FRIGHT INTERVIEW – Director Eric England & Friends Talk MADISON COUNTY
Of the films that were screened at this year’s Screamfest, only one managed to sell out and thusly land an encore screening later in the week. That film is MADISON COUNTY. If you’re interested in my take on the film, click here!
Since Eric England (Writer/Director), Ace Marrero (Kyle) and Matt Mercer (Will) were all wandering around the vast tourist hell hole that is The Hollywood & Highland Mall in between movies, I felt this was a perfect chance to grab some food and sit down with the guys and discuss this Southern Fried Slasher. Check out the discussion below! – Aaron P
First and foremost, congratulations on selling out Screamfest this year! How’s this experience been for you guys?
Eric – Surreal. It’s definitely been surreal. Besides like Screamfest and the movie itself, this is my first premiere. It’s been a bit intimidating from a personal standpoint because the bar has been set pretty high. So now, next film is going to be hard to top. It was pretty nerve racking but exciting at the same time. But if we would have heard nothing but crickets the entire film, it would have sucked pretty bad.
Eric – Yeah.
Ace – Not really.
Eric – Well, first official one. I shot an experimental movie that is feature length that I used to kind of help secure the financing to prove to the investors, and just other people, that we can make a movie.
Can you tell us a bit about it? Was it in a similar genre as MADISON COUNTY?
Eric – Yeah, it’s a similar genre but it’s more a dramatic thriller – a found footage experimental movie about a guy who documents his life and I wrote the script for Ace to play the lead because I met Ace through film school. I cast him in my thesis film and when I got out of film school and I was trying to get MADISON COUNTY made, it fell through like ten different times and I was like, “Fuck this, I’m going to make my own movie!” I financed it with whatever money I had in my bank account and what my debit card would let me spend and I wrote a script in like ten days. I then called Ace and was like, “Hey read this script, can you shoot this movie?” I then called up Daniel who was our other producer to shoot the movie and we shot for five and a half days across the country, four days in Arkansas and then drove from Arkansas to California and we shot on the way back. We then shot another day and a half in L.A. to finish up the movie.
And just to be clear, we’re not talking about MADISON COUNTY here.
Eric – Hah no! It was called HOSTILE ENCOUNTER. We shot it for $3500 or so and cut it together and showed it off to people who were pretty impressed with what we got. Then we started having people ask what we were doing next and I had a couple scripts laying around and my producer Daniel said he could probably get some money together. One thing led to another and we made this movie.
Ace – We kind of, we didn’t finish that. We always joke that this will go as like a special feature on our DVD but we needed to just get sound design done on it. That’s really it. But then Daniel rounded up the money for Madison and we just kind of put it aside for the time being and went with Madison and we really haven’t had a chance to look back.
MADISON COUNTY is obviously a slasher film that takes place in the South. You’re from Arkansas. What was the inspiration behind the film?
Eric – I grew up on slasher films and I always loved horror movies. To me, I didn’t want to do a zombie movie or a creature feature or anything like that because what’s always scared me has always been the person next door. You know, people are the scariest thing in the world to me. My grandpa bought a place down in Madison County, Arkansas when I was about 13 years old and just going around there and meeting the people and everything…I ran into some weird things, some weirder people and had all these strange encounters that I started to collect in my head and kind of jot down for future use one day. Then, after film school, I just decided to sit down and write the script and incorporated all these stories I had kind of locked up in my head. For instance, the pig mask came from The Arkansas Razorbacks. I used that as inspiration. My grandpa’s neighbor had a pet pig he would never kill.
And for the record, that pig mask wasn’t made of real pig, right?
Eric – Hah, no.
Ok, every time I saw it I thought, ‘That thing must smell so bad!’
Eric – Oh it did smell bad! The burlap sack got all moldy and shit. It was nasty and all sweaty inside. It was made out of silicone and had bits of hair…it was really detailed.
Touching on what you said earlier about people being the scariest thing…why is it, do you think, that “back country folk” are always scarier than “city folk”?
Eric – Because those people who go to live in the mountains to be isolated are not friendly. They are not people friendly…people persons? People persons. They go to the mountains to get away from people and that’s the thing, they want their privacy respected and usually when outsiders come around and they don’t know them, they get really paranoid and suspicious. That’s honestly one of my favorite things about telling stories. Every movie I do, I want to use some sort of paranoia theme to help facilitate the story. To me, there’s nothing scarier than people being extremely paranoid which is what MADISON COUNTY is about. You know, there’s this sort of don’t ask, don’t tell thing with the local folk in the movie where Damien just sort of sweeps everything under the rug and so they’re safe. They’re all sort of in on it and if you’re an outsider, God help you.
Where did you get the idea for Damien? I’m sure fans of THE OMEN are wondering about the choice of names as well…
Eric – There’s this local legend in Madison County surrounding a guy named Damien and my grandpa knew his parents. He was always getting arrested for drugs and stuff like that and I never saw the guy but growing up, Damien was always the name given to The Boogeyman in those parts. It’s funny, cuz I’ve never seen THE OMEN until high school. I didn’t rip the name off or anything. There was just this guy named Damien and I was like, “Wow, Damien’s this really bad guy…the worst guy in Madison County”. That’s what I’d always heard and so the name just always stuck with me and turns out to be ironic that Damien is the son of The Devil in THE OMEN because Damien was the name of evil for me as a kid in Arkansas.
*If you haven’t yet, check out the RobG interview with Nick Principe (Damien) here.
So Ace, how did you become involved with MADISON COUNTY and was it your intention from the start to wear both the Producer and Actor hats to get the project done?
Ace – I came on a couple years back and I think I was one of the first people to read it. It was way different then and at that time, there wasn’t the character Kyle that exists now that I ended up playing. Eric ended up going back and changed some things around and Daniel came on board his main stipulation was that I had to be in the movie. I was just brought on as an actor. He liked what we did on our first feature HOSTILE ENCOUNTER and he said he’d do it if I was in it. So he asked me to read the script and see what part I wanted to play and of course I read the script before I was really familiar with it enough and I don’t think he was named Kyle at the time but I knew of the character and that was the part I was the most drawn to. For me, I had unofficially been helping out on the production side of things for a few projects and I wanted to get into that so I also used this to sort of help me break into that world. So basically, I just kinda started doing shit. You know, taking the bull by the horns and being pro-active in helping out and before I knew it Daniel said I was a producer on the film.
Was it a conscious decision to dress Kyle like a douche bag? With the Ed Hardy-esque shirts you end up wearing and all…
Ace – Haha yeah…one of our sponsors is great. At our level you try to get whatever you can and we were paired up with this company Xavier and they were just really great. I saw a lot of their stuff and I knew of all the characters, I’d probably be the one most likely to wear it.
The clothing said a lot about your character.
Ace – Cool, I’m glad you got that. As an actor, I like to focus on working from the ground up. There’s just too many people out there who do the same shit in every movie…you know the same character no matter what. So for me, the homework was important.
Matt, how did you become involved with MADISON COUNTY?
Matt – I just auditioned for it. I tend to submit for horror movies as much as I can because, well, I like horror stuff. When I went in, I thought I was kinda cheesy on the audition actually. I never do this, but I went in with a prop. My character’s a photographer and I went in with a camera and I never do that but it was in the scene. I didn’t just want to stand there, he was using it in the scene, so I went in with it.
Eric – I think you also complimented the script, or something.
Matt – I did. But I didn’t bring knee pads. I didn’t go THAT far.
Eric – A lot of people have this stigma about actors complimenting them but I accept all compliments. I mean, honestly, the buttering up thing…
Matt – I did that on the callback, actually.
Eric – Was it the callback?
Matt – Yeah. The first audition, I left thinking ‘that was really stupid’. I shouldn’t have gone in with the camera and I just thought I wasn’t very good in the initial audition. So when I got the callback, I thought ‘awesome, now I can do this’. The callback went really well and I read with Ace and Katie. And here, I got the full script and it was really good. I read a lot of these horror things and I could tell Eric was very talented and I knew I wanted it. So, as I was leaving, I stopped at the door and said, “Eric, uh, I just want you to know…the script, man, it’s really good. I really like it.” And as soon as I walked out of the door I immediately thought I just shot myself in the foot again! There was no way I was going to book this now! But lo’ and behold, I got it.
And your character Will also wears a shirt that sheds some light on his character. Horror geeks out there probably got the reference…
Eric – Yeah, the shirt Will has on says “Derry” in big white letters. It was my way of nodding to Stephen King. One of our sponsors did a clothing line was inspired by Stephen King’s novels and basically all the shirts in that line are an homage to King in some way. Will’s shirt said “Derry” referencing the city in Maine where IT takes place. There was another one which was an outline the town scape of Derry.
Ace – He had other towns too, like Castle Rock. There’s a whole series of shirts.
Eric – Yeah, from PET SEMATARY all the way through. And me being a horror fan, I had to have that in my movie. I had a big hand in picking out a lot of the wardrobe and stuff. Even though I’m color blind, I do my best to be hands on with the details of certain aspects of the film.
How does being color blind affect your work as a director?
Eric – It really doesn’t affect things until we get into post production. I’m not allowed to color correct a movie. I color corrected the trailer before it was released and it looked like David Fincher did it. It was all green. It looked like we just threw green on top of the movie and it was simply because I couldn’t tell.
You can still see colors, then. You’re not completely color blind?
Eric – No, I’m not black and white. I’m blue/green and red/green. So it’s just one of those things where I can’t really tell certain colors apart. However, I do know what colors mean so I can say things like, I want a red tray right here and I want this person to have a black one because he’s the bad guy. I do try to use color subliminally but if you watch the films closely, it’s usually colors that I can identify. It’s funny, because I am color blind, I tend to overcompensate which is a stylistic choice I guess. It doesn’t affect the actual making of the film, just the look of the finished product.
It’s pretty safe to say you’re leaving MADISON COUNTY open for a sequel. Is that something you feel will happen?
Eric – Well that’s something I leave up to the fans to decide.
You mentioned a film you and Ace already shot. Can you tell us a bit about this next project?
Eric – It’s called ROADSIDE. It’s a Hitchcockian thriller. Madison takes place entirely during the day and I wanted to do something on the complete opposite end of the scale and do a film that takes place entirely at night over the course of one night. I wanted to do one of those single setting, high concept thrillers about a small group of people trying to overcome an obstacle.
I saw on your blog, you referenced films like PHONE BOOTH…
Eric – Yeah and DEVIL, BURIED, FROZEN…I really like those kinds of movies because not only are they difficult from a writing standpoint in actually trying to tell a story with limited characters in a limited location, they’re also difficult in a visual standpoint. MADISON COUNTY is a fun movie to watch and it’s pretty because you have all this crazy shit to look at. In ROADSIDE, though, it’s night time on the side of a road. Who hasn’t seen that before?
You’re also confined in the small space you’re shooting in.
Eric – Not only that, but Ace and Katie Stegeman both kill it in the movie…I took it even further and separated their characters so they’re not even in the same vicinity in the entire movie. Ace is outside the car for most of the film while Katie is inside while the car is running. So the car is running through the entire movie, they have cell phone reception yet they are separated in the entire film. I wanted to add all these dynamics to the story to make it more complicated.
Anyway, the quick pitch of the movie is: Ace and Katie (his wife) are on their way to his sister’s house for Christmas when they come across a tree that’s fallen in the middle of the road. When Ace gets out to move it, this guy starts talking to him from the trees. Over the course of the movie, you find out this guy has a gun and has been waiting for someone to stop and he ends up holding them hostage on the side of the road but they can’t even see him.
You know, to me, that was really the fun part of it. It’s literally a movie with three people but you can only see two of them. It was really cool to have a villain you can’t see. Almost like SE7EN in that aspect.
Or like PHONE BOOTH.
Eric – Yeah, exactly. It just added this other level…Ace had to talk to trees, he has this big wall of trees he’s talking to through the entire movie. He never knows exactly where this guy is at and there are many complex layers in there that made this so much fun to make. Aside from that, I just finished writing a script called THE PROM QUEEN which is, probably up until this point, my favorite script that I have written. It’s almost like SCREAM for the new generation. I think it’s the movie that would best describe me because it’s horror, it’s comedy, but it’s got this great subtext too. It’s got the mystery and suspense of the 90s mixed with the gruesome sick nature of an 80s horror film. It’s got some really great kills and some really great characters and right now I’m working on that as well as a couple other projects. Also, Ace was in my thesis film CLOWN TOWN and I wrote a feature version of that which I want Matt and Ace to both be in.
Ace – Yeah, we have a little promo video for it up on our MADISON COUNTY page, I believe. (Actually, I found it here.)
Geez, talk about a bunch of plates spinning at once! Ace, is this also the next project you’re busy with?
Ace – Yeah, we are definitely knee deep in ROADSIDE. The guy who was our DP, Dan Hertzog is an AFI alum. He and another one of his classmates whom he graduated with, they put together another feature called FOR BLOOD OR JUSTICE and he brought me on board to help out. We’re shooting a teaser promo in a couple weeks. So I’ve been helping them out to get that off the ground, producing wise. It’s a really fun script and you can check it out if you want. The website for it, I think, is www.forbloodorjustice.com. Eric and I shot a little Halloween short called THE TRICK OR TREATER, Katie from MADISON COUNTY and ROADSIDE is also in it with me. And I shot another Halloween short with my girlfriend which should be out shortly.
How about you, Mr. Mercer? Mr. Chatty McChatalot? I mean, it’s so difficult to get you to not talk!
Matt – Yeah. I know. It’s true.
Seriously, though. Tell us what to expect from you next.
Matt – I have two other films in post production now. I did one called THE POISONING and another film called KESSLER’S LAB which is kind of an indie/sci-fi/psychological thriller. We just finished shooting that in Colorado. It’s a film about illegal drug testing and cloning.
Two great flavors that taste great together!
Matt – It’s a family film! But seriously….otherwise I’ve been pounding the pavement. I am in a Ford campaign running right now so that’s nice.
It was roughly at this time the interview had to end as the next Screamfest film scheduled was minutes away from starting. I thanked Eric, Ace and Matt for their time.
If you read my review for MADISON COUNTY, you’d know I was a bit nit picky about certain details of the film. Regardless of my issues with some of the story aspects, however, I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more from these guys. Having spent time with all three, the passion to create and tell stories that they exude seems a bit contagious. That energy is being put to good use, obviously.
For further information about MADISON COUNTY, check out their website here. – Aaron P