BEYOND HUMAN the LAST CALL- Interview with James Matthew StormINTERVIEW
Cult Critic- What was the movie you made at six years old, what did the early childhood days teach you about your filmmaking future, and how did your film education go from there
James- My earliest organized narrative-driven backyard movie was an Indiana Jones movie. I recruited the neighborhood kids and I had some basic costumes provided by my mom. I had a 4x4 Power Wheels truck for the actions scenes and my Dad would film everything on the home VHS camera. For me this was the perfect beginning to a lifelong career. It was all very natural; I wasn’t trying to be a filmmaker I just wanted to tell stories. I didn’t start taking film classes of any kind until high school. By then I had already made several feature films and was self-taught by learning on my own sets.
Cult Critic-How has the formation of your own production company changed the way you do things?
James- I figured out early on that in order to continue making my films I needed a base infrastructure that would allow me to work continuously and maintain control of my own projects. J.S. Co. PRODUCTIONS Digital Video Studios had already unofficially existed for years, so it was more of a ceremonial thing when I officially launched my company in 1999. The idea was that by owning my own production company, I would be able to self sustain and pay the bills by working commercial gigs by day and producing my indie films by night. This dynamic hasn’t changed much over the years. This is still how I prefer to do things. It’s the only way I can truly maintain the artistic integrity of my productions.
Cult Critic- What on this night got your production manager (Sean C. Sprigle) so up in arms to pick up the camera and go exploring?
James- Initially, Sean was at a cocktail party with a group of friends who were discussing the recent discovery of the mansion. Some of them had claimed to have visited and gotten lost within the ruins of the Rancho Santa Fe cult house. Sean was able to secure a crude map to the location. Fueled by cocktails and the lure of gritty unbridled filmmaking, he jumped into action. That is essentially where our documentary film begins. To his credit he saw the potential in this story when the rest of us didn’t. Back in 2005 the concept of Urban Exploration was virtually unheard of and as far as I’m concerned he was the first true urban exploration filmmaker. I actually would argue he invented the genre long before it became an Internet phenomenon. That’s right I said it.
Cult Critic- Then what got you to actually join in, and what danger did you perceive you might face?
James- Even by that young age the film crew and I were very tight. It was the natural result of years of guerilla filmmaking together. We were already like old war buddies and we had a very “where goes one, goes all” mentality. I knew Sean was hell bent on going into the cult house and we were not going to stop him. We also didn’t want him to get himself killed. Personally, I wasn’t afraid of ghosts or cults members getting us. I was concerned about structural hazards or tripping over a freaked out drug addict with a gun. I was afraid of real world dangers to begin with. The supernatural nightmares and WTF moments came later.
Cult Critic- Not knowing exactly what you’re getting into, when does this become real and how does the peril impact the filmmaking?
James- I think we are all in agreement that this adventure became real the moment we reached the entryway of the house to find the front door was already open. As if the pits of hell were welcoming us into her darkness. So of course we went inside. A significant part of our documentation was filmed in night vision, which was authentic considering it was often our only visual reference when navigating the labyrinth of dark hallways. As seasoned filmmakers we knew the golden film rule all too well; NEVER cut the camera when something big is happening. This strategy paid itself off several times in this film. Most notably the climactic end scene when we were intercepted by eight armed Rancho Santa Fe Sheriffs who held us at gunpoint in the upper east hallway. I kept my cool and strategically placed the running camera in a position that would capture all the real life action. “Don’t shoot, I’m only a filmmaker” is what I shouted at the cops. Infamous words that the crew has affectionately never let me forget.
Cult Critic- What did you know beforehand about the Heaven's Gate Cult?
James- I grew up in San Diego County and by the age of seventeen I was very familiar with Rancho Santa Fe, it was the wealthiest part of town. Which made it even more surreal when the events of the Heaven’s gate cult occurred because it was right there in our own hometown in the midst of these multi million dollar mansions. It was the biggest, craziest thing I think most San Diegan’s had ever experienced at the time (including myself) so we were all very well informed of the circumstances. What I didn’t know was that nearly a decade later I would be standing in the cult’s living room at 2 AM.
Cult Critic- The darkness, the shadows and dimmed lighting are almost dramatic characters in themselves? How scary were these characters in real life?
James- This film is essentially presented as it happened. Besides some editing for time and dramatic effect, you the audience are watching this all play out right along with us. At the time we really didn’t know what was going to happen. Secret hatches, bats attack, and bloody broken glass everywhere. That was all very real. So the simple answer is that our experience was true as you see it. It was all just horrifying yet mesmerizing, like watching a train wreck. Just imagine how scary this place had to be that we were relieved to find the police with guns drawn on us. As lead cinematographer Rolando Issa later stated, “I didn’t care that I was busted by the cops as long as I didn’t have to go back into that house!” I think we all felt that way.
Cult Critic- As you were in the process of traversing the home, how did you balance the intricacies of shooting compelling footage against just letting the camera be an observer?
James- We had at least four cameras running at all times while documenting the house. Sometimes even more. This film was shot by multi award wining cinematographers Rolando Issa and Wes Donalson. They painstakingly captured the main action and the cinematic footage all by hand. Sean and I were wired up with night vision cameras in order to capture the action in first person. The rest of the magic happened in the editing room as we had a ton of content to pull from. I was able to use the best of both perspectives to tell the story.
Cult Critic- How do you decide where to edit in the footage clips of Marshall Applewhite for maximum the dramatic effect?
James- In 2005 when the film was originally cut, there wasn’t really much content about the cult to be found online or elsewhere. I had to dig deep. While going through my extensive research I discovered a video copy of the original Heaven’s Gate initiation videos. It was an old Beta tape copy located in a cult video shop in Australia of all places. I bought it and had it shipped all the way back to San Diego, which I found ironic. I then had the footage converted to the NTSC (American video standard format) and began the long process of screening the videos, which in total were several hours long. During editing it seemed to make the most sense that if I was going to tell the story of the cult I might as well let them explain it their own words. These original initiation videos were also used to corroborate the geographical and architectural landmarks of the house we were exploring.
Cult Critic- Tell me how you coordinated the score to build suspense with the imagery?
James- This all-original musical score was composed by one of our in house musicians, the multi award winning composer Lorenzo Coppotelli and it’s one of my favorite soundtracks we have ever produced. Technically speaking, Mr. Coppotelli used the traditional formulas as well as digital composing programs to score the music to match the pace, tempo, and action of the film. More so, Mr. Coppotelli and I had in depth discussions at length about the mood and the energy of the film before he even started composing. He nailed the main theme right away. It was the perfect haunted house theme. I really didn’t give him much direction beyond reminding him to treat the house as if it were a character in the film. I would tell him to score the mood of the house in that particular scene. After that he just ran with it.
Cult Critic- What has been the impact of this film and have we gotten any answers?
James- Professionally speaking the making of BEYOND HUMAN the LAST CALL was one of the worst disasters I have ever lived though. Beyond the equipment confiscations and the lawyer fees, it nearly destroyed my film company. Even worse it split up my film crew. Ironically the film has since become one of our most notorious and most popular films to date. It has generated a cult following of it’s own in the 20 plus years since its original release. Now we are thrilled that this unique project is finally receiving the recognition it disserves. As for answers, I have none to give. You would think that we would have a better perspective after all this time but the mystery only deepens. The crew and I have court mandated stay away orders so we can’t ever return to the property to finish the investigation. We presented our perspective the best we could in the film but I’ll be the first to admit that nobody really knows the truth. There are great arguments to both sides; it’s up the viewer to decide what they think the truth is.
Cult Critic- A lot at stake, is there anything shocking that you were unable to show?
James- To keep up the correct pace we cut the film into a one-hour presentation. In reality, we had spent nearly 5 hours exploring the property and had accumulated dozens hours of footage. So yes, there was a lot of action that was left out. Most notable was a scene in which we explored (by night vision only) a seemingly endless hall of horse stables that resembled prison cells. The walls were made of brick and feature black iron bars and chains on the walls. This place was completely abandoned short of an inexplicable pile of crates filled with thousands of syringes of horse tranquilizer. It was right out of your worst nightmares. We had to cut it from the feature film for time but you can still see part of this scene on the DVD special features.
Cult Critic- After this experience, where do you think the cult members are now?
James- It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the sensationalism of this story and forget that the Haven’s Gate cult was made up of real people - San Diegan’s no less. Parents, children, spouses and loved ones made up the 39 members of this community. In my countless hours of research I came to know about a community of well meaning people that cared about each other. They were not malicious. They were not out to hurt anyone. As Martial Applewhite said “They were giving up their lives in proof to a higher level”. This was an extreme gesture of faith I could never begin to understand. So, I couldn’t tell you if they found the “next level” or not. I just hope that wherever they are they have found peace.
Cult Critic- How does this film impact your future as a filmmaker and a person?
James- I think most filmmakers have a desire to make the ultimate haunted house movie in some form. BEYOND HUMAN the LAST CALL inadvertently became the definitive haunted house movie of my film repertoire. It really is such a unique and special film that could only have gotten made at that right place and time. With my entire movie making knowledge and resources today I wouldn’t be able to replicate or recapture the magic of this film. I wouldn’t even want to try and that’s why I think it’s such a unique and fun movie to watch. It’s a one-of-a-kind documentary. I’m very proud of this film but I’m glad the experience is well behind me. I don’t need another adventure like this in my life again. That’s why, after all of these years we are absolutely thrilled about the notoriety the film has been getting recently. Thank you Cult Classic magazine for the recognition of our film and for allowing us to participate in this fantastic interview.