Have I told you how much I love short films? Especially horror-comedy short films? I’m pretty sure I have but I’m going to tell you again just to be sure. From serious frights like Alfred J Hemlock and Balloon to more light hearted, comedic pieces such as Brutal Relax and Bad Cookie, I adore the short film format. In the age of Twitter and Snapchat it’s even arguable that attention spans might not be what they used to be and these shorter formats stand a better chance at success than some feature length films experimenting with new ideas in the genre. That’s what 20 Seconds to Live does. It experiments with well worn tropes and entirely new notions in a matter of a couple of minutes. Each episode is a uniquely crafted horror-comedy experience that features a countdown timer that appears twenty seconds before a character’s demise. Everything from misspoken incantations and bloody revenge to killer dolls and a climax gone awry, the series has provided gallons of gore and plenty of laughs.
Director/co-creator Ben Rock (Shadow of the Blair Witch) and writer/co-creator Bob DeRosa (White Collar, The Air I Breathe) took some time to talk to me about their experience in filmmaking and their plans for season 2.
DAN - To start with, tell me a bit about your careers in film.
BEN - I started out as a special effects makeup artist, wanting to make monsters. I was still in college when I began working on low-budget movies in Alabama (and one in Thailand) doing makeup, but I quickly realized it wasn’t for me and right after graduating college I quit and focused on directing. In the course of that pursuit, my friends from film school asked me to hop on their ultra-ultra-micro-budget horror movie. Their pitch was amazing, and I said yes to working behind the scenes both in a research and backstory-writing capacity and then as part of a five-person team making the whole film. It turned out to be The Blair Witch Project, and it opened a lot of doors for me as a director - especially on marketing-driven projects. I’ve also directed one feature - Alien Raiders, a ton of shorts and a lot of theater (another passion of mine).
BOB - I’ve been working professionally as a screenwriter for around 15 years. I’ve written over 30 scripts and out of those, I’ve had two movies produced: the action/comedy Killers starring Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl and director Jieho Lee’s ensemble crime-drama The Air I Breathe. I also wrote on the fourth season of the hit USA show White Collar.
DAN - What can you tell me about the history of 20 Seconds to Live? Where did the idea come from and who thought up the concept of a countdown timer leading up to the kills?
BEN - Over the years, Bob and I have done a ton of late-night theater. Short-form, gross-out stuff, generally comedy and we’ve both often spoken of our love for anthology TV shows. The year before, we’d both separately worked on our friend Courtney Rackley’s web series Firsts, and it got us talking about creating our own thing and then one day it hit me - and anthology web series. Our mutual love of horror was an obvious fit for a Twilight Zone/Talesfrom the Crypt/The Hitchhiker-esque concept, and an anthology would allow us to experiment with all kinds of subgenres within horror (or whatever we wanted to do) and we could ask amazing actors we knew to donate a single day to us so it wasn’t a giant commitment for anyone we were asking. I liked that the idea lent itself to being extremely short-form because longer stuff just doesn’t seem to play well online. Also, the shorter each episode was, the more resources we could pour into each one.
As for the countdown, I’d pitched Bob and Cat (our producer) on the idea before the shoot, but we didn’t know if it would work. After we shot Climax - the first one we actually shot - I tried it out in the edit and it worked.
DAN - What were some of the challenges that 20 Seconds to Live presented to you during the writing and production phases of the first season?
BOB - It took a bit of trial and error to figure out what makes a good episode of 20STL. There’s the set-up, the transition to the timer starting, the death itself, and then a comedic tag. The first two scripts that we felt strong about were Anniversary and Climax. Those are the ones we showed to producer Cat Pasciak when we asked her to work with us on the show. We shot those two episodes almost like pilots, just to see if the concept would work. We showed them to a very successful web-series producer and she said she enjoyed the “game” of our show. We had no idea what she meant, but quickly understood: once that 20-second timer starts, the audience is trying to figure out who’s going to die and how. We realized that a good episode keeps the audience guessing and subverts their expectations, while also giving them just enough “wrong” to make them laugh (the tag of Anniversary is our finest example of this).
DAN - There’s a lot of story that has to be make its way into a short run time with projects like these. Do you find it more or less challenging to make a short picture than a feature film? How does the production of a short film vary and how does it parallel the production of a feature length movie from your perspective?
BEN - The most challenging thing about making a feature is just getting to make it at all - the money and casting and distribution is a giant machine with many levels of approval. Making a short-form thing has giant downsides to be sure - there’s no money in it, we’re just doing it for fun and hopefully to build something people will like - but the upside is that Bob, Cat, and I get to make every big decision. We can be more nimble and at the end of the day, there’s no need to compromise except to one another.
As far as how it parallels a feature production, we are striving - within our very limited means - to make a web series that looks for all the world like a legit movie or TV show, so having a great DP (George Feucht) behind the camera is paramount. We tend to cast actors with long resumes, which sometimes means rescheduling to accommodate their TV or film acting work, which we don’t mind doing. And on the day we take it as seriously as any of us would take a feature.
DAN - Astaroth was one of my favorites from the first season. Are there any of the episodes that stand out to you or that have some special significance for you?
BEN- Honestly, I love each episode on its own terms for its own reasons. Because each is a different genre in a way, it’s fun to figure out how to subvert each one. Anniversary is the one that really sets the tone for me though because it just keeps upping its own ante on how “wrong” it will go. I love Astaroth as well because I’ve always been fascinated by demon-worshipping suburbanites and have asked myself frequently what any of them would do if they succeeded. I also love casting against type and making Derek Mears the sad-sack in that piece was fun for all of us, and let Derek flex his amazing comedy muscles that film audiences don’t know as well as fans of his improv comedy (like myself) do.
BOB - Yeah, I love em all, but I really love Anniversary because it subverts a traditional horror trope (a lurker watches an unsuspecting couple), keeps the audience guessing, and has a tag that’s a wrong as they get. I also love Evil Doll because it was every bit as funny in execution as it was on the page.
DAN - How did 20 Seconds to Live end up being hosted on the Ariescope website?
BEN - I’ve known Adam Green since about 2009 when my wife’s short film Rite preceded the Adam Green produced Grace at Sundance. He was always the nicest guy and I’d run into him at this or that horror even over the years. When Joe Lynch asked me to be on The Movie Crypt, the podcast that he and Adam co-host, we’d already made like three or four episodes of 20 Seconds to Live and we didn’t know what we were going to do with them yet. We were talking YouTube and Vimeo and our own website, on and on. Then one day Bob was listening to Adam’s podcast and someone asked him if he’d ever thought about bringing in other filmmakers to make a web series for Ariescope and he said he’d considered it but never found the right match. So I called him, showed him the show, and we all thought it would work well with his audience.
DAN - And speaking of Ariescope, you’ve had some pretty big names in cult horror appear in season one including Adam Green (one of my personal favorites), Derek Mears, and Tom Holland just to mention a few. Will we be seeing more horror icons in the second season?
BEN - We are currently developing season 2. We tend to develop the scripts before we cast them, but rest assured that we will do our best to continue that tradition based on what we’re looking for, cast-wise.
DAN - Let’s talk about the short film circuit. 20 Seconds to Live was an official selection of The Nashville Film Festival -my hometown-, as well as several other festivals. What can you tell us about taking the show on the road?
BOB- We loved being on the festival circuit last year, and we played 17 festivals all around the world. We saw so much incredible work and made friends with so many fantastic show creators. There are too many highlights to count. Ben and I used to work for the Florida Film Festival in Orlando and were thrilled to play three episodes of our show in the Midnight Shorts program, a program I helped created when I worked there as a programmer. We were an early selection at the LA Film Festival, which was a huge honor. We were one of only 5 shows nominated for Best International Web Series at Raindance in London and won a special festival award from the head programmer of their web fest. Funny that you mentioned Nashville, we won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Web Series there and they surprised us with a cash prize that we used to finance a big chunk of our festival fees.
DAN - Leave it to Nashville to go that extra mile. Tell me about the crowdfunding campaign for season 2. You just completed the IndieGoGo push but are there still other ways fans can contribute or help?
BEN - Honestly, nothing helps more than watching the show itself. It’s free, we made it for people who like this kind of stuff (like ourselves), and we only ask people give it a chance. If people like it, following us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook is a huge help as well. We don’t spam people, but these are the places where we tend to announce what we’re up to.
If people REALLY want to help us though, since we reached our goal, Indiegogo let us continue our campaign in their InDemand section. They can find us at https://igg.me/at/20stl, and we’re still offering campaign perks for contributions for the time being.
DAN - What are your hopes for the future of 20 Seconds to Live?
BOB - One of the biggest challenges in making a web series is figuring out how to make the show pay for itself. So we’re definitely on the hunt for some sort of financial backing for our third season, whether it’s from a major production company or an online platform. We’d love to have more money to spend on crazy locations, stunts, and effects. We just want to keep having fun with this concept and if we can find a way to make the episodes bigger and better, then we’d love to do so.
DAN - Are there any plans to eventually make 20 Seconds to Live into an anthology film like the V/H/S series or Tales of Halloween?
BOB - No plans yet, but we love how you think.
DAN - Are there any other projects that you’re collaborating on that you want to (or can) discuss here?
BOB - Ben, Cat, and I are good friends and make cools stuff together and we’d love for that to continue. Between the three of us, we have quite a bit of experience in film and TV and we’re developing ideas for both online platforms and a more traditional television model. We can’t disclose the ideas yet, but we can say we have an idea for a spin-off show based on one of our first season episodes. Which one? Not saying!
DAN - In an age of Twitter, Snapchat, and ever shrinking attention spans, do you think that that short films are connecting better or becoming more popular with audiences?
BEN - I always imagine most people in our audience are parked behind a computer all day long at work or wherever, and they steal moments here and there to hop on Facebook or YouTube. So as creative types, our goal is to hook those people as fast as possible and not waste their time. And there are a lot of great web series out there doing the same thing if people care to look.
I do think short-form entertainment is very popular right now and only getting more popular and better-produced, but it’s also harder to find those audiences in an almost infinite marketplace of online video. So as the medium gets more popular, we all have to use more ingenuity to distract people long enough to take a chance on our stuff.
DAN - As writers, directors, and producers, what sort of advice can you offer to aspiring filmmakers?
BEN - Make stuff, make it now, make it often, and don’t get discouraged when it’s not universally beloved immediately. Almost nobody makes great stuff right out of the gate, but we’re living in a time now where pretty much anyone can get a hold of professional-level tools and learn the grammar of telling stories. Whoever you are, whatever your background, you can do it and it starts with doing it, falling on your face, doing it again and again until when you fall on your face everyone calls it your “style.”
BOB - If you’re just starting out, you’re going to make bad stuff at first. That’s okay. Write a script, show it to people, get feedback, rewrite. Then start the next one. Your first five scripts might suck, but your sixth could be gold. Just keep at it. Put together a team of like-minded artists and make something, whether it’s a web series or a short or theater. You need a balance between working on your craft and making stuff that you can put in front of an audience. Keep at it, don’t be afraid to fail, don’t give up, and you’ll have a shot at making a living at this.
Season One of 20 Seconds to Live is still available online through Ariescope and Youtube and you can even catch a sneak peek at the new season with the episode Medium. Be sure to follow them on Instagram and Twitter @20STL and on Facebook as 20secondstolive.
Dan Lee is a horror fiend and freelance writer with a special place in his heart for monster movies and demonic possession stories.