Most people wouldn’t usually consider upstate New York to be a thriving haven of independent film, but over the past decade, there have been an increasing amount of passionate cinephiles who have taken to the latest video technology to bring cinematic labors of love to cheerful life. Around the Capital Region area, an underground community has certainly grown of technical devotees who network endlessly with each other to take big screen ideas from obstacle-ridden drawing boards to cheerful cinematic life. One of this happening scene’s most prominent figures is Jon Russell Cring, a writer/director originally from Centerburgh, Ohio whose been making movies in upstate New York for the past 2 years under his production banner, ExtraOrdinary Film Project. His latest project, Creeping Crawling, is being planned as an independent horror anthology in the vein of Creepshow. The first installment, R.I.D., will be premiering February 1st in Albany, NY at WAMC’s The Linda @ 7 P.M.
I met with Cring to talk about his career, his filmography, and his latest film. From one conversation with Cring, its clear that he’s not only a dedicated cinephile, but one of the more clear-headed and wiser independent filmmakers I’ve encountered in my experiences. His enthusiasm for directing, his fine knowledge of film history, and his eager willingness to share significant tips of the trade gives off the delightful vibe of a man who relentlessly pushes himself creatively and genuinely loves what he does. As we sat down one chilly January afternoon to discuss Creeping Crawling, we touched down on everything from the richness of ordinary lives, why E.T. is inferior to Pink Floyd The Wall, and how sex and bugs can co-exist in the same movie:
BRETT PARKER: When most people think of independent film, they tend to think of films that were made around L.A. or New York City. What most people don’t realize is that theres a prominent underground film scene thats been slowly developing over the past few years in upstate New York around the Albany area. How would you describe your personal experiences within that scene? How do you feel about its cinematic output?
JON RUSSELL CRING: I do see that there are mechanisms in place that have been created by some really very cool people, like Kevin Craig West and the people at Upstate Independents, where you have an opportunity to meet with other filmmakers, you have someplace that you can show what you do on a regular basis. And that’s great! Thats absolutely fantastic! As far as the quality of whats actually going out, you know, I’ll let smarter people than me give their opinion on that. All I know is, we have to reach a certain kind of a standard that people accept. You know, that its not a Hollywood film. The sound, the acting, the writing basically have to reach par before you can actually start to be judged and if it doesn’t do that, then we can’t just pretend, you know, ‘well we’re in Albany, it doesn’t really make any difference if its good enough!’ Yeah, it does make a difference and you have to feel like you’re competing not with the people around you but with the people in Hollywood and New York City.
BP: Well it does seem like so many people are interested in getting into the film game yet are completely oblivious to all the hard work that goes into it. Based on your own experiences, if someone were starting out in independent filmmaking nowadays, what advice would you give them to start off with?
JRC: The first thing I tell anybody is to go make something! Don’t plan it, don’t think about it, don’t talk to your friends about it, just do it! There are a lot of things that are going to try and stop you from making your movie. I’m of the opinion that everything in the world is conspiring against you when you’re making an independent film. There’s timing issues, there’s people interest level, there’s money, obviously. The only way you’re going to learn is by doing it. You’re not even going to learn by going to school, you’re not going to learn by taking classes, you learn by making movies. And watching movies. If you’re not a cinephile, if you’re not somebody who love movies that, you know, knows things older than ten years old, if you’re not somebody who loves talking about film, then you’re going to make a bunch of mistakes that you didn’t need to make if you had just watched what Stanley Kubrick had done.
BP: Are there any specific genres you gravitate towards or are there any filmmakers who directly inspire your own work?
JRC: I’m inspired by anything thats story-driven. The movies between 1968-1978 were pretty much the greatest films in almost every genre of filmmaking. You had the greatest horror film, which is considered by most to be The Exorcist. You had the greatest war film, which for anyone smart would be Apocalypse Now. It goes on and on: the Clint Eastwood westerns, obviously The Godfather movies. It’s because the director was king. It’s because they didn’t necessarily care about what the public wanted, they gave the public what they wanted, and I find when you give the public what you want, usually thats what they want, too. People will see movies. They will see Transformers: Dark of the Moon if thats what you give them. But if you give them Last Tango in Paris, they’ll see that, too.
BP: Living in this time we call The Great Recession, people aren’t so enthusiastic these days to throw their money around on film projects. Have you found it more difficult to get projects funded these days? Has it put certain limitations on what you can achieve cinematically?
JRC: [sarcastically] Not for me, Brett, I’m independent wealthy! I have all the money I need to make movies! I don’t know what you’re talking about! [laughs] No, man, are you kidding me? I’ve had to do a Kickstarter for this movie Creeping Crawling, and I’ve never done that before. I’m trying to raise $7500 so that I can get a ‘name’ for the film, because whether you like it or not, there are two things that people notice when you show them a film: 1) what the story is, 2) who’s in it. And when you take away one of those things, you lose half their interest. If they don’t know thats in it, you’ve lost half the interest. So you’re trying to take fifty percent of their attention span and get them to go ahead and watch your movie. Thats the way its always been. Obviously, people don’t have a lot of money, and what they have they don’t want to give up to making a movie, so I try to give people as much value as I possibly can. I try to give them bells and whistles and a whole lot of fun, and hopefully people rally behind it and we can get this thing made. But if you let money stand in your way, then you’re never going to do anything.
BP: Most of your film work can be found on the website for ExtraOrdinary Film Project. There’s a nice quote I found on the site which reads, “people considered to be ordinary, everyday folk often have extra-special stories to tell that are even more captivating than the ones produced in Hollywood.” This quote really serves as a key to your films, for you seem to be compelled by the idea of everyday people having their lives challenged by unpredictable circumstances and trying to hold onto their ideals. What is it that draws you to these kinds of stories?
JRC: Brett, everybody’s life is Ben-Hur! That’s something that people have just forgotten! Every single person has an epic, EPIC experience in their life! They just think ‘oh yeah, yeah, I went through that...’ But when they’re at parties and telling stories, people are enthralled, like ‘oh my God, how did you get through that accident?’ Or, ‘I can’t believe you were able to survive that molestation!’ ‘How did you make it out of Europe alive?’ They tell those stories and that to me is the fodder for great filmmaking. If you can take your worst pain, your worst experience, and turn that into art, thats exactly what it becomes...it becomes art. A lot of my films have contained personal tragedy...there’s one about my brother being hit-and-run by a car and we never found out who hit him. The film is basically about what that person’s life could’ve been like after he hit him and we basically say that he had a downward spiral that led him to becoming a homeless person. Thats the power of art! That probably didn’t happen, but thats a cathartic experience to imagine that that might’ve happened to this person.
So I always tell people to start with their own personal experience. Start with a conversation you had, start with something that already happened to you. Creeping Crawling actually started with my house being infected with fleas. [laughs] Thats how the movie began! We’re planning it as a entomological trilogy of terror, so this is an anthology film right now. Our cat came in and got the whole house completely covered in fleas! My wife was just being driven crazy by it because she couldn’t get rid of them! There was something sucking on her and biting on her all the time! She goes in the shower and fleas are in the water! They were coming out of her hair! It was maddening! And that sort of quality, that maddening quality, led us to coming up with the idea for this first story R.I.D. Your horror, your experience is the straw that we spin into gold.
BP: As I looked over your filmography, I noticed that your earlier work tended to deal with rather religious themes such as sin, repression, guilt, and morality. Yet with your later works, such as Tattitude and now Creeping Crawling, it feels as if a darkness and edginess is creeping into your work. There’s a certain sense of chaos present, with more ambiguous motivations. Do you feel yourself now wanting to explore more uninhibited and darker territory?
JRC: You’re absolutely right! My first thirteen films were written by my father [Jonathan Richard Cring], a man who traveled around the country and was a very spiritual man. But I kind of realized that while I loved my earlier work, I wasn’t making the kind of films that I wanted to see. You know, I was making the kind of movies that he wanted to see. Even though I really enjoyed those films, there was territory I wasn’t getting an opportunity to explore. So I’ve been a little bit more collaborative now, working with a guy by the name of Joshua Owens who is one of the writers on one of the Creeping Crawling stories and who also wrote Tatititude.
You know, there are no black cats in white hats...that is one thing I absolutely believe. There is no good, there is no evil, we are all capable of amazing generosity towards each other or we’re capable of cutting each others throats. We need to stop portraying in film that there’s always a right and there’s always a wrong in every situation. Creeping Crawling to me is a horror film, but nothing supernatural happens in it. All of the horror is self-inflicted. Plus, there’s a lot of fetish in this film because I was interested in seeing more eroticism. That was something I enjoyed in the 1970s well into the 1980s and we sort of lost that. Sexuality sort of became like a joke. Think of the girls in the Friday the 13th movies who would take off their shirts then get stabbed. I think sexuality and nudity should be taken seriously because its part of life, just like spirituality is part of life. So I want to mix those ideas and explore a lot of different themes and make the movies I want to see.
BP: Whats interesting is that the themes you explored earlier are still there, its just now they’re being explored from the view of the sinners. Tattitude, for example, highlights certain morals and sins by showing characters who rail and rebel against them.
JRC: I think there is a certain segment of society that doesn’t really get their stories told. You know, you can call them the working-class, blue-collar, what-have-you. They get forgotten, except maybe for comedies. Tattitude appealed to me because I couldn’t think of a movie about tattoos artists. You’d literally have to go back to The Illustrated Man with Rod Steiger to see a movie that featured tattooing or tattoo artists. And that was all the way back in 1969. Are you kidding me? So that was really kind of an interesting idea for me.
In Creeping Crawling, there’s the story of a model, an unsuccessful one who has to pay for her own pictures and struggles. A beautiful model, but she also had to grow up with an eating disorder that was given to her by her father. And that came from my wife [Tracy Nichole Cring, who is also the film’s Cinematographer/Editor]. She doesn’t have an eating disorder, but her father used to literally not let her off a treadmill until she did 30 miles a day. And he would say things to her like ‘a man doesn’t care if you’re smart, he cares what you look like,’ or ‘if you ever want to get a husband, you better lose that ass.’ When my wife told me that, that went in the script. I mean, that’s the fodder right there! There’s something horrible that somebody says and what is the root of horror but the horrible? So in this story, the model eats tapeworms in an attempt to lose weight. Thats the interaction between human and insect that highlights perversion and feelings of never being good enough. I wanted to do those kinds of stories about the have-nots and the forgotten people. I guess in a way, Orson Welles sort of felt that way, he was trying to do it....but I want to be a little more entertaining than that. I don’t think you have to make The Grapes of Wrath necessarily, I think you can do something thats fun and has a Hollywood mindset. I don’t have a problem with summertime films, I really don’t. I love entertaining films. I just think they could be a little more relatable.
BP: I wanted to delve more into the basic ideas behind Creeping Crawling. The title and the basic premise would have you expecting a gross-out creepfest, but there’s a raw eroticism in the film I think will surprise most audiences. Its almost as if Adrian Lyne directed a Roger Corman production.
JRC: [laughs] Well you mention Roger Corman....he’s a very classy filmmaker. What he did on those Edgar Allen Poe movies has never really been beat. If I could fashion a successful career for myself after anyone, I’d fashion one after Roger Corman. You know, the idea of making yourself available to all these other filmmakers. I never really made a horror film before, I’ve produced them. One of the things you may not know about my background is that I was the founder of something called Ghost Ship Films in Tennessee where we did four or five horror films that I basically produced. I learned a lot from that, mostly about what I wasn’t interested in doing. All I was really doing was giving amazing locations for really, really crappy movies and I got totally sick of that. That’s why I wanted to get involved in directing my own movies, writing my own scripts, and that type of thing. With this film, I was inspired by The Legend of Hell House, Burnt Offerings, and Don’t Look Now. I wanted something that was beautiful, aesthetically creepy....its not a gross-out movie, its not even necessarily a ‘scary’ movie. Its a moody movie and a sexy movie. I wanted to put all those elements together and I think we really achieved that.
BP: The funny thing with watching the movie is that you don’t know whether to be creeped out by the insects or turned on by all the pretty people getting it on....
JRC: And that’s what I wanted! The bottom line is that I want the audience to have a good time and for them to have an emotional connection to the film. We’re dealing with dark subjects, like madness and perversions of sexuality....but if the character is not humanized, if the character is not someone I can relate to and understand, all of it kind of goes out the window. One film I really, really enjoy is Angel Heart, a great film but kind of a forgotten film because it got all wrapped up in the whole Lisa Bonet thing with the sexuality and whatever. But you want to talk about a gorgeous movie, one with a fantastic performance by Robert DeNiro, whose one of the best devils you’re ever going to see in a movie! Although it does have a really bad ending....
BP: I always thought it was a nice showcase for Mickey Rourke’s talents. Plus, Alan Parker is such an underrated director....
JRC: I was talking about Pink Floyd’s The Wall the other day...did you know it only has a 65% Fresh Rating on Rotten Tomatoes? I was like, are you kidding?
BP: Well it certainly is a polarizing film. I remember that famous story where Steven Spielberg saw it at the Cannes Film Festival [the 1982 one where E.T. premiered] and was extremely perplexed by it, allegedly exclaiming ‘what the f--k was that?’
JRC: Ok, Steven Spielberg can suck my c--k, because The Wall as a film is so far superior to E.T. in the history of film...I mean yeah, a lot of kids still watch E.T. and that’s cute, but The Wall, you wanna talk about the combination of imagery, music, and ideas, and its just BIG filmmaking, and I love BIG filmmaking! I love the idea of someone pushing the envelope so far and totally captures what Roger Waters does, which is explore these wonderful issues of money, power, sex, religion, all the issues you should be exploring in art. He does that in his music, they did that in the film, and I aspire to do that, too.
BP: Well at this point in your carer, you’ve made over 20 short films, you’ve dabbed in television and music video projects, and Creeping Crawling marks your 14th feature in the independent film world. Where do you see your career heading? What trajectory do you feel it on?
JRC: Right into the toilet! It’s over, Brett! I peaked! [laughs] No, I feel I’m in the right place right now. I don’t know how long I’ll stay in Albany, if I’m supposed to stay in Albany. I’m starting to get some interesting offers, stuff that often surprises me! I got an offer to act in a movie, two offers actually. I have some really interesting work that we have some scripts for that are not huge films as far as budgets are concerned, there in the $50,000-70,000 range, but that’s still a ridiculous number to me right now. So I’m always looking for the Angel, you know, that person who gets interested in what we’re doing...the one big step I have to take is getting a semi-big name actor into one of my films. If you don’t take that step, you’ll never get beyond that step. If you never make a $7,500 film, you’ll never make a $70,000 film, or onto a $700,000 film, and on and on and on. Right now, every film I’ve ever made has been within the $1,500-2,000 range. Even our first Creeping Crawling installment cost $1,000 to make, although it doesn’t look like it. I know how to stretch a dollar, I know how to find a location that can blow people’s minds and make it look like something Hollywood came up with themselves. You call in a lot of favors! I know how to collect favors! [laughs]
For more information about Creeping Crawling, check out its official movie site at www.creepingcrawling.com
For more information about Jon Russell Cring's work, check out www.extraordinaryfilmproject.com