Interview : Ethan Dettenmaier

The brains behind the upcoming horror hit, “Sin-Jin Smyth”


Forget those incessant Xeroxes of films we’ve seen time and time – literally, as they’re all nearly remakes – before, there’s still a couple of folks out there with an unwavering appreciation of the good ol’ corn syrup.

One film that’s garnering some real buzz among the horror film community is “Sin-Jin Smyth”, from writer/director Ethan Dettenmaier, and starring Roddy Piper and Richard Tyson, which some insiders have already pegged the next ‘Blair Witch Project’ – in terms of both originality, and it’s economically effectual indy roots.

CLINT MORRIS talks to the man behind the film they’re all talking about.

How did the film come about?
ETHAN: I had worked my way out of the Warner Bros. mailroom to ‘starve’ as a low-paid script doctor and I needed to do more to take care of my family so I made a move to move-up and prove myself with a project that would give me some creditability as a producer/director…and working through some old ideas I found something, originally an old ‘action/gun-fight’ script, I had scratched together called TWO GUYS FROM HELL! And it was a blueprint that was logistically possibly for a new director—with alot to learn—to work out: ‘Two men with a prisoner transfer assignment just as the clock strikes Midnight!’ Simple and effective, it consisted of the 2 leads and a ‘shadow’ in the back seat which turns out to be the Devil! This was something I felt I could make work—Remember I don’t have any schooling so in order to transmit what is fame-by-fame in my head to the screen, I knew I was gonna need some experts around me—so we started to pull it together…

Can you talk about getting it financed?
ETHAN: No one wanted to make the film and maintain it’s dark image…it was suggested that I re-vamp the characters into better people, work in a love storypossibily some other happy elements and make it PG-13. I didn’t think that was best for the material and I wanted to do more for the audience then follow a simple Hollywood formula…See, in ‘this’ business, the hip thing to do is ‘dumb material down’ for an audience, give them the same movie again and again only change the name of the characters and locations! It’s: “Put the trailer on MTV and and the kids will buy a ticket”….There is almost no thought into trying to revolutionize the art….make something new, try to deliver something that is equal to what the audience stands for…These people who buy a ticket are smart, they know film better than some of the execs who make them but, for some reason there is this mentality that ‘innovation is bad’ and ‘repetition is good’ for the audience…”Let’s make another Exorcist, that’s what the kids want and if they don’t want it we’ll cast J-Lo and put our top artists on the soundtrack and we’ll make our money there and forget the movie”—Everything is seems to be done in an effort to impress a stockholder and an audience deserves more respect than that! I think the studios—like our federal goverment here in The (United) States—should offer rebates where they over-charged the ticket buying public with—what some would consider—low form of highway robbery and give some of the money they took from us back!!! I want refunds/box office credit for Battlefield Earth, Deep Blue Sea, Red Planet, Exorcist: The Beginning! And Boogyman while we’re at it!!! Maybe (laughs) this is why I earned that terrible nickname! (Ethan’s nick name around the Studio is STAFF SGT. BARNS after the tough/crazy role Tom Berenger played in the movie PLATOON). We have some good execs out there, trying to do something special but, in my opinion—and it’s just my opinion—Real filmmakers are in limited suppily…what we have now is a bunch of studio puppets who follow studio notes—from someone who probably cannot make a film themself to begin with—repetive notes based on marketing research, science and last weeks hit…nothing creative! And this is art…keep science and mathmatics out of it!
Look, I am a new filmaker with a lot to learn and even more to prove, I mean, I really have yet to accomplish anything significant but, my mentailty will always be about serving the audience…with something inventive…not a re-tred of last months hit…or some re-make! I respect the audience more than that—Today’s audience is smart and that is who we really have to strive to impress—I can’t ask anyone to step up to the box office without trying to give them by best effort…This is why I was shut down and put out! I wasn’t going to make this film with any help from within the studio system unless I played by their rules….so after a sleepless night—remember, I’m broke and a script sale could mean alot—I asked my wife for her advice and she said “You can always try and sell it…why not see if we can raise the money and try it your way…maybe do something as a fan, for the fans, instead of turining it over to a studio development team who will contridict each other with different notes and probably never make the picture…”
So we ‘bit the bullet’ and started from ground zero to put the blocks in place and get the film financed. Now, keep in mind we had no idea how to move forward, I had never done anything like this before—so we did a lot of research and had to rely on the right people and it was long, time consuming process, in part because I was unbankable and unproven there was nothing about me that made this investment attractive and the studio and production outfits I talked with didn’t like the cast. A double-negative! So after refusing to sell it, after getting kicked around for several months we decided to move into the private sector which meant we had to build the entire project out into an investment…When you step into the private sector you need more than just an idea….you need to cover every possible aspect with a business return…This was something that I was completely underqualified for…I mean, I’m not even sure how my bank account works and now I need to put together a film investment…great! So we retained a securities attorney out of New York and formed a production LLC. Then, I haucked my life-insurance to pay for and put together a ‘sales’ book which required, in addition to the script, a budget assembled by an expirenced UPM (Unit Production Manager), a production schedule by a DGA (Directors Guild Of America) approved AD (Assistant Director), a production team full of qualified individuals that a financier could believe in, including DP (Director of Photography) w/ reel demonstrating what he could do, Production Designer—with scetches, blue printes and scale models of what we planned to design—to be included in this investment packet, storyboards and concept art (for the investors who may have less of an imagination) A cost comparrison sheet to include other films in the genre and their profit record, we needed a good composer (Midnight Syndicate/Billy Duffy of THE CULT) with samples of soundtrack material and estimates of what damage a soundtrack may do in the market place…estimated profits, mechandise options, Video Game designs, different Literature options such as comic, novelization of the screenplay, books inspired by, anything, you had to include the possibility of anything because the investors want to
see potential deal options already in the works so we had to approach every publisher, comic co, toy maker etc. just to demonstrate that there may be a deal that we can work out there… And then we had to launch the storyline into the internet in the hope that someone found it interesting enough to post and talk about…the investors needed to see something in the press to make it seem like it is tangeable to round up an audience—And the headlines in the internet may be the only marketing you get depending on how it all works out…you may not be able to get billboards or commercials so you need to rundown any and every headline to annouce the film—all of this had to be done before we could even start production…which was another phase I had little expirence with (laughs)…I had hardly been on a set, infact I didn’t even know the correct protocal to start a shot—I had to ask our AD: “Hey, when do I call action?” (Laughs)… I got a library card and rented every book on film direction and production I could find and when I wasn’t consulting the experts I read… Now in the studio system…all of this is handled by teams of people who specialize in each area….they got it covered, marketing, Literature, merchandise, they exploite every possible avenue to make a dollar…but they—not your investors or production team—get all the profits so I needed to put together something that did this for our investment group and our partners in the cast and crew…I wanted them to get a piece of this film if they were gonna help me see this through! So, we took meeting after meeting to push this film forward and got nowhere! In fact I was trying to get a day job thinking I had ship wrecked us! And the phone calls shifted from do you want to invest in this film, to yes I am free to come in for an interview on this such and such day—Nice resume huh! I couldn’t even hold down a job as a mail clerk at the studio and now I have a family and a little one to take care of—It was tough to keep moving forward when you sense total disaster closing in…(Laughs). But sometimes you need to just bite the bullet, become ‘tougher than the situation’ and press forward…
Then, out of nowhere, we found someone who would put up the initial 300,000K to get moving and we decided to go for it….you may never get ANY chance in this business—ANY! So, I said..let’s do the best we can with what we’ve got and try to make it work…then came the ’round the clock effort to make this idea work in a small financial frame work…To try and make it interesting…like I said, today’s audiences are smart and they have a lot of experince so to try to give them something new took a lot of work—And only they can judge if we succeeded or not!—But we worked around the clock in an effort to maximize every dollar and invent something that might get their attention…We split up the shooting schedule and shopped a trailer for more financing and distribution and kept working…We worked through disaster after disaster and kept pressing…we’re still working for fuck’s sake!!! I could hear the execuatives at the WB commissary point me out, saying….’there he is (Ethan), the dumbfuck that actually mentioned the word ‘fans’ in the meeting and tried to put the fans above the dollar….and to think some people thought he could actually write once, what a shame!” —-I’d hear that, get up, earn that disasterous nickname of mine with a few choice words and say ‘You go ahead and keep up the ‘re-imagining! You make House Of The Dead 3 or Battlefield Earth 2, keep making The Exorcist over and over again, I’m gonna do what I think is right and keep workin!’ We were told the fans would never buy it (SIN-JIN SMYTH) That they weren’t smart enough toembrace a new idea, they wanted something familiar that had an existing fan base already established….We were told kids today don’t like to think, they wanted another re-make, they wanted sequels. ‘They don’t want a story, they want to zone out to dismemberment done to the lastest techno hit!!!’
-By the way, if that’s true, those fans will be happy to know that the major studio machine will keep cranking out that material out for ya’! Anyway, I’d hear remarks this this and turn to my wife/partner and say: “We’ll figure this out….we’ll make it work…If Walt Disney could build an empire out of his Uncle’s garage then we can make this film…we’ll get it done!” See, there comes a time when an individual decides ‘THIS IS WHAT WERE GONNA MAKE HAPPEN!! Not: I hope this works! I’d like to make this! Maybe this will be good! (Slams thetable) NO!!! IT’S: THIS IS IT!!! THIS ‘WILL’ WORK!!! THIS TIME WE TEAR THE ROOF OFF THIS FUCKER!!!! I DON’T KNOW HOW BUT I KNOW WE’RE GONNA DO IT! DAMN IT! THERE’S NO OTHER OPTION BUT TO MAKE THIS WORK!!!PERIOD.’ And I’d jump on the phone and keep pushing… We put together what we could…I screened the existing cut of what we had for a few press contacts and– At that time, it was only at about 1/10th of the impact level it was gonna have by the time it hit the screen. No sound design, missing scenes, no FX, the music and the cut had a rough rythm to it…something that was far from ready to be screened—But people still seemed to get it and see where it was headed (There have been several positive reviews about the film online and it is rumored that the first few screenings at Warner Bros. broke into applause)—Credit for the way the audience has responded is primarly due to the cast and experienced crew who had the wisdom to make magic out there—not to me. I am priveledged to have worked with this group and I am honored to have had the opportunity to even try to make this film work…
But I pushed what positive word on the film I could and then…Based on that and what we shot, other people came into the fold and said ‘this film might work’ and ‘I think you’ve got something here! How do we complete it?’ This is part of the reason production has dragged on so long…we fought the system in the beginning and had to continue fighting in an effort to try to make this film different than the weekly studio blueprint…it has never been easy, infact it has always been dark and difficult but that doesn’t change what were about and what we need to do for the audience.
If it’s one thing I CAN SAY about the whole process it’s this: Filmmaking is there for anyone to try and young filmakers who want to make it in this business should go for it…Where ever they are in the world with whatever means avail. to them, they should try to make their film and make it the best they can…Become tougher than the system and the situation! Don’t let anyone one tell you what you can or cannot do and if they do, tell ‘em to go to hell!!!
Just pull the trigger and do it!!!

What I love about the film is that you’ve castsome of the great faces from yesteryear – those thatdon’t get enough work these days – in the roles. Real fan-faves too. Was that always intended? Were they all keen?
ETHAN: That was intended because the actors seemed to fit the characters on the page. I knew just about everyone on the cast before we started on a personal level which—again, assisted my inexpirence—as a new director who required a lot of patience and understanding from those around him, was good, that was the best way for me to do it… And this cast is solid and should work more…they are all very good people who never held my shortcomings—of which there are many (laughs) too many to name here—against me…I hope we see more of them in the future, they deserve it.

Tell us someone you would’ve liked to have gotten in the film – but for one reason or another, didn’t work out.
ETHAN: We were better off without the people you want me to mention…You can tell alot about the potential working relationship by how the initial meeting and deal negotiantions go…and for me, I had enough issues to work out without someone trying to make my life difficult with the ‘royal’ treatment! Or complain that they’re part was too small! Either you’re in this to make it, the film work—in which case everybody wins—or your in this for yourself, in which case you segrigate and devide the cast and crew with your selfishness, compromise the budget and compromise the film, wreck the project and the careers attached to it for the sake of makeing a buck…alot of people in this business are good and worth every cent they earn but others are overpaid and now some people want to be paid money they can’t even spend—how do I explain that to an audience when I ask them to buy a ticket…How do I tell the janitor, bus driver or teacher to support this film, buy a ticket with money you probably don’t have so I can pay some hack millions?

How long of a shoot was it? Any problems along the way?
ETHAN: 20 days but we still have some action elements to shoot…we have a bit of a weather delay right now in the states…but we hope to get this thing wrapped up by October. I think I’ve already boared you enough with some of the problems!

Tell us about the locations you used?
ETHAN: We used the Sable proudction ranch in Santa Clarita where great sets built by bigger productions were left standing for the small filmmaker to utilize…this included our farmhouse where we staged our fire-fight, our cemetery which was created in the same BOG that Disney built for THE HAUNTED MANSION…a very nice location and some thanks should go to the Disney Production Designers for that because they did a great job…Thank you Don (Hahn-Producer of Haunted Mansion) Your production Desgin team did a great job!

You’ve already test-screened it for some people.before it’s complete..you’re obviously confident?
ETHAN: The only confidence I express is in my ’round-the-clock-effort to make the best film I possibly can…I can’t speak for the audience and their opnion is their privelidge. I can only do my best. The film right now is nothing more than a series of rough scenes but it is there to be looked at…not everyone knows what a rough cut really is—although they think they do—like I said, we had no music or sound design both are key components to making any film work….the editing hasn’t been fine-tuned but I believe the direction in where the film is going is there…

Do you think the film will revitalise the careers of folks like Roddy Piper and Richard Tyson?
ETHAN: I like to think that…I think that they are good people who can deliver from a character stand point and—like alot of people around me—I want them to succeed. If I can help in anyway, I’m gonna do it! Eitherwith this film or the next one!

What’s next for you, film wise? (Ethan has turned down two studio ‘romantic comedies’ because he didn’t respect the material)
ETHAN: There are several projects in the works. A western about Confederate Raiders who refuse to surrender after the end of The American Civil War. A film about CIA Advisors in the Middle East. An early 1970′s cop sattire about a special police force, assembled out of SWAT and Vice to combat renegade GI’s trafficing opium out of Vietnam in the bodies and body bags of dead GIs’s. Also more Horror set in New Orleans, a World war 2 picture about the Last Days of the Afrika Korps and a film about a One World Government—That may be a documentry by the time I get to it! (Laughs) But realistically I may just take some time off and do some charity work…that’s really what I like to do is help people…I owe a lot…a lot! And I need to get in the trenches, give back and do some good for others….

Is “Sin” going to be a balls-to-the-wall horror film, or can we expect a film with just as humour as it has scares?
ETHAN: There’s humor…there’s action, again, that’s up to the audience to decide if were fortunate enough to get people to see it…it’s the best film I could make with what resources and expirence I have and all those elements are included. You know when we started this, everyone told us this was impossible, that it couldn’t be done. To get independent finance, to get the cast together, to work out distribution and now, to be fortunate enough to have the press want to even talk to me I feel…(pause) privileged about the situation… Regardless of what anyone says, good or bad, I did my absolute best for those that matter…the audience, my partners and family and whether they love it of hate…my effort in working for them can never be changed…Thank you for talking withme Clint. Thank you Moviehole.

Visit the Official Site of “Sin-Jin Smyth”