Dustin Wayde Mills is an up and coming micro-budget genre filmmaker that has made more films in the last few years than you’ve had nervous breakdowns. And, you’ve had a lot of nervous breakdowns. It’s time to see someone. But, I digress — Mills came crashing through the gates with his ambitious debut The Puppet Monster Massacre, and unlike many other such prolific filmmakers, his quantity also equates to quality. Each film has successfully tackled a different subgenre and proves to be a wildly entertaining throwback to many of the films of the 70’s and 80’s. I had a chance to talk with him about his career thus far and what’s coming up down the line …
JASON HOWARD: Firstly, did you go the film school route, or are you self-taught?
DUSTIN WAYDE MILLS: Self-taught. I wanted to go to film school, but I was (unfortunately) not a child of privilege. I maintain that my path was the correct one, though. Most of the film school grads I have met are monumental pains in the ass.
JH: Why puppets on your first full length? Was it a deep seeded fear of them, or was it more of a budgetary thing?
DWM: I just hadn’t seen a puppet horror film before. There is Meet The Feebles, of course, but that is the closest thing to a hand puppet horror film I had ever seen. I wanted to watch it, so I made it. It’s the driving motivation behind most of my film projects. I try to observe a void and then fill it.
JH: Absolutely — I believe you are correct. Feebles feels more like exploitation to me, so I think you may be one of the first. Who made the puppets? Is it safe to assume that, considering the budget, that it was your own hand filling most of them?
DWM: My mother made most of them. I made the monster. The penguin and rabbits were purchased. I think there is one shot in the film where someone is assisting me, but other than that I am puppeteering every puppet in the film. It was rough.
JH: I’m sure it was – did that play into your decision to go live action with your follow up, Zombie A-hole?
DWM: Maybe. I never really envisioned making a lot of puppet films. I will say that while live action films present their own set of challenges, they are much easier to make than a puppet film.
JH: So, you weren’t necessarily looking to be known as the “puppet man?”
DWM: Not really. They do find their way into all of my films. Everything I have made so far features a puppet of some kind. I really like them. I like that they are tangible. I will always choose a puppet or a guy in a suit over CGI if I can. Even if it looks fake the audience knows that it is real and physically exists somewhere.
JH: Good man. I noticed during Zombie A-hole that much of the composition and lighting seemed to harken back to the zombie films of the 70’s, especially Fulci. Considering the name of one of the characters, is it safe to assume that those flicks were influential?
DWM: Most definitely. I was going for a drive-in B-movie aesthetic in that one. There is something remarkably charismatic about those old films. They were brutal, but at the same time sort of earnest and innocent. I dig that.
JH: Absolutely. With that one and Bath Salt Zombies, you had two pretty original takes on zombies. Was there a concern with entering what is probably the most crowded horror sub-genre?
DWM: I wasn’t concerned, but I knew I didn’t want to make your average zombie film in either case. There is enough of that. I’m tired of viruses and zombie apocalypses. There are so many different kinds of zombies, but everyone seems to focus on the same old “it’s a virus … don’t get bit … bullet to the head.” I was tired of it. I still am.
JH: Were you as influenced by 80’s horror as it would seem?
DWM: Yeah. Those were the films I grew up with, so I can’t help but be influenced by them. Horror was fun back then. That’s the type of horror I dig the most. I can groove to a dark and gritty horror film every now and then, but I like my horror a bit lighter usually. Monsters, pretty girls, and badass heroes.
JH: Do you feel it necessary to try and avoid all of the tropes and trappings that 80’s horror brings with it, or do you prefer to embrace them head on?
DWM: I don’t really think about. I just try to write good stories. I mean I guess I do try to avoid making my characters make stupid decisions, but sometimes that can’t be helped. If every character acted rationally and intelligently then horror films would barely exist.
JH: When you approach making a movie, do you just try to make something that you would like and hope that it finds people that share your sensibilities, or do you keep a wider audience in mind?
DWM: It’s a little bit of both. First and foremost I am trying to make a good movie with what I have available that I would enjoy watching. However, I have a gazillion ideas and some of them are more accessible than others. So I probably tend to lean toward those a bit more. For example, Easter Casket is a film that I really enjoy, but it was made with the knowledge that people dig holiday based horror films.
JH: Your next flick, Night of the Tentacles, seemed to be more character driven and perhaps a little less FX-heavy. Was that a conscious decision to do something a little more straight-forward?
DWM: Night of the Tentacles is just incredibly personal. There is a lot of me in that film. So much so that I was certain people were going to hate it. I think that is why it is more character driven, because at the time I wanted to tell a story about people. There wasn’t much room for spectacle in that one.
JH: Because you handle so many of the duties yourself, does it get a bit easier with each film? Or, does increased ambition cancel out the knowledge you gain?
DWM: I don’t know if they get easier, but they get faster. I can turn films around quicker now than before. Each film still nearly kills me though. After the actors wrap, I have years of work ahead of me. After I finish a final edit on a film I usually collapse for about a week.
JH: Speaking of which, with The Puppet Monster Massacre coming out just a few years ago, you’ve amassed a rather impressive filmography in the time since. Are you always working? Does writer’s block ever strike?
DWM: I am constantly working. I can’t afford to stop. I’ve never had writer’s block. I have more ideas than I have time. I will die before I come close to filming them all. It’s never been a problem for me.
JH: What kind of budgets do you generally work with? Do you find that limited budgets help the creative process?
DWM: My budgets are usually between $1k and $2k. Sometimes a little more. I had $5k for Easter Casket because of our indiegogo, but only about $3k of that is on screen. The rest was for fulfillment and whatnot. I can’t really compare because I have never had a large budget. While more money would be nice, I never lament the fact that I had to make my films on a limited budget. It’s part of their character in my opinion. I do know that I have no desire to have a producer or studio breathing down my neck, telling me how I have to do things. If I wanted that I would just go back to working in an office and live a normal life. I’d rather be poor. I’d rather make my movies with a cardboard camera starring rat carcasses on sticks than sacrifice my artistic freedom.
JH: How has your history (and present) directing music videos inform your technique with your features?
DWM: Music videos are a different animal. It’s hard to compare making a film to making a music video. I will say, though, that music videos are a good testing ground. I like using them to test techniques and ideas before I attempt to use them in a feature. You can get away with certain looks and abstract ideas in music videos more easily than in features.
JH: You’ve mentioned your latest flick, Easter Casket — can you tell us a little about that?
DWM: Sure. Easter Casket is at its core about the Easter Bunny slaughtering clergy. It’s a totally oddball film. I’m not even sure it’s actually a horror film. It’s one of the strangest flicks I have ever made, and I am monumentally proud of it and all of the people who helped me bring it to life.
JH: Is there a statement there regarding the Catholic Church, or is it more to fill the need of holiday horror to finally have an Easter bunny?
DWM: There is a statement about hypocrisy if you look hard enough, but honestly I just included the Catholicism stuff because it made the most sense for the story. And, yeah … I did think it was odd that there are so many Easter horror films starring a guy in a bunny costume or mask. People keep doing the same thing over and over. It’s like they don’t realize they are doing it.
JH: Couldn’t agree more. You seem to have a fan base that grows with each new film. What role does fan support play in keeping you going?
DWM: I wouldn’t have made it past my first film without the support of my fans. Not just financially. Making movies is hard. It’s very, very, very hard for a plethora of reasons. If I didn’t have a small army of people telling me it was all worth it then I would just give up. It’s not like it’s making me rich.
JH: Not necessarily your favorite, but is there a horror/genre movie or two that you can recommend to our readers that may not be on their radar? I know that you and I both share a love for Manborg …
DWM: Yeah. Manborg is a masterpiece for sure. I don’t mean that ironically. Manborg is a good fu@#ing movie. I would encourage people to check it out for sure. I would also encourage people to scope out Adam Chaplin. It’s this awesome Italian horror/action film. It’s beautiful and grotesque, and amazing. I would also suggest Video Diary of a Lost Girl by Lindsey Denniberg. I’m not sure if it’s out yet, but it is a great micro-budget horror love story. It’s brilliant, funny, and inventive.
JH: Do you have anything coming up that we should keep an eye out for?
DWM: Yes indeed. My film Kill That Bitch is coming out in September. It’s a slasher film on the surface, but all is not what it seems. It’s exclusive to my mailing list, so people need to join to order.
I also have The Ballad of Skinless Pete coming out in October. It’s a dark film. Another character study that is incredibly personal in addition to being slimy and gross and crazy. It’s like The Fly meets Re-Animator.
JH: Can you tell us a little about the funding for these new projects?
DWM: Sure. Basically we are running an indiegogo campaign for The Ballad of Skinless Pete. It’s essentially the pre-orders for the film. The film is being made no matter what, but the more pre-orders we get, the more we can do for the film.
JH: I’ve also heard you mention a possible anthology series — Dumpstervision. Is that still on the horizon?
DWM: Yes. I am developing that right now. It will basically be a TV series in the form of DVD releases hosted by Raimi Campbell from The Puppet Monster Massacre. I guess it’s my version of a horror host show. Those will hopefully start coming out early next year.
JH: Speaking of Raimi and PMM, any chance for a return to The Puppet Monster Massacre?
DWM: I want to do a sequel. I am hoping to start pre-production on that next year. I am sure it will get made, but it’s going to be a while. The fans keep asking for it, so I feel like I need to deliver. The first one almost killed me though, and I still haven’t made my money back. So, this sequel will be an act of pure creative masochism.
JH: You need those every once in a while. Is your mailing list the best way for people to get ahold of your films?
DWM: Yes. They get the films direct that way and I provide exclusive goodies and news tidbits for my members.
JH: Great! Well, I certainly appreciate your time and I look forward to Kill That Bitch and The Ballad of Skinless Pete. I’ve enjoyed them all so far!
DWM: Thank you very much, sir.
There you have it — a filmmaker who seems to love discussing films. In fact, he’s been known to chat to fans through his Facebook page, so hit him up at https://www.facebook.com/dustin.w.mills, where you can find out how to pre-order The Ballad of Skinless Pete and stay connected with future projects.
Interviewed by Jason Howard for Influx Magazine
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