I last interviewed Damien LeVeck in 2017. We touched upon his career editing for TMZ on TV, E! News, Heroes of Cosplay, and Top Gear USA, we mainly focused on his short film The Cleansing Hour – which was a fusion of The Exorcist and modern vlogging culture. Since then, LeVeck has been able to expand this short film into a feature-length experience for Shudder. Wanting to learn about the process of turning a short film into a feature film, I was able to interview LeVeck again for ScifiPulse.
The Cleansing Hour premieres Oct. 8 exclusively on Shudder
Nicholas Yanes: I last interviewed you in 2017. How has life been for you? Have you developed any superpowers since then?
Damien LeVeck: Since 2017, I’ve had two more children, so now I have three. And there is nothing like three kids to help one develop the superpowers of efficiency and time management. Kids reveal to you how short your days are and force you to get as much done in as little time as possible. This coincidentally coincides with the skills every filmmaker needs when shooting a film—more time! I have never been a more focused writer and filmmaker than I am now. All of that said, life has been wonderful and very blessed, even amidst the perils of 2020.
Yanes: While going over my notes about you I realized that you have been a professional editor for over a decade. How has this role changed over the years for you? Additionally, how do you think it has helped you become a better storyteller?
LeVeck: The role of an editor for me has changed over the years in that the kind of work I’m doing has changed—I initially got into editing with a desire to edit narrative feature films but I ended up getting a lot of jobs in unscripted TV, which is a fancy term for reality TV. I found a niche in editing production sizzles for production companies and networks which has allowed me to be the first to craft the story, including establishing the characters and the feel and tone of the show before any episodes have been shot. It’s been a great creative outlet that has honed my skills as an editor and made me a much better storyteller, a better writer, a better director and a much better filmmaker overall. Editing has shown me how important the economy of storytelling is and to not waste a single moment or a single word whenever you’re creating something. Whenever you’re editing, you’re cutting out the dead space—you’re cutting out what is boring and you’re cutting out any superfluous information that doesn’t propel the story forward. Well, that same philosophy applies to writing, directing and filmmaking as a whole.
Whenever I’m on set directing, I’m simultaneously editing the movie in my head so this very much dictates what setups I’m going to do and what coverage I need to get. I only shoot what I know I’m going to use. I know a lot of directors who don’t have that ability because they don’t edit, so I feel very fortunate to have that skillset and bring that to set with me. This also makes me very efficient because I’m only shooting what I’m going to use and I’m confident that whatever I shoot is going to come together in post. This came in handy with The Cleansing Hour because we had an extremely compressed shoot schedule and limited funds.
Yanes: Your latest project is a feature-length version of your short film, The Cleansing Hour. From a business standpoint, when did you know you would be able to turn your short film into a feature-length one? Could you take a moment to describe what this process was?
LeVeck: The short film was made as a proof of concept for the feature and was always intended to be made into a feature film. I knew I’d be able to put it into production once I had raised enough money to get through production. The money was really the only thing that was keeping it from happening. The process for finding the money was grueling and very protracted. It was a lot of calls to production companies, sales companies and investors and hearing “no” over and over and over again. It is a full-time job looking for financing for an independent film. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time, but I think that’s how it goes for everyone who tries to do this. Luckily for me, “no” has never stopped me from doing something I want to do, as my grade school teachers and nuns will tell you.
Yanes: From a creative standpoint, what was the creative process for expanding this into 94 minutes?
LeVeck: I always wanted to make the short into a feature, and that required an examination of what would keep The Cleansing Hour audience watching and what would turn the story into more of a mystery. I went through the process of digging into who Max, Drew, and Lane are as people and what their past relationships were before they got to set and before we got to know them. Once I figured that part out, I let that all come out in the middle of the movie and wove that into the A storyline of “they’re trapped on set by this demon and they are trying to get out alive.”
Yanes: When making The Cleansing Hour full-length was there a theme, subplot, or character that came to life in an unexpected way?
LeVeck: The most unexpected theme or subplot was that of Max. I don’t like the term “unlikeable” when talking about characters in movies, but he is the least likeable of the three main characters in that he is a jerk, he is arrogant, he is cocky and he is superficial—he is everything you don’t like about certain people. But those qualities were all an emotional shield that he created to cover up trauma in his past that was caused by something that happened when he was a young boy in Catholic grade school. I always thought that was a very interesting story to develop for this character because it feels very real and something people can relate to. At the same time, it’s also very personal for me because I wove a lot of my own experience going to Catholic grade school into Max’s character. Even though there was no gore in Catholic grade school, there was definitely emotional trauma that I brought out from my own childhood. That was the thing that I don’t think was originally intended but came out in the writing of the film.
Yanes: To me, a key part of The Cleansing Hour is that Max and Drew (the two main characters) are so desperate for success that they are willing to fake exorcisms to reach their goals; only for things to go terribly wrong. For you, were there Youtubers or types of social media influencers that shaped how you developed Drew and Max?
LeVeck: The interesting thing about writing The Cleansing Hour was the timing of it all. We didn’t start to hear about people doing outrageous things like committing suicide, eating tide pods, or committing mass shootings on social media until after the feature film was written. There were of course plenty of videos that had gone viral of outrageous things happening but in terms of influencers doing crazy things, that really had not started until after we wrote the script. The Cleansing Hour was very prescient in that respect and it’s sad that I was able to predict the future of people doing horrific things on social media as a way of getting attention. It also speaks to the culture we live in today that is obsessed with social media, emotionally vacant and intellectually vacuous that we could even be in a place where people could consider streaming such horrible things.
Yanes: The Cleansing Hour is a Shudder original, which has become home to a lot of great horror content. What do you think it is about Shudder that allows that company to understand horror better than most entertainment companies?
LeVeck: What makes Shudder unique is the way that it curates its entire library to the niche audience of the horror or genre crowd. Shudder has built up a very respectable following because it is tailoring its selection to just one audience whereas Netflix or Amazon is trying to tailor to everyone with a fire hose approach. Whenever you can focus your content for a specific audience, then I think by default you are going to attract those people and make them happier than if they were to subscribe to another generic streaming service and seek out the genre they enjoy the most.
Yanes: With the movie now done, is there a single shot or scene that you are particularly proud of? For instance, was there an extremely difficult scene that you were able to pull off?
LeVeck: Once the Cleansing Hour show starts, when they start rolling on the show with Lane in the chair, the movie is essentially one whole scene. There was no single part of it that wasn’t extremely difficult to do for different reasons because there were lots of visual effects, pyrotechnics, stunts, cable work and makeup effects every day that made the entire production logistically very complex to pull off. Every gag took a significant amount of time to set up and execute and we were shooting in a single room with studio cameras pointed in different directions of The Cleansing Hour set while also shooting coverage with the regular camera going back and forth between Drew sitting at his control station and Drew and Lane on set. Coverage was always very tricky.
That being said, I am very proud of the big visual effects sequence with the little imps that come out of the bathroom chasing after Chris. I thought that turned out really well because it’s being filmed from two perspectives—from Chris’ perspective who can see them and everyone else’s perspective who can’t. That’s also one sequence of the movie where we go around the entire room and see the entire space that these characters are in—from the bathroom where Chris is being attacked, into the main room and then he circles the main room onto the Cleansing Hour set and that’s where he ultimately meets his demise. It’s a very tense scene and it’s a lot of fun with some great visual effects in it.
Yanes: When people finish watching The Cleansing Hour, what do you hope they take away from it?
LeVeck: First and foremost, I hope people are entertained by it—that has always been my goal as a filmmaker. I want to entertain people. I want people to be able to sit down, laugh and have fun. If there’s a subtext to takeaway from it, I hope it puts a stone in viewers’ shoes and makes them think about what role they are playing whenever they are interacting with social media. I also hope it provides an opportunity for self-examination in terms of the broader message of this movie, which is that social media can be destructive to our culture, individuals and to the family if you allow it to be.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
LeVeck: I am currently working on a contained creature body horror film that will be done entirely with practical creature effects. The film features a truly unique monster like nothing that has been seen in movies before with a twist on par with Sixth Sense. I also have a classic haunted house movie that is set in Ireland that I’m trying to get off the ground. Exciting and scary times ahead (and I’m not just saying that because we’re in a pandemic during an election year)!