Melissa Land Talks Circus of the Dead, Gregg Araki, and Film Production

Circus of the Dead is one of the most anticipated horror releases, currently rockin’ festivals and receiving glowing reviews. Behind the scenes, Melissa Land gave all of herself with an awe-inspiring level of commitment, passion, and dedication that you can’t help but feel inspired.

Earlier this year I had the honor of working alongside the COTD crew and getting a first hand look at just how incredible and hardworking this badass lady truly is. With a love of film deep in the core of her being, she is taking on the world of indie filmmaking with Billy Pon and the rest of the COTD family.

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Hannah Neurotica:  Circus of the Dead (COTD) is one of the most highly anticipated films in the horror community right now. You are one of the producers and have had your hands in so many areas of the production. How did you come to be involved with the film?

Melissa Land: I came to be involved with Circus of the Dead most simply out of being long time friends with writer/director Billy Pon. I met him about 13ish years ago when we both started working for the local CBS affiliate (which has also been a major player in the making of Circus). From the moment I met Billy, he talked about making movies, and I honestly never doubted that he would. We cut our teeth day and night in television news production. Eventually Billy branched out into creative commercial production, while I moved into marketing and advertising. I’ve been through every step of the process, initially just lending a friendly ear during the writing process to taking on a more definitive and demanding role. It wasn’t necessarily about right place, right time – I had to earn it and prove that I was serious and committed to the project. Billy has extremely high expectations, not only for himself, but for everyone else around him. He demands the best, which in my opinion is what makes Circus special. We don’t pretend to be anything other than a microbudget indie horror, but we swung for the fences and what we lack in experience we tried to make up for with gumption.

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Hannah: Was this your first time producing a feature? Is it something you want to do again?

Melissa: Yes, Circus was my very first time not only producing, but working on a feature film, as it was for vast majority of us at Bell Cow Films. And even though it’s undoubtedly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, I would love to do it again, because I believe very much in Billy’s vision and creative formula. Along with co-writer Lee Ankrum, Billy is a creative powerhouse, and that’s not something you abandon!

Hannah: Can you give fans a glimpse into what a day in the life of the COTD film set was like from your perspective? 

Melissa: Absolutely. A typical day for me would start out anywhere from 3 to 5 hours before our scheduled shoot time. I’d begin by checking the schedule and making sure the actors and crew who needed to be there knew when and where to be and arrange transportation if necessary. I would then check in with the director, see what frame of mind he was in and see if there were any last minute changes he and his crew had decided on or if there were any fires that needed to be put out. And deal with those issues accordingly. I would then go about checking in with all the departments, making sure everyone was on the same page for the day’s shoot, that wardrobe, props, and sets had what they needed. If something was missing or needed I’d arrange to have it taken care of. Quite often that meant taking care of it myself, heading to the store to pick up this or that, picking up an actor from the hotel and continuing to coordinate by phone. Most people were coming in from day jobs, so I’d try and make sure they were fed and focused. I always tried to be present during the shoot, trying to keep things coordinated, flowing and moving forward. The end of a shoot always ended up with a big group clean up – there was always lot of blood. And everything needed to be packed up and put away for the next shoot. And finally, I’d usually sit in on the director’s debriefing with his crew (DP, AD, etc.) at the end of the night and we’d discuss plans for the next day (or next shooting day). We had a very “family” vibe on the set – most everyone was willing to lend a hand and pitch in, no matter what department they were assigned to. We even had some wonderful cast members lend a helping hand – you’d be surprised – something as simple as taking out the trash at the end of a long night when everyone is beyond exhausted can be such a blessing.  I do have to give a mention to the amazing Arleen Ramirez (production coordinator and wife of our DP). She was absolutely instrumental in helping me to get organized, set on the right path and coordinating everything. It was honestly more work than I ever could have imagined and I really can not stress enough how awesome our crew was and how thankful we are for all the work they did.

Hannah: What are a few key lessons you learned during the process that you couldn’t have anticipated?

Melissa: I think probably the biggest lesson we learned is that you can never be too prepared. We officially spent 9 months in pre-production on Circus and could have used 9 more. Despite all of the planning and preparation, we ended up flying by the seat of our pants quite a bit. We also had to learn to let go a bit. The whole thing is such a huge collaborative process and you have to be able to have a lot of faith in and trust your co-workers. The best stuff comes when everyone is operating on the same wavelength.

Hannah: What were some of the situations that arose which you couldn’t have predicted/anticipated during that pre-prod phase?

302989_4759809834832_405221539_nMelissa: Well, there were more situations that arose than I can even remember, and I think maybe that is really just the lesson for us. To expect the unexpected. When you’re on a tight deadline and a budget, it’s easy to rationalize how your time will be spent. Recasting parts after shooting had begun, reshuffling our schedule in the middle of a shoot, dealing with unexpected illness from cast or crew members, missing props, a blood cannon going off unexpectedly in the most inappropriate place possible…you know, garden variety stuff. 🙂

Hannah: One of the biggest negative criticisms that I have read in reviews is regarding COTD being misogynistic. However, I see it more of an artful cultural commentary like A Clockwork Orange. As a woman how do you feel and/or want to respond to those who say that is the reason they didn’t like this film?

Melissa: This is really a great question and I’m thrilled that you asked. Ironically, the majority of the misogynistic claims have come mostly from men. Which is interesting. The fact of the matter is that regardless of the fact that it’s such a damaging and pervasive institution, misogyny exists as a real point of view. To make some sort of toned down, politically correct version of the film, would have denied these characters a bit of their existence. The clowns are horrible characters. They’re not socially conscious or morally conscious, they’re straight up vile. There’s no benefit to sanitize their actions and behaviors. That would have been disingenuous. Now, the Clockwork Orange comparison is a high complement, but again, we don’t aspire to be something we’re not. It’s a dirty horror film meant to take you on a ride and maybe leave you feeling a certain way. We didn’t set out with the intentions of social commentary, but I if that’s a by-product of the film, then we have effectively communicated this point of view and if it touches a nerve, then good. Be aware that for many women, misogyny is something that has to be dealt with and faced on an everyday basis. It’s not something you can turn off and on, like a movie. And sanitizing art and films as expressions of our existence is not the answer.

Hannah:  What filmmakers and films / art do you enjoy and have inspired you? I know we both have a deep adoration for John Waters.

Melissa: Ah, I do adore John Waters quite a bit! I have quite an affinity for camp/sleeze/cheese and I’m sure most of that can be attributed to watching Hairspray on a loop at 10 years old. I also have a huge affinity for David Lynch, who’s one of my favorite filmmakers. His work can, at times, be rough around the edges, but I love the way that he’s able to tap into the deep subconscious and the effect his work has on both an emotional and intellectual level. I also really adore Gregg Araki, who doesn’t seem to really get the recognition he deserves. He has such a unique vision and point of view and can make a coming-of-age film like no one’s business. Not to even mention his soundtracks and musical selections are killer. I adore the whole whole old-school shoegaze thing. But probably my favorite filmmaker at the moment is Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s an absolute master. Every one of his films is so finely crafted from the scripts to the cinematography to the editing and acting. One of the best.

Hannah: I love Gregg Araki. I might be wrong but I believe ‘Nowhere’ is still not available for purchase in the US!? Araki was one of the filmmakers who got me fascinated with filmmaking as art. Do you have a favorite Araki film?

mysterious_skinMelissa: You know, last time I checked, Nowhere was only available on VHS and that’s probably no longer even an option now! Which is a shame, because it’s such a cool movie. I enjoy all of his films, they’re so different from anything else – The Doom Generation was my first Araki film. But hands down, my favorite is Mysterious Skin. Not exactly an easy to watch movie, it’s like being punched in the gut, but beautifully done and extremely well handled sensitive material. It’s so odd to say, but it really is a gorgeous film about horrific subject matter.

Hannah: Do you have any desire and/or plans to direct? And if so what sort of project appeals to you? 

Melissa: I suspect everyone secretly has a bit of a desire to direct and while I’d love the opportunity, for me, it would be something to think about later down the road. My priority is getting Circus of the Dead out there and then continuing to support Billy on his projects.

Hannah: Outside of film what other creative art forms speak to you?

Melissa: I love art in all it’s forms and was actually an art history major at one point but there really is something about film for me that is just on another level. I can’t explain my fascination, but it’s always been there. Nothing else comes close to the almost obsessiveness I feel for it.

Hannah: How can people keep up with your projects? 

Melissa: The best way for now would be the Circus of the Dead Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/circusofthedeadmovie