One place in Southern California filled with urban legends is Black Star Canyon located in the Santa Ana Mountains in East Orange County. Everything has been reported there from weird paranormal events to squatters who chase visitors out with shotguns. First time director Katie Downer’s film “Orange County Hill Killers” is about four teenagers whose stories and realities blur when they enter the infamous canyon. We recently talked to Katie after her film won best short at the Shock Fest Film Festival. Read for the interview..
Golden State Haunts and Events:What made you decide to get into film making?Katie Downer: As a kid, I always loved movies. I was introduced to horror, like so many I know, by my kooky aunt. I got obsessed with the horror genre from there. I used to watch Frankenstein (30’s version) every night before I went to bed, I was so intrigued that a movie could make me feel something so powerful. Fear. The fear of the unknown, the fear of belonging, it’s something every kid struggles with and when I hit middle school, especially. I marveled at how movies could reach such wide audiences on such specific emotions. So I turned to writing. I never thought to pursue a career in movies. My dad works in the business so I got to be around that a little bit when I was growing up, but since he’s more the business side of things, it wasn’t something that I saw as my cup of tea. Besides the fact I wanted to branch out and follow my own path. When I hit college, I had a professor who showed me more of the creative side, which really interested me. It reinvigorated my love of movies and from there I pursued film school and focused mostly on screenwriting. It wasn’t until last year that I decided to shoot my first movie. I’ve always thought about directing, as I’m writing my stuff I have such a clear vision of how it will look, I really wanted to see one of my films get made, so I figured who best to do it then me? It’s history from there.
GSHE:Was it harder to write the script for “Orange County Hill Killers” or do the directing?KD: It was harder to direct by far. Since writing is something I’m very comfortable with, the script took me less than an hour to write. The directing had me nervous, it was my first film and I wanted it to be perfect, so I over prepared. I was only at the location once and we shot it over two nights, so it was a bit hectic at times, but I had a very clear vision of how everything should look and knew exactly what I wanted to do, so that made things easier. Having an amazingly talented crew never hurts either.
GSHE:How much research went into the movie?KD: Not much. I wanted it to feel relatively fresh because so many people know about the legends I didn’t want my film to feel like the same old recycled stories. I based the films very loosely on some experiences I had and stories I heard from high school, but obviously I mostly made it all up.
GSHE:Had you ever been to Black Star Canyon before making the film?KD: Yes only one time. The only strange thing about that trip was the people I was with, oh, and I did see a guy hiking while dragging a tire tied around his waist.
GSHE:How did you choose the story of the people of Black Star Canyon rather than the paranormal?KD:There are so many movies about the paranormal out right now, I thought it might be fun to give audiences something different. Not to say paranormal movies aren’t great, my style is just more old school, take some young people to the woods and watch some crazy hicks murder them.
GSHE:Had you ever heard of Art Tuttle or Black Star Bill?KD: I had heard some crazy stories in high school and early college about a crazy hick that threatens you off his property with a shot gun, but that’s all I ever heard about that. I had never heard of those names and I’m not even sure those stories I was told are real.
GSHE:Was the movie filmed on location?KD: No. It was filmed up in Placerita Canyon, my special fx artist (John Hartigan) has a plot of land up there and so we figured we’d just used that. It looks a lot like Blackstar and so far I’ve been able to trick everyone into thinking it’s Blackstar, so mission accomplished!
GSHE:Did you have any interesting experiences while filming?KD:The process was so hectic, shooting only two nights we didn’t really have time for any interesting experiences. I think the scariest situation was someone heard a rattlesnake.
GSHE:What was your biggest challenge as a new film maker?KD: Getting the funding. When you have a kickstarter or any of those sites without any history or background, no one wants to fund you. I kept a list of people, businesses, e.t.c. that I contacted, it is literally thousands and I think I raised all of five hundred dollars. Then, I started putting my efforts into asking for favors from contacts, friends, anyone I knew that could help, and got an outrageous response. So many people were more than willing to help out a beginning filmmaker, in terms of giving their time, lending equipment and giving advice. Without that, this movie would have never gotten made.
GSHE:Walk us through the casting process?KD: I was put in touch with a wonderful casting agent, Jennifer Cooper. I gave her exactly want I had in mind for each character and she sent me pictures and IMDB links of exactly what I had described. I talked with some of the actors by phone, but most of them I met the day before the shoot, we had one rehearsal and immediately knew they were it. Everybody was so wonderful. Easy to work with, very professional and amazingly talented. I really lucked out.
GSHE:Are there any plans to turn this into a feature length movie?KD: No plans to turn this into a feature, unless someone wants to give me that job, then yes, I’m interested. But at this time, I’m looking forward into other projects.
GSHE:Is there anything you’re working on next?KD: I’m finishing up graduate school and graduating in May so I’m really focused on that right now. I have another short script I wrote a couple of weeks ago, so I may look into shooting that after I graduate. Other than that, I have a couple of finished feature scripts and that’s where I’m looking towards for the future. Since it’s what I love, I’ll be sticking with the horror genre. So hopefully you’ll be hearing a lot more from me in the future!