Raven Angeline Whisnant is a co-owner, CEO, and executive producer at New 32 Productions. She sat down with us to discuss her role as a lead actor and executive producer in Biters & Bleeders, the company’s upcoming horror short.
You’re involved in this project in multiple capacities, as an actor and executive producer. This question is two-fold; what made you feel like you had to produce this script? And what made you feel like you wanted to act in it?
One day Charlie sheepishly told me she was working on a new horror film, and it was about bugs. I said “Disgusting. When can I read it?” Then I nagged her for 2-3 weeks till she caved. I read a lot of scripts. It’s my job and my hobby, so I’ve seen more than my fair share. Sometimes you get a hold of a script that’s really good, and you work on it, and you like it. Every now and then though one comes along that has an electricity to it, and you don’t want to work on it, you HAVE to work on it or your soul will explode. That was the Biters script for me.
What made me want to act in it is that my best friend tricked me into it. I’m pretty camera shy honestly, almost painfully so, but Charlie wrote a character that was so unforgettable I just couldn’t pass her up. I just thought it would be so much fun to play this character, and there was so much material to explore that I felt like my brain started working on the character automatically from the first time I read it. I really connected with Penelope, and I really wanted to be a part of telling her story. Plus, who could turn down the opportunity to wear this much fake blood? (Special thanks to the lovely Sally for her beautifully terrifying effects!)
Biters and Bleeders is a really strong, incredibly well-written script crafted by your talented co-owner Charlie Monroe. The script went through our Writer’s Table process. I know it was good to begin with, but how did you see it grow as it went through the process?
One thing Charlie has always been exceptionally good at is taking in other people’s feedback. She’s an incredible writer and frankly, she doesn’t really need anyone’s help. I think something a lot of artists struggle with is having a vision for a project, but being so certain in that vision you can’t hear other ideas or questions. I’m not super great at it myself but I’m working on it. Charlie’s a role model. She always has a strong vision, but allows for flexibility and the ability to truly hear and consider others feedback. She’s sort of the embodiment of the “no ego” policy that our company has in place when it comes to collaborating. She’s so open to other ideas, she considers all criticism genuinely, and even if something changes the direction of her story or her original intention, she will let her story flow in a new direction if she feels like it strengthens her piece. All this is to say that I saw Biters and Bleeders go through more than twelve drafts in the writing phase, each one more developed than the last. It was like the details of the screenplay blossomed. She expanded the history, colored the environment, and amped up the significance of symbolism. The first draft was great, the 12th draft was magic. (And award-winning, I might add.)
Anyways, the point I am slowly making my way towards is this: even after draft twelve, she’s still developing the story. We’ve been reflecting a lot on the expression “You write your film three times. Once in the screenplay. Once on set. Again in post.” Despite this being a deeply personal script, Charlie allowed the production team to “make their own version” of the story on set. She let the production team add their own details, include their own ideas, and add their voices to the story. Now in post-production we are writing what will hopefully be the final draft. The two of us grab our coffee, we cozy up in front of my computer, we watch through each scene and we “write it in post”. We talk about the meaning of every line, and every second, and if we can’t justify why something is adding to the movie, we cut it. Then our absolutely fabulous post-production team adds their voices. For me this might be one of the most fun parts yet, they’re all bringing such incredible ideas for the sound, the color, the animation, it’s amazing to realize how much story there still is to write. I thought once we were picture locked that it was sort of the end of the story telling, but the level of depth the sound design and music are bringing to the table, is actually changing and adding to the story just as much as any other draft. I think at this point there have been more than 20 drafts of Biters, and each one has grown because of the exploration of the draft before it. Charlies the conductor, we’re all her choir.
One thing I’m hearing over and over again was how fun New 32 is to work for, and what a blast people had on set. What do you and the other co-owners do to prioritize being a good employer and creating a fun, safe environment for the artists you work with?
That has got to be my absolute favorite feedback ever. For me, fun is an essential part of the creative process. In order to really be creative, you’ve got to be a little playful. We want to encourage play and honesty, and people can only do those things when they feel safe. When it comes to physical safety and quality of life, those are an absolute must. They aren’t even up for discussion. Beyond that though we like to try to really get to know everyone and build connections. One of my favorite parts of this shoot was just getting to know everyone and becoming not only crew-mates, but friends. The Biters team made this pretty easy, by being a team of exceptionally lovely humans. I’m still in touch with most people from the shoot, which doesn’t always happen, but I think it just speaks to the bonds we all formed with each other on set. Friendship is what makes being on set fun, and fun is what makes art great. On a more serious note though, having good relationships established is more important when there are problems or if something goes wrong. I want people to feel like they are able to bring issues to my attention. Whether it’s something big or even just something that makes them uncomfortable, it’s important that people know I want them to be happy, and I want to take care of them. If you’re upset it’s a lot easier to confide honestly with someone you trust and feel comfortable with than some mysterious EP you’ve seen hanging around the set who doesn’t even know your name.
What was your favorite part of the entire process?
Being on set, hands down. We have been in a really intense production phase for several projects over here, so most of my time the past few months has been sitting behind a desk making schedules and phone calls. I really do love production, but getting back on set for the first time in a few months was like a huge epiphany for me. I realized that being on set in creative mode, working with the team, getting out the camera, is why I’m here in the first place. I almost felt a little silly every night, going back to my hotel room calling Charlie in tears. I’d sob to her “did you know I love making movies?” and she’d very patiently reply “mhm, I did know that.” Movie making is a magical but extremely long process, and sometimes it’s too easy to lose sight of the things that will fill your creative bucket. Being back on set filled me back up creatively, and I’m still riding that high.
What was your favorite scene to film? Why did you enjoy it so much?
I’m torn. I have the artist side of myself, and the little kid side of myself, and they can’t seem to agree on this answer. Little kid brain is gonna have to say: the stabbing scene. There’s a scene where Penelope attacks another character, and the combination of acting, combat, and blood being squirted at me was really top-notch. In order to achieve the “stab”, John (our fabulous…and apparently fearless DP) had to screw an apple onto the front of his camera so I’d have something to make contact with, then he had to trust me enough to go nuts with a sharp object about 2 inches away from the red camera, and 6 inches away from his hand. All the while Michael was about 12 inches away holding a bounce board, and Ontonio was positioned under the camera squirting me with a bottle full of blood. It was extremely intimidating (obviously we rehearsed a ton for safety) but ended up being amazingly therapeutic. If you’ve ever hit a punching bag and felt relieved, this was sort of like that… but more gooey. Between the screaming, crying, repeatedly stabbing the apple, blood flying through the air, and best of all: collaborating very very closely with my friends to achieve the shot, it was amazingly exhilarating.
That being said, tied for first place would probably be the kitchen scene. In contrast to some of the larger moments of the movie, the kitchen scene is so grounded it almost feels like a play. It’s simple. It’s honest. It’s just talking. On the surface it’s just a husband and wife having one of the many conversations they’ve had in their marriage, but under the surface is lava about to burst. As an actor this is the kind of scene we are all waiting for, because how many times do you get to do a scene where you have a thousand different tone changes in one scene? Then you add in the thing all actors love probably more than anything else: connecting with someone. It’s such a long scene but I was so excited to do every single take with Chris. I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to hit me with next, or what he’d try each time. Acting is fantastic when it’s responsive like that because it forces you to be engaged, and stay on your toes. The scene was so long, it was all we shot all day. Even in down time we were rehearsing the material, and talking about the significance of everything together. This is a script I’ve known for over a year, and even in rehearsals we would still discover new meanings or make connections about the material. It was just so fulfilling creatively because there was always something else to think about. We probably could have done the scene for weeks and still found new moments.
It’s a difficult scene because it’s sort of a marathon, and it’s really dark material, but Chris made it pretty easy. Chris was a really astounding Tad. He was so powerful, and could be really intimidating in the scenes, but he also managed to capture the elements of Tad that are like a helpless kid you kind of want to help despite all the terrible things he’s done. He was always very intense and commanding the scene, then Missy would call “cut” and like a magic spell had been broken, instantly Chris would just turn back into Chris, and he’d smile at me and say “are you okay?” Which at the time was lovely, but looking back it’s actually massively funny to me, and is going to make for some hilarious bloopers, but I think it mostly speaks to his ability as an actor. He was able to embody this really dark, complex character, but just step in and out of it as he needed. So it was wonderful to work with someone who was inspiring as an actor and a really fun person to work with.
How did you feel about the film during pre-production? How did that change during production, and how are you feeling now that it’s in post?
We like to be ambitious here. We always say there’s no point in making a project that doesn’t challenge us a little. We want to love a script, but look at each other and say “how on earth would we do that?” Biters was absolutely filled with moments like that, so in pre-production I had a lot of butterflies. Now being in post and seeing how phenomenal everyone’s work is, I have zero butterflies. I’m just ready to get this movie on the screen!
Truth be told: I am a woman converted. Charlie has been trying to get to hop on board the horror train for years, and I haven’t even been at the station. I am a horror movie coward. Exploring this genre though has really opened me up to the possibilities here and what makes horror films special. Now we’re pretty seriously developing several horror films. We even watched The Ring last week, because I’m incredibly brave now.
What was the most challenging part of producing this piece?
For me, the most challenging part of producing was actually NOT producing. What I mean is that I love production and I’m usually all over every single detail, but we knew if we wanted to take on Biters at the same time as our other productions that were already underway, it meant we would have to hire someone else to help me produce Biters. That was especially tough for me with this script because if it’s Charlie’s baby, I wanted to be the one to take care of it. We were lucky to find Leah though, and I felt comfortable handing her the reins throughout the pre-production, and on set. She built a really incredible team who all really put care and thought into their departments, and when I started to see how much love other people were contributing to the project, it made it easier for me to back up a little. I think they all came to care about the film the way I did, and suddenly Biters didn’t have one “mommy”, it had 17. I was just attending the production meetings, helping out with tasks and calls as needed, checking in with the team members, and so on. But this was the least involved I’ve ever been with pre-production on one of our productions. That was really scary, but I’m glad I took the plunge. We had a great time working with Leah, and she put together some really special stuff for us to work with!
It’s always exciting to see a well-written, well-rounded female character in horror. Charlie did a great job writing Penelope; what was it like to play her?
Playing Penelope was sort of an actor’s dream. You get all the really fun, really intense things actors love: high emotion scenes, huge range in content, fight choreography, prosthetics makeup, tons of screaming, it’s all very high octane. And of course in this case, I had an absolutely unbeatable co-star. There was also an incredible therapeutic value in playing a character whose journey is finding the strength to confront a man who is abusing her, and breaking free from the cycle. Having dealt with a similar person in my own life, it was amazingly cathartic to get a chance to be the girl who takes the power back. Not that I would have chosen to handle my own situation the way Penelope does, of course! There would have been no violence…or bugs. (Double yikes!) But having the opportunity to be Penelope, and be the girl who ends it was empowering. Most of the time with acting you have to tap into things that are deeply personal. It’s really scary, and it’s really hard. Maybe one of the most special things about this process though is that sometimes, when you’re lucky, it can give you a safe space to reflect on the things you’ve experienced and maybe even re-process some of them. In my own situation, I spent years feeling powerless and scared. Playing this character gave me the opportunity to think through what it would be like to see myself differently. It’s like I’m a girl who was held captive by a dragon, but Penelope gave me a chance to be the dragon slayer. I’ll always be thankful to Penelope for that. I think I’m a bit lighter now.
What are your hopes for this film? What do you want to happen with it, and what do you want audiences to get out of it?
I think my number one hope for this film is that Charlie feels fulfilled. It’s a script she put so much of herself into, and I hope her reflection comes through. I think she put so much of her heart into it because she’s ready to share her experience. The thing about stories is that they aren’t all fun, and they aren’t all nice, but they make us who we are. Which is probably why we all love storytelling so much, it gives us the chance to connect our journeys and relate to each other. Charlie’s being really brave in writing this story, and I hope it’s cathartic for her, and I hope it can be cathartic for audiences who can relate to it.
Additionally, I hope our team loves the project. They all worked so hard, and everyone really brought their A-game. I hope they watch it and see how much it all paid off. We want them to be as proud as we are.
Any closing thoughts?
The main thing on my mind when it comes to this project is gratitude. I think in the history of projects I’ve worked on, Biters is unparalleled in the level of talent on its team. You can always hire people to work on your project, but you can’t “hire” them to care. So the love everyone brought to the table was a gift, and it’s very much appreciated.