In recent years filmmaking siblings Joe and Lloyd Stas have made quite the name for themselves under the Holomax banner with a series of well received shorts which utilise their signature blend of surreal situations, deadpan delivery and a DIY approach to production which enhances rather than detracts from the filmmaking aesthetics. Their latest instalment, Spooky Club, taps into the spirit of Halloween with its collection of eerie comrades plotting to steal and cremate the skull of horror legend Vincent Price. DN caught up with the brothers for a long overdue chat about the development of the Holomax Micro-Cinematic Universe and how they added a seasonal scare to their distinctive brand of comedy shorts.
What set you both on the road of filmmaking? Was it always clear that you’d work together?
We played in a band for a number of years and bought some gear to make our own music videos. It was cheaper than hiring someone and filmmaking had always appealed to us. Eventually, we got fed up with the music industry and left all that behind, but we were still really keen on the filmmaking aspect. We made some music videos, then moved onto short films. Now we’re spending a lot of our time writing features. Lloyd and I lived together and were both unemployed, so it just ended up happening that way. We have two more brothers, Tom and Rowan who also get involved. We quite often stick them in front of the camera too, which they probably hate. I think they feel sorry for us though, so always agree to do it. Same goes for our Mum and Dad. And all our friends. It’s a dangerous game knowing us because eventually you get guilt tripped into being an ‘actor’.
Although you can feel the beginnings of the Holomax style in your earlier shorts such as M is for Merry Christmas, it’s the recent films which feel like parts of a cohesive collection. How did you first arrive at and then develop that ‘played straight’ comedy style?
We bought a camera called the Digital Bolex. If you don’t know it, you should look it up – it is amazing and adds a lot to the way our short films look. We wanted to test out the camera, so we wrote a really short film called Blood Drinker and chucked it up online without any expectation. It got passed around the Digital Bolex community quite a bit and the next day, it was chosen for a Vimeo Staff Pick. Something we never even thought of being a possibility and that did wonders for us and our career. I think that was the first time that we were pretty happy with the style and tone we achieved, and the fact that people responded to it made us want to continue down that path. Since then, we have released a handful of shorts, and with each one I like to feel we have progressed and perhaps found a bit more of a unique style, I hope.
Growing up, we were all obsessed with a Nickelodeon show called The Adventures of Pete and Pete. We ran the biggest fan-site for the show, before the internet was what it is now. We even ruined a family trip to America by insisting that we spent the entire time scouting locations used in the show. I think we owe a lot of our style to that show – it featured two brothers both called Pete and it was completely ridiculous without ever really playing up to its own stupidity. That tone we set out to achieve is pretty hard to balance – we always attempt to write scenarios that are absurd, but to the characters in that world, everything is so normal and serious. This however can easily go wrong and there is a really fine line. If you go too far one way, it becomes slapstick and the characters become too aware of how ridiculous it is, but then you also need to facilitate the absurdity and play up to that somewhat. So we are quite precious about finding that sweet spot, working hard to strike a hopefully decent balance.
You considered various scripts before choosing Spooky Club as the successor to last year’s Death Master’s House. What made this concept stand out amongst the other contenders as the choice for this year’s Halloween Special?
We worked really hard on writing something this year. Even though the scripts we worked on were only 3 or 4 pages long it took us ages to get it right. It always surprises people how long it takes but sometimes writing something short is even harder than something a little longer. Finding the right tone, pacing and then getting an ending that rounds things off nicely without making it feel too much like a comedy sketch. We had some great concepts this year but we couldn’t find good payoffs for them. Spooky Club was the last thing we wrote (out of maybe 20 scripts). We were five days from shooting and it was a huge relief to get something we were happy with. Or maybe we just convinced ourselves we liked it because at that point we’d lost the will to live.
It’s a dangerous game knowing us because eventually you get guilt tripped into being an ‘actor’.
There’s a Holomax style of acting which is very present across the films, how much of that is on the page vs improvisation on set?
With regards to acting, we don’t really delve into improvisation at all. The tone we strive for is super fickle – stray too far in any direction and it becomes something completely different. We feel that perhaps adding improvisation into the mix risks the tone falling on the wrong side of comedy and serious. The style also probably stems from using actors that have never acted before. I think the characters seeming completely out of their depth adds a certain charm maybe. This was actually the first short where we worked with a real actor that wasn’t just a friend. Michael was great in this, and luckily he really understood what we try to do.
Daniel Scheinert of DANIELS features as the voice of Alfred The Creep, how did that come about?
We sent Daniel our last short film, and he replied with an incredibly lovely email saying that he’d seen some of our work before and was a fan, so we figured that we’d abuse his kindness and ask him to be part of the short. Having a character dressed under a sheet made that super easy and we didn’t actually plan on asking him until we started the edit. DANIELS, as a directing duo, originally grew their fanbase on Vimeo, so they are big supporters of other creators who are passionate about the site and launching their films on there. But I think mostly we were lucky that Daniel is a super nice guy and didn’t have the heart to tell us to get lost.
There’s a feeling of DIY joy which runs through your work, adding to the aesthetics and tone of the films. What’s your approach to marshalling resources for the production of a project like Spooky Club?
The cheap production costs really boils down to the fact that we don’t have much money to put into our own personal projects. Luckily, we have some decent equipment, a lot of really cool friends and the work ethic to pull it all together. Myself and Lloyd are now in a fortunate position where we can take on every stage of the production process ourselves from learning over the years, so we save a lot of money there. Also, our friends are very generous with their time. I think the fact that we had six different people under the sheet playing Alfred The Creep sums it all up really. Everyone bands together to get stuff done. Don’t get me wrong though, we’d love to hire people and equipment that would make our lives much easier, but at the moment, we’re happily working with what we have. Plus we know we can’t compete on budget, so we just try to play to our strengths. We aren’t going up against Marvel here, so we just try to make something cool that shows it was made by real people.
The spooky season had an inverse effect on your equipment during the shoot. How did you recover from the camera hard drive failure which halted production? Did it affect the shape of the film at all?
We had a bit of a nightmare during our first day of the shoot. Our camera broke down, and we lost all the daylight whilst we were fixing it. Also, we had a strict deadline for this, as we had to get the film out for Halloween, so we couldn’t plan any reshoots. Clare, who played Margie, wasn’t available on the second shoot day so we had to do rewrites to remove her from the daytime parts of the script. We didn’t originally plan for her to get thrown out of Spooky Club, but I think it worked out for the best. I heard a rumour she’s gone on to join Scary Club.
Speaking of which you’ve put out an invitation for people to apply for membership of Spooky Club. What delights (or horrors) lay in store for those brave enough join?
We were going to sell Spooky Club membership packs when we released the short but ran out of time to get it sorted. So we just decided to put up this webpage. We still want to make up some membership packs, kinda like the old Beano member packs, but it all depends on cost and how many people are interested. In the meantime, we are enjoying getting load of spooky club applications. Some of the ‘spooky abilities’ that people are submitting are hilarious.
What’s the next instalment coming from the world of Holomax?
We are spending a lot of time working on writing features. Making shorts is all just practice for hopefully eventually making a feature. A lot of the concepts in our shorts come from bits we’ve already written for various larger ideas. Until we get the opportunity to make something longer, we’ll probably continue to make dumb short films for not much money in order to try and get better at it.