We’ve been reporting on Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s debut feature Cooties since 2012. After an acquisition by Lionsgate and a series of reshoots and tweeks, the film played the almighty Stanley Film Festival this past weekend as the opening night film. The crowd reaction in my theater was, to put it lightly, riotous. That’s in fact what I called it in my full review. Lionsgate will be releasing the film this September, but to hold you guys off we present this interview with Elijah Wood, Allison Pill, Leigh Whannell, and co-directors Milott and Murnion.
I had the opportunity to talk to them about the issue of killing (so many) children on screen, being able to reshoot the ending courtesy of Lionsgate, and what they hope the film evokes in schoolteachers around the nation. Milott and Murnion (aka my “bus buddies” – it’s an airport shuttle joke) also spoke on their biggest influences for the film, which range from Gremlins to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.
ON KILLING (ALOT) OF KIDS:
Cary: “I mean yeah, that’s the premise. The kids are monsters and so if you don’t kill them I feel like you’re kind of not doing it justice. In any other monster movie you try to kill the monster. But in our film the teachers aren’t trying to kill, but in the end it’s about survival. There’s that very key moment when they kill the first kid and then after that it’s like okay, this is serious, we have to do what we can to survive.”
Jonathan: “And like in any zombie movie or Walking Dead or anything like that, when you are blowing up the monster’s heads, they’re not people anymore. And the kids aren’t kids anymore. We tried to make sure that’s very clear – you’re not killing a kid you’re killing a monster at that point. It’ll be interesting when it comes out to see if there’s any kind of backlash.”
Cary: “And we embrace that.”
Leigh: “There were definitely discussions that we had, like Ian Brennan and I would discuss it with these guys and the producers and we sort of walked this tightrope of wanting to be aware of it, but not wanting to back away and be scared of the thing that kind of makes it unique. As you know there are so many horror films out there these days and they’re all just shouting to be heard. It’s such a crowded marketplace. It’s like this blizzard of noise. So I really think the way to stand out is to have a unique concept.
“I felt like if we had shied away from the killings in Cooties too much, we would’ve ended up hurting ourselves because we would’ve diluted the very thing that got people talking about the movie.”
Elijah: “We wouldn’t have delivered on the promise that the movie makes.”
Leigh: “Right. Like, I’m sitting down to watch a movie called Cooties, I better see a kid get their head knocked in with a hockey stick. But within that we had our own rules. We didn’t want any guns, for one thing. It’s a pretty commercial film so we didn’t want to go too far with the violence and kill all the fun.”
ON RESHOOTING THE ENDING:
Leigh: “We all talked about it, it was super collaborative with this film. I feel like the new ending was really the ending we didn’t have the money for the first time around.
Elijah: “That’s really what it came down to. I always felt like the ending we had originally shot was a bit of a compromise.”
Cary: “It wasn’t that we were out of money. We knew what resources we had, so we made the best ending we could do with that. It was more of an indie movie ending, where you don’t know if everyone dies. It’s implied that they might. So the audience wasn’t satisfied as much and we as filmmakers weren’t satisfied. It was a godsend that Lionsgate did this. The other ending was fine, but this one is a lot better and more in our vision of things.”
LEIGH: “Yeah it was super rushed. In one version everyone drove to a boat at a dock and I remember Elijah’s character was like Wait, I know how to drive a boat, I’ve been researching boats! And he was so excited because he was like I’m the hero! And I remember really liking that and thinking it was going to be cool and then Josh C. Waller told me that boats are way too expensive. As a writer you’re like Yes! We have a great ending, then they tell you it’s too expensive.
“It hurts your soul. So we scratched that and we did one where they end up at an old folks’ home. We just went through like 10 different versions of the ending.”
Elijah: “There was also one where we meet a military blockade or something. There were so many awesome endings. There was a quarantine of the town and we were trying to get past the military.”
Leigh: “Well the old folks’ home…”
Elijah: “That’s my favorite ending that we didn’t shoot.”
Leigh: “It was like all of a sudden you realized that the virus doesn’t just affect prepubescent kids, it also affects post-menopausal women. That was going to be the big twist ending – old people get cooties too! But we were all really grateful for Lionsgate for letting us do the ending right. They said they wouldn’t release it until we were happy.”
Sounds like they really believed in the movie.
Elijah: “Totally. Jason Constantine has been a real champion of the film since the beginning. Leigh’s obviously had a relationship with them for a long time.”
Leigh: “Yeah they’re proper film fans. They really rolled up their sleeves and helped out.”
ON TEACHER VINDICATION:
Allison: “I hope teachers feel vindicated! Ian comes from a family of educators in the Illinois school system. So this is also in large part a love letter to a job that is much maligned and disrespected in this country. These people are taking care of your little shits! And sometimes parents imagine they want to kill their own kid? Which everybody does, like throttle that little monster. Imagine that you’re raising 30 of somebody else’s children! So I hope that they feel heard. Rainn has that wonderful speech about Why would you think I wanted to do something else? I wanted to be a teacher! This is an important gig! There is a serious note in the film about taking the education system seriously.”
Leigh: “It’s like the cooties virus in the film, what it does to the kids, is a literal representation of the monsters that we’re in danger of turning our kids into. You know, they’re taking all these adult drugs and they’re on the Internet all the time, they’re growing up rather quickly. As well as the teacher thing we kind of wanted to represent what kids are in danger of becoming.”
Cary: “Multiple times at Sundance, teachers would stand up and say I’m a teacher, and then we’d say Oh shit. But then they’d say I loved it.”
Jonathan: “They actually thanked us.”
Cary: “It is sort of an analogy for kids becoming monsters in their daily lives. My parents are teachers and they loved it.”
Jonathan: “And there is that set up where you have the kids looking at vaginas on their cellphones and they tell Elijah You can’t take my fucking cellphone! And you just want to smash that kid in the face (laughs).”
Cary: “We used Gremlins as a big influence because that’s another horror comedy that really draws that line. You know it’s really funny with Gizmo and then it gets fucking dark with Spike. We were also influenced by Oldboy and Elephant, with these longs take we did. Breakfast Club was a big one too, with this bright, sunny school and these character archetypes that change throughout the movie. That was a big influence as well. So we had these horror influences and these broader influences that helped make the film special in a way.”
Jonathan: “And in terms of the comedy we used like Raising Arizona and Trainspotting. The Coen Brothers have that really weird sense of humor and in Trainspotting he’s going into a toilet to get a fucking enema. So it’s like that kind of humor too, a little more dark and surreal.”
Cooties, out September 18th through Lionsgate Premiere, is a horror comedy with unexpected laughs and unapologetic thrills. When a cafeteria food virus turns elementary school children into little killer savages, a group of misfit teachers must band together to escape the playground carnage.
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