The Gregg Hale Project

Film alumnus continues to follow his passion for the big (and small) screen

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Gregg Hale, ’95 | Partner, Haxan Films

By Angie Lewis, ’03

If you were a teenager in 1999, chances are you sat in a dark theater with your friends, peeking at the screen through your hands, while watching the “found footage” of three student documentary filmmakers who disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Md.

“The Blair Witch Project,” by Haxan Films, celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, after grossing more than $248 million worldwide and receiving critical acclaim, which included winning the Award of the Youth for Foreign Film at the Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Orange Award at the Florida Film Critics Circle Awards.

The highly successful indie horror film was the creation of five UCF alumni: Michael Monello, ’92; Robin Cowie, ’93; Daniel Myrick, ’93; Eduardo Sanchez, ’94; and Gregg Hale, ’95.

We caught up with Hale, one of the movie’s producers, in Portland, Ore., where he currently lives with his wife, Adrian (Steinbach), ’00, and their two kids, Amelia, 8, and Decker, 6.

Hale and Sanchez still own Haxan Films and continue to make indie movies, as well as television shows, games and comic books, and also do some creative consulting. Most recently, the pair produced a show for ABC called “The Quest,” a fantasy-based reality competition, which began airing at the end of July and wrapped up in September. In addition, their Bigfoot horror film, “Exist,” comes out Oct. 24.

“It’s a cycle of developing and then producing,” Hale explains. “When we do the indie thing, we have to sell them. So, we’re trying to transition more into television, which is steadier. There’s more money in it now than there is in indie films, and we don’t have that cycle of taking a long time to create something, then make something, then sell something. We can get in and do it and not worry about the sales aspect.”

Hale and fellow “Blair Witch” producer and UCF alumnus, Monello, are also the the founders of Campfire, a marketing agency that shapes perceptions and enhances brand preference through social storytelling, digital content and physical experiences — just like the promotional campaign they did for “Blair Witch,” which had many people believing the movie was real. Hale remains with the company as an advisor, while Monello serves as its full-time chief creative officer.

“I like the work that we did for Campfire,” Hale says. “We did a lot of cool stuff, like the first season of ‘True Blood’ and the first season of ‘Game of Thrones,’ and we did some cool movies and a lot of video games. It’s good work, but I don’t get passionate about that. I’ve still managed to stay somewhat passionate about TV and film. So, I just opted to do the thing that gets me going.”

In 2013, Hale and Sanchez directed a point-of-view zombie segment called “A Ride in the Park” for the horror sequel “V/H/S 2.”

“Being a filmmaker is the only thing I ever really wanted to do,” Hale says. “I’ve known since I was 11 that that’s what I wanted to do, when I saw ‘Star Wars’ (A New Hope). I was young enough to be totally amazed by the movie in that kid way, but old enough to realize somebody made it — there was a camera, and people behind a camera, and somebody decided what the set was going to look like and what Darth Vader looked like. When Darth Vader walks through the door at the very beginning of the movie, it blew my mind — the visuals, the music, everything. That’s the moment I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker.”

As a child, Hale used a Super 8 camera to make short films, stop-motion animation and zombie movies. And, in true young, male filmmaker fashion, he also blew up toy soldiers with fireworks and filmed it.

Before Hale was in the spotlight for “Blair Witch,” he worked as a set dresser for Disney’s “The All New Mickey Mouse Club” and on the swing gang in the art department for the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon,” both of which were produced in Orlando.

Hale grew up in Kentucky and was on his way to California to pursue his film education at UCLA or USC (“because those are the big, famous film schools”), when he got a call from a childhood friend who was working on “Superboy” in Orlando. That was right before Universal Studios Orlando opened and right after Steven Spielberg told the world via “The Today Show” that Central Florida would be Hollywood East. So, Hale, like all of the other film students who weren’t already working in L.A., decided to head south.

Before starting college, Hale served in the U.S. Army to earn money for school. He’d already been working in the industry when he started taking film classes at Valencia College, where he learned the technical skills necessary for filmmaking. When he got to UCF, he says he enjoyed the opportunity to make his own films in a structured environment, with access to resources and instructors.

His advice to current UCF film students? “There’s talent and intelligence and all of the other attributes that are part of being a successful filmmaker, but you need perseverance,” he says. “It’s a hard business. If you allow yourself to get discouraged, you’re not going to make it as a filmmaker. There have been a lot of ups and downs for me and Ed. Since ‘Blair Witch,’ we haven’t had that level of success we started out with, and that can be a downer at times. Things don’t always go the way you want them to go, but you have to stick with it. It’s a blessing and a curse.”

Let’s Get Reel Q&A

Q. Favorite UCF memory?
A. Going to class. I enjoy learning. The classes I enjoyed the most were film theory and film history. They were non-production classes, where you’re just learning for learning’s sake.

Q. If money was no object and you could make any movie, what story would you choose to depict?
A. We have a couple of properties that we’ve been developing that are “pie in the sky.” So, I’d like to make a big fantasy thing that my kids could go see. The TV show that was just on ABC [“The Quest”], my kids could watch, which I was super psyched about. It’s the first thing I’ve done that my kids could actually see.

Q. Most memorable work experience so far?
A. I feel super lucky to be doing what I’m doing, and to be able to have done it as long as I’ve done it. When “Blair Witch” got into Cannes, we all went, and got to go to some big parties — these crazy, over-the-top parties. And, we’re standing on this beach with drinks, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, and there were guys with Rottweilers on chains guarding the edges of the party. We’re just standing there like, “What in the hell are we doing here?” That was all such a whirlwind.

Q. Last movie you watched?
A. “Kelly & Cal”

Q. All-time favorite movie?
A. “Fellowship of the Ring”

Q. If someone made a movie about you, what would the title be?
A. “One Lucky Dude”

Q. What TV show are you embarrassed to admit watching?
A. “Naked and Afraid”

Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Staying in the film business when I wanted to get out of it

Q. What subject do you wish you’d paid more attention to in school?
A. Typing

Q. Favorite place to visit?
A. It’s a tie between Japan and New Zealand. New Zealand is one of the most spectacular visual places I’ve ever been with maybe the nicest people on the planet. And, Japan is just a very foreign culture that I’m really drawn to. I really like the way the Japanese people do everything.

Q. Something you learned in the past week?
A. Salmon stay at sea three to four years before returning to spawn. I just went and watched the salmon run yesterday.

Q. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
A. Historian

Because She Cannes Cannes Cannes

Alumna’s short film honored at world’s most prestigious festival

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Katie Damien, ’01 | Filmmaker, Gorilla with a Mustache Films

By Angie Lewis, ’03

Growing up in a family of movie buffs and watching the Oscars every year, it seemed Katie Damien, ’01, was predestined for a future in film. In fact, she made her first movie when she was 12 years old. And, she hasn’t stopped making movies since.

Born and raised in Florida, Damien chose to attend UCF because, in her opinion, it had the best film program in the state.

“Film students could direct their own work, they got to keep all the rights to their films, and Orlando is the perfect place to be for filmmaking, with all the studios nearby and the city being so production friendly,” she explains. “‘The Blair Witch Project’ had just come out, and UCF’s film program was the place to be.”

Today, she’s the owner of Kd Multimedia, a writer and director, and one of five producers in Gorilla with a Mustache Films.

Damien started the film company with a team of filmmakers she joined in 2010, in order to compete in the 48 Hour Film Project. After winning the competition’s top prize for their short film, “Touched by Angels,” they decided to make more movies together.

Last year, the group competed in the National Film Challenge. But, instead of competing against other local filmmakers, they were competing with filmmakers around the world. In addition, each team was assigned a genre, a character, a prop and line of dialogue that had to be used in its film.

After a long session of brainstorming, one of Damien’s teammates told a story about a friend who rented a car and ended up with the same make and model someone else at the agency had already rented. He didn’t realize he drove off with the wrong car — until he stopped, opened the trunk and found it full of drugs. So, it got them thinking: What would you do if you suddenly found yourself accidentally in possession of a bunch of drugs? And, again, the group won for its short film, “Joint Effort.”

“I was out of my mind excited [when I learned we won],” Damien says. “I was screaming on the phone with the other members of my team. I was in an office full of people when I found out, and they all started to gather around as I was jumping up and down, screaming like a fool.”

But, the excitement didn’t stop there. The National Film Challenge win sent their film to the Short Film Corner at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

“I knew that Cannes was the top prize, [but] I had to get on a computer real quick and look for myself to make sure it was true,” Damien continues. “When I saw the win with my own eyes, that’s when the screaming started [again].”

Not surprisingly, Damien’s biggest dream is to some day win an Oscar.

“But, in the immediate future,” she says, “I’d just like to have a big enough budget that I can do all the things I want to in a given movie, and be able to pay all my cast and crew properly.”

Q&A Reel

Q. Who was your favorite professor, and why?
A. Sterling Van Wagenen was the director of the film program when I was there. He also taught a directing class that I took. He was amazing. It wasn’t just the knowledge he imparted or the extremely helpful real-world advice he would give, but he had a soothing demeanor about him. He had a way of squeezing your shoulder that just made you feel like everything would be okay. And for a stressed-out film student, sometimes a shoulder squeeze was exactly what you needed. Mary Johnson was a fantastic screenwriting teacher! I still use her template for creating characters when I write scripts. Mark Gerstein and Lori Ingle were also amazing editing teachers. I learned so much from them. And, I can’t skip Jonathan Mednick, my documentary film teacher. He gave me the best advice my senior year. I was working on a short documentary, and he watched it as a work-in-progress and told me: “Make it about the people. Tell their story and the rest will fall into place.” He died suddenly and unexpectedly that summer. I will always carry those words with me. 

Q. How has your UCF degree helped you in your career?
A. Having a film degree, while not essential in this industry, has certainly opened a lot of doors for me. I think the quality of the education I received helped boost the professionalism of my work by leaps and bounds. I was able to try new and difficult things, take risks and fail, all without losing credibility, because I was in a supportive learning environment.

Q. Describe some of your previous films.
A. I’m just now releasing my first documentary feature film, “My Toxic Backyard,” about a community that has been fighting for clean, safe drinking water for decades since it discovered its water was contaminated by an old manufacturing plant where toxic chemicals were dumped into the ground. I’ve made a few comedy films — one comedy/horror about a vampire with a toothache. I made a short drama, “Second Parent,” about how gay parents can’t jointly adopt a child. And, I made a horror film about a couple that accidentally runs over a guy with their car and soon find themselves victims of an elaborate scheme.

Q. Are you currently working on any other film projects?
A. I’m currently in post-production on my first comedy feature film with the same group I made “Joint Effort.” It’s called “One Hell of an Angel,” and it’s about a demon who gets in trouble for asking too many questions in hell and is punished by being forced to work with an angel on an impossible mission to get a washed up rock star to write a song that will change everything.

Q. All-time favorite movie?
A. “Strictly Ballroom”

Q. Worst movie you’ve ever seen?
A. The first movie I ever made as a kid. It was so bad I destroyed it.

Q. Favorite movie genre?
A. Action

Q. If someone made a movie about your life, what would the title be?
A. “The Mad World of a Creative Mind”

Q. What or who inspires you?
A. In the film world, Robert Zemeckis. That man can make any kind of movie and make it well.

Q. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
A. Beer taster. I’ve heard that’s a thing…

More Info

Check out Katie Damien’s day-by-day journal of her experience in Cannes.