Director Michael S. Rodriguez has gained recognition on the film festival circuit for several short films he has made, including Love Starved and Lamb Feed. He recently teamed up with Tino Zamora, who shares his passion for horror films and now works mainly behind the scenes as the executive producer of Rodriguez’s films. With Zamora’s assistance, Rodriguez shoots his films in the Central Valley of California where they live. Recently, I caught up with the indie moviemaking team to learn more about them and their latest work, Lake of Shadows: The Legend of Avocado Lake.
Tell us a bit about Lake of Shadows. How personal is the film to you?
Tino Zamora: Very personal. We used to go there [Avocado Lake] a lot when I was a kid every summer. Every time we went, somebody would drown, and nobody batted an eye. It was just like “Oh, somebody drowned” and “Oh okay, that’s expected.” But nobody ever really said why they drowned. And that always stuck with me. I believe it was the summer of ’81 or ’82 I almost drowned there, and after that it just stuck with me forever. I just always wondered what happened. Why did I automatically just start sinking to the bottom? If my dad’s friend wasn’t there, who actually saw me go under, jump in and pull me out you know I would have been a goner.
I never went past the floaters after that. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they used to have floaters, a line of barrels that marked off exactly where it got deep, but since then it’s been gone. You have to be on guard and be careful because there are no lifeguards there. There never have been lifeguards. There is just a sign that says “Swim at your own risk.”
As you would drive into the place back then, there was a sign that is not there anymore. It said ”Welcome to Avocado Lake.” And there was a flip board that told you how many people drowned there. Every time we’d go, the number would change. At last count there has been over 150 drowning deaths there.
Who are some of your influences when it comes to filmmaking?
Michael S. Rodriguez: I have to go back to the old school. Hitchcock is right up there with the way he did suspense. The “less is more” style is what I go for. A lot of people who have seen my films know they’re not gratuitously gory or have a lot of jump scares. I do a lot of implying — implying the horror and implying the gore — to let you use your imagination. People walk out of there thinking that they’ve seen more than what they have. It’s kind of a magic trick.
I go to conventions, and I do panels. People always ask me, “How do you make these scary movies?” I tell them, “You know, I don’t make them scary.” I have an editor and a composer, and when you have music and the right editing it’s scary. But while I’m on the set, I’m just telling a story. I’m going page by page and just making sure that all the pieces connect. I’m not even thinking about jump scares or anything that’s going to be creepy. But for some reason once it’s cut and I go through the editing process with my editor and the composer, then it’s really either a creepy or a scary piece.
I’ve had my children on set, and they watch all the steps and are not frightened at all. I’m showing them the monster, where the monster’s gonna come out, the fake blood coming here and coming out this way, and they don’t bat an eyelash. They’re like wow. And then when they watch the final product they’re like “Oh my goodness, I was there,” and it freaks them out. And it’s all part of the grand illusion.
I really enjoy letting the viewer figure it out and put it together themselves. It is sort of interactive, and since I started I always wanted to be that type of director. I didn’t want to do anything gratuitous, and I didn’t want to do anything tongue in cheek. I wanted to give you a thought-provoking story or at least something you can remember like these characters are just so rich and I really like the way that the dialogue was going. I’ve always gotten really good reviews on it because I write all my own work, but I do it with consideration for the viewer. The bottom line is that I don’t want to insult the viewer. I want to give them pure entertainment and make them say, “Wow, that was pretty cool.” And that’s the formula I’m sticking with until I stop making movies.
How far back do the stories about the lake go? Were the deaths at the lake recent events?
TZ: Actually, when I started doing research for the film, I went to the oldest person I know, my father. I asked him about the lake. He told me when he was 18 back in the 1950s he was there with some friends. They were out there drinking at the lake. One of their friends went into the water and said he was going to swim across the lake. A lot of people who have been to the lake and drink a lot get courage and want to swim across the lake, and that’s one thing you should not do. He started screaming for help halfway across the lake, and he drowned. My dad and his friends went to a pay phone to call the police, and they came out. They found him I think two weeks later.
We interviewed a Fresno County Sheriff who’s an instructor for the Search & Rescue Dive Team, and he told us some stories about the lake. He told us in the very middle of the lake at the very bottom it’s very dark. You can’t see anything. He said he was down there with a partner, and they had radio communication. Something bumped into him, and he thought it was his dive partner.
He said, “Hey, you just bumped into me.”
His partner said, “That’s impossible. I’m on shore.”
That kind of freaked him out a little bit, and it made the hair on the back of our necks stand up.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that local people gave you stories and testimonials about events that happened at the lake. Was it difficult to select which of these stories and testimonials to use in the film?
MR: Yes, it was. There were so many different people who were telling me all of these different stories. And I wanted to give a historical take instead of just hitting the audience with traumatic event after traumatic event. I took about a handful of some of the stories I knew I could kind of build a fictional background around. When the viewer watches Lake of Shadows, they’re gonna get an actual story, but I’ve built up a little bit of fiction around it to kind of soften the edges so you’re not just seeing a murder reenactment. You’re getting a character that you can somehow relate to or just follow the story with. I think that’s why this film is going to be unique compared to a lot of stuff that’s out there.
How did you and Michael end up working together on Lake of Shadows?
TZ: I think four years ago, I went to a screening of They Live. It was a horror club that was having a free movie night where a bunch of horror fans get together and watch a movie together. They had a trivia contest with prizes. I answered a trivia question correctly, and my prize was a signed poster by Michael S. Rodriguez from his film Lamb Feed. I was like “Okay, cool.” I went up to him and redeemed my ticket, and he gave me the poster. We chatted a bit, and the next day I added him on Facebook. We have the same taste in horror films and have the same passion for them.
One day, he called me and said, “Hey, I’m in a bind. I’m making my next film Love Starved with Felissa Rose from Sleepaway Camp. The guy that was the location manager cancelled out on me at the last second, and I need a place to shoot my film. Do you think you can help me out?”
And I said, “Sure. You know, go ahead come over here and film your short film.” And that was on Father’s Day weekend a couple of years ago or the year before.
The following year he and I got really close and talked a lot. I pitched him the idea of Lake of Shadows, and he was interested. He said, “Tell me more about Avocado Lake,” and I told him.
About a couple of days later, he gave me a call and said, “Hey man, we need to make that movie.”
I said, “Are you serious?”
And he said, “Yes, we got to make this movie, man. We have to make this movie. Nobody’s ever touched this subject. So we’re the ones that have to do it.”
So we did, and you know the rest is history.
What did you enjoy most about making Lake of Shadows?
MR: Well, it wasn’t about being in the actual lake, I’ll tell you that. Because I spent three days a little about chest deep into that water. And that water has claimed 150 lives, and it has no runoff. There’s no water that flows in or out. It actually just sits like a plugged sink. You’re sitting in this pretty much warm water that people have perished in and that’s never been drained. It’s never been fresh, so that wasn’t pleasant. But we got some really good stuff.
We did one scene where we went back into the 1800s, and what we did was almost like a silent film. We built this wall with these old antique picture frames on it, and I had these people slide in and out of these picture frames and reenact something from the Old West. And I had these lights that dimmed. It was almost like a Broadway play. We choreographed it. It’s probably about four minutes long, but it was just so fun to kind of choreograph something with no dialogue while you’re getting these visuals that tell the story. It’s a great narrative, and I really enjoyed doing that piece. It took one full day. We used some green screen, but it’s really neat. It’s very elaborate, and I hope everyone enjoys it.
What did you enjoy most about being the executive producer of this film?
TZ: I enjoyed every aspect of being the executive producer of this film. I saw the whole film while it was being filmed. I saw every aspect of it. I was asked for my opinion and for my approval about what we should do. However, I leave it all in the hands of my director, Michael S. Rodriguez, who I trust very much. He’s just so creative. We pretty much think the same, and I think that’s what makes for a great film. We are two people who grew up in the same era, love the same kind of movies, and click on every aspect of everything.
Your previous film, Last American Horror Show, consists of several short horror stories. Was creating an anthology movie more difficult than making a full-length feature film like Lake of Shadows?
MR: Yes, it was. It was an uphill battle. It took me four years to make that anthology. And the first piece I made was interesting because I wasn’t really thinking of making a feature after I made the first one in 2013. The only thing that provoked me to continue was I was questioning myself as a director. It did very well — critically it did awesome and then it did really well on the film festival circuit — so I kind of thought to myself, “Well, is this my one flash in the pan? Or is this my – did I luck out?”
I said I’m just gonna write another one, and I’m gonna do this when the time is right. Around 2014, I did another film called Lamb Feed. When I did that one, I bonded with one of my actors, Robert Mukes from House of a Thousand Corpses, and we kept talking. After that film was done, we put it on the film fest circuit, and critically it was well received. And he kept telling me, “Mike, you got to make a third one because I think if you make a third one you can pass this off as a feature-length anthology.”
The problem with making an anthology is there’s these separate different stories with different story arcs. It takes a lot of time and planning to figure out how you’re going to begin and end each piece that’s about 20-30 minutes long. So there’s a lot of preparation and things as opposed to having a whole game plan for a feature film you already know. You have one large story arc with three acts as opposed to four shorts and each one having three stages of story arc. That was hard and required a lot of planning, and it took four years. Financially, it was a burden, but it was a labor of love. I am very happy with the piece. It’s coming out on DVD and VOD this fall. I got a distribution deal with them, and I ‘m really happy with that.
Do you and Michael plan to work together on another film in the future?
TZ: We did a fake trailer for a fake trailer showcase that was shown last month in Texas at a convention called Texas Frightmare. The trailer was called A World Gone Mad. It got so much buzz going on about it, and we want to make it a feature now.
And there’s another project that he and I are talking about that we’re both going to write. He’ll direct. I’ll produce, but I can’t really say too much about that one yet. I’m thinking we should probably take care of that by next year.
What was the biggest challenge that you faced making Lake of Shadows?
MR: That’s a good question. I think the biggest challenge – and I’m being just honest about it — was the financial burden it takes to make a feature film. We did two separate crowd funders. One was a success. One almost made the mark. We did a Kickstarter, which if it doesn’t make the mark, then you don’t get any funding. That was really hard because you have to put on your salesman suit, and you got to keep that energy going.
So I think the hardest part was financially, but it meant so much to Tino and to me as a filmmaker who just loves the art itself that we started just scraping together and making it happen no matter what. We chipped in when we could. The difficulty was that the funding would be every two to three months. We’d have to save up. We’d have to figure out a way to shoot something and afford it. As opposed to getting an executive producer to finance a complete feature which would be knocked out in about 15-30 days, we spanned about two years because of finances just to get it completed. So I think that was the hardest part. Everything else — all the actors were so good and I got along with everybody and they just did a phenomenal job — was easy. Showing up and working out the scenes was a piece of cake. Finding the financial security was the burden, but we did it.
What are the plans for releasing this film on physical media (Blu-ray, DVD, Soundtrack)?
TZ: Once the editing phase of Lake of Shadows is done, we will be ready to premiere it. We want to have a red carpet kind of premiere here in Fresno. As far as distribution, we’re in talks right now with getting it distributed and possibly having it available on hard copy DVD and Blu-ray at Target, Walmart, Redbox, and hopefully Amazon Prime.
Robert LaSardo is an actor almost everyone will recognize due to his prevalent film and TV work. What can we expect from Robert in Lake of Shadows?
MR: Oh, Robert is going to be a smooth-talking baddie. He’s sort of a villain in the movie. I don’t want to give too much away, but he just brings so much to this character. He’s a fisherman that takes this crew on a tour of the lake. He’s similar to Quint in Jaws, but he’s got a little bad side to him. I can’t wait for the audience to check it out.
What was it like working with horror icon Felissa Rose?
TZ: I can’t say enough about her. She is just the best person ever. She’s great to work with. I mean she’s very easy to work with. I’ve worked with her twice. The first time was with director Michael S. Rodriguez in Love Starved, where at the very ending of the film she and I have a scene together at the end of the credits and stuff. It’s kind of like one of those Marvel Comic films where you’ve got to stay till the very end to see one more scene. We did a scene together, and it was great.
I love working with her. She’s just the best down to earth person ever to work with. If anybody else has a chance to work with her, I’d say do it because she’s very professional when she’s on set, and she’s a great actress. You just can’t beat Felissa Rose. She’s freaking awesome.
Is there anything else that you would like people to know about Lake of Shadows?
MR: I want people to know that they’re in store for a history lesson, a roller coaster of thrills, and something unique that we’re not seeing in the theater right now. I think we have something special, and I can’t wait for its release.