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Hell House is a highly entertaining documentary by George Ratliff about the Trinity Assembly of God Church and their annual Halloween project to scare the spirit into young people by depicting the evils and the consequences of sin. Roxanne Bogucka spoke to Ratliff by phone, after the festival.

RB: Hi again George, and the first thing I want to know is how you learned about the Trinity Assembly of God Church in Cedar Hill, Texas and their Hell House project.

GR: Well I’m from Texas, but I actually read about it in New York. There was a New York Times article. And a lot of newspapers and TV stations were doing pieces about this church in 1999. Because their Hell House then featured the Columbine massacre, a recreation of that. And they did it very well. They had two kids, really into the part, with shotguns, raiding a classroom and shooting people up and then killing themselves. And so it was a big story and the media really grabbed it and it was all over the national airwaves and all the, USA Today, all the newspapers had big pieces about it. But they just went in there and grabbed the Columbine story. And I was interested in more about the theology and the belief system and the culture around it. And that’s the story that everyone missed, that I thought was much more fascinating.

RB: So how did you get an introduction to the church members who composed the Hell House committee?

GR: Well, basically when that story was going on they were inundated with media. And so when I called I was just one of many. And they just had a policy that everyone could come to the Hell House, because the Hell House was sort of a public event. And so they said, fine, that I could come. But I wanted to interview them and talk to them more because most of the people who showed up didn’t even go through the whole house. They went to the one Columbine massacre scene, shot their footage and left. We–Jawad Metni and I, the DP–went there for actually just a couple of days in 1999. And went through the Hell House several times with two video cameras, and then interviewed the main people quite in depth. Which they were kind of happy about that because no one had ever thought to interview them.

RB: So you got the incredible full access that you got during your Hell House production process, you sort of established your credibility there then.

GR: Well, I don’t think I’m being clear on this. What I’m talking about is in 1999.

RB: Uh-huh.

GR: Now the film was shot at the end of 2000. So basically when they were doing the Columbine massacre stuff in 1999, I went there just for a couple of days. And got to know them all. And spent some time with them. But only a few days.

RB: Yeah, but you built the relationship.

GR: Right, that’s where the relationship started. And basically that video footage I cut into a 15-minute short that I used, I partnered up with a producer, Zack Mortensen, and we took it out to get financing. And I took the same short to the church to pitch to them that we wanted to do a full-length documentary. And come back and do the full-length and be there for the whole process. And with the same tape we got financing and access.

RB: Okay, so you had your financing up front to do your feature. Was that Mixed Greens, or–

GR: Yes, that was Mixed Greens.

RB: Okay tell me a little bit about what Mixed Greens is.

GR: Mixed Greens is an amazing company. Because it’s basically supports artists and documentary filmmakers. And the kind of company everyone aspires to have but so few people do. They find artists they believe in and support their work. And they sell art. They’re sort of a through-house selling art. And they support artists and they take on a handful of documentaries a year, that they really believe in. And they’re set up to fully back a documentary, or come in with finishing funds, or be a partial backer. They also have an internship program where they have a filmmaker’s internship program where a filmmaker works there for two years, making in-house shorts about the artists. At the end of the internship, they’re financed to make a feature or documentary.

RB: Very cool.

GR: It’s such a cool company. And all the people there are really smart, creative great people. So it was really lucky that we found them and they liked us.

RB: That’s great. So once you got your financing from Mixed Greens then what size of crew did you take down to Texas and how long was your shoot?

GR: Well, the crew was basically me, and the producer, Zack Mortensen, who wore a lot of hats, and he can do anything on a set as well as fully produce the movie. And a DP, Jawad Metni, who also shot Plutonium Circus. And a sound man, who’s an Austinite, Ethan Andrews. So it was four of us. Which is kind of a standard documentary crew if you’re shooting film. Nowadays with DV (digital video), people sometimes do it alone.

RB: And how long was your shoot?

GR: We started shooting, end of August, and wrapped beginning of November. So about three months.

RB: So when you did this, you had established that relationship back in 1999 when you did fuller filming than some of the other people who showed up. When you pitched, sent the 15-minute short to the people at Trinity Church, and pitched making the feature, did they require any particular assurances from you about what the film was going to be, or what direction it was going to take?

GR: No they didn’t. They were very open. They were very trusting. Basically what I told them is that there would be no voice-over narration, and there’d be no subtitles telling people what to think. And that I would come and watch it with them when I was done. And that’s all they required.

RB: That’s awesome. I kind of get the sense that you do not wholly share the theology of the church members of Trinity Assembly of God Church, and yet your movie struck me as a real monument of balanced documentation. So I wondered what sort of mental preparation you and your crew had to undergo before you went down to shoot the feature?

GR: Well it was, uh, rigorous. It was very hard. First of all let me just say that the people at this church were very nice. And they’re very good people. Now I can say with assurance that no one on the crew shared any, very few of the same beliefs as anyone in the church. So it was, from the beginning, we were not out there to skewer them. We were out there to document this event that we thought was a really fascinating cultural phenomenon. And entertaining and interesting. And our take on documentaries is not that we are out to set opinions or tell people what they should think. We’re out to document something in an entertaining way that’s interesting. And I do believe in objectivity, and I do believe–let me take that back. I believe in the attempt at objectivity.

RB: Okay.

GR: I believe that everything is subjective, and all that you can do as a documentary maker is to hamstring your subjectivity and try to be as objective as possible. Now you watched the documentary and you probably heard where people were laughing, and you could tell there was some sense that I probably intended people to laugh at certain times, but it was very objective. I mean my subjectivity leaked out in different places, but all I could do is try the hardest I could to be as objective as possible.

RB: Well I got the sense that you had had guidelines, like you just said about no voiceover narration and no subtitles. I did have the sense that you started out with guidelines of the sorts of things you would and would not do to impose a point of view about the Hell House–

GR: Yeah.

RB: But I didn’t get any sense really that you presented your point of view so much as that you allowed sometimes people who were explaining their theology to make your point for you.

GR: Yeah, well...

RB: And maybe those were editing choices to let it go on and let them keep talking, or, I don’t know.

GR: Well sure, but them explaining themselves does several things. It proves or disproves their point based on what the viewer brings to it. I honestly believe that in 50 years people, if they watch this movie in 50 years, are going to view it very differently than we view it now. If they watched it 50 years ago, they’d view it a lot differently than they do now. I think that’s the power of doing a movie this way, because we in essence are capturing a reality that–documentaries are supposed to be capturing reality, but a lot of documentaries are not. They’re capturing the popular mood of the day. And that’s not that interesting later on. So I, yeah, by letting the people talk and maybe, in a way, getting my point across, that works for me and you maybe, but a lot of people watching it bring something else to the table and view it very differently. For example, I showed it to the church, and they liked it. I was kind of surprised that they really liked it.

RB: I was going to ask if they had seen the film and what their reaction was.

GR: Well that was part of the deal. I said that I’d bring it to them and show it to them, and I’d be in the audience with them so they could, you know, lynch me if they wanted to. But they liked it. They laughed a lot, actually. They laughed at themselves a lot.

RB: That is so fabulous.

GR: It was really really funny. I thought that they’d be okay with it, you know? But they really just found it very entertaining.

RB: Well, what a validation. From every point of the compass.

GR: And also, I’m sort of going on about this style of filmmaking because we see it less and less, but I think it’s a much... it’s a lot harder to do, for one thing. And it’s, I find it much more entertaining, and I think that it holds up a lot better. Because those documentaries that are topical, that are sort of catching a popular niche by the voiceover being sort of marketing it specifically to a demographic of people and everything else, that’s a weak way of doing it. That’s an easy way out, I think.

RB: Okay. Throughout Hell House you particularly follow a family, unfortunately I can’t remember their name. It’s the single father...

GR: John Cassar.

RB: Did you decide to follow this family from the get-go, or did you follow several families and then found that the Cassar family was the most compelling?

GR: Oddly enough, one of the few people we did extensive interviews with back in 1999 was this guy, John Cassar. And we did choose, we did set out to follow five or six characters in doing the documentary. Because that’s the trick of a documentary. The idea of a Hell House just doesn’t hold up for a feature documentary. There have to be characters that compel you, that you find empathy for or are interested in finding out what happens to them. So we were following a handful of characters, and yeah, Cassar just turned out to be the most interesting. But I met him in 1999. That was before he even actually joined the church. Back then he was really interested in our shooting a video, way back. When we, just Jawad and I were there, and would take us everywhere and sort of whisper to us like, what was going on and everything else. But in the time that between the two years, he and his wife split up and then he joined the church and then became really into it. And he was always really interested in being on camera, which is half the battle with a documentary subject.

RB: Okay. You’re not in Texas any more.

GR: No, I live in New York now.

RB: But your movies so far, unless I’ve missed one–there’s Plutonium Circus and Purgatory County and now Hell House –and your movies are in or about Texas.

GR: Well sure, I’m very much a Texan.

RB: So is it particularly an interest in documenting interesting things in your home state, or are you just documenting interesting things and coincidentally there are many to be found in Texas?

GR: I’m documenting what I think are the interesting stories. I just happen to be stuck on Texas because that’s where I’m from. I’m a fifth-generation Texan.

RB: So who was your editor for your film?

GR: Michael LaHaie. And he’s amazing. He’s, in my opinion, the best documentary editor drawing breath. I met him, we were both working on a show called "Split Screen" on the Independent Film Channel and he was the editor for the entire show. And he, well you saw.

RB: Yeah.

GR: The most creative part of a documentary is in the editing. And he, and a lot of the strength and objectivity was his. The editing room is where you can really clobber people if you wanted to. Very disciplined on documentary theory, on verité theory.

RB: That’s great. You say you were working for "Split Screen" on IFP–

GR: IFC

RB: IFC, sorry. I was going to ask you if filmmaking was paying the rent for you. At this point.

GR: [laughs]Barely. Often supplemented by other things. You know we are, Zack Mortensen is my producing partner and we manage to get, between projects and little TV projects, try to stay afloat.

RB: Okay. What would you like your career to look like? I mean it’s been about what, seven years since Plutonium Circus?

GR: Well I’d love to be doing, well okay. I’d love to be doing a documentary feature a year and trying to get some narrative feature work all throughout as well.

RB: Okay. What’s your next project?

GR: You know, I can’t really say because I don’t have subject approval yet.

RB: Ah, okay.

GR: And it would be bad if it were to show up in print somewhere.

RB: Well we won’t...

GR: But actually, as soon as I do I’ll let you know, because it’s really a good one, I think.

RB: Fabulous. What’s the biggest thing that you think you learned about documentary filmmaking from making Hell House?

GR: I’m trying to think of the best way to put it. [pauses]

RB: Well there may not have been one overarching thing.

GR: No, I would say that objectivity pays off. I’m very proud of the film and I always will be. And I think that if I had sort of vented frustration at these people in the documentary I would be ashamed. So I’m very proud of the way we handled it.

RB: Well, there’s subject matter and then there’s subject matter. I mean it’s been a few years since I saw it, but I think that there was a little more obvious venting in Plutonium Circus.

GR: There was, but for the most part, that was a very objective movie. It was a different style than this.

RB: And the subject matter could bear the weight, too, of your opinion being clear.

GR: Yeah, I mean but... well, yeah. This did not have any of that venting. And also it was more personal, Plutonium Circus, because it was my actual hometown.

RB: Okay. So what’s going to happen to Hell House? Is it going to have a theatrical release?

GR: It is.

RB: Picked up by Seventh Art?

GR: Seventh Art Releasing picked it up. It’s opening in Dallas and Austin in May, and they’re locking down dates for other cities now.

RB: That is wonderful.

GR: Thanks.

RB: Congratulations to you for another entertaining documentary and best of luck.

GR: Thanks a lot and it was great to see you. That was a great surprise.

 


Mike Doughty



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