Imagine if Leatherface had a comic book obsession and you'll start to get a finger on the deadly pulse of Artik. Starring Jerry G. Angelo, Chase Williamson, Lauren Ashley Carter, Gavin White, and Matt Mercer, Artik takes viewers to a sunflower farm where sadistic things happen in the barn at night. The feature film debut of Tom Botchii, Artik recently had its world premiere at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival in Fort Lauderdale (ahead of its theatrical, Blu-ray, and VOD release this September from DREAD), and while at the festival, Daily Dead had the chance to speak with Botchii about his film's talented cast, unique story, and surprises that sprang up from his filming location.
Thanks for taking the time to chat ahead of Artik's world premiere at Popcorn Frights. This is your first feature film. How long has this idea been percolating? How'd it go from an idea to the film? Was it a multiyear process for you?
Tom Botchii: Honestly, I had an idea about the project and I wrote two pages. And then, I don't know if it was writer's block or what, this is the first thing I've ever written, and it was just on a shelf for like six months. And then my dad died and I broke up with my ex-girlfriend, and I started writing about that. And that morphed into some of the characters in the movie. And then it took me three weeks to write the whole thing, and then maybe three months later we're going into production.
It was almost like I was afraid to figure out how to write. And then when those two things happened, it was like, "Oh well, here we go." I can just write about stuff that's bugging me and turn these into characters.
Had you written any screenplays before that, was that your first?
Tom Botchii: I think I had attempted and failed. And I did a few shorts, a few cracks at shorts, and I tried working with a writer. I tried all this stuff, and nothing was really working. And I think the reason was, I wasn't tapping into my voice or something inside me that I just wanted to get out. And when you go through some sort of traumatic event, a lot of times, when you write about it, it helps you process it. And it just gets it out of your system. And the thing that it's morphing into becomes uniquely your voice. It's uniquely yours. So then it was super easy to write. So now I only want to write about bad shit that's happened to me. Because it's just like it writes itself, you know? Just like the time I pooped my pants in eighth grade. That would be a six-hour miniseries that I could do right now, tonight.
So, going from that, you filmed this on like a sunflower farm. Did you know the location beforehand when you wrote the screenplay, or is that something that you scouted out later? Where did that come about?
Tom Botchii: Originally I wanted a sunflower farm because when I was growing up I always thought that was the prettiest thing, and I always wanted to see something set in a very pretty environment that was a contrast. And we shot in December of 2017, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And realistically, nowhere in America are there sunflower fields in December. So we shot in an empty field, and all those sunflowers are actually VFX-ed in, after the fact.
And so a lot of work went into the movie overall. And a lot of times I think the best VFX are the VFX you don't even notice, because they're seamless in how they blend in naturally with everything else. They feel practical. The fact that you could watch it and just accept it if you never knew that, means there was a great job done on those originally.
So, we shot literally with no sunflowers and I would just tell actors, "Okay Chase, just crouch down here and now someone's trying to kill you." And he would react—it was this really cool learning process because I'd never been really able to work much with visual effects, and much less as a means of problem solving. Because I was just like, "Of course we're going to find a sunflower field. Why wouldn't there be a sunflower field in December? This doesn't make sense!" So I learned a lot about agriculture.
How long did you have to shoot this? Was it a tight schedule?
Tom Botchii: It was a very tight schedule. We shot Artik in only 11 days. Part of the strategy of doing it was writing a lot of stuff based around one location to keep production costs down. That was our intention, and so it worked for speeding up the process, but at the same time there were a lot of points where we had to adjust shooting days, move the schedule around, and actually go shoot somewhere else and all that. So, it was a challenge, but also, you only get to do your first feature once. So I liked the idea of having the deck stacked up against me, as high as it could be stacked. Because I know if I get past that, then I can get past anything.
So, yeah, it was a tight schedule, from what I understand, but the weird thing is I've never done a feature before. It's my first feature. So I didn't know that that was a limitation. I was just like, "We got 11 days! I've only ever shot stuff in six hours before. This is tremendous."
And then for your first feature, too, you have a great cast. You have Jerry Angelo playing this really intense guy, and then Chase Williamson, too, who plays such an interesting character.
Tom Botchii: And Matt Mercer's in it and Lauren Ashley Carter.
Were these people that you were all friends with already? How did the cast come together?
Tom Botchii: No, I had previously interacted with Matt Mercer because I was a fan of Contracted and Contracted: Phase II. And Chase Williamson, I was just always a big fan of, and same with Lauren Ashley Carter. I think she's amazing, Jug Face and everything else she's ever been involved in, everything about her presence, when I'm watching a frame with her in it, I just am always drawn to her. And Chase Williamson, I just think is extremely underrated. I've never understood why more people do not know about Chase Williamson, and why he is not in every movie. And Matt Mercer has been in projects with Chase, and Lauren has been in projects with Matt, but never all three of them. And to me it was just kind of like a dream casting.
And so I just happened to reach out to them all individually, and they all liked the script, and it just felt like everybody connected with the roles that they were presented with, and it was just really cool, man.
What's really unique about Artik is the comic book aspect of it. How did you tie that together with this kind of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, really intense Saw-type stuff, then throwing in the comic book as this motivator for the killer?
Tom Botchii: So, it's really interesting. There's two things that kind of drove me with that. When I wanted to do my first feature, when I actually sat down and really was like, "Okay, I'm going to do this." One thing that I absolutely cannot stand right now is comic book movies.
And I thought that'd be so interesting as a character, to write something that was uniquely anti-comic book film in its core, but by the same token, based around someone who is obsessed with comic books. He's so obsessed with his comics, that he doesn't realize the reality that he's in. He's a failure as a farmer. He's a failure as a dad. And it's just like, essentially he hates his life and this is his one savior, his creativity. His comic book he's trying to create, that he's using real people for.
And then you found a home at Dread. Was that exciting for you to get that distribution?
Tom Botchii: Yeah, I felt like we were a really good fit with the lineup they have, especially around the fall. And I just felt like both us and Dread, it seems like we're trying to now level up a little bit. And it felt uniquely complimentary to both of us. They've been really great to work with, and I felt like other people, when I was interacting with them, seemed more like, "Yeah, this is really great, man. We love it. We don't do movies like this, though." It just felt like nothing was very supportive. Everyone appreciated it, but nothing felt supportive. And then with Dread it was like, that wasn't even in the conversation. They were so into it. And that's what you want. In every type of relationship in life, you want to feel supported, and be supporting.
And what does it mean to you to have the world premiere at Popcorn Frights?
Tom Botchii: They're a younger festival, but I feel the same type of conversation. They are leveling up constantly every year. I was watching a fest when I was just doing shorts, and Igor and Marc are really great. And not only that, I feel like Popcorn Frights here in this weekend, I've seen Villains, Daniel Isn't Real, Artik is here—three entirely different films. Any flavor you need, Popcorn Frights goes out of their way to make sure every need is met when it comes to horror. So, yeah, it's amazing to be here with other films like that, especially of that level. Especially when you're doing your first feature, you don't have all the confidence in the world or anything, and it's just interesting to show up and it's like, "Oh, yeah." You look at the poster and it's like, there's this movie, and here's Artik. And it's this weird, "Hey man, maybe you're being a little too hard on yourself." The pain of all creatives is you're just constantly super hard on yourself, and always being critical of yourself.
Do you have anything else on deck that you're looking forward to doing, or anything that you really want to do?
Tom Botchii: I am a creative, so there's always things I'm creating, but I always hate the idea about talking about something before it's a thing. There's a lot of stuff percolating, and there's a lot of things in the works, but it doesn't mean anything until it's a thing. But, that said, if someone wants to get involved, if you get a weird email and someone's like, "Hi, I produce gold, and I would like to offer Tom some gold." Then by all means, I do have a project in the works.