Ross Williams is an American filmmaker who’s been churning out short films from his meat grinder for over twenty years. Opting to create on the darker side of the screen, Ross’s latest short, LUNA, was inspired by his creepy daughter, Zoe, who stars in the film to award-winning effect.
You can watch the film right now for free below this intro, which will take you eleven and a half minutes to do. It will also help save you from a major spoiler further down the page.
DARK BITES: First of all, Ross, congrats on your latest short film, LUNA. What is it that attracts you to the short film as a creative outlet and has kept you going for so long? Or maybe those are separate things.
ROSS WILLIAMS: I’ve loved movies my entire life, but didn’t really figure out that I wanted to make them until I was in my early 20’s. If budget and time were no obstacle, then I’d make features, but they are obviously both a big obstacle. I like short films because they offer me a way to tell the stories I want to tell in a relatively easier way. They’re still not easy to make, producing them is always my most difficult challenge, finding all the cast and crew, scheduling them, feeding them, etc., etc. But it’s doable, it’s something that with enough planning, you can put together over a long weekend, while a feature would take months to a year to make. That’s what keeps me in short films for now.
DB: I understand it was your daughter, Zoe, who not only inspired the story of LUNA, but who also won an award on the festival circuit playing the part of LUNA in the film. Care to elaborate on exactly what it was about your daughter that inspired you?
RS: As she grew up, she was always just a little creepy to us, she’d peak through our bedroom door or you’d wake up and she’d be staring at you, pretty normal little kid stuff. Her birthday is 4 days from Halloween, so she’s always had an affinity for dressing up. Me being a big horror fan has probably shaped her taste in movies as well, she’s always liked the darker kids movies, and when I’d be flipping through our movie choices, she’d always ask me to stop when there was a poster for a horror movie and ask what it was about. As she gets older, I can’t wait to show her all the classic horror films.
But the biggest inspiration was this photo my wife took of her while we were `camping, she’s in shadow, her hair is a mess, it made us think of her as a ghost. (I’ll attach photo.) Me being a filmmaker, I started to come up with all these ideas of how to have her play the part of a ghost, until I hit upon the idea of Luna, and it took off from there. I reverse engineered the plot of the film from this one idea that would end the film, and wrote and rewrote the script for a few years, while we waited for Zoe to be old enough to play Luna.
DB: How was the experience of getting to share your passion of filmmaking with your daughter in such a way as staring her in your movie?
RS: She’s very used to having a camera pointed at her and she’s a natural entertainer. Both her and her brother love being on stage, they both dance and act constantly. So, she was onboard with the idea immediately. As the script took shape, I would have her act out different parts. For about a year she practiced pulling back her face so her eyes would go white. She absolutely loved it. I got a little worried, when we did a camera test with her and Harlan who plays her brother in the film, and she just couldn’t stay in character for more than a few seconds before she’d bust up laughing. We kept working with her and brought in a friend who had worked with Zoe before as an actress and we came up with some techniques of how to stay in character and how she would move on screen.
When it came time for filming, she was amazingly disciplined. She had the hardest job of anybody on set, she had to sit in make-up for 90 minutes every morning and another hour to get it off after we wrapped. She wore this thin dress in some very cold weather, but she kept up great spirits the entire time, and kept the cast and crew laughing the entire shoot. I couldn’t be more proud of her. The only time she wavered was while we were shooting the final scene, she didn’t want to put the fake blood on her face, and it took me about 20 minutes to pep-talk her into it. But once she did it, she was happy to do it a few more times for camera. And the final shot of Luna, is all her, I directed her to laugh, but then she took it in a new direction that I think really added to the finale and the arc of her character.
DB: You’ve mentioned LUNA as your best work yet. Did you realize you were on to something special during the filming process, or did you have to wait like the rest of us to see the completed project before fully appreciating what you had created?
RS: I think what made this film my best yet, is my personal attachment to it. I’ve come up with stories that I “had” to tell in the past, but this felt different. I could not get this story and the ideas out of my head for nearly 3 years, it was driving me crazy. So, to actually be able to put those ideas into fruition was a great release. I also paid my crew for the first time, I’d always just cobbled together whatever filmmaking friends I could to help make my films, so it was a mixed bag of who would show up and who would do what, which always held back the films a bit. This time I had a group of people that all knew their job and did it well, so it made it so much easier to put the film together.
DB: By way of production value, was your budget for LUNA in line with your previous films?
RS: I spent about $3500 on this one, most of that went to paying the crew and the audio post-production. There was a little bit spent on costumes, the wig, and food. In the past, I’ve probably never spent more than a few hundred on making a film.
DB: In my review of the film, I mention how I felt the musical score was pitch perfect and helped to enhance and involve all our senses into the viewing experience. What can you tell us about the direction you gave towards the score and your educated opinion on what made it work so damn well?
RS: That’s all on my composer David Helpling, I’ve worked with him on my last few films. While I was editing it, I put a temp track of music down from some stock music sites, and built in some stingers for the jump scare moments, so I sent the film to him with all that built in. But then he removed a lot of that music and replaced it with his own, sometimes he took the music and enhanced it, and he took all the stingers I put in and just made them sound fuller and scarier with his own effects. He’s a brilliant sound designer. There was a week last month, where I watched the film 4 times for different film festivals and I just grew to love his work more with each viewing.
DB: There were so many fantastic shots in the film, from the opening scene to using a blinking eye in the background to drive home a chilling surprise, or shadowy glimpses we’re not quite sure we saw. In order to get the exact shot, the exact angle, the exact lighting, were you forced to leave much discarded hots on the editing room floor by the time you wrapped it all up?
RS: No, I probably used 95% of the angles that we shot. It was just a lot of pre-production on my part, I shot listed everything and knew the kinds of angles that I wanted. Things change when you get on set and the rooms aren’t laid out exactly as I had in mind, so we had to adapt. My director of photography Sean Nipper added a lot to it, and was coming up with shot ideas of his own, a lot of which made it in the film as well. It was kind of kismet for the blinking eye shot, that I think you’re speaking of. We were shooting the basement scene in a little shed on the side of the house, in that shed our production designer found a doll house replica of the house that we were shooting in. What amazing production value, we immediately decided to add the house to the basement scene. I had the idea that Luna would hide behind it somehow, but then our DP who was kneeling down, saw that there was a hole built into the house to look through it. So we came up with that shot on the fly of her watching her brother through the house, it seemed to fit the mood of the film perfectly.
DB: You conveyed the spooky atmosphere at the heart of this story so well, I have to ask if you’ve ever experienced a ghostly encounter of your own to tell of?
RS: Thank you, I’m glad the film is effective. I think it’s just a lifetime of watching and dissecting horror films, see what worked for me and what didn’t. I’ve never had a ghostly encounter, I don’t believe in ghosts, but if I did see one I’d probably crap my pants.
DB: This may be a better question to ask your daughter, Zoe, but what can you tell me about the direction or technique involved in pulling off the jerky, ultra-creepy movements she employed to chilling effect?
RS: I had this idea of her moving like that, basically taking the idea from movies like The Ring or The Grudge, and we just worked on it together for probably a year leading up to the filming of the movie, but a lot of that is just her. She came up with the foot dragging walk all on her own.
DB: Regarding the unique twist ending, considering the set up was so smooth, can I assume you had the finale mapped out before shooting began?
MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD. IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE SHORT FILM, DO SO HERE! BEFORE READING THE NEXT Q&A.
RS: Major spoilers ahead… the idea for the film came from the ending. I was talking about all these ghost girl movie ideas, and most of them felt very cliche and not very inspiring and suddenly I came up with the idea of what if she’s not a ghost, but just a little girl playing a ghost, and everything came together from there. I built the script around the idea of here’s this little girl, who’s kind of weird, but if you met her on the street on a normal day, you wouldn’t think anything was wrong with her. She likes to dress up and scare her family on occasion, but never to this extent. She takes advantage of this day after her grandmother has died to play it up as far as she can. Her mother who usually keeps her in check, is a basket-case, just crying the whole day. The father is overwhelmed with everything, trying to soothe his wife and plan the funeral, so can do nothing but tell his son to deal with it. Only small hints of this are in the film, but these were all my thoughts going into it, these were the directions I was giving the actors. That’s why all the scare scenes are fairly standard scenes, because she’s copying what she saw in the movies that she loved. And hopefully more of this is evident to people if they give the film a 2nd chance and watch it again, once the twist has been revealed.
DB: As screenings finish up for LUNA on the festival circuit, was there anything that surprised you, such as crowd response, your expectations, or learning something new about LUNA along the way?
RS: Nothing super surprising comes to mind, I’ve just had a lot of nice compliments from people, on how much the film scared them. Once the film is finished, I’ve seen it a thousand times, it doesn’t scare me in the least, so I’ve lost perspective on whether the scares work or not. So, it’s really nice to hear the gasps in the crowd, and usually the ending gets some good laughs, which surprised me a little bit. I thought it was funny, but I tend to have a really dark sense of humor and am often the only one laughing in a theater when I see horror films. It was great to hear it working for people.
DB: What’s next for you as far as your filmmaking goes? Do you have any feature lengths planned?
RS: Right now, I don’t have anything begging me to be made. I’ve got plenty of ideas, a few short film scripts, and the ideas and beginnings of a couple features as well. But as I get older, and my responsibilities build up, the films seem to get further and further apart. I’m sure in the next year or so as the memories of all the struggles and disappointments of Luna fade away, I’ll come up with some new idea that starts rattling around in my head and won’t go away until I get it on screen will come up and I’ll start all over.
DB: Thanks so much for all your time, Ross. Before we part ways, where’s the best way to learn more about your films and make sure we don’t miss what’s out on what’s coming down the pipeline from you?
RS: I’m on most social media as @xrats. My website is xrats.net – but I don’t update it very often. My production companies Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/XratsProductions/ – I tweet updates and random movie reviews: https://twitter.com/xrats – But the best place to keep track of my work is my Youtube page, I’ve got all my short films, a bunch of funny skits and commercials we’ve made over the years and some of my business videos as well, since my day job is making videos for local and national clients: https://www.youtube.com/xrats