By Noma Faingold
Filmmaker Neil George, 31, does not save his money for his retirement, a down payment on a home, a new car, trendy clothes or even the newest, most coveted electronic device. He saves, if not lives, to finance his next film.
The Sunset District resident’s latest short, “Ghost Searchers,” is an 18-minute, humor-infused, paranormal buddy picture, currently streaming on Amazon Prime. George worked out a budget of just a little more than $6,000.
“Of course, I didn’t pay myself,” he said.
Filmmaker and Sunset District resident Neil George in a self portrait at the Sunset Reservoir. Courtesy photo.
George produced, directed, co-wrote and edited the film, which he described as being influenced by the mysteries/thrillers of the 1980s, such as “Poltergeist.”
“I wanted to make the effects practical and more organic instead of relying on CGI (computer-generated imagery),” he said.
In addition, George was the cinematographer and set up all the visual effects, including rigging his own kitchen for a key seance scene, in which cabinets spontaneously opened and closed and a fire started on the stovetop.
“I wore a lot of hats,” he said.
The five-day shoot in 2019 proved a greater challenge when some crew members cancelled and George had to wear even more hats.
According to actor Max Doubt, who played Matt, the more seasoned character of the down-on-their-luck paranormal activity investigators, George handled every obstacle on set with aplomb.
“I would jump at the opportunity to work with him again,” said Santa Clara resident Doubt. “I would say yes before he finished asking.”
Doubt is drawn to the writer/director’s storytelling style.
“He can pull in a viewer in a matter of seconds,” Doubt said. “There’s a level of intensity he achieves.”
Doubt noted that he also appreciated the collaborative way George works with actors.
“He was open to an actor’s interpretation. We (Doubt and Jonny Lee, who plays business partner Jeff) changed things up from the script a bit. Neil told us to adjust as we see fit and go for it. He met us halfway.”
In 2013, George came to San Francisco from Nagercoil, a small city in India, to study at the Academy of Art University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in animation and visual effects. Initially, his plan was to develop enough skills to be part of a crew.
“I never thought I could become a filmmaker,” he said.
He currently works for a company doing editing and other post-production work (mostly visual effects) on social media ads and promotional content. He has also worked on a few independent films, and he is willing to support other directors trying to get their work out there.
“It has to do with the love of it and supporting other filmmakers. We’re all trying to get our foot in the industry,” George said. “Working with them and seeing the finished product motivates me to work on my own projects.”
“Ghost Searchers” is George’s fourth short film. He grew up watching Looney Tunes and Disney animation. His taste evolved into admiring the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick, among others. Multiple viewings of such films as “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown,” “Blade Runner,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Maltese Falcon,” “Vertigo” and “The Shining,” and other master works of cinema have informed George’s work, both as a writer and director.
“With Polanski, every scene has meaning. If I keep watching those films, I will pick up something new,” he said. “I can never compete with those films, but I can take inspiration from them and create something unique.”
In “Ghost Searchers,” George intentionally took the paranormal/suspense formula and injected twists on the genres. “I try to build upon audience’s expectations or break them,” he said.
In the climactic seance scene, George said, “I led the audience in one direction and then showed them something else. I wanted them to let their guard down and enjoy the moment.”
Last October, “Ghost Searchers” won the audience award at the Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema film festival. Both screenings, held at the Alemany Farmers’ Market parking lot, which was converted into a drive-in theater, were sold out.
The film also screened at the Los Angeles Lift Off Festival in September and at San Francisco’s 17th annual Another Hole in the Head Festival (specializing in science fiction, fantasy, horror and related genres) in December.
“Proper funding is the only thing holding Neil back,” Doubt said. “I’m excited to see what his next step is.”
George is in the early stages of writing his next film, combining film noir and science fiction.
“I started writing and realized I was copying Hitchcock,” he said, laughing. “I had to start over.“