Interview with James T. Warbington, the Director of The Black Earth, an Indie Zombie Comedy Short Film

James T. Warbington and I go way back. I first met him through his cousin Mark Warbington, who had the most awesome basement of networked computers in Atlanta, when I used to live there. While I was playing Battlefield 1942, he was talking about making music and movies.

Eventually, I helped James as a furniture wrangler on his first 48-Hour Film Festival project, The Trials of Job, an irreverent take on a modern Job-like character. Then, he and I collaborated on our second 48-Hour Film Festival project, Another Monster, a club heist gone wrong on Halloween night.

Now, James has directed and co-wrote The Black Earth, a short zombie and comedy film that you can watch above. James has shown it at a number of film festivals, and it is on many video websites including YouTube, Funnyordie.com, and Vimeo. I have just learned that it is also an official selection of the Minneapolis Underground Film Festival.

James took some time to let me interview him for DynamicSubspace.net. I was interested in his experience creating, promoting, and funding his film. His answers to my questions below might also be useful for aspiring filmmakers and other troublemakers.

Jason W. Ellis (Jason): What originally inspired you to make The Black Earth?

James T. Warbington (James): Bored. I had been working on the television/mini series script for “saints of the phoenix” a sci-fi thing for 2 years, and since the money Ain’t there, I figured drunk fighting rednecks. Kinda had the ideas for the characters from stone cold Steve Austin and Kurt Angle’s late-attitude era coupling in WWE, but also the Boondock Saints, as far as the dynamic of characters. Not to mention I got stuck working in retail once the economy collapsed, been there ever since. Can’t get Out, or so it feels. So it helps keep you focused on a goal. I work to live now; I use to live to work.

Jason: How would you describe the experience of making The Black Earth? What worked well during production, what caused problems, and what completely fell apart?

James: Casting fell apart, but wound up being the greatest mistake of my life. I was new to Wisconsin and didn’t know actors, after several attempts at trying to find people I got many insane people from craigslist- but I got Quinn Levandoski and Rob Romero. Rob is new to acting, but gives 110 percent; Quinn has been both behind and in front of the camera so he worked hard on both side of the camera. The rest of the crew came through them, other than Hank (Jefferson Traywick), Johnny (Jon Dannelley), and Sara (Jenny Nicole Helms), who came from Kevin Wayne Casting Studios in Birmingham, Alabama.

Jason: What has your experience been like sharing The Black Earth at film festivals?

James: Film festivals are tough. Most film festivals are similar to high school and early college cliques. You only get in if you pay an ass of money or know someone. That’s always been my experience. I chose to enter into free or cheaper festivals, simply because I don’t like wasting money. Iris film festival in Huntingdon, PA has always been kind to me and Chris Robbins from Family Curse Productions, they usually play anything we give them, now if we give them a shitty short film it gets played at a shitty time. But black earth was prime time, and encored on the Saturday. Driftless was a great experience; I actually went out to Platteville, WI and Baraboo, WI. Most of the other festivals consider us too lowbrow. Like a local film festival in Wisconsin that promotes Wisconsin film makers, reject nearly half of the short films made in Wisconsin this year and opted to play an encore presentation of the Los Angeles film festival best of short films, not one day but all three days of their festival. So how is that celebrating Wisconsin film makers? I’m just not sure, sounds like politics to me. Sidewalk film festival seemed to be hurting for local artists, so they called us asking for the film even in rough draft form. Once completed 2 weeks later, we sent it, they rejected it said they had enough and we wouldn’t be considered, but we adjusted out editing schedule specifically for them. Indy film festivals overwhelmingly are based on who you know, so just because you are officially selected or a winner don’t really mean that much. We’ve been accepted to four film festivals, but I didn’t bake a cake and pass out party hats, I just try and help with support of the other films and mine as well.

Jason: What has the reception for The Black Earth been like online? Any good comments stand out in your mind?

James: It has been pretty good online. I try to keep it out there, funnyordie, vimeo, youtube, plus the response on Indiegogo.com is solid, not where I want it, but solid as we try to et donation to create and fund the feature film. Zmdb picked up on it, as well as imdb, so it’s getting attention.

Jason: What strategies have you used to promote the film in addition to showing it on popular websites and in film festivals?

James: We have a merchandise section now for t-shirts and stuff, but basically due to the rights and contracts I have with Minhas Brewery and Sideone Dummy records and Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, I can’t mass produce a DVD of the short film. Don’t get me wrong I am extremely happy that Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band let me use their music for free, and product placement with the Mountain Creek Beer product, which they changed the name during the filming to Mountain Crest, so it messed with us a little. But out of respect for them legally and also because they both are great groups of people letting a little indie filmmaker with a camera use their stuff is like winning an Oscar! So interviews, festivals and online viewing, which I have to pull the film effective June 2012–due to the licensing agreement, but hey a full year in cyberspace is cool with me.

Jason: Of the zombie killing, the female zombie death seemed to be the most graphic. Is there a reason that you chose to frame it that way?

James: Well Jon actually bumped Jennifer pretty hard in that scene, so she went down for real. Jennifer Helgeson was awesome though we did three takes of that and that was it, Jon adlibbed the winking part like he was hitting on her before he hit on her. There was no real reason why it may have seen over the top, just that when it comes to zombies, there are no genders.

Jason: You told me that you want to make a feature-length version of The Black Earth. What do you plan to call it?

James: THE BLACKEST EARTH

Jason: I have mentioned on DynamicSubspace.net before that you are raising money for this now on Indiegogo, a kickerstarter-like website for funding filmmaking. Share your vision with the feature-length version.

James: Well, it’s written. Hank and Johnny don’t have a car so they steal a hover round like wheel car to get around in. We’re adding gore scene now to the script, because we started out with just a random selection of jokes, and wouldn’t this be funny how can we make it fit. The ending has been the tough part; you got Seed and Feed Steve making an appearance, along with new characters that help continue the journey. The movie isn’t supposed to be the walking dead or even Dale and Tucker vs Evil (due out soon) it’s supposed to be more in your face. Funny, but less Hollywood bullshit and more insanity. Many films are so cookie cutter, so while writing this with Chris and Jefferey we want to add stuff you never think about and stuff you should forget. Like there is a scene where a person is shooting at Hank and Johnny from a roof top thinking they are zombies, when he discovers they aren’t he apologizes, but that’s not good enough for Hank, so it becomes an argument that attracts zombies…that sort of thing. To be honest when writing, you gotta be careful what you’re watching and reading. I listen to a lot of Unknown Hinson for inspiration and Hank 3. But if I watch Shaun of the Dead, I find myself writing a joke similar to theirs, and then I have to delete it once I figure out where it came from. It’s ok to mimic, just not blatantly rip off. So right now I’m not watching TV other that Boardwalk Empire and old Frisky Dingo episodes.

Jason: What have you already lined up for filming the feature in terms of support and equipment?

James: We got top shelf equipment, boom mics, cameras, lens, etc. The cost for us is the insurance and the fx. I’m the editor, director, and writer. So that comes easy, but squibs and stunts are hard to pull off in post when people don’t die naturally. With a limb being destroyed or a man’s guts being ripped out, only so far cgi will take you. Besides we’re keeping true to the grindhouse way, just have fun with it and do the best you can vs. Trying to make it all computer generated. Which gets overdone to hell lately. There will come a point where people won’t even use cameras, all movies will be made with Photoshop, which by definition isn’t film making. You gotta get out there and film it, even if it’s bad.

Jason: If you get the funding, what do you hope to accomplish? If you can’t get the funding, how will that limit your vision?

James: No funding=more slapstick movie, and more grindhouse edits–get the funding=just make a fun movie. Video on demand on amazon, DVDs selling out the back of the car, a few festivals, shop it around for distribution, etc. Just want to complete it, and see where it takes us. If it is shit, well at least we made it. I’m proud of the shit I made, because I made it. You’ve known me for a while, how many people can say they have done what I have done? I mean not tooting my own horn too much, but being the technical director for James Brown’s, the godfather of soul, funeral for live broadcast, working as game operations for the Boston Bruins of the NHL and all the various minor league teams, being in a punk band and touring the US three times, its one more thing to add to the autobiography…right? But seriously I hope it helps launch careers for everyone, to show how talented these actors and crew members are. There would have never been a James Warbington without all the people who helped me through, just like without the people in the short film the black earth there would never be feature length. So that said a lot of people believe in it even without my resume on the table (to be honest my resume seems to be laughed at with over 300 job applications…and i am still stuck in retail). The Black Earth to me, and probably to Chris Robbins as well is hope. We work our asses off at dead-end jobs with crappy pay and it’s what ya look forward to, you laugh at the daily situations trying to figure out ways to make a joke out of something that to be honest isn’t a joke, it’s yer life. So no use in crying about how shitty it is, just do something, anything. That’s what the black earth has become. So I think no matter what happens the film will get done, and it will be successful because it kept us sane through the rough times. Isn’t that what it’s all about suspended disbelief. Even for the writers and directors?

Jason: What projects would you like to carry out in the future after the feature length The Black Earth?

James: Saints of the Phoenix- it’s hell and insanity inside a spaceship….Firefly on drugs, Star Trek with a laugh track, Star Wars without Lucas adding stuff….it’s gonna be what I leave behind for generations to enjoy. Hahaha!

Jason: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Do you have any last remarks that you would like to share with my readers?

James: Donate! And do something, whether it’s protest Wall Street, record an album or make quilts…just get out there and be productive. The way the world is today, you gotta live for you, can’t sit back and watch it, gotta be it, and drink as much alcohol that you can while you’re doing it…that way if you screw up, you won’t even remember.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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One comment on “Interview with James T. Warbington, the Director of The Black Earth, an Indie Zombie Comedy Short Film
  1. […] my friend James Warbington (who I worked with on two 48 Hour Film Festival projects and interviewed here. He has gone on to shoot the feature film, The Black […]

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Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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