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A Search For Authenticity on the Set of ‘Scream Queens’ Season 2

Those of you who tuned into season one of “Scream Queens” watched as 10 unknown actresses fought for an unprecedented prize — a break-out role in Saw VI from Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures. On October 23, Tanedra Howard witnessed her dream on the big screen as she kicked off Saw VI with a bang — by losing a limb. Now, VH1 is about to bring you the second season of “Scream Queens,” this time hosted by 2001 Maniacs director Tim Sullivan. Beyond the break you can read Bloody Disgusting’s extensive on-set report, courtesy of Chris Eggertsen, while also taking an exclusive peak behind-the-scenes.

Those red Devil’s eyes seemed to be watching me. Eyes set in the unnervingly placid countenance of a twelve-foot Albino Burmese Python, its scaly and powerful body now slithering about my shoulders as I attempted to affect a genuine smile for the cameraman about to take my picture. A smile that would perhaps communicate sentiments like: ‘Rock on!’ or ‘I’m not scared at all, really!’ or ‘Oh, what fun I’m having!’ Except that I wasn’t having fun. One wrong move and this motherfucker had the capability to bring the wrath of Mother Nature down on my ass, probably for all eternity. Having suffered an unfortunate episode with another python earlier in my life (which had been much smaller than this one, by the way), I knew better than to let my guard down.

Holding up the other half of the intimidating creature was none other than Mr. Tim Sullivan, the horror auteur who has directed such fare as 2001 Maniacs and Driftwood, and who is now serving as the replacement for his good friend James Gunn on the second season of VH1’s reality competition show Scream Queens (the prize this season being a role in the upcoming Saw 3-D). Strange how at ease he seemed, considering that only moments before he had been cowering in the presence of the serpentine behemoth as the snake handler removed it from its container (which resembled an oversized ice chest) and presented it to the assembled audience of wide-eyed onlookers. Given his very sudden turnaround (not to mention the fact that he was not only calm but smiling and playful as the sucker rippled along the back of his neck), I couldn’t help but wonder if his initial fear had been an affectation in service of the reality show’s fourth episode storyline. Regardless, it made for a good narrative: Tim Sullivan has conquered his fear, following in the Joseph Campbell-cemented steps of the quintessential mythic hero! Who says reality TV is where artistic aspirations go to die?

Through it all, grips, electricians and camera operators scurried about, preparing the scene for the day’s “Director’s Challenge“, which was to be helmed by Sullivan. I hadn’t been sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t this level of activity; I truly felt as if I’d just stepped onto the set of a studio-backed feature film. Guiding me through it all were executive producers (and husband-and-wife team) Joke Fincioen and Biagio Messina, pointing out areas of interest while still trying to orchestrate the second-by-second demands of their jobs.

I was most interested in Sullivan himself though, who I couldn’t quite get a read on. Was he a true horror buff, or just the latest in a long line of fame-whore reality show judges? On first impression, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical (full disclosure: I haven’t seen any of his films); he seemed a bit too polished, a bit too mechanical in his good-natured charms. But as soon as I sat down with him, I was glad to discover just how passionate he is about the genre he’s so far made a pretty good living in. Forthright, opinionated, and insanely enthusiastic about what he does, he’s also an interviewer’s dream. In fact, our conversation more often than not veered away from Scream Queens itself to an animated discussion about the current state of the horror industry. In short: the guy is more than a little fired up about the way things are going.

I hate soulless genre“, he told me, with extreme emphasis on the hate. “I hate horror for a buck. I would rather see something that a 16-year-old kid did.” And he’s not kidding. He goes on to tell me the story of one such 16-year-old kid named JD Lifshitz (swear to god), who Sullivan invited out to the premiere and press junket of 2006’s Driftwood after Lifshitz contacted him telling him that the only thing he wanted for his Bar Mitzvah was to fly from New York to L.A. and meet him. That was two years ago, and in the time between then and now the teen somehow managed to raise $50,000 and shoot a feature-length film entitled Killed on the 4th of July. “It’s unbelievable“, Sullivan said. “It may be rough around the edges, but I would rather watch that film and others like it made by 16-year-old kids than anything that Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich put their name on. [Leaning forward, for emphasis] And you can quote me on that. There is so much blood, sweat and tears in those films, and when I see these Michael Bay remakes…first of all they promote it as ‘from producer Michael Bay’. They don’t even say who the director is. It doesn’t matter.

When the conversation veered to the nature of his relationship with the girls of Scream Queens Season 2 (who I was forbidden from seeing), Sullivan was equally blunt. While he admitted to having developed a “great affection” for them over the course of filming so far, he also has little patience when it comes to one of them disrespecting the horror genre or being ignorant of its heritage. He was forthcoming with his opinion regarding one tidbit from last season, when one of the competitors turned up her nose at Michael Rooker, the veteran character actor who gave a now-legendary performance in the John McNaughton-directed horror classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and has worked steadily since. “In the testimonial part one of the girls was like, ‘And then this guy walked in, Michael Rooker, and it’s like we were supposed to be all excited, well like who the hell is Michael Rooker?’“, he mimicked. “And I’m like, ‘you have no right to even be considered to be a scream queen if you don’t know who Michael Rooker is.’

With this in mind, I wondered how he felt about his executive producers Fincioen and Messina, who’d just a few minutes before admitted to me that they hadn’t actually been horror fans before putting Scream Queens together (“I’m a complete pussy” is a direct quote from Fincioen). “What I love about them, as was true with James and is true with me, is they will admit, ‘Hey, we haven’t seen every horror movie in the world like you guys have and we may not even know that much about it. But we love it and we love the spirit of it, and we want you guys to teach us. Help us make this show authentic’“, Sullivan said. “And everything we’ve done on this show has been authentic.

Certainly, having a certifiable horror fanatic like Sullivan should serve the show well in the authenticity department. “We go after people like Tim or Caleb [Emerson, who guest-starred in Season One], who’s the Die Zombie Bastards guy, who’s always pointing out all of our flaws“, Messina told me. “Like we want people who are gonna say, ‘listen, don’t go make a fool of yourself by being the execs who didn’t care enough about the horror genre to do your research.’

A new component to the show that should help up the ante even more this season is the addition of the RED Camera to the “Director’s Challenge” segments, in which the competitors must prove their worth as a scream queen by shooting a horror-movie scene with Sullivan. The camera, which has been used to shoot recent films by several A-list directors including Lars von Trier (Antichrist), Steven Soderbergh (Che) and Peter Jackson (The Lovely Bones), will make the scenes this time around feel much more “filmic” than those from the first time season (Adam Sampson, the cinematographer from last season, will be returning to shoot the Director’s Challenges for Season 2). “There is absolutely no difference between what we do when we direct director’s challenges and what I have done on any of my films“, said Sullivan, who has also had the opportunity to work with a Steadicam for the first time on the show. “None of my films could afford a Steadicam. So it’s ironic that the first time that I’ve actually worked with a Steadicam is on a reality show.

We’ve always loved film“, said Fincioen. “So to be able to do a reality show where every episode we can make a mini-movie almost, you know, at least a movie scene, with each of the girls, and to play with saturation and colors, and play with composition, and play with the camera, and maybe even lenses and the depth of field. It’s just awesome.

That all sounds great, but working with top-of-the-line technology doesn’t much matter if you’re filming a lifeless performance by a competitor cast in a genre that tends to focus more on looks and outsized personalities than actual talent. Fincioen and Messina were quick to point out, however, that the show isn’t just a beauty competition, or a show cast specifically to maximize the “catfight” quotient. “I mean, they really need to show us that they want this, and that before we even showed up that they’ve been trying to make it happen on their own“, said Fincioen. “We’re not gonna just go like to a mall and be like, ‘oh you, have you ever thought of being an actress? No? That’s ok, be on our show.’ That doesn’t happen.

We tried to be very clear Season 1, like, ‘look, it really is about the acting“, Messina chimed in. “Yes, we’re gonna do big fun scares, and fun challenges, but they’re all gonna be rooted in real acting skills that you need in the horror genre.’ And I feel like Season 2, so many more people came out because they saw it actually was about the acting. Tanedra won because she was good, and it was a real chance for her.

Messina, a bespectacled, fast-talking spin-meister (it’s his job, you understand) who’s nothing if not a master at conveying a sense of bottomless enthusiasm, can certainly relate to the tribulations faced by aspiring movie stars. As a child actor, he was fed through the Hollywood grist mill and spit out the other end after starring as the nerdy character Marc Cram on the popular Nickelodeon show Kenan & Kel in the late ‘90s. “Even [after being] a series regular on a show, I couldn’t get auditions. You know, it was such a tough road“, said Messina. “And honestly, the hardest auditions I ever had were horror auditions. Because it’s so hard to believably play fear in five minutes. So you know, coming from an actor’s background, I have so much respect for what the girls are going through.

Fincioen, the more outwardly placid yin to Messina’s yang, made a point of the fact that the show is, indeed, a great training ground for a young actress to prove herself rather than simply a quick road to fame. “It’s almost like getting on the show is like getting a movie“, she said. “We literally put them through probably four or five different callbacks, finals, in-the-room auditions in front of network and Lion’s Gate. It’s a process for them.

My conversation with the two executive producers was quickly followed by much hustling and barking as I was ushered into a hidden area in the back of the club, where I would be sequestered while the introduction to the Director’s Challenge was being shot.
As I sat alone in the dark in that back alcove, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the crowned winner of Scream Queens Season 2 would really, truly be able to shake off the often-poisonous label of “reality show contestant” and make a career for herself in horror films. It’s a little too early to tell – last season’s winner Tanedra Howard just came out in Saw VI this October – but if Howard’s relatively minor role in that sixth installment is any indication, it doesn’t seem like a very safe bet. The show, while a popular one for VH1, pales in comparison to the ratings of a network bonanza like American Idol, which for its winners (not to mention some of its losers) really does serve as a launching pad into the stratosphere of fame. And when it comes down to it, a brief bit of acting – no matter how much talent the performer displays – doesn’t really possess the same sort of primal, audience-grabbing allure that a roof-blowing musical performance does.

At the end of the day, I guess it really does all come down to whether the girls are in it for the long haul, or whether they’re just chasing after the kind of insta-fame that occurs these days when one appears as a character on a reality show. To my mind, that mass-produced, polished, Twitter-era tabloid nonsense is a phenomenon that seems contradictory to the punk-rock aesthetic of true, down-in-the-grime horror films. Tim Sullivan, without actually saying so, seems to agree.

We can’t just have somebody off the street who wants to be famous, and that’s the main thing“, he told me. “Are you here because you want to be famous? Or because you want to be an actress? Do you really want to be a scream queen? Because if you just wanna be famous, well just keep that site going on Facebook. Build that fan site to yourself and let everyone know every time you’re taking a pee or going to Starbucks. I won’t be following you. But many will.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Sullivan’s favorite scream queens from the past are Fay Wray (“I just loved the way she screamed“), Barbara Steele (who he described as possessing “that sort of severe face that can default to beauty or to horror“) and, of course, Jamie Lee Curtis.

She was fantastic because she was sexy as hell, but she was completely down to earth, completely believable, and completely accessible. I think Jamie Lee Curtis is probably, of every scream queen, who I would suggest to the contestants on this show as the true role model.

It’s a great example for the girls to follow, but will Scream Queens ever be responsible for cultivating the modern-day version of our own beloved Jamie Lee? Probably not – but I give them points for trying.



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