Feeding on the Mind of Josh Stifter
Josh Stifter is a filmmaker and director. He is the founder of the award-winning Flush Studios company. In 2018, Stifter directed The Good Exorcist. In 2019, he directed Greywood’s Plot. In 2020, we slash open his mind and see what comes out.
First and foremost, let’s talk about The Good Exorcist. The film was released in March 2018 and was a participant in Robert Rodriguez’s “Rebel Without a Crew: The Series”. The series references 1992 when Rodriguez cut his teeth with his first feature-length movie, El Mariachi. That film, like yours, was shot for a budget of $7,000 and in only fourteen days. Not to dismiss the feat accomplished by Robert Rodriguez, but if were difficult for Rodriguez in twenty-years prior to shoot under these restraints, I can only imagine arduous it would be in the modern-era. How would you describe the experience you had on “Rebel Without a Crew” looking back?
One of the main reasons I believe I was picked for the show was because of how much I’ve been inspired by Robert’s Rebel Without A Crew book. I’ve read it literally hundreds of times. I basically recite it like the Bible at this point. I’ve learned so much from it and found that the lessons still ring true.
Although they are different mediums – when I return to my first novel after all these years, I find it very difficult not to want to go back and change some decisions I may have made. Given the conditions of this film’s production, I can imagine you weren’t left with a lot of wiggle-room in-terms of development from its infancy. If you were offered the chance – is there anything you would have done differently with the film?
I love the movie and the way it feels based on my limitations and the reality show distractions. I don’t think I’d personally ever want to change what it is now. The flaws and failures are kind of the charm of it. With that being said, I’ve come to realize that every short movie or animation and every feature I make is still a learning experience and I hope to never lose that. There are scenes I would completely change, things I would’ve done differently as a director and producer, and monsters I would have filmed differently. But not to this version. If there ever came a time where a studio wanted me to “Evil Dead 2” or “Desperado” it (i.e. remake/sequel with a larger budget), I would do it very differently. I would likely find ways to stick to the original script more, rather than adapting to the circumstance with every scene. The beauty of art is that you can always make more if you set your mind to it.
As I watched The Good Exorcist, I could tell why Robert Rodriguez brought you on. The film proudly wears its grindhouse influences on its sleeve and even has a nod to Rodriguez’s frequent collaborator Danny Trejo. As well, the film blends in elements of off-beat comedy, some of which is even incorporated through animation. Would you say you find inspiration and influence through one genre or sub-genre or film in-particular, a beacon of light, if you will?
I’m constantly inspired by everything I see. I’m one of those people who rarely dislikes a piece of art. Thanks to social media, I’ve been able to find a lot of inspiring independent films. I’ve been able to find ways for amazing artists to inspire me on a daily basis. For me, I can watch something like an Ed Wood movie, and still learn something or feel that urge to make something myself after watching it.
Horror is definitely the genre I’m most drawn too. I love blending comedy into horror and see what kind of visceral reactions I can get from an audience. There’s nothing better than hearing the laughs and surprise when Father Gil puts in the “So You’re Having an Exorcism” video. Keeping the audience guessing what they’ll see next is what really drives me and I absolutely love when I can catch them off guard.
The Good Exorcist follows a young priest named Father Gil and his efforts to rid away demons from a bed & breakfast. However, Father Gil isn’t what you’d call your typical Priest. Gil is socially awkward and downright goofy on occasion, with a very loose and light-heart way of carrying himself. His biggest quirk? Perhaps his bluntness. What or who did you pull for this character?
Father Gil was an amalgamation of ideas that all came from a very simple premise: I didn’t want Daniel to have to worry about continuity with his wardrobe. He already owned the suit (it was his wedding suit) and then we just used a piece of paper or a little white strip of plastic for the collar. Initially, I believe we thought Gil would be a little more oddball and slapsticky. But as the character evolved we ended up going with a bit more of an awkward confidence that I felt made the character original and different than the average comical lead.
One of the fun things was that Daniel, who plays Gil, cowrote the movie with me. Having the ability to write and re-write dialogue for himself made it possible for us to really “get” the character before we even started filming. In fact, we even filmed a little Father Gil advertisement before we went to the show in order for Daniel to get a feel for what it was going to be like to be the character.
The film suggests this isn’t Father Gil’s first rodeo, whether it be “The Ice Cream Demon” or the “Hellhound Infestation” at the Anaheim Dog Show, whereas the conclusion suggests this isn’t his last either. As the credits rolled on the film, I was fantasizing all the different and unique stories that Father Gil and company might “conjure” up, akin to television series’ like Supernatural or B-movie heroes like Ash Williams from Evil Dead fame. Obviously, you have a new film out that we will soon discuss, but do you foresee yourself doing more in the Father Gil mythos?
Oh my god, yes! I love Father Gil, Maria, and Stanley and I would be shocked if I don’t do more with them soon. Obviously I’d love to do a sequel or series based on the characters – but before that happens, I’m planning to do a few comics to just to make sure people get more Gil sooner than later.
I’m also in the process of writing two sequels, Father Gil & the Daughters of Lilith and Saint Gil Goes To Hell Again. Who knows if these will ever get made, but I have more stories to tell and I’m ready to start on them now! The only control I really have over that is to continue to promote TGE and hope that people enjoy it… and to keep writing!
Also, how awesome would it be to see what actually happened with the Hellhound infestation at the Anaheim Dog Show or the cat devouring intestine monster? I might have to turn all of the Father Gil stories into shorts or comics at some point.
One year later and one year wiser, in late-2019, Greywood’s Plot began its journey across the indie circuit. I didn’t have as much information in-regards to the development of this film, and so, I figured, who better to ask than Josh Stifter himself. How would you compare and contrast the experiences you had filming Greywood’s Plot against shooting The Good Exorcist? How were the skills you learned filming The Good Exorcist applicable to this film?
Greywood’s Plot was a really fascinating situation. We actually started the movie before The Good Exorcist. The only item I ever really had on my bucket list was to finish a feature film. When I turned 30 and realized I hadn’t done it yet, I decided to make a change and focus on one feature. Daniel, Keith, Strauss, and I went out in the woods with a general scriptment and 40 notecards of “scenes” and decided we try to make a mostly improvised film. It didn’t work at all. We failed miserably. We came back with some great footage but the characters just weren’t really working. I set it aside and worked on a few short films and animations to clear my brain and during that time I ended up getting the call to be on Rebel Without A Crew and make my first feature with Robert Rodriguez.
So in a way, Greywood’s Plot the failed film gave me the skills to know what NOT to do when making The Good Exorcist. Then after finishing The Good Exorcist Daniel Degnan and I realized we needed to go back to the woods and finish what we’d started. I took a weekend and actually wrote a full script based on what we had, what we’d learned, and what I realized the story needed to be.
Like Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson, or Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, you’ve once again aligned yourself with actor Daniel Degnan, last seen as Father Gil in The Good Exorcist, do you find yourself more comfortable with actors you’re familiar with and how does it alter the overall development process?
Well, I find myself very comfortable with Daniel Degnan. Maybe too comfortable….
Daniel and I have actually been friends since Kindergarten. We write together and love working on these types of projects together. Very few ideas cross my brain and get written without first passing through the filter of Daniel’s opinion. He became my go-to actor simply based on the fact that he was around and game to have fun making movies with me.
There is something really wonderful about working with people you’re comfortable to be open and honest and willing to try things with. I cast my mom as Dom’s mom in the movie because I wanted to see what it would be like to try to get someone who has never acted before to try to deliver some relatively challenging lines. Keith Radichel (Miles) and I literally met when we were only days old. Keith has never really acted before either but being such a personal story and having no budget, I had to find allies in who were invested in making the movie out of pure passion.
Animation finds its way into both of your films, whether it’s The Good Exorcists’ Father Gil and the videotape he shares with the family at the Bed & Breakfast or the brief dream sequence in Greywood’s Plot. What does animation mean to you in your films and do you ever see yourself pursuing animation further, whether with a feature-length film or a graphic-novel?
I actually started my career as an animator, so as I started making these movies, I thought it would be fun to find a way to incorporate some of my animation into the movie. It’s also a way for me to collaborate with animator friends who don’t get to work as much in a silly or fun style. For Greywood’s Plot, there’s a scene where Miles tells a story about a killer hobo that we decided to make into an animated sequence. I called my friend Matt Oberdalhoff and asked him if he’d be interested in helping. I’m a huge fan of that sort of goofy collaboration where you can make something absolutely bizarre with a friend.
As I’ve finished these movies, I’ve had to cross stuff off my bucket list and start creating new ones. Two of the new bucket list items are to make a Good Exorcist comic/cartoons and to someday make a feature-length animated film in my strange style. I’ve actually already started on a script titled Graphic that I think would make a really fun cartoon feature.
Greywood’s Plot feels very different from The Good Exorcist, both narrative-wise and from a cinematographic viewpoint. Whereas your last film fell closer in line with a grindhouse horror, Greywood’s Plot is black-and-white and feels more intimate in its approach. Greywood’s Plot follows two friends venturing into the woods in pursuit of a monster. How would you describe your mindset in-terms of what you looked to accomplish with the film?
When we started Greywood’s Plot, I just wanted to make a movie. I loved the feel and vibe of the old Universal Monster movies and I’m also a huge fan of “bad” monster movies of that era. But when we first started filming, I really didn’t know what we were making entirely. After finishing The Good Exorcist, I knew I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do a movie that said something very personal about the stuff we make and what drives us to make it. I also knew that I wanted to go a lot darker. The Good Exorcist was a comedy first. The intention was to make something that showed our love of horror but never went for the scare over the joke. With Greywood’s Plot, I did want to do something very different and something I haven’t really seen before. I wanted to do a Frankenstein story that said something about friendship and passion. The fact that Dom says he wants to do something “fresh” was a sort of self-deprecating mockery of myself because I started to use that word too regularly.
So story was always king. But I also wanted it to be fun to make, so as I wrote I built these monsters and strange scenes based on what I’d like to film.
Beyond the simplified summarization, when you peel back the curtain, Greywood’s Plot has a unique subplot buried in with a character, a character played by you, in-fact, who is down on his luck and suicidal, struggling to find meaning in his own life. What can you say about this character and what made you decide to incorporate this subject-matter into the film? Is there a reason you cast yourself in the role of this character?
I cast myself because I knew I’d be around to film. When making a no-budget movie, you have to look at what you have and work with that. All of the scenes of Dom at his computer I filmed entirely by myself. I had a weekend and I’d just start filming stuff. The bathroom suicide attempt scene was actually filmed 3 different times. It was the first scene I filmed and then became one of the last things I filmed as well because I just knew I could do it better with all of the practice I gained over the year between.
I also cast myself because this film was meant to be a practice project more than anything. I wanted to know what it was like to be in front of the camera to learn what it feels like to be asked to do a certain thing. I played the batboy monster in the woods as well – and the reason I did that was that I wanted to know what it feels like to be “asked” to be covered in blood naked in the woods. I know that sounds ridiculous, but as a director, you sometimes have to ask a lot of your cast. Being able to know what it’s like helps me understand how to better direct actors and actresses.
The horror genre, particularly on the independent scene, is an ecosystem, so-to-speak. What is your opinion on the current state of the genre in-comparison to earlier years as far as mainstream (The Conjuring series, It, and A Quiet Place), the midlevel hits (Hereditary, It Comes at Night, and The Witch), and the independent circuit (i.e. Terrifier, After Midnight)? Do you have any horror directors you idolize or any young up-and-comers you think Readers Digested fans should look out for?
The horror scene is amazing. There are so many different types of horror coming out that I find myself constantly finding something new and unexpected. I recently was able to see Joe Begos newest movie VFW and really had a blast with the blend of comedy, horror, and throwback action. It was just a blast to watch with people. Completely the opposite of how I felt about Robert Eggers movies. I find them terrifying. They’re movies that I want to watch alone and just let the feeling just completely overtake me.
If you had told me 5 years ago that I would enjoy a sequel to The Shining, I would’ve thought you were insane.
I love the risks that horror movies are taking as well. Yes, there are lots of pandering or by the numbers horror still, but it’s the one genre that I feel like I’m never really sure what to expect. For instance, Mandy was a movie that I watched completely disgusted by the feeling. My wife was working in the room while I watched it and said she’s never seen me look so disgusted by a movie. But it wasn’t a dislike by any means for the film but rather the style and the structure were so unconventional that the filmmaker in my was disgusted with envy. I love that feeling!
Signing off, … I want to thank you for your contribution on Readers Digested and offer you the floor to share with us any upcoming projects you’re working on or things we can look forward to.
Thank you! Right now I’m working on writing new scripts. I’m also in preproduction on my third no budget film called Scumbag. And I’m in the process of drawing the first Father Gil comic book.