An Interview With UCF Film's Award-Winning Zachary Beckler

An Interview With UCF Film’s Award-Winning Zachary Beckler

The group prepares to cast out an unwanted guest.

UCF Film graduate, Zachary Beckler, has garnered critical praise for Séance, the film he wrote and directed. The film was a Jury Winner at Enzian’s 20th Annual Brouhaha Film and Video Showcase. Enzian is Central Florida’s not-for-profit, full-time alternative cinema—home to the Florida Film Festival. The Florida Film Festival is a star-packed event that is attended by some of the biggest names in TV and movies, and that’s where Beckler’s psychological thriller is showing up next.

I had a chance to get some information about the film straight from the source. Zach had a lot to say about the film, the horror genre and what sets UCF’s film program apart.

Why did you choose UCF’s film school?

First and foremost, all students in UCF’s BFA in Production program get to make their own films—and we own them 100 percent. Other programs are more like a competition; in those programs, only selected students get to make films, so there are fewer films and the school owns the films. Another important aspect of the program was the micro-budget filmmaking principles the university is actively exploring. UCF is one of the only universities in the country doing so.

I never wanted to be a part of the Hollywood model. I still don’t. I want to make films the way I want to make them—UCF supports this ideal.

I see—creative freedom and cooperation form the core of the program. How does the UCF Film Department support its students?

UCF Film students get the chance to make their own film; however, I graduated with four short films in my pocket. The greatest lessons I have ever learned about filmmaking came from the successes and failures of these projects. The best thing an aspiring filmmaker can do to learn the craft is to make as many films as possible and get critiques from as many people as possible. UCF Film facilitates both of these.

When it came to my final thesis project, Séance, I was able to create a script, have readings, do casting sessions, rent equipment, edit the film, have several screenings, and sound design it with the full support, financial and otherwise, of the UCF Film Dept. I was able to keep the film as micro-budget as possible—the 15-minute film cost only $700.

When the faculty selected SĂ©ance to be a part of their yearly anthology, UCF Film Five Stories, they also paid for film festival submissions. And the film is still owned by me, 100 percent.

You mentioned micro-budgeting earlier. What is it and how is it different from other approaches?

In essence, Micro-budget films are made for very little money. In the past, the only ways to make films was to hire a large crew and spend millions of dollars. Even low budget films cost anywhere from $500,000 – $10 million. At UCF Film, we define it as feature films made for under $50,000.

Our Interim Department Chair Steve Schlow always cites a quote from Jean Cocteau: “Film will only become an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.” We are getting closer to that everyday.

You said the program isn’t a competition. So, what was it like to be a student in UCF’s Film program?

When I entered the BFA Program in August of 2008, I immediately bonded with the entirety of my class. We were a close-knit group of about 30 students. We always had lunch together, always watched movies together, and always got into fights about directors. This sense of community allowed all of us to work on each other’s films in some form or another. My first year, I ended up editing eight of my classmates’ films, and was on set for probably as many others. And the favor was always returned. I never had to struggle to find good crew, because we were almost a family.

As our projects got bigger towards the end, the families got smaller and busier, but we always stay in touch. My classmates challenged me to be a better filmmaker as much as my professors. But that is just production; there was also cinema studies courses in addition to our film productions.

Sounds like you got a  lot of hands-on experience. How did the program’s course work shape your knowledge about film?

I thought I knew a lot about movies going into film school—and it turned out I just knew a lot about trivia. Professors like Christopher Harris and Samuel Rohdie really force you to look at the art of cinema in ways that challenge your views. They force you to put aside value judgments and discuss what is happening in the film, not what you are bringing to it or expecting to receive from it. The most eye-opening class I ever took in cinema studies was taught by Professor Harris and was about vampires in film. It completely changed my perception of the horror genre and has henceforth affected my current projects for the better.

Sure, we had a class on cinematography and a class on sound design, but until you’re called on to shoot your own project or edit your own sound, class can only teach so much.

So, tell me about the film. What were your inspirations for the story—films or personal experiences?

SĂ©ance is a horror film about two sisters, one married, who live together in a new house in which “strange-things-have-been-happening.” The film takes place during one night when the sisters have a sĂ©ance party to cast their spirits out. This awakens something.

I’m inspired by the horror genre—I’ve always considered it the most visceral and direct way to create emotions in the viewer when done right. The thing I dislike about a lot of modern horror films is a reliance on an oppressive sound design during moments of horror. It is almost like they feel the need to guide the audience’s emotions so they know when to be afraid and when to relax.

I find it more terrifying to be left to my own accord. I like horror films that are the equivalent of being alone outside in the woods.

The first third of the film plays documentary style and is solely character building, setting up the main character, Chris, as almost a black sheep sister who is as much an unwanted tenant as the ghost itself. When the sĂ©ance starts, the soundtrack converts to stereo, and the editing is more Hitchcock influenced, as one piece of footage links to the next like a puzzle piece. The silence is terrifying, and every sound is suspect, even though you’re never sure that anything will happen at all.

How’d you shoot the film? What was your location and technological set-up?

We shot the film over four days in a duplex in Winter Park. For equipment, we shot on the Canon EOS 7D HDSLR camera and edited in Final Cut Pro 7. Sound design was completed with Adobe Audition and color correction with Apple Color, all of which were supplied by the UCF Film Dept.

So, what comes next for SĂ©ance after the Florida Film Festival?

After the Florida Film Festival, I plan to keep submitting to festivals and using the film as a fund-raising tool for my upcoming feature, Interior. I am currently enrolled in the UCF Film Dept’s Entrepreneurial Digital Cinema MFA program, which requires students to make a feature length film from scratch. SĂ©ance is the first 15 minutes of that feature.

Want to see the film?

Of course you do. I highly recommend it. And you can have a copy of your very own by just stopping by and asking about “UCF Film Five Stories 2011” in the film office in the Nicholson School of Communication building, room 121.