Filmmaker Pierce Berolzheimer Talks CRABS!
Monster Fest 2021 Official Selection CRABS! has just hit DVD & Digital courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment, so we’re flashing back to when Monster’s Jarret Gahan caught up with writer/director Pierce Berolzheimer to discuss his wildly entertaining creature-feature!
One thing that is immediately evident upon watching CRABS, is that it’s clearly crafted by someone that’s that’s got a deep-seated passion for cinema and I wondered what your earliest memories of watching films were when you were growing up?
The movie I was obsessed with as a kid was ET. I was totally completely obsessed with it. I’d watch it every single day. As I got a little older, I remember the time period where I remember really wanting to make movies, that was in the early to mid-nineties with JURASSIC PARK. I mean, to me, that’s like the pinnacle of filmmaking and getting to make worlds that don’t actually exist. They feel like they exist in our world, not in a magic land where it’s all fantasy, but one grounded in reality. There’s just that little bit of I wish I wish I could see that. That to me is like where I want to live, I want to live in the world where it’s very close to where we live, but there’s just like something else, like there’s dinosaurs, where there’s giant spiders or something like that. And I love that level of filmmaking where it’s just outside of the current world. EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS was an enormous inspiration. And then there’s a film called PREHYSTERIA…
The FULL MOON feature directed by Charles Band?
Yes, that one. And I love stuff like that where even a boy finds some little dinosaur pets and I love the practicality of that. So I started making stop motion animations. When I was a kid and I would try to convince my teachers, like I didn’t really like school very much, I would try to convince them to let me make a move instead of writing a paper. Some teachers actually let me do that. SOUTH PARK was huge at the time and I loved it so I would make these little cardboard cutouts and then animate versions of GREAT EXPECTATIONS and THE ODYSSEY.
That’s terrific. Your love of stop motion animation has carried right through from your childhood to this, your first-feature, CRABS, as has seemingly your passion for the creature-feature. You can see the inspiration of films like JURASSIC PARK and even Joe Dante’s PIRANHA behind it? What was the initial inspiration for CRABS for you?
Well, all of those places. I mean the monster movie genre, specifically the wildlife run amok stuff like PIRANHA. I love wildlife, I love animals and taking an audiences that little step out of the ordinary to a scarier place or a funnier place, I really enjoy. With the horseshoe crabs, the real honest answer is that I saw horseshoe crabs growing up, and I always thought that somebody was going to make a horseshoe crab movie and nobody did. And I was surprised that nobody had, I’m like, okay, well, I got to jump on that. Otherwise someone else is going to do it. And they also seem to fit perfectly with those old school monster tropes. There’s something about that ancient creepy look that just fits perfectly for a radioactive animal movie.
It’s like when you stare at a lizard and the realization sets in that they are descendant of the dinosaur. One thing that sets CRABS apart from many other contemporary genre films is its characters and the depth of those characters and the human drama that they bring to the story itself, it’s very Spielbergian. How did you go about crafting those characters and was there any real life inspirations behind the characters in the film?
First off, thank you. That’s a crazy compliment, I really appreciate that.
Most of the movie is in some way, shape or form based on either my experiences or someone I know’s experiences or a story that a friend has told me that I’ve hung on to. And so I really tried to inject the characters with as much actual stuff that I remember I’ve been through or other people have been through, to make it feel real. And because of that, I think that, you know, it loses the, one of the Cardinal rules of, of writing movies is like, you’ve got to have drama, right. And, and because I was more focused on like the human mystic sort of aspects of the character interactions, I think we lost some of the drama there, but I hope that we gained back, at least some audience sympathy by having it feel a little bit more grounded than, than just arbitrarily having the characters be antagonistic toward each other.
The easiest example is when the boy is dancing with the girl at prom and he puts his hands on her shoulders and she moves him to like her lower back. Yeah. That was the first time I ever danced with a girl. That’s what I did and that’s what she did. And so I was like, okay, I have to put that in there. There’s a lot of the character names based on people I’ve known, like Philip, the main characters in a wheelchair, he is based on my uncle who passed away of muscular dystrophy. I have all of my uncle’s old notebooks and he used to draw giant monster battles. And so I knew that Philip needed to be based on my uncle Phillip. And I knew that where the movie goes is sort of, serendipitously, a homage to him. I tried to inject as much honesty into the movie as I could, even though it’s a giant monster movie.
You succeeded, it’s the rich personalities of the characters and their personal drama that really shapes the entire picture. And the fact that you don’t kill off any of your central characters, for shock, rather you follow their arcs, all of their arcs, right through. Now despite how well-written the characters are, the cast genuinely bring them to life on screen and they make for a great ensemble with strong chemistry. How much did you have a hand in the costing of the actual film itself?
I got incredibly lucky in that I had pretty close to creative control on just about every aspect of the movie. And so the casting, which is incredibly lucky. I gave the script to a casting agent and the casting agent sent me the auditions recordings and Robert Craighead is a really good example. I’m not sure anybody else auditioned for that role. I’m pretty sure that when we got his audition, I was like that’s him, that’s Sheriff Flanagan. Other characters were much harder, much, much harder to cast, but I would watch the auditions back and forth. I’d watch them against one another, as if they were in the scene together, even though they weren’t auditioning at the same time.
It only took us two weeks to cast but that’s because we had a great casting agent who, who got the script and knew what we were going for. It was really about just choosing the actors that personified the tone that I wanted. More than anything else, it was about focusing on the overall tone of the movie because everything else could sort of fend for itself. But if I didn’t have a consistent tone or feel, uh, it had the possibility of falling into just generic horror monster movie territory. And I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to try to try to have it be something that people hadn’t seen before. Like, you might think you’ve seen this before and the first 10 minutes are exactly sort of what you’d expect, but then I wanted to go on a different sort of tell a different story.
Absolutely. And Chase Padgett as Radu. He’s hilarious, he definitely brings a lot of the humour to the film. How much of that was scripted and how much was improvised. Cause there was moments where it seems like you just let him go on a little and it’s terrific because you have no idea what’s going to come out of his mouth next. And the last thing he says could be just as hysterical as the first thing you said as well.
Chase to me is one of the funniest actors of all time. Working with him was amazing. I mean that guy is so talented. He’s on this show, ALTER EGO right now, singing. He started by doing a one man show where he plays like five different musicians from different time periods and plays guitar. Like he plays old blues guitar, and then he plays pop punk, then boy band songs, any persona. He has the voices and the characters. And so he already had it in him to, to develop unique characters. And Radu was a real combination of what was written on the page, what I pictured for that character and then Chase coming in and totally bringing his own thing. So with Radu’s accent, we talked about it, like I really wanted to not make him from anywhere or speak like any other character or any other human I’ve ever seen. I didn’t really didn’t want to offend anybody with this character. And so the goal all along was to have him be from out of time and out of space, he doesn’t exist anywhere. All of the references to where he’s from are made up nonsense, gibberish words, much like any of the science terms we make up. And so working with Chase, it was like that intermediary English, where he’s using the wrong words in a comedic way, that isn’t intermediary English to any actual person from anywhere in the world would actually speak. He’s not representing anybody learning English, he’s just Radu.
Initially we, we stuck pretty close to the script. Like the very first day and a half were, were the script. And then, and it wasn’t really working. Like to me the weakest parts of Radu’s character are when we stuck to the page in the beginning. And then when I heard him riffing on the character, I’m like that’s it you got it. And so going forward, he knew what the goal of the scene was. And I just let him go. And a lot of the scenes where he’s riffing, is literally him riffing. And every once in a while I feed him something and then he would take that and turn it into something else. So there was a lot of collaboration getting Radu to be Radu, but in the end of the day, you know, I’ve got to give Chase like almost all of the credit on that character because he is hilarious and he really crafted something unique in my opinion.
Another standout from the film, that sets it apart is both the score and soundtrack to the film. It had a very SoCal feel about it, with its pop-punk flavor. It not only suited the setting within the feature but also kept things energetic and flowing. Can you tell us a little bit behind the approach?
Again, I really lucked out here, the composer, for the movie is Mike Trebilcock. The two of us probably spent a year working on the music because we were also working on all this other stuff. He gave me incredible flexibility to give notes and do revisions and try new things. Let’s try this and let’s change that instrument and let’s do this other thing. I mean, he’s a genius, he’s incredible. Getting to work with him was, amazing because wouldn’t be working and then I would give a note and then we would change it and it would fit perfectly.
A lot of the actual songs are his also. There’s one song of his that we put in the movie that he had written before the movie, called ‘Even Roger Corman Can’t Save You Now’. And so he’s already in that world and so it just fit perfectly. That pop-punk sound was really about wanting the movie to be fun and uplifting. And so even during the scary parts, I wanted the audience to have a smile on their face, through the whole movie. And I wanted just to entertain people for an hour and a half. To me it fit the characters really well because it’s like this, you know, weird time period where you’re a little antsy, but not so angsty that it’s like dark and depressing like emo but just a little angsty, but not too edgy. The craft of the music was really, really special and he did an incredible job. The movie wouldn’t be what it is without Mike’s music.
It’s high-energy and melodic approach is genuinely refreshing and like you said, fun. On the topic of creature design, you have several formations of the crabs throughout the film from detailed animatronics through to men-in-suits, what was the process of design like and who did you work with it on it?
The little crabs, we actually took the moulds from real horseshoe crabs on the beach and tweaked them a little bit. We took clay and sorry, not we, not me. I gave notes about how I imagined it being, but I take no credit for the actual construction or design of any of the creatures, that was done by James Ojala, who is again, amazing. And Randall Kaplan, did all of the sketches and art to design the creatures based on my notes and what I thought they should look like. And then it was a collaboration to actually figure out how to get them to do the things in the script that we wanted them to do. Um, which was challenging because you have to fit an actual human being in the suits. And so the suits have this fit this special sort of requirement. Then the movement, the joints and all that, you also want to hide all the joints and all the places that you can actually see the person, but they actually have to be able to see, to be able to act. And so there’s a lot of complications there. The little ones though, we had remote control crabs and we had puppet crabs and we had ones that had blue blood in them. Then the guys in suits, we had three, three suits for, for the middle size sort of crab, we call them the Limulus, the velociraptor crabs, the medium-sized guys. And then the two at the end, one of those is actually a retrofitted one from the middle of the movie but added extra of all the spikes and stuff like that to make it feel more grandiose.
And then there was shark suit, which was based the old POWER RANGERS tv series meets MECHAGODZILLA movies, I really wanted it to have a homemade feel, like the tactile nature of what I like in movies. I really wanted it to look like it was something that was built in 18 hours and cobbled together by a bunch of kids and so I didn’t want it to have a sleek look. I wanted it to look like corrugated metal and broken wood, it’s just this Frankenstein conglomeration of all things, whatever they had at the time. So it was really, it was really fun to craft all the different creatures and I wanted them to try to give you something you hadn’t seen before. How do you turn a horseshoe crab into something that’s six foot tall? So we thought a lot about how if it was nuclear radiated and broken apart, what would the changes be? How would that look with the spines? And I wanted it to look a little broken, so its mouth sort of offset off-center and crooked. And so the idea was, as it progressively gets bigger, the radiation affects it more. And so it, it looks more broken in tangled.
You’ve mentioned the many types of effects in the film, which no doubt would have proved problematic. What was the most challenging part of the production?
That final fight scene took us about three years, actually three and a half years. And by then all said and done, it added a lot of time to the production of the movie. And part of it was that we just did not know how to do it. I think that a lot of the movies I made growing up, whether it was short films in College or the stop motion stuff, I didn’t know how to do it to begin with. I just knew that I could and I’m like, I can figure it out. I know how to, I know how to figure things out so I can, I’m sure I can do it. And then I would teach myself how to do it and I would just figure out how to make it work.
I did the same thing with this project where the producers were like, we don’t know how to do it. Originally, the final scene was supposed to be on a miniature set. We’re going to build a whole miniature version of the town and do it exactly like an old school, 1950s GODZILLA movie and film it the same way. But then in the process of figuring out how expensive that would be, we were like, okay, now actually, we can’t do that. So then we had to figure out how to do this final scene when we had already shot the whole rest of the movie.
We shot the cockpit with a green screen in front of the cockpit, but we had lights to represent where the sun was at any time. So when like the head goes up and he’s looking at the sun, we needed the sun to come into the cockpit a certain angle. So it was all planned out, but we still didn’t know how to do it. We knew the location and where the creatures were in space and time for the sequence, but we didn’t actually know how to put it together. So then we had talked to a bunch of different VFX companies and decided on using matte paintings based on drone footage for the whole back. So then we went back up to the town and we filmed all the drone footage.
Then we filmed the final fight scene on a green screen. We had about 380 VFX shots for a movie that is a very small budget for what we were aiming at. We couldn’t do any of the work in the US or Canada initially, so we took it abroad to Vietnam. I spent about nine months living in Vietnam, working on the project, overseeing all the VFX work. And then it turns out that the people we hired to put up the tracking markers when we originally shot, didn’t really know where to put tracking markers, sp the lights weren’t the right lights for a green screen. So then there was a lot of fixing problems in post. We had also shot it in 300 frames per second, slow motion.
Cause I wanted to get that PACIFIC RIM sort of enormous, slow feeling, grandeur size, that we could speed up and slow down at any time. That then meant that we had to rotoscope characters out of green screen, like cut out the characters from every frame from like 300 frames per second, for 10 minutes of the movie. So it took a long time and a lot of just grunt effort to get that done. The really hard part was matching it all, because you get slight variations in color and lighting and when you start stacking things on top of each other, it then gets really complicated if like it all looks right, except for one of the layers, then you have to rework it in order to get that other layer to work. And so many people have worked on the final fight that getting the versions consistent over a period of time was challenging and that was by far probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done was, was getting that final fight scene to look like it does, at least consistent enough that it makes sense. And that it’s a, it’s a clean, clean arc at the end.
No mean feat for a first-time feature filmmaker. Given your experience on making CRABS, do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers out there, particularly those who intend to direct what they write?
I’m the type of person that if somebody tells me I can’t do it, that makes me want to do it more. So the obvious advice, knowing what I know now, would be aim small for your first movie. I know that people told me that and I didn’t do it. I’m glad that I did because I learned everything I possibly could. So I would say the best advice I would have for young filmmakers would be give yourself as much pre-production time as you possibly can. That way you’re really aware of where you’re at before you start filming and you have enough time to solve all of the problems that come up before you are down to the wire, trying to solve problems. We had a very short pre-production period, and I think a lot of our problems came from that. I would also say, always be flexible. You can’t control everything, if something happens and it’s not what you wanted to happen and it’s not something that you saw as part of the movie, move past it, move on, keep going, things will happen. And the movie will change in ways that you don’t initially think that works with what you’re aiming for. But if you can’t control it, move on, just, just move right past it and control the things you can control and make the decisions about the things that you have the ability to make decisions about.
Lastly I would also say make the movie you want to make, because if I had made that other movie I would’ve given up, I mean to be totally honest, I think if I wasn’t making a movie that I was really passionate about making and loved and still do love, I would’ve thrown my hands up and quit because it’s taken six years of my life to get this made. Unless you’re making something that you are like absolutely sure that you are willing to see through to the end, no matter what, don’t make that movie, make something else, make the one you really want to make. Otherwise you might get stuck making something because of investors or because of pressure from producers that you don’t want to be working on. And if you don’t want to be working on it, it’s going show in the end product. Don’t compromise there, make the project you want to make.
Finally, I wanted to ask what’s next for you?
At the moment, I’m just focusing on CRABS. I’m going to festivals, trying to sell it. We’ve sold it in Australia, which is awesome. Umbrella Entertainment will be releasing it down the track and I’m super, super excited about that. I have a bunch of other ideas for future films, that are in various stages of the scripting, ten pages of an outline here and a couple of storyboards here but I’d really like to take my own advice and go back to basics.
Looking back on CRABS, it has way too many characters, way too many moving parts. I mean, we had four different creatures in the movie, which is insane and especially for my first feature, it’s just way too much going on, way too many moving parts for a first-time filmmaker, in my opinion.
Now I want to do the opposite and go back and do something really simple and do that really effectively. I want to focus on the fundamentals of storytelling. I have this idea, that’s a really simple revenge story with one central character and I want to focus on directing the action and nail that. Instead of trying to think of, you know, our six actors and how they all their arcs are merging and then how do the crabs merge with their arcs and what they represent and how do we get them from here to here effectively, that also tells the story I want to tell. This the new film concept, I want to establish a character within the first 10 minutes, where the goal is incredibly clear and you are completely onboard, and then you follow that character on their goal, whether they succeed or fail, it’s not very complicated, but I get to then focus on honing my directorial skills visually and the aesthetics of the action. I fell in love with doing the action sequences in CRABS, but I also realized that I couldn’t fully flex that muscle because of the nature of the difficulty of the setting of the project and it being guys in suits instead of just people.