Five years and a maxed out credit card is what it took for writer/director John McLoughlin’s “labor of love”, Underwood (2019). Now that it’s been released and is available for streaming, we were able to catch up with the hard working Mr. McLoughlin to ask him a few questions…
Just to get my standard question out of the way first, what filmmakers do you keep a close eye on and/or inspire you?
As a kid I loved sci-fi and horror as all kids do. Lucas, Spielberg, and Scott are all easily top influences from my childhood.
But when I saw the old marathons of The Twilight Zone and Stephen Kings’ Creepshow and Romero’s Dawn of the Dead — oh and Wes Craven — those stories had less happy endings and left me with a much more “affected” outlook on storytelling. They really inspired my writing.
The greats like Kubrick, Scorsese, and Tarantino’s early films all keep my attention to this day. I still think True Romance (1993) is one of the best screenplays ever written, best cast, and could possibly be my fav ever… but that changes once I’m reminded of another great film that I haven’t seen in a while.
When you began filming Underwood, what goal was first and foremost in your mind? Huge piles of cash? Oscar nominations? The sheer joy of filmmaking?
Haha oh yeah baby… back up that Brinks truck!!! Filmmaking is a very expensive hobby for MOST of us… I do it for my love of the craft and the hope of telling a story that lasts long after I’m gone. I left Hollywood years ago after a film that I was very proud of making with some good friends went belly up and basically bankrupted everyone involved. It’s still sitting on a shelf somewhere tied up in legal bullshit… very disheartening since I put a lot of my heart and energy into it and my good friend/producer lost a lot more than that.
If I could make enough from Underwood to just break even I would be tickled pink — but I’ll still find a way even if we don’t — just depends on how many gallons of blood I can sell… doesn’t have to my blood… right?
I understand Underwood was financed entirely with a credit card. Now that you’ve gone that route and dealt with the difficulties that came with it, would you use that method again? Or, would you consider alternate sources (crowdfunding, bank robberies, etc.)?
Yes and maybe to the last two questions haha.
I moved to Florida to be closer to family as video was replacing film and I saw a tiny flickering light at the end of that dark tunnel. So I refocused on just trying to find a way to make more films without piles of borrowed money from people that I can’t guarantee to pay back. Everything you do as a filmmaker takes a risk. So many factors that can derail a production at any point… even once the film is done. I just wanted more control over that.
Don’t get me wrong… If someone wants to “lend” me money to make a film… I’ll take it! But I felt that if I can prove that I can make something entertaining on a shoestring budget… then maybe the next investors I approach without a ski mask and a cattle prod may be willing to invest in the next one… crossing fingers that we get another chance to do that.
We did a tiny kickstarter mid-production and raised a few dollars. Then, as fate would have it, one week after the money came through my camera bag got stolen from set. One step forward…
Were your cast and crew all volunteers? And, if so, does the lack of a paycheck make casting more difficult?
Yes, Underwood was made by a group of aspiring artists who read the script and just committed their valuable time to making the film an I cannot be more grateful.
Technically they all have a “deferred” payment agreement which is contingent on the film reaching a certain dollar amount — and I will be overjoyed to see that goal reached and actually happen — but as I mentioned, this really was a creative labor of love. I’m hoping that each person who contributed can use the footage as a tool to open new doors for themselves and find bigger better gigs. And Yes… nobody WANTS to work for free… but they all showed up and gave me some wonderful performances.
You actively sought out grindhouse legend William Grefé to be in your movie. Were there others that you just had to have or were the rest discovered through the usual casting process?
Bill was a blessing and such a priceless asset beyond his performance. He mentored me and gave great advice throughout the shoot and still does to this day. Fernando Rio, also. He played the sheriff and was a big support throughout filming. We lost Fernando to cancer in 2018 but not before he gave me his last performance ever. He wanted to see it through and I love him for all he gave to us.
Underwood was 5 years in the making, but I think I read somewhere that it was only around 40+ days of actual shooting. Did you have to take any extra steps to make sure all the actors and all the sets looked the same from scene to scene?
Oh yes… continuity was a major challenge. Just keeping hairstyles and the actors’ looks the same could have thrown off audiences terribly but, for the most part, Michelle and Jesse really pulled it off.
There are scenes back to back in the film that were shot years apart and it’s perfect. We put a lot of time into matching up the looks and locations to keep the illusion going. Fernando was actually very sick and in his final weeks by the time we shot his final scene but he soldiered on and came through for me BIGTIME – love got this film made.
This was your first feature film that you both wrote and directed. How did that change the movie making experience for you?
I learned so much from the mistakes!!! And there were many… This is a very challenging art form… you need to think like a chess master or on shoot day you are scrambling and scrambling. You find yourself saying things like… “we’ll fix it in post” (HA!) just to survive the day and get the shots you need as opposed to doing all that you wanted to get accomplished. Murphy’s Law is very real and prevalent when you don’t prepare properly or worse yet… know what to prepare for.
What advice can you give hopeful filmmakers looking to make movies without a huge budget?
Two things… #1 – Write a script that fits your budget!!! I used to think BIG and write even BIGGER and Underwood is NOT a quiet little art house film. We swung for the fences and got some really complicated scenes shot for this film on a shoestring budget. But it also took a long time to both plan out and fund each shoot on my tapped out credit card because of the grand scope that I wrote the film with. I broke a ton of indie rules and tried to make it look and feel like a studio film to the best of my ability. I know it’s not a masterpiece by any stretch, but if people can watch it with an open mind and consider how it was made for such a tiny amount — hopefully they will appreciate all of our hard work and be entertained by some aspect of the film.
#2 – Seek out a mentor with experience and listen to their advice. Bill was that for me and he really helped in so many ways by just knowing what I was up against and giving great input to help solve problems the entire time.
It sounds like self-distributing a movie can be a bit frustrating. Could you share a bit about what’s involved and what you learned from unleashing Underwood upon the world?
I’m still working on that one to this day… Underwood is self-distributed. We went to Amazon Prime first because it was free to launch and that’s a price I could afford.
I would love to get a traditional distributer to help us get on the other platforms but “if you have it…”. It takes a few grand and your project will be right up there on the major VOD platforms right next to the big guys. I’d still love to do it with investor money if I could, but it’s not impossible to get your movie seen without outside help.
We launched on Prime about 6 weeks ago and we have over 75,000 views. It feels great that people are watching and I’m just hoping that it keeps up.
[TST Note: Clicking on the links above will get you to the streaming sites, too!]
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I just want to thank The Scariest Things for doing what you do! Our little movie is reaching people thanks to your coverage and others like you.
The studios have MILLIONS to spend on marketing alone. We don’t have that luxury at all so, please, anyone reading today – support indie films and those who put their hearts into this art form. We do this for the love of film and our goal is to tell stories that entertain you for 90 minutes. We’re not trying to ruin your day. If you hate it… blame me. It’s just art. So if do you like the film even a tiny bit… a good review does wonders for our Amazon ratings and helps us stay on the watch lists. Hopefully I get a chance to make the next one a little bit better.
And everyone here at The Scariest Things hopes you make another one, too! We’re always up for watching another horror movie!
Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, John! We appreciate your well thought out answers. Not to mention all the hard work that you, your cast, and your crew put in to bring Underwood to the screen. Fingers crossed for a glorious Underwood future and many more McLoughlin projects to come!