Austin Cinematic Limits

I know, I know. A modern day, live action reinterpretation of Scooby Doo sounds like a really horrible Hollywood pitch. But, c’mon just hear me out… Because if any film community would be able to spin this particular pitch into gold, it would be Austin.

The idea was originally hatched by Jonny Mars and Jason Wheling. They eventually brought Spencer Parsons (I’ll Come Running) on board as the director. Next, Aaron Leggett and Jory Balsimo were hired to flesh out the idea into a fully realized script. Then, the true moment of genius came — the casting. The slightly-skewed Scooby gang became embodied by Ashley Rae Spillers, Josephine Decker, Jonny Mars and Adam Tate, with masterful supporting turns by Chris Doubek, Paul Gordon, and Heather Kafka.

The end result is Saturday Morning Massacre, a film that 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 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.

As the Saturday Morning Massacre cast and crew prepare for the film’s world premiere at the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival, we chatted with Parsons and Spillers about the making of the film.

How did you approach this project, specifically having never made 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. We didn’t do Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we did something different; but it was my far horizon, that was the thing to go after. 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.

Did you have specific reference points in mind while shooting?

SP: There is the obvious reference of having a group of friends who has made a business plan using Scooby Doo as a model; but I think a lot of the horror film references happened more by happenstance and improvisation and were discovered along the way, rather than being overtly calculated. That is generally how I like to work. While I have made films that references 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 — and 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 so 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.

Can you talk about your use of sound 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.

Ashley Rae Spillers in Saturday Morning Massacre

Oh, and thanks for casting several of my favorite actors from Austin.

SP: I’m glad to hear you say that. Luckily a lot of these folks are personal friends. I did not know Ashley Rae Spillers or Heather Kafka before we did this, but I have already shot part of another film with them. With someone like Chris Doubek, it was just a matter of where to put him? How do we get him in this film? Andrew Bujalski is a friend and writing partner and I wanted to put him in this film because he really loves horror films. Jonny [Mars] and I have worked together for a really, really long time. I had previously cast Sonny Davis in a small role in a short film and really just lucked into getting him. When he came on set we started talking about what films he had done. I knew he was in The Whole Shootin’ Match, but I had not made the Melvin and Howard connection. I was like “Oh my god, I am directing an actor who is in one of my two or three favorite films of all time.” That freaked me out for a little bit. It was really great to get Sonny out there for the day and let him do his thing.

How important is it to you as a filmmaker to have strong female characters?

SP: It is 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 — I mean, since Scream it has been in the public consciousness. Women drive the horror film market, and I find that interesting. It is maybe ironically — because of 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.

What was the casting process like for you?

Ashley Rae Spillers: A few years ago I did voiceover for Jason Wehling’s animated feature, The Third Day. A couple of years later, Jason called me up and said “We’re making little scary movie and we’re considering you for it. We want you to come out to this creepy house tonight and talk to Spencer Parsons, the director.” So, I went to this creepy house — I had a couple glasses of wine beforehand, because I was nervous — and they just asked me questions and we talked. Then they called me a week later to tell me that I was going to be the lead in the movie. I don’t know why they picked me but I am glad that they did!

What attracted you to the character of Nancy?

ARS: I just like movies where there are women kicking ass and leading the pack. I think a lot of horror movies — and movies in general — there are a lot of dudes running the show. Not to say that my character is running the show, because it is very much an ensemble… We all do our thing. But I was really stoked to be able to do this. I had never done anything like this. So, just getting the chance to play a character who can stand up and take control of the situation — I like seeing women do that. It was really fun to kick some ass and stuff. The physical stuff was my favorite. I never knew that I would like doing that, but we all just had so much fun. We shot it in a very short period of time, so it was a lot of work on everyone’s part — it was just go! go! go! The adrenaline was always through the roof! Sometimes we would do a scene and they would be like “Whoa, Stillers! Turn it down a notch. You’re going to hurt yourself, buddy!” I would just get so into it. Its fun trying to do all of that while trying to actually try to stay in character and do the emotional stuff too.

Yeah, I was really impressed by the emotional range of the characters.

ARS: I like that too. The relationships are there. Hopefully you see all of the characters as people. You come to know them a little bit. It’s not just “Oh, here are these characters… And now they are all dead.”

So, were you pretty freaked out by that house?

ARS: 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 [Decker] 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.

Saturday Morning Massacre Poster

Austin Movie Events This Week:

6/12-6/14 – Stateside at the Paramount - Buster Keaton double feature with Go West (1925) and Seven Chances (1925). (More info)

6/13 – Alamo South Lamar - Austin Film Society’s Doc Nights presents Jennifer Baichwal’s Payback. (More info)

6/13 – Texas Spirit Theater - The Austin Film Festival’s Made in Texas Film Series presents Robert Wise’s Andromeda Strain. (More info)

6/13 – Alamo Ritz - Alamo’s Bangarang! series presents a rare 35mm screening of Peter Hyams’ Timecop. (More info)

6/14-6/15 – Paramount Theatre -  Celebrate the 50th anniversaries of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). (More info)

6/16 – Deep Eddy Pool - Deep Eddy Pool Splash Movie Nights presents Richard Donner’s The Goonies. (More info)

6/16-6/17 – Paramount Theatre - Celebrate the 75th anniversaries of The Awful Truth (1937) and Grand Illusion (1937). (More info)


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