We chat with writer and director Chris Peckover about hammers to the face, subverting archetypes, and evolving our approach to messaging.
The Shallow Pocket Project is back for more interviews with indie filmmakers! Get caught up with our last chat with Sarah Adina Smith (Director of ‘Buster’s Mal Heart’). Special thanks to my fellow Dorks at In The Mouth of Dorkness, especially Lisa Gullickson and Darren Smith.
Chris Peckover has an eye for brutality. Still, he’s always on message. Whether it’s testing Home Alone gags MythBusters style or giving us an unvarnished look at a group of racist, murderous patriots and their affinity for razor wire, he’s always trying to tell us something. His latest film, Better Watch Out, is available on demand. Honestly, if you have 89 minutes to spare and you haven’t seen it yet, stop what you’re doing. Flip over to your VOD platform of choice and get in on this. Film School Reject’s own Chief Critic, Rob Hunter, totally dug it.
I’m not joking. Stop reading. Start demanding.
Peckover’s first film, a 2010 release called Undocumented, was about a documentary film crew following undocumented migrants into America. Things get out of hand when anti-immigration vigilantes (with an affinity for murdering non-US citizens) intercepts and detains them. There is nothing subtle about the message on the screen. It is violent, and it is mean. Contrast that to his recent endeavor, Better Watch Out is practically saccharine. Except that isn’t quite right. It’s got a dark side, alright. It just isn’t front and center.
Back in February, we chatted with Kevin Burke, director of the documentary 24X36: A Movie About Movie Posters. He turned me onto Peckover’s work, which was totally new to me. Better Watch Out had gotten some buzz under a different title at Fantastic Fest but had yet to secure distribution. Undocumented was available, and I rented it on the spot. That joint rocked me.
My wife is a public high school teacher and works a lot with undocumented students. We reacted strongly to the brutality of the film. It’s a crackerjack film. Peter Stormare plays Z, leader of the vigilantes. Noah Segan plays a fellow named Klaus who might as well be Josef Mengele. The whole cast is solid and utterly committed to their roles.
In our chat with Peckover, he shares that one of the inspirations for the film was from an old job. Back in the day, he worked at Google reviewing flagged videos to determine whether or not they needed to be taken down. One video was shot through a scope attached to a long gun. The video showed migrants attempting to cross the border. As they crossed, the man began to shoot at them. Peckover shared that despite missing their targets, the gleeful cackling of the shooter’s friend haunted him. Fuck those guys.
Curious about the border monitoring militia movement, Peckover adopted the role of a sympathetic college reporter and went out for some of his own chats. I can’t rightly say whether or not the militia members were the full-fledged Hill’s Have Eyes blood-thirsty “patriots” in Undocumented. However, Peckover did take great pains to listen to their arguments. He shared in our chat that he made sure that the arguments of Z’s group were as factually accurate as possible. However, just as with the current rise of the neo-nazi and alt-right movement in America, facts can be manipulated to support any bullshit agenda.
Undocumented is a movie where the message is exactly the text of the film. Peckover shared in our chat that this is not always ideal. He found himself in a weird realm where no one really responded. Conservatives would watch the film and think, well. Typical Hollywood liberalism. Liberals watched the film and imagined themselves as the proverbial choir being forced to watch an execution.
The movie came out in 2010. Can you imagine if it came out now? Undocumented is a barrel of gasoline stumbling around the fire that is the comic “This is fine.” I sent him an email after we watched it and told him so. He said he was down to chat, but he really wanted us to see Better Watch Out first because it was so completely different. After I finally caught the film, I totally got what he was saying.
“Making a movie that’s a hammer to the face is kind of an immature goal.” – Chris Peckover
He caveats that pretty heavily in our chat, but it’s a good point. There’s something to be said for smashing folks in the face. Both graphically with some pretty intense violence and with a message. On the other hand, it limits your audience. Most folks won’t knowingly volunteer to have their brain all busted up by some brutal scenes.
What to do if you’re Chris Peckover? Go to Australia and make the best gosh darned home invasion, babysitter adventure, Home Alone mash-up in existence.
Better Watch Out is Peckover’s attempt to work the message into the subtext of the film. On the top layer, it’s a gleeful home invasion which takes genuinely unpredictable turns. In the subtext, it’s a dark look at psychopathy hidden in middle class American nice guys. There’s some real American Psycho work being done. That “blisteringly smart” on the poster quote ain’t there for show. On the other hand, neither is perverse, unwholesome, or demented. Yay!
In our conversation, Peckover gets into some of the modifications he made after being given the initial script. The first draft, which legit sounds like a movie I would watch, was so much darker than the flick we got. In Peckover’s words, the final act descended into something that felt like torture porn. Having learned from his previous experience with Undocumented, he wanted to go lighter.
He shares that one main criticism was that Ashley, the Babysitter (Olivia DeJonge), was so much the victim. She cried and begged. They tortured her. She needed to be present. As they reworked the script, they set some rules in place. Ashley could never cry or beg. She always had to be planning and responding. As a result, and I promise you there’s no hyperbole, Ashley is one of my favorite characters this year. Her journey from the opening scenes to her final moments on screen are rock solid.
Here’s the deal. Levi Miller is phenomenal as Luke, Ashley’s charge. He performed this role at 13. Olivia DeJonge is going to be a rock star. The cast is so essential to making this movie work. They’re all delightful. The movie is as fun the second time through as it is the first. I really can’t recommend it enough. Make some time in your life. Check out Chris Peckover’s films. And, please support Better Watch Out. This is the kind of movie I want more of in my life. Let’s help him make more.
What pop star sensation almost played Ashley? Why is Aliens so near and dear to Peckover’s heart? Will his next feature be a cabin in the woods homage to Poltergeist? Have you seen the movie? Why did he shoot the truth or dare scene like he did? What’s the reality of recreating a Home Alone gag, Mythbusters style? Yeah. You definitely want to check the whole chat. Check out the chat at Podbean or check it out on iTunes.