(Courtesy of Abandoned House Productions)
In an exclusive interview with Villain Media, writer/director/actor Clay von Carlowitz discusses the horror and drama in his short, The Shadow Scarf. Not only did the supernatural atmosphere behind The Shadow Scarf had to be built on-screen, he also had to capture “the romantic and sexual attraction between Jeffrey and Aurora.”
The Shadow Scarf begins on a cold and foggy night. An unsuspecting bartender, named Jeffrey, will find himself on a blind date with fate. During the night, Jeffrey will soon learn her name is Aurora. She brings a storm with her that no forecast could have predicted.
During our conversation, I went over with Carlowitz about the filmmaking process, collaborating with his co-star, Asta Paredes, and his upcoming projects with Abandoned House Productions.
Villain Media: Tell me about the moment that inspired Abandoned House Productions.
Clay von Carlowitz: During my sophomore year at Kenyon College, I was in a film class. At the time, there weren’t many film classes. As a drama major, I relished the opportunity to take anything related to film. Ultimately, I wanted a career in film as an actor and filmmaker.
One of my projects was a short film in my second semester of my sophomore year. I drew from my resources and I wrote a short supernatural thriller called, The House in the Woods. I cast my buddy as the lead and my professor as this crotchety old guy in his 70s. The premise is, this mischievous, regular dude is looking for this house in the woods he’s heard about. There’s a ghost story surrounding it. He gets directions from an old man who acts as the caretaker of a graveyard and ventures out into the woods. Of course he doesn’t return, and his girlfriend is looking for him. The old man gives the girlfriend the same directions he gave to the dude; implying she’ll disappear the same way.
In order to make it all look professional, I came up with a production company name. I built this mythology around an abandoned house on Kenyon College’s campus. The short was pretty well-received. I was obsessed with it and interested in making a sequel short. I was away my Junior year; I went to England, did lots of reflection. So when I got back to Kenyon, I wanted to act all the time and make movies. Because of finals, I did not have time at all to make this sequel short in my senior year. Once I graduated, I decided to stay that summer. I bid adieu to my Mom and I had one of my brothers come down. I shot scenes with him. I cast myself in the lead role. I used the same old man and expanded the story. It took half of my summer but I just developed this insane ambition to make a feature film. I went to LA and edited the movie on my friend’s equipment. Abandoned House just sat there for awhile.
Years later, when I had moved to New York, I did this B-movie with Troma. I met Asta [Paredes], my wife and frequent collaborator. We developed this web series called Pollution Nerdz, based on our characters from Return to Nuke ‘Em High. We just got used to making stuff with each other. Ultimately, we wanted to take our careers to the next level. We decided to return to our theatrical roots and we put on this production of John Patrick Stanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. For that production, we decided we would use my Abandoned House Productions banner. Basically, the thing was revived; it was a company again! We decided that if we were going to stick with this, we needed to take the next step. We filed for an LLC and became official. We produced our first short, The Slightest Touch, under that banner. The second production is The Shadow Scarf. Abandoned House Productions is officially our company; Asta Paredes and I operate it.
VM: After Abandoned House Productions came about, what was the inspiration behind The Shadow Scarf?
CC: Basically, I was in the middle of shooting another short horror film called They Never Left. I was on set during the last days of filming. I had this idea while I was waiting for setups. I started jotting ideas down in my notes section in my iPhone. I was drawing from my surroundings. I’m a bartender at Videology. I was stoking my imagination. There are scenarios where we’ll be open and it’ll just be dead. It’ll feel very unsettling. You start to think, anybody can walk through that door. People come in and pretend to be someone else, talk to you in this anonymous context. It’s dubious what they say because it could be truth or fiction; I was fascinated by that.
I was fascinated by this bartender who was pretending to be this mentor, but ultimately wanted you to drink more and spend more money. From my own experience watching other bartenders, I’ve learned that they can be really shallow people just trying to seem more interesting than they actually are. What does it mean to be a charming individual free of consequence?
I started thinking back to my days in college, and my time there where I was in a fraternity. I had a falling out with the fraternity and wanted out of it. It was speaking to a need in me. I liked having a fraternal atmosphere around me. I liked having fun. At the same time, I was making friends with the drama kids. As a frat boy, I felt like sort of a domineering presence and wondered what it meant to have fun at other people’s expense. I was around situations where some people were humiliated or jokes made at their expense. Not necessarily involved, but I am guilty of laughing along with it, like a third-party observer. It’s this kind of removal where I’m thinking, does that third-party observer have some culpability? Maybe I should have stood up for somebody; maybe I should have set myself apart. Maybe I was a good friend to some people, but I didn’t respect that friendship as much as I should have. I just felt retroactively guilty not being as good a friend as I could have been.
I wrote about a guy tending bar in the dead of night and this girl from his past shows up. She is a force of nature all her own and he does not see it coming. Ultimately, he must confront something that he was party to way back when, way back in college.
VM: You’re switching hats as an actor/writer/director. Tell me about the challenges of playing multiple roles on set while portraying Jeffrey on-screen.
CC: For me, to make my job as an actor and director easier, I made sure to do as much prep work as possible. I storyboard every single shot. I went over these shots one by one with my DP. I made sure he knew what i wanted. We had rehearsal one night after I closed Videology. We went over some of the trickier stuff. We had a feel for what we would do in our location. We blocked some of the more physical stuff. Asta and I have characters who are violent towards each other. We trust each other a great deal. In our spare time, we would read our lines together.
We treated it like a play. I trained in theater. I read and performed material from David Mamet, Harold Pinter. I was playing to my strengths. Friendly interactions build to dark, insidious subtext. I love when characters take advantage of confined space. I like how people reveal themselves when they’re stuck in a small space together.
I wanted to treat it like a play, hence the scene work. We broke things down bit by bit. We got a feel playing these characters against one another, building off the trust we already had. It’s a romantic and sexual attraction between Jeffrey and Aurora, but there’s layers of history. There’s hurt, pain somewhere at the center. Ultimately, that’s going to come out.
VM: Do those same challenges arise when acting alongside Asta Paredes, who plays Aurora?
CC: This is not the first time we’ve done something this intense. I knew Asta could bring it! I knew she could go there, in a way that felt real. It’s like agreeing that, we’re going to take these roles on, it’s going to hurt in some way but we have a trust we can always gravitate back to. It wasn’t easy, I’m not going to lie. Little things would set us off. Every now and then, she would pull me aside and say, “Look I’m sorry, it’s this character. I’m just in a different place lately. I’m still here.” It helps to have a good rapport with somebody, otherwise acting can expose you where you don’t want to be alone; it hurts you even more.
Outside of that, we’re making a movie. When it’s time to deliver, we’re going to have to; there’s no excuse. There’s no room to wiggle around. Once we’re on the clock, there’s no turning back.
It’s being billed as a horror thriller because there’s an ambiguously supernatural vibe to the atmosphere. At its heart, it’s a pretty heavy drama. I think the audience will be very pleased with the result.
VM: Tell me about getting the perfect shot. You mentioned storyboarding before.
CC: The last time I storyboarded was for specific scenes in the feature-length version of The House in the Woods. Those sequences were effective cinematically, at least image-wise. When you plan it out like this, it looks exactly like the way you wanted it to. It helps to free you up on set; you know what you’re going to get. I’m cool with improvising but in this case, it needed to be storyboarded because it’s the genre. I’m crafting suspense. I wanted to make sure those visual cues were met. I drew from Spielberg’s, Hitchcock’s, DePalma’s stuff. I used my skills as an amateur sketch artist. It is an invaluable tool.
VM: Because you have been on-screen with Return to ‘Nuke Em High and My Bloody Banjo, did you ever feel like you were taking characteristics of other directors you’ve worked with?
CC: The way I would answer that, if I could step back to 2012, when I auditioned for Nuke ‘Em High, I found out about it from my roommate. I thought, that sounds interesting! It was billed as B-movie horror. I asked my other roommate about it. He explained to me what Troma is. I made a career decision there. I had grown up with horror movies. I love a lot of them! I’m attracted to the darker ones, the more character-driven ones. My friends knew I liked to reenact scenes from them and to scare people. If I did this B-movie horror movie, that might be a great entry point for me. It’s a well-known production company. Maybe it’ll lead to more straight, psychological horror.
I did My Bloody Banjo, it’s a similar like to Nuke ‘Em High, but maybe more character-driven; it has a looney sensibility. It dawned on me that I had to embrace this background I have with horror. I will do the best I can to get footage in dramas and plays, but in building my resume and relationships with people, I have to acknowledge this territory and work it. These are the people I’m building a career with.
If I saw things in Nuke ‘Em High and My Bloody Banjo, I would say no. I wasn’t influenced by them specifically. As a filmmaker, I don’t have an interest in making B-movies or meta sci-fi comedy. I want to make effective stories about the darker side of human nature. Sometimes, those stories lend themselves to the horror genre and or are suspense-oriented.
I think The Shadow Scarf works as an effective piece of cinema. But I also think it works as story of two flawed human beings. It’s a nice mixture to give to audiences.
VM: When Roger Corman created New World Pictures, he wanted to be “the best of the cheap acts.” Where does Abandoned House Productions want to go from here?
CC: We want to be known as an edgy film production company. Edgy is a loose term but we want to do work that is provocative, sometimes overtly political, and yet deeply personal. We’re working towards our first feature film, which I would call a romantic/mystery thriller. When we get to the point where we’re able to make it and get it out there, we can build a bridge to a straight indie drama. As filmmakers, Asta and I have a lot in common. We have our own fascinations and quirks. She’s into French New Wave, Italian New Wave, and Euro art films. I’m very much into Hitchcock, Polanski, and love most of the movies Jack Nicholson did in the ‘70s. I think essentially we want to return to films that made were made more often in the ‘70s. It has a dark heart but a heart all the same. I want to wrestle values of family, love, and fighting to be an individual.
I want these films to rivet the audience. I want them to deliver cinematically and suspense-wise. I would say, everything we’ve done so far, we’ve drawn from a very personal place. She’s working on a short about women and the challenges they face when trying to express anger. I’m already scripting my next thing that draws from my own family history. We want to make stuff that provokes, stuff that’s personal, and mix it up in a way that can be loved by a film-going audience.
VM: What other projects are you working on now?
CC: The first thing that comes to mind, a few months ago, I was asked by a theater company if I wanted to put on a piece for a benefit performance. I wrote a monologue and they liked it, but they asked if I could do something more political. I thought about it and decided to draw from H.P. Lovecraft, who had a lot of xenophobic and progressive views. I thought he was a kind of contradiction. I wrote a 7-8 minute monologue and they liked it. On Asta’s encouragement, I submitted my piece to Without Bounds, a little one-act pay festival and they chose it to play next month, July 13th. Asta is going to be directing me and I’ll going to beef it up a little bit.
I also just finished principal photography for They Never Left, a supernatural mumble core thriller. I’m working with with Michael J. Kospiah , the screenwriter behind The Suicide Theory. He’s developing a feature film version of They Never Left. The short will be making the rounds at film festivals in the fall. We hope to get funding for the feature, for which I’d return as Darwin, a cynical hipster and functional alcoholic battling internal demons, and seeing ghosts in his new apartment. We’ll be hitting festivals with The Shadow Scarf and The Slightest Touch. A meta slasher thriller I had a supporting role in, Cut Shoot Kill is coming out on VOD this coming August. Volume 2 of Return to Nuke Em High will be making the rounds and hitting home video. I’m actively writing my next short film. Asta and I are aiming to produce a handful of shorts this year. Hopefully we’ll get the feature film, Moniker, off the ground; our cinematic journey continues.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
For more updates, announcements, and screenings, check out The Shadow Scarf here.
– By Jorge Solis