Kipp Tribble is an independent actor, writer, producer, director, and owner of his own film company MRP Entertainment. Kipp is known for independent horror and thriller titles such as Coffin (2011), Coffin 2 (2017) and his latest release Char Man (2019), an unconventional (and often comedic) found footage horror film which you can view for free on Amazon Prime.
The NAFC’s 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award went to Robert Redford, owing much to his efforts promoting independent film such as the Sundance Institute and Film Festival. Who or what inspired you to begin your film career with indie film?
As a kid, I was always fascinated with storytelling and movies, but the indie thing for me definitely started with Robert Rodriguez. I had read about El Mariachi but didn’t see it until a couple of years after it came out. It was then that I thought, “Wait, he did this for like $7,000? Maybe I could, too…”
I picked up his book, Rebel Without a Crew, and read it a few times. Really studied it. He broke down how to do everything even if you had zero experience. And zero experience is what I had as a filmmaker! I also started reading every book I could about screenwriting and filmmaking, as well as acting for the camera, because prior to that I had only done a couple of short films as an actor.
Then around the time I was studying everything Rodriguez had done, Clerks came out. Then The Brothers McMullen came along. By then I had almost memorized Rodriguez’s methods, but had started reading interviews about how Kevin Smith and Ed Burns did their films. And Burns was going exactly the same direction I wanted to go as an actor, writer, director, producer, etc., so I paid particular attention to his process.
Sugar Cain, your first indie film, premiered in 1996. How has the indie film scene changed for you since Sugar Cain, particularly in comparison with releasing Char Man this year?
The indie world has changed on several different levels. Obviously VOD has been a pretty big factor for indies. DVDs weren’t a thing when Sugar Cain was made—and the DVD market was created and has now almost died out since then! Back when I did Sugar Cain, we made our money selling the film to TV and home video in the foreign markets. I think we ended up in about 18 different territories, which isn’t a ton, but for a tiny indie film back then, it was pretty good. Rental stores such as Blockbuster have disappeared, but they were also a nice chunk of domestic revenue for us from the late 90’s through the collapse of the video rental chains.
Now with streaming, the opportunities and platforms are abundant and you have more places for your film to be seen. But with that, there is a lot more content so the revenue is stretched a bit thin.
It’s like this: a small film’s revenue is now split between iTunes, Amazon Prime, Netflix, GooglePlay, FandangoNOW, VUDU, TUBI, the premium cable streaming platforms, and the list goes on and on. And foreign money is also now split up between different streaming platforms. Instead of the consumer getting all of their rentals in one place, they get them spread over 10 or more platforms, which oftentimes pay a share of the revenue, not a chunk up front like it used to be. And with so much more content on the VOD “shelves,” the chances of your film being rented goes down. So your share of the revenue shrinks.
Redbox has been a wonderful exception for some indie films, though. I’ve been fortunate enough to have three of my films be picked up by Redbox and it’s been a great experience. But Redbox only has so much space and the competition is fierce, so most indie films can’t expect to land a spot in the kiosk.
With a film like Char Man, you have to take all of this into consideration and work at minimizing your risk. Found footage is already a smaller niche genre, further shrinking your profit potential. So you keep things tight: shoot less days, experiment with the equipment, scale your cast down to the bare minimum, etc.
Sugar Cain recouped its costs in the foreign market, but today, I would have made that film for about 1/4th what it cost originally. You have to keep your budget tight in order to make sure you have a nice return these days because just breaking even is not where you want to be. The good news is technology has changed the indie game in amazing ways. Cameras, sound equipment, editing systems, etc., all cost just a fraction of what they used to cost. Your phone can make a feature film, so there is literally no excuse to not make your film these days.
In Char Man and many of your other films, you’re a man of many hats—actor, director, producer, writer, and editor. Which role do you enjoy the most?
This is going to sound like the softest of answers, but they are all my favorite when I am doing them. Well, except maybe producing! Producing can be a nightmare with juggling the personalities of cast, crew and investors, locations, budgets, unions, contracts, insurance, schedule – and it goes on and on. And it oftentimes has the least to do with the creative aspects of filmmaking.
But producing is 100% necessary and the area to do particularly well if you are going to be successful in a film career. That is an important thing to remember: producing may seem easy, but it is probably the hardest job as a filmmaker. You must learn to do that part extremely well.
I come from the theatre world and have been an actor for a very long time. I absolutely love that process. Losing myself in a character, it’s a great experience. And when I’m writing and cracking a story, that is incredibly energizing and fulfilling, too. As for directing, that’s aligning all the pieces on set to not only tell the story then, but to give yourself options on which way to tell that story when post production comes along. It’s such a rush to have all of those elements to ‘play’ with on set. Then as an editor…that’s just fun. I was always in the editing room on my films, but only started pushing the buttons myself 3 or 4 years ago when I finally thought, ‘Why don’t I just sit in that chair?’ Editing is probably the most fun because the stress level has been lowered a bit at that point, and you get to finally tell the story as it’s going to be seen, and you also get to find hidden elements to your story and performances that you didn’t realize were there until you have watched it over and over again.
I will say that it’s not possible to wear all of these hats on every project. You have to feel it and make sure you can do the project justice in each of those departments. I don’t specifically pick projects these days just so I can wear all of those hats, but I do approach a potential project by analyzing what I can bring to those positions on the film, be it as an actor, or a director and producer.
To most viewers (and some hopeful filmmakers), found footage films such as Char Man appear very easy and cheap to produce. What are some of the unforeseen issues you had behind the scenes while shooting a found footage film?
You have to keep reminding yourself that you are still telling a story! You start to be so loose with the dialogue, which can lead you to be loose with the narrative and adding scenes that were not scheduled, so the danger is to easily lose your handle on the through line of the story. Specific to Char Man, we decided to implement a lot of comedy up front – and Kurt Ela and I have known one another for many years, so the banter came natural for us. However, we had to rein ourselves in from time to time and remember we were shooting a horror/thriller story and not just a comedy.
We specifically structured Char Man to not have to look very cinematic or polished, and found footage is perfect for that. However, you do have to still make capture certain shots to tell the story, but you cannot set up the shot as a good DP would, because then you can lose the found footage look. So you have to set up specific shots while still making them look like they were captured by accident – if that makes sense. This is something that can actually slow you down a bit if you do not prepare properly. Same goes for capturing your audio. Yes, found footage allows for uneven sound levels, but you still have to capture what is being said in order for the story to be told – and that is a delivery requirement as well.
So while it may sound easy to just grab your smartphone and run off into the woods with your friends and shoot a scary movie, you will fall flat on your face if you don’t prepare like you would with any other film. I cannot say this enough for any film you set out to make: Prepare. Prepare to the point where you think you have over-prepared, because you’ll realize you still didn’t prepare enough when you get on set.
And that goes back to being a good producer, even on micro budget found footage films. Not only do you have to prepare, but you have to make sure every one on your crew is prepared and your cast is ready to rock. All it takes is one person to not be prepared to destroy an entire production. So do all of your homework!
How have digital distributors such as Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Google Play affected your career as an independent filmmaker?
They’ve changed the game, there’s no question. You might not get on all of the platforms, and it’s weird how some will do great for you and some won’t, but these days if you make a solid enough film, generally you’ll have find a VOD home for it.
Primarily for me, digital has helped me gain a bit more control over where, when and how my films are seen. In the past, you’d sign the film away and then they’d tell you who bought it and when it might be released. Now I can be involved in picking a release date, working on the artwork, choosing to release on all VOD platforms at once or do a ‘roll out’, etc. It’s given me more control, for sure, but also has allowed me to see profits quicker because the money goes through fewer channels and middle men – if you do it the right way. And getting more money quicker is always a great thing!
The exposure these platforms give you is also great. Now more people will see your work because they don’t have to leave their house to rent it at a store. I hear from people all over that have found some of our films on VOD, which is always fun to get those fan emails. It also helps you connect with other filmmakers and actors, which has led to some nice collaborations. That’s something I hadn’t expected with these platforms, to make professional connections, but has been a nice surprise.
Found footage in the horror genre was popularized by The Blair Witch Project (1999) twenty years ago. Many horror fans think the technique has run its course, especially in light of the Paranormal Activity franchise. How did you try to prevent Char Man from becoming dime-a-dozen?
There were a couple of things we focused on to try and set us apart, but also making sure to keep it simple along the way. One thing was the performances and chemistry between Kurt, Nick Greco and myself. As I mentioned, Kurt and I had known one another for years, but I didn’t meet Nick until a few weeks before shooting the film. Kurt knew him from before, but we decided that mine and Nick’s characters would be acquaintances instead. So Nick and I focused on our characters bonding over the filmmaking elements within the film, and it contrasted with Kurt’s frustrations of wanting to abandon the project as things started to go sour.
We also wanted to infuse the film with a bit more comedy than is usually seen in found footage films. That was a conscious effort for us in the first act, and also peppered throughout, whether it was the interaction between Kurt and myself or Nick’s comments from behind camera. While the tension continued to build, we made sure to have less comedy, but didn’t completely do away with it. That was intentional.
And the last thing we worked on was to put a twist on our “purpose”. Meaning, our characters set out to make a documentary – as is the premise of about 80% of found footage films, it seems. Ours was to be a fake documentary, though, and it was to be about the Ojai Vampire. We wanted to use this as our set up and prepare the audience for the vampire story and then have the audience be as unprepared for the Char Man stuff as our characters were. We also dropped some red herrings along the way, such as Nick’s character telling the story about the light in the hospital; the map found during the second trip to the bridge; the coffins built for the vampire story that never arrive; the mounds we find on the property that looks like graves, etc.: little tidbits that give the audience something else to chew on.
You wrote, directed and produced The Lost Day (2016) with Danny Trejo and William Baldwin. How do Hollywood actors compare to their indie counterparts?
The process is generally the same, but it really depends on the specific actor. Of course, you’ll usually have more time to discuss and go over the work beforehand with indie, or “lesser known”, actors. That is usually because of scheduling, as the well known actors are generally very busy.
Specifically for Billy and Danny, they both work in completely different ways. Billy likes to discuss the character and the background a few times at length beforehand, then go away and work on each scene and carve it out, then come back and discuss some more. Then he’ll take a break between shoot days and rework the upcoming scenes. It’s almost a way of “rehearsing” the scenes while filming and it was fun to go through that process with him.
Danny, on the other hand, is a different kind of machine. He might have the busiest schedule of anyone in the industry! He literally flew in from another set for two days to shoot with us, then flew right back out to another gig. We didn’t discuss the character or his scenes, or even speak to him, until he was on set for his first day. He comes in, we give him some notes and he doesn’t ask many questions. And when cameras roll, he turns it on. Both he and Billy turned in really strong performances, but use very different methods in getting there.
“Indie actors” covers a pretty broad range. I’ve cast many very experienced actors who might be called indie actors because they are not a known face in the industry, and I’ve also cast completely inexperienced actors, but they were great for the role and did a great job. You get to work the scenes a bit more with these actors because they are generally more available to you, but the process of breaking down the scenes are the same.
That said, it is very apparent when an actor has extensive on-set experience like Billy, Danny or other seasoned actors. They approach a working set differently, such as understanding where the camera will be and where the camera will be moving during a take, or finding their light. Their grasp of the technical side of filmmaking is always superior to an actor with little or no experience. They also will understand if they have time to “play” and explore in a scene or if they need to nail it in one take, which is often the case on a tight schedule. Does having all that experience make someone a better actor than another? No, but it makes them understand how to navigate the speed bumps on a set or filter out any problems around them in order to preserve their own performance for the camera. That can make a big difference when you’re in the editing room.
Some trailers from Kipp’s more recent films include:
THE LOST DAY (2018) featuring William Baldwin and Danny Trejo
Kipp’s company, MRP Entertainment, also handles the distribution for other indie films, including: