Interview with Joel Trujillo, Writer/Director of Serpent
Lake (US-2009, directed by Joel Trujillo)
is a long-running tradition of lake monsters, both in
local legend and on film. Deep, dark waters seem to
spark the imagination; stories of monstrous aquatic
fauna go way back and have surfaced in every part of
the world wherever such lakes occur. The Loch Ness Monster
is perhaps the best known of them, but there are stories
of many others, not least of all in America. Big Dog
Inc., JFT Productions and writer director Joel Trujillo
are currently filming Serpent Lake, a film
that looks at one such US "legend".
JFT website says of the legend: "Every 30 years,
in the summer, there is a mysterious unidentified creature
claimed to inhabit Astaire's freshwater lake in Minnesota.
Along with Loch Ness monster Nessie and Lake Champlain's
Champ, this monster is one of the best-known mysteries
of cryptozoology. Most scientists and other experts
find current evidence supporting the creature's existence
unpersuasive and regard the occasional sightings as
hoaxes or misidentification of known creatures or natural
phenomena. Minnesotans believe in this legend, however,
even though their theories may vary. That the creature
is a plesiosaur is the most popular of them. But unlike
Loch Ness or Lake Champlain, there is no canal linking
Serpent Lake to the sea, which raises the question:
Where does this creature come from?"
Search-Robot Avery (otherwise known as Avery Battles)
asked Joel Trujillo about the project and about himself.
At what point in your life did you know that you wanted
to become a filmmaker, Joel? When did you actually begin
to act upon that desire?
Trujillo: First of all thank you for this interview.
It is important to me that the fans get to know me and
my projects a little bit better.
beginning of my interest in making films was the summer
of 1993. That's when I produced my first movie. I made
my dad dress up like a zombie chasing after my uncle.
My father and I both knew it was something I had in
me -- to be a film director.
What types of films did
you enjoy watching in your youth and would you say that
any of them influenced your filmmaking process today?
Who would you consider your cinematic mentors to be?
I enjoyed watching sci-fi, action adventure and horror
films when I was a kid growing up in the '80s. That
was back when movies had a story and were not simply
some remake of a past film or a TV show. Star Wars,
Superman the Movie, E.T., Back
to the Future, Dawn of the Dead and Tim
Burton's Batman movie of 1989 influenced me,
my work and my vision. I guess you would say George
Lucas, George Romero, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis
and Tim Burton are my mentors.
There seem to be a lot of
independent films at all levels being made these days.
What is it that is driving this phenomenon in the film
industry? What contemporary conditions help or hinder
For me as an independent filmmaker I have a thirst for
new stories -- fresh new movies that haven't been done
before. It goes back to when I was a young child watching
movies in the '80s, movies that were not just remakes,
and loving them so much. Too many contemporary movies
over-do it with CG special effects, letting the computer
tell the story rather than letting the story unfold
itself. Hollywood to me is nothing but a bunch of remakes
or reality shows. Nothing fresh. All fake... Avoiding
that is what drives me as a filmmaker.
Avery: What is indie filmmaking
like for you? Where do you find the funding and crews
for such projects?
Being an indie filmmaker it's like being in a band.
You're always trying to find the next gig -- not necessarily
knowing where you're going but just doing it. I live
for the adventure! I don't worry about how I'm going
to do it or where it's going to be filmed. Even the
script comes from the act of filming; I write the script
as I'm filming it, editing it and adding all the bells
and whistles to it on the run. It's like a painter picking
up his paint brush and painting on a blank canvas. That's
what excites me.
film the way George Romero did on Night of the Living
Dead. People I get involved with accidentally (or
fortuitously) end up being part of my cast and crew;
people with passion and commitment who help put each
film together. We all chip in because it's our
movie. Nobody takes claim on what they did because we
all work as a team. It's our movie and we are very proud
of it. My biggest contributor, who is not only involved
in the ideas of the movie but also acts in the movies
as well, is my close friend, actor R.L. Yearick (of
Big Dog Inc). Just like the others he believes in what
we're doing and wants everyone to succeed. The bottom
line is that it's all for fun and it's what we live
Avery: Your first three
film projects were Romeroesque zombie flicks? Why now
a "creature feature"?
The first three film projects I undertook were my fan-based
Star Wars movies. They get overlooked
because they are your typical "fan film" spoof
of Star Wars. I was using those as a tool to
work with real actors as well as cameras, lighting and
computers. The next three films were indeed Romeroesque
films. Telling the story of what happened in 1968 [during
the zombie apocalypse] but with different characters,
different settings. I wanted to revisit Romero's world
-- the fictional world that kicked off my interest in
filmmaking. Now I'm doing a creature feature inspired
by the fear of not knowing what's out there. I've always
had a thing for UFOs, Big-Foots and Loch Ness-type monsters.
I felt this would be a good time to do it -- it's something
different. Jaws in a lake, if you will.
Avery: Can you tell us something
about Serpent Lake? Where did the idea come
The idea for Serpent Lake came from my vacation back in June of 2006. I drove around this area near Crosby MN. There are all kinds of lakes and forests. And one of the lakes is called... you guessed it "Serpent Lake"! And the name apparently had nothing to do with a creature in the water. LIGHTBULB!!! What if a creature did live in this lake? What if this creature could also come up onto the land? Every 30 years, it swims to the surface.... and hunts for 24 hours. I should point out that I was not aware of Cloverfield at the time, so that movie had no influence on Serpent Lake. As a matter of fact, I hate the timing... I thought of this project in 2006 but knew I wouldn't be able to film it for another two years. Then we get Water Horse and Cloverfield and then another Loch Ness monster movie on the Sci-fi Channel -- one where the creature can go on land! Serpent Lake was almost done as far as the basic script went. Seeing all these movies, I had to go back and change it again and again. I was very upset ... now my idea really had to be different! You know I still haven't seen Water Horse or Cloverfield.
Avery: Did you learn anything
good/bad while filming those first three zombie pictures
that might influence this project?
JT:Dusk of the Living Dead was a very good film,
but.... I let someone help me who had different dreams
for it than I had myself. By the time it came time to
film Fields of the Living Dead their true colors
came out not only in the writing of the script but in
this collaborator trying to take over other things as
well. Don't say you're going to help and then try to
take over. It's not helpful. Dusk was my baby.
Fields was my red-headed stepchild because
of what happened with the story and filming process on set. However,
I'd have to say that at this point Eclipse of the
Dead is my masterpiece!! With everyone working
together I filmed that movie from 12 pm to 12:30 am
over one weekend. My own story and film direction. Doing
it my way! I'm very thankful for the help given me by
my cast and crew as well as Big Dog Inc. As I said earlier
it's all for fun and it's what we live for. Therefore
we work as a team. Nobody takes credit for themselves
or for what they did. "Oh... well, I got the truck
or I got the MREs or I spotted for lunch." It's
not like that. We allwork together.
The actors need more credit than any other factor. They're
the ones that make the story come to life.
will film Serpent Lake the way I filmed Eclipse
of the Dead and my first Star Wars movies....
by myself as far as writing/directing goes. I'll call
the shots. I know what to expect out of my actors and
they know what to expect out of me. We all help each
What sort of special effects techniques
do you plan on incorporating into Serpent Lake?
Who's in charge of that aspect and how will they be
As far as special effects go for Serpent Lake
we will be making use of miniatures, close-up angles,
that sort of thing. There will be some use of CG animation,
but I want the film to have the feel and look of a movie
from the 1980s -- the way I looked at movies when I
was a kid. So what if it looks fake, so what if it's
being filmed with a "Camcorder"! I want it
to look more physically present than a CG character
like Jar Jar Binks. (Sorry, George!)
Actually, though, my CG Animator (James Maxwell) and I are putting together some really strong, good-looking effects for Tiny Tim. It may shock those later on that said it looked so fake in the early stages ... it might just scare us!!!
head of the creature for Serpent Lake has been
influenced by the movie Dreamscape's Snake
Man. I will be in charge of overseeing all of the special
effects for this movie, along with my crew. If I don't
like the way it looks in test showings, we'll film it
as many times as it takes 'til it's right!
Avery: Can you give us
an idea of what sort of characters we can expect in
this picture? Where did you get your actors?
The characters in Serpent Lake will be a mix
of heroes and others who you'll just want to throw into
the lake (LOL). The actors/actresses playing these characters
are from theatre groups, as well as having a love for
Why have you given the creature the
name "Tiny Tim", and what makes him any different
from any other lake monster we've seen?
The name "Tiny Tim" I got from my 4-year-old
little girl. She was singing this cute little song about
a turtle named Tiny Tim, so I mixed the lyrics up a
bit and had her sing it again. I let her see some of
my work and I even let her touch some of the miniatures.
So we call the monster in Serpent Lake "Tiny Tim"
no reason realy. My daughter wants to play with Tiny
Tim and even gives him a little mouse voice. The name
Tiny Tim is where the comedy comes in. You see this huge
ugly monster and the older people and natives of the
town have called him "Tiny Tim" just for the
heck of it. He will be a smart creature yet he will
have an air of comedy about him, too.
Avery: Is there some
reason why you decided to make "Serpent Lake"
a horror/comedy instead of a straight horror film? Would
you say that "Serpent Lake" will lean more
towards horror or that comedy element you mentioned?
The reason I decided to make Serpent Lake a
horror/comedy can be traced back to Cloverfield
and Water Horse. Serpent Lake was
originally supposed to be very scary. But Cloverfield
did scary. So... I'm taking it down a new path. The
movie will be half and half when it comes to horror
What do you plan on bringing to this
picture that we haven't seen before? Are you aiming
for the film to be a reinvention of the genre? A nostalgic
JT: To sum up the questions in one:
Serpent Lake will bring back that old feeling
of seeing a movie in the 80s. I want people to enjoy
the movie for the story and not so much for the special
What exactly are your plans/hopes
for this film? Is there any possibility of sequels at
this early stage?
Well, this film has got more hype attached it than any
film I've done. So the hope of a follow-up is there.
That helps to pump up the cast/crew and myself to make
a good film for everyone to enjoy and relate to. At
this time, though, there will be no sequels;
after all, if the serpent only returns to the lake every
30 years then that would put the sequel in the year
2039! Tiny Tim meets Blade Runner. No thank you! If
the film is very successful, then I might think about
a prequel, but not a sequel.
What are your own plans for the future?
Will you be returning to this particular sub-genre,
or are you looking to start fresh again?
While I'm completing production on Serpent Lake,
I will be revisitng the Star Wars genre again.
I'm working on a five-year story arc. For five years (so every year) I will film about 8 hours worth of a TV-like series, trying to keep it to 30 minutes per episode. It
will be the story of Luke and Leia growing up as kids
and having their own adventures. After Serpent Lake
comes out next summer I will be working on my next movie,
"The Sparrow Man", a superhero action adventure
movie based on a comic book I came up with when I was
in 6th grade. I will be filming that one in Denver,
Colorado. With that movie I will have reached the goal
I've striven for since the beginning. To make the impossible
possible. I hope to release that movie on 1st April
2010, marking my 30th Birthday.
In closing: is there anything else that
you would like to add?
Thanks for the taking the time to get to know me.
Battles describes himself as "a big
kaiju fan, obsessive completist, and animal/nature
lover". As 'Kaiju Search-Robot Avery' he helps
Backbrain to keep up-to-date on kaiju
cinematic rumblings and to maintain the giant monster
and zombie film lists. He also frequents RoboJapan
/ MonsterIsland News as a blogger where he's known
as 'avery guerra'. "I love to help promote
projects that I'm passionate about, no matter how
big or small."
JT: I drew this picture of Rocco. In fact, I drew the storyboards for the movie. I learned how to draw and make my own comic books when I was in 6th grade!