It was the heart of SXSW Film Festival. Bright and early. Naturally, I was expecting romantic comedy. Everybody Loves Mandy Lane, right? Wrong. Dead wrong (pun intended). What I got was a high school slasher flick with heart. It had all the right horror elements: sex, drugs, rock and roll, and the picking off one by one of unsuspecting teens in creatively grotesque ways by a mysterious psycho. But there was more. You think you are headed one way only to find a deeper premise. This film plays homage to the 80s classics of its genre while simultaneously elevating the category with top notch writing, characters you actually care about, and not-so-subtle-but-effective metaphors for high school as its own cruel, fight-of-your-life horror movie.
AUSTIN DAZE: How has your SXSW been?
JONATHAN LEVINE: It’s been amazing. It’s great being in Austin. Being with the cast and crew is like a homecoming for us-that in itself is great. The festival is just a fantastic experience, especially following Toronto, which was such a stressful experience. At Toronto you’re worried about selling the movie and here you can just show it to the audience. The spirit of the city is just amazing and everybody knows so much about film and it’s just a great environment to show a movie in. The parties are great too.
AD: We noticed you had the Natural Selection
t-shirt and you mentioned it was more of a foreshadowing.
JL: The Natural Selection t-shirt was written into the script by Jacob. It was just little hints at his motivation because that’s certainly an aspect to the killer-it contributes to his motivation. Also for me, a lot of what high school is about is survival of the fittest. I didn’t really like high school. I just found it to be a time when people were really mean to each other.
AD: Where did you get this idea? You mentioned high school.
JL: Jacob [Forman] had the idea. He and a couple of other people I went to film school with developed the idea, and then it came to me, and Jacob and I kind of reworked the script. It was a school project-their thesis project-they developed with teachers at the American Film Institute. When it got to me there were things that I really wanted to focus on: those things that I was talking about like the high school environment, and the reality of the stuff. I’ve gone out on weekends like that where it’s all about getting laid and drinking. And then I thought, if you focus on the reality of the situation it becomes even more messed up when a killer comes in and disrupts everything. Jacob brought out a lot of the psychology of the kids and their subconsciousness and the oppressive nature of high school. We focused a lot more on that, and that was an angle that was really interesting to me.
AD: Tell us the difference between making a short film and making a feature length.
JL: The thing about making a short film is that you only have five or six days, so it’s really easy to show up and remember that everything eventually is going to be on screen. On a feature there will be days when you show up and you’ll be like, “I don’t want to do this today.” But you can’t do that. Everything is part of the same movie and you have to be so consistent. Our shoot was pretty short-only 24 days-but you still have to remember that every day you need to be as prepared as every other day. The other thing about a feature is that you are shooting out of order so it’s a lot harder to keep track of what came before, what came after, the psychology of the character, and where the character is at-what happened in the scene before, that lead to this scene. You also have to think about where the audience is and track the time of the movie and make sure that there’s a progression to it. It’s really about keeping the big picture in mind, and that’s really easy to lose track of over the course of three or four weeks.
AD: What was it like to film in Texas?
JL: It was incredible. I don’t want to talk shit about LA but…
AD: Why not? You’re in Austin.
JL: Well in LA, you get close to the end of the day and everybody starts looking at their watch-people are there and it’s a job. Here it’s definitely a job but people work more passionately-there is more heart. We were at the bar last night drinking with the crew, and everyone was just speaking so much from the heart. We have guys who worked on “Grindhouse” and “Sin City,” and they care just as much about those movies as they do about our movie and that is the most incredible thing because it’s not just a job. At the end of the day we were all hanging out in the back talking and drinking beer. There is more of a lifestyle and general passion for it; the crew is more involved in the process where in LA it’s just a job. It’s really an incredible, incredible thing. So the crew would be one thing.
The other thing is the geography-it’s just beautiful here. The sky in the movie is so big-so vast. It’s really an amazing place to shoot a movie. People have been saying, “Why Texas?” Because it doesn’t have as many incentives as say, North Carolina. But you come here for the people. You come here for the world. I would shoot a movie here any day of the week. In fact, I’m shooting a movie in New York in a couple of months and when we were having our party last night, I was inviting everyone to come to New York. I hope they can do it. Everyone at the time said they could but they were wasted so I don’t know.
AD: What were your influences in making the film? The house looked very similar to the house in “Chainsaw Massacre.”
JL: We shot in Bastrop and they shot a lot of the original “Chainsaw” there. The new “Chainsaw,” not the prequel, was one of our really strong visual influences. We watched that a lot. The original we watched just because it was so crazy. That film has a really strong sense of place. We wanted to keep that sense of place so we looked all over for houses and we came upon this house and really liked it. It did look a lot like the house in “Chainsaw,” but the inside felt like a ranch house where people would go party. “Chainsaw” was definitely on our minds when we were doing it.
AD: What do you feel this film offered the genre?
JL: I think one of the things the genre doesn’t often do is invest itself in the psychology of the characters. I think the genre does it with older people but you rarely see it done with teenagers. So I think that in many ways it is a character piece as well as a horror film. The other thing we hope it does is allow people to view these characters as real people which gives it more impact when they get killed. That’s something I don’t think many of these movies are doing these days. It’s really just about watching people getting killed in interesting ways-which I love-but I thought if you view them as real people you are going to feel what that means in a much more meaningful way.
A lot of people are taking 70s movies and remaking them for 2000. I wanted to take a 2000 movie and remake it for the 70s or 80s-to flip it in that way. As much as the movies today feel real and the violence has come a long way, to me the movies of the 70s and 80s were more meaningful from a story and character perspective.
AD: How was it to pitch this movie?
JL: What happened was the guys who wrote the script sent it to 500 people. One of the producers Chad just started cold calling people. A lot of people really liked it but no one was really willing to make it. And then we found these guys-young independent producers-who really got on board with it. As far as pitching it went, it was more grassroots hard work-finding people to make it. None of us had ever done anything before, so it was hard to be taken seriously until we had a first cut. Once we showed people what we were able to accomplish on such a small budget, then people started responding. It took people seeing the movie before they respected it.
AD: We interviewed Danny Trejo and he said it was very different and a lot of fun. He says people work so much harder on horror films.
JL: I think so. I hadn’t worked that much before this, but for me it was always such a chore to come to set. That was the part I hated because I was always so concerned about getting all the shots I needed for the day. And this, I actually found myself having fun. I’m not sure if that is because it is a horror movie or because it was in Texas. Everyone had a blast. It’s really fun. It has to be because on screen you are dealing with really graphic stuff. On set everyone is having fun. ***