TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF.
STERLING: I’m originally from Chicago and have been in the entertainment business for 18 years, since 1980. I started out at mobile DJ-ing at parties and I advanced to night clubs, doing stage lighting and videotaping bands. I also had a tele-shopping show on television in college. I’m a Columbia College (Chicago) graduate and moved to L.A in ’88. I started making movies around 1990. I began to have in interest in films starting in ’84, when I watched a lot of cable TV and read every issue of FANGORIA magazine that came out. One of the books I read at that time, which really got me interested in filmmaking, was a book called SPLATTER MOVIES by John McCarthy-and in it he talked about how people are making low budget movies for seven thousand dollars. I thought, “I don’t think I’m going to be making STAR WARS but I think I can get seven thousand together to do something”. I still look at McCarthy’s book from time to time. So, I started making movies in 90, 91. That first movie was THINGS, which I hear people still rent (most recently re-released in 1997 through DEAD ALIVE). It was first released through Vista Street, who do all the WITCHCRAFT movies. I’ve since developed a real strong relationship with Jerry Pfeiffer at Vista Street. Pfeiffer believed in me, got me going (URBAN COMBAT, HUMAN PREY) . He doesn’t give me a lot of money to make movies but with whatever amount he gave me I could nonetheless make a movie. And I’m also indebted to Dennis Devine and Steve Jarvis, who worked on THINGS. I still don’t think I’ll be doing Star Wars but my budgets are increasing.
Q: WHAT IS YOUR GOAL AS IN INDEPENDENT PRODUCER?
STERLING: I always wanted to be at the top in any field I was in. I look at Roger Corman, the king of B-Movies, as my model. I’m not saying my movies are in his class but he’s one of the smartest and prolific people in the film business. He’s done a thousand films that he was associated with. My goal is to be the top in the low budget field and I feel I’m in that class. I’d also like to make a good living at what I’m doing. Getting paid for your work is important because it shows that people are interested in what you are doing. Filmmaking is about people seeing your stuff. If nobody sees your movie you make no money and so, what’s the point? My goal is to be the top of my field and make a good amount of money doing it.
Q: HOW IMPORTANT DO YOU THINK FILM SCHOOL IS?
STERLING: I never went to film school. I wanted to be in the record business. But after I graduated from college I found out I couldn’t even get a job in a mail room! I think schooling, in general, rounds you out and makes you think about things. I recommend that you should get a four year degree in something, not necessarily filmmaking. Getting a degree helps you to learn how to complete something because filmmaking is all about completing hard tasks. Sometimes the less money you have the less chance you have to complete it. I don’t necessarily think going to film school is going to make you a film maker but it might teach you how to think about things in general. Not everyone who wants to be a filmmaker can be. It’s such a small business. People think it’s large, but it is really tiny compared to any other business. And I’m not against someone learning another trade. Sometimes I wish I was better in management. You have to do filmmaking because you love it. You have to have talent, too, and have to go figure it out. A lot of people I know want to be Spielberg but simply have no talent to be Spielberg.
Q: WHAT EQUIPMENT AND FORMAT DO YOU USE AND WHY?:
STERLING: I use all formats. I’ve shot stuff in 16mm, Super-VHS, Betacam and digital video. The format depends on the project, the amount of money, and what equipment is available. I still like to shoot on S-VHS, particularly if I do a really cheap low budget movie. For $40 in tape stock you can go out and shoot something. S-VHS is easy to work with and you can always bump it up to a higher format, like Betacam. If you look at HUMAN PREY, for example, all the outside shots look beautiful. PUBLIC ENEMY, done for WILDCAT ENTERTAINMENT, was shot on Digital video with the Panasonic EZ-1, and that looked okay. If you shoot digital use a Sony, the best camera. Also, linear tape editing is not a bad way to edit. If you’re editing on your computer and it crashes all your work is gone.
Q: HOW DO YOU CAST YOUR MOVIES?:
STERLING: I put an add in DRAMALOG. I then get the actor’s pictures, close my eyes and start poking…just kidding. In LA you put an add for actors, saying you can’t pay, and you’ll still get 200-400 professional actors, people with all kinds of credits, sending you head shots and resumes. So you start there and you set up a casting call. It’s amazing what kind of people you can get out there. You get different type of actors than you do in Pennsylvania.
Q: YEAH, EVERYONE LOOKS THE SAME IN THOSE SMALL TOWNS…
STERLING: Well, everyone is from the same family…just kidding. Mark Polonia, who did FEEDERS, is a great actor. Probably one of the top ten most recognizable actors in low budget video.
Q: WHY DO YOU PRODUCE INSTEAD OF DIRECT
STERLING: I know I can direct, I’ve been on enough movies. But I don’t think I’m a good director. I don’t have the patience. I’m better putting people together, getting everyone lined up. An overseer. A lot of people want to do everything. You have to know what you’re good at. I could probably direct better than most of the young video directors out there because I know what I need to sell a picture. If you’re doing horror I don’t care how bad the story is-you have to put in tits and blood. Even if it’s crappy you’re still delivering the goods to the audience. After all, how great can it be on video? I’ve done some great stuff but they’re not masterpieces. In producing I can have two, three, four projects going at the same time. I’ve produced two films in a week before–I don’t think I’d do that again but I liked it. I look at it how I think Roger Corman would. And I think he’s a good director when he wants to be. But he was a better producer than anything. When you’re in the film or movie business you have to make a lot of product. A lot of people can make one film and that’s it. And I wonder what happens to them. For example, whatever happened to people who did KILLER NERDS? I mean, what are you going to do in OHIO, making movies? Even Bookwalter (OZONE, SANDMAN) got out of Ohio, at least temporarily.
Q: HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOUR TO PRODUCE THE FIRST FILM?
STERLING: It took a long time. It was an anthology and we did it in parts. We shot first part in ’91 with Dennis Devine directing, and the second part in ’92 with Jay Woelfel, who is probably the best director I’ve worked with so far. He did BEYOND DREAMS DOOR. That film still holds up. And, because this was my first film, I didn’t know too much about filmmaking then, didn’t have all the resources that I have now. It’s not unusual for your first film. I was working on other stuff during that time, In ’93, HUMAN PREY and we did FLESH MERCHANT in ’92. And I was working on another movie. Good thing about THINGS is that it got me going.
Q: HOW IMPORTANT DO YOU THINK SPECIAL EFFECTS ARE AT THIS LEVEL?
STERLING: I think when you do your first horror film special effects can really save your picture. What can you give your audience making a horror film? You’re not making GOOD WILL HUNTING. A lot of new directors, they make these horror films and try to philosophize. Viewers want to see nude bodies and gore-eyeballs popping, fingers being ripped off, arms coming out of sockets, cool stuff like that. And monsters are really important. If you want to do good on your first film then put a monster in it. THINGS was great because we had two monsters in it. People liked that. And by putting the monsters on the box art you have something with which to hook your audience. That’s why I think the THINGS film still holds up, after all these years. I think people know me best for that particular film.
Q: HOW IMPORTANT IS THE SCRIPT?
STERLING: You have to give actors something to say. It’s important but keep it simple. Take a film that you like, such as FRIDAY THE 13th-and just copy it. Do a SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE type of movie. For your first film take a movie you like and copy it. And then on your next movie or the one after that you can make it more original. I like seeing a synopsis first, rather than reading the whole script. I did a movie for Vista Street called CRYSTAL’S DIARY, sort of like an EMMANUELLE film, but without nudity. But we had girls running around in underwear for five days, great music, and the script.
Q: What is the best production tip you could give to the beginning filmmaker?
STERLING: You need other people to make a film. Surround yourself with people who have made films already. If you want to direct the movie then work with a cameraman who can help you direct, find actors who have acted in real stuff-commercials, TV, et cetera. You don’t have to pay them. Get a young special effects guy who will do it for cost-he’ll do a better job than a more established guy and will go the extra mile. Also, I never do this because I’m really cheap-but make sure you have food around. I’m so cheap people hate working with me but after the film is done they love me, I’m their best friend, because we got the movie done. If you have the will and some talent you can get people to work on a movie. Don’t have a twenty day shooting schedule. I can do stuff in five days because I’ve been doing this for a while. Give yourself eight days. Spread it out. Don’t burn yourself out. Do it on weekends. Be serious but have fun with it, too.
Q: WHAT ABOUT PUBLICITY?
STERLING: It’s very important to get your name out there. You need someone who likes to do that stuff for you or count on your distributor to get you publicized. It’s cool when people say, “Hey, I rented your movie.”
Q: WHAT ABOUT DISTRIBUTION?
STERLING: You have to find a distributor you trust because they do a lot of the legwork in “getting the movie out there”. But you have to decide what you want to do…be a producer, or a director or a distributor. It’s hard to do all three things, a lot of time. Whatever you put into your movie you have to put the same amount into distributing it if you distribute yourself. VISTA STREET is my main distributor. Many times I’m a producer for hire. Or I sell the movie outright, like I did with EVIL SISTER, URBAN COMBAT, and CRYSTAL’S DIARY.
Q: WHAT’S IN STORE FOR THE FUTURE?
STERLING: I have a movie we’re shooting on film, called the UNSEEN, in 16mm. And there’s IRON THUNDER, starring Richard Hatch of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. It’s a tank movie.
Q: HOW DID YOU GET ACCESS TO A TANK?
STERLING: We built a wooden tank and miniatures. We’ve been in post for months. It’s coming out good. UNSEEN is a predator type movie. And then I have a few other bigger things plus a lot of small video features. EXECUTIVE ACTION with James Tucker, a no budget type thing, and I’m doing a four day vampire film, directed by Tim Sullivan, called VAMPIRES FEMMES. THINGS 3 was completed in ’98, directed by Ron Ford. I also did SCREAM QUEEN with Linnea Quigley and we rented a house for $300 for three days. I worked with Brad Sikes, who did a film called THE PACK. It’s not too bad and he’s a young kid. On the strength of that movie I funded SCREAM QUEEN. Linnea is real nice to deal with and is trying to get her career back on track. Hopefully I’ll have some real big stuff coming up. I like everything I’m doing, though, for the time being. I have a few knock-off REANIMATOR scripts being written, because I wanted to do my own version, called REANIMATION. With the two different scripts I might make two different movies. I still need my big break, though.
Q: ANYTHING ELSE?
STERLING: If you don’t live in California New York is the next best place to be for filmmaking. Be smart bout it. If you’re going to make a film then complete it. If you start something you have to network. Don’t think you’re going to be Spielberg because you aren’t. But you have to meet other people doing what you’re doing. Find people who will help you. If you met Spielberg what are you going to say to him, “Hey, I’m this kid and I do these shot on video movies?” So what. But if you meet someone else on your level you can pull your resources together and make a movie. Keeps things going. It’s important to make a lot of this stuff because you’re not going to get rich. You have to make a lot of product, a lot of sandwiches, so to speak.