Writer-director Jeffrey Grellman’s new film, Mermaid Down, will release Oct. 29. This is the first of three pieces for FANGORIA.com, in which he walks readers through the journey to get his film made.
I became obsessed with movies as a kid and devoured interviews with writers and directors, developing an exponentially intense appreciation for special effects by the time I was a teenager. Back then, FANGORIA magazine was the only way to access behind-the-scenes pictures and articles about how things were done, and I treasured every new issue like it was the secret source to the magic and movies I longed to make one day.
My mom's garage became wallpapered with FANGORIA clippings and articles; it became my sanctuary where I could create crude optical effects with a model of the U.S.S. Enterprise against a star field or build foam and latex monster masks. I got hold of a video camera and everyday became another opportunity to make a short film -- and avoid homework. School became impossible; it was the place I had to escape so I could get back to watching or making movies.
I took a job at a video store in Walnut Creek called CinemArt just so I would have constant access to a vast library of films. I remember carrying a stack of VHS tapes home every day after closing and staying up all night to take notes on the films. It was working at that store that really shaped my love for foreign films and edgier, more offbeat cinema that probably led to the unusual style of Mermaid Down.
I moved to LA and essentially broke into every film school I could, just sitting in on classes in order to see what I was missing before they would kick me out. Then I began pitching my ideas to producers byway of following someone into a secure building, as though I were with that person. I think I pulled just about every trick in the book to get face time with producers and surprisingly, that sort of worked. A lot of producers were interested in short films I would create to sell an idea or a sizzle reel based on one of my scripts.
But while they were staying in touch and promising a film deal tomorrow ... tomorrow never came. Years went by. I was really struggling even though I had all these amazing contacts who said they wanted to work with me.
I think they just couldn't ever sell my ideas to their funding institutions because I was always fighting for some original concept they couldn't compare to another film.
Eventually, I realized I wasn’t going anywhere unless I turned myself into my own producer - and it seemed pretty clear that the only way to do that was to make a low-budget horror film because that’s the only genre where you can get distribution with no celebrities and no budget. And I wasn’t deterred by these limitations because I grew up on FANGORIA and knew that the horror genre lends itself to creativity, getting the film in the can by hook or by crook.
But I also knew that everyone was making low-budget horror films and I needed to do something that would stand out from the crowd. I was eating sushi at a little restaurant off Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown when I noticed the seaweed wrap looked like fish skin and cylindrical like a mermaid's tail with a splayed-out end piece, like a mermaid's fin that was all chopped up. I think my brain just lit up at that moment ... what if a horror film was about a mermaid who had her tail cut off? Other horror films with mermaids would make her the monster, but this idea meant she was the protagonist. The innocent symbol from childhood and mythology would instantly connect an audience to her plight. When you think about great horror films, they're often built on a very disturbing idea. When Psycho was released in 1960,the idea of a man dressing up like his late mother and stabbing people was very disturbing. I like that. It's one of the utilities of horror. I felt like my concept was intrinsically compelling and, even though it would be a massive challenge to pull off with no money, I just had to follow my heart ... and try.
My girlfriend was studying to get her doctorate in psychology at the time and felt the idea was potent and psychologically rich,so we began hashing out the foundation of the concept together. The mermaid would be thrown into a mental home where no one believes she’s a sea creature.A former patient -- a mangled ghost -- would become her ally, and together they would take revenge on the sadistic onsite psychiatrist. The mermaid and ghost provided a fresh concept, while the trope of the psychiatrist kept the story anchored in the familiar. Still, it was over the top and ambitious, but it all felt right. My love for Mario Bava and films like The Evil Dead (1981)were my jumping-off points. Everyone else was making downbeat or very earnest horror films. Mermaid Down was going to be stylized, fast, and fun.
I went off and wrote the script in isolation for about two weeks and then sent it to the most prestigious competitions I could find.To my absolute shock, Shoreline Scripts placed it as a quarterfinalist and the Bluecat Screenplay Competition gave it a rave review -- I couldn't believe it.This led to Filmmaker Magazine getting in touch and writing an article about me and the screenplay.
Despite the success of the screenplay, I still couldn't really get production companies to get behind it. They would reach out to me and ask for the script, then tell me that the project was going to be too expensive to make. They were imagining green screens and lavish sets but wouldn’t let me explain how I planned to use practical effects, miniatures, and creativity to give the illusion of spectacle.
In an attempt to showcase some of these concepts, I took the last $300 to my name and shot a 15-minute sizzle reel on a DSLR, using cheap photography lights and a wheelchair as a camera dolly. I fashioned a mermaid tail out of car mats (the rubber floor mats) because they had texture and the right floppy, fish-like weight. I painted the mats blue and attached them to a snow shovel that I could manipulate and puppeteer, which worked really well on camera. Then I just shot the tail in a very slight soft focus so the texture of the mats would blend and not look too machine-cut.
My thinking was simple. If the sizzle reel works, then I'll use it to raise the money myself. No matter what I raised, THAT would be the budget. Even if it I could only find a thousand bucks --THAT would be the budget. Crowdsourcing gave the sizzle reel an opportunity to inspire contributors, and I raised some money -- about $85K. Now, while that budget sounds like a shoestring, to me it was utterly empowering because I was prepared to do it for a grand. So, I took that money and set my sights to figuring out how the hell to make this movie.
Next: Jeffrey Grellman writes about how he got Mermaid Down to look so cool for so little money.