"Prairie Dog" follows a sheriff and enviornmentalist as they tail reports of a large shadowy beast haunting the valley as sociopathic criminals on the run vanish. Evernden's blends fantasy and horror in this atmospheric thriller. I had the opportunity to ask C. Blake Evernden a few questions about "Prairie Dog". Check out my interview with the multitalented Director below.
First, let me thank you for taking the time to do this interview.
A Southern Life: Your film Prairie Dog is soon to be released, what can horror fans expect?
C. Blake Evernden: Prairie Dog was always modeled after the monster movies of the 40s and 50s, which had a more playful use of the genre for scares and adventure. I looked to films such as The Thing From Another World, Them, and The Wolf Man as tonal inspirations, as well as that tone and genre being recalled in the 80s for films like Gremlins and Poltergeist. It’s not the Prairie Dog is aimed for a younger audience, but that the story was crafted with a certain old-fashioned filmmaking aesthetic, especially in the use of practical visual and makeup effects, crafting miniature environments, creature and prosthetic makeup design, handcrafted acrylic matte paintings, as well as the overall cinematic aesthetics and photography of that older genre.
A Southern Life: Where did the inspiration come from for the story?
C. Blake Evernden: The actual inspiration came from my own dog, actually. I’m often out in the valleys and fields with her and I was curious about what makes an animal tolerate us, or acknowledge this domesticity that we apply to them. Why do they choose our, somewhat boring, life instead of going back to the land and ruling for themselves? Now, this was the inspiration for the original draft of the script where the family had a dog and that dog, at a crucial point in the story, chose to not defend them from this title creature, but I carried that idea over into the nature of how we assume that the land is ours and that we hold dominion over every creature and animal out there. I wanted to make a film where we realized that wasn’t the case, where we were only here because something else allowed us to live as long as we didn’t present a threat.
A Southern Life: I watched the trailer, and I get the impression that there is more to the creature in your story, safe to say this isn't a film dealing with actual prairie dogs right?
C. Blake Evernden: No, I actually had fun with the title of it, cause with monster movies you often have to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the whole genre in itself, so the title is a bit of a wink towards that. The fact is that the title creature is a dog, per say, and its on the prairie, so it just seemed like a perfect choice. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the original draft that involved the family dog made the title have a nice dual meaning.
A Southern Life: You wrote and directed Prairie Dog. Which do you enjoy more, writing or directing?
C. Blake Evernden: They’re both so different. I really love working with actors, that’s the draw to directing for me. To be honest, the production process is such a very technical and laborious issue most of the time, and I’ve storyboarded the film meticulously so I often think of Hitchcock’s frustrations where he’s already made the film in his head and now there’s this tedious process of trying to extract that into the real world. It’s never perfect, it’s never exactly the way you imagine it, but at the same time that’s the challenge with any art. As a visual artist you have an image in your head, or sometimes just a feeling or an emotion, and the challenge is to try and communicate that to the rest of the world. If I never took up that challenge, then nobody would ever see what I see and we would never get to have a discussion like this.
Writing is a terrifying process in its own right. You have an idea of the story you want to tell, but then you start considering how everyone else has told a similar story. Do you follow in their footsteps or do you go your own way? You often hear that the blank page is the most terrifying thing to a writer, and that’s true, but only because every possibility is open to you and you have to make those hard choices.
So, to answer the original question, sometimes both. There’s a charge to writing an original idea and looking forward to sharing that written story with others, and then there’s a similar charge with interpreting that script in you own unique visual manner and sharing that story telling with the world. They’re both frightening and exciting in equal measure.
A Southern Life: You also did the creature design and make-up for the film. Have you always been into the special effects aspect of the industry?
C. Blake Evernden: Funnily enough, being involved with creature design and visual effects was the first thing I ever wanted to do in the film industry, ever since I was 10 years old. When you’re that age though, you never have the opportunity to explore those ideas unless you have a film to work on. My brother and my friends used to make short films all the time, but it wasn’t until I started crafting them myself that I could try to work in some of these makeup effects ideas.
As time went on I pursued filmmaking instead of visual & makeup effects, and it wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I decided to get back into it. I attended school for the craft, loved every minute of it, and then began working on independent features and shorts for the next few years after. When I came back to filmmaking the first thing I wanted to do was push myself to incorporate as much of what I’d learnt as I could, and since I knew this was going to be a very low budget affair, I would have to work on the most of the effects by myself.
A Southern Life: When did you decide you wanted to move from the effects side to direct?
C. Blake Evernden: I’ve always been directing so it wasn’t that I came around to directing but rather I came back to incorporating the effects side of things. My first feature, Living Proof, was a black and white murder mystery and it gave me the opportunity to work in a certain degree of makeup effects, but I hadn’t trained professionally as a makeup and prosthetic effects artist yet, so the effects were somewhat moderate. Once I had that training I was really curious to see what I could bring to the table for my next feature though.
A Southern Life: How gory and bloody is Prairie Dog? Are there a lot of kill scenes in the film?
C. Blake Evernden: It’s interesting, while I would consider Prairie Dog to be a PG or PG-13 kind of a film, I realized after we wrapped shooting that we ended up killing 9 people throughout. It never seemed like that much, but that’s the reality of it. It just adds up, strangely. Now, most of the kills scenes are designed as little set pieces that play on their own with beginning, middle and ends, but some are more elaborate than others. As you can imagine, the opening kill scenes are quite quick and elusive, while as the story progresses and we get to know the characters those scenes become more elaborate. Prairie Dog is actually not a really gory film, but there are a handful of moments designed to make the audience squirm a bit.
A Southern Life: How do you decide when to show the graphic stuff and when to leave it to suggestion?
C. Blake Evernden: It was never dictated by my aiming for a certain audience or rating, but rather avoiding what felt like excess, from a story perspective. The more I watched the film as I was editing it, the more I realized how little I had to show in certain respects in order to get the proper effect. Of course one does look to how successful other filmmakers have been in similar genre situations, and Jaws is number one in that respect. The gore is select and only for a very brief moment. But also, I always remembered that this was a relatively old-fashioned monster movie and the draw for those films was having all these colourful characters illustrate the scenario and prep us for the monster’s arrival. It wasn’t like a slasher movie where you were on the killer’s side, it had to be more balanced than that. I have a great empathy for my creatures, and for the landscape, but I also have a great empathy for the human characters of the story and so there had to be a way to balance my allegiances.
A Southern Life: What are some of your favorite creature features / monster movies of the past?
C. Blake Evernden: My favourite is probably the original Wolf Man from 1941, just because the atmosphere and the story telling are so well controlled, as well as having Jack Pierce’s incredible character makeup work. The film is only 75 minutes long but that’s a perfect length for it, it never feels too short.
I also love Wolfen from 1981, which thematically had a big influence on Prairie Dog, Jaws, Them, Creature from the Black Lagoon, which had an incredible empathy for the creature, and of course An American Werewolf in London, cause effects work doesn’t get better than that.
A Southern Life: When can fans expect to see Prairie Dog released? Has the official date been set?
C. Blake Evernden: I would love it if I could give a specific date for release, I’ve been living with the film for 2-3 years now and I’m really anxious for others to see it. We’ve been in discussion with distributors and we’ve got some really good prospects, but nothing official to announce just yet. I am hoping to continue circulating the film through festivals though. We just played a small horror fest up in northern Canada called Northern Fright Fest where we were awarded Best Actor for John W. Bowers and Favourite Feature, which is a tremendous honour. I have a bunch more planned for the new year, so the film will continue to play until we have a distributor locked down.
A Southern Life: What do you have planned as your next project, as director? Will it be a horror film?
C. Blake Evernden: I have written several horror projects, one in particular I’m incredibly excited about. But I’m actually going to switch genres a bit for the next one. It’s going to be a revisionist western that we’re going to be shooting up in the foothills and mountains of Southern Alberta. It is an intense, manhunt-style narrative, so I’m still pursuing characters against the wilderness-type of stories, but it will be a bit more adventurous in tone. The landscape and wilderness still hold a frightening draw and backdrop to the story, so that seems to be a motif of my films for the moment.
A Southern Life: Who are some of the directors you grew up admiring?
There are so many, from so many different genres. My favourite director has always been Sidney Lumet, from Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men and, my personal favourite film, Running On Empty. He always worked closely with his actors, ensuring weeks of rehearsal time, and using his camera in an amazingly minimalist fashion.
C. Blake Evernden: As far as genre directors, I always loved Spielberg, of course, but since I’m a child of the 80s I also loved Joe Dante; whose Matinee is a great unsung film, John Hughes; who had such great affection for his characters, Dario Argento; who had a brilliant expressionistic use of colour and framing, Kathryn Bigelow; such a force when it came to action choreography, and Michael Mann; whom nobody could build an action-suspense sequence better than him, and there are so many more.