There’s something so fun about running and gunning, right? It’s exhilarating to get together with your friends, find somewhere to shoot, and throw something together.
That spirit is alive and well in Oklahoma for a lot of people, who can put together a crew and shoot in diverse locations. There is also an opportunity in the state for new voices to rise and tell unheard stories from a new and important perspective.
The Skull Crawlers Movie Club is a great example of all of this. Comprised of Indigenous Oklahoma filmmakers, the team puts together impressive indie short productions that have reached festival and online audiences far and wide.
This team thrives in their environment, with seven short films in the can and an eighth on the way titled Birthday Bash. They also host “Suspend Disbelief,” a horror podcast.
No Film School spoke with writer/director Cary Thomas Cody (Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma) and cinematographer Mikey Hevr about their work in a smaller market and the challenges they’ve overcome, as well as what their preferred tools are.
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How the Skull Crawlers got started
Cody said he had made one “really bad” short film before the pandemic hit, and then he decided the moment was right to jump into filmmaking fully.
“We both went to music school together, and she is friends with my wife, and they were in a band together,” Cody said, referring to Hevr. “And I just wanted to make scary movies for a long time. And during the pandemic, we both had not a lot of stuff going on. And so she reached out and was like, ‘Do you want to make a scary movie?’ And I was like, ‘Yes!’”
Cody continued, saying, “So in 2020, we just filmed a super quick short film with a script that I had lying around for years and years, at that point, that I knew that we could shoot in one night, two nights max. And we did that and just put it on YouTube. And that was kind of the beginning of what we were going to do, which was keep making short films with our friends, for our friends. Just keeping it fun and lighthearted, and see what happens.”
Hevr jumped in as director of photography and editor on this first project, and they were off.
“It’s been the same core of us, which is the three of us,” Cody said. “Orrin [Ponkilla], he’s my co-creator … He does a lot of the writing and whatever else needs to be done. And it started with us three, and then we just built a team around us, and people who believe in us and want to just make fun stuff. And that’s what it’s all about, just having fun and hanging out with our friends and making cool stuff. And anything else that comes along with it as just a plus, festivals and whatever else.”
The Skull Crawlers on setPhoto provided
How to find film crews in small cities
One challenge creators often face, especially in cities where film is not the largest industry, is crewing up. So how do they do it?
“We always just convince our friends that they can help us out in exchange for pizza,” Hevr said.
Results may vary with this tactic, which they acknowledged.
“It would be really nice to find people who knew exactly what they were doing all the time,” Hevr said. “And we’ve actually just started to get far enough into the scene where we meet those people. But in the beginning, it was just us teaching our friends how to do the things we wanted them to do and then letting them do it, and hopefully it turned out okay.”
“Also, we were learning as we go,” Cody said. “I watch a lot of old horror movies and try to get the vibe and atmosphere right. And tell Mikey, this is what I want. I want over-the-top lighting. I want bright and blue moonlight. Lots of fog in the background. So we throw something together and see if it would look like that, which worked in a way.”
“So I guess trial and error,” Hevr said. “I mean, your friends are free, so try to use that.”
“That’s true,” Cody agreed. “So many people just want to be a part of what you’re doing, and they’ll volunteer their time to do it. And I think it’s the best part of doing this, is people just want to do it. They want to do it for fun, and we always have a good time. We never take it too seriously. We just want to have a good time, while we’re doing everything we want to make sure everybody else has a good time, as well.
“A lot of it’s just people who reach out and want to help because I’d rather work with somebody who is passionate about it and really wants to do it than somebody who’s just either there for a paycheck or is doing it for a favor,” Cody said.
Hevr added, “And in that same vein, it’s also really helpful to help other people out. So if you just do enough searching and Googling and asking around, you’ll find somebody who’s creating some sort of short film and can be like, ‘Hey, can I help you out on this?’ And then maybe in the future, they’ll help you out too.”
The first look at Mr. Sprinkles in “Birthday Bash”Photo provided
The Best Tools for Indie Filmmakers
“So in the beginning I had a Sony a7 III at the time,” Hevr said. “We shot our first … five short films. And then I sold that and got a Canon R6. And so I think we’ve used that on one or two shorts. And then I also have a Blackmagic 6K Pro, and we’ve used that on I think two or three.”
How does she choose the camera for each shoot?
“I like the Canon R6 for the autofocus,” she said. “So depending on the short, there’s going to be just a ton of movement, I would probably reach for that one. And then the Blackmagic for probably everything else. It looks beautiful. The only thing I think the Canon might have on it is low light maybe.”
Hevr is still handling post-production, as well.
“I originally started on Premiere, but we don’t have to talk about that,” she said with a laugh. “And then once I got the Blackmagic, it came with the full version of [DaVinci] Resolve, so I haven’t looked back. It’s so much better.”
What’s the learning curve for jumping into a new NLE?
“I would like to say there isn’t one, but I’m also very familiar with video editing tools and photo editing tools,” she said. “So it’s pretty intuitive and easy, if you’re familiar with that.”
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One of the team’s most recent projects is It Mimics, a rural horror short. Cody called it their “cursed production,” shot in 2021, with a story inspired by the Goatman’s Bridge in Texas.
Development and research were easy enough on this one.
“[I] combined the internet folklore of the Goatman being a shape-shifter and mimicking others’ voices,” he said. “The Goatman is also a creature in Native American lore as well. A little bit different than what we portrayed it, but we’re Native American-based and we want to tell our stories through film however we can.”
But the shoot itself hit several snarls. Their first challenge? Losing their lead actor to a panic attack. Through Hevr’s connections, they found a replacement just before filming. On their first night shoot, they planned to use a lantern as their main motivated lighting.
Cody said, “So warning for anybody who wants to use a gas-powered lantern—”
“Make sure you install it correctly,” Hevr said.
“Yeah, they’re dangerous,” Cody said. “Have an extra, first of all, but also don’t leave it burning for four hours straight because they get very hot.”
The Skull Crawlers on setPhoto provided
That light did, in fact, shatter at the end of the night, which they took into account on night two.
“Second night, we get out there and we’re shooting, we have extra lanterns this time, we install them properly, everything’s good,” Cody said. “We alternate back and forth so they don’t get too hot.
“And we’re maybe two or three hours into our shooting, and a lady drives down the road and she says, ‘Hey, just to let you guys know there’s a horde of wild pigs headed your way.’ And we’re like, what do you mean? And she drives off. Are they heading right here, right now? She didn’t tell us enough. Headed your way? What does that mean? A horde? How many is that?”
They searched for the pigs, but found nothing and proceeded, until in the middle of one scene, they heard the telltale snorting.
“Our actor Jake freaked out and he ran to the car and jumped on top of the car and was very scared. We had to call it a night. So that night got shut down due to wild pigs,” Cody said.
Surprisingly, this wasn’t all they encountered. One night, a helicopter hovered for several minutes over the set. They never found out what that was about. Then, of course, they had local looky-loos drive by often to ask what they were doing. They finished the shoot despite adversity.
But then, they didn’t return to the footage for months.
“We’re real harsh on it at first,” Cody said. “And then you look at it again and you’re like, I can make this work. Because you have all these pieces of a puzzle and you just don’t know how to put it together. But from that time that it sat on the shelf, we progressed a lot as filmmakers and we learned a whole lot, me specifically. And I’m glad that we didn’t edit it and put it out then because we had all the pieces. We just had to put them together in a certain way.”
Hevr said, “It wouldn’t have been as good.”
The Skull Crawlers on setPhoto provided
What’s Next for the Skull Crawlers
Birthday Bash is the group’s eighth project, filmed in the spring of 2023.
“It’s by far our most ambitious project yet with the most people involved,” Cody said. “More shooting dates, more special effect shots, and gags because that’s the stuff that I want to do. I wanted to do lots of blood squirts and guts and blood and whatnot. … But we want to do a proof of concept for a feature. And I think it’d be cool to do a kid anthology similar to Goosebumps or Are You Afraid of the Dark?
“But we would tell a grand story, kind of like we did in our short film, The Writer’s Room, but centered around kids, and it’s kids telling stories that they heard, urban legends about monsters or creatures.
“And when they’re telling the stories, the short film plays behind it. Initially, we had the idea that Birthday Bash should be a part of that anthology, and it still may at some point, but we’re still going to release it as its own thing for now. And we incorporated an 11-year-old and a 12-year-old as actors.”
Hevr jumped in: “Two child actors. That was a new thing.”
Despite drawing some inspiration from Pennywise and Terrifier, Cody and Hevr insist the tone is light and fun.
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Hevr was to the point: “Just do it.”
Cody agreed. “Yeah, grab your friends and make something awesome. Watch a lot of BTS footage and scour YouTube,” Cody said. “What I did is I found YouTubers who made short films and then immediately put out ‘how we made this short film.’ And I watched how they did it on almost no budget, and I said, ‘We could at least do that, right?’”
“I mean, you can shoot on iPhones now,” Hevr said. “It looks crazy good. You can use whatever you have and make something. For a while on our first three or four shorts, all of our lighting was flashlights or a lantern. Or just lights that were in the house. And then I think I finally went to Sam’s and got this two-pack of LED lights that was $20. And looking back, I’m like, those are not the best lights. But they worked.”
The Skull Crawlers on setPhoto provided
Cody gave advice for writers: “Write something very simple. Don’t write something too grand if you just want to shoot a short film. My first script is probably two pages long and had a couple of lines of dialogue, only one actor, and our creature was a puppet. So we shot in three rooms of the house, the living room, the kitchen, and the bathroom. And we told just a story in less than three minutes.
He added, “Go with that, write something super simple, and write to your location.”
“Keep it small,” Hevr said. “You know you can do more. We know we can do more, but you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew. Which happens so frequently.”
“Just in life, and not just in filmmaking, but also in filmmaking,” Cody said. “I have started so many projects that I’ve never finished because I wanted them to be so much bigger than I could handle. Which a lot of perseverance and stuff I could have, but sometimes you just need to finish something and put it out and then start on something new.”