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When discussing a film called HUNGER, you’re naturally inclined to chuckle a bit if the director says, “We had an amazing caterer. She fed the crew big, hearty meals.” But it’s also part of a larger point that Steven Hentges is making about independent filmmaking at the moment, and it makes a ton of sense. “On a low-budget film, the best thing you can do is feed your crew well,” he notes.
While he may have won the dedication and tenacity of his crew through their stomachs, HUNGER’s lead actors—much like their characters—weren’t so lucky. “The actors went on a crash diet,” the director recalls. “They were eating brussels sprouts and broiled fish. And then I made a commitment to them to not eat in the meat chowdown. I chose to eat with them, but also, we used those time periods to talk and know where we were. It’s funny; I’ve seen the movie so many times that I don’t see it in their faces anymore, but Lori [Heuring, the film’s star] literally lost 10 pounds—and on a 115-pound girl, that is significant. We were showing it today and this girl was like, ‘By the end, [Heuring’s face is] hollowed out.’ One guy lost almost 22 pounds, and he kept fainting because his blood pressure was too low; we had a medic on set to keep monitoring that. Those guys really went all out.”
In fact, “all out” may be a bit of an understatement; blurring the line between reality and the film they were making is closer. As his performers essentially became Method actors by default, Hentges began to resemble HUNGER’s own mysterious mad scientist—but then, that’s what drew him to the film (now available as part of FANGORIA’s FrightFest exclusively on DVD through Blockbuster stores and Blockbuster By Mail, as well as digitally via Blockbuster On Demand) in the first place. “What really interests me is, we all like to think we would do the right thing,” he says, referring to the grisly choices Jordan (Heuring), Grant (Linden Ashby), Luke (Joe Egender), Alex (Julian Rojas) and Anna (Lea Kohl) must make when they find themselves trapped and deprived of food for weeks on end. “We like our villains and our good guys very clearly marked, but in reality, the line’s very grey and most of us walk that grey line.
“For me, what was interesting was, when you’re pushed to the limit, how far will you go and will you really go there?” Hentges continues. “When I first read the script [by L.D. Goffigan], the first thing I connected to was LIFEBOAT, which was about a bunch of people who are victims of this tragedy, and how they turn and become barbarians and so really, it’s watching humanity fade away. The scientist [in HUNGER] is the director just trying to add these little touches to push and see how far they’ll go, but in the heroine’s case, she pushes back and makes a choice to not go there. I don’t know that I was trying to make a moral statement of, ‘If you don’t go there, you survive,’ but that’s what I was interested in exploring: the loss of humanity, and trying to not give them sympathy, but at least understand how they can get to that point. Think about it: You go a day without food, you get pretty cranky. Imagine going 20-30 days like that—what you know as a rational thought would be out the window.”
Also out the window was the safety and accessibility of mainstream cinema. Knowing they had a project that “wasn’t for everybody,” Hentges and his producers decided to take risks with HUNGER, eschewing a typical three-act structure and opening the film with a lengthy suspense sequence that leaves both audiences and actors literally in the dark. “Of all the scenes, John [Sawyer, producer and cinematographer] and I talked about that one a lot,” Hentges recalls. “The opening 10 minutes of the movie are essentially in the dark, and looking at similar movies like SAW where people are in a room, we tried to come up with a way that was different, but also terrifying. The whole movie is about the scientist adding new pieces of information. In the beginning, his victims are void of everything, including light, so we approached that as, ‘How do we keep that sense of fear and the unknown, yet give enough visual information to sustain the viewer for 10 minutes?’ ”
Sustaining the viewer without confusing them was a particular challenge, so while the 10 minutes of blackness remain intact, Hentges and editor Jessia Kehrhahn did make an alteration from the film’s original cut. “People do get nervous, and we did make one change: We took one of the flashbacks and added that to the head of the movie at the request of Lightning [Media, distributor],” he notes. “A lot of [early viewers] were going up to their TVs, afraid the whole movie would be just as dark, and that scared them, in the sense of, ‘Oh my God, I can’t sit through a movie that’s going to be this dark.’ So we added that scene before the credits so you see something that’s exposed properly. Then, you’re a little bit more comfortable with that [following] sequence.
“Directing it was amazing, because the cast was acting in the dark,” Hentges continues. “When you turn the lights out, everything becomes real. We approached that in almost every scene we did; we shot with night vision first, even though I didn’t use a lot of it, to get the actors in the mindset of what it is to do the scene with no light. We had numerous discussions and technically, in reality, it would be pitch black; you would see nothing. You just can’t do that in a movie. So we approached it in the same way as when you come from outside into a dark room and your eye slowly dilates. We did that with the exposure. When that scene begins, you don’t see much, and then slowly you get more of the detail of the faces. At first it’s kind of shadowy, and then you start to see some of the edging, so by the end of the sequence you start to feel a little bit more secure. That was my biggest concern going into the project: Could we make this work for 10 minutes?
“To be honest, the original sequence was much longer. We just kept cutting and cutting, just to get it to a point where people wouldn’t freak out. It’s polarizing; people who like it really love it, and people who don’t really don’t like it—it bothers them.”
Hentges isn’t concerned about having a polarizing film on his hands however. In fact, he made some happy discoveries through test screenings, a tactic he very much believes in and which significantly shaped the final product, especially where the silent villain was concerned. “The scientist now doesn’t say a line,” he points out. “There was a screening where someone said, ‘There’s a big microphone in front of him, but he never speaks into it!’ Well, he did; we just cut it all. He dictated everything that was happening, and then John said, ‘Ask questions, don’t answer them.’ So we kept going back to that and taking away and taking away. Originally, I was trying to…not give him a pass for doing what he’s doing, but to help audiences understand it, and I realized that people don’t want to know too much about why someone’s doing something evil.
“I had a whole sequence where he kills the teenagers in a very different way; he’s forced,” the director continues. “Everybody else, he captures and they kill each other; he has a scientific attachment to it. But to protect the experiment, he actually has to murder the kids himself. We had a whole scene where he comes back and you see he’s physically ill, because he has had to do something he wasn’t prepared to do. But that just didn’t work with test audiences. That’s the thing about preview screenings; I’m a big believer in those, especially for a film like this with the suspense and finding the right balance. You spend so much time with something, you become detached and it’s hard to see objectively, so you have to step back form it, show it, screen it. Now I can’t watch the movie with an audience, because it’s done. I can’t make any more changes. It’s painful for me, because I get too nervous, but when I was cutting, I screened it 20 times. Not giant things, but 10 people would come to the house, watch it, notes notes notes, talk about it, cut it again. Different people, notes notes notes, and then I really started to see what worked.”
“You have to know the rules to break the rules,” he adds. “That’s the great thing about making a movie; you can do anything you want, as long as it works. But again, while filming it, you just don’t know. That’s why I shot a lot of the night-vision stuff and didn’t really use any of it in the opening. That was my safety net. That was the easiest scene to cut as well, because the darkness dictated where you wanted to be. The most amazing part is that we shot in sequence, which allowed us to do so much, especially for the money we had. This was a micro, micro, micro budget. But having to walk away every night, it was great for the crew and, more importantly, the actors. They knew exactly where they left off character-wise for the next day. Slowly, as characters started dying off, we felt that loss because the actor wasn’t there anymore. It was one of the most amazing shoots, just that chemistry and that experience. It was a hell of a shoot, because it was Huntsville, Alabama, the middle of nowhere.”
One aspect of HUNGER that will most definitely prevent it from being readily accessible to mainstream audiences comes in its second half, when the characters descend into one of the more taboo activities, cannibalism. While it isn’t portrayed in an overly graphic manner, Hentges employed some smart techniques to make the audience truly feel it. “When I read the script, I started seeing images,” he recalls. “I need that to work my palette from. On this one, there were two key images, and they were both eating scenes. One was the first kill where the body’s in the hallway, and we look around the corner and he’s in the shadows off in the distance and other people are in front of him, blocking him—but you can hear it. You can’t exactly see it. We see a little bit when we go around the surveillance camera but the horror of what she’s witnessing, it’s not right there in your face. Then later on, she’s in the foreground and the others are out of focus in the background and you see them milling about, but you don’t see the cutting and slicing—you hear it. And sound is everything.
“For me,” Hentges continues, “one of the nastiest scenes is when Jordan’s tied up and Luke’s talking to her and has a little piece he’s gnawing on, but he’s just covered in blood; that was very real to me. That’s why it may be more effective, because it has a sense of reality. You can’t just paint blood on. So the way we got it right was, we took this corpse created by Toby Sells, put the blood where it would naturally be in the human body and had them literally dig in.”
Fans can now dig into HUNGER thanks to its place in the FANGORIA FrightFest, which Hentges is extremely excited to be a part of. “I couldn’t be happier,” he says. “It’s so hard to get an independent film—or any film—released. We always knew the long shot of getting a theatrical, that’s one in a million. You always hope for the best, but you have to be realistic, and we hope for the best and expect the possible. When the Frightfest came about, I was thrilled. I mean, it’s FANGORIA. I’m heavily influenced by nostalgia, so I’m sure that’s a big part of it, and the competition [for big-screen play] engaged people in the films and raised awareness. You make something, whatever it is, and if you don’t make people aware of it, what’s the point? The hardest thing is getting it out there to the people who want to see it.
“It was one of those deals where we went through a period where we weren’t gory enough for some distributors,” he reveals. “Straddling that fence really hurt us and we started to panic, and right at the darkest hour, Lightning and FANGORIA came in and said, ‘We want to do this.’ If you had asked me, ‘What’s the best way to release this movie?’, this scenario is better than I could have imagined. I just thought, ‘We’ll do some festivals and hopefully we’ll get some momentum going and have a nice DVD release,’ but I couldn’t be happier about this. It legitimizes the movie, in a way. FANGORIA is a brand name. Even non-horror fans know it.”
As far as the future is concerned, Hentges is busy developing projects that span the spectrum of horror and non-genre alike—but unfortunately for his loved ones, they probably won’t be any less polarizing. “My own family can’t watch HUNGER,” he admits. “They’re all, ‘Do a romantic comedy.’ Not gonna happen.”
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