Interview: Bret Wood, Filmmaker

Atlanta’s Bret Wood has two professional identities, both prominent, film-oriented and very cool. One finds Wood serving as a Senior Vice President and Producer of Archival Restorations for Kino Lorber, the venerable New York-based film and video distribution company that specializes in arthouse titles, foreign films, documentaries and historically vital cinematic works (i.e. silent films). In Wood’s capacity at Kino Lorber, he’s produced dozens of video documentaries that have appeared on the company’s archival digital releases for some twenty years. This also includes him overseeing the restoration and release of hundreds of vintage films, including such highly-regarded projects as Kino Lorber’s Pioneers of African American Cinema collection (2015), which won the Film Heritage Award from the National Society of Film Critics, and Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers (2018), which won a Special Award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Wood’s other identity, one that he shifts to after the sun goes down, is that of an enthusiastic filmmaker with a body of work that goes back nearly two decades and includes a handful of shorts and some half-dozen features, both documentaries and narratives. Among them are the 2003 historical doc Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films, the erotically charged 2006 drama Psychopathia Sexualis and, most recently, the thriller Those Who Deserve to Die, about a troubled Iraqi war veteran who returns home to his idyllic Southern town and a life of killing in the name of vengeance.

Oh, and somewhere in there Wood also write a bunch of books on films and filmmakers, including bios on Orson Welles and Tod Browning.

DISC DISH caught up with Bret Wood last week—we’re blown away that he had the time!—to talk about his night gig, the growth of independent filmmaking in Atlanta, the just-released Those Who Deserve to Die and his most recent endeavors in creating a line of scripted serialized podcasts.

DISC DISH: I love how you refer to all the work you do at Kino Lorber as your “day job.”

BRET WOOD: What’s special is that I thoroughly enjoy the work I do at my day job! I think I just have a compulsion to write and create and I have to do it somehow, so I’m always going to be driven to do that and a lot of that happens at night. Maybe I would be more driven to make a success of my filmmaking and storytelling if I didn’t have such a dream job during the day. For someone who loves old movies, it is a dream job.

DD: Meanwhile, your night job for the past few years has yielded a handful of short films and a half-dozen feature documentaries and narrative stories which include, most recently, Those Who Deserve to Die. How do your two jobs—two careers, really—complement each other?

BW: What I do for Kino Lorber and what I’ve learned studying film always pops up in whatever creative work I’m doing. Before it was even possible for me to make films, I was writing about films. It was all about writing something and creating something. Back then, filmmaking seemed impossible. But once I got to Atlanta [in the 1990s] and got involved in the independent film scene, it was like a dream come true. Not to jump to far ahead in my career, but when indie filmmaking became more difficult, then it was a natural thing to pop over to podcast creation because to me, telling stories and being creative is what I want to do. It doesn’t have to be filmmaking—I’ve always just looked for a creative outlet and whatever opportunities may be available to me.

DD: Yeah, thanks for jumping ahead.

BW: Hey, I told you I was doing it.

DD: You started making films regularly in the early 2000s when filmmaking became more economically and technologically accessible to young filmmakers. What have been the most significant changes in the technology since then?

BW: First off, the quality of cameras has gotten much better so that independent cinematographers have much better gear than they previously had. Back then, I was shooting in 720p and each one of my subsequent movies has gone up in resolution since. I’ve done standard def, 720p, 1080p and Those Who Deserve to Die is my first movie in 4K. And today, you pretty much have all the resources you need to get through post-production at your fingertips.

DD: And how about the economics?

BW: There’s always a financial strain with crew, costumes, sets and so on, particularly in a city where there’s always a lot of production going on. Today, there’s all sorts of filmmaking going on here—they’re shooting Marvel movies here, TV shows, Watchmen—but it’s now harder to get a crew. There are a lot of qualified people, yes, but there’s also a lot of competition for them. Everyone has work and they’re working six days a week and it’s hard to get them on their one day off and to get them to work for you for a fraction of what they usually earn. It used to be everyone wanted to work on-set and you would give them the opportunity and they would do it for little or nothing. Now, everyone has jobs working on-set and you have to coax them a little more to grab them. But I’m lucky that the people who’ve crewed on my movies do it mainly because I’m doing something different than what began the zombie era a while back.

DD: Beginning with The Walking Dead and those kinds of projects, yes? They were really taking over Atlanta.

BW: Yes. Then and now, my films generally come from a different inspiration—they’re different kinds of films and that come from untraditional sources. Even today, the kinds of movies I do earn me a little, oh, what can I call it…?

DD: Artsy cred, maybe?

BW: Okay, artsy cred. And locations are now more difficult to get because people in Atlanta understand that now they can charge a lot to shoot on location. So, while there was a time not so long ago that people used to be flattered to let you come in and shoot a movie in their house, now everyone wants a paycheck.

DD: Your latest film, Those Who Deserve to Die, is based on a 19th Century novella by Thomas De Quincy, a British writer who’s mostly known on these shores for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.

BW: Yes, I was just reading it for pleasure and as I was reading it, I thought it would make an interesting film, though my story is structured very differently. I wanted to play with this idea of heroic violence and depict violence as kind of ugly and that there is a “hero” who doesn’t want to be committing it. He doesn’t want to kill people, but he has to. It’s a revenge story where you’re not cheering for more people to get killed, but rather you’re cringing at one murder after another.

DD: One of the film’s co-stars is Lynn Lowry, a favorite with cult audiences for her work in movies like Cronenberg’s Shivers and Romero’s The Crazies.

BW: Yes! She plays the emerging villain in the movie, the ultimate target of the protagonist out for revenge.

DD: And how was it working with her?

BW: Lynn was totally game and really into her role. She appears in a lot of horror movies and doesn’t always get a role she can sink her teeth into—one that gives her some compelling dramatic scenes. She really rises to the occasion here and it was great to work with her. She’s been the jewel in so many indie filmmakers’ projects…

DD: You’ve recently said that you may be taking a step back from filmmaking for a while to focus more on writing and directing scripted podcasts.

BW: About two years ago, someone I knew from the film community who had been working in a marketing and promotional capacity in podcasting got in touch with me. Internally, her organization said that they wanted to introduce scripted podcasts to their slate and she told them, “Well, I know this filmmaker who makes some really interesting stuff—we should have him come in and talk to us and we could possibly have him do something.” And that’s how it happened—I was invited to come in and present a couple of ideas, which I did in the form of my scripts. And I welcomed the opportunity for someone to pay me to make something for a change. Taking out second mortgages and going through my savings to make films—I’d been doing that for a while…

DD: Wow, those are the earmarks of a true filmmaker!

Alice Lewis and Joe Sykes in Bret Wood’s Those Who Deserve to Die.

BW: Totally. And you know you’re not going to get that money back, but you do it because you’ve got to do it. And there’re only so many times you can do it.

DD: So you went for it like Coppola.

BW: Right. And now I’m in my Jack phase.

DD:I guess that means a Grisham book is next. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with paying the bills! Tell me about the podcasts.

BW: I enjoy the scripted podcasts on a lot of levels. How about this: In the span of me trying to finish Those Who Deserve to Die and get it out, I’ve produced two podcast series, and this week I begin work on a third. Clearly, they can be done much more quickly. Post-production is not grueling and there’s no pre-production, not really. You write it, you get in a room with actors and when you’re there, you’re directing and they’re acting the whole time. There’re no hours spent setting up lights and getting the costumes and sets right and waiting around. You do the work and that’s what I enjoy—writing and working with actors.

DD: How long did it take you to create your first two podcasts?

BW: Around nine months each. It’s funny—I’m now fulfilling my Kickstarter rewards for Those Who Deserve to Die and it states on the site that patrons should receive their reward by June, 2018. So, I’m two years behind the schedule!

DD: I hope one of the rewards wasn’t a pre-packaged assortment of cheeses.

BW: And it’s becoming harder and harder to get media attention as an indie filmmaker, to get into festivals, to get reviewed. You have to be a self-promoter and have some means to reach an audience. With [podcast producer/distributor] iHeartRadio, which has a network for cross-promoting its shows and a large audience base for scripted podcasts, I have a built-in audience and a promotional mechanism.

DD: What can you tell us about the third podcast you’re about to begin work on?

BW: It’s the second season of The Control Group, a follow-up to my first podcast from 2018. This one is called “Civil Defense” and it’s about a nuclear attack and what happens in a small town over the course of a week after the sirens go off.

DD: I listened to portions of your last production, The Seventh Daughter, and it was so richly produced. Great music, great audio effects and great voices.

BW: I’ve got an outstanding sound producer/mixer/editor, Rob Gal, and he’s also the guy who does all the music. I’m really enjoying being involved in music creation. I have no training at all, but Rob’s been totally patient with me while he uses different instruments and we sample all kinds of sounds.

DD: It’s a ten-episode series with a running time of four hours or so.

BW: It’s nice to be able to tell long-form stories—you get to take as much time as you need. You can have as many locations as you want and, for example, have as big a crowd scene as you want, because it doesn’t cost anything. Well, it doesn’t cost anything extra. And working with actors and putting it all together is very satisfying.

DD: Okay, so you’re heading back into the studio this week. Tell me about producing a show like yours—a radio play, essentially—in the time of COVID.

BW: It used to be we would have two actors in a room at the same time, so it would be more conversational. Now, everyone will record individually. They’re going to enter a house and go into a room that’s been cleaned and they’ll be by themselves in that room. The engineer and I will be in a different room and we’ll wipe things down in between. I got a COVID test to be sure. I think it helps that we’re nearly six months into the pandemic and people are eager to get back to work, but we’re taking every precaution, of course. It’s not that different for us—two people recording in a room versus one person recording in a room. We’ve always recorded piecemeal, the difference being the number of people in the room at the same time. One person comes in and will stay three hours, recording their role for the entire series, then the next person will come in and do the same. When we’re done, I take it back home and edit it all together and then Rob Gal applies the magic.

DD: It sounds like there’s much more “magic” in the production than a layman would initially imagine.

BW: There’s a lot of creativity there, yes. Here’s something I said to my son: Even though I’ve always told myself, ‘I want to be a filmmaker,’ be open to being something else to the degree that you can still be creative. Don’t get so locked into doing this one thing that if you burn out on it, you’re done. Always be willing to try something different—do non-fiction versus fiction, do music versus narrative—as long as you can keep that creative tap open and flowing, that’s all that matters.

Those Who Deserve to Die is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from Kino Lorber.

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.