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raymac Written by raymac
Oct. 16, 2009 | 8:00 AM

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Screamfest Interviews: SINKHOLE

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Interview with Eric Scherbath, writer and director of the short film, SINKHOLE.

What is your short film about?
I suppose you could say it’s a parable about greed. The Schuttmann character is trying to teach the broker a lesson he himself has already learned, which is that the blind pursuit of profit has both an external cost, to life and the environment, and an internal cost, which I take to the extreme and quite literally in the final moments of the film.

What was it about this particular project that made you want to make it?
I’m a fan of the short fiction of Ambrose Bierce and Ray Bradbury. I was reading their works around the time I was developing my thesis film at Columbia University and it occurred to me that the horror genre was perfect for the short film form. At first I tried adapting some of Bradbury’s short horror stories but then I decided to take a stab at writing one myself and Sinkhole is the result.

As a two character piece, the film hinges on the strength of the performances which were very well done, how did your cast come together?
I knew that with only two characters the actors had to be very good. I told myself that if I couldn’t get the right actors, I wasn’t going to do the thing at all and in fact I almost pulled the plug when I thought that was going to happen. My producer and I held auditions in New York. We had a lot of strong actors for part of the broker, but no one nailed it like Jason did and I pretty much knew it had to be him. The part of Schuttmann was much more tricky to cast. It’s a tough demographic to cast and the character is just so specific. Too many of the actors who auditioned were doing the crazy-old neighbor-with-a-shotgun thing which would instantly throw Sinkhole into parody territory. Jason in the end actually found Dan - he had worked in theater with him and said he was absolutely perfect for the part. The only problem he is a bit difficult to track down. We eventually did and when this tall lanky man lumbered into the room - let me tell you Dan has quite the presence in real life as well as on the screen - I knew he was our man.

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You had a very eerie and creepy location. Where was the film shot?
The film was shot primarily in Centralia, Pennsylvania. A coal mine underneath the town caught fire in the sixties. They had to abandon the area because of the dangers of poisonous gas and sinkholes which form when tunnels hollowed out by the fires collapse underground. I insisted on shooting at least part of the film there because I thought you just couldn’t fake such a thing. The sinkholes and abandoned roads you see there are all real.

How long was the production? Did you encounter any problems during the filming?
Much of the shoot was a disaster. We got rained out of one location in Centralia and the backup location strangely burned to the ground just before we were to film there. We were scheduled to shoot for five days but because we lost these locations that had to be extended to seven. The problem was that most of the crew had to move on to other shoots and in the last day of production I was reduced to a crew of three, including myself, and one of the largest scenes had yet to be done. I guess we somehow pulled it off though.

What do you hope your short film achieves?
First and foremost, as a horror film, I hope it manages to actually scare someone. I can intellectualize about the meaning of the film and so on all I want, but if the scare doesn’t work I’ve failed.

How did you get into filmmaking?
In high school my brothers and I used to secretly make fiction movies on my parents’ camcorder when they were gone and it was exhilarating. I remember our first movie was called ‘Attack of the Fifty Foot Guinea Pig’. It only occurred to me later that you could actually make a living doing such a thing. I studied film as an undergrad but was miserable in academia. I also found after graduating that working two, three jobs while trying to film on the weekend was also quite miserable as well. I decided to try grad school in film production because at the very least I could take out loans so that I could devote more time and money to making a short and had access to equipment. The academic aspect still made me miserable, but I slogged through it so I could make Sinkhole.

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What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
This may seem counter-intuitive but I believe you shouldn’t try to anticipate what you think audiences, festival judges and/or your professors want. Without trying to sound too New-Agey, I think that the stories you tell should come from a source from within rather than without. It’s the difference between being motivated due to inspiration rather than calculation. Calculation is for politicians, inspiration is for artists.

Which filmmakers inspire you and why?
Spielberg, Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Leone, and Kurosawa and all for the same reason: they are/were ultimate craftsmen. It is fine and dandy to discuss film as an art form but we do so at the risk of forgetting that filmmaking is quite technical as well. The reason why these directors’ films are returned to again and again is they understood the nitty-gritty of every aspect of filmmaking - cinematography, editing, acting, music and so on - better than anyone else.

What is next for you?
Hopefully a feature version of ‘Sinkhole’ which at this point I think I’ve spent more time with than the short.

Visit the official site.

SINKHOLE shows on Sunday, October 18th at 2:00 PM as part of Student Shorts 2.