With Halloween right around the corner, I've been indulging in short films in the horror genre of late. My favorites are always those that are so genuinely creepy and well-written that they stick with you. The award-winning short film, The Dollmaker is one of those films! Cleverly written by Matias Caruso and expertly directed by Al Lougher, The Dollmaker delivers a powerful story about a mother grieving the loss of her child, and the consequences of the magical surrogate she finds in his place. It is incredible the amount of emotion and chills served up in just a nine minute film.
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to talk with Director, Al Lougher about the film and some of his other work. He was gracious enough to expand on what he does, and offer some great advice about filmmaking. Be sure to watch the film, read the interview, and please comment and share.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get started in filmmaking?
I’m from a small Welsh town in the UK but moved to the US almost 20 years ago. I started out directing music videos and made my first short film in my early 20’s, then I took a hiatus from filmmaking and got more involved in photography. Around 2011, as the digital video revolution was taking off, I got the itch to start making narrative films again and my first short film was So Pretty, about a vampire who only hunts and feeds off those that have escaped justice. I followed up with a sequel called So Dark, both of which are available to stream on Amazon. I spent the next few years pitching these two films as a mini-series. Ultimately, it went nowhere due to the waning interest of vampire-related stories, and I moved on to other projects.
As a director, can you tell us what your job entails?
For the most part, all of the films I’ve made I’ve been involved in all aspects of the production and wear many, many hats. For The Dollmaker, in addition to directing, I designed the dolls, built some of the props, edited the film, did the visual effects and created all the marketing materials. While this is more hands-on than you’d normally be on higher budget productions, with low budget filmmaking you have to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and dig in.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making "The Dollmaker"?
The greatest challenges were getting the dolls right, casting for the young boy and working with a crew I’d never worked with before. I was never entirely happy with how the dolls came out and we were still rushing to finish them just days before we started shooting. Given a higher budget, I probably would’ve gone with a different design. And casting the boy was really difficult because whenever we’d send the script to the parents, as soon as they’d read the first page with an opening scene depicting a boy in a coffin, they’d immediately turn us down. I mean, who wants to see their own child in a coffin? Also, in the script, the boy was written as a 4yr old and finding actors that young, and with patience, is extremely hard. Luckily we were able to find young Tony, who played Tim in the film and was a little older but very small, and his mother didn’t care about the coffin aspect, so they were both a joy to work with. I’d also spent the last few years as a portrait photographer so having worked with kids definitely helped.
How long did filming take?
We shot the film over 4 days in Queens, New York. But you never, ever have enough days! Especially with New York traffic.
The acting was fantastic, and The Dollmaker character was especially creepily handled by Daniel Berkey. How was it working with the cast and crew on this film?
They were all a joy to work with and it was the first time I’d worked with a New York cast and crew. Everyone was great. And Dan, who played the titular Dollmaker, was an amazing find. I had breakfast with him in Brooklyn one morning and we both shared our love of movies over a coffee and a bagel. He’s a great guy and has performed in hundreds of productions. Likewise, Perri Lauren (Jenna Deyton) and Sean Meehan (Rick Deyton) we’re both awesome and total pros. And a shout out to the New York filmmakers. They really are honed in on their craft and it was probably the most professional crew I’ve ever worked with.
What brought you to make "The Dollmaker" in the first place?
I had been working with the writer, Matias Caruso, on another script when he showed me The Dollmaker script. I instantly fell in love with it. Having two kids of my own, I really connected with the material and could understand what a parent would go through when dealing with the loss of a loved one. It’s not often you read a short script that is so impactful yet so unique, and it really is a textbook example of how to write a short film script. I also loved the Twilight Zone vibe to it and the shocking twist. At the time Matias had sold the rights to someone else and after the script sat on their shelf for a few years, I was able to track them down and begged them to let me make it. We worked out a deal and a few months later we began filming. That person, Richard D’Angelo, ended up producing the film and has since become a good friend of mine. We have worked together on a couple of projects since.
How closely was the script followed? Were there any notable changes from the original story by Matias Caruso?
As with most films, you can never really follow the script to a T. There’s always something that pops up that results in having to make some changes, whether it’s time or money, or a line of dialogue that sounds better when read out loud. There were visually things we couldn’t pull off the way it was written in the script. As an example, there was a cool sequence that involved the hourglass that would’ve taken a ton of money to pull off and we just had to settle for something simpler. Likewise, there were moments in the script when the doll turned into the real boy that would’ve been easy for the likes of ILM but for us we had to resort to a more simple approach, like using various camera angles and techniques. A good example is when the mom steps outside onto the porch. Aside from that, what was on the page is pretty much what we shot. We didn’t really want to change a thing, a testament to the brilliant writing by Matias.
What do you feel worked best in this film? Do you have a particular favorite scene?
I think my favorite scene is in the kitchen, watching the dad breaking down, him knowing that his wife has totally lost it while he has to sit and watch her feed oatmeal to the doll. That always gets an uncomfortable chuckle in the audience. And I think the final reveal, without giving it away in case anyone reading this hasn’t watched the film, was a nightmare to shoot. It was the last day, the sun was going down and we hadn’t even got that shot. When the husband drags his wife outside that was supposed to be a single seamless shot, following them through the doorway. We did maybe a dozen takes and it got to the point where the actor was getting frustrated, in fact, we were all getting frustrated, and we just had to take a break to reset, rethink and just decide to break that shot up. As a director, you have to sometimes let go of your initial plans and try something else if it’s not working. In the end, the scene is just as effective so the original shot we had planned didn’t really matter anyway.
What equipment was used to shoot the film, and what software was used for editing and visual effects?
We shot the film on the Arri Alexa and used Adobe Premiere to edit and After Effects for the VFX. The sound was edited in Pro Tools and the color grading was done in Davinci Resolve.
What films have inspired and/or influenced you most?
I have a huge love for anything John Carpenter makes, The Thing being my favorite film of all time. But I’m also influenced by the likes of Stephen King and The Twilight Zone, so I tend to seek out stories that are a little strange, maybe a little creepy, and have a good twist. Lately, I’ve been really digging Ari Aster’s work on Hereditary and Midsommar. I love me some folk horror!
Do you particularly enjoy working in the horror genre? Is there anything else you'd like to try?
All of my films have been in the horror genre, but lately I’ve been drawn to the Southern Noir thrillers such as Green Room, Blue Ruin, Hell or High Water, etc. In fact, I’ve been writing a feature that combines my love of both these genres.
Is there anything you are working on now that you can tell us about?
We are currently in the midst of developing The Dollmaker into a feature film. We’ve expanded the short film into a fantastic feature-length story which is sort of in the tone of The Sixth Sense. We are now working with a Hollywood studio who bought the rights and we’re making sure the script is as good as it can be. If all goes to plan, I hope this to be my debut feature film released sometime next year. You can follow the progress on our Facebook page @thedollmakermovie for updates.
What is your proudest achievement thus far?
We played the film at Comic-Con last year and that was a fantastic experience and I got the chance to geek-out a little. But also that the film went viral and has nearly 40 million views online took me by surprise. It’s a film that keeps getting shared and re-uploaded because people have connected with it in their own way. Pretty proud of that, really.
Any advice for young filmmakers?
Well, the cliched response these days is to say “grab a camera and just go shoot something,” but it really is true and the best advice anyone can give, especially as cameras are so cheap with even Hollywood films being shot on iPhones these days. Join local filmmaker groups, befriend actors or even take acting lessons because that’s how you meet them (while also learning how to direct actors) and also befriend people with their own gear. All you need then is a good script or idea. And of course, just make sure you have enough money to feed your cast and crew!
I also have to point readers to check out some of your earlier work. The short film "Blood, Dust, and Banjos" that you wrote and directed in 2014 is simply fantastic. I'm blown away that this was shot so quickly, and with no money. What can you tell us about this film, and how did you pull it off so well?
We were bored that summer and wanted to just get out and make something, so we cobbled together a script at the Eleventh Hour, rented a RV (there were no bathrooms where we shot it) and just got out there and started shooting. This also ties back into the advice above, sometimes you just have to grab a camera and go make something. And if you’ve surrounded yourself with talent, then that makes it so much easier. In hindsight, the film was probably the hardest thing I’ve done. With my second short film, So Pretty, we actually rented an entire train for 12 hours and shot the entire short film in it from dusk to dawn. If anything had gone wrong, it would’ve been too expensive to go back and get some extra shots. The train cost half of our budget. With BD&B, we were out in the 90 degree heat in the middle of the Florida summer, and in the middle of nowhere. By the end of each day, we were all suffering from heat exhaustion. But it was a ton of fun and is a good example of just getting out there and making something with no money, just passion.
What do you believe is key to making a great film?
Write, or get your hands on a damn good script. It all starts with the concept and the script. And then surround yourself with talented and passionate people. And even then, pour 100% of your energy into it. Never be a diva on set and treat all your cast and crew with respect. Do that and you’ll always walk away with something special. The end result should be a reflection of the passion behind it.
If you had the opportunity to remake a classic, what would it be?
Salem’s Lot. I have a love for vampire movies and this is the one film that scared the crap out of me as a kid. I always wanted to have the chance one day to remake this film, but it looks like they’re already developing it so that ship has sailed. The other film would be An American Werewolf in London. In fact, I wouldn’t remake it, I would make a prequel to it that takes place entirely in the same small village at the opening of the film, called Erwood. Fun fact, that was filmed on my doorstep in Wales where I grew up, and as a wee lad I had even visited the set during production. Somehow though I don’t think John Landis will be letting go of the film rights anytime soon!
- Al Lougher IMDB
- The Dollmaker Facebook
- The Dollmaker
- Blood, Dust, & Banjos
- So Pretty on Amazon Prime
Nick C Sorbin (Nick Charles) is a former Managing Editor of 9 years for Renderosity's CG Industry News. By day, a mild-mannered Certified Pharmacy Technician working in both home infusion and a hospital ER, contrasting creative outlets as a digital artist, sculptor, musician, singer/songwriter, and Staff Writer for Renderosity Magazine. Read his articles