Exclusive: Director Jay Woelfel on ‘Asylum of Darkness’ & Indie Filmmaking
An insightful talk with independent filmmaker and composer Jay Woelfel.
Jay Woelfel is the writer/director for Asylum of Darkness, a 2017 independent horror film currently in release. Having already reviewed the movie (here) we recently had the pleasure to discuss the film with him and learn more about his work as an indie filmmaker.
Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. Let’s start with you. Who is Jay Woelfel?
I’m a guy who grew up in Ohio and was exposed to lots of types of movies and foreign lands. Eventually I grew out of Ohio as far as films go. After I made my first feature I left to be a small fish in the ocean rather than a big fish in a small town. In LA, film is a living art, it’s also a working business and sort of a one-industry town. I don’t think the standard view of LA takes that into account and helps perhaps to understand it better. I’ve usually worked for established companies of various sizes, mostly being a writer/director but I’ve kept a music and an editing career going as well as doing entirely independent films from time to time. I feel these are related yet different skillsets and certainly I’ve worked more because I can do these various things than if I only directed or wrote. I only relatively recently got married and my wife has her own cupcake business, so that’s diversified my time in ways I wouldn’t have expected and enjoy. I love all kinds of films and music but I guess in particular I like things involving history and imagination, not fantasy but imagination if I can try to establish a difference between the two.
Well it’s great to get to know you more. You’re latest film currently in release is Asylum of Darkness. Tell us about it.
It was written as a kind of spiritual follow up to my first film Beyond Dream’s Door and made in some of the same locations and with some of the same cast and crew. It’s a story of a guy who has reality problems stemming from being driven insane by and event he can’t remember.
It’s not a movie where you have the plot vomited all over you from the start. It’s set up as a mystery and the main character discovers himself and discovers what is going on for the audience by the end revelation. The intention is you figure out enough on a first viewing, then if you watch it again other pieces will come together for you. I think it plays fair, the ending supports rather than wipes out things you might assume as you go. It’s not a movie about what’s real and what’s insane, it’s about the supernatural which is its own kind of insanity. It was shot and finished on 35mm film and uses virtually all practical effects – this was always the basic idea and seemed like that’s the way it should be done even though it took many years to eventually get made. It’s got gore in it and ideas so I hope people go into to enjoy both. I don’t see those as being opposing ideas. Though it may seem complicated it’s really a simple story of self-discovery and responsibility with many complications getting in the way of that outcome.
Well said, and having watched it twice, I agree. It’s truly a twisted tale and I like how it is much deeper than the tropes of the genre would seem to allow. There’s a genuinely impactful story at its heart, as you say. Knowing that, can you shed some light on how that story came about without spoiling the film?
Those were my intentions and hopes for the film, and I think the genre can support deeper or more obscure meanings, certainly in the literary traditions of horror and the supernatural, even of spiritually. To misquote Sunset BLVD., the ideas were always big, it’s just the pictures that got small. I think the film has a heart and ideas and the genre lets the story go into both in ways not trapped in a normal reality.
The story kicked around for a decade with several near misses of being made, then when independent money came along I felt it was time. The story grew out of some personal experiences and even true crime elements and Japanese folklore.
I don’t see the genre as being limited to tropes and I guess I took this chance to try to prove that or at least try. I think any film that has human beings at its center will make for a better film. It’s a complicated journey and so it does take longer than what might be considered a usual running time for a horror film. You could make this film shorter but you’d be telling a different story. And I won’t apologize for making a film that, with credits runs under two hours in a world where comic book characters seem to demand movies that run closer to two and a half hours and feature numerous 8 plus minute CGI set pieces that stop the story in its tracks. I don’t care what’s usually done. The usual, to me, means the overdone, the cliché, the routine, so this film is going for something different because it had the chance to.
And all of that is evident. You think you are watching one thing, but it’s something else as it builds. That’s helped by your impressive cast. Nick Baldasare, whom you’ve worked with before, is very good, however you’ve also got veterans such as Tim Thomerson and (the late) Richard Hatch. Tell us about working with them.
You set out to make a good film, you don’t make films to make friends and you don’t make them to make enemies either. So if you follow that guideline and work with people repeatedly and becomes friends as well, that is something to be thankful for. I’m thankful for any and all the real friends I’ve made making films. These actors you’ve mentioned are among that cherished group to me. Richard is/was a person who lead a rather frantic life who in person and working with him you’d never guess that. Tim is perhaps the other way around. These guys all care about doing good work and love the work of doing so. I hope they’d say the same about me.
I tell actors what I see in the character and also how that character functions in the plot. I think that matters a great deal and also lets the actors be part of telling the story rather than just playing a part and I don’t think you can really give a great performance without knowing more than just the character. With creative people, like these guys, you guide each other’s creative interests too. Nick, Richard, and I actually worked as producers on projects, Richard with two promotional trailers and Nick with a whole film we made from a play he wrote called Horatio’s Hamlet. In those cases I tried to let and keep them focused on the performance while I directed the production as much as possible.
Once you work with someone more than once, when that happens, you develop a shorthand. There is less talk and more action and hopefully what talk there is goes into areas you wouldn’t get into with someone you just met and had never worked with. You talk a lot with actors before you start then as you go you deal with actions and with questions they may have as things move along. I leave them alone at that point and let them ask questions if they need to. It’s interesting what different people need to ask or hear, the end result may be equally good but what info and input they need to get there is very different for each person and for each of these three guys you mention.
For me I guess a danger in that is that when working with new people you may assume they know and respect you and you can just get on with the real work. I’ve made that mistaken assumption with new people I’ve worked with and been burned by it. That’s these guys, and these type of people’s fault, for making me too trusting, LOL. If you are friends and you can work together as well and be honest with each other, in any field of work, that’s the best thing there is and is good for the work too.
One more thing when I say work, I mean this is a craft and if you do your craft well you can create art. I think it’s perhaps pompous to look at yourself as an artist first though, a pretension that denotes to me, it gets in the way of learning and practicing the skills you learn to turn your talent into a verb.
You are, for this film and many others, the writer, director, score composer and others. That’s a lot of hats. What’s that like in bringing your vision to release?
Kids don’t try this at home. Please note that I was not the producer on this film. Lawreen Yakkel did that and that’s a job and problems you should not be dealing with while you direct. But with the jobs I did do on this film, It’s a lot of work over a long period of time. If you don’t have the time, which I did on this one, then you shouldn’t take on all the jobs because each will suffer and you will wither under the blast of physical and mental load you take on. Though one thing is, each job takes place to support the other but not at the same time. Writing comes first, music mostly comes later, that helps make it possible and if you are there before the beginning and after the end then you can keep your eyes on all those at the same time, which is the director’s task.
Some people, maybe many, will talk or complain about the various aspects of filmmaking, sort of coming from a position of seeming like they want or could do everything. There are plenty of jobs I didn’t do on this film but I was there to make the final decisions on much of it, including the release of the film. Each of these aspects took years to happen in this case. Distribution has become especially difficult for any film that doesn’t have a theatrical release. This film did play festivals and in a few theaters on a limited basis, that accounts for about a year’s worth of time right there. It’s a long haul but with that I made a film I don’t think would have been made any other way. But don’t think that’s the way all my films have been made or how all films should be. Or I don’t think that way.
Your music is a big part of your body of work, and rewatching the film for this interview, I paid a lot more attention to it this time around. Effective to be sure. Tell us about it.
Half the music in the film is my own and the rest by other people, dead long enough to be affordable, great music from Saint Saens, Beethoven and so on. My own music had to bridge the gaps and make it all connect. Those existing pieces of music did inspire the story of the film. If you know the backstory of those pieces of music you actually will know even more about the film, not that you have to, but there is subtext in those pieces. I’ve never scored a film that way before and it isn’t done very often to this degree or certainly horror films aren’t. So it’s unusual and potentially off putting, I’m glad you found it effective, I hoped it would be or I wouldn’t have done it this way. It was risk I took because I like to take risks at something new than take the path of what’s always done and become cliché.
This is not new for you. You’ve been doing music since the 80s, scoring a lot of your own films. Can you tell us how that got started and were there any inspirations? Certainly, John Carpenter springs to mind.
Music is something you can’t just DO. I think maybe I look at it like flying a plane. You might like to fly a plane but to do it and not die you need to learn and practice how to do it first. Music brought me to films. I noticed the work of John Williams in Jaws, then I discovered Jerry Goldsmith through several great films he did in the 1970’s. Also Henry Mancini in the Pink Panther films, film music is a great venue for instrumental music. Goldsmith said there is no reason film can’t create a Mozart, though he said it hadn’t yet, though some would say he is the Mozart of film music. Some would say Bernard Herrmann, another who some would say is a Mozart in film music, who said films need music more than the other arts.
Long before I made films or was interested in them I played music first in bands and played by ear at an early age and when you start to release your films you can’t use music you don’t own. So I started to do music for my films and then others asked me to do music for theirs. I like John Carpenter and his music but that isn’t why I do music for film, if you know his story it’s a bit like mine in terms of being the only composer he could afford when he started out. I hope him doing music now on its own may help invigorate him to direct and score again, of course it’s not all up to him. Carpenter really brought electronic music to film in a big way and with the development of MIDI and lots of workstation based equipment it’s now a staple even key element in music for film, regardless of budget.
So as an independent filmmaker working with small budgets then, what are some of the larger challenges you face and conversely, what are its benefits?
Well, potentially and perhaps far more frequently, you are creating a movie you can make. Now you have to make a few to learn how to make and finish a film that works and can be called a film by someone who watches it, and creating those films teaches you those things you can’t learn any other way. No great screenwriter ever existed who didn’t actually have films made of their scripts, that’s how you learn to write better scripts.
If you write films in hopes other producers will make them your odds of getting it read let alone made, and almost never made the way you wrote it, are very poor. So independently you actually make a film rather than have an idea or a script that never sees the light of day and resides safely inside the phony perfection of your narcissistic mind.
I think a chief challenge once the film is made, is finding and then reaching an audience. Your first audience will be writers and many of them now could really be called bloggers as much or more than critics. I’m surprised that genre reviewers seem to be snobbish about accepting independent films. There is also a basic misconception that being a critic means being negative. Now this doesn’t come from the majority of the reviews on Asylum of Darkness, which has by and large gotten very good reviews, so much so that I’m surprised because I had grown to not expect the majority of responses, largely online now, as genre magazines have become scarce, to be positive and to be about the virtues and flaws of what the film is and is about, and not to be practically cut and pasted in from previous dismissive reviews of independent films.
I mean how many horror films have been made for 100 million dollars? None. There have been ones that have made that much money but they are usually inexpensive or cheap. So part of the trick of making a lower budget film is to make it slick in ways that will allow critics to see the movie not the limitations of your budget. A great thing you don’t have are big slick ad campaigns with big stars and without those many people won’t waste their time watching what you make or even consider it to be a real movie.
I met an upcoming filmmaker at a meeting of this group called THE TABLE, and he says to me, “Jay you’ve made films for other people right?” I said, “Yes, most of the time.” He said, “And it sucked right?” I don’t think it’s as simple as that, but then again there is a clarity and general truth to what he said.
That’s a highly observant take on criticism and one we here have considered and take seriously. Each film is different and we merit it on a number of factors. It’s good to see you have a strong attitude toward the shift in reviews. Let’s move on. Any upcoming projects you have in the works you could tease us with?
I decided to do a film score for Island of Lost Souls. I won best feature score for it at the Austin Texas Other Worlds Film Festival and I’m selling the music through my website and looking to screen the film other places. Clips of scenes with the music, and new sound mix, are also on my website (www.jaywoelfel.com) and YouTube channel. In a nice twist of fate … Bela Lugosi’s son and granddaughter like what I’ve done and are helping me do so.
I have my first novel complete and am working out a publishing deal, it’s called ICE COLD. And I have a script about a giant monster in a small town called THE DEMON SEA. I’m also working on a new faithful adaptation of a famous genre short story.
That’s a lot to look forward too. You’re an impressive guy. Let’s wrap up. We dedicate a lot of our site to writing about great moments in movies and their influence in cinema. What are some movie moments (or movies in general) that have had impact on you and your career?
Funny thing about how you can become jaded and think that films don’t’ impact you but if you stop and think they really can. Jaws I already mentioned and there is a little moment and line where Quint says to Brody, “Nothing is ever easy is it?” That sticks with me. It’s not just the line but the context and delivery of it.
The devil’s anvil opening shot in Lawrence of Arabia is unforgettable with that music, the final images of Patton beneath the windmill with the voiceover and music, the endings of Citizen Kane, Psycho, Planet of the Apes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Sunset Blvd. The moment the ape man in 2001 discovers that a bone can be a tool and then a weapon. Frankenstein’s Monster’s horrible uncomprehending moans as he burns to death in the windmill. What is it about windmills, do I have a thing for them? Lol. Let’s not leave out Jimmy Stewart following Kim Novak silently though the mission graveyard or the final sequence of Hammer’s remake of Dracula. I hear and feel the music in all these scenes too and the relative silence of the surf in Planet of the Apes.
Want recent? How about the new Twin Peaks with David Lynch himself as the mostly deaf FBI agent disappointed to be nowhere near Mount Rushmore. Miguel Ferrer as the sort of long suffering sidekick who then, knowing this would be a problem, handing him a photo of Rushmore to shut him up. The response is one of simple joy and wonder from Lynch who says. “There they are Albert. Faces of stone.”
And particularly there is a movie that was largely considered an expensive bomb when it came out called The Red Tent about a real life disastrous arctic exploration mission. The actors are Sean Connery and Peter Finch—certainly two actors who can create a moment. The real life story if about an Italian commander of a zeppelin crash in the arctic who ruins his life by being the first rather than the last person to be rescued. Connery, as a ghost of a friend killed as a result of the disaster, asks Finch, the commander why after being a true hero and leader of his men up to that point, decided to leave his men. The commander says because it seemed easy. He was thinking of a nice hot bath and being back home and that everything would turn out fine. Connery, the ghost’s answer is, you were wrong, that was the reason to stay. That really sticks with me. I suppose it’s another version of Kennedy’s famous speech about going to the moon and doing these things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.
Excellent choices and films now I’m adding to my rewatch list. Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us, Jay. Any final thoughts for the readers?
I hope people in their lives and in their viewing and reading choices will think more like something Stanley Kubrick said: “I don’t believe that the best restaurant in town is the one with the longest lines waiting to get into it.”
Thanks for your time and interest in my work. I appreciate it, not just for me, but for all those people who helped me make the films I have been able to make.
Purchase and download Jay’s music for the film Island of Lost Souls here.