On Tuesday, January 8, 2013, the final chapter of Holy Hell, the first feature film to make its premiere on the iPad, will be released. To celebrate this landmark, the film’s creators are offering up the app for free on Friday, January 11 and Saturday, January 12. To access the film, simply search for “Holy Hell” in the app store.
Holy Hell tells the story of a small church on the verge of bankruptcy in a world of mege churches. Desperate for any idea that might bring financial salvation, the congregation makes a horror movie in a last-ditch effort for survival. But once they become the target of a politically-active religious watchdog group, the small church gets more of a fight than they bargained for. The film features Edwin Neal (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Kenneth Wayne Bradley (Drive Angry), Barbara Chisholm (Fast Food Nation), Ellie McBride (Tree of Life), and the final appearance of the late, great commentator Christopher Hitchens doing what he does best: holding religion’s feet to fire for one last match.
Foregoing what they viewed as a dismally crowded home video/VOD market and shrinking theatrical distribution stream, director/writer Rafael Antonio Ruiz (Quiet Girls’ Guide to Violence; one of my favorite short films from 2012’s Fantastic Fest) and producer/writer Lowell Bartholomee (of the award winning theater troupe Rude Mechs) developed their own distribution model with a self-developed app that delivers the film in a serialized format complete with extras unique to each chapter. In the past year the app has been greeted with some acclaim, being featured in its own panel at the 2012 SXSW Interactive Conference. So I decided to have a little chat with Ruiz…
Josh: Let’s start at the obvious place, what drew you into the idea of doing a film as a serialized app?
Rafael Antonio Ruiz: We actually weren’t thinking of an app while making the movie. The first generation iPhone had barely came out when we were in production and the iPad was released after we had our festival premiere. But once we did have the movie done, we quickly realized that the market was over-saturated with independent content and we needed something to set ourselves apart from the rest.
By that point, I was writing for a video game company out in Los Angeles. While there, I met tons of programmers and designers and I realize what a lucrative market the iOS was becoming. So I designed an actual app myself, then looked for a programmer that could execute it.
Josh: When you guys moved forward with the app idea, was there any other content like it around? Were there other films released as apps?
Ruiz: Not to my knowledge. When I had the idea I’d seen nothing specifically like it. Nolan was trying to pursue it with a Dark Knight app that was just a port over of the movie and the main blu-ray extras. Then there were some second screen Behind the Scenes apps but nothing new. Even when we released the first chapters (which was really to beat others out there) I hadn’t seen anything. I know someone in England released their film on the iPad sometime in May, but it was really a DVD in an app. I would have liked to have had all this done faster, but when all said and done, it was three of us making a very packed app and that takes time. And we just focused on getting it done and not worrying about the race.
Josh: In your mind, what advantages did the app market offer your film, and you as a filmmaker, versus the existing web series or iTunes medium?
Ruiz: First off, we wanted more content than just the movie itself. Lowell Bartholomee (producer/co-writer) and I had created a lot of viral content during production. The movie has a heavy media component — people watching TV, reacting to what is on it, eventual being on TV. A lot of this world building (which we never did use in the film) was left over and I wanted to do something interesting with it.
Now I’ve been a DVD producer in ages past, so I like a bunch of fun deleted features and supplemental content to go through, but viewers don’t do that as much now days. And iTunes or VOD or whatever, that content just doesn’t exist much. But the moment we saw the iPad interface, we knew that we had an easy way to show of the in-world content that would be easy to explore and navigate. Within the app itself, we have the movie, then almost an hour of extended, deleted, alternate scenes and then over 130 pages of in-world media.
Josh: Talk a bit about the in-world media, which seems to me like the most novel aspect of the app approach.
Ruiz: Through the process, I feel we’ve made this new thing that shows off the world we created even better than the movie by itself. First off, we decided early on not to put in any behind the scenes content so that this app can be self-contained as a whole multimedia experience. Everything in there is “in-world.” It’s a big cast, a story with some scope and it goes a lot of places. The extras give characters in the ensemble some breathing room and allows the viewer to explore them more. We have character’s web blogs, video blogs, articles, essays. These are fun tangents that have their own mini-arc and work self contained separate from the main story. We can show entire news programs that are only seen in fragments in the actual movie. Most of all, I’m happy we’re able to show off Abomination, the horror movie within the movie, which is meant to be about the worst thing you’ve ever seen, with hammy performances, missing scene markers, interlaced video. All in-world elements that you can pursue as far as your tolerance level can take you. And that’s the way it should be. The user should be able to navigate all the extras on one main hub, exploring at their own pace. You can look back at a lot of ’80s comic by Miller and Moore that had similar approaches and then at, say, the great viral marketing of certain movies in the last decade that have carried it on (Prometheus being the best recent example). But here all of the content is now under one roof.
Josh: Since this was a film that became an app, instead of the other way around, let’s not ignore the film itself. What was the genesis of the film?
Ruiz: Lowell had made a trailer for the Grindhouse contest back in early 2007 [the contest which spawned Hobo With a Shotgun]. When he was done, I looked at it and asked, “what if a small church made a movie like that?”
Josh: Why a small church? What led your mind there?
Ruiz: My mother is a missionary and a minister in her own right and through her I have experienced second hand a lot of the politics that exist in religion and I wanted a fun outlet to address that. From there, we came up with a “Let’s Put on a Show” story that went along with it. Lowell is very connected in Austin [Texas] Theater, so we intentionally wrote the movie as an ensemble that would show off some fantastic actors. And from there we were able to make the movie DIY style, picking up some great genre actors along the way like Edwin Neal and a great social critic like Christopher Hitchens.
Josh: How did you approach Hitchens? What was his response?
Ruiz: One of our producers, Jeff Scheftel, was a good friends of his at the time and we simply asked if we could have an afternoon to film with him. And with him, it was important that he just be himself and that’s what we wanted. We had pages we had written in his style but he ignored those and just winged it. We got so much material from him that we were able to have an extra segment of him just doing his thing. We were able to film right around the time he was starting to deal with the cancer. Even though it dates the movie, I’m glad we have one last piece with him in his prime.
Josh: Austin is an interesting little hotbed of art and entertainment. Tell me about working in that community.
Ruiz: I grew up there so for me it is home but you have to take a step back sometimes and realize how special it is. So much talent ends up in the town. I believe there’s more original theater per capita in the city than anywhere in the world (including New York). And there’s around 100 speaking roles in the movie and we’ve got a bunch of ringers in even the smallest roles. When you make a movie with that many people that are prepared and on their game that it’s only when you’re done (and we were shooting very fast) that you realized one small mistake could have derailed so much. But no one EVER did.
Josh: Now that you have gone through the app process with the film, are you interested in doing it again? Or do you view the experience as more of an experiment?
Ruiz: Would we do it again the way we did it? No, because that part was a reaction to the situation but I would love to use the format again. In the end, I like creating worlds and this format opens you to a lot of opportunities. It’s a new form of self-distribution that allows you access to a larger audience. We’re in a frontier period right now and it is going to get organized very quickly. But in it are a lot of opportunities to work in a medium that is something brand new. And how often to do you get to say that?
Josh: What words of wisdom would you impart about the format to other independent filmmakers who might already be considering (or might be inspired by this post) to distribute their film as an app?
Ruiz: Produce all your content at once so you can put it out on a regular basis, get yourself a great programmer (like our Jeff Blagg) and know how you’re going to [present/market] it at the end. Because people can turn around apps very quickly now days.
Josh: Good luck to you, good sir.