One of the fan favorites from this past year’s Cinequest was Bite Me, which had everything from vampires to the IRS. Writer and star Naomi McDougall Jones recently took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for Fanboy Planet.
1) Vampires, fan of the culture?
Bite Me at its core is a romantic comedy that happens to be about vampires, so I’ll be honest and say that my genre passion lies more strongly in the rom-com realm. I certainly love some of the great vampire films – Lost Boys, chief among them – and love a good Anne Rice novel, but in this instance what drew the story towards the vampires was learning about the real-life subculture of people who identify as vampires. Once I found out about them, I became completely fascinated by their community and practices and also sort of inspired by the degree to which they live their truth – many of them out loud in a way that gets them pushed to the edge of society and even disowned by their families. Members of the community don’t necessarily get to choose whether they are born with those proclivities, but to choose to act on them, even in the face of that kind of cost, really drew me to them as people and characters for a film. I also couldn’t believe that their community had never really been explored on film before – it seemed like a no-brainer as subject matter.
2) What was the inspiration for the film?
Bite Me was the result of a confluence of three ideas in my brain:
First, I LOVE romantic comedies. A lot. But the ones from the 80s and 90s when they were smart, funny, feminist, original, and just, you know, well-made movies. As a viewer it has made me so sad that that genre has taken such a terrible nose-dive into Katherine Heigl fluff-land in the last few decades. So I set myself the task of trying to figure out how to write a really great rom-com that brought back that delicious, heart-soaring, goofy, giddy sense of love that those older films have, but set against the backdrop of our cynical, dark, scary age in a way where that love doesn’t feel jarring, but is actually a discovery of hope, both on the part of the characters and the audience.
My second impulse was that I had long wanted to make a film for the true outsiders of the world. I remember growing up, going to see The Princess Diaries, in which a very young Anne Hathaway is supposed to be a super-weirdo because they’ve given her glasses, frizzy hair, and braces (in Hollywood that means super-weirdo). I remember seeing her on screen in a movie theater as a 14-year-old who was a genuinely strange child – in a way that no makeover was going to fix – and thinking, “Oh my god. If she’s a weirdo, I’m not even on the charts.” As silly as it may sound, it was a devastating moment in my life, so I had long wanted to make a movie about real outsiders – a story where the girl got to keep her glasses on at the end of the movie.
Then the match in the tinder box was meeting a real self-identified vampire on the set of Boardwalk Empire one day and learning about this global community and, as I said above, becoming completely fascinated with them and their potential as characters. All at once those three ideas slammed together into my brain and Bite Me was the result.
3) How were you able to finance the film?
Very, very slowly. Fundraising is, without a doubt, the most brutal part of being an indie filmmaker. We made the film for about $500,000. It took us three years from the time I wrote the first draft to raise enough money to get through production (about $350,000, I think). At that point, we decided to head into production, banking on the fact that once we had footage of the film, it would become easier to raise the rest of the money for post-production and marketing. That did turn out to be the case and following production, we launched a crowd-funding campaign for $35,000, which we got, and then were able to raise another $100,000 or so from additional investors.
All told, we raised most of the money from around 20 different investors – for whose belief and support we are intensely grateful. Then, as I said, we crowd-funded $35,000 and the remaining $70,000 or so we were able to take as a production loan against the NY State film production tax credit to use towards the film getting made.
4) How was the reaction at Cinequest? What has been the reaction from others?
The reaction to the film all around has been indescribably wonderful. We are now in the middle of a 51 screening, 40 city, 3 month tour of America with the film (began May 6th in NYC and will end back there on August 1st after a complete circum-navigation of the US in an RV called The Joyful Vampire Tour of America) and so, in addition to Cinequest, I’ve now gotten to experience the film with 34 different audiences from all different walks of life, geographic location, religious beliefs, demographics, etc. We’ve never yet had a screening where people didn’t laugh through the whole movie or where at least some people didn’t choke up at the end. Night after night, you can see audiences leaving the theater lighter, happier, and more joyful than when they came into the theater and that makes every cell in my body tingle each time. I think my favorite thing is that at every screening at least one person who is clearly a capital “O” Outsider in one way or another comes up to me after and on a fundamental level clearly feels seen, loved, and spoken to by the film in a way that makes me know we accomplished exactly what I set out to do.
5) Vampires & the IRS….a unique combination?
Ha! A unique, as far as I know, but quite comedically juicy combination!
The IRS angle came into the story because I myself was audited shortly before writing the screenplay – something that I would not wish on my worst enemy and which did not have quite as delightful an outcome as it does in the film – but I remember walking home from one session with my impossibly dry and humorless IRS agent and the idea suddenly came to me, “Oh my god! What if the vampire were getting audited?!” The notion struck me as so funny that I knew I had to use it.
6) One of the most powerful parts of the film, is obviously the connection between Sarah & James, despite coming from different backgrounds. Is there a larger message about acceptance happening?
Oh, for sure. The film is about a lot of things to me – love, hope, re-locating a sense of faith in ourselves and each other – but definitely one of the biggest themes in the film is about acceptance – both of ourselves and others. Everyone in the film (as in life, I think) is an outsider in some way. Sarah, the films heroine (whom I play), is a real-life vampire. At 29, with her blue hair and facial tattoo, she wears her self-made freak status like armor. 38-year-old James (played by Christian Coulson), our leading man, an Englishman and IRS agent has spent his entire life trying to make himself as bland and inoffensive as possible, terrified that people won’t like him if he reveals any part of his assiduously hidden personality. Then there’s Faith (Annie Golden), James’ Bible-thumping co-worker and roommate who, as a middle-aged woman, is about to get passed over for a promotion she’s worked years for; Chrissy (Naomi Grossman), Sarah’s best friend and the leader of their vampire “house,” who fancies herself a sort of alternative lifestyle revolutionary; Lily (Mahira Kakkar) the Muslim kindergarten teacher who faces rejection from her community for identifying as a vampire…every last person in the film is an outsider fighting to be seen and loved for who they are.
Although at first glance each character in the film is different in these obvious ways, where they and the film (and hopefully the audience) comes to is that we’re all just basically trying to get through the day and that our differences are nowhere near as great as our similarities and that we’d all be far better off if we could approach ourselves and each other with some radical kindness.
One of the coolest things about The Joyful Vampire Tour of America has been that, in self-distributing the film, we’ve gotten to design the experience the audience has of the film in a way that filmmakers don’t normally get to. Following almost every screening on tour is a Joyful Vampire Ball, which is part-party and part opportunity for us to explore those themes of radical kindness and acceptance more deeply with the audience. It’s difficult to describe the magic of what’s been happening in those rooms, but I’d encourage anyone interested to check out Episode 3 of the docu-series that’s being made about our tour, which dives into some of what’s been happening at those Balls.
7) You’ve introduced your characters who identify as vampires as a subculture. This might sound like a dumb question, is there actually a subculture you were introduced to or is it simply a metaphor for those not conforming to society’s norms?
I guess both things are true. There is a literal subculture of people who identify as vampires – we have had the pleasure of meeting a great many of them at screenings on the tour (their response to the film has been extremely warm and positive). It was on that real community that I based my nearly two years of research as I was writing the vampires in Bite Me. Although obviously our film is a fictional story, everything that is represented about the vampires in the film is true of at least some members of the vampire community (naturally their practices, beliefs, and traditions are as diverse as their membership). However, I do think the vampires in the film also function quite well as a stand-in or metaphor for any group that is stuck at the fringes of society. Throughout the tour, countless members of various demographic groups have come up to me and said, “Yeah, but aren’t the vampires really a metaphor for (whatever subculture or group they’re part of)?” That’s been incredibly exciting to me, to feel that the film speaks to Outsiders as a whole, rather than just this one specific niche group. That was always our goal with the film and it’s satisfying to see that play out.
8) As an artist, what speaks to you? Especially as a writer how are you attracted to a project?
I’m definitely drawn to the stories of people who are misunderstood and/or unseen – Bite Me, obviously, but also in my first feature film, Imagine I’m Beautiful, about a woman struggling with Borderline Personality Disorder. I love being able to give an audience a character that they are likely to see one way based on whatever they walk in the door with and then flip the tables on them so that by the end of the film they have been forced to confront their own preconceptions.
I am excited by the palette of complex female characters in cinema. That is territory that, to this day, is so shockingly under-explored on screen that I find it consistently inspiring to create characters who challenge in one way or another what we expect women in movies (and in life) to be.
Then I suppose, in the end, I’m just inspired by life – by whatever I’m going through at the time, what I witness those around me going through. I take the responsibility and role of storytelling quite seriously. Stories are fundamental to us as a species. In spite of the fact that sitting around a campfire and making up imaginary people and plots and telling them to one another is a fairly bizarre activity, as far as evolutionary survival goes, we have always done it. No human society has existed without story – whether in the form of myth, religion, oral traditions, or, now, film and television. I think a lot within that about what that primal role of story is for us and how I, as a writer and filmmaker, can wield that power in a way that hopefully, in some small way, works to transform and evolve culture towards a better future.
9) What is the future for the film?
Here’s the deal: the way that independent films are normally distributed right now is terrible. It’s terrible for filmmakers and it’s also terrible for audiences.
What’s happened as a result of streaming, Netflix, and a decline in movie ticket sales is that distribution companies are now acquiring masses of independent film content and essentially dumping it into the marketplace with little (if any) marketing money or strategy behind them. Our films then get lost in the abyss of iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, etc, where there is almost no chance that anyone beyond our families and friends will ever find them.
This is obviously terrible for filmmakers because no one is seeing our movies and our investors are, therefore, not making their money back. But it is also terrible for audiences who consistently ask me, confused, “Why don’t they make good movies anymore?” The problem is that we are making good movies, they just don’t know how or where to find them.
My first feature film, Imagine I’m Beautiful, got a traditional distribution deal, as did the past films of my producing partner Sarah Wharton’s, and we’d had pretty disappointing experiences, both from a financial and experiential perspective. So when it came time to release Bite Me, we just looked at each other and said, “No! This film is too good. We know there’s an audience for it. We’re not just throwing it off a cliff again.” We decided we would try to take out the middlemen – sales agents and distributors who routinely take up to 95% of all of a film’s profits – and began calling theaters directly, seeing if they would screen our film if we came and did a Q&A and a Joyful Vampire Ball after. So many theaters said “yes,” that we actually had to stop booking screenings for the tour at 51 because we figured we couldn’t do more than that in 90 days without dying. Then we just drew a line between those places where we had theaters, rented an RV, moved into it, and that became The Joyful Vampire Tour of America, which we are now 33 screenings and eight weeks into.
The film is simultaneously available on online platforms – Seed&Spark (a really wonderful independent platform that you should know if you don’t), iTunes, Amazon, and GooglePlay – so that if you aren’t able to join us for a screening on tour that you can still watch the film right away. It’s also available for sale on BluRay or DVD through our merch store on our website, www.bitemethefilm.com (where you can also find screening/tour dates and links to our online platforms).
Because we’re on this insane road trip adventure living in an RV for three months, driving around the country, and also because we are pioneering a new distribution model – that, if it’s successful, would give the power to filmmakers and audiences and remove it from the fat-cat, middlemen gatekeepers – we have a documentary filmmaker along with us, Kiwi Callahan, who is making a docu-series in real time about the whole tour. Every Saturday since the tour began and continuing through the end of it, Kiwi has released a 10-20 minute episode on YouTube, so you can follow along on journey, which, I can tell you, has already been quite the journey. In that series, we are offering ourselves as a radically transparent case study to other filmmakers – sharing all of our data, numbers, and strategies – so that they can learn from, innovate on, and replicate all of our successes and mistakes.
10) What is your ultimate goal for the film?
As a storyteller, my goal is always to move people, to make them laugh/cry/feel, and hopefully to reach inside of them and change them in some small or large way. The Joyful Tour has been an astonishing way to do that and get to witness and participate in that in real time, so on one level, that goal has already been achieved in spades, night after night, and, will continue to be through the rest of the tour and after.
A handful of people have told me that Bite Me is now their favorite movie, which feels like a giant win.
We would, of course, also like to make our investors’ money back for them.
And, most ambitiously, my hope is that our release strategy, docu-series, and tour will be part of improving the distribution landscape for independent film. I hope that we are at least part of creating a new, less corrupt, and more economically sustainable ecosystem for film!
Bite Me is currently enjoying a tour, aptly named “The Joyful Vampire Tour of America, which is a 51 screening, 40 city and 3 month tour (May 6 – August 4).
The film is also currently streaming for purchase on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon.
More information on the film and Naomi can be found at :