"We're in frantic post production right now," says Hiltner "It's just a stressful mad scramble to get it all done."
Like most of the Portland filmmaker's movies, CORPSE is a psychological thriller. A couple (Donny Persons and Rachael Perrell) check into an Airbnb where they get into an argument. But the tense, domestic scene contains a dark, supernatural twist. Their relationship starts to fall apart along with the movie's sense of reality when their argument bookends a bizarre dream sequence in an eerie forest.
But until about a month ago, Hiltner was going to make an entirely different film. It would also be set in an Airbnb, but that Airbnb would be run by a couple who cut open the skulls of their guests to perform experiments on their brains. Depicting live brain surgery would have required special effects, though, and crowdfunding didn't go as planned. "It got really grim where we didn't get almost any money," says Hiltner. After a month, he had raised less than $2,000 of his $16,000 goal. "I wrote a new script in 48 hours and we just made a different movie that was simpler and cheaper," he says.
What made the alternate CORPSE different from Hiltner's previous movies wasn't that he couldn't meet his budget, it's that he was trying raise a substantial budget in the first place. "My other short films, we had no money from the get-go," he says. "So I wrote for having no money."
Hiltner is a Beaverton native who learned how to make movies by throwing himself into the deep end of Portland's independent film scene, starting with Attack of the Flix. Curious Comedy Theater's monthly series screened new shorts by Portland filmmakers. Hiltner challenged himself to enter as often as he could, and ended up making five movies over the course of just six months. "There's probably a lot of videos that I should mark private on Vimeo just because they don't necessarily seem that professional," says Hiltner about his early work.
Now almost a decade into his career, Hiltner's made upwards of 16 short films with moody lighting and glossy cinematography using low to nonexistent budgets. Most of the films that will screen this Wednesday along with CORPSE were created in just a few days.
Necessity is what lends Hiltner's movie their idiosyncrasies. He says he's more interested in feature-length films than shorts, but shorts require far less resources (his first full-length film has been in progress for seven years). The unintentional advantage of short horror movies is that they're conducive to sustained, uncomfortable moments and condensed, whirlwinds plots. Without a budget for special effects, Hiltner forgoes jump scares and gore for movies that are more unsettling than scary.
Hiltner's filmography is dotted with odd Portland references. "When you're making low-budget movies, the first thing you do when you write the script is go 'okay, what do I have at my disposal,'" he says. Another film that will screen this Wednesday is Elena Vance, about a woman murdered in her home on Peacock Lane while hundreds of unaware bystanders take pictures of the Christmas lights outside.
The movie's premise was partly inspired by the opportunity for a free filming location—Hiltner decided to make Elena Vance not long after one of his friends moved into a house on Peacock Lane. Similarly, CORPSE was filmed in another friend's Airbnb. Though it's somewhat accidental, there's something darkly funny about a horror film set in an Airbnb or on Peacock Lane.
Hiltner's constant output helped connect him with Portland's independent film scene. "I've helped out a lot of friends on their movies and those are the same people that work on my movies," he says. "Now when I have these impulses like 'let's make a movie,' all of a sudden there's 10, 15 people who are like 'okay we'll do it.'"
According to Hiltner—who was once stalked by a set designer hired off of Craigslist—Portland's artistically hungry film scene has been one of the greatest tools for making movies. While filming Spunk of the Reaper earlier this year, actress Alysse Fozmark had a serious allergic reaction to the catered lunch.
"At the end of each take, she'd go to the bathroom, vomit, come back and do the scene," says Hiltner. "Nobody's making money off of this movie. People like that just want to make art and they're willing to be miserable to do it."
Though he's deep into the most stressful part of making CORPSE, Hiltner says that the lack of funding might have worked out for the best.
"I actually like the script a lot better," he says.
No money means no bloody brain surgery scenes, but it also means a more subtle, insidious approach to creating an unsettling film. "All of a sudden we didn't have the money to show scary things," says Hiltner. "We have to present ideas that hopefully creep people out."
SEE IT: Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean They're Not After You: Short Films of Bryan Hiltner screens at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilm.org. 7 pm Wednesday, Oct. 11. $9.