Thriller in the Heartland: Indie Filmmaker Zack Parker
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Zack Parker
Zack Parker
There are a lot of people who call themselves independent filmmakers. But when family life gets complicated, their movie-making aspirations get pushed aside for more traditional jobs. For writer/director Zack Parker, having a family only made him more motivated to succeed in a difficult industry where he had no direct connections at the start. And he's done just that: with four award-winning features to his name (Inexchange, Quench, Scalene, Proxy) and a fifth in pre-production, Zack has sold every movie he's made. His most recent thriller, Proxy, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), was picked up by IFC Midnight and is currently available for viewing on Netflix or DVD/blu-ray.

After attending Ball State University and UCLA and bouncing between Indiana and LA (where he worked with Roger Corman on SyFy's Black Scorpion), Zack and his wife settled in his hometown of Richmond, Indiana, where he's also shot each of his films. Along the way to making it as an indie director, he's also become a father to three children. While balancing family and working from home is difficult, Zack has made it work for the last decade while he's written, produced, directed, and edited his own dark thrillers to critical acclaim, and those looking to make their own way can learn a lot from Zack's unique path that led him back to the midwest.

"The filmmakers that inspire me the most are the ones take risks with their films. That aren't afraid to tackle difficult subject-matter, but execute it in a very intelligent and sometimes beautiful way….Stanley Kubrick would be my number one influence. Not only because I feel like he's come the closest to having the best filmography. I also really admire the way he was able to set up his life. That he was able to live off the grid and make the movies he wanted to make the way he wanted to make them. That's ultimately what I'm striving for."

How did you come to shoot your first feature?

I think what I had on my side was that I was very narrow-minded and stubborn about how the only thing I want to do is make movies, so I got started very early doing it in high school and then in college. Instead of going to classes, I would be making movies and watching movies and trying to read books on movies. I had done about 15 shorts and decided I was going to do a feature.

My first was Inexchange. I began writing that one when I was 17 years old. I ended up being able to scrape together about $12,000 to make that in the summer of 2001, when I was about 23. I moved back to LA to edit that film as soon as we finished it. It was made at a time when digital cameras were definitely in their infancy. We used the Canon XL-1, the hot camera at the time. Home editing systems were definitely in their infancy. It was incredibly difficult to make a DVD screener. I had to use 12 different softwares for encoding and authoring and burning and a lot of trial and error.

Alexia Rasmussen
Alexia Rasmussen in Proxy

So it took me nearly two years to finish it after that because I couldn't afford the kind of NLE that would support a feature and I was trying to use software that was designed for short videos. Ultimately I got it finished and started sending it out and it got picked up by a small horror distributor called Brain Damage Films. This was during the VHS to DVD transitionary period so it took quite a while to come out, but it finally came out on DVD in early 2006, and then they put out a director's cut in 2007. It's been put into many different box sets, to this day still.

Since Inexchange took so long to get released, a lot of things in your life changed while you were selling it. How did that affect your career choices?

There was a lot of turmoil about what's going to happen with this movie, will anyone ever pick it up, will I ever be able to sell it? Is this really a career I want to pursue? Because it seems nearly impossible. Around that same time I got married, when I was still editing it. When my wife got pregnant I was working at Suncoast in Chicago, still trying to sell this movie and write a new one. I never felt like I lacked motivation, but when my wife was pregnant with our first, it definitely made me even more motivated.

Joe Swanberg
Joe Swanberg

Growing up, you hear your parents tell you that you can do whatever you want in life. I wanted to be able to say that honestly. I wanted to say I truly pursued what it was I wanted to do. I really wanted to achieve at least a portion of that dream to show my child later that it was possible, that you can come from having no connections to the career you want, having no direct connection to it growing up, but still be able to attain it. That became a new sort of incentive: I'm going to do this to show it can be done, so later they can pursue their own dreams too.

I'd almost completely given up on it. I was thinking about going back to school to pursue something different. And then I went to a Blockbuster one night and went through the entire new release wall and just said I'm going to try to find every new release that is a low budget horror movie and I'm going to write down the distributor. So I went and made a list of 25 or 30 distributors, and the next day I got on the computer and started trying to find them online. I sent inquiry letters and a handful of them wrote me back. I sent out screeners and one of the ones I heard back from was Brain Damage. They got back to me and said they wanted to see my film, we had a conversation about it, and then all of the sudden there was a prospect it was going to be released and it was a second wind.


What kind of challenges do you have now?

It's different with each one. There are different pressures with each film. If you're lucky, you're dealing with more money but also higher expectations. As my kids get older, I have more financial responsibilities to them as well. The thing that was interesting going from Scalene to Proxy, Scalene had a decent amount of exposure, and for the first time there was kind of an expectation. There were some real critics that liked the film and were curious to see what I was going to do next. I hadn't experienced anything like that before. So that was certainly interesting. 

All your features so far have been shot in Indiana, a state that has no tax incentive for film. Why has shooting there been important to you?

I think there are pros and cons to shooting anywhere. To me, it's just been how I could make it work. The thing that I see really lacking in a lot of independent films today is the lack of production value and scope. The thing I have on my side about shooting in Richmond specifically, especially now that I have a bit of a track record of making movies, is that I can get a lot of locations for free. And those locations make my film look more expensive than it really is. On Proxy we had over two dozen locations including residences, restaurants, hospitals, and parks. I paid a total of $500 in location fees, and that essentially went to one place.

But the whole collection of locations makes the film look bigger than it really is, I think. I wouldn't be able to get that somewhere else. I get that because I'm the guy in town that makes movies. So when I walk in there now, there's a decent chance they've heard of my movies before because they're in all the local video stores. It makes it a little easier for me to get people to let me use their place of business for free.

That being said, moving into the next one now, dealing with having a bit more budgetary responsibility and dealing with larger sums of money, it's very hard to justify shooting in Indiana because of the lack of tax incentives. Especially when it comes to convincing money people who don't live in Indiana and don't have any connection to it whatsoever. They say why would you want to shoot there, you've got four other states around you that look exactly like it. 

Alexa Havins.
Alexa Havins.

I hope if Indiana comes up with a tax incentive, it's realistic for people that are already making films here. I understand they're trying to get bigger productions into the state, but in order to do that, you need to build a foundation of support, not only crew-wise and equipment-wise, and show we know what we're doing. I hope with what they're trying to establish can do that. I'm still trying to keep my films midwest-based, which is why the one I'm working on now we plan to shoot in Chicago. Not to mention after four features, I feel like I've used every square inch of Richmond. 

Since you often work from home, doing the business side of film stuff or post-production, how do you manage your home life with three kids?

It's around their schedule, which changes drastically from film to film. Sometimes there's a whole new living being in my house between films. We don't plan on having anymore at this point, but Proxy was the first film that I shot that didn't coincide with the birth or close to the birth of another child. Normally I have to get up pretty early in the morning and just be home with them all day and do the stay at home dad thing. And then my wife usually comes home from work around 4:30, and we do the family dinner and the baths and whatever else, and then they usually all go to sleep around 8. Around that time is when I'm making my way into my office and I'm there for anywhere from 4 and 6 hours. And then you get up at 7 or 8 AM and do it all over again.

Those moments, especially during the fundraising and business part of work, I'm lucky that there's a three hour time difference with LA. But that's really more with the earlier movies. Now my youngest is in preschool and next year he'll start kindergarten, so for the first time in ten years, I'll have my days to myself again. That'll be a whole new world. Now that I'm in my mid to late 30s, I'm looking forward to transitioning to not having to do all my work at night and actually being able to get up, get my kids to school, and come back here work during the day like a sane person.

It's been a decade in the honing. It's very difficult sometimes to strike that balance, especially during infancy and early toddler time. But now my kids are old enough that I can say I need to be on the phone for ten minutes, and they're okay with being in the other room by themselves. It's hard to reason with a toddler or infant when you say hey I need a few minutes. 

Your son, Xavier, made his big screen debut in Proxy – in pretty dark circumstances within the narrative. What was that like for you?

Xavier Parker.
Xavier Parker

It started more out of necessity. I knew I was going to need a three or four year old child for the role, and I knew the content surrounding their character was going to be pretty dark. So I thought it was going to be tough to find someone to let me do that to their child. When writing it, I was very careful to not give him any lines and make sure he was never going to have to be physically present for any of the darker or more violent parts of it. Everything he's actually in is pretty tame. For the more violent parts, our special effects guy actually created a silicone double of him that we used so he wouldn't have to be present for that. He was about three at the time and he has no memory of it whatsoever. Though it's funny that he gets recognized from the film around town sometimes.

A scene from Proxy

That's a good one for the baby book.

We always thought of it as a very strange sort of home video. My wife was all for him being in it too. She was excited.

Do your kids visit you on set very often?

They come to visit me every time. We pick a day when there's nothing too adult going on, and they'll come sit and watch. My daughter, who is the oldest, she understands it the most. One of the coolest things that happened was when we were doing Scalene, one of the leads in that film was Margo Martindale and the Hannah Montana movie had just come out on DVD, and Margo plays Hannah Montana's grandmother in that film. My daughter was a big Hannah Montana fan so Margo asked me one day, 'so does your daughter like Hannah Montana'? I said oh yeah she loves it. She asked if she had seen the film yet and I said no. So on her day off, Margo went and bought a copy of the movie and then sat here and watched it with my daughter.

It kind of blew [my daughter's] mind. And the movie geek in me said you have no idea how lucky you are to be watching a movie with one of the actors right next to you! This was like my fantasy growing up to have something like this! One day after that [my daughter] who was about 5 at the time was watching the Scalene edit and asked me 'why are people calling Margo Janice in the movie?' I was like 'well, that's her character's name. It's like her character's name was Grandma Ruby in the other movie.' And so we had a long talk about the difference between actors and characters and then she really seemed to get it. It's funny to hear her when we watch shows, she'll say 'that's that person who's in that show!' I can see her putting it all together, which is really cool. 

So between writing and directing, editing and finding distribution for your films, you're really doing it all. How do you manage doing all the work yourself?

I feel like that's the toughest realization an indie filmmaker has to face. The world doesn't owe you a movie. Just because you want to make one doesn't mean the world should let you make one. A lot of people go around essentially asking for permission to make their film and I feel like you really have to take charge of that yourself. The best advice I've been able to come up with when people ask me how to raise money for a movie is first of all, you're asking the wrong question, because how I raise money for a film has nothing to do with how you would raise money for a film. We all have different backgrounds, different contacts, different expertise, different resources. What you have to think about is how would you raise money for a film.

Kristina Klebe and Erica Stikeleather
Kristina Klebe and Erica Stikeleather

You have to take an inventory of your resources. What kind of locations can you get? How much liquid money do you actually have access to? You need to make this inventory and then construct a story that utilizes as many of these resources as possible, while still saying what it is you want to say as a filmmaker. I see people writing scripts and say hey, I need a half million dollars or a million dollars. You're crazy. That's a horrible investment. For someone to give you that much money and you've never really made a movie before? And so instead of focusing on this movie you want to make you can focus on the movie you can make.

I was able to come to that realization early on, and I think a lot of that was working with Corman too. He said if you want to go make a movie, go make it. Who's stopping you? Of course you want to shoot it on 35mm film and you want a half a million dollars to make it, but who is going to give you that? You're a bad investment. So go get what you can to make it and make your first movie. You're going to learn so much on it. You have no idea what you don't know. And so go learn on that first one, don't waste a lot of money for you to go learn on one, and then apply that knowledge to the next one. That's what I've always tried to do, apply all of the vast knowledge you accumulate every time you make a film onto the next one.