed looking at all the different concept art for the movie poster. I think the final design turned out really well. How did you and Jeff Grebe become collaborators?

EB: Jeff came on board about a year ago now as he is also a writer/artist. We got talking and turns out he draws comic books, so I asked him if he would do something up for me. I did the photoshop part and Jeff drew the Phobe picture. I think it looks really cool.

How cool is it that an artist like Andrew Barr paid tribute to your movie with this cartoon character?

EB: I was amazed when I was sent the link to the picture. It's one of those surreal things. Of course now I think I have to put that picture on a T-shirt. That would really be cool.

PHOBE finally got its big screen debut recently, just as you'd hoped all those years ago. Where did this take place and what was the reaction of those in attendance? Did it feel like a dream?

EB: It did finally air on the big screen. It may not have been 65 million years in the making like Jurassic Park but it certainly took a while to get there. From a newspaper article, "The Niagara-made 1994 Cable 10 classic sci-fi Phobe drew an impressive 150 people to the Film House." The reaction seem to be positive from cheers to clapping at the end. It was quite the experience to be there and share in the moment.

In a comment on, Jay Cheel wrote,

"This [PHOBE], along with Cap'n Video, was a cable access favourite in Niagara! They also did two other films...Back in Black (Indiana Jones-esque jungle adventure) and one involving D&D style roleplaying. Very happy to see it has popped up again."

How does it feel to know that you may have inspired the director of the critically acclaimed documentary about Cap'n Video called Beauty Day?

EB: I think this is amazing. I never really knew I had Inspired so many people with Phobe until this all came about recently. I did see the documentary about Cap'n Video that Jay did and thought he did a really good job. I've watched it a couple of times now.

With MST3K being revived, would you be flattered or offended if they ever riffed on PHOBE?

EB: Hard to say, I think that if it was I would be flattered that they picked the movie but at the same time I know that part of the job is to make fun of it. But then again, It's a 20 year old movie that was made for $250 dollars, and we had a blast making it.

What can people expect on the Blu-ray/DVD release as far as restoration quality and extra features and when can we expect it to be released?

EB: The DVD (don't think they are doing the Blu-ray but we will see) will have the restored video along with some new effects and sound/music effects. I really think the new additions help move the story along better. There will be interviews from most of the original cast. I also believe that there will be the original version of the movie without any extra sounds special effects as a bonus.

What are some of your favorite movies and who are some of your mentors?

EB: I have too many favorite movies as it depends on my mood, but some of them would be The Goonies, Star Wars and of course The Terminator. My mentor's are Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron. I do love my romantic comedies though also. Maybe one day I'll make one of those.

You made another movie called Kobblestone, if I'm not mistaken. Could you tell us a little about that?

EB: Yes, Kobblestone, The Journey Begins. What if fantasy becomes reality?

LOGLINE: After being magically transported into the world of fantasy role-playing, a group of friends must become their characters to defeat the evil wizard to get back home.

I made this one right after Phobe, it took less than a year to write, shoot and edit. This was inspired by our love of D&D and at the time Xena and Hercules. It was fairly ambitious considering I'm trying to do a medieval fantasy movie in Niagara. We had a much better budget on this one, I think around $2000.00, which helped in creating sets, props, like swords and costumes that were all made for each actor. This time we even had auditions and cast people in the roles. I'm currently restoring this one as well. It may go to DVD also.

I also read that you are a director of Niagara's Most Haunted. How long have you been doing that and what's it all about?

EB: Yes, Niagara's Most Haunted is a show I currently work on as one of my many duties at CogecoTV. I've been working on that four about 4 years now, producing a few episodes each year. This has been a lot of fun as I shoot them in the style of movies, with the recreations and special effects.

Do you have any other projects on the horizon?

EB: I do have some projects that I've began to work on, With everything that's been happening lately I've pulled out the note book and began to write again. I don't know what I'm going to do with it yet but it's nice to get back into it. I've since written a TV Pilot and a short that I want to turn into a feature length script.

The one thing I've always wanted to do was Phobe 2. I remember back in 1997 or so I began writing the sequel, but with work becoming full time, this left little time do do my own thing. Plus really didn't like the way script(s) was going. I think about 5 or 6 different versions. Now 20 some odd years later, I've got some new inspirations and have recently began work on Phobe 2. Can't really say much about it or what I'm going to do with it yet but who knows, anything is possible.

Thanks, Erica and congratulations on the success of your movie!

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