Interview: IOF chats with CLOWNTOWN writer Jeff Miller and Director/Actor Tom Nagel
Oh, clowns. The subjects of fear through the eyes of most children and quite a few adults as well. There’s just something very creepy about them and when tackled correctly, they can make for some serious cinematic scaremakers (see IT for reference). Using the city of Bakersfield, CA’s real life scares (random people dressed as scary clowns caused a small epidemic of scares throughout the city, which spread to other cities) as a starting point, writer Jeff Miller (AXE GIANT: THE WRATH OF PAUL BUNYAN) and director Tom Nagel (THE LAST SUPPER, THE RETRIEVAL) took the idea of a group of clowns standing on street corners and crafted the entertaining shocker, CLOWNTOWN (now available), a film that serves to scare the hell out of you and make whatever Coulrophobia you may have even worse. We spoke to Miller and Nagel regarding CLOWNTOWN, it’s genesis and the approach of suspense vs. gore for gore’s sake. Read on!
I live close to Bakersfield, so when that whole clown scare was going on, it was pretty interesting. My kids were afraid to walk outside in fear of across one of them. It makes for a fun movie idea, how did you come to decide that you wanted to make CLOWNTOWN?
Miller: I saw that article about the Bakersfield clowns around 2014, so that just struck a cord. So that instantly made me think that it would be great for a movie and could just see scenes of a movie in my head. So with that idea, I pitched it to Tom and his brother, Brian, who were trying to make a movie and had a few other script ideas that they were trying to get going but for one reason or another, it just wasn’t right. So, I pitched this clown idea and gave them this brief description. I had heard about Rob Zombie’s 31 movie that he was doing and thought we could get in on that whole thing, so Tom and Brian said “Alright, let’s make a clown movie.” They’re kind of creepy enough, but a clown with a weapon, whoa.
Nagel: My brother Brian (Nagel, who also stars in the film) and I produce stuff and a producer friend of mine had acted in a film of Jeff’s a few years ago for Asylum and we had wanted to do something for a while, so after showing Jeff a few of my short films, he agreed to let me direct and produce the film. We actually had a few ideas we were toying with, but when we were all hanging out one night, Jeff mentioned the Bakersfield clowns story and as a director, I instantly wanted to take it on. I knew I could have a lot of fun with clowns because they really creep a lot of people out.
How long was it, the time between the initial pitch and being in Ohio, shooting the film?
Miller: The initial idea came about in 2014 and I think we began shooting in May, maybe April of 2015. So, it came together quickly. Our whole goal was to have something shot by the end of 2015, so it worked.
I’m a huge fan of the whole “kids in a van” type of horror films, were there any specific film of that type that might have inspired you? Also, were there any approaches you purposely did or did not want to take?
Miller: There are so many of those types of films that it’s kind of become its own little subgenre. Obviously I really love the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and WRONG TURN was another one. Outside of that, we wanted to go for more of a HALLOWEEN-ish vibe and even THE WARRIORS. That was a film that I told Tom to watch, because THE WARRIORS is such a cool film, I love that it takes place in one night and it has all of these gangs running around doing crazy things.
Nagel: I didn’t want the clowns to be typical giggly clowns but also didn’t want to stray too far from what makes clowns what they are. It would be weird to have a movie called CLOWNTOWN to not have clowns, so I discussed the whole thing with David Greathouse, who not only did the film’s makeup but also played the lead clown, the baseball clown. So what David and I came up with was to make each clown have a trait of the actor playing him. For example, Chris Hahn, who played the clown with the machete in the film, he was a former pro wrestler. So, we wanted to use that and have the character be this big, brute, quiet type of character. David is thin and almost snake-like, so we wanted that character to be representative of that, even just in the noise he makes and that clown is kind of snake-like. So we purposely wanted to go with that kind of approach.
Miller: We really didn’t want it go the torture-porn route with tons of gore and stuff like that. We figured Rob Zombie’s film would have a lot of blood and gore in it, so we wanted to make our film about the suspense. We do have a scene in the film where a girl is tied up and she’s screaming and I think it came out great, but we purposely made the film not be a gore-fest.
SO many people are absolutely terrified of clowns, it’s actually quite humorous to me. In your opinion, what makes them so scary?
Nagel: It’s funny, because I’ve been trying to put my finger on what makes them so scary to people. I’m not scared of them, but I do find the whole idea of a guy putting on this weird makeup and acting all giggly to be kind of creepy. I don’t if the reason so many people are scared of them is because of having specific moments where a clown scared them or even if it’s just being scared of something for no reason, it’s interesting. Being covered in the makeup and the bright colors and strange giggles, it’s just not normal.