Set Visit: Slither (2/3)
Once the set visit was completed, we headed on over to the interviews, and the first guy we had a chance to talk with was none other than director James Gunn. First meeting Gunn, you'd think he was an everyday schmoe, a horror freak like you and I- so much so that you wouldn't think he was a Hollywood director on the set of his first big horror movie. Sportin' a spikey 'do, and a grungy T-shirt, he was laid back, down to earth, and funny as hell. Most of all, they guy loves horror movies! What's not to like here? So without any further delays, I give you my interview with director James Gunn!
Note: This interview took place in April of 2005.
You've said somewhere that ROSEMARY'S BABY is your favorite movie of all time. Is that true?
It's not my favorite movie, but it is my favorite horror film probably. I'm also a huge fan of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. It's hard for me to say that ROSEMARY'S BABY is my favorite though. Actually, I go in and out of what my favorite films are. Sometimes I really like THE BROOD a lot, but it just depends on what day it is.
Would you compare the old Universal horror movies to SLITHER?
I think it's a mixture really, when Eric and I did DAWN OF THE DEAD, we wanted to do a little more '70s style, a little more grittier, and when I was writing this film, I wanted to do something a little more in-style of the 80s movies that I love. Cronenberg films, Carpenter movies, we're thinking more over the top, more extreme, and had a lot of different types of things happening in the film.
But I think in the process of that, I think I got back to finding out something that I really love about horror movies, ever since I was a little kid I was fanatical about the old Universal horror films. And the thing that I really liked about doing this movie is that we have a monster, a character who's not just a creature, but he's murderous, and awful, but at the same time there's something very human about him. And because of that it reminded me a lot of what I loved about FRANKENSTEIN and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.
Michael Rooker plays the monster, right?
Yeah, Rooker is inhabited by 'the long one', who's sort of this spore that goes from planet to planet killing everything it can. Grant Grant is played by Michael Rooker, and he's the newest creature that is taken over by 'the long one'. 'The Long One' loves being Grant Grant because he's human for the first time, he's usually a lower life form (animals and things like that), and now he gets to be a human being, sort of learning what it's like to be human. But at the same time it's his murderous nature and impulses have taken over his living consciousness, and he goes from host to host, killing them over.
What appeals to you about mixing this pointious and gore?
(haha)I think that all movies are with the characters, and I wanted to write this movie, and I wanted the characters to be interesting in and of themselves. If this was a small independent film about a few people, then I want it to be interesting as far as who the characters were and how they interact with each other. And that's the thing that I love about horror movies is that there's gore, and special effects, and the prosthetic effects and everything.
We had a scene here the other day between Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker in which Rooker's in this huge make-up get-up, and they're both crying, and it's an intimate, wonderfully acted scene, and it's a weird situation because 90% of what makes a scene work is the actors, but 95% of what we had to do to make it happen is dealing with these fucking tentacles everywhere, and what they're doing, and which one's practical, and which one's are CGI, and what they're doing from shot to shot, and it's... it's murder.
But we finally get around to doing Elizabeth Banks' performance at the end of the day, and I'm sitting there crying as I'm watching her giving her speech and she was wonderful, and I felt really blessed, but it's funny how in making these movies, you forget about the basics, the human element of it all, and how that keeps it driving.
I love horror movies, I love a lot of horror movies, and I love a lot of stupid horror movies, but a lot of horror movies the characters are just something to be chased, or something to be fed upon, and there's nothing going on there, you really don't get to know those characters, or care about them, and truthfully, the horror is more horrifying when you have a character that you care about and who you love.
How important was the PreVis when making this film?
Well, some of the PreVis I was really happy with, and so that stuff is actually pretty important because we followed it pretty completely, like the barn scene tomorrow, we will be following the PreVis pretty well. Some of it I did earlier in the process, and it's actually the better PreVis, because I was able to sit down with the animated artist, go through shot-to-shot to see at what length I wanted to use, exactly where the camera was going to be, working it out in a realistic matter, having every shot be a completely different shot, combining shots so we can actually shoot them in our schedule.
So some of it has been extremely helpful, we'll shoot pretty close to what the PreVis is, there's a scene in the house with all these parasites that we use pretty completely, but some of the other things I've to kind of change around, so in terms of our special effects, because we can figure out what needs to be prosthetic and what needs to be CGI, but it's not as helpful in how we're going to budget and stuff like that. It helps those guys a lot, but in terms of the creative side of what the scene is going to be, maybe it isn't what I want to see, so it's better than storyboards that no one can tell what it is besides me with little shapes and faces and squiggles, and to me that's how I read the scene.
Why do you love horror films more than other kinds of films?
Honestly, I think I was probably an odd kid, and when I first started watching horror movies, I probably associated with the monsters. I would imagine there's something about the oddness of horror films. When I was a kid, I love LOVED horror movies, but it wasn't that I loved being terrified, or scared, but it was that I loved the weirdness of them. It goes back to Lovecraft thinking his stories of weird tales- it wasn't the scariness, it was the weirdness, the unusualness of them, taking us outside our regular brain into someplace else. I think that's what I love. Horror movies I think are more to the core of that dreamlife. I think that has something to do with it.
You know there's going to be comparisons to DAWN OF THE DEAD, is that something you have to be aware of when your shooting a movie like this?
Never, because it's so so different from DAWN OF THE DEAD, both the things that happen are so much more outlandish, so much more of a variety of things. There's some zombie-like creatures in here, but that's just one little part of the movie with a whole bunch of different sections. There's so many different elements, and also the characters are a little more prominent in this movie, and who they are etc... In the first act, it's very creepy- very different from DAWN.
Talk about your choice of casting non-WB actors, but genre actors that are going to appeal to the horror fans.
Honestly, each of the actors have their own story about how they came to be in this movie, and there were a number of factors that were real important to me. I've tried to cast Michael Rooker in so many things for so many years, and he really may be my favorite actor. For years I wanted to cast him as a good guy, but here we've cast him as sort of the main villain. Again, he's this guy who's taken over by this thing, I don't really think of him as a villain really, he's just acting according to his nature.
Nathan Fillion was awesome. They all auditioned and he was awesome in the audition and I met him right away and here was a guy who was not only going to be good for the movie, but he's going to be somebody who's going to bring the whole set alive. I'm extremely fortunate for every actor we have, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. Nathan was a big surprise actually because I only knew him from FIREFLY, and when we did this, he was really great.
Did he want to get away from FIREFLY?
No, he loves FIREFLY. Nathan's the kind of guy who's married to what he does and the people he works with, and he's completely loyal, and he loves FIREFLY, and I don't think he's at all trying to get away from it. I think he's a guy who has the chance to be the next Harrison Ford.
What's the craziest scene in this movie?
I don't know if there's one crazier scene than the others. It pretty much gets more and more fucked up as it goes on. They work in such different ways. The scene that we're going to shoot starting tomorrow, where Linda explodes, and give birth to 35,000 wiggling parasites as all extensions of Grant's mind... I think of this movie a lot as TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, so I try to make it a lot like that (haha).
What's the visual aesthetic of this film? Visually, is it a modern horror movie, or a 70s or 80s movie like SQUIRM?
I actually think that it's really just my own thing. It's rougher, we have a lot of handheld stuff, I think the visual aesthetic is a lot like a Nirvana song, because there's these long patches that are rather quiet, and very intimate about human beings, and all of a sudden the chorus comes and there's this f*ckin' incredibly ridiculous gory scene, then it goes back to a little bit of quite for a little while. As the movie goes on it keeps building and building up to the climax, and then we have Kurt Kobain screaming out his lungs and going sort of insane.
Do you play a lot of music like that on the set?
No, the only song that we've played on the set is the Air Supply song called Every Woman in the World, which is the song Grant Grant got married to. So they love it, and the monster has a particular fondness for the song at the end. Lloyd Kaufman (of Troma Films) has a cameo in the movie as a sad drunk, I think we might cut him cause he fucked up his lines... no, actually he did a great job, he had a lot of fun in his scene with Nathan and Gregg Henry.
Is this film going to be very Troma-like?
I wouldn't call it that, but I think there's similarities because tonely, it's kind of strange.
Gregg Henry's character is called Jack McReady, is that a wink? Are there more characters like that in the film?
Yeah, totally. Throughout the whole movie, almost every single street name, the name of the bar is Heninlauder (as in Frank Heninlauder director of BASKET CASE), and all sorts of characters from Cronenberg movies, and everything is pretty much a nod to some other horror movie that I love. The town in is South Carolina, because we ran into some problems because it got absolutely fucking cold up here, and it's a time when it wouldn't be that cold in SC at that time of year, so it's a little strange.
How do the spores attack Grant?
Basically, the beginning of the film there's a little bit of a nod to THE BLOB, there's sort of this comet that this spore comes out of, with this inspector inside of it there's this weasel-like intuberance that shoots out into Michael Rooker, who's about to cheat on his wife...
Do you worry about comparisons to DREAMCATCHER?
Any movie that has a whole bunch of crazy things happening in certain ways, you can find things that are similar to this movie. Some of them are intentional, like THE BLOB, it's totally intentional, I totally ripped it off, and other things are unintentional at all, where people will say 'that's a lot like this movie' and I'm like 'oh, I never saw that movie, or I forgot about that', so I don't even think about that type of stuff, so when I'm making the movie, I only think about trying to create something that for me, rather than other people.
How has this evolved from your original idea for this movie?
It hasn't changed that much actually. It's really stayed pretty much the same. The movie is pretty much like I really envisioned. I've said it before in other things, but the thing that really set me off I think, although I'm talking about all these 80s horror movies, but I read this comic... it was so intense, and so wonderful and so creepy, and I think creepiness has been lost from a lot of horror movies, there isn't enough creepiness in horror movies anymore, that sort of dread and something that's off, but you don't know what's causing it, and where it's coming from, and something that isn't a boo-scare. Boo-scares are good and they're a lot of fun, but they only go so far, and nothing that makes your skin crawl a little bit. I also starting thinking a lot about THE THING, which is a movie I watch a couple of times a year.
Do you know yet if you're going to be involved with the DAWN sequel?
No, I said No. I really want to be doing other stuff right now.
How has it been working with cinematographer Greg Middleton?
Awesome. He's mostly known for doing small independent art films, and he's a huge genre fan, but he really hasn't had the chance to do that, so we hooked up up here, and he's great.
What's it like actually directing a script that you wrote yourself, versus the times in the past where you write the script for someone else to direct?
The first experience is hellish, it's like having your spine ripped out, and your life sucked away. And then the experience become much more difficult physically and emotionally, and mentally but much more fulfilling. For better or worse, this movie is what I originally intended it to be. In most cases where I've written screenplays and they're directed by other people, most cases it's not what I had originally intended to be. So I'm more comfortable doing this, than watching somebody else direct my work.
How would you have like to see SCOOBY DOO 2 different?
I'll be honest with you, I think SCOOBY DOO 2 was more what I wanted it to be more than anything else because I went in knowing who the actors were, who the director was, and it was a kids movie, and that was the one where I knew what it was, and what it was going to be. SD2 was actually a really helpful movie for me, I stood there on set the whole time cause I wanted to learn the technique and that side of things a little more. I wanted to be able to direct a 100 million dollar movie. But on this movie we're dealing with a much smaller budget, but there's a whole lot of prosthetic effects, mixed with a whole lot of CG effects, with a lot of other things. So that experience was really helpful for me.
Were you frustrated with the way DAWN turned out?
No, I really loved DAWN, I think it turned out great, and I was really happy with the way it turned out. There were things about it that were different than what I originally intended, I there was more character stuff in it. So I missed that, but besides that, I was really quite happy by what was turned out.
Is it harder writing different genres, or is it harder writing different budgets?
That's an interesting question. What's hard is manipulating every screenplay you write no matter what the budget is. You have to change it to suite whatever your real budget is, or whatever. You always have to cut it down. I guess that would be more difficult, yeah.
With the age of DVD, does that help you in the filmmaking process knowing that whatever you produce, there can be an unrated version that audiences will be able to see?
I'll be honest with you, when I first started writing this movie I thought I was going to get in big trouble with the MPAA because I thought it was going to be so incredibly gory that I was going to have to settle for a mutilated version, an R rated version, and then an unrated version, which would have been the version I really intended on making. But the truth is, the movie ended up being more creepy and disturbing than it is gory, and so I think that it will actually be ok. It might get cut here and there, but for the most part I think the movie will be pretty much what I intended it to be. I've never dealt with the MPAA with what's creepy and disturbing , but they don't seem to be as harsh on that type of stuff as flat out gore.
Is this movie set in the real world, or in a place that's slightly off center?
I think the world in my brain is slightly off center to begin with. I think this world in the movie is off center to everybody but me- so yeah, it's probably a little off center. Then again, I've tried to keep everything as natural in terms of the performances, the characters are unusual, but since I don't like people 'acting' too much, I'd rather have them sort of be real. So I've tried to keep everybody really natural. It was one of the things that was really difficult about casting.
That's something that I do love about the 70s movies, where the acting is a little bit more naturalistic in a time when things were more natural. So that part of the 80s movie, the sort of wide eyed, opened mouth, blonde bimbo naked in the shower screaming- that's not really apart of the 80s movie that I like. What about them is the extreme, fun, willing to go places with their imagination that are not usual. There's a lot of stuff today that is not imaginative, and that's not bad, there's lots of horror movies that I love that are not imagination based, but there aren't many horror movies being made today that are about imagination, or about incredibly strange occurrences.
Do you ever see yourself directing a romantic comedy?
I was actually thinking about it the other day, cause I actually wrote a romantic comedy for Warner Bros. which I liked a lot, and Elizabeth Banks would be great in it. And somebody thought of me to direct that movie, and... I just don't think I could do it. Truthfully, writing the script was truly sort of a nightmare for me because it's really funny, but that stuff is hard. I like watching romantic comedies, they get my juices flowing for two hours, but to keep that romantic juice in my head for a whole process with writing a screenplay, it was very difficult.
What's your favorite romantic comedy?
There's no doubt that it's HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, but I love all those Preston movies, those movies are great. SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, all those films, definitely.
Was there anything in particular that inspired you to write SLITHER?
Yeah, there's a couple of things. The first was, about 4 years ago, no... it was more than that.... about 6 years ago I was sitting with my brother Brian, and we're like 'god, I really want to write a horror movie, I want to write one that's really really fucking scary, for the only reason to really do this is to scare someone and have people have heart attacks while they're watching it.'
That was my goal. I said, 'what's the scariest thing you could think of?' and right away this image that stuck in my mind of a woman with a parasite in her mouth, slashing it's tail, going into spasms in her mouth with lots of blood spewing everywhere, her eyes flipping in the back of her head as it's trying to burrow into her brain. I thought, 'that's pretty scary, I could do something with that...' and then I kind of forgot about it. That's sort of the centerpiece of the film, that image of the woman. The other one was think of the title SLITHER and thinking that's a cool title, I think I'll use that as the center.
Did you know there was a movie called SLITHER made in the 70s?
Yeah, with James Caan? I didn't know about that movie until after. Oh well. F*ck em'. I'm not getting in trouble.
Can you describe the way the aliens move?
Well really, it's a living, conscious disease that starts in Grant Grant, and spreads from person to person. He has these two eels that come out of his stomach which basically impregnates other people with parasites and they are ravenous for meat and they eat a lot of meat, and they grow into these big, huge, disgusting things until they explode, and then there's more of them, and they're all attached to the central consciousness. All one consciousness. The alien is just this little tiny spore thing that spawns all of the others. But there's a lot more stuff to know about this than what I'm answering now...
Hold on to your butts, as there's more talk with James, as well as star Michael Rooker coming up. So sit back, take a few kegs stands and rest them eyes for the second part of my interview with the cast and crew of SLITHER!!!
opens wide on March 31st
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