Interview with Mike Lombardo
edited by Sam Kolesnik
Mike Lombardo is an indie horror director living in Lancaster, PA. His feature directorial debut, I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday, won several awards on the film festival circuit and is now available for purchase from Scream Team Releasing.
I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday is executive-produced by critically-acclaimed horror author, Brian Keene, and it stars Hope Bikle, Reeve Blazi, Damien Maffei (The Strangers: Prey at Night) and Shannon Moyer. I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday was filmed entirely in Lancaster, PA, where Lombardo got his start making short horror comedies under his production company, Reel Splatter Productions.
Screen Fervor got the chance to talk to Lombardo about the challenges he faced, and the film’s recent release from Scream Team Releasing.
Your earlier short films were largely focused on gore and humor. I’m Dreaming of a Doomsday is a huge divergence from that. Why the sudden shift in your work?
It’s the stuff that I’ve always wanted to do, even when I was doing the horror comedy. I always wanted to do the stuff that was more serious. I just didn’t have the technical abilities — not the just the crew, but my own personal skill-set. I didn’t feel I could pull it off and I was terrified to try it. I also was a lot more comfortable doing horror comedy stuff because I wasn’t quite comfortable expressing my personal side. I was doing that more in prose, which no one was reading at the time. Finally, with the more experience I got and the more comfortable I got with myself, and myself being an artist (as pretentious as that’s going to sound), I decided to go for it and I’m glad I did.
Christmas-themed horror can be polarizing. A huge chunk of the sub-genre is comprised of slasher films. I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday, on the other hand, has a very serious, emotional tone with very little gore. Can you speak to the film’s originality in this particular horror niche?
I love Christmas horror of all kinds. Silent Night, Deadly Night is one of my favorite movies, but honestly I’m more of a fan of Christmas Evil which is not really a slasher movie, but more of a character study of a man having a nervous breakdown and it happened to be around Christmas. I love Christmas and I love subverting the weird imagery of Christmas. I think it’s kind of terrifying. And I also love apocalypse movies. So it’s these really deeply-ingrained obsessions of mine.
I've always had a weird thing about Santa Claus. In all my old short films, he pops up, and that, I guess, along with the personal stuff I was going through at the time -- it all just kind of swelled up in this personal storm where couching everything in a Christmas-themed story worked out really well for me. It was a great outlet for me to be able to play with some of the sub-genres I love. I very deliberately wanted it to not be a gory Christmas movie as I knew it was going to go against type. I love subverting expectations and everyone expected me to do something really nasty with it. So I wanted to do the opposite. It also just didn't really fit the story. I would've put tons of gore into the movie if it would've fit the story and it just didn't in this case. I guess part of it was self-discipline and I guess the other part was trying to do justice for what I was trying to get across.
You made I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday with a local cast and crew in a city that is not known for film production. Was that intentional and did the location (Lancaster, PA) present challenges for your vision?
It definitely presented challenges. The reason we shot here is because we're here. The crew for my whole movie lives here in Lancaster. That was a budget thing and a comfort thing. It definitely was difficult because we didn't have access to a lot of the stuff that normal productions would have. But we were going so guerilla style with our shoot that in the end I don't think it really mattered. I don't think it would've been easier for us to shoot in a large city outside of just having more access to gear.
The one thing that this area did afford us was a large amount of abandoned locations that could easily double for hell-blasted apocalyptic landscapes. That's what central Pennsylvania is really known for, is its abandoned structures. So that worked out really, really well. I also have a lot of connections locally so we were able to wrangle stuff and favors from people. That really, really helped. I honestly don't think this movie would've been able to be made anywhere else just because of the fact that I had so many people around here that were willing to help out. We called in a phone book of favors to make this movie because we had no money. I don't think it would've worked any other way in any other place.
I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday is a very contained film with a couple of settings and very few characters. Were there any similarly contained films or books that you looked to for inspiration?
Not so much the contained stuff. That was really a budget thing. And the story, it didn't need to be told in a large scope. It was actually something that I kind of wanted to keep low key. The stuff that really influenced it was the book series and also the video game series, Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky. It's a Russian series about people living in a subway system in Russia after a nuclear apocalypse. That was a huge inspiration... just the aesthetics of it. Also a book called On the Beach by Nevil Shute, which is written in the 50’s about a small town, basically the last town left alive after a nuclear apocalypse, and what these people do with the last two months of their lives knowing they're going to die. The denial and all these kinds of series of small stories - super depressing stuff. That's really what I looked at in terms of influence.
The production of I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday spanned over the course of two years and went on much longer than you had intended. What kept you going, despite those challenges?
It was two years of shooting on weekends and one year of post. What kept me going was the story that I wanted to tell. Once I started to get some of the footage together, it actually afforded me the ability to edit while we were shooting, which was a tremendous help. Once I started seeing the stuff cut together, I knew that what I was trying to go for was actually working. At least, for me, it was working.
I was like, "Oh my God, this is great. This is what I've always wanted."
And, also, I think I have more ambition than talent. I will not give up on something if I think I can finish it. I finish everything obsessively and I turn into a cyborg when I'm on set. I don't sleep. I don't eat. I don't use the bathroom. I'm just, "Let's do it. Let's go. Come on." Twenty-two hour days, whatever. I don't care. And I guess complete insanity is what kept me going, really. During the production, I went through two relationships and it almost cost me my job. The physical and emotional drain of doing this movie kind of ruined my life for a little bit, I guess. But it was inspired by my life being in ruin, so it all kind of worked out in the end, I suppose.
The film is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from indie horror distribution company, Scream Team Releasing. Why did you decide to go with the Scream Team Releasing label for I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday?
I was planning on self-distributing because I've had a lot of experience doing that with our short film collection, Suburban Holocaust and The Stall. We had a sales agent through our producer, Brian Keene, and he was pitching to lots of places. We actually did field a lot of offers from people because we were on the fest circuit and we started winning awards. A lot of people started emailing me and their contracts were awful. Like, super terrible. A lot of indie distro, they're all snakes in the grass. A lot of other filmmakers had warned me about various places and things, so when Justin Seaman from Scream Team saw the movie and said he was interested, I started talking to him. The terms were great.
The biggest thing about it was that Justin, himself, is also a filmmaker in the indie scene. He knows what it's like to be scraping nickels together to try to get a shoot done. So he knows the struggle that independent filmmakers go through and he understands how frustrating it is to try to get something out there intact with your vision. He was really cool about not changing our artwork and giving me creative control over the layout and stuff. He gave me a lot of free reign and a lot of great advertising. He has a really big fan-base already for Scream Team. We really clicked on a personal level as filmmakers and we really clicked with our marketing and business strategy. He's been in the trenches, so I really respect that. I agreed to sign with him and honestly it's probably the best decision I made since casting the movie. It's been nothing but a beautiful relationship.
This was your first feature film and you’ve been very open about the challenges you faced when making it. What are some tips you can offer others out there who are considering diving into feature filmmaking?
The first tip I would give is, “Don't do it and get a real job. You'll be much happier.” If that doesn't sound good for you, then proceed. The biggest thing I would say is plan your shoot. Make sure you have a very good idea of what you're trying to do with your locations and your actors. Break down your script. Really organize it. We did not have the organization that I would have liked and that was completely on me. It was supposed to be a short film and it turned into a feature, so I didn't plan on it being a feature and then it turned into a big mountain that it didn't have to be. But do that.
Make sure your cast and crew understand how horrible the shoot is going to be. When I cast people and hire them, I tell them just all these awful stories about how miserable and terrible, and dirty and awful it's gonna be. And if they're still there after you're done telling them that, then there's a good indication that they'll probably stick it out with you.
The other big thing is feed your crew! Feed everybody. If you spend money on nothing else, make sure that it is good food, because if you don't feed them well, they will mutiny and your head will end up on a stick. That all just goes in line with the biggest thing to remember when you're making an independent film, but this should go for any strata of filmmaking, is to make sure you treat your cast and crew with respect. They're going to be doing things and putting in time more than any human being should be required to do. If you've got a good set of people, they're going to stick with you. You need to make sure that they feel appreciated and valued because they're busting their ass for you. If you do that, then they'll follow you to the end of the earth. That's super important. With filmmaking, you end up as a family. Families fight sometimes, but at the end of the day, you still love them, and they should be treated with respect.
I'm Dreaming of a White Doomsday has played at several festivals and has won awards on the circuit. How important was the festival circuit for the success of the film?
It was tremendously important. The biggest thing for me originally was just to get it in front of an audience because normally we were just doing conventions where we had DVDs of our short films. We were doing this before YouTube was around, so we'd hand out CDs and stuff. Once YouTube was there, that was really great because we'd have people commenting. We could watch view counts and stuff, but there's nothing more valuable than sitting with an actual live group of people and having them watch and react to your film. You can sit and see in real time what works and what doesn't work. Talking to people afterwards and hearing their actual in-person opinions is so incredibly important and so gratifying. So that was a huge thing and then we started winning awards, which was really, really cool.
Don't make a movie to try to win awards, but it did help a lot. It got us the distro deal. It got us a lot of attention. Also, when playing at festivals, we got to meet other cool filmmakers and see other movies. That was super inspiring and I also made a lot of connections with people I'd like to work with in the future. When you network at a film festival where you play your film, and someone likes it, it might end up getting back to another film fest director, who then might invite you to play at their festival. You can keep networking around like that and that's also super important. It definitely was a huge, huge help. It's also very expensive. So another tip is to at least have the concept that it's going to cost you a lot of money so that you can put something back for travel and lodging. Save even for submission fees, because it costs out the ass, but it's absolutely worth it.