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The inception of David Weaver’s “The Last Frankenstein”

Amsterdam native David Weaver has spent his whole life studying film. Now he is putting his knowledge to use as he launches his first feature-length film, “The Last Frankenstein“, which he has written and will direct. The majority of the scenes for the film will be shot this summer at several locations in the Amsterdam area.

The film, produced by Weaver’s production company, Gila Films, is a modern-day spin-off from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein. It centers on the last remaining member of the Frankenstein family, Jason Frankenstein, as he struggles to carry out his family’s famous experiment.

Weaver described the character saying, “He is in his thirties, he is very intelligent, and he wants to complete this infamous family experiment of creating a living being from corpses. But he is also someone who is stuck in this dormant existence where his desire to complete his work is distracted by the fact that he is stuck in a dead-end job and he has a very troubled relationship with his girlfriend.”

While Jason struggles with the problems of approaching middle age, a creature from his family’s past re-emerges in his life in a brutal fashion. Weaver said, “That is what serves as the catalyst to finally take him out of this dormant, stagnant existence and has him start really pushing…moving forward aggressively…towards fulfilling his life’s destiny. And to do this, he enlists the aid of a pair of unsavory paramedics and a nurse with a very shady background to assist him.”

A term that Weaver and the film’s producer, Jay Leonard, coined to describe the film is an “existential slasher.” Weaver explained, “It is a character driven film, but it is unabashedly horror. It is unashamed of its horror roots.” The film will utilize all practical effects, without any computer generated imagery, harkening back to the classic horror films from the 1970s and 80s, which Weaver has been particularly attracted to since childhood.

As a child, Weaver had a vivid imagination. For fun, he would create stories in his mind and act them out. He was interested in things most young boys were, like action figures and cartoons, but he was also intensely interested in movies.

While many children enjoy movies, Weaver’s interests were somewhat unusual for his age. One of his favorite actors was Steve McQueen, whose performances he loved in “The Great Escape” and “The Magnificent Seven”. He liked television shows like “Night Gallery” and the original “Star Trek”. He loved disaster films from the 1970s, enjoyed psychological dramas such as “The Locket” and “A Hatful of Rain”, and comedies like “The Great Dictator.”

For Weaver, movies were central to growing up. He was and is very close with his family, who all have a love for films, with each family member favoring a different genre.

Weaver said, “My grandfather loved war films, westerns, crime films. My father liked dramas and documentaries. My mother and my aunt both enjoyed comedies and classic television. My uncle and aunt also were very much into science fiction and horror. And all of this, the films they watched, were generally older films. 1970s or prior. So I grew up with this rich education in classic cinema.”

While his own tastes reflected those of his family members, he also gravitated towards niche oriented “exploitation” films. Weaver said, “My family, obviously when I was young, wouldn’t let me see R rated exploitation movies, anything with content that they wouldn’t approve of, even though I badly wanted to see that stuff. But as far as I could get away with it, those were the films that really appealed to me above anything else.”

He was drawn to films like “Creature of the Walking Dead”, “The Screaming Skull”, “Creature from Black Lake”, and “Grizzly”. Weaver explained, “Exploitation films appeal to me so much because the filmmakers behind them were operating, usually, on a lower budget, forcing them to be creative. But the lower budget also gave the films a kind of crude aesthetic sometimes that had its own appeal. They were willing to be more aggressive in pushing out the boundaries of content.”

Exploitation films also provided many filmmakers a starting point for their careers. Weaver said, “A lot of very famous, highly regarded, very creative people got the starts of their careers in exploitation films. So, despite the fact that they were limited by budget they were very creative, very well made.”

As a kid, Weaver thought about going into film preservation after seeing short documentaries on the subject on American Movie Classics. But, by the time he reached high school, a career in filmmaking seemed like a natural fit.

He said, “It just seemed so natural that I had such a fervent imagination. I loved films so much, and to me, film–although all different art mediums are equal–I personally love film. I feel it is the art form that best allows you to take your ideas and make them real. That ability of film combined with my own love for the imagination and creating stories perfectly came together, and that’s when I realized I wanted to do it.”

Weaver received his Associate’s degree from Fulton Montgomery Community College, then went on to the New York Film Academy, where he shot a number of short films. He then studied at the film conservatory at SUNY Purchase. Weaver has been involved in a number of local productions, including “Winter of Frozen Dreams” and “The Place Beyond the Pines.”

While staying active on other film projects, Weaver knew that he wanted to make his own films and started setting goals for himself. In 2009, he set out to make a short film, giving himself a two month deadline to complete the project. He thought that the film, titled “The Unfinished“, would provide him a great learning experience, where he could get an idea of his strengths and weaknesses for future projects. Weaver wrote and directed the short and did all of the behind the scenes work himself, including filming, lighting, audio, casting, and location scouting.

After that experience, he started planning out a feature-length film. When an initial story idea didn’t come together as quickly as he had hoped, an idea for a title and a film poster suddenly popped into Weaver’s mind: “The Last Frankenstein.” He didn’t know where the idea came from but started thinking about what it meant and where a story by that name would go logically.

He said, “It seemed obvious that it would revolve around the last member of the family and what would cause him to be the last member of the family, what he would be doing. The story element really appealed to me of a member of the Frankenstein family not being in some ornate castle, not having access to state of the art equipment, not being a highly paid surgeon in his field.”

“I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if this last member of the family was younger, just as intelligent, just as driven, but not as successful in the other areas of life, such as his family, job, and income. And he still wanted to create this famous experiment, having to work with more limited resources. So from there I built a story upon that.”

The script quickly came together, and Weaver started figuring out the logistics of making the film. While he was writing the script he was also working on two projects with his friend, local filmmaker Jay Leonard. Leonard was working on a documentary on the punk music group The Murder Junkies, for which Weaver filmed interviews with the band, as well as recording sessions. Following that, Weaver served as director of photography on Leonard’s feature length comedy, “Death Before Discomfort.

Weaver knew that he wanted Leonard to be involved with his project, saying “I’ve known Jay for over a decade. We’ve worked together now on a number of different projects, and we have a really strong relationship as friends and filmmakers. We have a really nice dynamic, and we’re both very passionate about film as an art, and we respect that in each other. We make a really strong team when we’re together on a project. And I just knew it would be a huge benefit to the film to have his knowledge and his insight to be involved.”

So, as Leonard’s project wrapped, Weaver approached him about getting involved in “The Last Frankenstein” as a producer. After Leonard agreed, the pair planned out a rough timeline for when to begin shooting. Weaver had previously worked on a local film called “Dating a Zombie”, for which the director put a great emphasis on pre-production. An approach Weaver greatly respected.

Weaver knew that his own project would be even more difficult logistically, due to its use of practical effects and more locations and characters than many other productions he had been involved with, so he decided to devote a year to pre-production. The first step for the film was finding department heads, with the special effects artist being first on the list.

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Photo provided by David Weaver, courtesy of Gila Films

For Weaver, this position is crucial, as he said, “The film has over 60 effects shots in it, so its everything from something as simple as just bloodying wardrobe to severed body parts, decapitations. And the biggest aspect of the film from an effects standpoint is the creatures in the film. We don’t have just one creature in the film; we have two. We have the older one that was created by Jason’s grandfather, and then we have the one that Jason himself creates. So that’s the most involved special effects aspect of the film, just creating realistic, makeup design for the two creatures in the film.”

After hearing about the film through social media, Jared Balog, another local filmmaker, special effects artist, and horror fan contacted Weaver, expressing his interest in being involved in the project and sending samples of his work. After meeting multiple times to discuss the vision for the film and what the project involved, Balog came aboard as the special effects make-up artist.

Weaver felt confident about the decision due to Balog’s experience as a filmmaker in his own right, his understanding of what working on a film set entailed, and  his skills as an effects artist.

Weaver said, “One of the things that really appealed to me about Jared was his eagerness to continue to learn new ways to create effects. Talking with him about other projects that he had worked on, seeing effects test videos that he had made, it was obvious that he was constantly experimenting and trying to push forward with new and more realistic ways of creating gore effects. And that attitude really appealed to me, because of that energy, that drive to learn.”

With an effects artist signed on, Weaver and Leonard started working on budgeting, finding locations, and building a social media presence. While they were able to secure one quarter of the film’s budget independently, they knew that the remainder would have to be raised through crowd funding. Preparing to launch the Kickstarter campaign for the film was a big focus for the duo.

Weaver knows that the film is ambitious and securing the full budget is paramount to making the film what he knows it can be. Through Kickstarter, he has raised 70 percent of the budget to date, with the campaign scheduled to end Friday at 10:55 a.m EST.

Of course, finding the right people to fill the cast and crew is crucial as well. Weaver said, “Having a strong team helps to know the plan will be executed successfully.” One such crew member is cinematographer John Kenific.

Kenific is an award-winning filmmaker with a background in narrative and commercial film making. Weaver and Kenific connected through the local non-profit Upstate Independent Filmmakers Network. After hearing about the project, Kenific reached out to Weaver to share some of the challenges that he himself had faced in film-making.

Weaver said, “I just was really struck by the fact that he had taken the time to share advice with me, and I thought that was really very kind of him. We got to know each other better, and I visited the website for his own production company, Keniscope Moving Pictures. I was really impressed by his work and also his sensibility. He has a love for a lot of horror films and older horror films, as well. And we just hit it off really well when we finally met, and he loved the project.”

Beyond crew members, Weaver feels that an impressive cast has been assembled. The film consists of 35 featured or speaking roles. With roughly 400 applicants through open casting auditions and online submissions, Weaver is confident that the right people have been found to populate his film, with a number of roles being filled by local actors.

Due to his love and respect for filmmakers and actors of the past, Weaver felt that it would be a great nod to those films and an honor to have a cult film actor from the 1970s or 80s among the cast. Weaver has been able to attach two such actors: Roger Perry and Jim Boelsen.

Photo provided by Roger Perry

Photo provided by Roger Perry

Weaver first saw Perry in an episode of Star Trek. He guest starred in an episode called “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, in which he played an air force pilot from the 1960s who is beamed aboard the starship Enterprise. As a 10-year-old boy, Weaver was impressed by Perry’s acting and his ability to hold his own against William Shatner, portraying the strong character of Captain James T. Kirk.

Years later, Weaver saw Perry again, this time in the films “Count Yorga, Vampire” and “The Return of Count Yorga”. Weaver said, “In those films he is again playing a strong dramatic character, but with a light touch to it. It was really nuanced, and I really appreciated it. I just kept seeing more and more of his work, and since then, he’s been one of my favorite actors.”

Working with Perry was one of Weaver’s dreams. Beyond that, he said, “it would give such weight to the film to have this actor with such a remarkable career, especially within the horror genre, who, himself, by the way is a fan of horror, just be in this film as Jason’s grandfather. He would add so much, just his presence, to every scene that he was in. Just because of the work that he had done before and, of course, his talent as an actor, his skill.”

Weaver found a way to contact Perry and sent him the script. He said, “He sent me a really, very nice email back, talking about what he enjoyed about the project, and it all worked out.”

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Photo provided by Jim Boelsen

Like any horror fan, Weaver places great importance on Halloween, watching a horror movie every day during the month of October. This past year, he watched the suspense-horror film “The Hazing,” which was Boelsen’s first film. While Weaver enjoyed the film overall, Boelsen’s performance stood out to him.

He said, “I was really struck by his comedic talent, really impressed by him. He’s playing a college frat member, a goon, and his performance was funny, but it wasn’t overblown. Some of the stuff, I found out later, he had actually improvised.” Weaver reached out to Boelsen via Facebook, just to send him a message telling him how much he had enjoyed his work in the film.

Weaver said, “He actually took the time to respond, which was really nice of him, and we just started talking from there about his work. Looking at the script, I knew there was this part for the college dean that would be a really nice nod, if Jim was interested in it, to his work on “The Hazing”. And I talked to him about it, and he was interested in coming aboard.”

With the majority of the roles cast, Weaver had to start locking down locations which are central to the look of the film. Weaver said, “Even though the film is set in contemporary times, we are working to give it a vintage aesthetic, because I have been so influenced by not just films, but also art and wardrobe and architecture of the late ‘50s through the ‘80s. I really want that to be reflected in the film”

Three locations in this vein that Weaver has secured are Valentino’s Restaurant, the Amsterdam Riverfront Center, and the Tepee Restaurant. Weaver feels that both Valentino’s and the Tepee have a beautiful interior design, although the latter has fallen into disrepair. Utilizing the Amsterdam Riverfront Center had particular significance for Weaver, as he has fond memories of going there as a child.

The majority of the filming will take place in Amsterdam, which Weaver feels is important. He said, “It’s a place that is very nostalgic to me. I’ve lived here my whole life. It just has a really rich history, I think that it’s a place with potential. I know that no city is perfect, but I’ve seen a renewed appreciation for the arts and culture flourish in Amsterdam, just in the past five or six years. And it’s very exciting, and I really just want to do anything I can to be a part of helping that to continue.”

Filming will take place primarily in July and August, with Weaver hoping to have the film released by the end of the year. Once it is complete, he plans to submit the film to a number of festivals, and will screen it at a few local theaters, including the Emerald Theater in Amsterdam.

While Weaver already has an idea for his next feature-length film, he would also like to become involved in restoring and preserving film history. One method of doing so would be through filming interviews with filmmakers. He would also like to release films that are unlikely to be released by larger labels and already has one title in mind.

For now, Weaver is focused on making “The Last Frankenstein” into something that horror fans and film fans alike can enjoy. He said, “Horror fans are going to love the movie because it’s touches upon so many different aspects of the genre that fans have appreciated about it. It has unforgettable kill scenes, tangible, practical special effects It has creatures, but there is a story line there, too. It’s not just blood and gore, without any foundation. There is a character there; the very essence of him is someone you can relate to.”

To Weaver, Jason is a character who is just trying to fulfill his dreams. He explained, “Maybe his dreams are more frightening than the people we meet in real life, but there’s still someone who is just trying to pursue a dream, trying to find a way through all of the problems and distractions in life that keep us from being who we want to be.”

With the first day shooting less than a month away, Weaver said, “It’s very exciting that all of us have come together for this project. We’ve had tremendous local support from a number of businesses and organizations. I really hope that people will check out our project and will support us either through spreading the word or contributing to our Kickstarter campaign. Since there are so many moving parts to a film, it’s really key for local filmmakers to be backed by the community and other local artists. So far we’ve been extremely fortunate in that area, and we just ask that people keep up the great support. We really appreciate it.”

You can contribute to the Kickstarter Campaign by clicking here.

Visit The Last Frankenstein on Facebook here.

About Ashley Onyon

Ashley Onyon is a graduate of the journalism program at SUNY Albany. She has contributed articles to The Mohawk Valley Independent and the annual journal Upstream.

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