Prism of Madness sat down with writer, director, editor and all-around great guy Damien LeVeck to discuss movie making, horror movie effects, and more. LeVeck’s feature directorial debut was the creepy and thought provoking possession-meets-social-media horror movie The Cleansing Hour starring Ryan Guzman, Alix Angelis and Kyle Gallner. Damien was prepping to begin filming his upcoming Christmas horror story A Creature Was Stirring, slated for a 2023 release, at the time of this podcast.
Below are some highlights from the podcast, edited for clarity and grammar, and without Dale’s embarrassing mispronunciation of actor’s Alix Angelis’ last name. The podcast was recorded April 20, 2022.
Prism of Madness sits down with Damien LeVeck
Director of The Cleansing Hour and the upcoming A Creature Was Stirring
CHRIS: We’d love to hear a little bit about you, Damien, and where you grew up, where you went to school, where you live now, what you’re into. How did it all start?
DAMIEN: Sure. Well, I’m a Midwest boy. I was born in St. Louis, raised in Illinois and in the middle of the corn fields, and my story is a little cliche. I grew up going to the video store and developing my taste for movies by doing that and watching Spielberg and Lucas and the big blockbuster filmmakers of the 80s and 90s … and thinking to myself that’s what I want to do. I want to entertain people like that.
I’ve lived in LA for over 20 years and during that course of time, I have spent most of it working in post production and learning, editing TV shows, editing day-of-air television and editing feature films. And I actually cut my teeth in documentaries. My first documentary was with Ethan Hawke. I sort of segued from that into unscripted television, which I swore to myself I would never do. But I quickly realized that the unscripted TV editors are the ones who are actually making all the money. [laughs]
Working in editing taught me a lot about writing and being a better writer and the brevity of storytelling. So I was sort of honing my writing craft as I was honing my editing craft at the same time. I eventually got to a point where I had a screenplay that I felt was worth putting three years of my life into to try and get off the ground. And that was The Cleansing Hour, which started as a short film, which was a proof-of-concept. They did very well and won a bunch of awards. We premiered at Sitges in Spain and we did a bunch of the big festivals here in the United States.
And that sort of snowballed into the feature film, which did very well and we filmed it in Romania. It was a blast in a lot of ways, very different, but in some ways very much the same as the short.
DALE: How certain were you that you were going to get a feature out of it [the short]?
DAMIEN: Not at all. Like, that was always the idea, let’s shoot this short film, let’s make this our proof of concept, let’s make this our pitch for the feature film. I didn’t have any certainty or anything like that. This was my first time doing it. I learned so much making that movie, just about the process of independent filmmaking, and it’s pretty brutal. I mean, nothing is real until it’s real.
I didn’t have any kind of certainty. We had gone out to everyone you can possibly imagine for The Cleansing Hour, and it was very vindicating, honestly, when the movie did so well because of having heard “no” from so many people.
DAMIEN: That’s a good feeling, because it reminded me that I’m not crazy. Like I really do know what a good movie is whenever I see it or whenever I read it, right? Or whenever I write it. Sometimes, and this is actual advice I would give to any aspiring filmmaker or anyone else, sometimes you really do have to trust your gut, because there are going to be a lot of people along the way who tell you no. They are going to say, No, this is wrong, you should change this, you should change that, you should compromise this, you should do this or that differently, whatever it is. I stuck to my guns on a lot of things. I’m not an unreasonable person, but when it came to the story, I had a hundred people tell me I should make the ending different. “No, the ending is not necessary, we should just end it here early, don’t do the big thing at the end.” I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, but you guys know what I’m talking about …
DALE: I know it.
DAMIEN: (laughing) I can’t tell you how many times I heard people tell me that, but that’s the ending that blows everyone away, that’s why everyone likes it, and I knew that, so was like we have to do this, and yeah, it’s going to cost more money to do that and everything, but whatever. It’s a lesson. You can’t always doubt yourself.
DALE: Right. So listen, how difficult was it for you to go from a relatively small set of people in the short to, well, I was on IMDB and it looks like when The Cleansing Hour, the feature, finished, you probably had from fifteen different small companies, three different effects companies. I can’t even imagine coordinating that many piece parts. How difficult was that for you? I’m sure your industry experience coming into that had to be very valuable.
DAMIEN: I had a great team on The Cleansing Hour. You know my producer Shirit Bradley was tremendous. I worked with a producer named Dan Clifton, and my number one producer, my wife and producer extraordinaire Natalie was at my side the entire time while she was pregnant with my second kid. That was wild. She was on set in Romania, pregnant with number two, and then I come back after that and I’m editing and then the baby is born and I’m still editing and she’s dealing with everything. And then of course we have over 400 VFX shots in the movie. I had a tremendous visual effects supervisor who really saved the day on that and dealt with the effects companies. It really is a collaborative effort. … The reason why it was doable is because I had such a great team.
CHRIS: And how did Romania happen? How did that get selected as a place to do the work or most of the work?
DAMIEN: Well, I was going to shoot the movie in Kentucky. I had applied for the Kentucky tax credit and was accepted. Then my line producer at the time was like, “Have you considered Romania?” I was like no, no I have not. He said, well, we’ve filmed a couple of movies there and it’s something that would be worth looking into. So I had said do a budget and let’s see how much cheaper it will be, and then he showed me the budget and I was like oh my gosh, that’s a no brainer. So… we went to Romania. Shot in nineteen days in Romania.
DALE: So nineteen days is a pretty fast shoot, isn’t it?
DAMIEN: For that movie, nineteen days was really fast. Cleansing Hour was so logistically complex. Every single day of the shoot there was a different combination of practical effects, make-up gags, stunts, pyrotechnics, kids, animals, everything that can add complication to a production, we had it, and we pulled it off!
CHRIS: What was the hardest part of making that movie, what was the big hurdle you had to get over?
DAMIEN: The hardest part was definitely the financing. Getting the money together. The emotional toll that takes on you is extremely taxing. … You’re the creative mind and all you want to do is make your movie, but I’m a producer at the same time, so I have to familiar with the business of it, I have to know the financing, I have to understand how the movie makes its money, where the financing expenses are connected to the production budget. And then I went in putting a lot of my own money into the movie and so I incurred a lot of debt in order to get the movie done, and that’s extremely hard on an individual and on a family, right?
DAMIEN: It was one of the once in a lifetime things, you know. I did, I’m glad I did it, I learned a ton from it, and I’ll probably never do that again. But it’s okay, because it served its purpose. I needed to get a feature film made…and now no one can say I never made a feature film before [laughing].
DALE: And I have to ask. What’s it like working so closely with your significant other?
DAMIEN: I honestly wouldn’t have had it any other way. Truthfully, and she’s not in the room right now, but I’ve said it before, she is a joy to work with, she is my muse, she is so smart and understands so much that I don’t so well that she’s the perfect complement, right? She’s like the peas and carrots. Everything that she handles in the making of a movie is everything I don’t want to do. She’s dealing with SAG, and she is doing vendor contracts, and everything else, and I don’t want to do that stuff and she is the perfect partner and my inspiration.
DALE: As an editor, editing your own movie … how does it compare to editing someone else’s vision?
DAMIEN: Well, I’ve been editing professionally for over fifteen years, and the vast majority of that time has been spent editing other people’s stuff: TV shows, movies, documentaries, that type of thing. And ask any editor, the thing that is going to drive them most crazy, especially if they work in unscripted, is not having that insert shot, not having that shot that they need to really sell the scene and really make it great. That’s what I think is one of the biggest strengths that I’ve been able to bring into directing, I am only going to shoot what I am going to use, right? I’ve already got the movie cut in my head. I see it, so when I’m setting up the camera, it’s not willy nilly, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going to use it.
CHRIS: That’s cool.
DAMIEN: It makes me super efficient, it allows me to shoot more. On Cleansing Hour we rarely did more than two takes… two or three takes of anything.
DALE: That’s incredible.
DAMIEN: Now, that’s also a testament to my amazing cast. I had an incredible cast, just so professional, such lovely people. They say 90% of good directing is good acting, so [laughing]
DALE: It was a great cast, Damien, and Alix Angelis gives one of the most heart-wrenching, intense screams in cinema history. She is wonderful.
DAMIEN: She is a force to be reckoned with. She just pulled out all the stops and really stole the show in a lot of ways, and that’s not me, that’s the critics talking. I mean, she gave … look, I’m a really humble guy, I’m very blessed to be able to be making any movie, but I really believe she gave one of the most powerful possession performances since The Exorcist. Truly. I mean she is really one of the best. There’s Linda Blair, there’s Jennifer Carpenter in Exorcism of Emily Rose, and Alix Angelis. There are very few that really blew me away. Oh, and I don’t remember the actor’s name, but The Last Exorcism, that actress is pretty good, too.
CHRIS: Oh yeah. Damien, that you so much for being with us today. It’s been a true honor and this has been an awesome conversation. Tell us a little bit more, in closing, if you would, about your next film making effort.
DAMIEN: Sure. It’s called A Creature Was Stirring, formerly called Good Luck, Nightingale. It’s a Christmas horror, set during a blizzard in the Christmas season, and a mother is keeping her daughter locked up in her room, shot up with a cocktail of drugs to keep her in a sustained fever because she thinks if she gets too hot or too cold she turns into a monster.
So these two kids break into the house looking for shelter and they quickly discover that the mother and the daughter have a very dysfunctional relationship AND that there is something else lurking in the shadows. It is very much a psychological horror in the vein of The Babadook, and it’s got some fantastic creature practical effects and body horror that is going to just make everybody go nuts. We’re really going to do this thing 100% practical, no CG at all, and I’ve got a phenomenal monster that’s going to blow everybody away.
CHRIS: I love it. Can’t wait. And when do you think that’s going to be ready?
DAMIEN: So the movie will be finished by January but I don’t know that anyone will really get to see it until the festival season in the fall of 2023, So get ready. Go to Fantastic Fest, for our international audience, go to Sitges and Toronto, and that’s where we’ll hopefully be premiering.
CHRIS: Awesome. And we definitely want to have you back before or after the premiere. Again, thank you so much for being with us tonight.
DALE: Damien, thank you.
Listen to the entire Prism of Madness podcast with Damien LeVeck to learn more about practical effects, his upcoming movie A Creature Was Stirring, creepy occurrences on the set of The Cleansing Hour, and more … and be sure to watch The Cleansing Hour, streaming on Shudder and available for rental on most popular services including Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, iTunes, and Vudu.