Interview w/ Transylvania-TV Co-Creator Michael Heagle

As it turns out, the things that go bump in the night are real after all and you can find them a mouse-click away thanks to a motley crew of cellar dweller named Michael Heagle, Gordon Smuder and Clarke Stone who have crafted a superbly entertaining, monster-filled viewing experience in their show Transylvania TV. The show, which is currently in its 3rd season, stars a cast of whacked out creatures and weirdos that pay homage to an assortment of genre royalty such as Forrest J. Ackerman, Nosferatu, the Frankenstein monster and many more.

I was lucky enough to catch up with one of the show's co-creators, Michael Heagle, between promoting a full-hour Halloween special, an appearance on G4TV and teaching kids cool things about film for a brief interview on the origin of the show, why you should avoid the "M" word and the magic behind making a film.
It's great to have you here, Michael, can you tell us a little about yourself?

Sure-- I'm a reformed cheesehead, born in Green Bay Wisconsin and raised in and around Mukwonago Wi (Pop. 5000). Watching Channel 18's horror-hosted movie afternoons with Godzilla flicks and shows like Amicus' Land that Time Forgot with Doug McClure turned me into what I am today. Inspired by King Kong, Harryhausen, and JAWS, I started making movies on 8mm film in fifth grade, back when you had to get the film processed at K-Mart and showed it on a bed sheet. Boy we've come a long way, technology-wise, now I teach visual effects principles and software at Art Institutes International Minnesota, and my students are all running off to Hollywood to make effects shots for the movies.

You're currently working on a puppet-based web series called Transylvania Television with Gordon Smuder and Clarke Stone. What's the premise of TVTV and why puppets?

Transylvania Television is a show about a bunch of misfit monsters running a TV station in the Carpathian mountains. It centers around a couple of main characters, like Furry J. Ackermonster the party yeti, the Vampire Le Shoc, and his right hand bat the beatnik Batfink. Their adventures are mostly mundane office politics turned on its head, monster-style, but some of the problems revolve around the Frankenstein Device, the original technology created by Dr. Frankenstein which is being used to power the transmitter. It sometimes messes with the shows, turning them into post-modern parodies and mash ups.

You and the crew of TVTV are currently hard at work on a full hour Halloween Special this year. How big of a project is that for you guys compared to your regular webisode format?

I want to say it's the same but more, but it isn't. This is really a film, not a web episode, so some of our usual shortcuts won't suffice here. It is my goal to make it appear as if it was shot in the 1980s but only recently rediscovered, I'm immersing myself in pictures from that period to try to capture the look and feel of them. Crappy filmstock, synthesizer scores, dodgy FX, a particular brand of horror-comedy lighting... We'll see if we can pull it off. It's about 50 pages, or a TV-broadcast hour. We can knock off tons of pages in a day if we shoot simply, but this calls for a higher grade of shooting and acting from the top down. You wouldn't believe how difficult it is to shoot puppets under regular conditions. With human actors, you don't have to worry about them slipping out of frame, not making eye contact, having their lips move differently than their voice... You can take nothing for granted with a puppet performance, which makes everything take three times as long.

You're currently seeking to raise funds through Kickstarter, why do you need money for this particulr shoot and in what way(s) can our readers help?

Alas, if we only reach our $6K goal, we really just pay for studio rent and food, and we're back to square one in terms of puppets, props, costumes, sets, CGI, and all the things we kind of do for free right now but take a huge amount of resources. That monetary goal is really not enough to do this the way it deserves to be done. You could make a 45-minute film with humans and no sets for six grand these days, but not a puppet-monster-world adventure comedy horror spoof 80's homage film. It should really be about $250K, no exaggeration. This is all about a lot of super-talented individuals going absolutely unpaid for things that real filmmakers and propmakers and puppetmakers get paid big bucks for. And if you've seen the show, you know that these are not shoddy garage movies with sucky sock puppets but puppets that I dare say are on par with some of the primary puppet entertainment properties owned by multi-million dollar corporations. There, I said it without saying it. I didn't use the "M" word.

The videos that we've posted on the site explain it all and are entertaining too, so make sure to check them out here as well.

Was Uncle Deadly or any of the other creepy Muppet creatures an influence on the characters for Transylvania Television?

You said the "M Word!" We actively try to separate ourselves every day from the Henson property. Our puppets are built to the same design aesthetic as the Muppets are, and we aspire to the quality of puppeteering and characterization, but that's it. Rare is the day we'll settle for a Muppet-ish play on words or punning or Borscht Belt stuff, although it's some of my favorite kinds of comedy. We hope the show is a little more plot-based, at least more like a sitcom than their variety show style. And there's no musical numbers, which is both a point of pride and a challenge to avoid, too!

Our biggest battle has been with the Vampire Le Shoc. I don't think he looks like the Sesame Street Count, but people see puppet-plus-fangs and they go there. He's blue, bald, has pupils, wears Regency-era clothing... Come on, people!

I don't remember Uncle Deadly. Is that the dragon guy who showed up at the theater and acted like an asshole and freaked everybody out? If it is I hated him. Even as a kid I thought he didn't belong in the Muppet Show, he looked so different from everyone else. My favorite Muppet is Bert, hands down. I'm planning to have him tattooed on my arm.

Haha, oops. So who is your favorite character from TVTV and why?

Furry [J. Ackermonster] is the foundation, for sure. You can put him in every sketch and he owns it, even if he just plays straight man. I attribute that to Gordon's expertise. Hell, this was a character puppet that Gordon built for fun, and because he got some spare mis-died Muppet fur from a friend. We started the show because of the puppet. Then I think he built Le Shoc, which wouldn't be a big deal but for Charles Hubbell's awesome skills with the character. He's an incredibly funny guy, a gifted improvisor, and freakishly fast at learning lines. He's our only professional actor, actually, the rest of us just pretend. We act like actors. Acting.

That being said, Dwayne Frankenstein is the character that keeps surprising people, generating the biggest laughs because he's utterly unpredictable, which I chalk up to writer Jim Hibbler's take on him. He owns that character. Unpredictability is the key to all comedy. That's why people love outtake reels. Unpredictability's the hardest thing to create, unfortunately.

What are some of the challenges of directing a web series versus a feature film?

Nothing. It's a breeze. Anyone who thinks they're a big time director doing short-form on the web is kidding themselves. A web short is like a poem or a little ten-inch painting on canvas. You can do cool things with the format, but it's small and personal. Maybe that's it's strength. Feature filmmaking is like building a massive office building, managing giant teams and never being able to see the complete picture until it's all done. Totally different. Coincidentally, I'm a shitty feature director, too. On the upside, I can see any piece of crap film and love it because I know what an achievement it is to complete one and have it make a shred of sense at all. Finishing any film is an achievement, finishing a feature is a miracle.

If you were alone on an zombie-infested island with nothing but a TV, a VCR and one sandal what 5 movies would you bring?

Oh, my go-to list is all B movies, meaning they begin with the letter B. Blade Runner, Back to the Future, Big Trouble in Little China, Blow Up (had to have at least one art-snob picture on there). Hopefully the zombies will appreciate my choices and not moan too much during the movie. For my fifth slot I'll bring the other sandal.

What's the best thing about what you do for a living?

I get paid to teach other people what I'm doing as a filmmaker. So, when I go to my day job, I'm honing the skills that I use as a filmmaker. I have to understand a concept so well I can explain it to someone else. That requires a deeper understanding, and so my own skills increase daily. Plus, all the talented young people remind me not to rest on my laurels, there's more talented kids coming down the pipeline every day. Watch out, Hollywood!

Do you have any weird rituals or habits that you do each day on set?

Not a one. We're very business-like. There's even a minimum of fooling around, we generally have so much to do and people are so dedicated that we just get down to it. It's not like we get in a circle and say "Poowaba poowaba pooowaba."

What's the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?

Getting in a circle and saying "Poowaba poowaba pooowaba."

Any regrets thus far?

Regrets? I've had a few. But then again, too few to mention. I keep telling myself we should stop doing this because we're not making any money at it. But then we all show up on set and make magic, and I take the magic home and edit it on my amazing home computer, and I realize that the tools and the people are the payment. What a great time it is to be making media. But still, give me some freaking cash already.

Want to learn more about Michael Heagle and Transylvania TV?

Be sure to catch them on the web: Official Site | Facebook | Twitter


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