The Dark Tapes

Chilling Out

Cortney Palm


Chilling Out is where TrunkSpace talks all things horror and genre with those who work in the projects that give us the thrills and chills to keep coming back for more. This time out we’re talking with Cortney Palm, an actress who has appeared in films like “Zombeavers,” “Death House,” and “Sushi Girl.” And although she enjoys the genre just as much as the rest of us, it is a different type of film, those that have something meaningful to say about humanity and our world, that she is most drawn to these days.

We sat down with Palm to talk about her particular set of (police) skills, how she got her start in horror, and what type of movie she would make today if she were given a cool 20 million to spend.

TrunkSpace: We read that there was a time when you actually stepped away from acting for awhile, but it ultimately pulled you back?
Palm: Kind of. It’s sort of a long story. I started when I was younger and I was doing things in Colorado… beauty pageants and shit like that. And then I went to California to get my undergrad, so I started acting then, but I never really fully went away from it. I got my master’s while I was filming “Zombeavers.” It was an online school, so I never really stepped away. I just sort of fell off the map a little bit. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: Your focus in school wasn’t entirely acting though, correct?
Palm: My undergrad was in theater and then I decided, “Well, I need something more substantial than that. This business is kind of difficult financially and I’m going to be a cop.” So, I was like, “Okay, as a cop, what can I do?” So I got my master’s in forensic psychology so that I could actually help implement change in the police departments because I felt like there were a lot of ways that could be fixed in terms of the academy and how the officers are trained and internally how they could work with criminal offenders in the justice system. So that’s what I was going to start doing and instead I booked like seven films the following year and I just got swamped.

I actually applied for Santa Monica PD and I went all the way through backgrounds. I was one of the top candidates in the agility course. I made it all the way to backgrounds and was about to have my Chief’s interview and they were like, “Sooooo… you were naked in movies. How is that going to affect you when you’re in court?” And I was just like, “It’s not.” But, basically I think that’s the reason why I got denied. I was like, you know what, fuck it. I’m done. I don’t care about the police department anymore and I’m moving on.

TrunkSpace: Having that police-based skill set must also be beneficial when navigating the Hollywood landscape, particularly on the psychology side of things.
Palm: Oh yeah. Definitely. It’s an asset for sure. Not only for dealing with people and being more comfortable in front of people, but also for stunts. I remember we were filming “Death House” and my costar Cody Longo and I were just clueless how to hold a gun and our flashlight at the same time. We were like, “What are we doing?” (Laughter) The following day we actually had some training.

TrunkSpace: You’ve appeared in a number of horror and genre movies. Was that always the intention in terms of the types of projects you wanted to be involved in?
Palm: I’ve always loved horror. Not necessarily the gritty kind of grindhouse kind of horror. I really liked “Mirrors” and “The Descent” and “Child’s Play,” even though that is kind of genre. “Gremlins” and things like that.

TrunkSpace: “The Descent” is a great horror movie in that the fears exist on multiple layers. Not only are there creatures involved, but there’s this claustrophobic feeling to the film that rubs off on the viewers.
Palm: Oh, it’s so well done. Their fear feels so real. Yeah, the fact that they can’t get out of the space because they’re stuck in it… it definitely freaks you out. I’ve just always loved horror films like that.

I was actually in college and my friend’s bed kept getting wet and nobody knew what was going on. So then we went to the movies and we watched “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and then we came back and her bed was wet again. We’re like, “What the hell is going on!?!?” So then I got on her bed and I started acting possessed, like I was Emily Rose. I was really into it. And so they called the school pastor and the RAs and called the cops. I was like, “What the fuck you guys? I’m just kidding around! I’m just acting!” Needless to say, I no longer roomed with them after that.

So yeah, I’ve always been drawn into that, but I think that when you’re new to Hollywood you don’t really have a lot of direction. I didn’t have a lot of direction. I didn’t have a manager or a publicist to sort of help me head in the right direction. I just answered a lot of Craigslist ads and that’s how I got into the horror industry. Those are the ones that are like, “Willing to get naked or topless and covered in blood and prosthetics.” Things like that. I was like, “Sure, I’ll do it.” That’s, I think, where I got sort of pigeonholed in that regard.

TrunkSpace: It is a genre that seems to not always be willing to let people out once they’re in. Do you take that into consideration now when you’re choosing projects to work on?
Palm: Yeah, you do get pigeonholed and everyone sort of recognizes you as, “Oh, she’s a genre actor.” I think that really sort of stunted me in terms of growing in the television world. I don’t think that casting has an imagination that can see past that. No ill offense to anybody in casting, but it’s sort of true. They don’t have that ability to see that you can do TV and it’s unfortunate because you can be a solid indie actress or actor and you can be carrying a whole move. And what they don’t see is that in indie films, you’re also your own stunt double, your own stand-in, and you’re sort of wearing multiple hats when you’re doing these films. You’re more than capable at that point to carry a TV show. It’s just a matter of fan base and when you don’t have the fan base that’s more mainstream, you’re unfortunately going to miss out on those other opportunities.

TrunkSpace: We actually spoke with someone recently who was told that someone got a part over them because that other actor had more Twitter followers. While the industry has never been about talent alone, that does seem like a big leap to now no longer get parts based on your social media presence.
Palm: Right. To be honest, and this is sort of… whatever, I don’t care that I’m giving this away. I remember one of my costars from “Zombeavers.” We were like, “Why the fuck did this person get cast? We don’t understand.” And they were like, “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” It was only because of what they brought to the table beforehand with followers and previous awards. It had nothing to do with film and they had no idea what they were doing in the movie. It was sort of frustrating for all of us, veterans sort of, who had been there for awhile. It was just like, “Okay, that’s what this has come down to.” It’s frustrating and it’s annoying and you can whine and bitch and say that it’s not fair, but in the end, everyone deserves a chance, so you’ve just got to allow that to happen for them.

TrunkSpace: It does seem like Hollywood is hedging their bets now more than ever, and that’s nowhere more apparent than in movie theaters where everything is based on some sort of preexisting material these days. There’s not a lot of original ideas in the current climate of things.
Palm: The original ideas don’t get picked up and there’s some great movies that I’ve been a part of that no one will ever hear of. They’ve been inventive and new. And my character has been fully-clothed! And they’re really thought-provoking. No one wants to buy that because it’s not selling right now. What’s selling is horror and children stories/animation and of course romance always does, but it’s these superhero movies that are getting people wanting to feel like there is something more to their lives. You can either be a superhero or rely on superheroes to save the world and change the world.

TrunkSpace: It does feel like escapism due to the current state of things. You can watch the news, be totally turned off by the world around you, and then put on a superhero movie and just escape in that and feel a sort of hope for a better tomorrow.
Palm: I agree. There’s a lot of times that I’m sitting down in front of the TV and looking for a movie. “Oh, that’s too much. That’s too sensitive for me right now. I don’t want to cry. I don’t want to laugh. I just want to see Tom Cruise hanging off the side of an airplane. Cool. Let me just lose some IQ points and pretend I’m going to save the world.” (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: Being in indie films must also be a bit frustrating because a lot of times they sort of linger after the shoot and don’t see the light of a day for a long time. We’re sure a lot of that is financial, but it must be hard after you put all of yourself into something and then don’t see the final result for years or sometimes not at all.
Palm: Oh, definitely. There’s this independent film I did called “Tourbillon” and it took a while for it to get anywhere. It does come down to finances and even now, if you try to submit to festivals, they’re very picky about what kind of theme or genre they’re going to accept for that year. And not only that, the money just really isn’t falling into your lap. A lot of these festivals say that they’re independent films, but these films really still have four million dollar budgets! Some of these movies that I’m doing are passion projects that I think are beautiful stories and there’s no budget. There’s nothing there and it’s sad because these people are really talented and you really want to see it go somewhere.

You just get to really bond with everybody and it’s nice because it’s small, comfortable, and everyone is really there to make art. It’s not a job or a paycheck. I mean, especially in indie film, it’s NOT a paycheck. It’s just a good experience.

TrunkSpace: So if someone came along and gave you 20 million dollars tomorrow to produce your own starring vehicle, what type of project would you develop for yourself?
Palm: A few years ago myself would say something like “Underworld” or “Resident Evil” or “Tomb Raider.” Something like that. And I would use practical effects and stages. I have a theater background so I would prefer to use a soundstage. I don’t want to waste materials though, so if we had the opportunity to go out on location, that’s great, but I don’t want any green screens or a lot of CGI. I’d like to do mostly everything with practical effects. And with that kind of a budget, you’re allowed that opportunity to play more with the practical effects and your props and things like that, which I really like. So, that’s my old self. I mean, I still kind of want that. I really like that superhero… the femme fatale, the woman who is in charge and on top and can do all of her own stunts and really cool scenes like that.

But, myself right now? I’m vibing more towards something that would be more profound in a way that’s more enlightening for humanity. I would like to make something very beautiful… something along the lines of “Moonlight” where it touches on a subject that people are sort of closed off too. I would really like to do something that represents unity and compassion for all earthlings, in a way that’s sort of on an indie scale.

TrunkSpace: And going back to what we were talking about, those are the films that are unfortunately not made enough these days. Or if they are, they don’t get the attention.
Palm: They don’t get the attention. Definitely not. But they will touch those few people that actually watch it and that’s what I want. My “Female Fight Club” costar and I, Amy Johnston, we made a video that represents unity and how we are literally all made of the same elements. The same five major elements that our bodies are made up of, is what the earth is made up of. It’s the elements that are in the universe and it’s such a beautiful thing to know that we’re all connected. It doesn’t just stem to humans. It’s plants and animals as well. I feel like we’ve all lost that. We can see it in the animated films like Disney movies and things like that, but I think we’ve just lost that sense, you know? It’s all about instant gratification and “me” and “how can I get on top” and “who can I step on to get there.” I just really want to make a movie that can inspire people to better understand a collective conscious thinking and an enlightened way of life.

TrunkSpace: You are someone who is not afraid to speak her views and opinions on things, whether it’s here with us or on social media. That being said, it seems like a rough time to do that because of how divided everybody is and how willing people are to jump on others for speaking their mind. Is it scarier to express yourself these days with that in mind?
Palm: It’s an interesting thought process that you have because I totally see where you’re coming from, but from my perspective, I’ve been that way since I was young. I’ve always been outspoken. I’ve always stood up for the underdog. I’ve always tried to promote unity. I’ve always been that way since I was a kid.

Palm’s latest movie, “The Dark Tapes” is available now on video on demand.

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Chilling Out

The Dark Tapes’ Michael McQuown


Chilling Out is where TrunkSpace talks all things horror and genre with those who work in the projects that give us the thrills and chills to keep coming back for more. This time out we’re talking with Michael McQuown, writer, producer, and director of “The Dark Tapes,” a found footage horror/sci-fi mashup that has been scaring up fans on the festival circuit.

We sat down with McQuown to talk about the film’s extended shelf life, stolen furniture, and how the plot all came together in the final hour of production.

TrunkSpace: Horror seems like one of the few genres where you can still build a decent audience by word of mouth alone. From your perspective, is marketing a horror movie different than another genre?
McQuown: Well, I would say yes because the horror people seem to be quite fanatical. They watch everything they can get their hands on. That’s why there’s so much bad horror made because they might have one good gory scene in it and the horror fans will still gobble it up. So you do have a fair amount of genre content being done for a low amount of money because they just know they can make a profit on it and turn it around. Hopefully… hopefully we try to go for something better than that, but people have their own particular tastes.

TrunkSpace: Since the film’s release, what has brought it the most amount of attention and put it on people’s radars?
McQuown: The first festival we got accepted into was the Phoenix Film Festival/International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival. That was last April. A few reviews came out of that, I think six of seven, and all but one was positive, and there were some tech issues still to fix on the film. I submitted to a bunch of other festivals too and then we started winning five awards and then 10 awards and then 20 awards. I tried to make as many festivals as I could and I talked to a couple of the festival directors and they were just like, “We really, really love you film.” And I’m like, “Are you sure?” I’m it’s own biggest critic since I know it so well. And they were like, “Trust us… we got X number hundreds of submissions and yours is right there on the top.” And then actually we got into some non-genre film festivals and surprisingly the couple that I attended there, the audience members were actually even more inquisitive than the genre people. They were like, “We normally would never even see a horror film, but we really liked it.” And then the people would quiz me for a half hour or 45 minutes on stuff. So, hopefully it struck a nerve. Now we’re up to 61 awards and nominations, so there definitely seems to be an audience for it. I think that’s spread over 30 festivals and competitions… the 61 awards are. And we’re up to about 50 reviews and all but two are positive, so it seems to be striking a chord with people.

TrunkSpace: Another thing about the horror genre that doesn’t seem to apply to other genres is that it has a longer shelf life. Have you found that to be the case as you’re out supporting “The Dark Tapes?”
McQuown: Yeah. Maybe a model on this is… with a much larger budget, don’t get me wrong… but “The Taking of Deborah Logan.” I’ve checked out its IMDB rankings in the past year and you can see it just had a very long, slow fade from its initial VOD release. That definitely sort of became a word of mouth movie and then it got put on all these top movies of the year lists. So, hopefully that’s the case. We’re with Epic Pictures, just for the U.S., and they do have experience in genre stuff. But, still, we didn’t open in 30 theaters and have all of the reviewers from all those cities reviewing it, so we’re still working diligently on the marketing.

TrunkSpace: You spent many years working on the film. Was there ever a point where you thought it would never get finished?
McQuown: Well, I thought up the idea, basically… and I have said this in other forums… I saw “V/H/S.” One of the producers is a big horror fan and said, “Hey, you should check out ‘V/H/S.’” And actually a couple of weeks before that, the same producer said, “Hey, check out ‘The Pact.’” And I watched that and I thought it was a good movie. I researched it and I was like, “How come I didn’t hear about that?” It was straight to VOD. So I did some research and I found out that the VOD market was something that you could at least break even or make a profit on if you do a quality product and horror was the biggest genre in that market. And then when I saw “V/H/S,” a light went off and I went, “Hey, that’s what I’m going to shoot… a found footage anthology.” The thinking was, if we mess up the first story, we can go back and reshoot it and not have to reshoot a whole feature. (Laughter) And I knew my production costs would be lower, etc. etc. etc. And then when I saw “V/H/S,” I was like, “Yeah, that’s exactly how most found footage films should be done.” They should be done as like a mini feature because a lot of them just have the same problem where you’re sitting through the first 40 to 60 minutes with not much happening.

And so we shot “The Hunters & The Hunted,” the first full segment that you see in the film, in October 2013. And the idea was to shoot two other segments and one thing I’ve learned being an entrepreneur is that things always take three times longer and cost three times as much and delays are inevitable. And the delay that we had there… we had a great location and the idea was to rent a place at Airbnb and live at it… myself and the two producers who are also the primary crew members… and we would shoot there as well. So we rented a place and when we showed up, the furniture was gone. And we’re like, “What?!?!” The guy who presented himself as the owner was actually sub-leasing it/renting it on Airbnb and he just decided to steal all of the furniture. (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: Yikes. You can’t plan for something like that!
McQuown: Yeah. It took me about 10 days to find another location that we could live and shoot at. It was in LA so a lot of the owners were like, “Oh yeah, you can do it for $6,000.” I was like, “Well, we might only spend that much on the whole thing.” (Laughter) So, we were only able to do one segment and the two producers, who are British friends and flew out from London, went back. I then went back to Miami and then came out to LA and delayed everything for a year because I had some opportunities to make some more money. So in 2014 nothing was done. And then in 2015 we shot the four stories, one of which is not in the film, but it will be in the DVD as an extra bonus. And it’s not because of the quality or anything like that. I just realized as I was editing that it would push it towards two hours and I felt it would be a stronger film if it was under 100 minutes.

TrunkSpace: That also makes it interesting for people who have already seen the film to give it a second look.
McQuown: Exactly. Right now for people who pre-order and send us a screenshot of their iTunes pre-order, we’ll send them a screener link to the extra story in the summer when I finish editing it.

TrunkSpace: You wore pretty much every conceivable hat in the production of the film. What for you was the most difficult to manage while juggling all of the other duties you had at the same time?
McQuown: I can say the one that is the most time consuming and cumbersome and least creative would be casting. We used a casting director and now I can see the value of a casting director… just in the amount of time you’ll save. The casting director did cast four of the roles. Vincent Guastini, who did the practical effects and directed “To Catch A Demon”… he brought in Cortney Palm. But the rest of the roles, which was like over a dozen, we cast ourselves. We put ads in the right websites and trades in LA and we had probably 3,000 to 4,000 submit. So, that means I got to look through 3,000 to 4,000 headshots online, organize them into the right character, tag them as not good if it’s based on appearance, and now you’re down to 1,000 or 2,000, which I gave to the two producers. They then watched the tapes on the people… 1,000 to 2,000 people. (Laughter) And that got us down to a few hundred people that we scheduled for auditions. And then you’ve got to schedule them, which is a whole cumbersome process because you don’t want people all showing up at once. And then we had to actually book the audition space and go there and set up. It ends up being… that was probably 100 to 200 hours of work between three people to do all of that. So now I certainly see the advantage of the casting director. He already knows who is going to work for that rate that’s up and coming. The people that he brought in all had serious independent film credits. Some had supporting roles for studio stuff. Brittany Underwood was the lead in a Nickelodeon series and she was a well known soap actress for some years. He already knows those people, so for him, it’s probably two hours of work per role. (Laughter) Whereas if you’re going to do it from scratch, it’s 20 hours of work per role.

But I’m perfectly content and happy with the cast. They did a great job. And we got Emilia Ares Zoryan, who is the lead in the wraparound story from “V/H/S Viral,” through our own auditions, so we ended up getting people who had significant credits even through the open casting that we were doing.

I did have something that did help. I did mention that I was the original writer of “The Perfect Man,” which was a romantic comedy that Universal Studios made starring Hilary Duff, which is exactly the type of move that I would never make. (Laughter) I happened to know the person the true story was based on and I thought it would be an easy script sale. And it was. So, I would mention that in the casting listings, so I’m sure that helped us bump up interest a little bit.

But again, the cast was great. We gave them instructions to act very naturalistic because of the found footage nature of the film. And a little interesting note is, in “The Hunters & The Hunted”… because we had the delay with finding the location… that script was really only half done. About half of that was improv. Anytime that the ghost hunters are doing their research, that was all improv. I just told them to watch “Ghost Adventures” and other ghost hunting shows and then we bought actual ghost hunting equipment and the crew and I just hid in a room downstairs. There was one room that never got seen and we’d all just hide there. And it was just like, “Okay… do your thing for an hour.” They had the camera, we had them mic’d up with lavaliers and they just did a bunch of improv.

TrunkSpace: It sounds like the horror version of “Curb your Enthusiasm.”
McQuown: There you go! Exactly. But, it came out really well. And in the DVD we’ll be making an extended version of these scenes we cut out for running time purpose.

TrunkSpace: Some of the best cinematic moments come out of a those moments where an idea or an effect isn’t working and it forces filmmakers to think on their toes and outside the box. Did “The Dark Tapes” have one of those moments?
McQuown: Oh yeah. Absolutely. The demon in “To Catch A Demon” was originally supposed to be on wires and crawling up the wall and crawling on the ceiling and stuff like that. And myself as a first time producer, we had a stunt coordinator bring his whole wire set gear… someone who Vincent Guastini knew… and my fault, I did not have him come to the location to confirm that he could set up all of his wires, which he wasn’t able to because it wasn’t strong enough… the things for him to connect to. So, when we had the whole battle scene at the end with the demon and in other times where you see the demon, he wasn’t supposed to be standing like a person. If he was going to stand like a person, we would have had a different type of practical effect. So, I had to edit around that and the fight scene at the end just wasn’t quite working from what we had shot. He looked too much like a person in a practical effects outfit, which again, he wasn’t supposed to be standing. My fault for not consulting with the stunt coordinator. So we had an extra day of reshooting where we were going to reshoot some of the fight scene and literally with about an hour left to shoot… it just all of a sudden occurred to me that we should have the professor and Cortney Palm’s character Nicole be in multiple, we called it, time dilations, as if they were multiple universes simultaneously with multiple outcomes. I told Vincent, the director, I said, “Yeah… let’s just shoot some scenes of him saying that because then I can go more normal narrative crazy jump cut editing. I can edit anything and anywhere and I’ll make the fight work.” We had bits and pieces of the fight that worked fine, but because of the found nature of the film, you have no cutaways. So, you’re editing choices are very limited. And so literally, it was a very important plot point where he says, “Oh, we’re in multiple time dalations,” and then I realized that “To Catch A Demon” was actually going to be a standalone story. And as I was editing, I was like, “To Catch A Demon” should be the wraparound story, but, “How do I tie it in to the other stories?” At that point I had a way to tie it into “The Hunters & The Hunted” and I had a way to tie it into “Cam Girls,” but I didn’t have a way a way to tie it into “Amanda’s Revenge.” So, again this was all done in the last hour of shooting on one day of reshoots… I pulled David Rountree the actor aside and said, “You’re stuck in multiple time dilations and you’re going to say something worse is coming because you turned on the machine.” And the something worse that are coming are the aliens/demons, whatever you want to think they are, in “Amanda’s Revenge.” And then if you notice the time dates of the stories, that’s why I made “To Catch A Demon” a few years earlier, so then that way the “whatever” that’s coming… it took them time to get here through space because they got the signal from the machine. So, that entire very important plot turn… plot twist… was literally thought up in the last hour of the reshoot to fix the fight scene.

TrunkSpace: So having learned a lot of these first time producer lessons on the fly, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
McQuown: If I was advising any other filmmakers or people who want to become filmmakers, if you’re going to do it for zero budget… or as I like to say, this film is a negative budget movie because it comes out of my pocket… you’re going to have things come up. If you have skill sets as a good entrepreneur in crisis management… you’ve got to think on your feet and make lemon out of lemonade when it happens. And that’s what happened. We had a fight scene that needed improvement and it led to a critical plot change. We didn’t have time to shoot the wraparound story and instead it became the bookend story, which lead to the “To Catch A Demon” becoming the wraparound story, which ended up tying all of the stuff together better.

Learn more about “The Dark Tapes” here.

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