Set Report: A Bloody Trip to ‘Madison County’

Written, directed, and produced by 22-year-old filmmaker Eric England, Madison County tells the story of a group of five young college students who are thrown into a nightmare of pain and terror after traveling to a small town in Arkansas and running afoul of the strange locals – not the least of which is brutal serial killer Damien Ewell. Last fall B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen visited the Arkansas set of the low-budget production – boasting special makeup effects by Rob Hall’s Almost Human – to get a closer look at the backwoods slasher and interview cast and crew, including England and star Nick Principe, who most recently starred as “Chromeskull” in Hall’s Laid to Rest (and will be reprising the role in the upcoming sequel). Check out the full report inside!
When [Almost Human] came on, they were not just, ‘ok, we’ll have cool effects’ but ‘we can make these better than they are’…we never expected that at all. He came to us and told us, ‘instead of just a stab here, [let's] go all the way through’.” – Producer Daniel F. Dunn

Madison CountyWhile in all my years as a horny young adult I’ve somehow managed never to contract a case of “crabs” (‘pediculosis pubis’ in medical terminology), I couldn’t help but feel I was skirting dangerous territory during my stay at the charmingly-monikered Eagle’s Nest Motel in Huntsville, Arkansas. You know those movies where a group of hapless teens wander unwittingly into a town of murderous hillbillies with about five rotten teeth between them and a long history of inbreeding? Ok, maybe not a fair summation of Hunstville (the counter girl at the local Subway down the street was actually very nice), maybe even an offensive stereotype that has no business in a piece of “serious” journalism such as this, but as I stared helplessly down at the suspect layers of stiff bedding I was expected to sleep in for the duration of the coming night, all my long-held fears (unknown to me until that very moment) of one day being trapped in a parasite-infected backwater motel in the middle of nowhere – ‘Looking to rough up a hooker? We offer hourly rates!’ – had suddenly been realized.

Hey, at least I had my own room, a luxury not afforded to the majority of cast and crew involved with ‘Madison County’, the Arkansas-set slasher I’d been dispatched to cover. It could’ve been worse. I could, in fact, have woken up to ‘this’, as breathlessly recounted by actress Natalie Scheetz – a pretty blonde Southern California native blessed with the sexy rasp of a phone sex operator – who plays “Jenna“, one of the five doomed college students in the film:

I think it was about our fourth day and we woke up with maggots all over our floor“, she told me, describing an experience blissfully shared by she and co-star/roommate Joanna Sotomura (“Brooke“) on one unforgettable evening. “So that just sort of like…when you’re trying to get all your rest so you can go to work and be fresh and give your best to the scene and you wake up to a floor full of maggots, and then moments later they’re like, ‘we’re also on a flood watch and there might be a tornado’…

In other words: welcome to small-town Arkansas. Where the people are friendly, the scenery is divine, and you can expect a full-on larvae infestation or death by tornado at any moment.

Earlier in the evening I’d had the pleasure of joining the rambunctious young group of cast and crew (with a median age somewhere around 25) for dinner in a neighboring room. I sort of felt like I’d just stepped into a potluck party at the local college dorm – noodles served on paper plates, beers passed around out of plastic coolers, tanned girls in summer shorts, boys in baseball caps, joking, unbridled, youthful energy in abundance, everywhere, bustling, moving, fresh! And then I met the director – could this kid really be him? Eric England, 22. Recent Film School Graduate. Screenwriter /director/ producer/wunderkind. Laid-back as a mid-August day and with the down-home good looks of a bright-eyed boy next door.

We shook hands and bonded over our mutual affection for the cheesy 2001 slasher ‘Valentine’ – love that Jacuzzi-tub kill! – before stepping out on the second-floor balcony to the buzz of early-autumn crickets, humming in some kind of strange, ethereal unison in the dark.

My favorite movie of all time is ‘Scream’“, he offered, expounding on his love for the genre in which he’s now become laser-focused on making his mark (in film school England was known as “the horror guy“). “It’s so funny, because I remember watching the movie, and…I was barely paying attention to the movie because I was just focused on everyone freaking out. And I was like, ‘I wanna do this, I wanna freak people out someday.’

Inner proclamations like this end as secret fantasies for most, but it takes a unique individual to act on them. England did, moving from his small Arkansas town to attend the L.A. Film School (located in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, that old teaser of dreams) and graduating with both a passionate drive to become a famous movie director and the work ethic required to make a go of it.

Through it all he held fast to an idea based around rural Madison County, Arkansas, a place where as a child he’d spent weekends at his grandfather’s home and become fascinated with local lore – including the true story of a man who’d once written a candid book about the underground local drug culture, “naming names” and yet somehow living to tell about it (an idea that would factor heavily into the ‘Madison County’ script). I asked him where he’d come up with the idea for the film. In response he recounted a creepy anecdote from when he was 13 and visiting his grandfather and his four-wheeler ran out of gas near a remote farmhouse.

I started walking to this farmhouse out in the distance“, he told me, latching on to the memory. “And I walked up to this guy who was on a porch and I was like twenty feet away…and I was like, ‘my four-wheeler ran out of gas…can I get some help?’…And he just sat there on his porch staring at me like I didn’t exist…like I wasn’t even there.

There is a perception of small-town America – one perpetuated by the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks of the right-wing gutter culture – that paints the residents therein as fresh-scrubbed, apple-cheeked, all-American friendly folk far removed from the apathy that plagues the smog-choked cities. But in England’s experience, and in the experience of many others who have lived in these places, this Norman Rockwell, pie-in-the-sky ideal is mostly myth.

I saw a lot of paranoia in small town people that are scared of letting newcomers in“, he reflected. “I come from a small town and there are people who won’t let you on their property because they don’t know who you are. They think you could be a serial killer, or your dad could be a serial killer. They don’t wanna be involved…so to me that paranoia was just so interesting…there are those people that just wanna keep to themselves, and I was like ‘how far would they take that?’

Very fucking far, apparently – at least in the world of ‘Madison County’, the movie, in which the central town itself is revealed as the ultimate enemy – even more so than Damien Ewell, the brutal killer who begins hunting the protagonists down one by one (think ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ meets ‘Friday the 13th’).

The basic setup is this: five young college students travel to a small town to interview the author of a tell-all book recounting several horrific local murders. However, when the group arrives they are unable to track him down, and the townsfolk claim not to have seen him in years. In fact, they maintain that the murders never really happened at all. But the persistent young sleuths dig deeper, with disastrous results.

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This town is based on paranoia and wanting to keep their own circle of people and keeping outsiders out“, England intoned, segueing to a description of the film’s main villain. “And Damien is their way of doing that. He’s the most troubled person in this town because of something that happened to him. And ultimately he’s the undertaker, he’s the Grim Reaper, he’s the guy who carries out all the tasks for all the people in this town.

These tasks surely include those of the slashing and maiming variety – i.e. “we don’t take kindly to your types around here” – and so while we could go on and on about the allegory implicit in the film’s central idea, the fact remains that this ‘is’ a slasher film, complete with the grisly kills that are a requirement of the sub-genre and which, to England’s great fortune, were crafted on-set by Rob Hall’s top-notch Almost Human f/x studio, in a collaboration that the young director admitted he never dreamed would come to fruition. Nevertheless, it was a collaboration that producer Ace Marrero -who also stars as virile studbucket “Kyle” – made sure to try for.

[Rob Hall] was at the top of Eric’s list, but Eric was like ‘let’s call these other people first.’“, proclaimed the handsome, muscled Marrero, who also starred in England’s first feature, the “found footage“-style ‘Hostile Encounter’. “And I was like, ‘fuck that!’ So I reached out to Rob, and…he was like ‘let’s take a meeting.’ And these guys were shitting bricks. They were like, ‘we can’t afford the company, there’s no way.’ And I was just like, ‘Who cares? At least at the very end of it, he knows us, and we know him. And if that’s all it is, that’s all it is…let him say ‘no’. Why do we have to say ‘no’ for him?’

Marrero’s aggressiveness notwithstanding, the meeting may have never occurred at all if England hadn’t bagged his first big coup in the form of 6’7” actor Nick Principe, who starred as the tech-savvy serial killer “Chromeskull” in Hall’s directorial effort ‘Laid to Rest’ in 2009. After first developing a casual friendship with Principe over MySpace/Facebook several years ago (the actor was at that point working in the props department on Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’), once he managed to put together financing for ‘Madison County’ England sent a message to the newly-minted slasher star, asking if he’d be interested in coming onboard to play Damien.

Ever since ‘Laid to Rest’ I get a slasher script every two weeks“, said the long-limbed Principe wearily – he’d recently come off two days of bone-crushing stunt filming, including being dragged behind a truck – as he reclined against the wooden railing of the second-floor balcony. “I give it about 30 pages or 40 pages…at least until the second kill…but this was a really great script, so I jumped on it. Took a pay cut, fucking said ‘let’s just make some art’, you know? Make something I would watch, basically.

Principe was the one who initially urged England to email Hall and ask if he could rent the head mold used to create the “Chromeskull” visage, with the plan then being to hire out a cheaper operation to actually construct the mask required for the Damien Ewell character. A short time after sending Hall the script, however, England, Marrero, and producer Daniel F. Dunn found themselves being called for a meeting at Almost Human.

Next thing you know, we’re sitting in Rob’s office, he’s got my script tabbed out with all the kills and special effects“, said England, his voice rising excitedly. “He was like, ‘We wanna help you guys out…I wanna do all of your effects, put my name down on the movie.’

It was then that Hall and associate Erik Porn went about designing the macabre “pig-mask” donned by Ewell, with Porn doing the majority of the physical construction himself. Hall then dispatched recent hire Joe Badiali to create the on-set gore effects.

When [Almost Human] came on, they were not just, ‘ok, we’ll have cool effects’ but ‘we can make these better than they are’“, Dunn told me later on. “We never expected that at all. He came to us and told us, ‘instead of just a stab here, [let's] go all the way through’. He made it way better for just our budget than it ever could’ve been [otherwise].

There’s a reason why everyone has pulled in tons and tons of favors because when they talk to Eric and they read the script and they get to know the producers and everyone, they want to donate, they want to give stuff“, said leggy blonde actress Katie Stegeman (“Kristen“) when I interviewed her later that night. “[Rob Hall] said, ‘I usually charge $50,000 to make this mask, but I like you so I’m gonna do it for free.’

Stegeman – the sister of Marrero’s girlfriend of seven years – is the sole member of the cast to have been featured in the film’s promotional teaser, which helped secure funding for the full-length movie. The spot has the actress waking up bruised and bloodied in the back of a pickup truck, making a break for it in only a tattered white shirt, socks, and panties, and ultimately being caught and dragged off-screen (whilst crawling through a crowded pig sty) by the truck’s driver, who we glimpse only briefly as a blurred-out figure in the background.

What I was able to gather from Stegeman – who was unable to describe her character’s backstory for fear it would give away too much of the mystery – is that the teaser is basically a rough approximation of what we can expect in the opening sequence of the feature, with a few changes – one of which was a “reduction“, shall we say, in Stegeman’s already-scanty wardrobe.

[Eric] sent me a text, and he said, ‘so, your costume [in the feature] is just a bra and underwear, are you ok with that?’“, she giggled. “[But] for them, I do it. Eric is one of these people…working on set with him is just like, ‘oh, my god.’ I’ve done other movies, and to me he has that something about him, that caliber that reads like a very renowned L.A. director. What’s great about Levi [Blue, the assistant director and editor on the project] and Danny and Ace is that they all have their shit together. When they come together, no one bitches, no one fights. They get it done.

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Early the next morning – after about three hours of killing roaches and eighteen-and-a-half minutes of disturbed semi-sleep (‘is that a cum-stain on the bedsheets?’) – cast, crew, and one incredibly lethargic reporter set out in several mud-spattered vehicles for that day’s set, about an hour-and-a-half drive from the Eagle’s Nest (which is a nest for something, no doubt, but certainly not big, beautiful, soaring birds).

On the way there we stopped at an isolated, very charming roadside diner/convenience market for a little breakfast, where I settled in with stars Matt Mercer and Joanna Sotomura for a little one-on-two whilst attempting to choke down a mug of possibly the most erroneous-tasting coffee I’ve ever had the displeasure of acquainting myself with. The actors play “Will” and “Brooke“, respectively, two of the young college students who set off for rural Madison County to rattle some skeletons.

Will’s a photographer and the project is spearheaded by…the character of James [played by Colley Bailey, not on set while I was visiting]“, said Mercer, a slight “everyman” type who looks quite a bit younger than his 30 years. “And I’m his friend, and I agree to come along to take photos to go along with the interviews of the townspeople and the author.

The pretty Sotomura – an interesting mixture of freckle-faced Americana and Island exoticism (she grew up in Honolulu) – had the sweet aura of “final girl” written all over her, but the two actors insisted there are no archetypes in this production. They even teased that the order in which the kills take place may catch some by surprise, a la the terrifying 2005 Greg McLean film ‘Wolf Creek’ (my comparison).

[The characters are] not these cardboard cutouts“, said Mercer. “I’m a big horror fan, and when I read it I was like, ‘this is way better than most of the stuff that I read for, it’s really good’. It definitely has what horror fans want, it has the slasher stuff, it hits its marks in the way a slasher movie should, but you also have some unexpected surprises. It doesn’t follow the pattern.

Sotomura appreciated England’s approach to filming the kills. “He keeps saying death scenes are almost like a love scene, they’re very vulnerable“, she told me, hinting at the director’s sensitivity in handling his actors.

Mercer also believes the film will break the mold of the modern slasher, harkening back to older films in the genre by focusing on setting a suspenseful mood first and foremost.

There’s a nice build to this movie“, he said. “In a lot of slasher movies, every five to ten minutes [there are] scares, scares. And there’s definitely scares, but…the audience will be, in kind of a Hitchcockian way, the audience is gonna be a little ahead of the characters I think.’

The rainy drive out to the set (located in the stunning Ozark Mountains) was truly extraordinary, with miles and miles of lush green foliage and breathtaking meadows whipping by through the windows of the car. I sat and stared, mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape – a landscape soon to be stained with red. I’d been promised a good kill today.

Indeed, the spectacular terrain was matched only by the spectacular, frightening “pig mask” crafted by Almost Human, which I finally got a look at as Badiali began fitting it around Principe’s head for the upcoming kill scene. The outdoor setting we’d arrived at (the majority of the film was filmed in exterior locations) was simple – muddy soil, thick emerald-green foliage, large tree roots like gnarled limbs, a river running steadily nearby.

The gore, expertly orchestrated by Badiali, was fantastic. I won’t give away the victim of course, but what I will say is that it involves a seriously life-altering stab to the head, with faux-blood and brain matter spilling through the exit wound (thanks to some magical plastic tubing) and into the dirt below. “Spilling” may not be the correct term, however, when you consider the black plastic tarp draped over the camera (an expensive digital RED, a compromise the old-school England – he wanted to shoot on film – was forced to make in order to secure financing) to protect it from the effects of the copious blood splatter.

There were essentially four setups that day – 1) the body of one of the murdered students floating down the river; 2) the spying of said body by another in the group and the kill that follows; 3) the “exit-wound” gore effect; 4) the beginning of a chase sequence involving Ms. Sotomura. It was all relatively brisk and efficient – not a big-budget production by any means (only natural lighting was used, for example) but certainly not amateur.

I will say that when things became a little ‘too’ casual, the outspoken Marrero was normally the one to put the clamp down – designated or not, he most definitely emerged as the wrangler on set, keeping everyone on task and pleading for quiet when it was needed. Throughout it all, England displayed a mature focus and yet somehow managed to maintain the mellow vibe that had made him so likable in our chat the previous night.

The second location of the day would be back at the diner we’d vacated only hours before, and it became quite the scene once England and his crew showed up to film a bit in which a mysterious biker comes across Brooke and Will in the establishment’s parking lot. The lanky, tattooed actor astride the motorcycle – loaned out to the production by a long-haired local who had what I remember to be an American flag bandana wrapped around his forehead – was the epitome of breezy self-assurance as he leaned back on the bike, smoking a cigarette with the lizard-cool authority of James Dean.

Just like the film they were making, there was an interesting “fish-out-of-water” vibe in the atmosphere that day outside the diner. The bandannaed motorcyclist and his friends – tattoos, leather jackets, weathered skin, long greasy hair – and a few other locals gathered around like red-state anthropologists to observe this strange group of youngsters scurrying about – pulling equipment, stopping traffic, setting up shots, engaging in sarcastic witticisms honed in the safe bubble of college towns…two worlds colliding, in a dirt-and-gravel parking lot in rural Arkansas, the low hum of Southern life and the roar of bright-eyed city ambition melding as one, in an afternoon of strange solidarity under the sun.

It’s a scene that for decades has played out over and over in towns and cities and rural parking lots across the country, and it will go on and on that way until the crumbling of American civilization. And whether the finished product manages to stand out or not in the end – I can’t say for sure in the case of ‘Madison County’ because, well, I haven’t seen the movie – there is meaning in the process itself. At the very least, England is trying – sincerely – for something more.

I think Adam Green said it recently…’I can’t wait to see the next five or ten years, what horror filmmakers are coming out, the guys that were raised on ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’, ‘Scream’, ‘Urban Legend’“, England told me the night before. “I love all the ’70s and ’80s horror films, but also I was raised on the ’90s thrillers, so I’m trying to blend the two and try to make something that’s hopefully unique and original, at least for me. So hopefully we are the next generation of horror that everybody talks about.

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