It wasn’t fair, really. Here I was, seconds away from making my big debut in a feature film, and the snot just wouldn’t stop coming. Not to mention the fact that I was shaking like a wet dog, not only on account of the cold (which I also blame for the endless snot flow) but from sheer, unadulterated terror. At that moment I couldn’t help but wonder how exactly I’d ended up here, at this drive-in movie theater in the City of Industry (one of only two drive-ins remaining in the L.A./Orange county vicinity, in case you care), freezing my balls off and taking photos of a “dead guy” in a dumpster while a dolly-mounted movie camera captured my every move…My role? Crime scene photographer. My co-stars? Veteran actor Barry Bostwick (Mr. Brad Majors himself, for you Rocky Horror fans) playing a small-town Sheriff investigating the scene of a brutal murder, and Ahmed Best (Jar-Jar Binks!) portraying a small-town mayor. Which I guess would make me a small-town crime scene photographer. (Is that how I’ll appear in the credits? If it’s possible for me to have a name, I’d like it be Mick. Mick, the Small-Town Crime Scene Photographer. Just put it in.)
Of course, I knew damn well why I was here – I was here because I’d agreed to come (did I mention it was Superbowl Sunday?) to report on the final night of shooting on the John Landis-produced horror/comedy Some Guy Who Kills People. How I’d ended up in front of the camera wasn’t really much of a mystery either – I had a pulse, after all, and they needed a dude to play a photographer. Yet despite the fact that I could’ve been a mentally-deranged orangutan and they probably still would’ve enlisted my help, I was nevertheless somehow flattered that they asked me. Alas; the pull of Hollywood is too great for any mere mortal to resist.
“Could you try taking the photos in between the dialogue so you don’t overlap the actors’ lines?” first assistant director Cory Johnson asked me after my first take. Sure, I told him. Of course. No big deal. But inside, I felt the weight of failure already settling in. It’s not even like I had to memorize dialogue – my direction was merely to move around and take photos while trying to stay out of the actors’ way. And yet somehow, I was feeling inadequate.
A few more takes; after each one, I inevitably pivoted my head in the direction of Mr. Johnson, expecting some new note. Could you try not trailing so much snot on the next go-round?, I imagined him asking. And maybe do your best not to look like such a fucking retard next time. It’s getting awkward, really.
Ok, let’s rewind. I showed up at the drive-in around 8pm, ushered through the gates by a couple of young P.A.s presumably “locking up” the set (I’ve been there, dudes) on a freezing-cold February evening (it was probably around 40 degrees, which in L.A. terms is pretty much sub-zero). I was then led to speak with Ryan Levin, the screenwriter and producer of the project, sitting Zen-like in front of the monitor as the crew around him prepared for another take. The scene being filmed (I’m not giving anything away because it’s the first scene in the movie) involved a hapless victim, being menaced by an off-screen assailant wielding a sharp object. I’m also giving absolutely nothing away by noting that the scene featured lots of screaming, lots of frenzied motion, and lots of good-natured laughter on the part of cast and crew once the cameras finished rolling. Orchestrating it all was fast-talking director Jack Perez, best known for such direct-to-DVD critical darlings like Wild Things 2 and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.
Ok, so I was being sarcastic there. Sue me. In all honesty, I’ve never watched a “Jack Perez joint” – for all I know, Wild Things 2 is a lost classic just waiting to be re-discovered. Regardless, I wasn’t there to talk about Wild Things 2, or even 2006’s 666: The Child (also directed by Perez and released to capitalize on that year’s The Omen remake). I was there to talk about Some Guy Who Kills People, and like Mick – my crime scene photographer character – I was bound and determined to get to the bottom of it all. And so, after a few introductions and some small talk with Levin and his producers Michael Wormser and Micah Goldman, Levin and I took off on a moonlit stroll to the other end of the parking lot to chew the fat a little.
You’re looking incredibly dapper this evening, Mr. Eggertsen, Levin told me in my own head. Your penetrating eyes bewitch me. It is possible for a journalist to develop a crush on his subjects, after all – and Levin ain’t too shabby to look at. Short, scruffy, and handsome, I found the writer (he penned an episode of Scrubs and currently works on a Disney show called I’m in the Band) to be cordial, easygoing, and seemingly ego-free.
“I made a short film called The Fifth about 3 ½ years ago, and it’s just about a serial killer and a bunch of his friends who play poker”, Levin told me about the short SGWKP is based on (yes, I did just abbreviate the title). “And they’re always looking for another player. And we find out that the reason they’re constantly looking for another player is Ken, the serial killer, always ends up killing the new guy for whatever reason.”
The short did well for Levin, winning awards at several film festivals (including Best Short at the Fantasia Film Festival and Best Screenplay at Fantastic Fest) and gaining him some attention in the horror-movie universe. The film’s success inspired him to stretch the concept out to feature-length, during which process he radically reworked the story. “Once I started to develop it into a feature – obviously you’re talking about a different structure – everything just changed”, Levin told me. “And then it just basically became – the only thing that stayed was this lead. This main character as a serial killer.”
Without giving too much away, Some Guy Who Kills People essentially involves small-town loser Ken (played by prolific character actor Kevin Corrigan), whose big dreams of becoming a successful artist were shattered years ago by a traumatic event. After doing a stint in a mental institution, he moves back in with his mother (Karen Black!), gets a job at an ice-cream parlor with childhood friend Irv (Leo Fitzpatrick) and begins murdering the people he blames for the current sorry state of his life. The situation is inevitably complicated by the appearance of both a love interest (Shaun of the Dead‘s Lucy Davis) and the emergence of pre-teen daughter that he never actually knew existed (Ariel Gade).
Thinking of the concept of an ordinary small-town guy perpetrating a series of brutal murders, I couldn’t help but think of the infamous “BTK Killer” (nee Dennis Rader) of Wichita, Kansas, who butchered ten people in a 15-year span during which time he simultaneously functioned as a seemingly innocuous family man, regular churchgoer and Cub Scout leader. Turns out, Levin actually had used Rader as a loose template for his main character.
“It was that concept that was just like mind-boggling, that somebody could be doing that”, Levin told me. “The idea of this serial killer who is just this everyday guy, that nobody would ever suspect. That idea attracted me, but I wanted to do it in a comedic way. To me it just felt like the entry point was to play on this guy as the everyday Joe who’s got everything else in his life. Who’s got a family, who’s got friends, who’s got his hobbies. And what he does – he just happens to kill people. And some people may know about it in his life, some people may not. But that to me was this funny idea.”
After completing the script, Levin teamed up with producers Wormser and Goldman and began shopping the script around to directors. Given the project’s mix of horror and comedy, he and his partners immediately thought of John Landis, the man who essentially perfected that very combo in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London. After sending it to the directors’ agent, Levin was surprised to receive a call the very next day saying Landis was interested in setting up a meeting. “[The meeting] ended up being like this 5 ½ hour lunch”, said Levin. “And he was going to direct it. And we started working on him with the script, and developing the script further with him. He wasn’t attached to anything else at the time. It was still a very low-budget film, probably three or four million dollars.”
Just before signing on, Landis suddenly received word that Burke and Hare, a pet project he’d been trying to get made for years, would be moving forward – leaving Levin and his producers not only without a director, but without the majority of the funding they’d raised based on Landis’ attachment. Left with a much smaller budget and deflated prospects, Levin nevertheless approached Landis about staying on as an executive producer. He agreed.
Meanwhile, the search was on for a new director – albeit one who’d be willing to work on the cheap. That’s where low-budget veteran Jack Perez came in. “He sat down and he basically laid out his vision for it”, Levin told me. “And it really just lined up exactly with what I wanted. I mean, he understood the tone of it and the style of it, and the balancing of the comedy and the horror. And so we hired him, hired a casting director, and basically just hoped with everything we had that the script would sell the project to name actors.”
As you could probably tell from the above casting mentions, the script was indeed good enough to reel in some very recognizable thesps. In fact, as both Levin and Perez noted to me, they were more often than not blessed with their first choices. Perez, who has worked on more than his fair share of ultra-low-budget projects, found it refreshing to work with a stable of professional actors where the majority of his time wasn’t spent making sure they memorized their lines correctly. “You know, what I’ve been saying all along is usually with a film with this kind of budget, you usually end up with less experienced actors, not always the actors that you would like”, he told me during a short break from filming. “Usually, when you’re making a horror picture for this kind of money, it can fall into a kind of…’exploitation schlock’ world. Fortunately, the material attracted exceptionally talented actors. It’s probably the first time in my life where I’ve had this many first choices. You know, like, ‘Really? We can get him? We can get her? They’ll do it?’ So that also makes the process an easier one, because everyone’s a pro.”
To my surprise, I found out that arguably the biggest name in the cast – horror icon Karen Black – actually auditioned for her part as Ken’s mother in the film. Levin described Perez’s dismayed reaction when he learned the veteran actress was coming in to read. “I remember when Jack saw Karen Black was coming in to audition he just like lost his shit. He said, ‘I can’t believe Karen Black is actually auditioning for this movie. Like, we should be begging her to do this movie.’ But she came in, and she just gave us this performance of just this off-the-wall [energy], totally unorthodox, totally different than everybody else is giving it. And she had this sort of element of like, she could do anything at any time, she could say anything at any time. And that was a very intriguing concept.”
Probably the most entertaining part of the interview for me was hearing Levin tell stories about Ms. Black, including a bizarre behind-the-scenes interview with the actress that will likely be included on the DVD (“I [didn’t] know what [she was] saying 95 percent of the time”), and the “whacked-out energy” she brought to the production. “When it came time to shoot her scenes, she was just dead-on”, said Levin. “And then she would give you something different every take, you know? You’d be like, ‘That’s it, that’s exactly how I had it in my head. Alright, let’s do another take.’ And then she’d do something else, and you’d be like, ‘No no no, that’s so much better.’ You know, she just gave the character a lot more than was ever on the page.”
Black unfortunately wasn’t on set that day, but luckily something nearly as good – a prosthetic severed hand – was. Courtesy of makeup artist Steve Costanza, the hand was being used for a “forced perspective shot” in the opening sequence, in a gag so genius I won’t spoil it for you here. In fact, it was this setup – winning my personal “Best Performance By A Severed Body Part in a Supporting Role” award over the prosthetic head I’d witnessed being thrown at a car windshield earlier on – that made me think maybe, just maybe, we were in for something special here. It was an amazingly resourceful shot (not to mention, it looked seamless when I viewed it on the monitors) that came off as a perfect distillation of the project’s mix of horror and pitch-black comedy. Later on, I made a point of complimenting Perez on the brilliantly twisted setup.
“Oh cool, thank you”, Perez replied, before going on to explain the genesis of the idea, which proves the old adage that necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention. “On a budget like this, where you don’t have the luxury of doing as many setups as you ordinarily would, it forces you to think in very kind of…in bold strokes. So you realize that you’re not gonna have ten setups, ten different camera angles, to tell this particular moment, you’re gonna have three. And so those three better pack as much visual information, and hopefully as much visual sensation, as you would get from a succession of many other shots. So it forces you to kind of condense your design visually.”
Perez, a compact, thoughtful man who seems to be everywhere at once, was ostensibly made for this line of work. He’s at once intensely focused and warm, with eyes that seem never to rest. I couldn’t help but think that maybe this film will serve as something of a breakthrough in his directing career. Certainly, working with a script capable of attracting such well-known talent won’t hurt. Perez made a point of giving Levin’s screenplay credit for inspiring the sort of creativity I’d seen on display in the clever hand gag they’d just wrapped a few minutes before.
“It’s harder to kind of visualize something and come up with moments like that if you’re not moved by the material”, he told me. “In this case the material was just so exciting and original…[that] these ideas came forth very freely.” Perez went on to describe his fondness for the script upon first reading it, and how it had reminded him of An American Werewolf in London before he even knew Landis was attached as executive producer. “It had all the great horror elements, but then it had this amazing character development that you don’t ordinarily get in a horror movie. So the funny thing was, was that it reminded me of films that combined humor and hardcore violence – it’s a weird combination – and character. And that reminded me a lot of Am American Werewolf in London. And then when I met with these guys…I actually mentioned that, and they kind of – Michael, and Micah, and Ryan sort of looked at each other, and – I guess no one else had mentioned that comparison. And then they said, ‘Well you know, Landis is the executive producer’. So I maybe won a couple of points that way.”
Echoing the sensibility of that classic werewolf film (and simultaneously sounding like a true old-school horror movie lover) Perez also professed to me his preference for practical effects over CGI work. “If you can do something in-camera, which is something that I sort of grew up playing around with when I was making Super-8 movies, and when I was working on Hercules and Xena, those were the kind of effects that we would do”, he told me. “At the end of the day, it’s also really a satisfying thing that happens right in front of you. So that is very gratifying. I hate the idea of just shooting a plate, and then later somebody else will make it, you know? Here you get to make it, you see it, and it’s done.”
After a few more minutes of conversation (I had maybe ten minutes with him), it was back to the grind for Perez; the next camera setup was complete, and it was time to shoot the “trash dumpster” scene in which I would be making my big debut (a fact I wasn’t actually aware of until a few minutes later, when 1st A.D. Johnson approached me and sheepishly asked how much longer I’d be sticking around). A quick trip to the costume trailer, followed by a brief tutorial on the logistics of the camera, and off I went on my snot-filled adventures in Filmland (look, baby, when it’s cold outside, your nose tends to run – a lot). During this momentary foray into “acting” (what’s my motivation, Mr. Demille?), I not only began to appreciate (again) just how difficult this craft of filmmaking is, but also just how ill-suited I am to performing any acts whatsoever in front of the camera.
“I think I’ve got what I need”, I told Levin in farewell, just before hurrying off (walk, don’t run) to my soon-to-be-blazing-hot-to-overcompensate-for-freezing-my-ass-off-for-the-last-several-hours car. Looking back, I shot a fleeting glance at one of the neighboring drive-in screens, which earlier in the night had been playing the Mel Gibson vanity-vehicle Edge of Darkness. It was dark now, nearly indistinguishable from the night sky beyond it. No light. No flicker of images playing across its surface. No pain, no horror, no fantasy. No laughter. No tears, or smiles. No vision. Just the blackness, absorbing the white vinyl like a shroud. Forgetting everything else for a moment, I lamented the death of the drive-in movie theater; I was reminded then that the one in the town I grew up in is an oversized shopping center now, with a Barnes & Noble and a Starbucks. Forget the crappy sound for a second, and the inconvenient weather cancellations; there’s simply something haunting, almost spiritual, about the way a projected image plays against the night sky. That contrast conveys an almost divine magic that represents, in my mind, what the craft of making movies is all about.
And now I’m thinking of that severed hand, made with such craftsmanship and shot so beautifully, a sight as memorable as any I witnessed that night. Maybe one day it, too, will be projected up on that same piece of vinyl, under the stars. I can’t speak for the rest of the film (yet), but that image alone deserves to be viewed on a big screen.