When Erica Benedikty originally wrote the script for her 1995 science fiction extravaganza Phobe: The Xenophobic Experiments, the Niagara, Canada-based filmmaker believed she could complete the movie on a budget of $500,000. Instead, she wound up directing this shot-on-video tale, about an alien soldier tracking a deadly monster, for just 250 Canadian dollars.
“We were in negotiations to make it as a sixteen millimeter horror film,” says Benedikty. “It was looking pretty good but at the last minute the deal fell through. I just wanted to make a Hollywood movie. Star Wars was a huge inspiration for me back in the day. I thought there was no reason why I can’t make a Hollywood movie. You know, ‘Budget means nothing! This is my idea and I’m just going to go and do it!’ So, that’s what I did.”
The director was aided by a volunteer cast and crew and by the local community channel — essentially Canada’s version of public-access television — where Benedikty had recently started working. “I rewrote the script with a budget of $250 taken into account,” she says. “But that $250 doesn’t account for the equipment that was used. If we had to actually rent all this gear, it might have actually cost $5,000-$10,000. I went to different businesses, and said ‘I’m making a movie, would you be able to help me out and donate some gear?’ And everybody was, like, ‘Absolutely, what do you need?’ From a family doctor donating contact lenses for free to a company that delivered the boom crane for some of those crane shots. It was fantastic. The $250 was really just some plaster of Paris, and some paint, and a couple of pyro effects — things like that.”
After its completion, Phobe became a staple of the community channel’s schedule. “It became like, a filler show,” says Benedikty. “It would air once in a while when we needed to fill time on the community channel. Let’s say, for example, a council meeting would start at 10 o’clock and it would go ‘til 2, and you needed something to fill [time] ‘til 4, we’d put the movie on. That’s what really helped people see it a lot. Being a community channel, it’s not like it was hugely publicized: ‘Oh, there’s this movie coming out!’ It was just there, and people would catch it and be like, ‘What’s that?’ People were also calling us like, ‘Yeah, I caught some alien running around? Can you guys play that again for me?’”
Over time, Benedikty’s creation began to garner a cult following. “Somebody would email and say, ‘Yeah, there was this movie back in the ‘90s, haven’t seen it in ages, wondering if I could find out where I could buy it,’” explains the director, who is now a producer at the community channel. “People would email and say, ‘Yeah, we have this group that studies your film.’ I was like, ‘Oh my god, what?’ People just loved it, as I started to discover. It was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”
In June, 2015, Phobe finally received its world premiere when Toronto’s Laserblast Film Society screened the movie as part of its inaugural WTF Festival. “A person in Toronto called me up and said that they wanted to air the movie at their film festival,” says Benedikty. “I thought Wow, that’s fantastic, 20 years later. It got me inspired to pull it off the old Beta tape and put it on the computer and fix it up. We restored a bit, and added a few things, and cleaned it up. Airing it in a theater was really a unique experience. On TV, you don’t get to see what the audience’s reaction is like, it just aired, and it went out into this void, and you never know what happened. But when you’re sitting there in a theater, you’re with an audience when they’re watching the movie, and they’re clapping, and they’re cheering, and laughing. It was like, ‘Wow!’ It’s amazing to see that people are enjoying it and being entertainied. So, that was really awesome to be a part of.”
Also awesome? On Sept. 27, Intervision Picture Corp. — a sub-label of Severin Films — is releasing the film on DVD, complete with an array of extras, including outtakes, a cast and crew Q&A, and a making-of featurette.
“It’s incredibly inspiring to see someone refuse to scale down their dream when faced with a budget of only $250,” says Severin’s Josh Johnson. “Rather than make a smaller film, Erica Benedikty decided to use her imagination to find clever ways to make a sci-fi action epic for no money.”
“I’m blown away by that,” says Benedikty of the DVD release. “I can’t wait to order it online, have it delivered, and pick it up in the mail, like every other movie.” The director is aware that the company will almost certainly send her a free copy, correct? “I’m sure they will, but I still just want to go buy one and have it mailed to me,” she says. “It’s just so cool. If I can order my movie off the internet and get it delivered by mail it means, that, ‘Yep, it’s real!’”
You can see the trailer for Phobe below and an exclusive behind-the-scenes clip from the DVD, above.