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BLANKS, JAMIE : Urban Legend

His graduation short film cost A$14,000; his next film cost US$14 million. Jamie Blanks tells ANDREW L. URBAN how he made the jump, with the horror flick, Urban Legend.

He was eight when Jamie Blanks was invited by a cousin to a small party at a Melbourne life saving club (ironically enough), where they screened a 16 mm prints of John Carpenter’s Halloween and The Fog. He jumped out of his skin at the frights and walked out in love with horror films.

"minimal stories but maximum blood and guts"

When his family acquired a VCR, Jamie watched every horror film he could hire or borrow, and got a job at the local video store …. To give others the pleasure of scary movie moments, he began experimenting with his own home made horror shorts, with titles like Chopping Spree and Maniac, shot on his father’s Super 8 camera. "They had minimal stories but maximum blood and guts," he says cheerfully. His passion for the genre bloomed, and he eventually took some of his work to the entrance auditions for the film school at what was then known as Swinburne College, re-christened during his three years there to Victorian College of the Arts. Scaring his audience remained his passionate goal; "I love suspense and scares, directors like Hitchcock . . . and many others in the genre."

What happened next is quite the opposite of scary: Jamie Blanks’s graduation short, Silent Number, led him directly into the office of one of Hollywood’s major movers and shakers, Mike Medavoy, head honcho (as they call them there) at Phoenix Pictures, the producers of Oliver Stone’s U-Turn and Milos Forman’s The People v Larry Flynt – and Blanks’ debut feature, Urban Legend.

It began when Silent Number was spotted by talent scout Simon Millar on a scouting trip to Melbourne in 1995. Millar, an executive at Propaganda Films, signed Blanks for management, and scripts began flowing his way.

"Very understandably, I was disappointed, but I still went across to meet with the producers"

"My manager got me a lot of scripts; I got sent the script for Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer – and when I got passed over for Scream in favour of Wes Craven [renowned director of horror films] I was determined they would take notice of me next time. So when I Know What You Did Last Summer came along, I got together with friends from film school and made, really cheaply, a three minute trailer based on material we could shoot from the script as if we had the whole film in the can. We just grabbed a whole lot of little shots in isolation over three weekends. About $4,000 and every favour we could pull later, we put this little thing on tape and I sent it across."

Blanks’s effort was brilliant – but three days too late. American director Jim Gillespie had already been signed.

"Very understandably, I was disappointed, but I still went across to meet with the producers, because there had been a such a big response to my trailer."

"He has a great energy and passion for film" producer Neal Moritz

Neal Moritz, producer of I Know What You Did Last Summer, recalls it: "The trailer was fantastic. I always kept Jamie in the back of my mind since seeing that tape. When Urban Legend came up, he was actually the first director I sent the script to."

Moritz had also seen Blanks’ commercials and music video clips, which he had made after finishing film school. "I thought his visuals were very impressive – he has a great energy and passion for film." Urban Legend is Moritz’s seventh movie with a first time director.

But probably the first time the director jumped from a A$14,000 short to a US$14 million feature film.

With Urban Legend, Blanks demonstrates his grasp of the rules and conventions of the genre, and plays gently with some of them to stamp it his.

He cites the example of using two false shocks in short succession, "which makes the audience laugh, as well, for getting shocked again so soon…so you never know if this is going to turn into a funny scene or a scary scene. I tried not to pre-empt too much."

"It was a wonderful experience"

Blanks also worked on the script with Silvio Horta, and was responsible for a significant change in the identity as well as the motivation of the serial killer, drawing on one of the ‘urban legends’ which are horribly re-enacted by the killer.

"We never once had an argument; when we disagreed we’d discuss it and one of us would convince the other about their idea. We had a really good relationship; we were both first timers on a feature film and both film school graduates. It was a wonderful experience and I hope we’ll do something else together soon."

One other change Blanks made is to create a fictional Melbourne in New Hampshire, by way of a briefly seen date line on a crucial newspaper story. He also stuck an Australian flag in a window on the Campus of Pendleton College, the setting for the drama.

Urban legends, also known as urban myths, are modern folk stories that appear mysteriously and spread in various forms, containing elements of horror and humour, often tantalising in their pseudo-factual tone. And if they can’t be proved, neither can they be disproved. Like the babysitter who received calls threatening the children in her care who traced the calls to an upstairs bedroom; or the one about a young couple driving at night and flashing their lights at a car going in the opposite direction to signal that their headlights weren’t on – only to have the car do a U turn, follow them and kill them.

"It’s a dream break for me,"

This is one of the key legends used in Urban Legend, but not the only one. Several scary deaths are recorded before the tantalising trail reveals the most unlikely of the characters as the vengeful killer.

Back in Melbourne, Blanks feels very lucky. "It’s a dream break for me," he says in his fast delivery and broad Australian accent. "I couldn’t believe my luck that a) I got a movie with really supportive people in the studio, and b) that it was a story and a genre that I love and could really go crazy with."

Had this break not come along, Blanks says he might have tried to get a low budget film made, "because it’s very doubtful that I could have got anything mid or high budget up and running in this country." Blanks feels that "it’s possible to do a low budget horror flick here but I don’t think it’s possible to make one that’s going to get large scale distribution."

Of course, not every kid who falls in love with a movie genre is likely to be able to make the jump from the audience’s seat to the director’s chair. Blanks did it as a result of "a really strong drive, and I was always drawn to the techniques and the shot set ups. How they pulled it all off and the music is used. I’m also a composer and composed score for films…so it was always the technical side that sparked my interest. I tried to put them together on my own with a video camera. . . I felt compelled about it."

Blanks’ evident talents and his passion so impressed the producers they gave him a virtually free hand in making the film, an unofficial ‘final cut’ right, the most sought after clause in movie making.

"I had to communicate my vision very clearly to a lot of different people"

With so many elements that have to prepared, Blanks learnt how to prepare well ahead; that was something he had to learn, discarding his penchant for seat of the pants creativity. "I had to plan a lot more and I had to communicate my vision very clearly to a lot of different people – art director, cinematographer and so on."

The intention, he says, was to make a film that was fluent and stylised with echoes the conventions of the old school horror movies, with a stark look, lots of rain – but also some shots that are not standard fare in horror films, such as overhead shots that open the film up.

In the US, critical response was mixed; "the New York Times was great, they really got it," says Blanks, "they recognised that it’s a fun movie that’s not supposed to be taken too seriously, and that it’s winking at the audience a little bit."

Blanks also popped into public screenings and enjoyed seeing and hearing the reactions.

With a box office take of US$36 million in its first 45 days, Urban Legend was seen as a commercial success and Phoenix is anxious to make another film with Blanks - and Blanks enjoyed the working relationship. "I was treated very well." One project in development is an action film that could be shot in Queensland, "but I’m keeping my options open for now and looking for something that I could be equally passionate about."

This interview also appears in the February 1999 Qantas in-flight magazine, The Australian Way.

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