For husband and wife team Shawn and Alicia Schminke, the road to their new film A Dead Dame in Hollywood was one fraught with intrigue and Herculean challenges, much like Shawn’s story about sleuthhound Stone Evergreen and his sometimes humorous quest for the truth behind the apparent suicide of a young Hollywood starlet.
Shawn wrote and directed A Dead Dame in Hollywood while Alicia acted as a producer along with acting in the film itself. Recently, ye olde scribbler of words had the opportunity to sit down and talk with this mensch duo about their cinematic Valentine to the world of 1940s-50s film noir. I should not have been surprised that I would so enjoy doing an interview with a couple that cites as two of their big inspirations in film as being Kevin Smith and Alfred Hitchcock. Sit back now Gentle Readers and enjoy this Deep Dig with Shawn and Alicia Schminke, two of the nicest people in an industry I love dearly.
Vents: Thanks so much for talking with Vents Magazine, Shawn and Alicia! Before we get the proverbial ball rolling, how have the two of you been during these uncertain times?
Shawn Schminke: We’ve been keeping busy writing and planning for our next projects, and like everyone else we’re spending a lot of time watching movies!
Vents: Shawn, you wrote and directed the film A Dead Dame in Hollywood and Alicia, you not only served as a producer on the film but you also acted in it. For Vents readers not in the know, how would you describe this little gem, story-wise?
SS: The story begins with a young actress (played by Alicia!) committing suicide under some strange circumstances. Stone Evergreen, a private eye in Los Angeles, enters our absurd version of Hollywood to uncover the truth about what happened to her.
Vents: A Dead Dame in Hollywood is obviously steeped very much in the exotic and smoky world of film noir, but it’s also a comedy. From the top, what inspired you to write this particular story?
SS: It’s probably no secret the screwbally humor was influenced by The Naked Gun and Airplane, two of our favorites. In 2013 I wrote a monster movie with an ensemble cast with Stone Evergreen as one of the side characters. As I wrote, I realized Stone was my favorite character to write for and he should be the lead. Then I took it a step further and gave Stone his own movie instead. As for the plot itself, I liked this idea of a murder mystery without a murder. It’s not about learning who killed the Dead Dame, but why she was pushed into killing herself, and who was pulling the strings.
Vents: The film is shot in black and white which, as most fans of classic noir will tell you, is almost a must for this genre. In this era of The Fast and the Furious and candy colored/comic book colors erupting from virtually every frame of film in local multiplexes, did you receive any pushback on the idea of shooting your movie in black and white?
SS: I don’t remember much outside pushback, but early on there were times we wondered if the black and white might stop some people from checking the movie out. But it was a style choice that was important to us, so those worries were quickly put aside.
Vents: How quickly did the film come together? Was it a quick genesis from page to screen or did it take more of a tortuous route to arrive on the silver screen?
SS: The script was finished in the spring of 2017, we shot our first scene in July that same year, and the film was finished in March 2020. So about three years overall. We all have day jobs, some on weekends so no day was ever ‘perfect’ for everyone. And when you can only afford that soundstage exactly once, you wait until everyone can be there! The biggest hurdle was scheduling for sure. There were only about 15 days with cast total and a few second unit shoots we did ourselves, spread out over about 30 months. It’s funny, the first and last scenes we shot are only about 30 seconds apart from each other in the finished film.
Vents: You’ve got an electric cast for A Dead Dame in Hollywood; Alan Maxson, Allie Rivera, Breeana Judy and Noel Jason Scott among many other talented thespians. How did you go about assembling such a strong ensemble of actors?
Alicia Schminke: Shawn has been friends with Alan Maxson since college, so he’s always been one of our go-to collaborators. The part of Stone Evergreen was written specifically for him. We worked with Breeanna Judy on previous projects and over the years have become close friends with her, so we already knew she would be our leading lady. The rest of the cast we met through those two people, and have worked with nearly all of them at least once leading up to Dame.
Vents: Alicia, as noted earlier you actually pull more than double-duty on the film: You worked as an actor, a camera operator, a production designer, sound department and as a producer. Was this difficult to maneuver or are you just one of those incredibly talented individuals who can effortlessly multi-task?
AS: It wasn’t necessarily difficult because I was usually only performing one role at a time – whether it was acting, running sound, dressing the set, etc. So while it was a lot to handle, I didn’t mind the challenge.
Vents: Shawn, as a director was it easy to maintain the personal with the professional with Alicia? In other words, were you able to successfully compartmentalize the on-set with the off-set dynamic? Same question to you, Alicia!
SS: We want to have fun on set first and foremost, and we work with our friends to do just that. The dynamic doesn’t change much on and off set to be honest. Maybe we turn down the mushy stuff a bit.
AS: Shawn is definitely more professional on set than me. I constantly grab his butt while we’re working. It’s how I show my affection, professionally.
Vents: What sort of a budget did you have to work with on A Dead Dame in Hollywood? The film looks incredibly lush and period appropriate.
SS: Thank you! We tried our best within our budget to match the time period. Production costs were about $5,000. We shot on soundstages for only five days, but those location fees were half of the budget. The rest of the movie was shot in or around our apartment or at Breeanna’s house. The big clock tower set was an 8’ by 8’ wall we built in our living room, only to tear the following night after filming. That’s what you have to do to make a film at this price point.
Vents: Speaking of the look of A Dead Dame in Hollywood, Shawn you were the cinematographer for the film. Was there any particular D.P. that influenced you and the look of Dame?
SS: I can’t say there wasn’t one DP in particular. We wanted it to feel like a typical film from the 1940s so it was more the style in general that was the inspiration rather than a specific cinematographer’s work. And it has to be said, working at this budget often means some choices are made due to time or equipment limitations.
Vents: Shawn, you’ve established yourself as one of the go-to guys in Hollywood for outstanding visual effects on many A-list projects such as Thor: Ragnarok and a personal favorite of mine, Jojo Rabbit. Keeping in mind that this is not your first rodeo in the director’s chair, was A Dead Dame in Hollywood challenging to you as a director?
SS: It was the scope of the project and the number of roles I had to fill that made directing challenging more than anything else. No job could really take 100% of my attention, or Alicia’s, for that matter. I couldn’t always spend as much time with the actors as I would like, or take an extra 15 minutes getting that perfect camera setup. Before any shoot, Alicia and I were usually up half the night doing the prep that would normally be handled by your costume / props / art departments. Some days, directing was the easy part!
Vents: Alicia, I noted earlier that you pulled double-duty on Dame, but like your husband you have a killer resume in the industry, having worked in many different venues such as Costume Designer, Editor, Writer and even as a director for the 2016 short Are You Lonely. Is there one avenue that attracts you more than another in the industry and that you would eventually like to concentrate strictly on, or is it a matter of apples and oranges?
AS: I enjoyed getting to wear so many different hats on Dead Dame, but if I were to narrow it down I’d focus on writing or special fx makeup. I love writing, but I have a passion for gore fashion!
Vents: For both of you: Is there any one director that has inspired your own work, specifically when it comes to A Dead Dame in Hollywood and Are you Lonely?
SS: My favorite director would probably be Chris Nolan, but all the two-shots in Dame scream Kevin Smith.
AS: Alfred Hitchcock was definitely an inspiration for Are You Lonely. The bathtub scene, the music, the POV shots were all inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Vents: How has the advent of the coronavirus altered the release pattern and/or the publicity of A Dead Dame in Hollywood?
SS: Our big public premiere was supposed to be at the Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival in our home state of Iowa, but it was unfortunately postponed. As more festivals were cancelled due to the pandemic we just decided that since everyone is stuck at home anyway, we might as well release the movie online and hopefully make some people laugh at an otherwise unfunny time. We’re kinda making it up as we go, which honestly might be our whole approach to filmmaking.
Vents: What’s next for the two of you now that Dame is in the can and finally reaching audiences thanks to the devices of Amazon Prime?
SS: We’re self-distributing the movie, so getting the word out will be an ongoing process – so thank you again for having us! We’re both working on some new scripts (including a new Stone Evergreen adventure!) and are hoping we’ll have a new project for 2021.
Vents: Final (Silly) Question: The two of you are stranded on a deserted island. What two movies do you have with you to watch while awaiting rescue?
SS: Terminator 2 and Wizard of Oz. We’ll let you decide who picked what!
A Dead Dame in Hollywood can currently be seen on Amazon Prime. Tell ‘em Vents sent ya!