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 Im 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 thats
the story that everyone missed, that I thought was much more
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 didnt even go through
the whole house. They went to the one Columbine massacre scene,
shot their footage and left. WeJawad Metni and I, the
DPwent 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 dont think Im being clear
on this. What Im talking about is in 1999.
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, thats 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
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
GR: Mixed Greens is an amazing company. Because its
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. Theyre 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 theyre
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 filmmakers internship program
where a filmmaker works there for two years, making in-house
shorts about the artists. At the end of the internship, theyre
financed to make a feature or documentary.
RB: Very cool.
GR: Its 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: Thats 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, whos an Austinite, Ethan Andrews. So it was four
of us. Which is kind of a standard documentary crew if youre
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 didnt. They were very open. They
were very trusting. Basically what I told them is that there
would be no voice-over narration, and thered be no subtitles
telling people what to think. And that I would come and watch
it with them when I was done. And thats all they required.
RB: Thats 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 theyre 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. Were
out to document something in an entertaining way thats
interesting. And I do believe in objectivity, and I do believelet
me take that back. I believe in the attempt at objectivity.
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
RB: But I didnt 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
GR: Yeah, well...
RB: And maybe those were editing choices to let it
go on and let them keep talking, or, I dont 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, theyd view it a lot differently than
they do now. I think thats the power of doing a movie
this way, because we in essence are capturing a reality thatdocumentaries
are supposed to be capturing reality, but a lot of documentaries
are not. Theyre capturing the popular mood of the day.
And thats 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
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 Id
bring it to them and show it to them, and Id 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 theyd
be okay with it, you know? But they really just found it very
RB: Well, what a validation. From every point of the
GR: And also, Im sort of going on about this
style of filmmaking because we see it less and less, but I
think its a much... its a lot harder to do, for
one thing. And its, 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, thats a
weak way of doing it. Thats an easy way out, I think.
RB: Okay. Throughout Hell House you particularly
follow a family, unfortunately I cant remember their
name. Its 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 thats the trick of
a documentary. The idea of a Hell House just doesnt
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. Youre not in Texas any more.
GR: No, I live in New York now.
RB: But your movies so far, unless Ive missed
onetheres Plutonium Circus and Purgatory
County and now Hell House and your movies
are in or about Texas.
GR: Well sure, Im 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: Im documenting what I think are the interesting
stories. I just happen to be stuck on Texas because thats
where Im from. Im a fifth-generation Texan.
RB: So who was your editor for your film?
GR: Michael LaHaie. And hes amazing. Hes,
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.
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: Thats great. You say you were working for
"Split Screen" on IFP
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 its been about what, seven years since
GR: Well Id love to be doing, well okay. Id
love to be doing a documentary feature a year and trying to
get some narrative feature work all throughout as well.
RB: Okay. Whats your next project?
GR: You know, I cant really say because I dont
have subject approval yet.
RB: Ah, okay.
GR: And it would be bad if it were to show up in print
RB: Well we wont...
GR: But actually, as soon as I do Ill let you
know, because its really a good one, I think.
RB: Fabulous. Whats the biggest thing that you
think you learned about documentary filmmaking from making
GR: Im trying to think of the best way to put
RB: Well there may not have been one overarching thing.
GR: No, I would say that objectivity pays off. Im
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 Im very proud of
the way we handled it.
RB: Well, theres subject matter and then theres
subject matter. I mean its 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 whats 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. Its
opening in Dallas and Austin in May, and theyre locking
down dates for other cities now.
RB: That is wonderful.
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.