LA Film Fest 2012
By Don Simpson | August 17, 2012
A group of friends run a floundering ghost-hunting business, modeled loosely after a certain Hanna Barbera cartoon. (Yes, they even have a dog. No, the dog does not speak.) The group’s founder is Nancy (Ashley Rae Spillers), the Velma of the gang. Equal parts cute, sexy, smart and empowered, Nancy has found herself in a bit of an existential quagmire, not knowing what to do if ghost hunting does not begin turning a profit.
The future of the gang hinges upon their newest client, Mike Ryan (Chris Doubek), a banker who is trying to rid a spooky old mansion of its murderous ghosts. Nancy, Gwen (Josephine Decker), Chad (Adam Tate) and Floyd (Jonny Mars) pack up the VW van, fully expecting to unravel yet another hoax masterminded by an evil Capitalist trying to scare people away from their get rich quick scheme. Whether or not that is what they discover is for you to find out…
What starts off as a cleverly written horror-comedy flick takes a sharp turn into hard-R territory. Saturday Morning Massacre plays in dutiful homage to 1980s horror films with gory practical effects and boatloads of blood. Though known for being a dramatic director, it is quite obvious that Spencer Parsons has studiously memorized the unabridged history of horror films. He understands the importance of sound, lighting and framing in developing spine-tingling horror; but Saturday Morning Massacre really showcases Parsons’ inherent knack for timing, both in terms of comedy and frights.
We chatted with the Saturday Morning Massacre cast and crew shortly before and after their well-received world premiere at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival. Here is a transcription of the finer points of our conversations with Spencer Parsons (director), Ashley Rae Spillers (actor), Jonny Mars (producer, actor), Josephine Decker (actor), Jory Balsimo (writer) and Aaron Leggett (writer) about Saturday Morning Massacre…
Don Simpson: If it wasn’t for the house, I guess Saturday Morning Massacre would have probably never been made.
Jonny Mars: The location prompted the exercise. Clark and Jesse [Lyda] bought the house, they saw the potential. They called Jason [Wehling], who saw the potential. Jason called me, I seconded his observation of the potential. We called Spencer [Parsons], he saw the potential. It is just an amazing property. The reality is, it is hard to get the chance to make a film; so when that chance comes, you have to take it. Because of our cast and crew, and because of technology being where it is today, we were able to do this. We took advantage of everything. It was a very calculated risk. A lot of veterans were involved on this team. We did what we could to dress the house up. The reason the house is being prepped for sale in the film is because that was the only art direction we could do. We couldn’t move anything in or out of there. It is a 100-year-old house and we were told not to fuck up the floors. One of the key issues was where we could kill people and put blood.
DS: Spencer, how did you approach this project, specifically having never directed a horror film before?
Spencer Parsons: I had already been working with Aaron [Leggett] and Jory [Balsimo] on a couple of horror screenplays, so it was not that far afield necessarily. I just liked having the opportunity to make an old style exploitation, cheepie horror film in a very brief period of time. I am a big fan of Roger Corman’s films and working methods — that certain pre-ironic, vaudeville approach to filmmaking where it is just like, we are going to do this and it is going to be fun. We are going to entertain the hell out of you with limited means. This is definitely more horror-comedy than just straight horror, in large part because of the premise. I always want to do stuff that will be funny; but when I was approached with this idea, I wondered how far I could go in turning the film into Texas Chainsaw Massacre, instead of Ghoulies. Personally, I find Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be one of the funniest films ever made — and its also really scary and crazy. I hope that we landed in that great 1980s zone of Re-Animator, Gremlins and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The really good, really gory and genuinely scary horror-comedies.
DS: And the script came together really quickly…
Jory Balsimo: One night we spent a few hours at the house. We were all just sitting in a big circle in the fireplace room, just hashing some stuff out. Then Aaron [Leggett] and I went to the Spider House Cafe later that night and got the bones of the outline done. We then spent the next 12 days fleshing it out, writing a treatment.
Aaron Leggett: We wrote the 25-page treatment in about 12 days, then sent it off for Jason, Jonny and Spencer to read. Then, we had maybe five or six days that we went back to work at our day jobs to save up some money so we could take more time off for the shoot. We got the notes back from Jason, Jonny and Spencer and adjusted the treatment, then I sent the final treatment to Jonny on the day before we started shooting.
JB: And then we kept writing on set.
AL: That is how tight everything was. From the time of Jesse and Clark approaching Jason to the end of principal photography was like 35 days or something like that. So it went from not even being a twinkle in anyone’s eye to a month later we were done shooting.
DS: How important was it to have reference points to Scooby Doo, as well as to other horror films?
JB: That came from the producers. That was what they wanted us to do. We just rolled with it. We tried to remember the show and keep the script a parody without making it a comedy, which was the toughest part about writing this thing. It would have been really easy to make this a horror-comedy and it would have been easy to just not make a parody.
AL: About halfway through the shoot, I was driving Spencer home after a long day of shooting and we were thinking that this was going to be a really weird film. We started talking about Freeway and for the whole second half of the shoot, that was our mantra: Let’s do a film like Freeway!
SP: There is the obvious reference of having a group of friends who have made a business plan using Scooby Doo as a model; but I think a lot of horror film references happened more by happenstance and improvisation and were discovered along the way, rather than being overtly calculated. That’s generally how I like to work. While I have made films that reference popular culture for particular purposes, I am not into movies that are referencing machines. I don’t like movies that are puzzles of references for fans to find, but nevertheless there are a lot of Easter eggs here. When you are making something so quickly, you just rely on knowledge — many years of watching horror movies. Also, just before production I was watching every possible low, high, middle horror film that you can think of. I knocked out the entire Friday the 13th series in one week; Nightmare on Elm Street was in there too. It wasn’t about stealing from these films, but it was about becoming immersed in the language, so when I got on set I could make something up that would be credible. It is like when you take a poetry class, the teacher makes you learn and memorize other people’s poetry because that is going to help you to write your own.
DS: Was the tonal shift always a part of this film?
SP: Always. Most horror comedies are neither funny enough or scary enough. We wanted to make the comedy parts funny, but we also wanted to make it scary, so we thought it would be fun to have that pivot. We sort of exhausted one approach then moved on to something else. I get frustrated when films have a unity of tone all the way through. I just get bored. I am here to be surprised and astonished, especially when it is a genre film.
DS: Can you talk about the insertion of the flashbacks?
SP: We watched the Scooby Doo cartoons and they always have these flashbacks that explain everything, and they go on and on and on. So one of our challenges was: How do we handle that? The genre look for the rest of the film is sort of the made-for-cable or direct-to-video aesthetic of the 80s. So we opted to go black and white for the flashback, and made it look like it was shot on Super 8. So that raised the question: Who would be shooting this Super 8 footage of this flashback? It makes no sense at all. So we embraced that, and just the ridiculousness of it. We even put tape slices on the beginning and end of the flashback so it looks like it was something the producers did to “fix” it.
DS: What was more important to you as writers — the horror or comedy elements?
JB: The horror, I think we would both agree on that; but I don’t know a good horror film that doesn’t have great comedy. We all agreed that this was going to be a horror film, so it was important to stay true to that.
AL: And because of the people involved in it, we knew it was naturally going to be funny. We knew that since we were casting Paul [Gordon], we would have solid gold!
DS: What came first: the characters or the actors?
SP: With Scooby Doo, you are dealing with a known history. So we started with that image and we cast these actors into those iconic parts. Then we worked on costumes and from there the actors could just run free and create the characters. I don’t think we really referred back too much to what we were parodying.
Josephine Decker: I watched a bunch of Scooby Doo episodes right before we shot the film, but I haven’t recently. I don’t actually think Gwen and Daphne are all that similar. I think Gwen is a little bit smarter than Daphne, but then Gwen gets stupider as the film goes along.
SP: But how could she not? That’s the thing about putting characters like that into brutal situations, they are going to me traumatized.
JD: Gwen gets totally terrified, I just decided to go to that place. I think it works for Gwen and Nancy’s relationship that Nancy has her head on straight and I totally lose it. It was fun to watch the film and see that duality.
SP: Its just nice to see the contrast between those characters and how they handle the situation differently.
Ashley Spillers: With Velma, I think it was more about finding her humanity and what it is like to be in that situation, with that type of job, and these friends. Is Nancy a lot like Velma? I don’t really know. I was kind of intimidated by Velma because she is really, really smart. I’m not saying that I’m not smart…
JM: And we just tried to make Floyd as dark as possible. The reality of somebody who is a drug addict and hyper-intelligent but unplugged from reality. Reality comes and gets him and he can no longer be detached. Obviously, Gwen and Chad have a relationship — that was a no brainer — but Spencer was really pushing for something to have existed between Floyd and Nancy. I thought that ended up working out well. It makes sense.
DS: And Floyd is based on Shaggy, who is the assumed stoner of Scooby Doo.
JM: Its just cute. Fuck cute!
SP: We were thinking about what Shaggy would be like in his mid-30s if he was still driving around in the Mystery Machine with his dog and eating lots and lots of “Scooby Snacks”.
JM: With his ex-girlfriend.
SP: Exactly! That will take someone to a dark place.
DS: Can you talk about the use of the sound design in Saturday Morning Massacre?
SP: That was a huge learning curve in making a horror film. From the perspective of being a fan and student of the genre — and teaching classes in which I often show horror films, especially in sound classes — you know all of this stuff in theory but in practice it is really, really difficult. There are certain scenes that are created solely around off screen sounds. In shooting dramatic films, my habit has been to snap it up, make things go faster; but I discovered while working on this film, the film got a lot longer as I became more serious about sound. I hadn’t realized while shooting — I didn’t discover it until the editing process — how much I needed to stretch things out in order for the sound to have its proper space and time. You must have enough silence, and have the sound punctuating at the right moments. My initial cuts of the film did not give enough time to the sound because I was speeding through it all. It played okay as rough cuts without working sound, but as soon as we got into the sound design we realized that the picture really had to stretch. It made me think a lot of Ti West, who is fantastic at stretching out silence.
DS: Everything about the lighting of this film also seems very precise, almost like Film Noir.
SP: We were always looking for the right angles to get the shadows advancing across the walls, and then the camera has to be in the right place to capture it. So you see the shadow before the person arrives on frame, or you are catching both the person and their shadow. It was really fun to play around with those tricks.
DS: And the actors seem very involved with the lighting, specifically with the flashlights.
JD: The first night we were doing it — before we figured out the “flashlight dance” — we were going crazy with the flashlights, but then we figured out that it had to seem more motivated. You have to point it at something, but do it creatively; like there was a point when I was told to pan my flashlight across the camera because they wanted a lens flare.
SP: We would see what a take looked like and then decide if we needed more light, or more action from the lights, a bit more chaos. Everybody got to be each others’ fill lights or back lights. That was an exciting process. Necessity is the mother of invention and the characters needed to carry flashlights. It was good because we didn’t end up over lighting, which I think is so often a problem in horror films. It is supposed to be dark!
AS: Jonny would always be like “hold your lantern up, Spillers! We can’t see your face!”
SP: And the flashlights were the things that were always breaking down. We had a kid and a dog and all kinds of special effects, but none of that slowed us down; it was the goddamn flashlights. We lost so much time because of the flashlights.
DS: How did the run-and-gun pacing of the production effect your ability to get into your characters?
AS: For me it was really helpful. Here we are, let’s do it! It was just go, go, go all of the time. We shot in sequence and that just really worked with the flow and the development of the characters. Going from situation to situation worked really nicely because we were in the moment. It all just became really real. We got a lot of truth because of the situation.
JD: I was really happy that we were shooting in order because that helped with the jumping into something nuts and sustaining that terror and fear. It was easier because I always knew what just happened in the previous scene.
SP: We had to us multiple cameras, just to get the necessary coverage. Some scenes had more cameras than others. Most of the time it was two cameras, and sometimes a third camera would get some useless stuff. For some scenes we had to use four cameras, even five cameras at one point, and every one of those cameras was working and had to get very particular things. That really helped to speed things up.
JM: For one of the death scenes, it was all hands on deck because we only had one shot at that. Well, we squeaked out two, but that’s all we could get. So we had every camera we could get in every position possible. That’s hard in itself because you are trying to set up shots where you can’t see the other cameras.
SP: There is another scene in which the characters make a very important discovery and they each span a lot of ground. What helped the actors was that everyone could really interact with each other at all times and totally experience that entire scene straight through. The characters were separated in different spaces, then they had to come together and interact; since we had so many cameras in different places, there was a real live crossover. As we crosscut, the characters really are coming together. That made that shoot go faster, but it also helped with the intensity of the scene. We didn’t have to bring everyone back together to recreate the feeling of what we were getting at.
JM: That is really Spencer’s genius. He called for that. He knew going into that scene that he needed as many cameras as we could get.
SP: It is an important kind of hinge scene that you couldn’t get around any other way. There are scenes that you can get out of with inadequate coverage; in fact it saves you because you don’t have the option of being overly precious. But this was a scene that you really had to have every piece there or you’re not going to have the suspense or the tension. It was really nice to have all of the cameras and just be able to run through it and get a really complex scene done in about three and a half hours. This would normally be a sequence that you would shoot over the course of a couple of days.
JM: And we could only shoot during the night, so we had about ten hours to shoot each day, and we spent a third of one night on this one scene.
DS: Spencer, how important is it to you as a filmmaker to have strong female characters?
SP: It’s really important to me. From my other work, that is something that I hope is evident. I am mostly bored by certain male leads, but it is not even a feminist point. Frankly as a viewer, I think the story is more interesting when I see something that is more uncommon. Unfortunately, strong female leads are very uncommon. On another level, with horror films, there is the whole thing about scaring women and putting them in peril — which is a little bit questionable. We are going to chase this woman and make her scream and do crazy shit to her and cut her in half… But, oddly, this has also created opportunities for a lot more strong female leads. The classic is Ripley from Alien, but the whole “final girl” scenario is old news academically. Women drive the horror film market, and I find that interesting. But maybe it is ironically, because it is the sexism that is baked into the genre that has required that there be so many women in these films, and then to keep them interesting you make their characters strong?
DS: What was it like working with practical effects?
JD: That was so interesting! I had to really focus on separating my own physical experience from the acting, because it was becoming too intertwined. It was just too intense for days on end. That scene was really tough because something traumatic happened to my character’s body and I have never experienced that before. I don’t know how that feels at all. When we were shooting that scene, I was screaming at the top of my lungs, and Spencer was like “I really don’t know how much diaphragm support she would really have right now.” So then we had to do some more breathier versions. When I watched the film, I couldn’t imagine how she could make any sound at all.
SP: It’s over the top. What is really great about that… We used the really big screams, for the over the top effect. Then we surrounded that with a breathier, expiring approach which makes it seem just believable enough.
JD: They kept pouring blood on me for the entire time. It felt like I had peed myself. There was this warm liquid all over me and I couldn’t get out of it. When I got home that night it took like an hour to squeeze all of the blood from my pants. They were totally saturated.
DS: Were you pretty freaked out by that house?
AS: Uh, huh!!! If we’d be downstairs shooting some stuff, the upstairs would be completely empty. When I would want to get scared — or me and Josephine would want to get ourselves freaked out, we would just creep upstairs and start going through rooms in the dark. It is a pretty creepy house! It is a big, empty, creaky mansion, you know? It was a little scary, especially considering what we were doing in there.
DS: You all did your own stunts. What was that like?
AS: That was really fun. I was gung-ho about being able to do that. There were certainly moments when I didn’t know if I could, but that was a voice that I decided to turn off. I was just going to do it. Sometimes I got a little too confident and hurt myself, but I kept going…
SP: And it was awesome because you needed no make-up for all of bruises that Nancy accumulates during the last part of the film.
DS: The fight scene with Ashley and Heather Kafka was pretty choreographed, right?
AS: Yeah, that was the most choreographed scene that I had. We just had to both be really careful with one and other, but not look like we were being careful. Heather was really stressed out about possibly hurting me and I was like “just pull my hair!” We didn’t have a choreographer, so Jonny, Jason and Spencer came up with all of that.
JM: We came up with that during lunch.
SP: It was fascinating to do, because we developed the choreography hand-in-hand with the cameras. We always considered where the cameras would be during each element of the sequence, so we were just putting one foot in front of the other.