by Melanie Crew
Ricky Hess, local geek at heart, jack of all film-trades and series creator/director, has resurrected a living, breathing, monster of an award-winning web anthology series, HORROR HOTEL, where the only recurring character is a menacing dilapidated motor court hotel where “People check in, but they don’t always check out.”And he’s drug mom and dad along for the bloody ride! Inspired by the creepy fantastical worlds presented in THE TWILIGHT ZONE and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, HORROR HOTEL delivers that nostalgic deep-in-the-gut suspense and spine-chilling plot twisting angst that gained incredible popularity in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and has successfully seeped into the 21st century psyche with a raging resurgence. From what we hear, there’s always a vacancy at HORROR HOTEL, so check in if you dare and catch Season 2, filled to the bloody brim with aliens, androids, ghosts, psychotic killers – all invading your homes in the very near future!
Ricky, no film-school rookie, has dabbled in producing, directing, writing, SFX – all while creating shorts, web series, commercials and music videos. While brainstorming HORROR HOTEL, he gleaned the business knowledge of mom, Debbie Hess (executive producer) and writing/carpentry skills of dad, Al Hess (writer/set builder), to create one helluva horror filmmaking family and production team! Season 1 of the web series premiered in 2013, spanning 90 minutes of content in six twisted episodes, which can be purchased as a complete series, with each episode running 12-20 minutes in homage to THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s style and format. In 2014, the series garnered much attention from the L.A. Web Series Festival (LA Webfest), and won in four categories: Outstanding Directing, Outstanding Sound Design, Outstanding Series and Outstanding Score. And now, with Season 2 in post-production, you’ll have ample opportunity to catch a ghastly glimpse at Atlanta’s homegrown throwback to the masters of suspense and mystery! You owe it to yourself to take a step off the beaten path, check in to HORROR HOTEL and try to make it out alive!
“Aliens Stole My Boyfriend”, Season 2
ATLRetro caught up with the Hess Family for a quick interview about HORROR HOTEL; the series’ homage to ‘50s and ‘60s horror television; and what it takes to create a successful web series. And while you’re daring to take a peek at our little Q&A, get a twisted taste of the making of Season 2’s “Coma Girl” and “Brain Robbers in Love.”
ATLRetro: First off, your web-series, HORROR HOTEL is a perfect fit for ATLRetro! We love all things TWILIGHT ZONE, Alfred Hitchcock, Ray Bradbury and more! Can you tell our readers how HORROR HOTEL was born?
Ricky: I was attending a convention in another city and was seeking out an inexpensive place to stay. I ran across several suggestions but some contained warnings about the neighborhood and possible “risks” staying there, etc. I thought to myself, why would anyone want to stay someplace with such a dangerous reputation. The idea occurred to me that it would be fun to make a series about such a place and the odd, creepy kind of encounters that could occur there. The idea for HORROR HOTEL was born from that.
We see that HORROR HOTEL is a home-grown family affair, with Debbie Hess (mom) as Executive Producer, Al Hess (dad) as Writer and Ricky Hess (son) as Creator/Director. What’s it like to come from such a creative family working so closely with each other? And of course we’d like to know, who’s really the boss?
Ricky: It’s great getting to work with my family on the project. It is the most rewarding thing to me about producing the series actually. My mom and dad were somewhat new to the movie making business, but they each had skills that were needed to put a movie project together. My dad and I had for years enjoyed making up creepy stories on long road trips to amuse ourselves and he’s had some previous writing experience. Not to mention he is a great carpenter and builds all our custom props and set pieces. He’s also a good lighting technician from his years of photography. My mom, Debbie, has a pretty good business head on her and had dealt for years in the marketing world working at advertising agencies, newspapers, radio and television. She is a salesperson at heart and can endure the grueling job of marketing and promotion. I had worked for several years on other people’s projects doing everything from special effects to editing. I moved over to doing most of the directing on the series and do most of the editing as well. So together we make a pretty good, complete team.
Who’s the boss? Well, all our decisions are made together and there are always compromises that have to be made on everyone’s part to settle on a direction, but being family, this is probably a little easier since we know each other so well and have respect for each other.
You’ve stated the major influences for the series are THE TWILIGHT ZONE and Alfred Hitchcock. Are there any particular episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or any particular Hitchcock tale that inspired you more than others?
Al: My favorite TWILIGHT ZONE episode is “Invaders” with Agnes Moorehead. Tiny aliens invade an old woman’s house and hurt her. My favorite Hitchcock episode is a Ray Bradbury tale, “The Jar,” where a farmer buys a creepy pickle jar from a side-show that’s got all this weird stuff floating around in it.
“Invader”, Season 1 – Troy Halverson
Do you have any additional retro/vintage influences for this series or for other projects you are working on?
Al: I’d like to make something showing a near future world containing a utopian/dystopian conflict. Things that used to scare people during the times of Orwell and Huxley, like being controlled by machines, aren’t so scary now that it’s happened. Each new generation of communication devices and surveillance equipment gives everyone a sense of security even though it necessarily strips away individual human rights and privacy.
Since HORROR HOTEL is an anthology series, like THE TWILIGHT ZONE and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, would you say production is more or less difficult than a straight series, with recurring characters, etc.? What would you say are your biggest challenges?
Debbie: Horror works well in the anthology format because people are ok with a short story that is complete in itself and not continuing. Production-wise however, it definitely has its challenges. For starters, to tell a complete story circuit in each episode and do it well, requires a longer length episode which is always harder to do. HORROR HOTEL episodes tend to run longer than most web series, from 10-22 minutes. The first season contains over 90 minutes of content; the equivalent of a feature length film. We have to recast for each new episode, which takes time. With a serial series and recurring characters, this is faster and easier. We also have to retool the set for each new episode, completely redecorate a new hotel room specifically for that episode (new costumes, new props, new everything).
It’s like shooting a whole bunch of short films all the time. The advantage of shooting an anthology is that people can randomly pick out episodes to watch and don’t have to follow a story arch to know what’s happening. Probably the biggest challenge is simply wrangling all the different cast and crew it takes to do a series like this. First season alone took over 100 people to produce, which is a lot for a web series. It’s always a challenge to fit people into the schedule puzzle and keep a project moving forward to completion. Once we set a production schedule, we will do whatever necessary to keep that locked in and not postpone it. Too many independent film projects start but don’t finish. That’s not an option for us.
“Brain Robbers in Love”, Season 2 (L-R) Phil Spartis and Deborah Childs
What are some of the major differences between television/film formats and the web-series format?
Debbie: For a series produced for traditional television, there are specifically timed breaks (acts) to allow for commercials. The standard TV format calls for 22-24 minutes of actual story for a 30-minute program and anywhere from 44-46 minutes for an hour-long program. With a web series, they can be any length because primarily they are streamed online with no required commercial breaks, although many times they do have commercials depending on the platform. As far as the actual production, the same applies for traditional TV or a web series. You use all the same equipment, follow all the same procedures; everything is the same. The only difference is the viewing platform they will be primarily presented on.
Everyone making a web series should strive for as high a production value as you possibly can. With the advent of so many different ways to view digital series now, from your computer to your big screen TV, you want content that looks really good, with broadcast quality, high resolution, good filming techniques, etc. It’s the only way to have a series ever be seriously considered by higher caliber platforms.
What do you think separates HORROR HOTEL from other web series and makes it one-of-a-kind in the industry?
Ricky: Well, the fact that it is a true anthology sets it apart from the majority of web series out there, but we are not one-of-a-kind necessarily. We have tried to bring back old-school storytelling where the plot and story lines matter the most and we just try to fit in special or visual effects to enhance that. Sometimes filmmakers rely more on visual effects and some kind of “wow” factor to endear an audience but that gets numbing pretty fast without a decent story.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about your nominations and wins at the 2014 LA WebFest?
“Life After Men”, Season 2 (L-R) Baby Norman, Deborah Childs and Anastasia Pekhtereva
Ricky: It was an honor to receive four nominations and wins at the 2014 LA Webfest for Outstanding Series, Outstanding Directing, Outstanding Score and Outstanding Sound Design. The decision came after a review of all episodes in the first season, but the two episodes that screened at the festival were “Tilt” and “Guillotine.”
What was your process in obtaining the talent for the series? How did you snag up Grammy Award-winning Matt Still, who scored the music on the “Guillotine” episode and actor James Edward Thomas (Al Sharko), who also acted in the ‘80s television reboot of THE TWILIGHT ZONE?
Debbie: We cast for each new episode locally from the large, talented actor pool in Atlanta. We post audition notices first on our Facebook page to give our fans a chance to submit for an audition first. After that, we post on a number of casting sites primarily focused on Atlanta talent. We continue to be amazed and pleased at the truly talented group of local Atlanta actors we have been proud to work with. James Edward Thomas showed up to audition for episode “Houdini’s Hand” and was a perfect fit for the only recurring actor thus far in the series, Al Sharko. He is not only a fine actor, but a valued family friend. He also appears in episode “Invader” as sci-fi writer Rodney Silvers.
It was actually his connection to Matt Still that facilitated Matt scoring episode “Guillotine” which James is in as well. We were so honored and excited to have Matt work on an episode. His reputation as a premiere music producer working with mega stars like Elton John, Madonna and a who’s who of rock ‘n’ roll folks was just amazing and thrilling for us. He did a most excellent job on the scoring of “Guillotine” and obviously it caught the attention of LA Webfest judges. We have been fortunate to have a number of excellent musical artists work on the series including Royal Teague, Kenneth Singleton II and Quinton “Q” Amy in the first season alone.
“Four Eyes”, Season 2 (L-R) Jeremy Michael Grey and Michael Gladden
HORROR HOTEL currently has two complete seasons. How can our readers go about getting their grubby little hands on them?
Ricky: Currently the first season is released and can be seen on Hulu, AT&T U-verse, MSN Videos, and xfinity streaming platforms. It also broadcasts on the Shorts Network channel on DirectTV and AT&T U-verse. The new second season is working through post-production, releasing in the upcoming months.
What’s next for HORROR HOTEL and the Hess family? Are there more seasons in the works and if so, can you give our readers some juicy details (without giving away too many details)? Any other projects in the works?
Debbie: We are currently concentrating on post-production work for the second season and getting that distributed, but we are also kicking around some new ideas and worlds we would like to explore. But here’s a little tickler of upcoming second season episodes: Expect cute aliens that crash land their space buggy on the motel parking lot looking for Earth boyfriends; a macabre maintenance man at a convalescence home who falls in love with a comatose patient; a narcissistic businesswoman who swaps brains with a younger business associate; a family of female clones, one of whom has committed a murder; a paraplegic hit-man hired by a disgruntled ex-husband to take out his wife; and an Orwellian tale set in the near future where males are virtually extinct and women rule.
What question do you wish somebody would ask you in an interview but they never do, and what’s the answer?
“Houdini’s Hand”, Season 1
Ricky: Q: What happens to the many props and costumes you have after each episode? A: I’m so glad you asked! We really like our custom props like the “Houdini’s Hand” ornate box, the brain swap machine from second season’s “Brain Robbers In Love,” the custom ham radio from “Invader,” the hand-carved space buggy from “Aliens Stole My Boyfriend,” and a host of other one-of-a-kind props. Not the least of which is our miniature motel model we built for miniature photography seen in episode “Invader” and “Aliens Stole My Boyfriend” to date. We like to display these for visitors to see, a sort of HORROR HOTEL mini museum if you will. Most of the costumes get saved as well, and we have even reused a couple, like the Nazi uniforms and the Rufus Bass costume because you never know when some of these characters might be resurrected!
All photos courtesy of Horror Hotel LLC and used with permission.