Dissect and Build Upon: A Q&A with Director J.M. Stelly
Bring on the scary!
“One Night. One Director. Three Films.”
In what I can best describe as an indie horror overload, The Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge will showcase a presentation by Louisiana Entertainment: the premiere of three new locally-made movies, screening one after another, all on the night of Saturday, January 7th, at 6 PM CST.
This fascinating triple feature of thrills and chills comes from regional filmmaker J.M. Stelly, whose previous work has included various music videos, and the film The Demonologist, which can be streamed right now on Tubi.
I asked J.M. some questions about making movies and what he’d like to watch on a date with a certain horror character.
I might be paraphrasing, but I believe that Orson Welles once said, “For a film to be right, it must be right musically.” As a director, what does this mean to you?
JM: So for me, music is just as important and in some cases more important to a film than I think people actually realize. Take John Carpenter’s Halloween for instance. When he first screened the film, he didn’t have any music at all and it just wasn’t scary to anyone. The minute he added a score, it changed the mood of the film. It’s a rarity that a film comes along that has no backing score to it. No Country for Old Men did it but that movie had a vibe that didn’t require it. I’ve been a musician my whole life so all the music in my films aside from some of the music in The Demonologist is written by me. I find myself during the making of a film thinking about the mood of the music or soundscapes I want to add and because I edit my films by the scenes, it’s easy for me to dissect and build upon the scene with sound and music.
I’ve always been a fan of a more abstract approach to the music so it’s a mixture between composition and soundscapes. For Call of the Void, the music was highly important simply because the movie is structured like a silent film. In my opinion, it’s one of the most crucial elements to that film.
What is it about horror filmmaking that you find interesting?
JM: Horror is one of the oldest forms of storytelling. It’s a grand study of the human element and the deeper parts of our psyche. There are so many types of horror that don’t really get talked about much. I feel like a lot of horror films get lost in the commercial need for what’s popular. Jump scares are fun but they can become cheap after a while. Some of my favorite movies prey upon the thought process.
Trailer for Abacus, part of the Manship triple feature.
Session 9 being one of my favorite films ever made. I feel like those filmmakers truly learned from films like The Shining. There’s no need to constantly push a jump scare on an audience. Sometimes just a slow move in a lit hallway can be just as terrifying. Suddenly something weird happens to the lighting. The sound design starts to creep into your subconscious and soon, a thing we’ve all been in our lives, an empty hallway becomes terrifying to you. Anticipation is just as strong a tool as all-out gore.
From script to screen, what has the journey been like to get to your upcoming triple feature at the Manship in Baton Rogue?
JM: So the journey to this night started back in 2016 when we made Abacus. My friends and I got together based on an outline and an idea I had for a long time. We spent two days making the film and eventually came back in January in 2017 to shoot outside scenes. I then sat and edited the first cut of the film and my co-producer and DP Jason Parker handled the audio.
I was never happy with the film. There was just so much wrong with everything and I don’t think at the time I had the skills to figure it out, so I put it on the back burner. I went off and made The Demonologist in the summer of 2017 and that dominated my life for a year. I work in the industry professionally doing other things so I ended up getting too busy to return to Abacus.
Trailer for They Are Watching, part of the Manship triple feature.
Fast Forward - - COVID happens. I wanted to make two more features mostly as a distraction from the world. So I made They Are Watching over the course of five days, which I also had to act in due to the pandemic and a month later Jared Bankens and I spent a week making Call of the Void at night.
Fast Forward once again to April of 2022 - - I decided it was time to not just finish Abacus but all three of the films. I tore each one apart, especially Abacus, and recut them. Re-Mixed the audio, did the scores, and did all the sound design. I even had to learn VFX for Call of the Void.
All three of these films were made with zero money. Everything was done using the resources we had. From locations and equipment to software. If there was something I didn’t know how to do, I taught myself to do it. It takes a lot of discipline and drive to do what was done with these three completely different films.
What are some of your favorite music videos ever made? Do you feel that music is a good place to start for aspiring filmmakers and storytellers?
JM: Every Tool video ever made. Tool has been such a huge part of my life. I’m also biased in saying that one of my favorite videos is one I directed called “Conjure” for the band Down. I tried to really capture that old-school ’70s horror vibe with that video.
I think that an aspiring filmmaker or storyteller should just create regardless of where it starts. Music is a great thing to have in the process but not everyone works that way. Inspiration should come from the world around you. Never just one place.
How would you best describe the independent film community in Hollywood South?
JM: Honestly I don’t know. I have friends who are independent filmmakers here and one, in particular, has called me several times to talk about the state of how people think and act in the community. Meaning that we don’t see a lot of people doing and more people talking about doing. I’m not as embedded in the community as you would think among my peers. I’ve always been the black sheep in every situation. However, I love supporting the community in any way I can.
Trailer for Call of the Void, part of the Manship triple feature.
I hope that we see a lot more investments into independent film in South Louisiana, but we have to remember it’s a business and I truly believe the modern filmmaker must understand the difference between the art form of filmmaking and the business of filmmaking. You can’t be complacent when it comes to creating something. If money is involved, you have to figure out a way to make that money back and make a profit. At the same time, I believe people should just create. That’s how you grow and move the art form forward.
If you could pick one movie to watch with Jigsaw from the Saw films, what would it be, why, and where/how would you two watch it?
JM: Jigsaw seems like a western type of dude. Unforgiven is a damn good one and we would probably watch it in his chambers as we keep tabs on the unfortunate souls that are trying to survive one of his traps.
For tickets and other information on J.M. Stelly’s films, visit The Manship Theatre online.