You may be familiar with the recently established campus organization Columbia Satanic Students. You may have seen their posters around campus, or their strange goat photos on Instagram. But what you probably didn’t know is that Columbia Satanic Students … doesn’t really exist. Their website, Instagram, and posters are, in fact, all part of a publicity stunt to raise money for “East Hell”: a horror comedy short film about Satanism written, directed, and produced by Columbia MFA students. Senior Staffer Betsy Ladyzhets sat down with Callum Smith, the film’s writer and director (and the man behind the Columbia Satanic Students Instagram) to learn more about this unique project.
Bwog: Can you explain the real purpose of the Columbia Satanic Students society, for people who might not be aware?
Callum Smith: I’m a film student in the Columbia MFA program, and my degree is in directing and screenwriting. To graduate from that, as a director, you make two thesis films. One of mine is a comedy that I’m fundraising for right now. And we wanted to try some different stuff with the fundraising – one way to do that was to start this Columbia Satanic Students society, and put flyers up, and do the Instagram account, and do the website, and all that jazz, and see if it got any attention. Because realistically, a lot of student Kickstarters just get money from other students. So anything that makes it stand out a little bit when every other film student is trying to raise money at exactly the same time helps.
Bwog: Would you say that it’s been successful?
CS: I would say that on the scale of film student fundraisers, yes. Because, frankly, the fact that even a few people noticed it … is very pleasing. It will probably get us only a small portion of fundraising, but it cost me very little to put up flyers and do the Instagram account. And I think that kind of stuff is funny.
Bwog: What’s the movie about? Can you give a brief synopsis?
CS: It’s about two teenage goths living in rural upstate New York who try to summon a demon using a ritual they found on Reddit. And one of them has a devoutly religious little brother who tries to stop them with hilarious consequences. It’s a ten-minute horror short.
Bwog: Where did you get the idea for it?
CS: From a screenwriting class I was in a couple of years ago. … We wrote shorts with this writer Israel Horovitz, who’s a big deal in the theater. I had to come with a short on the theme of censorship, and I was like, oh, Satanism, well, that’ll do. … And I did a comedy in the class, because it was a bunch of people I didn’t know, and I’m very needy and want people to laugh at my jokes. … People did laugh at some of the jokes, and said, oh, you should do this as a short. … It’s cheap, and it’s funny, which is a good combination for short films.
Bwog: What was your process like? Did you do a lot of research?
CS: Well, I looked up Satanism on Reddit, and it was hilarious. I know there are many types of it, and I know people are seriously into it, I don’t want to disrespect that. … But there are also many groups who are satirical. I didn’t do that much serious research, partially because my other thesis film was funded by a science grant, and that took me an insane amount of research. So for this film, I wanted to do something with what I knew, which was being a very bored rural kid, and being a goth. … The process happened in classes, with lots of rewrites, and reading the script aloud – because jokes need that.
Bwog: Who else is involved in the project?
CS: There are two producers, Carver Diserens and Annamarie Fernandez, both MFA students at Columbia. And then there’s the DP [Editor’s note: Director of Photography], Tommy Mentel, who is also my roommate. Tommy was the first person I went to with it, because I decided I wanted to shoot this film on iPhone to give it this grungy look, inspired by obscure Japanese director Sion Solo, who I like a lot. … I went to Tommy and said, ‘Hey, I think iPhone will work for this,’ and he said, ‘I would love to shoot a film on iPhone, we should do that!’ … And then Carver and Annamarie came on a little bit later.
Bwog: Are the actors also going to be students in the program?
CS: No, we’ll cast them from outside. There’s a professional casting director, Judy Bowman, who works with a lot of Columbia productions – I’ve worked with her before, and she’ll find actors who are professionals in New York.
Bwog: Who has been backing your campaign so far?
CS: I’d say it’s like ninety percent people who know Carver or Annie or Tommy or I – people from our extended group. … And a lot of people in the program, which is great and very generous. We’re such a small and supportive community, it’s great that people are able to do that. And then about ten to fifteen percent is people who have found it through other means. We try to hashtag a lot of posts – if you go into the horror hashtag, we’re like, the one thousandth thing, but there are some people who are really into it and get to the one thousandth thing. And then they donate something. And we’ve done a bit of advertising online.
Bwog: Has the Satanic Society thing been helpful, or not really?
CS: Honestly, I think the thing it’s been most helpful for is that now people who are in the film program are starting to notice it. People are like, oh, that’s funny. And I think that will get them to help. We have another set of social media that promote this as a movie, but it’s also done with a Satanic theme – that has helped a huge amount. Initially when I did the pitch for this, I did it as like, ‘I have loved comedy from a very young age’ and I didn’t want to read that. So instead, I thought, if the movie’s funny, the rest of it should be funny.
Bwog: What’s the timeline for the film? When will it ideally be finished?
CS: We have to screen at the Columbia Film Festival, which is the 10th to 15th of May, 2017. (Please come.) So it will have to be done by April.
Bwog: What do you think “real Satanists” would think of this?
CS: I think the Satanic Church of New York would like it. I don’t think I’m making fun of anyone … I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, I think that’s a shitty way to make jokes. And I think if the movie’s making fun of anything, it’s making fun of zealotry. The point of the movie is that the two goth girls and the evangelical brother believe in those things for the same dumb reasons. … It’s an identity for them, it’s comforting, but it goes too far. And if the movie has a deeper meaning behind the blood and guts and juvenile humor, then I guess that’s it. … So I think [Satanists] would like it, although I don’t want to speak for anyone.
Bwog: So what’s with the goats?
CS: Goats are a big deal for Satanists, because there’s a bunch of stuff about them in Revelations, apparently. (I do not claim to have read Revelations.) The movie opens with the two girls cutting the head off a goat. … And goats are funny. One of the gags was just to ram down this weird obsession with goats.
Bwog: If you managed to raise enough money to buy a goat and hire a goat wrangler [Editor’s Note: See the “What do you need all this money for?” section on the film’s Indiegogo page], what would you name the goat?
CS: Clive. Or Steven. I always think it’s funny when animals have really mundane names. … To clarify, we will not actually be killing a goat in this film.
Bwog: Will there ever be an actual Columbia Satanic Students meeting?
CS: No. Sorry to the twenty-one Instagram followers that we have, or anyone who was excited. And some people are, based on the messages we’ve been getting. … I’m psyched that anyone is even inquiring about it, but no, no actual meeting will happen.
Bored goths via East Hell Indiegogo page