Talking with director Jeff Thomas for more than 13 Seconds. by Owen Keehnen

Jeff Thomas is awesome! His background was in commercial and wedding films but there was a dream building inside this guy for something more -- and that something was for (doncha you know it!) horror. He kicked off that dream in high & wild gear with his first movie. ’13 Seconds’ is one of those debut horror features that reallymade me sit up and take notice - & I’m sorta a jaded bastard when it comes to fright flicks. Jeff wrote, directed, and starred ’13 Seconds’ --- an accomplishment in and of itself and I’m as excited as hell to see what this guy comes up with next. He has the imagination, the skill, and brains to really take horror someplace new and exciting. The energy here is palpable.



Owen: Hi Jeff, let me say right off the bat that '13 Seconds' is absolutely fantastic!  People who haven't seen this horror flick - go run and rent this movie!  You've deservedly won a number of film festival awards with it, has that helped a lot with PR and with getting picked up and distributed?

Jeff: Thank you so much Owen, I cannot tell you how much I enjoy your site, so it is an honor to hear that. You're absolutely right about the festivals and awards. If you're an independent filmmaker they are very essential. After completing post on "13 Seconds" I realized one thing: I knew how to make a movie, but I knew nothing about the film business or distribution. No other medium walks the fine line between commerce and art like film, so it is very important that all future directors know everything about producing and marketing. After final cut, I must have sent out thousands of dollars in screeners to agents, distributors, and international agents-and all to no avail. I never heard one word back. From there I devised an online marketing campaign and the strategy to hit almost every film festival out there. Essentially, I just wanted the screenings to help with the advertising campaign and for something I could tell a distributor. I never imagined winning any awards and when "13 Seconds" did it was incredible. I am so thankful for all the support for the film, especially in light of its low budget. Obviously there are factors that strain the viability of the project because of the budget, but so many people have embraced the film on other merits: the story, the twists, the effects, the lighting, etc. And because of that I am so grateful. But with the awards and festivals came recognition and then distributors and agents started contacting me. Which was funny since all of them already had received screeners about 10 months ago. Without any recognition and due to the high volume of films out there, unless there is something attached to your project, more likely than not, it won't get watched. At this point, I had 13 offers on the table for distribution and it was nice to have the luxury to actually make my choice. Ultimately, I signed with Amy Steuer at Integration Entertainment who is a fantastic agent. She has been so instrumental in our DVD and television deals that have been successful, but she is also a very honest and down to earth person. I'd recommend every filmmaker that is looking for distribution to contact her. And the only reason we met was because of the awards.

Owen: You have filmed weddings and dozens of commercials and infomercials Through your film company, Rainstorm Productions, prior to shooting '13 Seconds'. What were the main things you learned from that experience that proved helpful prior to making a feature?

Jeff: The biggest thing I learned from my "day job" was how to shoot in a guerilla style to keep things on time and on budget. Also, with doing commercials and infomercials, you are conditioned to shoot images and edit in a style that will grab people's attention, since you have a very short time to communicate a product or service. Filmmaking is the same in that there is so much product out there for consumers and that you are competing with the major Hollywood releases. So work like that helped to formulate a style and even with low budgets, style will shine through. You want something that will help your film stand out and my shooting and editing style definitely helped "13 Seconds" and without the commercials that would never have happened.

Owen: And what was different or unexpected?

Jeff: As for what was different or unexpected, the special effects was the most difficult because I had never worked so intricately with the level of effects that we were trying to pull off. We had effects problems on a moment by moment basis. Some took a day just to prepare, then another full day to shoot. Plus, our effects were ambitious for our budget, so it was a constant battle to figure out how to pull those off.

Owen: So while you were making those other types of films was a feature film always the ultimate goal of your company? 

Jeff: Absolutely, my goal was always to do a feature length horror film. I knew back in high school that I wanted to do a film, but I realized that I could never afford to shoot an independent film. Video was the most obvious choice, but you still need the best toys. I pretty much started the business to help buy bigger video equipment to shoot a movie.

Owen: And was that movie always going to be horror?  If not what prompted the decision to make '13 Seconds'?

Jeff: Yes, without a doubt, the movie was always going to be horror. I love the genre and I am a life long fan. Plus, I feel there is so much a director and writer can do with the genre that has not been done before. So I was really up for the challenge of offering to the genre my own personal vision.

Owen: You wrote, directed, and also starred in '13 Seconds' - which of those (or combination) was the most challenging for you?

Jeff: The most difficult part was directing and acting. On low budgets it is difficult enough working with skeleton crews, but to combine additional roles makes everything even more restrictive. Many times it was a matter of establishing a shot then literally jumping in front of the lens. Plus, you have to not only monitor your own performance but also all the performances from every one else, from lighting to camera movement to other actors. With that in mind, writing is easy.

Owen: So when you get compliments regarding the film, and I'm sure you've received hundreds, what does it warm your heart the most to hear praised – your acting, directing, or writing?

Jeff: What warms my heart the most are the compliments for my directing. To me, that is the heart and soul of the film. Not to undermine writers, but film is a visual medium and it has to communicate to the audience in that way. And ultimately that is dictated by the director's vision and handling of the script.

Owen: Was it hard to direct yourself?  Was objectivity tough? 

Jeff: Actually, directing myself was not the most difficult portion of the shoot. Since I was the writer as well, I already had the character firmly established in my mind, which made the process all the more organic. Objectivity with yourself is always difficult, especially with low budgets, but it comes down to what will better impact the narrative.

Owen: The film contains such a myriad, such a delicious onslaught of crazy disturbing images and horrors.  What was the toughest effect or camera shot to get in the can?

Jeff: Thank you so much. The most difficult was one of the last shots, actually the last death scene. This was the denouement of the film, which was a tough shot to get as a director but I was in there as well as an actor. Acting wise, it was very arduous, physically and emotionally, and directing wise it contained a lot of crucial elements from actors to lighting. It was not fun at all and I couldn't wait for it to be completed.

Owen: Hey, and in the film the Band and their CD (or maybe one or the other, I'm not sure) was called 'Night Gallery' and there are other touches from the Rod Serling series as well...were you or are you a big fan of the show?

Jeff: Thanks for picking up on that, from the name of the band to the name of the academy and everything in between, plays a direct homage to the Rod Serling series and the Ambrose Pearce "Occurrence at Owlcreek Bridge" short story. I am a huge fan of both writers and the series in particular, including the "Twilight Zone," are still riveting to this day. It all boils down to great storytelling and many filmmakers could learn a lot from that, myself included.

Owen: Whose work has influenced you the most significantly when it comes to style and narrative?

Jeff: Actually, I have to split this answer between two great talents. Stylistically, my biggest influence is Dario Argento. His use of palette, composition, and lighting are truly under appreciated. He has such a bold cinematic vision that I wish it would move into the mainstream and receive the acclaim he deserves. As for narrative influences, I have to say Steven Spielberg. Say what you will about him, but his visual flair for telling a story and communicating to an audience is incredible.

Owen: Everybody who has seen this film is asking, "What is this guy going to do next?"  And the answer to that question would be....

Jeff: Thank you, and actually I can drop a couple hints. The next film looks like its going to be a new feature with an all star horror line-up, both in front of and behind the camera. It will be shot on film, it has a larger budget, and it will be a very hard R. I'm so tired of water downed PG-13 horror, and this film will transcend that by being completely subversive, brutal, and violent. And there will be no CGI, all old-fashioned mechanical and hands on special effects with a complete menagerie of creatures.

Owen: Tell me about this upcoming collaboration with R.A. Mihailoff, star of ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre III'. Is that the project?

Jeff: R.A. and I are collaborating on the aforementioned project. He has been very influential in helping to line up our all star horror cast and crew, but he will also be performing as another icon character.

Owen: So does the success of '13 Seconds' mean you are closing the book on filming commercials and such or is it a good balance and source of revenue?

Jeff: I have been very blessed by my commercial work and I have some great clients that have been with me for awhile, so I could never completely shut the door. Also, filmmaking is so volatile and I would definitely want something to fall back on.

Owen: What scares you in real life?

Jeff: What scares me the most is creatively if the well even ran dry. Whether it is in writing or directing, I am constantly afraid of becoming a total hack. And, I totally hate with a passion, airplanes and flying.

Owen: Thanks man, great chatting with you.

Jeff: Owen, thank you so much for the opportunity.