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Something's in the Lake

An Interview with Joel Trujillo, Writer/Director of Serpent Lake

by Avery Battles

Serpent Lake (US-2009, directed by Joel Trujillo)

There 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".

The 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?"

Kaiju Search-Robot Avery (otherwise known as Avery Battles) asked Joel Trujillo about the project and about himself.

Avery: 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?

Joel 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.

The 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.

Avery: 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?

JT: 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.

Avery: 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 independent filmmaking?

JT: 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?

JT: 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.

I 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 for.

Avery: Your first three film projects were Romeroesque zombie flicks? Why now a "creature feature"?

JT: 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 from?

JT: 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 all work together. The actors need more credit than any other factor. They're the ones that make the story come to life.

I 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 other out.

Avery: 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 achieved?

Dreamscape's Snake Man

JT: 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!!!

The 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?

JT: 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 acting.

Avery: Why have you given the creature the name "Tiny Tim", and what makes him any different from any other lake monster we've seen?

JT: 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?

JT: 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 and comedy.

Avery: 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 throwback?

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 effects.

Avery: What exactly are your plans/hopes for this film? Is there any possibility of sequels at this early stage?

JT: 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.

Avery: 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?

JT: 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.

Avery: In closing: is there anything else that you would like to add?

JT: Thanks for the taking the time to get to know me.


Check out the Serpent Lake and JTL Productions website

Avery Battles describes himself as "a big kaiju fan, obsessive completist, and animal/nature lover". As 'Kaiju Search-Robot Avery' he helps the Undead 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."


Monster Shots
serpent lake pic 1


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!

copyright©Avery Battles and Robert Hood 2008

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