Photo by Andrew James
David Schmoeller’s soft, circular speech halts, suspended in the sunny air of his paper-piled fourth-floor office in the Flora Dungan Humanities Building at UNLV. Like the narratives in his films, the associate professor’s recollection is more philosophically bound than detail-oriented. The facts kick back in overstuffed couches of imagination. The 64-year-old stops stroking his gray beard and continues the current digression, ending the suspense. Eventually there will be a point, but the story’s so good, it doesn’t matter when.
If you think you know Schmoeller, it’s time to think again. Tourist Trap (1979) and Puppetmaster (1989), his best-known movies, evoke a quirky brilliance that’s been burnished by maturity in his recent work. Having written more than 20 films and directed nearly as many since the early 1970s, Schmoeller has passed multiple milestones in his career, the latest a lifetime achievement award at the Fantaspoa International Film Festival in Porto Alegre, Brazil. There, a screening of his major works included his 2012 feature film, Little Monsters.
Shot entirely in Las Vegas (although the story takes place in Los Angeles as well), the film is a departure in several ways. It’s not a genre film, like the bulk of Schmoeller’s body of work, and it was done with a $15,000 budget. Compare that with the $350,000 it took to make Tourist Trap in 1978. How did he pull it off, and what does it mean—to the colleagues and students with whom he worked, to the film community in Las Vegas, and about the future of independent cinema?
You were raised in Texas, studied in Mexico and lived for nearly 30 years in L.A. before moving to Las Vegas in 2001. Does the western U.S. influence your work?
It dictates so much of the subject matter that it’s very difficult to—I mean, the last two feature films I did here, I could not get made in Hollywood.
Hollywood is really closed now, in terms of, it’s so expensive to make a movie and so expensive to release a movie. … Whereas Sundance used to be truly independent films, it’s now a subsidiary of the Hollywood machine. If you look at the films, almost all have major stars.
How does Las Vegas fit into the trilogy of cities, with Singapore and Paris in your 2008 short, Wedding Day?
I teach the master directing class here, and one of the components of that is that I direct a short film, and the students work with me on it. The semester I was teaching that class, I was going to be in Paris for an event, and also, later, a visiting professor for a few weeks in Singapore. I was going to be in these three cities, so I said, “Well, how about if I do a wedding story in each city?”
You’re also the archivist for the short-film collection here. What’s your connection to short film?
I started in shorts. In film school that’s always what you start with. As a professor, it’s hard to do a feature. Coming from Hollywood, making feature films, even though they were very low budget, they still cost millions of dollars. The last two films I did here—Thor at the Bus Stop (2009), which I produced [with May May Luong], and Little Monsters, which I wrote and directed—I self-financed for a really small sum, about 30 times less than Tourist Trap.
How did you make that work?
Well, I’m not paying anybody. I’m not paying cast, not paying crew. We’re just feeding people, paying insurance and permits.
Why are people willing to work for free?
They wanted the experience of working on a feature film. … These are mostly young people. We did both of them over just a few months, working during summer break or on weekends. Sometimes people would get jobs, and I’d have to replace them—crew members, not cast; we’d have to work around actors’ schedules.
So, they get experience. What did you get?
When I came to UNLV, I sort of gave up on the idea of making any feature films, and I was OK with that. That’s why I made shorts. But when I did Thor, which we did during the summer, I realized that you can make a film for $15,000, so I wanted to do one myself. I’m really glad I made it, because now I want to make another one.
Did you ever have a day where you thought, “Ugh! Amateurs …”
No. The movie is pretty good. The acting is good, the cinematography is good, and the editing is very good. Was I an amateur when I did Tourist Trap? Yeah, I guess I was. That was my first movie, yet it’s my most well-known. So, even though a lot of cast and crew were doing their first feature, they’d all done a lot of work. It was a professional production.
It kind of proves there’s enough talent in Las Vegas to support a local independent film industry.
Mike and Jerry [Thompson, writer-directors of Thor] grew up here, so they had enormous resources. They’re also very good filmmakers. People really wanted to work with them. There are a lot of really good actors here. You just have to figure out how to get them. … I don’t know that it’s an industry yet, because I don’t know that it’s making any money, but there certainly is an artistic filmmaking community. A number of feature films have been made here. A lot of our students stay. They form their own production companies, and they do pretty well.
There are dozens of feature films from here that are out in the world in different forms, playing at film festivals. Most of them are either financed through Kickstarter or they’re no-budget movies, but they’re getting made. Now there’s this glut of movies, not just here but everywhere; the trick is, how do you get them seen?
How do you get them seen?
I’m learning that. It’s very difficult. We had a national distribution for Thor at the Bus Stop, but it just didn’t click. That’s because you’re competing with major studios.
Does it have anything to do with consumer habits changing, the emergence of video-on-demand and mobile viewing?
Yes. It’s actually where everything is going, and Hollywood is shifting to just streaming. The problem with it is, the economic revenue is not there yet. The industry has already changed so much in ways we’re not really aware of, and Hollywood keeps being shocked at how fast it’s happening.
What does it feel like to get a lifetime achievement award?
Even though I’ve made all kinds of films, not just horror or genre films, there is a real stigma to those when you make them. The horror film is the stepchild of the film industry. That’s starting to change. Just this year, Tourist Trap was included in the book Studies in Terror: Landmarks of Horror Cinema (Signum, $26). When I went to Brazil, there were all these young people in their early 20s, who have seen all my movies. They brought posters and DVDs and VHSs for me to sign, and they’re all in Portuguese. It was like, “How did these young people find out about these movies that are 35 years old?”
Recommend a horror film for me, one that I probably haven’t seen.
The Julie Christie-Donald Sutherland film Don’t Look Now (1973). It’s a classic horror film, one of the best ever.
Watching Little Monsters is satisfying in the same way as trying an out-of-the-way ethnic restaurant and finding good food, warm atmosphere and excellent service. Writer-director David Schmoeller isn’t dishing up anything too risky story-wise, but it’s solid fare, well told and gorgeously presented.
The film follows James Landers and Carl Withers, who kidnapped and killed toddler David McClendon when they were 10 (inspired, only up to here, by the murder of James Bulger in the U.K. in 1993). The boys are 18 now, and being released from two separate prisons, given new identities and placed in the protective custody of foster families, one in Los Angeles, the other in Las Vegas. They’re forced to hide their past and are strictly forbidden to contact their real families or each other. This provides the narrative tension, since everyone—from tabloid journalists to a bounty hunter—wants to know where they are.
That tension, however, pales in comparison to the unrelenting, minute-by-minute suspense of Landers and Withers themselves coping with freedom, justice and truth. They embody two different ways of looking at these virtues, two divergent public views of their crime and punishment, and in the end they’re forced to do battle not with their pursuers, but with each other.
Schmoeller’s superb craftsmanship is best illustrated in the scene where Withers finds his mother. Through a gut-wrenching, practically silent game of Russian roulette, the storyteller both reveals the murderer’s tortured childhood and punctuates the omnipresent question, “Who’s the real monster here?”
Perhaps most satisfying to local audiences will be the cinematography of Craig Boydston, who captures the wild reds and golds of the Mojave Desert while avoiding predictable, road-trip movie scenery. Schmoeller also shows his closeness to the city’s pathos in his site selection, using places such as a foreclosed-upon home.
The only disappointment may be the film’s final moment, when the script steps out of third person for a creepy, direct character-to-viewer moment. It’s an awkwardly blunt end to a mysterious mood. This stumble doesn’t matter much, though. By then, the tale is devoured, the check paid and the server tipped, with gratitude for a delectable surprise. ★★★☆☆