The scene is over, and Brian Pulido wants somebody to sound off. "You gotta yell 'cut!' " he barks at his young entourage of gaffers, cameramen, assistant directors and assorted production knaves. Then, as if to acknowledge that yelling "cut" is akin to fetching coffee on the movie-set drudgery spectrum, he offers a good-natured testimonial: "I had to yell it for 400 days on the streets of New York. I paid my dues."
Indeed, a long, twisty road of dues-paying led Pulido here to a windblown ghost town in the Arizona high desert for his feature directorial debut, a supernatural, feminist horror/thriller called "The Graves." After all, Pulido was a film student at New York University's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts before he moved to Scottsdale and fashioned himself into an award-winning comic book publisher. He played the gofer. He fetched the coffee. For much of the '80s, he earned a living working as an assistant director on music videos for Queensryche, Hall & Oates and other mousse-slathered rock acts.
And now he wants to direct? It's about ever-loving time.
"This is the next big step for Brian," one of the producers, Chris LaMont, says while surveying the action near the fabled Vulture City Mine in Wickenburg. "This movie needed to happen. It's Brian's coming out party."
Taking a breather between shots on his first day of filming, watching portions of his 50-odd-person crew bustle in and out of a knickknack-cluttered wood shack commandeered by the production, Pulido is visibly charged up. "At one point I said to myself, 'My God, I'm actually directing what I wrote.' That's an awesome feeling."
With his infectious aura of positive energy and varied resume, Pulido has long been one of the Valley's most intriguing creative forces. And he certainly looks the part of the up-and-coming horror auteur. Blocking a scene in the shack, a Rob Zombie-style cowboy hat sternly enforcing order to his kinky black mullet, Pulido makes like a human dolly shot, checking perspectives, working angles. He is wiry, focused and magnetic, suggesting a cross between Gary Sinise and Scorpions frontman Klaus Meine.
Having penned the comic book adaptations for "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Friday the 13th," Pulido also has a perfect visual arts pedigree for a midnight-thrills horror project such as "The Graves." But Pulido insists the movie - about a pair of road-tripping sisters trapped in an Arizona mining town populated by reclusive killers and supernatural, soul-eating entities - is nothing like "Hostel" and other so-called "torture porn" flicks in which characters are coldly, meticulously brutalized by sadistic villains.
"People don't realize it, but the main audience for horror is women," Pulido says. "And it's an audience that's been disregarded with that torture porn garbage. This movie emphasizes thrills and suspense over gore. You won't be ashamed to bring your boyfriend. You won't need to shower after seeing it."
Pulido's affinity for strong female protagonists is central to his creative mythology. His greatest success in the comic book realm, Lady Death, is essentially the occult offspring of the soft-core bombshells from the heavy metal era - the kind of mysterious, independent heroine who, oh yes, just happens to have a DDD chest.
On the Vulture City set, the movie's two lead actresses - former Tucson schoolgirl Jillian Murray and "Walk the Line" bit player Clare Grant - walk through a scene in which their characters are stalked by the story's villain, played by Valley actor Shane Stevens. With its sun-beaten menagerie of broken appliances, car tires and rusted mining equipment, the one-time gold rush boomtown needed little to no set dressing, says Francisca Pulido, the director's wife, production chief and set designer.
"We found the place on one of our weekend excursions," recalls Francisca, huddled underneath a shade tent with other crew members. "When Brian sat down to write the script, he just incorporated it into the story. It was perfect."
Budgeted at under $1 million, "The Graves" is a consummate friends-and-family production. Along with LaMont - who founded Tempe's International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival with Pulido - the movie is being produced by Dean and Brian Ronalds, the Gilbert-based sibling filmmakers whose debut feature, "Netherbeast Incorporated," made a splash at the Phoenix Film Festival a few years back. Huffing and puffing under the 60-pound bulk of the production's state-of-the-art digital camera is N. Scott Trimble, a former Tribune photographer who met Pulido while enrolled in the film program at Scottsdale Community College.
Financed piecemeal through local investors, including Valley costume shop mogul Jess Acridge and his wife, Cindy, the production seems to feature an excess of cooks in its proverbial kitchen, but Brian Ronalds says it was easy to stand down from his usual hands-on duties and let Pulido run the show.
"It's proving surprisingly easy, in fact," Ronalds insists. "Brian has it all under control. He's the man."
Aside from an early-afternoon mishap in which a strong gust of wind toppled a craft-services tent and sent a production assistant to the hospital for stitches, the first day of shooting is relaxed and productive. The crew buzzes about the arrival of legendary genre actors Tony Todd ("Candyman," "The Rock") and Bill Moseley ("Grindhouse") later in the week. LaMont hints that the movie will be submitted to the Sundance Film Festival for competition in 2009 and - who knows? - maybe find a distributor. It could do for greater Phoenix what "Slacker" did for Austin, Texas: Put its independent film scene on the map.
After wrapping in Wickenburg, the production was scheduled continue its 14-day shoot in Mesa and south Phoenix and head straight into postproduction. The best bet to see the finished product will be on the festival circuit - maybe at Sundance, maybe at next year's Phoenix Film Festival, or in any number of festivals in between.
"Stay frosty!" Pulido shouts out, movie set code for "staying sharp," as the crew sets up for an elaborate hand-held shot. In the 90-degree heat, the euphemism is particularly apt, and this time, somebody does yell "cut" after actresses Murray and Grant complete their distressed sprint through the shack.
"Thank you," the director acknowledges, with a smile. The scene is over. But the movie is just starting to roll.