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Having a blast

Dartmouth filmmaker Jason Eisener has caught some big-time eyes with the grindhouse phenomenon Hobo with a Shotgun—now playing at acinema near you. photos Andrew Hines


The picture looks grainy, hacked-up and discoloured, as if it's been stored in some studio basement since the heyday of blood-and-guts grindhouse cinema. Black lines, spots and other imperfections pockmark the screen and the colour has the quality of an old Polaroid photograph.

A grizzled drifter with a Robert De Niro glare busts open a door, looks down the barrel of a shotgun and shouts, "I'm gonna sleep in your bloody carcasses tonight!" He fires off a few rounds into the chests of three masked robbers who flail like rag-dolls as bloody explosions pop out from under their t-shirts.

Violent enough for you? Shocking? Maybe a little disturbing?

That's exactly what Jason Eisener had in mind when he created Hobo with a Shotgun, a two-minute "trailer" packed with enough action, guns and splattered brains to make even Robert Rodriguez squirm in his seat. Well, maybe Rodriguez didn't exactly squirm, but the celebrated director gave his blood-stained seal of approval to the Dartmouth filmmaker's over-the-top creation.

Only a few short weeks ago, Eisener was a film school dropout with a heaps of talent but little experience or notoriety in the business, but for having co-directed the 2005 micro-budget, shot-in-a-skateboard-shop, horror mash-up The Teeth Beneath. Now he's basking in the afterglow of a recent trip to Austin, Texas where he collected first prize in Rodriguez's filmmaking contest and is now considering the option of turning his trailer into a feature film with studio backing.

How did all this happen? Let's rewind the tape a little.

It was a little more than eight weeks ago when Eisener caught wind of a contest being run by Rodriguez and his filmmaking partner Quentin Tarantino as a part of the run-up to their double-bill feature Grindhouse, out April 6. That film, co-directed by Tarantino and Rodriguez, is an homage to those cheap and dirty films of a bygone era—films that made violence, sex and visual denudation their stock in trade, AKA "grindhouse" films.

Even if you've never heard the term, you've probably seen examples of the genre. Think of Clint Eastwood's uber-tough dialogue in the Spaghetti Westerns, the neck-breaking violence of Hong Kong martial arts movies and the extreme close-up death scenes of 1980s horror flicks—these are some of the elements of grindhouse cinema, and despite damning critical reviews, they've been a movie theatre staple since the 1960s.

The genre is also right in Eisener's wheelhouse as a filmmaker, which is why it was such a boon for him to take part in the Grindhouse contest.

"The thing that was funny," the 24-year-old director says, putting down his can of Coke for a moment as he leans back in his chair at a downtown coffee shop, "is that Steven Spielberg is making a reality show called On the Lot where people submit a five-minute movie"—to win a million-dollar prize—

"and everybody was telling me I should make a movie for that. Then the Grindhouse thing came up and I was like "Holy shit'—that's more tailored to what I want to do."

Almost immediately after the Grindhouse contest came to his attention, Eisener teamed up with producer Rob Cotterill and writer John Davies and the three started putting together the story and scene layout for what would become an instant phenomenon.

The story is fairly simple: there's the hobo, a downtrodden vagrant living on the streets, scraping together what money he can, hoping for a better life someday. From his street-level vantage point, all he sees is crime, crooked cops and helpless people like himself being taken advantage of. One day he decides to do something about it.

As the gravel-voiced announcer puts it in the trailer, "He's cashing in his nickels and dimes for a new way of life...but getting out isn't that easy. This hero is going to have to deliver justice one shell at a time."

With shotgun in hand, Eisener's hobo (played by Halifax resident David Brunt in his first acting role) goes about cleaning criminals and crooked cops off the street, leaving a trail of blood and severed body parts behind.

When Eisener posted Hobo with a Shotgun on YouTube, people started taking notice almost instantly and the hits piled up. After one week on the website, Hobo with a Shotgun had been viewed more than 30,000 times—and is up to more than 130,000 now—and chat rooms and posting forums all over the internet were buzzing about this crazy short film about the vigilante vagabond. TechTV's Attack of the Show even broadcast the clip on their daily program and named it "YouTube Star of the Moment."

This online following kept growing and long before the Grindhouse contest even narrowed down the field, Hobo was a certified hit. But it wasn't just YouTube viewers that liked what they saw—Rodriguez named Eisener, Davies and Cotterill among the top three creators in the Grindhouse contest and flew them to Austin, Texas to take part in South by Southwest, one of the world's most famous arts festivals.

On Thursday, March 8, the two were flown to the Texas capital where Rodriguez was conducting a Grindhouse 101 seminar as part of SXSW. Rodriguez presided over a panel discussion about grindhouse cinema in which classic examples of the genre such as They Call Her One Eye, The Green Slime and Fred Williamson's Boss Nigger were discussed. After that, a screening of the top three entries from the trailer competition was presented. Along with Eisener's entry, the top three also included The Dead Won't Die, a zombie-themed gore-fest that trumps Hobo in the sex and nudity department, and Maiden of Death, a slick musical take on the revenge flick that obviously spent a few more bucks than the rest of the competition.

"When they played our film first, I thought, "There's no way we're going to win,'" says Cotterill, a 34-year-old veteran of the local filmmaking industry whose encyclopedic knowledge of horror movies is downright scary.

He was wrong. Their names were announced and the next thing they knew, they were onstage with the famous director answering his questions about their film.

But the real prize, they say, wasn't winning the contest—the opportunity to meet and build relationships with like-minded filmmakers from all over the continent was more important to them. They were able to tap into a network of talented artists with similar creative visions who could someday become collaborators or supporters.

Grindhouse-style films are often dismissed by the mainstream as silly kid's stuff, but the opportunity to meet and talk shop with other artists with the same passion for this type of filmmaking reminded Cotterill that some movie industry heavyweights came from similar beginnings.

"Maybe people should realize that genre movies make money," he says. "How many filmmakers' careers started with genre movies? You know, Steven Spielberg's career started with horror movies, Sam Raimi's the guy who made Spider-Man, one of the highest-grossing movies ever, Peter Jackson—all these guys got their start in genre movies."

It's no accident that Hobo with a Shotgun turned out the way it did. It was a lucky turn of events that Rodriguez created this contest, but as Cotterill says, "I loved these movies long before I'd even heard Quentin Tarantino's name."

The first thing you notice is the superficial imperfection. It's unusual in this age of digital recording and post-production polishing to see a picture that's anything less than perfect, but Eisener has gone to great lengths to make his film look as though it was dragged through the street and run over by a bus.The colour correction and blemishing is partly an homage to the old days of grindhouse cinema when films were often damaged and worn out from overuse. But more than that, it was inspired by Eisener's experience as an adolescent watching horror movies on used videotapes.

"For me it was pawn shops. People used to throw in their old horror movies," Eisener says. "There was a guy on Main Street"—in Dartmouth—"that used to hold them for me and I'd go in every lunch time when I was in high school and pick up every horror movie or B-movie I could find and go home with my buddies and watch them."

Those afternoons spent watching zombie movies would have a lasting impact. When Eisener went to film school at NSCAD last September, he brought with him a heavy influence from directors like Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Army of Darkness) and Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), whose work is big with horror fans, but in the world of film academia, Army of Darkness isn't exactly Citizen Kane. He only lasted a semester in the program because it didn't allow him the freedom to make movies the way he wanted. Conflicts and artistic differences forced him to quit, something he never likes to do in any situation.

But there are no regrets about leaving school and blazing his own trail in the industry. He works part time at a video game/comic book shop, which allows him the freedom to spend as much time as possible diving headfirst into his own projects. It has given him the ability to indulge his own cinematic vision without the pressure of meddling financiers.

"I've kind of been treating the last couple of years as my film school," he says. "I'd rather learn from my mistakes right now while I don't have a million dollars on the line. It would be nice to have a lot of money, but right now I'm enjoying impressing people with what I'm doing without it."

No wonder Eisener calls his style of filmmaking "guerilla." Hobo with a Shotgun was made on a budget that probably wouldn't buy you a decent pair of jeans. The locations were either provided by friends or used without permission. One scene was even interrupted by a police officer who called in back-up when he spotted the bloodied lead actor in the back of a car. But this is all part and parcel of what makes the creative process exciting for Eisener. The only question is, what will happen if Hobo is picked up and Eisener, Cotterill and Davies are suddenly working with studio money and large crews?

"It would have to be more planned out," Eisener explains. "If we wanted to do a gun battle on the street, you can't do that without planning it. You'd have to lock up the street, you'd have to tell all the store owners. When it's on a bigger scale, you have to plan everything more, but we'll keep that energy in there. It would still be guerilla filmmaking."

Eisener's attitudes about making movies sound much more Maritimes than Hollywood. He favours a collaborative effort over a singular vision. He's careful to point out that he's not working alone, giving credit to collaborators Davies and Cotterill, who would otherwise remain in the background. He even wants to continue making movies here in Halifax.

Maybe this small-town attitude is part of what makes his films unique, but now that the big-time is knocking on his door, it might be hard to keep this local boy away from the lure of Hollywood.

The funny thing about the Grindhouse contest is that, for all the big names involved and the media attention surrounding it, there really wasn't much of a prize. After all their sweat and blood, Eisener, Davies and Cotterill left Austin with nothing more than a mild hangover and some editing equipment they received from Rodriguez's company, Troublemaker Studios. They were told that their trailer may or may not be included in the cinematic release of Grindhouse or on the DVD.

But they wouldn't remain empty-handed for long.

The one other perk awarded to the contest winners was a trip to Los Angeles to attend the March 26 Grindhouse premiere and the cast and crew party afterward. Fittingly, it was during this trip to Hollywood that Eisener and Cotterill would receive the biggest news of their careers.

The premiere was surreal in a Tinseltown sort of way. The scruffy Haligonian team met stars like Kurt Russell and Michael Parks and talked a little shop with genre big shots like Tarantino, Rodriguez and Eli Roth. They stayed at the home of Stuart Gordon, whom Cotterill worked with on Gordon's upcoming feature Stuck—filmed in New Brunswick—and whose films both Eisener and Cotterill devoured as young horror fans.

But the next day, when the party was over and the red carpet had been rolled up, Eisener and Cotterill were at Universal Studios theme park acting like a couple of regular tourists when they received a phone call from an executive representing Alliance Atlantis, the largest distributor of films in Canada.

"I was not expecting it at all. Jim Sherry" —executive managing director of Alliance Atlantis—"called me up flipping out, saying how genius the film was. I didn't know what to say," Eisener says, now home again. "His assistant told me it was cool that something like this came out of Canada."

Eisener held the phone in his hand and he and Cotterill sat silently for a moment in the parking lot of Universal Studios with the rides and the screaming in the background, knowing that they'd just received a call that could change their lives.

Alliance Atlantis, which is distributing Grindhouse in Canada, wants to include Hobo with a Shotgun in the film's Canadian release, meaning that audiences across the country will see the award-winning trailer in theatres alongside the Rodriguez/Tarantino double bill. The trailer will roll in every Canadian theatre after the final preview, right before the start of the movie.

"We wanted to include Hobo for two reasons," says Michael Robson of Alliance Atlantis. "First, because we saw it and it's fantastic and embodies everything that is grindhouse. And second, because it was made by a couple of guys from Dartmouth and we're into supporting that."

"It's been stressful and awesome at the same time," Eisener says. "It's been one of the best weeks of my life." And his favourite part of the whirlwind trip isn't what you might think. "The most unbelievable thing is, I never thought I would be sleeping at Stuart Gordon's house, having him making me cappuccino in the morning."

In the meantime, Cotterill says they will be releasing a longer version of the Hobo with a Shotgun trailer on YouTube in the next couple of weeks. Many scenes had to be cut from the official trailer because of contest time restrictions, but fans can watch for the director's cut featuring a gun battle and hospital scene that didn't make the original version.

Eisener also has a new feature film coming out this summer. He calls Streets of Domination his homage to '80s gang movies.

"People wonder how we got away with the things we did in Hobo," he said. "Wait until they see what we did in Streets of Domination."

Grindhouse opens April 6.

Julian Dickinson is the editor of a Halifax-based website and a freelance writer. His interests include zombies, double-barrelled Remingtons and gardening. This is his first feature for The Coast.

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