Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Interview with Filmmaker, Marcus Koch of Oddtopsy FX

Dick Smith, Rick Baker, Tom Savini, Jerami Cruise, Stan Winston, Rob Bottin, Vincent Guastini, KNB, and of course, Marcus Koch. I’m sure these names would all make your top ten list of gore effects heros and legends. And if you’re a filmmaker, you would count your lucky stars to collaborate with them, because you’d know you were practically guaranteed the most jaw-dropping, realistic effects possible.

Known for his graphic and disturbing horror films, “Rot”, “Fell” and “100 Tears”, Marcus Koch is pulling up the director’s chair once more with the second film in the brutal “American Guinea Pig” series, “Bloodshock”, which is currently touring the festival circuit and will be distributed late August 2016.

Body Count Rising: In “Attack of the Killer Manatee”, Richard Anasky was an actor and you did special effects. I see you also received special thanks on the film “Franklin: A Symphony of Pain” that Anasky produced and had a role in. How did you get to know this fellow Florida filmmaker?

Marcus Koch: Ritch was working on a movie called “I Am Vengeance” and I was in on the ground floor of that to do some effects after “Killer Manatee”. We got together a couple of times, but that film kind of dissolved or was put on hold. I think he ended up working on “Actress Apocalypse” around that time.

Body Count Rising: Did you all (Richard Anasky, Garo Nigoghossian, Jeremy Westrate, Sean Donohue, Tim Ritter, etc…) collaborate since you lived by each other?

Marcus Koch: There’s a whole group of the filmmakers that work together around there. But yeah, wow, I don’t think I’ve seen Ritch Anasky for almost 15 years now!

Body Count Rising: Anasky was mentored by Tim Ritter. I know you said you watched Tim’s films around the time you were shooting “Rot” and cited him as an influence. Was he a mentor to you as well?

Note: Tim and Marcus also both had segments in the horror anthology “Hi-8”.

Marcus Koch: I grew up watching “Truth or Dare”. And then when I graduated I realized he made other films, and that he was a Florida filmmaker, so I reached out to Tim. That’s also how I first saw Joel Wynkoop acting. I said “Wow, I need to get that guy in my films!” I reached him for the film “Rot” through Tim Ritter. Up until then I was just shooting my own backyard movies. I worked with Joel again when I did effects for “Alien Agenda: Endangered Species” and we’ve worked together since quite a bit. He’s a Tampa staple now, plain and simple. He’s always working. We worked on a film in Iowa together and we had to laugh because we live down the street from each other, but here we were crossing paths in Iowa.

Body Count Rising: You also cite John Waters as an inspiration…

Marcus Koch: Yes! I absolutely love John’s films like “Female Trouble” with his raunchy style and foul-mouthed humor.

Body Count Rising: When I first saw “Rot”, I had already seen Fred Vogel’s “August Underground” series and I thought it really had a similar vibe. I get that same feel when I watch some of Ryan Nicholson’s early stuff. I’m sure you’ve inspired many.

Marcus Koch: I definitely went down that same path that Fred Vogel did, but much earlier with the extreme snuffy stuff. Right after I did “Rot” I did some shorts for a movie called “Snuff Perversions: Bizarre Cases of Death” ("Lunch Meat", "They Said Goodbye", "Thrill Rape Kill") and these sequences were all pretty harsh, and actually the most extreme I had ever done.

I met Ryan Nicholson at a Fangoria convention in Austin. I had heard of a film called “Gutterballs” but didn’t know his work at the time. He said he was a huge fan and gave me a copy of the movie. I went home and watched the film and was surprised to see he thanked me in the credits!

Body Count Rising: Well, you do excellent work, so I can certainly understand why he would. Speaking of “Rot” can you believe it’s been 18 years already?

Marcus Koch: It blows my mind. What was it, ‘97? It was a couple of years before we got distribution.

Body Count Rising: I love that it’s being featured on Exploitation TV. Are there any other places we can find “Rot” streaming or will it be re-distributed soon?

Marcus Koch: It was re-released in 2013 through Cult Movie Mania on VHS, but now they’re talking about doing a Blu-ray with special features. I think for now you can also find “Rot” on Roku’s Bizarre TV.

Body Count Rising: I know you like to shoot on digital. Did you shoot “Rot” on digital?

Marcus Koch: It was originally shot on Hi-8 camcorder. My first movies were all shot on Hi-8.

Body Count Rising: So now the big question: if you put this out on Blu-ray, will there be a “Rot” soundtrack packaged with it? That soundtrack is pretty punk-rock amazing.

Marcus Koch: I thought about it. I don’t know how much I still have on tape. Some of the songs are just in the film with the sound effects in them. That’s something I’ll need to look into further.

Note: The original soundtrack had TSOL’s Code Blue, but it had to be removed for legal reasons. The remaining tracks are all authentic local street-punk garage bands that Marcus recorded on a bunch of cassette tapes. If you hear a song that isn’t punk in the film, then that is Marcus’ friend, Michael Crawford’s work.

Body Count Rising: You’ve worked with some interesting and eccentric directors from Lloyd Kaufman (on “Citizen Toxie: Toxic Avenger 4”) to Herschel Gordon Lewis (on “The Uh-Oh Show”) to James Bickert (on “Frankenstein Created Bikers”). What’s the strangest thing a director has requested from you, or the oddest situation you’ve been in when doing effects?

Marcus Koch: Oh there have definitely been some strange ones. I think the toughest director I ever worked for was Andreas Schnaas, who directed the “Violent Shit” films. He did a film called “Nikos the Impaler” and it was the most grueling learning experience of my life.

Body Count Rising: Was it difficult because Schnaas was a stickler for perfection?

Marcus Koch: Yeah, we had differences on the reality of the blood. He gave me his recipe for blood, but he actually would go to the butcher shop for pig’s blood. And I have a huge phobia of real blood, so the thought of that just gave me the heebie-jeebies, plus I didn’t feel it was sanitary. Prior to that, I had never worked out-of-state before, but the special effects artist who was hired on, Jesus Vega, requested I help him on the project. The producer, Joe Zaso knew my work, and I knew him through Tim Ritter, so I joined in. We had very limited money, two months to work, and we would often get script changes the night before. So we would need to create all new props on the fly into the wee hours of the night, which was a problem for prop casting because the actors had already gone home.

A great thing that came out of this shoot is that I was able to go visit Dick Smith at his house. Jesus was taking the Dick Smith course and it turned out he was only a cab ride away, and so Dick Smith invited us over to his house and to hang out for the afternoon. I asked him for some help on using gelatin and he stopped me. He said “Here’s a pad of paper. You’re going to want to take notes.” He was humble and awesome and I’m so glad I got to meet him. Great guy!

Now Herschel Gordon Lewis had the strangest request. When I first met him for “The Uh-oh Show” I was super excited so I brought him a fake arm that had fingernails and hair in it, and it was super detailed. I was like “YES! The Godfather of Gore!” and he looked at it and shrugged saying “Hmmph… is there a way you can make these look fake?” (laughing) So I’m literally spending thousands of dollars making all of these fake looking body part props, but since it was a comedy he didn’t want overt realism.

Body Count Rising: His blood is always really bright red too. Did you need to change your formula?

Marcus Koch: Yeah, he didn’t like my blood because it was too dark and rich, so I had to brighten it up a lot. That was difficult because I told him it wasn’t going to look real. That’s what he wanted though.

Body Count Rising: Why are you uncredited for the effects on “Citizen Toxie: Toxic Avenger 4”?

Marcus Koch: That’s another funny story. That film came right after “Rot” and was distributed through Troma. Patrick Cassidy, a line producer and writer for the film, reached out to me and said he couldn’t fly me out to the film, but they would send me money if I could give them “charred tards”. So I started working on the “charred tards” referring to the effects you see in the beginning of the film. I got a call a couple weeks later saying “Hey we can’t send money right now, but if you keep your receipts for your materials we’ll reimburse you.” So I was like, “Uh OK…” and I got together a refrigerator-sized box of blackened body parts that were all random and charred and I shipped them off. And I don’t hear anything… and I don’t hear anything… until I was doing effects for “Nikos the Impaler”. Lloyd Kaufman had a part that was filmed inside of a video store, so after we wrapped I went up and started talking to him. That was the first time I was able to see Lloyd as a real person and not just Troma Lloyd. He was so incredibly knowledgeable and loved westerns and just knew everything about film history and I was just like “Holy shit!” So after the great conversation I just kind of brought it up. “So… a long time ago when I was 19 I made some 'charred tards' for the Toxic Avenger 4 movie…” and he was like “Oh yeah! The charred tards!” and I was like “Yeah… I never actually heard back on that…” He said “Oh yeah, Patrick Cassidy stopped working on that film.” I said “OK… but I never actually got paid...” and he didn’t miss a beat. (laughing) He said “Tell you what, here’s a copy of ‘Mother’s Day’.” that he handed me from the set. I’ve worked with Lloyd several times since then and now it’s our running joke.

Body Count Rising: Well does he at least hand you a movie every time you see him?

Marcus Koch: No! I didn’t even get a copy of the film I worked on! (laughing)

Body Count Rising: Awe man! Well, at least you have a good story from it. (laughing) So do these directors influence your directing style, or are you pretty much just completely focused on effects-only while on set?

Marcus Koch: Sometimes you work with directors who really understand how to shoot horror using practical effects. It’s like slight of hand and it really needs to be shot or edited a certain way. At the end of the day, a rubber hand is a rubber hand. At the wrong angle the audience will go “Well, that’s a fake hand.” It is a collaborative effort to assure that suspension of disbelief; to make the audience think that person really did get his hand cut off.

Body Count Rising: So have you done effects on another director’s film that you feel could have been edited a lot better?

Marcus Koch: Well, sometimes there are people who will not hear outside influences and if you try to tell someone how they should shoot and effect, or edit the effect, it’s really crossing the line with them. That’s when one of two things could happen: they can’t figure out how to properly piece it together in editing, so they cut the scene completely, or worse they cut it together the best way they think they can and the effect fails.

Body Count Rising: Either way, that would be pretty awful. Are you generally allotted enough time when setting up effects in general, or do you ever feel in a race with the clock?

Marcus Koch: Sometimes it’s a race. Sometimes there are really big productions and those are always great. Generally I don’t have that luxury and just hit the ground running. It really depends on the film and how much budget they have. Often there are a couple weeks of pre-production for the life casting and molding.

Body Count Rising: You worked with Buddy Giovinazzo on “Ginger”, which was later re-titled “Night of Nightmares” and I know he said he usually has a quick turnaround for his shooting schedules. Did you feel the time constraints on that film?

Marcus Koch: No. That was an awesome set to be on. I had to create an effect where a girl throws up pennies and I had never done anything like that before. I always love the opportunity do new things.

Body Count Rising: You seem to be a SFX MacGyver, coming up with solutions on the spot. When you have obstacles, how do you make it work?

Marcus Koch: Well, you kind of have to. If something just isn’t in the budget you need to think on your toes and use your resources to come up with the best possible substitute. If you can’t do this it will be detrimental to the film.

Body Count Rising: When the film is not your own, is it difficult for you to do effects and just walk away without any control over post-production? Or have any of the directors requested your help in post-production?

Marcus Koch: Not that I ever try to overstep my bounds, but yeah. There have been directors that have asked me to collaborate in post-production. I will even offer to put it together if someone needs help editing a sequence. Often people are really open to the idea because they want it to come off looking the best.

Body Count Rising: Do you prefer to direct because that gives you more control over these aspects of filming and how the final version will look?

Marcus Koch: I’ve really got an eye for how it all will go together. It is important to know how the edit will work before you frame it. I have a really good understanding of that and I do enjoy directing.

Body Count Rising: You did effects for the “Theater Bizarre” anthology. Did you work on a specific segment, the framing or both?

Marcus Koch: Mainly I did David Gregory’s “Sweets” and the effect was a decapitated upside-down hanging body that had sliced Achilles tendons. And that was one of those incredible shoots and although it was a ten-minute short it had a really massive cast and crew. Everything just worked like a well-oiled machine and it was such a great three days. I also did some digital steam work on Tom Savini’s segment.

Body Count Rising: So you do CG too, and not just practical effects?

Marcus Koch: Not very often. I’ve done it mostly with compositing. I’ll film green screen shots of a practical effect and then combine them together by layering digitally. An example was a decapitation I did. We had a real body, a fake body and a head that had a green screen behind it. David Gregory allowed me to shoot that part because I knew how everything needed to go together and then I was able to assemble it all on the computer. It’s just layers of practical stuff just all put together.

Body Count Rising: Wow. That’s really interesting! So have you ever done that layering effect with fire?

Marcus Koch: Fire? No I don’t work with fire or pyrotechnics.

Body Count Rising: I remember seeing a scene in “Die Die Delta Pi” where it appeared like the fire was in front of the item that was supposed to be on fire. I just wondered if that was that layering effect.

Marcus Koch: No. I actually didn’t work on that part of the effects. I was on the road when they shot that footage.

Body Count Rising: That was the only thing that didn’t look terribly authentic, so I’m glad to hear that wasn’t yours. Good to know! What primarily is the secret to the realism behind your effects? I understand you never use the real thing, so you really need to go that extra mile…

Marcus Koch: Lots of internet research. It’s a great place to find really explicit death photos. I’ll look up surgeries and suicides and I’ll study how muscle, bone and viscera really look. I always try to strive for anatomical and I know the limitations of my materials.

Body Count Rising: How much of your work is collaborative?

Marcus Koch: It depends on the budget of the film. I have a group that I’ve been working with for years as Oddtopsy FX: Cat Bernier, Matt Ash and Chris Polidoro. They are my right and left hands. They’re people I know I don’t have to baby sit and they know my expectations.

Body Count Rising: So do you bounce ideas off of each other, or is it more that you’re giving them direction and they take action based on your instruction?

Marcus Koch: A little bit of both. If we come to a situation we haven’t encountered before and need to come up with a solution, we’ll bounce ideas off of each other to figure the best possible way to achieve our goal. For instance on “Bloodshock”, we had to do a camera angle from inside of a mouth while pulling teeth. I told Cat what I needed and together we figured out how we could make this half-head with a macro lens set right up inside the mouth.

Body Count Rising: What kind of camera are you using? I know you had said that you like to use a handheld digital.

Marcus Koch: Yeah I shot “100 Tears” on film with a great lens, but lately I’ve been using a DSLR camera and the image quality and resolution is just so amazing. We’ll be switching up to a 2K camera for the next film.

Body Count Rising: When you go to that level of resolution, how does that affect what goes into your special effects?

Marcus Koch: Across the board, the higher the resolution, the tougher the job. You can see the seams around prosthetics and you need to take more time with makeup.

Body Count Rising: Since you’re putting out “American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock” on Blu-Ray as a perk to select film supporters, will the fact that the film is in black-and-white be more forgiving for the effects?

Marcus Koch: I shot the film in color and edited in color. It was only turned black-and-white in the final stages. It was more of a visceral choice for the story telling. It just plays out better in black-and-white. And it stays in black-and-white until the end where there is a gradual movement to color.

Body Count Rising: What is your message with that gradual change to color?

Marcus Koch: It’s almost like a heightened reality. Without giving too much of the plot away, it really is a hyper crescendo at that point. There is very little gore until the last 15 minutes. Up until that point there are slow, draining tortures. It’s a very slow, deliberate burn. It’s like a frog in a boiling pot. You’ve been sitting for so long in the warm water, you don’t know that it’s about to get really bad.

Body Count Rising: You’re almost making it sound like a Takashi Miike film!

Marcus Koch: The first film in the series was obviously a snuff film with 70 minutes of two girls just getting cut up. And that was difficult in and of itself in just how it was shot and for the most part was in chronological order. With this one it’s more subtle. You know, like a knee getting hit with a hammer. While it’s hard to watch, it’s not crossing over into that hardcore gore yet. Not until the grand finale.

Body Count Rising: I know you’re not a fan of writing highly specific firm scripts. You allow your actors to improvise to a large extent and trust in their acting abilities. Has this ever gone horribly wrong, besides the multiple fart jokes you mention in the “100 Tears” commentary?

Marcus Koch: Oh man, “100 Tears” had so many fart jokes! That was Joe and Georgia though. That’s just how they talked. Joe wrote the script, and Georgia stuck to what he wrote, but Joe couldn’t follow that script to save his life.

In my film “Fell” it also had gore but wasn’t a splatter fest. It was more reserved and relied on character development. The film was a bit more of a free-form drama. This was a very structured form of improv and it came off very genuine and so positive. It all hinges on having a good story, good characterization and something to say. I think that is where a lot of movies fail with the message and the story.

Body Count Rising: That’s a really good point. How do you actors respond to this freedom?

Marcus Koch: They really embrace it. It’s tailored but it allows them the freedom to do what they want. Now “Bloodshock” doesn’t have much dialog at all. Almost immediately Dan Ellis’ character gets his tongue cut out so he has to do all of his acting through non-verbal cues. He can do just about anything, but he can only use his eyes or his body. He does a really effective job communicating without any lines.

Body Count Rising: You’ve been an actor as well. Were you given the option to improvise in any of the films you acted in?

Marcus Koch: I actually hate being on camera. I’ll do a cameo, but I’m not a good actor, so I’d only want to be in something corny. Like they let me do my own dialogue in “Die Die Delta Pi” I played someone who was in art school and I came up with “Can I Jackson Pollack all over your Georgia O’Keefe?” (laughing)

Body Count Rising: I am amazed that wasn’t in the script. (laughing) There were some fun 80’s throwback lines in that film.

So… back to “American Guinea Pig.” Stephen Biro directed the first American Guinea Pig in a series of eight (“Bouquet of Guts and Gore”) shot on 8 mm in color, and you directed the second (“Bloodshock”) shot on digital primarily in black-and-white. Both are very different and allow you to do unique effects for each. Can we expect that the remaining six in the series will be completely different as well?

Marcus Koch: I don’t believe we’ll revisit the snuff theme. Steve’s writing them all. The intention was to have different directors for each one. We had been talking about the 3rd film being directed by a filmmaker in Chile. Things significantly slowed down so now it looks like Stephen will direct so that we can move forward. I’m going to do the effects and he’s got some crazy shit planned… really bizarre shit that I have no idea how I’m going to do it, but I’m like “Oh I’ll figure something out.” I like it when I get challenged. This one will be an exorcism film.

Body Count Rising: Is there any chance that you may be one of the mystery directors in the upcoming films of the series?

Marcus Koch: Well, we’re talking to a Japanese director about working on one. We’d like to have that being filmed while we’re working on the third film, “American Guinea Pig: The Exorcists.”

Body Count Rising: You have a bunch of projects in pre-production and post-production, but what can you tell us about “Baby Doll: The Afterlife and Misadventures of an Undead Girl in the Mob”?

Marcus Koch: That’s my dream project that I’ve been trying to get going since I shot “Rot”. I’ve gotten close a couple of times. I think it would be a good film. It’s a dead girl that comes back to life, falls in love with the pall bearer and she begins to fall apart. Out spills a bunch of bags of cocaine that the mob had hidden in dead bodies. Meanwhile the mob wants to know where the body is because it’s not like she can get up and just walk away. Chaos ensues. It’s a morbid love story.

Body Count Rising: Can you share any other projects that are in the works or on the horizon?

Marcus Koch: This weekend I’m going to Georgia to work on Ron Bonk’s “House Shark.” I love working on things like this. I’m usually the go-to gore guy or the dick guy.

Body Count Rising: I was aware you were the gore guy. I was not aware you were the dick guy.

Marcus Koch: Oh yeah if people want dicks, they come to me. Anyways, I get to do a monster shark. This will probably look like the cross between a Troma film and a Gwar concert. I also have a cameo in a film this weekend called “Bigfoot Mob Boss” where I play a hooker and I will be in full drag. I have a wig and vinyl skirt. I’ll be doing some effects tomorrow on a film called “Crack Baby Billionaire”.

Body Count Rising: What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker?

Marcus Koch: If you want to get into the business to produce, direct, be a DP or do special effects, the best way to learn is to be a PA (production assistant). Just observe how everyone does their jobs. If you’re lucky you’ll get on bigger sets. Learn through that. I think going to film school can be an incredible waste of money if you can get hands-on learning. I guess the biggest piece of advice would be not to be a dick on set. Everyone in the film industry is in it for the same thing and we’re in it to work. You never know. Even the craft services guy who’s on set for 12 hours observing. What’s his goal? Will he direct some day? You don’t know if that guy has an uncle who’s about to die and will leave him a bunch of money. You want him to say “I want to work with that person.” Do your job. Do it well. Don’t be a dick. That’s the best advice to keep working.

Keep up with Marcus on IMDb or check out his Facebook.