INDIE SPOTLIGHT: ‘Dementia: Part II’ Filmmakers Matt Mercer and Mike Testin

Script's Editor Sadie Dean interviews 'Dementia: Part II' filmmakers Matt Mercer and Mike Testin. The filmmakers share their collaboration process and how they made their low-budget indie horror movie in five weeks.
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In the spirit of Evil Dead and Roger Corman films, filmmakers Matt Mercer and Mike Testin go above and beyond within their budget and resource limitations to create a cringe-worthy and guttural laughing movie that is Dementia: Part II.

Dementia: Part II was produced from conception to its world premiere screening at Cinepocalype Film Festival by the writer/director team Matt Mercer and Mike Testin (The Salesman, Dementia) in just 5 weeks. The film stars Matt Mercer (Contracted, Bliss, Beyond the Gates), Graham Skipper (Almost Human, Sequence Break, VFW), Najarra Townsend (Contracted, The Stylist), and Suzanne Voss (The Lords of Salem, Dementia).

Matt Mercer as Wendell in the horror film, DEMENTIA PART II, a Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting release. Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting.

Matt Mercer as Wendell in the horror film, DEMENTIA PART II, a Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting release. Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting.

Wendell (Matt Mercer) receives a threatening phone call from his parole officer Reggie (Graham Skipper)…if he doesn’t find a job immediately, he will face serious legal repercussions. Wendell wrangles some home maintenance work for a seemingly benign older woman, Suzanne (Suzanne Voss), who persists in giving him increasingly absurd tasks to complete around the house. As the workday progresses, Wendell is thrown into an ever-escalating nightmare, and comes face to face with an unexpected evil. Suzanne hides a dark secret. And it’s up to Wendell and Suzanne’s daughter, Sheila (Najarra Townsend) to put an end to her madness.

If I could be so bold as to state that not a dry eye was left at the end of this interview, I'd be remiss. I had the pleasure of speaking with Dementia: Part II filmmakers Matt Mercer and Mike Testin about their incredible five-week production turnaround on their low-budget horror movie and their collaboration process. All-in-all, these two spirited filmmakers provide indie-filmmaking gems and will hopefully leave you inspired to find some friends and get out there and make a movie (within limited expectations, of course). 

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: Definitely up my alley in terms of horror and comedy. I wrote one note to myself while watching it, the one word that basically sums up the movie for me that is visually disturbing and cringy would be the word “moist.”

Mike Testin: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, it's a pretty wet movie.

Sadie: Mike, this question is for you. Can you give a little insight to the inspiration behind the first Dementia movie, and then coming up with part two?

Mike: Well, the first Dementia came to me from BoulderLight, and the 14-year-old producers there [laughs] I’m kidding. [laughs] They’re very young. I had worked with them as a cinematographer. And on a movie with Matt actually called Contracted. And I had told them that I wanted to get into directing, and they had this script, the Dementia script from a writer named Meredith Berg. And they gave it to me and I worked with Meredith on it for a little while and did a pass on it. And we made that movie. And it's a pretty straightforward movie, just a dramatic psychological thriller. And then years passed and then this challenge came up that I'm sure that Matt will elaborate on. But this challenge came up two years ago, and it was just an opportunity to sort of revisit something in the neighborhood of Dementia. But we wanted to totally switch the tone completely. And we went after this sort of goofball horror-comedy. We just really wanted to have fun with something and make it feel loose and make it feel like something that we could rely on improvisation on set and make each other laugh on set and just kind of roll with any limitations that came in our five-day shoot. The production of the second one, the whole thing from page zero until screening was a five-week process. So, we really needed to rely on buffing where our instincts could just sort of, you know, guide the way a little bit.

Mike Testin

Mike Testin

Sadie: Was that five weeks from the script all the way through production and post?

Mike: Yeah, yeah. [laughs] It was pretty crazy. It was just important to us, I guess, just to totally flip the tone. And go after some of the things that are our favorite things like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, things like that. And just make it a blast, because we knew we were going to have time limitations, obviously, money limitation, cast, quantity limitations, and everything in between.

Sadie: That's incredible. Yeah, that's a quick turnaround. Having that one location definitely helps it. Matt, what intrigued you to jump on board on this one and take the leading role in this?

Matt Mercer: Well, it was really just that aspect of doing it that quickly, which started as a deficit to me. I didn't want to do it at first, and initially when the BoulderLight producers reached out to us - how this began was I was at FrightFest in the UK. and I ran into J.D. Lifshitz, who was one of the producers at BoulderLight. And he had just had a conversation with a guy named Josh Goldbloom, who used to run a film festival called Cinepocalypse in Chicago. And Josh had an empty slot in the festival still, and he and J.D. made a drunken dare, basically, and Josh said, “If you can make something in five weeks, we'll call it like the filmmaker challenge or whatever. And I'll show whatever you make.” So, then J.D. came to Mike and me. Initially, it was just I was just going to act in it. But because of Mike and my schedules, we were doing other things at the same time, it just made sense to split production duties down the middle, and just sort of “co” everything on the movie, co-direct, co-write and co-edit. Once I talked to Mike about how he thought we could do it, and what some of his ideas were, because the only mandate was we call it Dimension: Part Two, because the BoulderLight guys and us, we thought that was funny. [laughs] It's just ridiculous. And so that was the only mandate. After J.D. had pitched Mike on the idea in doing it, I was like, “Gosh, this is this could be a fun experiment.” And it really was because we just called up our friends, got together in a house and made it. And not only was it a fun time, it also was a great learning experience, because you very quickly realize what you need to really make it a feature, like the bare-bones minimum of what you need. And so, it was a great exercise in efficiency. Yeah, that's what attracted me to it.

[INDIE SPOTLIGHT: Interview with 'Honeydew' writer/director Devereux Milburn]

Sadie: In terms of the collaboration with you guys splitting those roles down the middle, save for the cinematography, how were you guys collaborating on that? From the writing process to directing on set.

Mike: I think when we started, we had a variety of ideas that we kind of whittled through, and they were in treatment form. And then as we went through, when we landed on this idea, I think I took first stab at it. And then I handed it off to Matt. And then I went and did a short shoot gig. And then Matt did a pass on it. And then when I came back from my short gig, he went back to producing. And then I took the last bit of it before the production started. The whole process was under a week. So, it was probably a solid, three to five days of actually writing the script. Just pumping out scenes.

And, you know, in the end, we probably actually wrote too much in terms of elaboration on things, and we just kind of pulled back to make things more possible for us. Because our crew, when we got to set our crew is really just me, Matt, Matt's mom, and one other person to help us that switched out though. That was it.

Matt: Yeah, we had to write to those limitations.

Sadie: The visual aspect as co-directors, how did you guys agree to that visual style?

Matt: Well, I think in terms of the visual style of it, we had some discussions really quickly before we started shooting, but when it came to shooting, I think the directing was kind of divvied up in that Mike as cinematographer made a lot of the visual choices in terms of framing and angle. I would occasionally have suggestions based on what I thought the edit would be, like camera movement. Visually, it was mainly Mike. And then I was overseeing actors, wardrobe, design and effects. [laughs] That sounds like a lot, but that's actually a pretty even split when it comes to production because Mike as a one-man band, Mike was moving lights. And I mean, no gaffer. No electricians. We were doing everything.

Mike: No cameras.

Matt: [laughs] Yeah.

Sadie: And the decision to shoot black and white, whose idea was that?

Matt: I don't know. I think that just kind of naturally happened. Well, for starters, visually, we were wanting this to feel like an old Twilight Zone episode or an old Roger Corman movie, because we were making it in that manner. So black and white seem made sense. Then with the time constraints we had, it saved us time to not have to color correct. [laughs] It was like we just have to contrast correct, which is something we are both capable of doing. [laughs] As opposed to doing color, it takes longer. And also, we had to use what we had. So, what we had was Mike's lighting kit that he owned. We borrowed some lights from a company called Felix, they were very nice to lend us some lights. But all of these lights were different temperatures and warmth and coolness. So, by making it black and white, it didn't matter as much what we used to light the scene, we could just sort of throw a light in there and a scene texture with light, regardless of temperature, because this is going to be black and white.

Matt Mercer

Matt Mercer

Sadie: That timeline of you guys shooting is still just blowing my mind with what you were able to accomplish.

Matt: [laughs] It’s luck, that it turned out how halfway decent is luck. [laughs] It was crazy. It was crazy.

Mike: Yeah, it was. It purely has no business being even remotely watchable.

[ENSEMBLE OF LAUGHTER]

Matt: But I think it does account for how, I'm not tooting our horn here, but we have made a bunch of movies. And I think we used every resource we had sort of developed in our own brains to be efficient, as well as having this cast, like Graham, Suzanne, and Najarra are really seasoned actors. And they're our friends. And we trust them. And they had a lot of suggestions too. I think when you combine all those things, plus David Labovitchs’ score, which was really great and he also made very quickly, it’s a perfect confluence of people really putting in their minds and creativity. And it worked out. [laughs]

[Interview with ‘Seance’ Writer/Director Simon Barrett]

Sadie: You guys made it work. Mike, any general advice for indie horror filmmakers who are working on a super low budget film like this, in the spirit of this kind of film, what kind of advice would you give them?

Mike: I mean, not to sound cliche, but I think it just kind of proves that you can just go out and do it. You know, the budget and the time and the resources, we had to make this where something that just about anybody could come up with. The only thing that we really had is I have a camera. We didn't have that wrinkle in there. But other than that, I mean just getting out there and making it happen and not getting too caught up with all of the elements needing to come together and the buckets of money that you think you might need. You can go out and have if you can imagine it the right way. And have fun with just very limited resources, and maybe nothing comes of it, but you're definitely going to learn something. Both of us have worked on a load of indie movies. But, you know, on each one, you learn something, and certainly on this one, I think both of us learned a lot in terms of economy with shots… sorry I’m getting choked up.

Matt: He’s getting so emotional about it!

[ANOTHER ENSEMBLE OF LAUGHTER]

Mike: Just the economy of shooting, we had put restrictions on ourselves in terms of coverage. We only did three setups in a scene or tried to, and only did three takes of each setup. And we generally adhered to that. Unless there was a technical issue that stepped in the way, but you know, we are in and out of shooting in five days. It's such a limited amount of time, but we covered maybe 15 pages a day, which is crazy.

Sadie: That is crazy.

Mike: But somehow it all kind of landed. I don't know how. But anyway, to get back to your answer that I went in a long-winded astray thing - just going out and doing it, making it happen, and not getting caught up in all the things that you think are going to limit you.

[Writing the Low Budget Horror Feature]

Sadie: That's good advice. Any parting words you want to share here, Matt?

Matt: I just couldn't agree more with that. It's like, the more you do it, the better you get. And there shouldn't be anything stopping you. That'd be my advice too. And we just had a blast. We just had fun.

Mike: Make friends and then go shoot. That makes it fun.

Matt: Yeah, I couldn't have said it better. Exactly what I got from it.

Sadie: Thanks guys so much for chatting with me. Really enjoyed the movie. I look forward to what you both do in the future and hopefully you guys do more collaborations in the future and make more “moist” 

Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting will release the midnight horror film DEMENTIA PART II in theaters on May 21, 2021, and on VOD, Digital HD and DVD on June 1, 2021.


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