I recently had a chance to interview Ashleigh Jo Sizemore, wife of horror/director James Sizemore and star of The Demon’s Rook, Goat Witch, and their upcoming film, Bad Blood. The films contain fantastic homemade special effects, a unique and creative mythology, and lots of good gory fun.
Ashleigh had a lot to say, which is a welcome change from interview subjects that require lots of poking and prodding. She shared lots of details about the origins of their movies, what it’s like being naked in front of a whole lot of people, and just why practical effects are so much better than CGI nonsense.
I read on Fangoria that there is a whole mythology behind this world that you two have been working on for over ten years, including a language. What was the origin of this mythology and language, and what are the influences for them? (For example, the mythology appears to have Satanist bits and pieces, especially Baphomet.) What languages did you base the original language on?
This is a long answer, so bear with me: While it was only cryptically mentioned here and there in the film, the underlying mythology in The Demon’s Rook is created by a not-so-secret art collective called The Black Riders, which was founded by my husband and two friends while they were in college. It began as a group dedicated to the appreciation of cryptozoology, veganism, metal music, and righteous artwork, and has since been developing its own mythos. Creation stories, gods and goddesses, strange beings residing in the cosmos and the center of the earth–they all make up this fantastical mythology which has worked its way into Our artworks for almost a decade.
All of the figures in this mythology have names created by members of The Black Riders. The metal music genre has a pretty significant influence on this language, so a lot of names and words end up sounding a bit like the Black Speech of Mordor with a vaguely Slavic touch. (The artistic elements of Satanism are also part of this metal music influence; while The Black Riders are not Satanists per se, that sort of demonism works its way into the art as well.)
When it came to translating the dialogue for The Demon’s Rook (and our recent short film Goat Witch), I stepped in and started making up new words based on the sounds of existing names and anagrams created by my husband. I associated vowel sounds with certain tones and themes, came up with root words for certain ideas and objects, and created affixes to use for all the words. It became a sort of agglutinative language. As I spent time spelling and speaking the words aloud, other words came to me naturally, often based on nothing more than what “sounded right.” The language is called “Gaorokish” after Gaorok, the ultimate god-type figure of the Black Rider mythology.
What kind of budget were you working on for Demon’s Rook? I know it’s small, but how small?
It all started when James sold a painting for a couple thousand dollars. He wrote a script based partly on his favorite creatures and horror tropes, and partly on the Black Rider mythos. The project became more ambitious as we went along, and we raised another $9,000 or so with crowdfunding efforts. Many of the crew members donated their own equipment and money toward production. We then managed to secure the remaining funds through some generous investors, and the grand total ended up at about $75,000. Most of that went toward the FX makeup department, including three paid professionals we flew in from L.A. Everyone else volunteered their time, and it was all of this insane ambition and drive that allowed us to do so much with so little.
Of course, our goal for future projects is to make sure we have a budget that will provide fair payment to every cast and crew member.
How does it feel to watch yourself in these scenes, particularly in the demonic sex and rebirth scene in Goat Witch? Is it something that’s uncomfortable to watch with others?
Every single time I’m present for a screening, even the ones involving a small group of friends, I tend to avert my eyes when I appear on screen. It’s often my self-consciousness and doubts about my acting skills, but Goat Witch is especially difficult because I have to watch my naked ass writhing about in a trance and making an awkward O-face during implied sexytimes with a demon. I wasn’t too shy during the filming of these scenes, but somehow it makes me blush when others are watching the final product.
How did you connect with the makeup/sfx team for these films? What made you decide to go with practical effects?
Practical FX and makeup is the lifeblood of the horror and fantasy movies from which we draw influence. James and I both prefer to see real, touchable, textured, living creatures or effects that play out on screen. James had dabbled in FX makeup for a few years and discovered that he was pretty darn good at it. He began to construct zombie masks and demon horns with inexpensive materials mostly made for beginners.
As he learned more about professional mask-making and better-than-haunted-house effects, he realized he had gotten in over his head with the amount of other work he was doing for the film. Working full-time in the studio with my help wasn’t enough to meet the demands of a blood-filled creature feature, so he sought help from an online FX forum. We found a few professional artists–Mike Dinetz, Lisette Santana, and Corey Ruby–who were willing to work for the slim wages we could offer. We also got a bunch of friends to work as interns, utilizing the skills they had and getting them to do a lot of the gruntwork. We really couldn’t have done it without them.
Who designed the demons?
James has always been an imaginative artist, and he’s been drawing and painting fantastical creatures of his own design since he was old enough to hold a crayon. I guess the classic image of a horned demon with sharp teeth had a lot to do with developing the look of the four main demons in the film. James had plenty of original ideas and touches to add to their characters, too: Dimwos, the elder demon, has more pronounced horns, a deeply lined face, and an overall more regal appearance. Rolmortus, the “evil king” of the three others, has a sort of crown of horns and an older face with deeper folds to signify his seniority. Ogrom, the young pervert of the group, has smoother skin and rather phallic horns. Valurga is also a young and fiery demon, so she has flaming red skin, stout horns, and four boobs because…hey why not?
Dimwos has completely black eyes which represents an open perspective and greater vision of the world. Rolmortus has the cloudy eyes of a corrupt spirit with no clear vision beyond his own evil desires.
As for the Manbeast, he was originally conceived as a werewolf. The character is actually named Owrefewl, an anagram of “werewolf,” and he is called so by the demon who cursed him into existence. As I said, James wanted to include his favorite creatures and horror elements, but making a full-fur werewolf was completely out of the question with our budget. He compromised by turning that character into a malformed man-demon with a classic transformation scene, largely influenced by An American Werewolf In London. The look of the Manbeast is greatly inspired by the monster from Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse. James added some of his own touches, partly based on things he wanted to see in the transformation sequence.
Can you tell me a little bit about your next project?
So glad you asked! We just wrapped principal photography on a new feature called Bad Blood. It was written and directed by our partner Tim Reis, who was cinematographer/editor/co-producer on The Demon’s Rook. He’s also going to be heavily involved in editing for the current post-production process, because he’s a madman. We’re working insane hours (again) on a shoestring budget (again) to create another imaginative and ambitious project with a hefty helping of blood. James is once again heading up the SFX department and production design, along with some help from local professionals and yours truly. This one is Timmy’s baby though, not part of the previous mythology, but it still flows along the same vein of the practical FX-driven weirdo-horror stories we all hold dear.
What other projects would you like to tackle in the future?
James and Timmy both have a few different screenplays completed or in the works, and we’re already working out fundraising and pre-production logistics. One involves witches, another involves werewolves, and yet another includes monsters, heroes, and drug addicts with a Greek myth influence. Heck, there are two stories being fleshed out right now by Josh Gould, our main monster and my set decoration partner. We are all insanely busy with Bad Blood and still focused on the immediate goals, but our imaginations never let us stop inventing more work for the future. One or two of these projects look like they could start as early as next Spring.
Some Fun Facts:
During the nearly three-year production of The Demon’s Rook, the only time we took a real break was when James and I got married. We spent about three weeks planning the wedding and enjoyed another restful week or two as newlyweds.
The story of Goat Witch centers around a full lunar eclipse, which was something James wrote into the script several months before we scheduled anything. It just so happened that the April 2014 blood moon happened the week after we were supposed to wrap filming. We were unable to film the actual eclipse because of the cloud cover in our area, so we used other artistic means to pull off the effect in the film.
Production was extended into that next weekend, because we ran over schedule for one of the scenes involving the other actresses. Maia Costello (“Gloria”) dropped her previous plans for the weekend and made an additional four-hour drive up to film one last day with us. That was also her birthday.
Thank you again for the write-up, and for letting me take up so much screen space with my long-winded answers. Keep up the good work here, and take care!
The Demon’s Rook is available on Video-on-Demand, and you can watch Goat Witch (NSFW) right here.