He is the man behind Umney’s Last Case Dollar Baby Film .
SKSM: Could you start with telling me a bit about yourself? Who are you and what do you do?
Rodney Altman: My name is Rodney Altman and I’m 24 years old. I’m originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but I have lived in New York City for over 3 years now. I went to college here at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, one of the top film schools in the country. I graduated in May 2004 and have been finishing the film and writing a screenplay in my spare time.
SKSM: When did you make Umney’s Last Case? Can you tell me a little about the production? How much did it cost? How long did it take to film it?
Rodney Altman: We shot most of Umney’s Last Case on a soundstage over 2 weeks in March 2005. I had sets built for the elevator, the hallway, Candy’s office, and Umney’s office. The Peoria Smith scene was shot on location on a small, quiet New York street. We had a crew of about 40 people, some were people I regularly work with, some were new to me, but we all got along very well. We shot it on 35mm on Fuji Eterna stock. We were actually the first narrative production in the country to use this film (some commercial used it before us). We ran into a small scheduling problem while building the sets and had to cut out the scenes of Umney in the present day to be shot at a later time. I spent the summer editing the film and due to numerous reasons I just shot the final scene 6 days ago. I’ll be getting it from the lab tomorrow and will finally be able to finish. We shot that scene on 16mm Kodak Vision2 film to give it a completely different feel from the fictional world of Umney. In terms of cost, it’s always hard to give an exact number because as students you have to ask for a lot of favors and some stuff that should be expensive is cheaper or free. But, all inclusive from costumes, film, rentals, building materials, and all post-production, it was about $60,000.
SKSM: How come you picked Umney’s Last Case to develop into a movie? What is it in the story that you like so much?
Rodney Altman: I remember many years ago my parents took a trip to New Orleans for some medical conference (they’re both psychiatrists) and they came back with some gifts. One of them was that small pocket single version of Umney’s Last Case. I’ll say I was about 15 or 16 at the time, but don’t quote me on that. Anyway, I had never really read much King at that time, although I had seen every movie with his name on it. I put the book away and never touched it. A year or so later we went on a road trip and I just happened to find it and decided to use it to pass the time in the backseat. It was a little slow at first and I had no idea where it was going. But then when I got to the ending I found myself constantly thinking about it. “Who was the real author? Is it all in his mind or is Umney real?” I loved how the story snuck up on you. I distinctly remember thinking that it would make a really cool short film, and over the years I would always hear that thought popping up in my head. I hate how people who don’t read King always call him a horror writer. He has some many great stories that run the range of genres, and here’s this detective story with a strange sci-fi twist. If you took King’s name off it, no one would know it’s one of his stories. I wanted people to see that this writer has other stuff to offer.
SKSM: How did you find out that King sold the movie rights to some of his stories for just $1? Was it just a wild guess or did you know it before you sent him the check?
Rodney Altman: I had just finished shooting my previous film Echoes and was thinking about what to do for my next project. Echoes is based on a very short story by an old high school English teacher of mine name Lawrence Connolly. The story is only 2 and a half pages, but it is mind blowing. If you can track it down, read it. Also, you can see most of my film version at my composer’s site www.willpitts.com if anyone is interested. The guy who plays the father in Echoes (Joel Nagle) plays Umney. And the kid that plays Billy (David Benger) plays Peoria. It was my first time using color film and sound and it could only be a maximum of 8 minutes, so I got the rights from Lawrence and adapted it. My next project was my advanced film and could be up to 30 minutes, and I thought that might be a perfect length for Umney’s Last Case. I happen to mention this in a group of friends and one of them, Josh Finn (who made another awesome film called Time Enough at Last, if you want to check it out) told me about King and his $1 deals. I did some research and when I saw that Frank Darabont did the same thing, I knew I had to make Umney. I called up Rand Holston (King’s agent) and through him he set up the deal.
SKSM: Was there any funny or special moment when you made the movie that you would like to tell me about?
Rodney Altman: Well, up until this film I had only worked with actors from around the New York area who were mostly unknown. I don’t mean untalented, as so many of them are. They just never got their shot. Well, with Umney I wanted to have a little more of a challenge with directing. My producer Jason Brown happened to have worked with Mark Margolis on a previous project and we contacted him and asked him to play Vernon Kline. If you don’t know who Mark Margolis is by name, check him out on www.imdb.com and you’ll instantly recognize him. Anyway, he took the role very seriously and treated me like his boss. I mean, this man is telling me stories about working with Darren Aronofsky and then asking me if I liked his way of saying a line and whether we should do another take. And this is the first day of shooting. But you know, you get over being star-struck very quickly. He was taking it seriously, so I started to also. And after an hour we just had a natural rhythm going. I’m going to have to make sure he’s in my next film. He really nails Vernon’s part.
SKSM: How does it feel that all the King fans out there can’t see your movie? Do you think that will change in the future? Maybe a video/dvd release would be possible?
Rodney Altman: Well, they shouldn’t feel too bad. At this point even my own parents haven’t seen the movie. They flew in for a weekend to see me work on set, but they have yet to see any actual footage. However, the film will be done by the end of January now as everything is back on schedule. I’ll be submitting it to a few select film festivals, and after that I’d be happy to put it up on the web, perhaps even your site. I can’t do it right away because many festivals demand that they have exclusive rights to it. But by all means I want the fans to see it. I get upset when I know there are other King short films out there that I can’t see. Sooner or later, you will get to see this.
SKSM: Did you have any personal contact with King during the making of the movie? Has he seen it (and if so, what did he think about it)?
Rodney Altman: He has not seen it yet, but he will soon. I’m a little nervous about it. Especially because TNT is now making it for television with William H. Macy. Obviously they are going to have a longer, more expensive version of it and whether or not you mean to, you’re going to compare it to that. I’ve made some very creative choices with my version and I’m dying to see what they did. As for contact with King, I have a funny story about that. When King was in town to receive his award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards, I decided to get tickets and go thank him personally. However, I couldn’t get tickets. So I decided to crash. My girlfriend and I got dressed up, went to the Marriott Marquis and pretended to be in with the press box. After King’s speech I went down to the main floor and approached him. He shook my hand and I told him who I was and how grateful I was for the chance to make Umney. He looked at me and said, “Oh yea, I remember that one. Make sure you do a good job.” Then he sat down. I found out the next day that he was hospitalized for having the flu and only came so he could give his speech. I felt really bad about standing there in front of his chair and trying to talk to him while he’s just dying to sit down. But he was a good sport about it and I hope he enjoys the film.
SKSM: Do you have any plans for making more movies based on Stephen King’s stories? If you could pick – at least – one story to shoot, which one would it be and why?
Rodney Altman: Well, I have to be honest. I love so many of King’s stories and there are like 5 that I want to do. For years I wanted to make Desperation, but since that’s already been done I’ll have to get over it. My true passion lies with The Dark Tower. I know that that’s like climbing a 100 foot scaling wall and then deciding to go climb Mt. Everest, but I want to do it. I’m a huge Dark Tower fan and am constantly planning it out in my head. I love it so much I give The Gunslinger to friends on their birthday, whether or not they like King. I often think of Peter Jackson as inspiration. He wanted to make The Lord of the Rings since he was a child, and yet no one really knew who we was even with movies like Bad Taste and Dead Alive. Then one day, bam, he does it. That kind of stuff happens every day and it only can’t happen when you stop believing. But for the moment, I’m just going to concentrate on finishing Umney.
SKSM: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything else you want to say to the fans that read this interview?
Rodney Altman: Thank you for asking such detailed questions and running such a cool site. To you and all the fans let me say that there are so many movies out there based on King’s work, and some are awesome and others are awful. When you see Umney’s Last Case, some of you will love what I’ve done, and others might hate it. That’s cool. That’s what being an individual is all about. And I’d love to hear from anyone who wants to share their opinion. Let me know what you thought worked and what didn’t do it for you. Like any adaptation, some things had to be cut, others added. It’s pretty true to King’s story, but there are some changes. I just hope I did the story justice.