Hi-Death: Interview with executive producer Josephina Sykes

"Hi-Death" is the newest movie by Josephina Sykes and it is a high-anticipated horror anthology.

“Hi-Death” is the newest movie by Josephina Sykes. Josephina is the executive producer of the highly-anticipated new horror anthology film “Hi-Death” and here she talks about her beginnings in Romania, collaborating creatively with her husband, and what she loves about the horror genre.

Meagan Meehan (MM): Tell us how you and Brad met?

Josephina Skyes (JS): It was the summer of 1997. I was in film school in Romania (I have a Major in Screenwriting from the National Film School) between my 2nd and 3rd year and you have to do an internship. The school was sending us to the National TV channel, but I grew up there on their sets because my uncle was one of their Directors of Photography (that’s how I got the movie bug). I really wanted to experience a film set and a professor was kind to arrange the internship for us at Castel Film, the only place they were shooting movies at the time in Romania. When I got on their sets they were shooting a Full Moon production, called “Phantom Town”, a movie for kids, with zombies, on a Western town set. Pretty complicated, right? That’s how I met Brad, he was working on the movie as assistant to the director, 2nd Unit Director, additional writer, wearing a few hats. He got to be in charge of us and he was a recent film school grad (from Boston University) and we hit it off right away talking about movies, favorite directors, laughing at the crazy set, gypsy experience we were part of. It was a fun summer, we had a blast working on the movie, everyone was cool and I learnt a lot!

MM: And you were born and bred in Romania, is that right?

JS: Yes, I was born in Bucharest, lived my childhood during communism, a very unique experience that I’d like to share some day. Cinema helped me create a bubble while growing up in a grey, desolate era.

MM: What brought you to America? Love? Film?

JS: Brad brought me to America. We had a long-distance relationship for a couple of years, he came to visit me, called me, we wrote each other letters (still have them saved in a chest) but that wasn’t enough. We wanted to live together so we got married in December 2000. I moved to Los Angeles right away in January 2001. And sure, I was hoping to continue to work in film after moving to the movie capital of the world.

MM: Before moving here though, you attended the La FEMIS film school in Paris! how was that!?

JS:  La Femis is the best film school in France and one of the best in the world, with many great alumni. I got a scholarship to their summer program where they admit students from all over the world who have to speak French! I was the only European, I got to meet so many people from other cultures, I made great friendships, I got to direct a documentary short, take classes with great professionals – critics from Cahiers de Cinema, sound people who worked on Godard’s movies, very inspiring! They took us on many visits to iconic places in Paris, we visited the Cinemateque in Toulouse, we attended La Rochelle Film Festival where I got to meet Paul Schrader at his press conference, one of my (and Brad’s) idols! So, it was one of the best experiences of my life!

MM: How did Nightfall Pictures come about?

JS: After I moved to LA I wrote a few scripts with Brad (paid gigs) and had fun working together. We always wanted to work together, it was a dream of ours. But I couldn’t work on his movies, things were complicated so I applied myself and found work (applying online, going to interviews) on other indie features (some horror) in production, as assistant director, production manager, sometimes doing both jobs at once to save producers money. I learnt a lot about low budget filmmaking in LA.

In 2004, Brad was splitting from a producer he worked for a few years, he couldn’t take continue with him, the guy was very abusive and Brad felt like he couldn’t grow. Since I had some production experience here, we decided to form our production company, Nightfall Pictures and gathered a few projects to get off the ground. We started to pitch ourselves as a team and in 2005 we did “Within the Woods”, Brad’s third installment of his “Camp Blood” series. I’m grateful that the distributor and his team trusted us and they liked what we did, so later that year we shot “Mutation” for them.

MM: How many projects have you and Brad produced now?

JS:  At least five features through Nightfall and a couple of other movies we produced for other companies.

MM: Was Hi-Death an idea you and Brad came up with?

JS: “Hi-Death” is a sequel to “Hi-8: Horror Independent Eight” that came out in 2014 also released by Wild Eye. That movie started in a Facebook group that Brad belongs to and he was talking to other indie filmmakers about the realities of indie horror. It’s not as fun as it was when they started, you have to deal with investors, interference, etc. So, not so indie anymore. Tim Ritter floated the title “Hi-8” and Brad loved it and asked me if I’d agree to produce it with him. I loved the idea of a horror anthology with 8 indie filmmakers (some shot on Hi-8), done with analog formats. We had some rules like a “Dogma” movie, but everyone had creative freedom and it was about going back to your roots and have fun while making a segment. Professional, but have more fun!

“Hi-Death” is the sequel that we wanted to make, we knew we wanted to “advance” to shoot using HD cameras, so I came up with the title “Hi-Death”, as a play on “High Definition” but also referencing the theme of the movie. Usually, Brad is better with titles, but this time around, I beat him to it!

MM: And what was your involvement on that one?

JS: Besides creating the concept, Brad and I are the executive producers, we choose the directors, pick the rules, supervise the segments, from the script phase to completion. The segments are shot in various states in US and we’re located in LA, so it’s challenging, but we get them here upon completion, we have a Supervisor Editor, the cool Chris Lorusso that we work with to assemble everything. We also shot created our own segment, “Cold Read” that Brad and I wrote together, it’s about an audition that goes wrong. As we our segment in “Hi-8” we wanted to explore the movie world and use our personal experiences. Together, we wrote “Cold Read” before the MeToo movement, but it addresses abuse, what people put up with in our industry, based on things we witnessed, dealt with. Sure, it does get horrific, and that’s just imagination! Brad directed the segment, I produced it. We also shot the wraparound segment, “Terror Tour”, in LA, it was fun to showcase cool spots in Hollywood that are famous or some that are more off the beaten path (Hollywood Blvd., Bronson Caves, Hollywood sign). Brad directed it, I produced it.

We put everything together here, from working to artists to create a poster or a credit block (Anthony Catanese and Sara Casey did a great job) to having a music theme for both movies created by Terry Huud. Once the movie is completed, we start submitting it to festivals, try to get press, distribution, we do it all. It’s fun and creative to be involved in every step of the process. We don’t have a lot of money on these movies, but we get our creative juices going!

MM: Which segment do you personally enjoy the most in the film?

JS: I can’t say which one, it’s a “Sophie’s Choice” kind of a situation. I get excited hearing the idea of a segment and it’s cool to see it coming to life, step by step. Anthony Catanese has some very original imagery and cool creatures in his segment besides a raw, urban, psychedelic vibe he brings, Amanda Payton (I really wanted a female director for the sequel) brings the video store experience to life and what can happen there after closing time, Tim Ritter explores the craziness of collecting serial killers memorabilia and Todd Sheets goes wild showing a painter that uses his own blood on his canvas as a pact that he was forced to made. There are horrific, original tales that explore the death theme and take it to extremes!

MM: What do you love about the horror genre?

JS: This is a very creative genre that allows you to explore various themes and also allows you to create your own world and universe, something I was always interested since film school. It’s a genre that disturbs people and I like that. As a woman, I never liked to be put in my place, never felt like I need to “behave”, I have an independent spirit and I like to disturb people with my movies, with ideas, themes, scares, situations, observations that horror movies bring. The horror genre allows you to have fun, move from a vampire movie to a zombie one, from a slasher clown movie to a more topical, dark, psychological piece. There’s still a lot left to explore and contribute to the genre with fresh ideas.

MM: What’s next for you?

JS: Besides the cool release of “Hi-Death” that we’re excited to share with the fans, we have other projects in various stages. We’re moving ahead with “Hi-Fear”, the 3rd in our horror anthology series, to have a cool trilogy! One segment is shot, one is in pre-production, a couple in development. The directors line up and more will be announced soon!