In late 2017 Todd Spence and Zak White formed Midnight Video and launched their very own Youtube channel to highlight the production company's low-budget but very inventive and terrifying short horror films. Almost three years later and six quality short films down, Midnight Video are going from strength to strength and their films are gaining a worldwide audience.
Writer Gavin Logan recently got the chance to chat to Todd and Zak about, amongst other things, how they met, why they formed their own production company and what horror movie remakes they'd like to have a stab at.
GL: Todd and Zak thank you so much for taking the time to chat to us today. I just watched your latest short horror film '3rd Eye' and holy shit that scared the crap outta me, so thanks for that. I guess we will start off where it all began for you two. What movies did you love that had an impact on you when you were kids?
Z: My parents were very over protective, so it took a while for me to figure out how to sneak horror without them noticing (thank you friend’s sleepovers) so my first real exposure was whatever I could find on basic cable. 'The Twilight Zone', edited for TV versions of 'Poltergeist III' and if I was lucky a VHS of 'Tremors' at my grandparents.
T: My parents were pretty much the opposite. I remember once they made me turn the VHS rental off and it was the movie 'Burial Ground', and I even remember the scene they stopped the tape at, and don’t recall it even being that bad, just a clothes on sex scene. But other than that, 'Silence of the Lambs', 'The People Under the Stairs', I pretty much rented or watched it all thanks to basic cable. It all impacted me in a positive way, because I knew early on they were all just movies. I loved Fangoria magazine and shows like 'Movie Magic' so I was fascinated with the artistry and storytelling from the get-go.
GL: Was there a particular film or moment in cinema that when you saw it you knew you wanted to get into making movies?
Z: I’m pretty sure I didn’t know filmmaking was a thing someone could just do until I was 16. I come from a very small town where you are a farmer or a teacher and that is all. But as a filmmaker I’m always chasing that magic moment, where the art and technique of it fades away and it all becomes an impossible magic trick that fools you into believing it’s actually happening. I think that moment for me was my first time seeing 'Jurassic Park' as a kid. I was old enough to know for certain dinosaurs were long gone, but for those two hours Spielberg had me fooled. It was magic.
T: 'The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller' on VHS. Done deal. GL: Can you briefly tell us about your childhood and how you guys met?
Z: We both grew up in the Midwest, Todd in Missouri and I in Illinois. We met in college at Webster University in St. Louis. Both film majors. There was a class where we put on the annual media excellence awards, giving out trophies for Best Journalism and Best Multimedia Art Piece and such. Our job was to produce entertainment segments to break up the boring awards, much like what the MTV Movie Awards used to do. I think we first really got to know each other in that class, making some incredibly dumb parody segments.But it was enough to realize we had a lot of the same sensibilities and taste. GL: You guys clearly share a love for the horror genre. How did you get your foot into the industry and when did the idea for you guys teaming up to make short films germinate?
Z: We were making things separate for a while, wondering why neither of us were getting noticed. We were doing mostly comedy, although usually very dark, almost teasing at horror. When we finally decided to dive into the deep end, it immediately clicked. As far as a foot in the door, I’d argue we’re still fighting for it. It’s a non-stop hustle, no one is going to pluck you from obscurity, you have to knock on their door until they notice you. Don’t be rude, don’t be phony or insincere, but be confident, determined.
T: The big thing is to show that you’re a motivated person. You’re not looking for a hand out because you can just make your own stuff without someone’s blessing. The idea that “Hey, I’m going to do this with you or without you” is an attractive quality to have, so us having created our own films basically on our own and with the help of friends, films that seem to get positive attention, is something that has thankfully worked for us.
GL: Where did the name Midnight Video come from? Was there any other titles you were considering?
Z: We see our style of filmmaking as something that plays best in packed theaters at midnight. Fun, thrill rides that can have the whole crowd screaming. We always love going to a crowded late night movie and wanted to encapsulate that feeling. There were several names we pitched but I can’t remember any other one we were seriously considering.
T: Also that feeling of renting a movie with your pals and watching it in the dead of night. We just want you to have a good time and those memories we all have is a nice vibe to convey for viewers.
GL: Having listened to many interviews from different writing teams over the years they all have their own unique process when it comes to coming up with ideas and the actual writing part. What's your approach?
Z: We tend to have our own specialties which balance each other out nicely. I’m a structure guy. I love looking at the big picture and seeing how all the pieces fit and flow together. Narrative momentum is a big deal. Like a roller coaster, it can’t be all drops and loops, you need fast and slow, ebbs and flows. I also like to focus on character, make sure they feel honest, real. A person you know personally and not an actor on a screen.
T: With coming up with ideas, we usually just text each other something we’re thinking about. Either it grows or it doesn’t, but I generally gravitate toward “Is this a movie we would like to watch?”. If you’re doing something because it’s trendy or hip, that’s a bad road to go down. GL: So whenever you have a script in place what's normally your next step? Do you fund it yourself or do you bring other people in?
Z: We’ve gotten funding for one of our shorts and have crowdfunded an upcoming one, but mostly, it’s whatever we find in our pockets goes on the screen. Thankfully, horror is one genre where you don’t need money to be effective. GL: Funding is hard. Would you consider that the most difficult part of the filmmaking process?
Z: It’s all hard, every last step is it's own challenge. But yes, there’s definitely a reason we’ve self financed the majority of our work. If any of you are rich and want to get into the movie business, please drop us a line.
T: I think funding is the easiest actually. At least in terms of short films. It’s the willingness to spend your own money to see something through is the tough part. No one wants to potentially waste their money on even a short film that no one may like, which is why that’s the part a lot of people stop at. But we believe in our ideas, where our talents lie and the talents of the people we know, so we get past that funding step, what we can afford anyway, and go for it. Once you have a nice portfolio of films lined up, then you have a somewhat easier time getting more money for bigger projects because you’ve proven your worth from your own wallet.
GL: You've made a number of very good and scary short horror films that can be viewed for free on your YouTube channel. Was there any particularly difficult times on set when something just wouldn't come together the way you wanted it to or you had to make changes on the fly etc?
Z: In our second short, 'Where Is It', we didn’t have the time or money to do proper makeup tests. The monster had a horn that was a little too heavy to stay on so we had to improvise. The actor also couldn’t see through the eyes so he had no idea where to reach to grab the actress. We didn’t quite get what we needed and almost considered doing a reshoot we really couldn’t afford, but luckily we were able to find a work around in the edit. God bless editors.
T: And also with that short, we shot the ending last. So by the time we got to it, we were a little less energetic and had some trouble figuring it out. If there’s any advice I can give, it’s shoot your ending first, give yourself time to nail it because that’s the big moment. Then you can shoot the rest.
GL: As I said at the top of this interview your most recent film '3rd Eye' was chilling and your previous one 'Fear Wish' had a great scare too. What's your thoughts on the current crop of horror movies coming out and is there anything you guys are trying to say with your films?
Z: I’m really enjoying a lot of the stuff coming out right now. The great thing about the horror genre is it's so open to experimentation. You can have something off the wall like 'Mandy' or something more straight forward like 'IT' and both can be very good. I don’t think we necessarily bake in messages to our films. A theme usually presents itself because when you’re telling a story it inherently rises to the surface, but we mostly want people to have a good time with our films. Horror is fun to us. We want to have fun with it.
T: Yeah it really depends on the story as far as what we’re trying to say, but I think generally we want people to walk away wanting to see it again and maybe bring some friends the second time around.
GL: Obviously you two clearly want to get your own original stuff out there but if you had the opportunity to remake any horror movie what would it be and why would your take on it be different?
Z: I know we will differ on this question, but I loved/hated the trend of 2000 movies ('Blues Brothers 2000', 'Dracula 2000' etc) and would love to have fun with it and do 'Chopping Mall 2000'. Really lean into that turn of the millennium aesthetic. I’ve had it in my head for years and I can’t seem to shake it.
T: Great question. I thought of this recently, I would love to see a tv series version of 'Don't Look Now'. I want to get into that whole film’s plot and expand on it, especially the twist ending and the little person. A lot of people say they don’t want to hear the back story of the villain, but why not? Let’s dig in and get weird with it. Not overly define that person, but at least dive in further. GL: So you guys currently have a Go Fund Me project that's understandably been put on hold right now. That's one that I've supported. Can you give us any info about it at all?
Z: We don’t want to give away too much, only that there’s a script we really like and once film sets are a thing that exist again, we’re excited to go make it. T: I’ll go ahead and say one thing. It’s the most modern concept we will have come up with. We deal with a lot of old board games, old police footage, old drawings in our previous films--this one is new. GL: If you could work with one director and lead actor, alive or dead, who would it be?
Z: It’s hard to pass up the Carpenter/Russell duo. They work so well together and I would personally have a blast just watching them do their thing.
T: Director, the first one that popped to mind was Robert Zemeckis. I would want to work with Robert Zemeckis on something super fun. As far as actor, Sam Rockwell. Dude is super talented and just a lot of fun to watch no matter the role.
GL: So what's next for Midnight Video?
Z: We have a couple of projects we’re really excited about. Nothing I think we can talk about at the moment, but we’re keeping very busy and hopefully on the verge of something really great. Who knows?
T: When we can talk about it, you will be the first to know!
Thank you so much to Todd and Zak for taking the time and allowing us to throw some questions out to them. You can follow Midnight Video on Instagram and please do check out their YouTube channel for some quality spooky short films.
- Gavin Logan