Fruita grad follows horror movie dreams to Hollywood with ‘Chemical Peel’
Plopping a 4-year-old in front of a Freddy Krueger movie might not seem like a decision that would win you Parent of the Year, but those nightmares from Elm Street planted the seed for Hank Braxtan’s dream career as a filmmaker.
The 33-year-old director debuted his first original feature-length horror film, “Chemical Peel,” earlier this month at the Telluride Horror Film Festival. The film since has been acquired by Grindstone Entertainment Group for distribution by Lionsgate Home Entertainment and is slated for release in the first half of 2014.
The project represents more than 96 minutes of suspense and gore, but the making of this movie began way back when Braxtan was growing up at the end of 17 Road in Fruita. And Braxtan credits his Grand Valley roots for helping to lay the groundwork for his career.
MONSTERS AND ALIENS
The Fruita Monument High School graduate’s obsession with movie making began after his parents rented “Nightmare on Elm Street,” and it freaked Braxtan out.
“I got scared, but then my mom told me about special effects,” he said. “She explained it wasn’t real ... and I wanted to see creative ways of doing this.”
Thus began Braxtan’s fascination with making his own movies. As a kindergartner and first-grader, he began watching behind-the-scenes documentaries on special effects.
“It was interesting how people made these monsters,” he said.
His parents continued to rent movies for him to analyze and enjoy, such as “Star Wars,” “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequels and “Alien.” He vividly remembers when his mom took him to see the sixth “Nightmare on Elm Street” in a movie theater and he saw Freddy on the big screen for the first time.
Then he saw “Ghostbusters” and “Return of the Jedi,” and he begged his mom to take him to see “Predator” in the theater when he was 10 years old. Of course, she did.
By then, Braxtan was making his own movies. His mom, Teri, bought him a Fischer Price video camera when he was 8 years old, which wasn’t cheap for someone earning a living grooming and boarding dogs. He started by filming parodies of the movies he had seen and loved — “Star Wars” re-enactments and Ghostbuster movies.
“When I was nine, I decided to make a documentary about my lizards,” Braxtan said. “They were little green lizards and Predator was one of their names.”
The Predator theme continued, with a parody he filmed behind Scenic Elementary School when he was in third grade. He used a bottle rocket as a missile and shot it off in the canyon for special effects.
He scavenged for whatever he could use, like the old car mats he used to construct makeshift tiger traps over postholes. He spent hours being bored, inventing his own fun.
All that solo playtime paid off for Braxtan. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the thousands of hours he spent inventing worlds and plots in a dirt field in Fruita were preparing him to do what he does now.
“I think that if a kid grows up in a place like that, there’s much more freedom,” he said. “I watch kids in L.A. and their schedule is way more regimented. They can’t just wander. I spent many days just wandering around, digging holes, playing in the canal, and it makes you more creative.”
MOVIES AND THE MILITARY
Braxtan started paying more attention to the craft of directing movies, the story lines and the characteristics of good horror flicks.
He counted the names in the opening credits of the Freddy Krueger movies, just so he could count the victims and time the body count, and know who was left to die. He wondered how the filmmakers made the bodily fluids look so realistic and how the stunts worked.
“Other kids’ parents didn’t want their kids to play with me because they thought I was too into gore,” he said. “But I was just curious.”
The movie making followed Hank through school, and he spent high school creating short films, such as “Revenge of the Pinatas” for a Spanish class project.
Other students recruited him to help them with their projects, and soon he was making movies for classes in which he wasn’t even a student.
Graduation crept closer and despite Braxtan’s love of movie making, he didn’t feel he was ready to make a go of it as a career. “All I knew was, I was tired of going to school,” he said.
Braxtan was slinging roast beef sandwiches at Arby’s when a recruiter called up and convinced him to join the U.S. Army.
Even during his career in military intelligence, Braxtan returned to movies. On the weekends, he and his colleagues shot movies, and he earned the nickname “Sgt. Filmmaker.” The entire company would come to watch his movies. “They were all stars and they loved it,” he said.
By the end of his Army career, he had made more than 50 short films and produced “Freddy vs. Ghostbusters,” inspired by some old Halloween costumes. At that point, “I finally realized that maybe I could make a living doing this,” he said. He decided to enroll in film school instead of reenlisting.
SCRIPT AND BUDGET
Fast-forward to 2010, and Braxtan had made it to California after his success with another fan film, “Return of the Ghostbusters.” He was working as a producer at a reality TV company.
Connections he made at the Moondance Film Festival in Hollywood while he was in school landed him a job at Mandt Brothers Productions, and he was engaged to his now-wife, Arielle Brachfeld.
He met Brachfeld, an actress, during film school, and he cast her in a few roles. They have a lot of friends in the industry, each looking for their big breaks and their dream jobs.
Braxtan was hanging out with Brachfeld and fellow actress Natalie Victoria, and the ladies announced they wanted to make a movie together.
Busy playing video games, Braxtan replied, “All right, write a movie that costs, like, $50,000 or less to make.”
The only way for the group to produce a film and avoid financing issues was to write a script that could be filmed in a place they already had control of and recruit friends in the industry to help with the project.
“If you have a very controlled, condensed film, you can pull it off,” Braxtan said.
So they started brainstorming ideas, most of which involved people trapped in a house.
“I remembered a story I’d seen in the ‘90s about a couple that got trapped in a house because of a chemical spill, and it was a town just like Fruita,” he said.
Braxtan loosely based the idea for the project on that story and sought out a screenwriter to flesh out the script. He partnered with Dan Sinclair, who he met while they were working together on “Sports Jobs with Junior Seau,” and pulled in Tarkan Dospil, an old U.S. Air Force buddy and actor, to help produce the film.
The result was “Chemical Peel,” a film about a bachelorette party where the women turn on each other after a skin-blistering, toxic chemical spill traps them in an isolated house.
While the movie is full of suspense and horrifying gore, something special sets it apart from some other horror flicks.
“I really enjoyed the characters,” said Ted Wilson, Telluride Horror Film Festival director. “I just thought it was a really solid horror film.”
Wilson should know. He watched the more than 300 films entered into the festival and narrowed the selection to 17 feature films.
Because “Chemical Peel” basically was produced for the price of a used car, Braxtan had to shoot it using limited locations. This means the characters’ actions truly drive the plot in the film, which can be challenging.
“Chemical Peel” has the trademark horror moments and it pays homage to some of Braxtan’s favorite films and directors. Certain scenes are tinged with a flavor of Alfred Hitchcock, Ridley Scott or Sam Raimi.
Braxtan calls one of the more gruesome death scenes the movie’s “Alien” scene. “I wanted people to see a chest-burster,” he said, referring to the trademark moment in the science fiction-horror movie.
And, of course, there are a lot of horrible death scenes, spaced artfully through the plot to keep the viewer in suspense over who will drop next.
“We have a body count that would make Freddy Krueger proud,” he said. “It’s not quite Jason Voorhees, though.”
The team started shooting “Chemical Peel” around Thanksgiving 2011, working on weekends off from their regular film and TV jobs.
Braxtan filmed the majority of the movie in a house he was renting, though it was sometimes tricky when his cat, Goober 2.0, ruined a good shot of bloody carnage by walking through the scene.
Braxtan chose to shoot the outside scenes in Ojai Valley, Calif., “because I wanted it to look like Fruita,” he said.
BIG DEALS AND FUTURE
Braxtan’s team finished 90 percent of the shooting for “Chemical Peel” within a month, and all the other odds and ends came together within a year. The film was finished by January 2012, and Braxtan started marketing the project to big distribution companies.
To say the least, he was thrilled when Lionsgate made the purchase to distribute the film. For the first time, he sold a project to someone else, available for a mass market to see.
Selling the film to Lionsgate was a huge milestone for Braxtan, one he wants to hold on to and look back on later, like he did when he made “Return of the Ghostbusters” for $3,000 in film school.
“The goal is five years from now, we’ll be looking at the Lionsgate deal being equally small,” Braxtan said.
Another goal of Braxtan’s is to bring more film to Colorado, which he’d love to do if he had more funding to shoot on location. Colorado has a special place in Braxtan’s heart, and his wife also is a Coloradan from the Denver area.
That is why he decided to enter “Chemical Peel” in the Telluride festival, so it could be seen in Colorado first.
Teri Braxtan thoroughly enjoyed watching the world premiere of “Chemical Peel” from the balcony of the Sheridan Opera House. Her favorite part was seeing her son’s name in the credits and knowing how far he has come from those days shooting movies out at the end of 17 Road.
“Well, I think you’ve got the fake blood mastered, Hank,” she said after the show. “That used to be an issue, but not anymore!”