A writer and director in works on his latest film, a movie he describes as a “Scooby-Doo episode with a really high body count.” Author Julianne Couch takes us behind the scenes and to the edge of "Firebox Lake".
In a world where people live in a moonlit village at the base of a towering mountain, eerie, spooky and downright dangerous things are bound to happen. And when grizzled gray beards can’t even walk through the woods without being hacked apart by a chopping maul, you know you’ve come to Firebox Lake.
But first, 42-year-old Bliss Ragsdale, native of Laramie, Wyoming, needs to make his horror movie by that name. Not only is he the writer and director, he’s willing to do his part as cannon fodder, growing out his beard to play the role of the chopping maul victim named “Shots,” which he says is an homage to the 1980s horror movie Chopping Mall. But in general, he sees two things wrong with most horror movies: too much money and too few bodies.
Ragsdale describes his film as a “Scooby-Doo episode with a really high body count.” In the average action movie, hundreds of people die. But in horror movies, an average of only five people die, he says. “I want to up that. I kill ten people by page five. The opening scene is a slaughter-fest.”
It starts with a few people with a little too much curiosity. He’s trying to decide whether he wants an ending that suggests a sequel, or whether to “just kill everybody.” The former prospect would be satisfying and allow the killer to be caught. But the latter would be fun, too.
If all this sounds horribly twisted and graphic, Ragsdale is quick to point out it is actually intended to be funny. “My concept is to move away from the saw generation, the gore porn.” He believes too much gore desensitizes an audience and deadens a film’s power to scare and shock. His approach is more along the lines of Hitchcock, or John Carpenter, who directed the Halloween films: show something shocking and then cut away, leaving the audience to interpret how ghastly it really is.
Ragsdale’s idea for this film is something he’s been carrying around with him since about 2000, but other artistic projects have taken precedence. For example, he’s done technical theatre stints at colleges in Wyoming and Colorado. He’s established community theatre groups, including in Centennial, Wyoming, about 25 miles west of Laramie, in the Snowy Range Mountains. He’s acted, directed, or been involved in technical direction of plays and big musicals in the Rocky Mountain region, even as far away as Las Vegas. He hasn’t wanted the making of this film to interrupt his busy theatre career, or his long-time gig playing guitar and flute in the Centennial-based band Mumbletypeg. But now it is time to get something done on the film. “It has been going on so long people are starting to make fun of me,” he said.
He’s done a bit of filming at the actual Firebox Lake, a very small alpine lake near Centennial. He was exploring in the mountains and came across it one day. He learned that the name came from all the small pieces of wood that somehow accumulated on the shore, like someone had gathered and chopped firewood for a stove but never used it. “The wood was rotted and the place was spooky looking,” he said. “It gave me the idea for the opening scene.”
In addition to the slaughter sequences, Ragsdale has also filmed some scenes in a local saloon called The Post. He invited anyone who wanted to be an extra to come to the bar and just act natural while he filmed, without sound. He’s also planning to shoot a crowd scene at the lake, with people gathered around a fire pit awaiting the law, while the town is on lockdown due to … the slaughter.
Ragsdale is not shooting a full length feature film, at least not right now. “There is no way I can get the necessary commitment out of the number of people I need to produce a full length film without money.” For this summer, he’s filming a trailer consisting of short segments of the full story. He plans to edit one version to be entered into the annual Wyoming Short Film contest. In another version, he’ll edit in some of his own narration about the project and use it as a way to attract crowd source funding. Ragsdale isn’t interested in selling the script outright because he does not want to lose control of the project. He’d prefer to obtain funding which he’d then pay back, in the manner of a business loan. “That is not the normal way movies are made,” he said. “But there are thousands of horror movie lovers who would watch anything. If 2,000 people download it I’d make the money back.”
Another reason he wants to keep things low-key is that he’s not yet an experienced filmmaker. He’d rather not have people above him breathing down his neck while he learns about directing a film, which he knows is not the same as directing plays. He’s also not interested in getting a “name” actor on the project, for the same reason. He’s content filming in tiny Centennial, where he knows the actors and knows the locations. For another, he can film on private land owned by his friends there without having to pay the special use fees that would be charged were he filming on the public lands managed by the National Forest Service. “Also, I prefer to film as far away from other neighbors as possible,” he said, “because of the screaming.”
Should he get funding to do a full-length version of Firebox Lake, he’d still film there. “I’d just be able to pay the actors,” he said. And that is huge, because finding enough people to volunteer for the long, difficult hours necessary to pull off a theatrical production is not easy in a town of just a few hundred. Not even when he can also pull from Laramie, a college town of 30,000. It is also hard to find people willing to donate financially to a theatre company or film project. Not without getting him into the sort of fight he dislikes so much about the business end of the arts. “So much of the time we’re forced to be competitive. I don’t want to fight with the other artists.”
He sees some competition as healthy when its purpose is to give people a chance to receive the recognition they deserve for doing good work. But he thinks it takes a toll on younger people trying to figure out what kind of artist they want to be. “When kids from small towns go to college and want to be actors it’s because they want to get out of there. When people who are looking for a way to get a break are forced to fight each other for opportunities, they’ll ignore the idea of doing art for the arts sake, and nobody tells them they are wrong.”
Somehow, Bliss Ragsdale has put together a career doing what he loves without moving to a traditional theatre locale. “I have controlled my life enough that I can do what I want for a living. I can live the way I do because it is so cheap to live in Wyoming. If you live in New York, everyone’s first apartment is the size of closet with nine other people living in it. Then you’ve got to get a job and still find time to audition. Here, I’m already doing it.”
Julianne Couch is the author of Jukeboxes & Jackalopes: A Wyoming Bar Journey and Traveling the Power Line. Her latest project is Far From Terminal: America’s Resilient Middle, for which this story is a part.