SATURDAY MORNING MYSTERY (available now via VOD), the new film from director Spencer Parsons, does the genius task of loosely taking the idea of a SCOOBY-DOO like gang and putting them in real danger. The film is hilarious and a lot of fun (review soon), and Spencer was nice enough to chat with Icons of Fright regarding the film, its genesis and what is next for the filmmaker. Read on!!
SATURDAY MORNING MYSTERY has such an interesting concept, loosely taking something that kids grew up on and turning it into a horror film where instead of it being safe, all bets are off, and there are realistic consequences. What was the genesis of how the film came to be/inspired you to make it?
Well, I just don’t want any movie to feel too safe, whether I’m directing or I’m watching. You know, Screenwriting 101 says “raise the stakes,” and of course that makes for good storytelling, but only if you mean it. When the stakes have been set stratospherically high just to make the audience worry, but the storyteller never intends to follow through on the likely or even inevitable consequences of the characters’ actions, because that might be upsetting, that’s some crap. And frankly, there’s too much of it.
So I’ve always really loved horror, because in this genre, it’s not just okay, but desirable for actions to have pretty dire consequences, and you can really dig in to how characters contend with serious hurt and problems that don’t conveniently offer neat solutions to be discovered by act 3. And great horror films use that capability to get into some deeply moral and psychological stuff that a lot of other art won’t touch.
But initially when [producers] Jason Wehling and Jonny Mars pitched the basic story idea to me, I just couldn’t see it. I thought it was pretty terrible. I mean, just about the least interesting thing in the world I could think of doing is making a live-action cartoons. And that has less to do with my devotion to realism than with my love of cartoons. But my mistake was only seeing the cartoon. When I realized it could be a story about people who are in danger because they only see the cartoon, and they’re living their lives in the wrong genre, it clicked.
We could put the audience through an experience that would be scarier and more exciting because we all know the genre so well. We’d expect to safely get to the bottom of some crappy real-estate scam with a music video montage and some Scooby snacks…but submit the characters to even a little bit of real world logic, and we’d be as thrown off as they are. I always want my stories to be unpredictable, so when I figured out that leaning on a really predictable cartoon would ironically help make the movie more unpredictable, it got really fun.
Since you’re a fan of the genre, what got you into it?
You know, I was that weird kid in elementary school who not only knew it was Boris Karloff that played the monster in FRANKENSTEIN, but that Jack Pierce created the makeup, and I could tell you a lot about how. Because my parents were actors, that kind of stuff wasn’t foreign to me. Coincidentally, one of the actors my parents worked with, who they talked into babysitting me and my brothers sometimes was R.A. Mihailoff, who later went on to play Leatherface in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III. I remember to amuse us he did this routine talking to a mannequin, that, come to think of it, he might have ripped off from Joe Spinnell in MANIAC. We loved him.
But I really got serious about horror in high school when I read the novel Frankenstein, and it was not only creepy and gross to imagine, but had a whole philosophy behind it. It was political. I read Catcher in the Rye and loved it, but Mary Shelly was my Salinger at that age. Then I saw Cronenberg’s THE FLY, and it had all this romance and tragedy and science and it made me want to barf, all in the same movie. My brain exploded.
I’d confess that for a while, I was kind of a horror snob and stayed away from the slashers because I just knew they weren’t “serious” like Cronenberg’s films or ALIEN or NEAR DARK. I liked Freddy Krueger okay, but especially in the sequels, he was a bit cute. But after seeing Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, I had to watch everything Tom Savini had worked on, and I fell in love with FRIDAY THE 13TH, especially THE FINAL CHAPTER. Those movies are so much smarter and more surreal and exciting than critics and academics and even some fans will admit. Even the ones that suck are always great for the first 10 minutes when the filmmakers are trying to figure out the crazy logic that’s going to allow the series to continue. I’d put the first ten minutes of any FRIDAY THE 13TH up through JASON X against almost anything else in cinema. And when the freakin’ dog comes back at the end of the second one, I’m in heaven.
Have there been any recent genre films that have stood out to you?
Apologies for name-dropping again, but Bryan Bertino was my Teaching Assistant at UT back in the day, and I love love love THE STRANGERS. I won’t claim any particular influence, but I couldn’t have been more proud while that flick was scaring the bejeezus out of me. So stoked for his next film. Go Longhorns! I especially loved the old-school suspense in that flick because I’m experiencing really serious found footage and shaky-cam fatigue. But even so, I’ll say that David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” segment of V/H/S has got to be one of my favorite horror flicks of the last few years, at any length. I wanna see 100 more movies from that guy. And I’ll just add that I think JENNIFER’S BODY never got the love it deserved. That was a great movie, really original, and Karyn Kusama’s a really fine director. I’ve got no time for the Diablo Cody hate squad, because that’s some pretty sweet horror.
The acting in the film seems very natural and not forced at all. Was improvisation a big part of it, or did you prefer to have your actors stay on the script?
It was very highly improvised for a couple of reasons. One is that improv is a tool I enjoy using. A lot of time it is really best to stick to the script, but I do like to improvise when I can, since it tricks me into paying better attention to the actors when I don’t know what to expect, and in the same way, it tricks them into paying better attention to each other. I also find improvisation really helps them to own the characters. I’m a big believer that movies are ultimately about people, and every actor in a movie should be the only person who could possibly play his or her role. This one maybe got more intense than usual because it was mostly night shooting over a schedule of just ten days, so we all went a little crazy together. There was a night when we found one of the actors, Sean Ryan, in full monster makeup, sleeping with a rubber axe like it was a teddy bear.
But in truth, the biggest reason for improv was screenwriting triage. We had this odd situation where the main location came first, and renovations were set to start in just 6 weeks, so we had to be done shooting by then. That left about three weeks and change for Jason Wehling and Aaron Leggett and Jory Balsimo to write the script, simultaneous with casting and pre-production, so we decided to focus our energies on story structure and the logic of our set pieces rather than on moment-by-moment characterization.
So we improvised most of the dialogue and behavior, and then my job on set and in editing the movie was to shape all that chaos in relation to the plot, so the story would hang together and make at least a little bit of sense, maybe with maybe a few more character surprises than normal. But it was all done at such a fever pitch that we improvised more than just the acting, and we essentially wrote the movie by making it.
Being an independent filmmaker, what do you feel is a crucial part of succeeding in this business and standing out from the countless other filmmakers?
If ever there was a time without any clear answers, this is it, though I’m sure Buzzfeed has a nice to-do list. I mean these days, even people who have succeeded in this business aren’t succeeding in this business. But if the idea is to stand out, it’s frankly sad to see independent filmmakers try to ape last year’s Sundance hit without realizing that it was most likely somebody else’s hard-won, personal vision, or else a fashionable confection that just happened to make good conversation on a ski lift, and nobody’s going to remember it five minutes from now.
It’s even worse to see people go into massive debt and personal trauma trying to make the same thing Hollywood makes, but without that machine behind them and without all of the seasoned technicians and stars and expert storytellers that can really help craft that kind of movie into an ideal product. Why compete with that on a tiny budget? In the end, all you have is yourself, and that’s all you have to sell. Maybe once someone’s paying you enough to buy your compromise—and you better know your price—it’s another story.
Certainly I’ve made mistakes in storytelling and screen craft that I can Monday Morning Quarterback forever, but the only things I really regret are the occasions when I didn’t satisfy myself and didn’t do things I worried might piss people off or make the work more “uncommercial,” whatever that meant at the time. In every case, it would have helped make a better, more distinctive story. I guess I look at it like running a small business in a world of big box stores: if anyone’s going to pay attention to little old me, it’s because I’m selling something they can’t get elsewhere.
What’s in store for you next?
I’m really stoked for the segment I’ll be directing for this upcoming horror anthology, I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM. Aaron Leggett and I cooked up a really fun, really gnarly workplace invasion story, partly inspired by a true crime, and partly by PIECES. I’m so excited to work with this cast we’re pulling together. Sean Bridgers, who was phenomenal in THE WOMAN and JUG FACE is attached, along with Robert Longstreet and Nina Diaz from the band Girl in a Coma. She’s a really naturally gifted actress, and to any other directors, I’ll just say, “cast her now!” At least as long as your shooting schedule doesn’t conflict with ours.
Eduardo Sanchez and Huck Botko and Jack Perez are attached to direct segments, among others, and I’m really excited about the one that Kris Swanberg is planning. It promises to be like nothing we’ve ever seen before. I’m also prepping another little flick, BITE RADIUS, which is kind of noir-horror, based on a pretty surreal crime from a few years ago. Kind of an anti-Badlands. It’s gonna be nasty.
SATURDAY MORNING MYSTERY is now playing on VOD and will be in limited theaters beginning August 9th via XLrator Media.