Anyone can be a filmmaker. Today, there are over one billion global Smartphone users (give or take the odd million) who have the ability to record and playback homemade videos instantly in the palm of their hand. These videos can reach a worldwide audience within seconds, simply by uploading the videos at the touch of a button. Over the last decade, the Internet has become a space for abuse, overuse and misuse, which has become a major focus throughout the media. However more positively, it has become a useful ground for advertising your work, and getting your name out to a worldwide audience, particularly with the help of social network sites.
Student filmmaker Mark Schoonmaker is one such person who recognizes the Internet as a useful tool for self-promotion. Hailing from San Jose, California but currently residing in Rockville, Maryland, Mark’s two short films Pitch Black Heist and Hindrance have managed to reach a global audience simply by him promoting his work on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. “As an up and coming filmmaker and storyteller, the internet has been a tremendous help to get my film work seen by people in other states within the U.S. and people that live outside the U.S.” says Mark. “I’m grateful so far for people who have seen my work on the web. I live in the times nowadays that self-marketing is becoming common amongst people like me who are still starting out. Ultimately I’m apart of the digital age where people use the Internet to share stuff, whether it’s advertisements or showcasing their talent in the various forms of creativity: music, art, film, etc. The Internet is a helpful tool to get work out there but also is a great promotional tool as well. Overall, it’s has been incredibly useful to me and I plan to continue to use it as much as I can to get my work out there and have that opportunity to have people see what I create as a filmmaker. It’s the best feeling to know people in a different State or outside the U.S. in either the UK or Hong Kong saw your film and really enjoyed it by just a click of a button.”
To date, Mark has written and directed two short films that he has promoted online to reach the worldwide audience he speaks of. Pitch Black Heist and Hindrance are two thrillers with somewhat of a supernatural edge. The former follows a couple of burglars who break into a house and get more than they are bargained for, and the latter follows a ghost hunter whose investigation leads to a tragic series of events.
Accompanied by a darkly haunting beat, Pitch Black Heist follows Joel (Johnny Stopher), a thief who effortlessly breaks into a house (rather brashly in broad daylight) and then proceeds to search the rooms for valuables. As a second burglar enters the property, in a dark storage cupboard the pair stumble across a strange black box with mysterious and consequently threatening powers. Schoonmaker’s use of hand-held cameras in the film places the audience right in the action, situating them as a third burglar and giving an overall scopophilic vibe to the narrative. The low rumbling beat of the music acts as a reminder of the undercurrent danger that the burglars are placed in, adding a sense of nervous disposition for the spectator. Ambiguous and open-ended, Pitch Black Heist serves as a great introduction of Schoonmaker’s abilities to create a short film with lasting impression. I spoke to Mark to discuss his film, and what it was that inspired him to become a filmmaker.
Let’s rewind to before Pitch Black Heist. What films did you watch growing up that inspired you to want to become a filmmaker?
Growing up in San José, California, the films that inspired me to become interested in film were 1930s horror films with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, which I’d always watch in the library after school. Also the James Bond films with George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton had a huge impact on me and a ton of ‘90s actions film such as Terminator 2, Speed and Face/Off. War films as well grabbed my attention as well such as Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line.
Are there any specific ‘90s actors that come to mind?
Leonardo DiCaprio. Watching films that involved him when I was seven made my interest in film grow which sparked an interest in acting.
What age would you say you were when you realized that the film industry was something you wanted to be involved in?
My interest in filmmaking never really began until I was fresh out of middle school and a freshman in high school. The 5 main films that inspired me to become a filmmaker is Dazed & Confused (all-time favorite film), 28 Days Later, Reservoir Dogs, Batman Begins and Red Eye. But looking back I’m grateful for the people I grew up around when I was younger and exposing me to the things to have such a huge & passionate interest in film. Because if I wasn’t really interested in acting, that would’ve never led me to another outlet which is filmmaking. In high school when I wasn’t able to get any roles after auditioning I let that aspiration go because it wasn’t working out. So I became interested and studied filmmaking and script writing ever since. But growing in California was a starting point for my creative mind for filmmaking.
You mentioned 5 films that have been the biggest influence so far, what about directors?
Bryan Singer, Chris Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Alfred Hitchcock, Danny Boyle, Nicolas Winding Refn and Richard Linklater.
So tell me about Pitch Black Heist. I read it pays homage to Twilight Zone. What was the process of making that film?
The way Pitch Black Heist came about is that I was really interested in making a sci-fi film. And this was my 1st attempt at making a short film, so I got in touch with my friend [Stopher] and presented him this burglar script about a thief who raids a house, but the hook was that the story had a sci-fi element to it. And the sci-fi part was unknown contents your character will stumble upon far behind your understand which turned out to be a mysterious black box, that when opening it, it’ll produce this impending blinding flash of light that’ll kill you if you make eye contact with it. But ultimately my thought process is how can I add this sci-fi element in the film but keep it still grounded in some kind of reality. You have the main character of the story, Joel, doing what typical house burglars do: stealing things and leaving the faucet on so it’ll flood the house kind of like The Wet Bandits in Home Alone.
I was originally going to have the film be about a father and how he teaches his adopted son to steal. And the story led to the father’s impending death and son witnessing an unexplainable event far beyond his understanding. But that idea seemed a little too similar to aspects of Leon the Professional with Jean Reno and Gary Oldman. So I changed it up to having Joel raid a house with a friend and his friend have the impending death when he becomes fascinated with the black box. Also going into the creative process of this film, I didn’t really want to explain the box in any way. Because I feel if I were to give info already about Joel might be searching for and providing the audience with that kind of information it’ll just ruin the surprise element of what’s in the big moving cardboard box.
I wanted to mix in this film the weird, bizarre stuff that makes up The Twilight Zone because I’m such a huge fan of that TV show mixed with the discovery of the unknown in a drama story with a sci-fi touch to it. The main influences for Pitch Black Heist was The Twilight Zone, The Box directed by Richard Kelly, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and ultimately J.J. Abrams’ TED Talk The Mystery Box. So that’s how the process of Pitch Black Heist happened.
Hindrance, the second film by Schoonmaker, is a considerably darker and more ambitious project. Paranormal investigator Dean Fray (Stopher) hired by the power hungry Mr. Webb to capture thirteen ghosts, and it upon him hunting down the final ghost that the tragic series of events in this film take place. Webb’s voice over states that the thirteenth ghost is the “final piece of the puzzle in my quest for power”, defining him from the offset as a man who will stop at nothing in the quest for immortality.
Not only is the film double the length of Heist, technically Hindrance is clearly a big step for the young filmmaker. The use of voice over, on location nighttime shooting, a narrative that revolves around suspense, murder and mystery (not to mention close-ups of smoking cigarettes) all lend noir feel to Hindrance both in narratology and aesthetic. Subsequently this combination plus the presence of Stopher might serve as a reminder to sci-fi fans of Harrison Ford’s character Decker from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. This time around, Schoonmaker has made more use of subjectivity, using point-of-view shots to place the audience directly in the action as opposed to giving the spectator the role of bystander as in Heist. In terms of auteurship, he has taken the elements that made Pitch Black Heist work and improve on them, most significantly the threatening music and sci-fi/noir narrative. In doing this, Schoonmaker has achieved a film that is a significantly more mature, and a significantly more accomplished project.
Where did the story from Hindrance originate?
I would have to say there were three specific films that influenced me: Alien, Inception and Thirteen Ghosts. I always liked the slow, suspenseful build up of dread in Alien and the intriguing corporate aspect in Inception. As for Thirteen Ghosts, I found the character of ghost hunter, Dennis Rafkin (Matthew Lillard) the most interesting character in the entire film. Even though he was a psychic hired to capture ghosts, what he was searching for was self-approval, a reason to like himself. So for Hindrance, I combined certain elements of those three films combined them with my own story and characters, and in turn elaborated on what the previous films did to create an atmosphere that builds dread along with some great supernatural suspense. But for my film, I wanted to lose some of the traditional ‘jump out your seat’ scares and focus more on realism than the extreme. The film has a serious tone but has minor humorous banter between the character of Dean and Mucine that helps to lighten the mood. Even though the film belongs in the horror genre, it was not intended to be scary per say. I wanted to provide the audience with a solid direction in story with characters that could be understood. I’m a huge fan of the horror genre, but fresh and interesting characters are becoming a rarity. Films nowadays use recycled, clichéd scare tactics with character development and story falling on the wayside. I always thought if I ever made a horror film, how could I bring a decent horror thriller to life with a story that matters and characters that are not flat. Overall, I wanted to provide an audience a really in depth central character that you could follow and be invested in his journey through difficult obstacles on his way to achieve a goal.
Hindrance appears to take inspiration from the Film noir movies of the 1940s and ’50s. Were these a conscious influence?
As interesting as that sounds, that was never a conscious influence. If it seemed to pan out that way to some, I’m intrigued people interpret or see my film that way. I think it’s interesting. Because I never really did see it from the perspective going in which I find really cool now that I look back at it.
Tell me about the inspirations behind Webb Corp.
The Webb Corporation was influenced partly by the Tyrell Corporation from Blade Runner and partly by Weyland Industries from Prometheus, but ultimately it’s hugely inspired by Cobol Engineering, which is the company that hired Cobb in Inception. That and the graphic novel The Cobol Job.
Finally, how have you seen yourself improve as a filmmaker in the time between Pitch Black Heist and Hindrance?
For Pitch Black Heist I learned the technical part of filmmaking. I’ve got the technical side down and how I want to shoot my film down to the specifics such as cinematography and lighting. I feel Hindrance has really showed tremendously how much I’ve grown as a filmmaker, for example my use of lighting is better and shots are even better as well along with a simple storyline that people can follow which is not quite so ambiguous.
Mark’s technical abilities have indeed improved significantly between the two films. What is more outstanding is that for this young student filmmaker, he is already planning projects well into the new year. As we speak, Mark is working on his next project, a psychological thriller called The Witching Hour, a project he promises will “be more focused on character development”. In a current world of remakes, reboots and recycling, it is stimulating to think of what the future holds for him, with his clear enthusiasm in wanting to entertain. Thankfully, with the Internet at his fingertips, and with Hindrance having been entered into Sundance 2013, we will be able to see Mark develop and flourish as a talented filmmaker. Anyone can be a filmmaker, but unlike Mark, not everyone can be a great one.
© Paul Anthony Jonze
Visit Mark Schoonmaker’s YouTube page, where you will find all his current projects and trailers.
Visit the official Hindrance webpage.
You can also find Mark on Twitter @loontheschoon