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Matt Leal On “ShadowMarsh” and DIY Filmmaking

Saturday, March 5, 2022 | Interviews


Fresh off the release of their techno slasher Hacked, Matt Leal and Matthew Festle, the dynamic duo behind Three Keys Media are back, with something altogether darker, deeper, and more mysterious. SHADOWMARSH, their latest feature, follows an uncle and niece (Mike Ferguson as Jacob and Ellen Woomer as Piper), bonded by trauma, who reluctantly return to the town where Piper grew up. Jacob’s fallen on hard economic prospects, and Piper’s merely content to go anywhere, adrift as she is in a sea of directionless grief. There they re-encounter old friends (a solemn Lew Temple as Sheriff Sam Tate and Felissa Rose as his compassionate wife Jill; Corrinne Mica and Shani Drake as Piper’s spirited hometown gal pals Lori and Tatum) and begin to start over. But something strange and menacing in the woods has other plans for them

SHADOWMARSH is part monster movie, part supernatural mystery, and all throughout a probing character study. Leal calls it “a cross between Pumpkinhead and Hereditary.” Combine the practical gore and creature fear of the former with the thematic maturity and sumptuous camera work of the latter, and it’s easy to see the comparison. But that elides what makes SHADOWMARSH special: the truly independent circumstances of its production and release. On the event of the film’s physical media release, Rue Morgue sat down with Leal, its director, producer, editor, co-writer, and co-composer to discuss the nitty gritty of microbudget filmmaking, from crowdfunding to casting to the work that continues even once you’re all done.

So let’s start at the beginning: what’s the plan for the release of SHADOWMARSH?

SHADOWMARSH had a physical release on February 25th, so for now it’s only available on our media store, which is And then we’re just doing conventions. We just got back from the Cult Classic Convention in Bastrop, Texas, which is where they filmed the first two Texas Chainsaw movies. So that’s all we’re doing right now. Currently, I believe in July, we’re going to have it on all streaming platforms—Amazon, Tubi, Plex. Our whole thing is to keep the rights for this release and then possibly later on towards the end of the year trying to sell the film’s foreign rights.

That’s an interesting approach, why aren’t you guys starting with streaming?

Our initial goal was to take it to Shudder. But after talking to a few people who took their movies straight to streaming, and looking at their guarantees with their earnings, quarterly projections, and other stuff, we changed our minds. We’re seeing how we can build things up in person, at conventions. Doing it DIY.

What I’m most interested in talking about with you is that independent nature of the whole production and release. I think there’s a lot to learn from the way you guys approached everything, and how you managed to turn out such a polished film. Would you start with where you first learned the fundamentals, before you even had any experience?

Definitely, yeah. So I went to school for audio. But when it came to cinematography, YouTube with literally my film school. There was a channel on there, Film Riot, it’s still on there, the tutorials they created helped me out tremendously in terms of the gap between audio and cinematography. But honestly just doing it is what taught me the most. I was a part of a sort of community of people YouTube, other aspiring filmmakers, and being a part of something like that kind of forced me into it. And it was easy, because the stakes were zero. It was just us having fun. It forced me to be creative, out of that comfort zone of feeling like because I was an audio guy I couldn’t pick up a camera or direct. So I started making shorts in 2016 with my friends, and it wasn’t until I guess 2019 when I was approached by someone to direct a sequel to their horror film. Kind of a director for hire thing. We completely changed that script and concept, but eventually that became SHADOWMARSH.

You hear that kind of story, an ultra low-budget director for hire horror gig gets you a foot in. James Cameron, Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola. Were you initially attracted to horror or is it something that just came your way at the right time?

Horror is definitely my favorite genre. I grew up with horror. My sister had the Halloween VHS playing at all times when she was in high school, and through that I just kind of grew up in the horror world. When it comes to what styles I’m drawn to, drama is my next favorite genre. So in my films it just feels natural to mix them – that’s the kind of hybrid that I like to create. For SHADOWMARSH, initially taking on this prequel, the original film was pretty much just a monster movie. But we really wanted to take a different approach. I said that we should try to build on this one character, Piper [Woomer], and that really wouldn’t work unless we made it more of a character piece, but with horror elements.

I love older horror movies, from the ‘90s going back to the ‘70s, but I also pay attention to the newer styles you see coming out of A24 and Blumhouse. We tried to bridge that gap. We always say that SHADOWMARSH is a cross between Pumpkinhead and Hereditary. So it has the practical aspect when it comes to the creature, like in Pumpkinhead, then there is this theme of grief, and a cult aspect like in Hereditary. I would say I definitely want to stay in the in the realm of horror. But I’m not opposed to jumping genres. We have plans to make something like a giallo, a more classic slasher, but I also have scripts for straight dramas. I don’t know, do you see that comparison?

Hereditary, totally. Pumpkinhead, I am laughing. I wouldn’t have before, but I see it now 100%. You got a pretty amazing cast together on this one. How did you get bigger names like Dave Sheridan and Felissa Rose to sign on?

It actually all started with Mike Ferguson. Mike was actually the only one that was attached to the original film, he was who we were loosely basing the prequel off of. The two biggest things that worked for us with casting were offering actors types of roles they don’t normally get, and bringing people from outside of horror into the genre. So through Mike I was able to get a hold of Dave Sheridan. Dave is used to playing the goofy guy, but in the horror stuff he’s done lately, it’s always like a sheriff character, like a riff on his role in The Devil’s Rejects, or playing off what he did in Scary Movie. So I went to him and explained that he’d get to play this mayor and there’s a lot of comedy, but he has this complex relationship with his daughter. He was totally in. He helped us get Felissa, and I had actually worked with Lew on a movie in 2009. Lew’s character the Sheriff is a good guy, but he’s just tired. One of the biggest influences I told him about was Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men. He’s at the end of the road, but suddenly has to figure out how to deal with all of this stuff. That’s I think what drew him to the character.

The thing about casting for us was knowing that we are a super early indie company, and we haven’t really done much. In reaching out to bigger talent, you have to be creative about it, and you have to be super thoughtful. If you don’t have the money to offer, it has to be something interesting. That was our approach – giving them something they haven’t done that might intrigue them to do.

I would love for you to talk about the fundraising process for this movie.

From the beginning we knew we had to crowdfund, and IndieGoGo seemed like the best option for us. We planned it out in November of 2020, and that process is a lot of work. We planned to raise $15,000 for the film, and ended up somewhere in the range of 30 to 32k. And then we did a finishing funds campaign later on. There we were trying to get 10 and we got 17k. If I could ever tell anyone anything about crowdfunding, it’s that it’s a lot of work.

At the time, it was pretty much me and my other partner, Matt, his girlfriend Alexys (who does costumes on the film), and my girlfriend Megan (a cowriter on SHADOWMARSH). I was working full time job, and Matt took the whole month off to work on the campaign. It’s that demanding. So whenever I wasn’t at work, even when I was at work, I was talking to people constantly, constantly promoting. It’s really not something you can just pop on IndieGoGo for and then make your movie. We never forget that. I mean people literally funded our film. Many were family and friends but many more were strangers. And we’re super humbled by that, really really grateful. But I would say be aware of that, that it’s going to take over your life.

Give me a sense of the work that actually goes into fundraising.

Again, it is a lot of time. But what is the alternative? You’d have to go through investors or have money, finance it yourself. Those are the only other options. For us, we started a Facebook three months prior to launching our IndieGoGo to start hyping the movie up. It took half a year just to plan the IndieGoGo. For the campaign, you have to come up with all different kinds of perks and incentives. That takes organization and time. Then when you’re done, you have to fulfill all that! Finishing the film is not the end, not even close. The blu rays, the DVDs, the posters, more specialized perks, all that. Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time doing it, and we’re going to go the same route for our next project. But if you think you can get on there and not do any work and expect to get whatever your budget is, we’ve seen it time and time again and that’s not really the case. People outside your friends and family are not just going to want to donate to your movie. You have to show them why it’s worthwhile.

Are you still fulfilling those perks and promises?

Oh yeah, shipping stuff out all the time. And budget is a whole other part of this. You have to budget for all these shipments ahead of time or else you’ll go quickly over into the red. But this is also how I think we’ve built a following around the movie. It’s not just we who made it, you know me and Matt and the crew. It’s everyone who helped make it possible. The whole group.

To grab a copy of SHADOWMARSH, visit the official Three Keys Media webstore

Ryan Coleman
Ryan Coleman is a writer on film from the San Gabriel Valley.