Producing Horror Films with Peter Phok

Giles Alderson and Phil Hawkins welcome legendary horror film and TV producer, Peter Phok to the podcast, to discuss his filmmaking career, where it all started, his inspirations, and how he produces film and TV.

Peter recalls having developed a love for movies in high school – cinemas were the place where teenagers would congregate. And his love for horror filmmaking started after watching Wes Craven’s Scream. 

“I was blown away. Before that, I didn’t really have an aberration for horror, but (Scream) opened my eyes to that world and I wanted to make movies. Whether for escapism or fantasy, I  loved it and I wanted to learn everything I could about it.”

And so I got into reading about filmmaking and I was fortunate to find a two-day film school that was being offered in Manhattan – a 45-minute train ride away.”

Film School

He “came out of those two days, inspired but with this confidence that there was still a lot more to learn” and after school, he enrolled into the School of Visual Arts (SVA).

That was where Peter met Ti West. “We had a film history freshman year class together. And then kept seeing each other when we were editing our little films, and we connected.

Ti knew horror… he grew up with a video store and was always there checking out the latest VHS and DVDs.

Filmmaking Communities

Peter says that it’s important to find “that community. While we were at SVA, Ti had an opportunity to meet with Larry Fessenden and ended up interning with Larry. That relationship evolved as we graduated.”

Larry convinced Ti to make his feature after graduation and helped with funding it. His company, Glass Eye Pics, “was really to help himself as a filmmaker and help a lot of emerging filmmakers, and Ti was one of them.

We graduated in May of 2003 and were on set on The Roost in October of 2003.”

Learning On Set

“The training that we had in film school is very different from what you learn on set.

I was fortunate to get mentored by Susan Leber – a New York City independent producer and line producer. I say line producer because that is the nuts and bolts of filmmaking – they deal with the budget, the world of the film and the crew. I fell into production management on that movie and really learnt what that meant – supporting the crew and their needs and anticipating the next day’s work.

For each production, I’m always learning. I was really grateful for all those years because it’s tough to break in – there’s no secret and every path is different, but you have to have a determination to keep at it.”

How He Got Into Producing

At SVA, “producing wasn’t a concentration. It was editing, writing, cinematography or directing. I was in the directing program and that builds up to making a thesis film. I was always ambitious. I had seen Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, and thought, I can make a musical.

That would be fun. And while I had a good time, there was a challenge because I don’t know how to write music. And I didn’t know how to produce.

So, cut to 2006, Ti had written The House of the Devil, but the financing hadn’t come in for it. We had made The Roost and he was very eager to get back into making something. He had gone to SXSW and had met other filmmakers who were making their subsequent movies.”

Ti decided while waiting for funding, to make something else. “He wrote Triggerman, and went back to Larry and said can we make this really tiny movie for less money than The Roost?”

Larry agreed to the film and said that Peter could produce it. “The stakes were low, it wasn’t a lot of money, I think maybe $15,000 (when you add post to it, it grew a bit more), but we were able to sell it and could experiment. It was a great time to be afforded this opportunity to go do it.”

Developing His Craft

“We’re still learning from mistakes, but I’m always eager to learn about new approaches.” 

Peter said that what he has learned about producing is that “you’re responsible for taking the project from the beginning to the end. And the end is not finishing editorial, but through delivery – when you sell the movie to a distributor and create all the elements that they need so that they can put the movie out into the world.”

He has developed a practice of “taking the script, breaking it down, making a shooting schedule and building a budget. Triggerman was the first movie I outright produced” but as there wasn’t a big cast or crew, Peter also helped with the camera, boom, transport and catering.

“It didn’t feel like a big movie, because it wasn’t, but I did have to do the adult things.” Larry was also always there to assist and support them creatively.

Getting Noticed at SXSW

They had already made The Roost, and Ti was familiar with SXSW. “Matt Dentler, at the time, was running the film festival, and had been instrumental to not only support our careers and journey as filmmakers but also many others.”

At that point, you’d “send the movie to Matt, the head programmer, and then hope that he likes it. I think my forte was in production and post, sales and distribution are something I’m still learning because the market is always changing. Our approach was to get the movie into a film festival, screen it and get good positive reviews. And hopefully, that will elicit interest and sales.” And that is what they did,

What’s Important for Peter as a Producer?

“Listening to the filmmaker’s needs and being a good advocate for those needs. 

You’re wearing a lot of different hats as a producer. Every filmmaker is going to be a little different in how much they need to know about the world when making the movie. Some filmmakers want to know everything – Ti is one of those filmmakers, but other filmmakers don’t need to worry about it.

It’s building that rapport very early on in the collaboration. It’s all about communication and being honest with what the needs are. The way I budget is: what’s important in the script that commands more resources. And if that’s important, we must pull back on some other elements,”

To hear more from Peter, listen to the pod episode here.

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