Higher Universe Comics was founded in 2011 by writer Brandon Rhiness and artist Adam Storoschuk. They have produced several comic book series (featuring a variety of artists) and have branched into film-making. Brandon directs and writes most of their short films and their web TV series Mental Case.
Films and Web TV
Mental Case (Upcoming web series)
I’m in Love with a Dead Girl (Upcoming)
My New Wife is Defective (pre-production)
Brandon also has written feature-length screenplays in the very early stages of pre-production with two different producers.
The Boy with a Balloon for a Head
Chainsaw Reindeer (Upcoming)
Elvis The Zombie (Upcoming Ghoul Squad Spin off)
Brandon Rhiness spoke to Indyfest about Higher Universes’ current and future projects.
IM: What is Mental Case about?
BR: Mental Case is about a young woman named Elya Virk. She’s strange, socially awkward and doesn’t hesitate to resort to violence when provoked. Elya has great difficulty dealing with daily life. Relationships, jobs and paying the rent are all foreign concepts to Elya. She’s more at home when she’s involved in some horrifically violent incident. Although it’s not clear if her constant over-the-top fights are real, or just part of her delusion.
IM: When is its release date?
BR: The first two episodes of Mental Case will premiere at an event we’re holding on April 28th at the Garneau Theatre, here in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. After that, it will be released on YouTube and other digital platforms.
IM: Is it an ongoing or finite series?
BR: It’s an ongoing series. It all depends on how much money we can keep raising to shoot more.
IM: How is it being funded?
BR: The first two episodes were done on a micro budget, paid for by my co-producer Afton Rentz and myself. For the next episode, we’ll be doing crowdfunding. Also, the ticket sales for our April event will be going towards funding it.
IM: There are a lot of fight choreography videos on your YouTube Channel. Do you have professional trainers for the cast?
BR: Yes. Afton Rentz, the star and co-producer of Mental Case is one of the founders. Afton, Morgan Yamada and Kristian Stec are all professional movie fighters and they all appear in the series, as well as do the fight choreography.
IM: What is I’m in Love with a Dead Girl about?
BR: I’m in Love with a Dead girl is about a strange, lonely man, who can’t find a girlfriend, so he digs up a dead woman and falls in love with her.
IM: Will I’m in Love with a Dead Girl be released on YouTube?
BR: “Dead Girl” will be premiered along with Mental Case on April 28th. Afterwards, it will be released on YouTube and submitted to film festivals.
IM: What is “My New Wife is Defective” about?
BR: My New Wife is Defective is about a man who orders a Russian mail-order-bride and she ruins his life. But the story is played like she’s a manufactured product. She comes in a crate with an instruction manual and there’s a Russian technical support department to call when she gives the “owner” trouble.
IM: How is it being funded?
BR: We’re in the very early stages of pre-production at the moment. It was only about a week before I did this interview that my script caught the attention of producer Janie Fontaine in Calgary, Alberta. So, we’re still working on how we’ll fund it. It will most likely involve crowdfunding.
IM: Who is directing it?
BR: Janie had a director in mind, but now it’s looking like she may not be available. So, it’s likely I’ll direct it myself.
IM: Plem Plem Productions recently picked up Ghoul Squad as its German publisher. How did this come about?
BR: Christopher Kloiber, the editor-in-chief at Plem Plem read the first two issues of Ghoul Squad and loved them. So, he emailed me and asked if I’d be interested in having in published in German and released in Germany. My answer, of course, was “yes!”
IM: Are you seeking publishers in other countries?
BR: Yes, I’ve been contacting publishers all over the world. It’s very difficult, though, because of the fierce competition and huge volume of content out there.
IM: Do you find working with a publisher very different to self-publishing?
BR: It’s difficult to say, because at this moment, Plem Plem is the only publisher I’ve worked with and they’ve been great. They haven’t demanded any changes or anything, so I’m happy.
IM: How do you find directing, as opposed to writing?
BR: It’s a completely different experience. Directing can be fun, but it’s also quite difficult. A lot of people think, “I can direct a movie,” but when it comes down to it, you realize how hard it is. Writing a script is challenging, but it’s really just you sitting at a laptop. When you’re directing, you’re out dealing with people and locations and technical problems and weather, and you have to think on your feet.
Directing your own scripts really helps you learn about your writing, too. You can learn what does or does not work in a script. I really think it has improved my writing.
I want to direct more, but I still consider myself a writer and producer first, and a director second.
IM: Would you like to direct other people’s scripts?
BR: I’m not interested in directing other people’s scripts. My primary motivation for directing is to bring my stories to life. I just wouldn’t be as passionate about directing someone else’s story.
IM: Do you use the comic book artists for storyboarding?
BR: I haven’t done storyboarding for anything I’ve directed. I just do a shot list and work from that. Hiring an artist to do a storyboard would be an added expense, and I’d rather just put that money into the production.
However, I do use our comic artists to do the movie posters and other promotional material.
IM: You ran a successfully (102%) funded Indiegogo campaign for I’m in Love with a Dead Girl. What made you decide to try crowdfunding?
BR: With the comics, my Higher Universe partner Adam Storoschuk and I began by paying for everything out of our own pockets and with money made from comic sales. But with movies, it’s much more expensive, so self-funding wasn’t an option.
And with short films, I don’t think there’s much hope of making a lot of money on them, so traditional investors would not be interested.
We heard about a lot of people doing crowdfunding, but I was a little skeptical, because a lot of people I know who tried it, failed. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I knew anyone personally who did a successful campaign.
But we decided to go for it, worked really hard at it, and it worked!
IM: Do you have any tips running a Kickstarter: perks, promotion, etc…?
BR: I did learn a lot. And I found a lot of what I learned was the opposite of the advice I’d read from other sources. So, what works for one person may not work for another.
I found that people didn’t care so much about the perks. More than half of the people that donated chose not to receive the perk that their donation level would have gotten them. And we had good perks, too, like printed copies of our comics.
I found that most people just wanted to help out and be involved.
That being said, the most popular perks were the ones where people received physical goods, like printed comics.
Also, social media doesn’t help as much as you’d think. It’s okay for getting the word out there, but just posting your campaign on Facebook doesn’t do much. Most of our donations came from contacting people directly and asking them if they could donate.
I had old friends from my school days—who I hadn’t spoken to in years—donate. So you never know who will be generous.
I also contacted every magazine, newspaper and news station in my city. I got a little press coverage, but it didn’t lead to as many donations as I wanted. Although, it led to one person donating a thousand dollars, which was great! But the press coverage drew a lot of attention to the project. We had more people wanting to volunteer their services on set. And people took us way more seriously after that.
What got us the most donations was sending a private message to everyone on Facebook, Twitter, etc. and asking them to donate, or asking if they could share the post, if not.
IM: Tell us more about Higher Universe’s upcoming comics, Chainsaw Reindeer and Elvis the Zombie?
BR: Chainsaw Reindeer is really fun. It started out because I wanted to write a comic that, basically, had no story. It’s just a reindeer traveling the world, killing people with a chainsaw. After an “incident” with Santa Claus, a reindeer snaps and basically kills the entire population of earth with a chainsaw. It’s completely ridiculous, but completely awesome.
The artwork is by Carlos Trigo, who does the art on Ghoul Squad. Chainsaw Reindeer will be out later this year.
Elvis the Zombie is a character from our comic book series, Misfits. Elvis is Demonman’s annoying neighbour. He was funny enough that Adam and I felt he should get his own series. The comic is called “Elvis the Zombie goes to prison.”
In a nutshell, Elvis goes to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and wreaks his unique brand of havoc.
When people first hear the title, they think it’s about Elvis Presley, but it’s not. He’s just a zombie named Elvis. He’s not really a zombie either. He’s just a living corpse.
IM: Higher Universe features bands in their comics, so are you planning similar crossovers with your films (i.e. sound track or product placement)?
BR: Yeah, we’re considering that, for sure. I’m still new to the “film score” thing, so I haven’t decided what I’m doing yet. I’m almost finished the edit on Dead Girl, so I’ll be dealing with the music soon.
Afton was in charge of the music for Mental Case. She hired a local composer to do it.
IM: Who is Higher Universe’s target audience?
BR: I don’t really spend too much time thinking about who our audience is. I know I’m supposed to, lol, but it takes time away from the fun of actually making comics and movies. I guess, basically, I just write stuff for people like me, who are tired of the same old Hollywood movies and Marvel and DC comics and who want something different. We’ve noticed those people come from all walks of life, so I guess that’s who our audience is.
IM: What is your background?
BR: I’ve been writing since I was a little kid. In high school I tried, making some (really bad) films with friends. I went to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and took Radio & Television production. I worked for some community TV stations around Alberta, and I’d use their equipment on my days off to shoot short films.
After a while, I put the movie thing on the backburner and started making comics. But last year, I decided I wanted to make movies again. Now I’m taking it way more seriously and investing much more time (and money) in it. And I’m definitely starting to see the great results that come from doing that!
IM: When you first started Higher Universe, you and co-founder Adam Storoschuk were paying the artists out of your own pockets. Have the comics (and films) started to support themselves to some extent now?
BR: No, we’re not at that point, yet. Lol. But we’re getting closer to it every day!
IM: Are there many resources for ultra-low budget film-makers?
BR: There are. I find that just googling any question or problem you have will lead to a huge number of resources and people willing to help. You can also turn to Facebook groups for help.
In Edmonton, there’s an organization called FAVA (Film and Video Arts) that rents equipment to indy filmmakers at a very reasonable price. There are likely places like that in every city.
IM: Is it challenging to retain the cast and crew on an ultra-low budget series?
BR: I haven’t had that problem. If you’re smart about it and pick the right people, you can get a very solid team. It helps if you pay people, too. A lot of indy producers cheap out and don’t want to pay their cast and crew. What kind of success do you think you’ll have doing that?
People deserve to be paid for their work, including actors. We raised the money necessary to pay everyone and it was well worth it.
IM: How do you market your work?
BR: Social media, email campaigns, advertising in our comics, cross-promoting with other filmmakers, bands, and creative people. Holding events like the big Garneau event happening April.
IM: How do you distribute your work?
BR: We haven’t gotten to that point yet with the films, so it will be a whole new process for me to learn.
IM: Will you be going to any shows/conventions?
BR: It’s a little harder up here in Canada, because the travel distances between cities is so great. We’re planning on setting up a booth at the Edmonton Comic Book Expo this year, though.
IM: Are you planning to make (book or comic) tie-ins? And merchandise?
BR: We’re making a Mental Case comic book that will be finished in time for the premiere. We’ll be selling a limited edition version there. We sell posters and fridge magnets and stuff like that, but they’re not as popular as the comics themselves.
IM: I noticed there were lots of women’s body building and veterinary videos on your YouTube. Do you also make corporate videos/promo videos?
BR: The veterinary videos were unused video I shot when I worked at a small town TV station. The bodybuilding videos are of a friend of mine, Carmen Tocheniuk. She’s a championship-winning bodybuilder from Edmonton. We made a whole bunch of videos for use on her website and I posted some of them on YouTube.
I used to do wedding and corporate videos as a side gig, but I don’t anymore. But the odd time, I’ll just post something of interest on there. I find bringing in any kind of viewers is likely to get more eyeballs on my comics and films.
IM: Does Higher Universe accept unsolicited manuscripts?
BR: No we don’t. At this time everything we do is created in-house.
IM: What are your hobbies?
BR: Movies, music and playing bass!
Higher Universe Comics was previously interviewed for Indyfest Magazine’s March 2015 issue (#82). That interview can be viewed here: https://mag.indyfestusa.com/universal-appeal/.