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INT: AJ Bowen

It was a very rainy time of the year when I sat down with A.J. Bowens at a local Starbucks. I was a few minutes late and was terribly apologetic because I’m never late. But A.J. was incredibly nice and let it slide. Now if AJ doesn't sound familiar to you, it will soon. The man has very few films under his belt, but he is working constantly as of late. I first saw him in CREEPSHOW 3 and I thought he did good work. The quality of the film is another story entirely. Then when I saw him in THE SIGNAL (read Arrow's review here), I was very impressed. This is a fantastic film that manages to be relentlessly terrifying and within minutes, absolutely hysterical. And if you continue reading, you will find the continued efforts to make people realize that it did not rip off Stephen King. Can we let this comparison die yet?

As for AJ, one of the first things I noticed about him was that he had Anton LaVey’s “The Satanic Bible” with him. This was really fascinating to me. Seriously, there are very few things that can shock or mortify on-lookers in Los Angeles, but this book can do it. He bought it to research his role in the new Ti West film called THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL which he has officially been cast as Grady (a Satanist). We discussed the controversial book along with some of the ideas that LaVey had to offer. I instantly liked AJ. He is funny, talented and just a terrific person to be around. It’s also nice that he really loves horror movies and we even talked about some of our favorites, including HALLOWEEN and the original BLACK CHRISTMAS. In fact, we talked a ton about everything. And of course, we talked about what is easily one of the best horror films to come out in recent years… and that, of course would be THE SIGNAL.

What was the first horror film you ever saw?

The first one I remember seeing is HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME. I have sisters that are older, my sisters are nine and twelve years older than me and I’m thirty. So in 1981 and 82 they were babysitting, they were like Junior High or High School students. So in the span of two months I saw that, I saw POLTERGEIST and I saw MOMMIE DEAREST, which I know doesn’t qualify as a horror film but it scared the f*ck out of me.

It was something I wasn’t allowed to watch, it was something I wasn’t supposed to be doing you know. And I think the one that was really formative for me would be HALLOWEEN, and I know there are a lot of people that would say that. But I remember specifically, my best friend, his parents were a lot more liberal with what he was allowed to watch, so it was like, ‘…oh, I’m going to sleep over there tonight, and we’ll go to bed by 8:30 in the evening and maybe watch “The Dukes of Hazard”’ and I got over there, and it was like Halloween, THE EXORCIST and THE FINAL CHAPTER. And I remember sitting down for Halloween and - I lived in an apartment complex and it took about a mile around the complex to get from his place to mine - and I watched Halloween, got done with it and I was like, ‘I need to go home right now.’ So my friend, same age as me, because I was so scared, had to walk me home. I couldn’t stay away from my mom. It’s like, I gotta be at home with my mom.

How old were you?

Oh man, I had to have been like eight or nine, maybe ten.

Now, you’ve been doing a little bit of horror lately, with The Signal and Creepshow 3, which I’m not a big fan of the later. But when I reviewed it, I mentioned that some of the leads were good and they are wasted in the film. And I remembered you after seeing The Signal from that.

Well, you know, with that movie, I did it almost right after I moved out here. And I didn’t know what it was when I did it. It’s serendipitous that the beginning of my career is in this genre because I’m literally a twenty year subscriber to Fangoria. You know, it’s always been my favorite genre. So it’s funny that I’m starting in this. What was funnier was getting sides to [Creepshow 3], it was a very secretive audition process. It felt like it was some sort of good, legit thing, ‘oh, you can’t take this with you, you can’t know what this is.’ You come in and prepare for five minutes and then you go in and audition.

And I didn’t know what it was… ever. But I thought it was an anthology because I could see it at the audition. There was one other skinny guy that had a straggling beard that looked homeless. And there were a couple of girls that looked like prostitutes and a couple of guys who looked like professors. And it was like, come on man, there is no way this is one story. The first time I did a table read was when I found out it was Creepshow 3. And I knew right then, ‘ah, no Romero, no King…’ and we shot it at Universal’s back lot like almost three years ago. It was over the summer, after I had moved here, and I’ve lived here three years. And it was… they knew what they were doing on set. They definitely knew what they were doing but the script… we definitely had a script…

It did? [Laughing]

We did. It was written. And there was dialogue. But it wasn’t written by Stephen King.

In The Signal, you have such an interesting character. Can you talk about how the part came about? Did you audition?

No, they’re my best friends. We all went to college together…

So you slept with them to get the role?

So many times, I have lost count. I don’t even… Jacob Gentry and I have been passing STD’s back and fourth for years. [Laughing] Most of us went to the University of Georgia together. There is a handful of people that didn’t. Dan Bush who directed “transmission 3” didn’t and neither did Anessa [Ramsey], neither did Sahr [Nguajah], the guy that played Rod. But there is a built core of like eight or ten of us that went to school together.

And we spent so much time together in college talking about movies, watching movies, making really pretentious shorts. And then we all kind of went off and did our own thing and some of them moved to Atlanta because we were in Athens. Scotty [Poythress] came out here for a little while, I went up to New York for a little while. And I guess, four or five years ago, they just all ended up back in Atlanta at the same time and started working together.

We all showed up and, for the actors that had worked, we showed up and did some work for Jacob and Alex [Motlagh] in this movie called LAST GOODBYE. And we just all kind of reconnected after we had gotten a little bit older and hopefully a little less pretentious. And I moved out here, did Creepshow 3. And they came out for a DVD release, Jacob and Alex did, and that’s when I heard that they were talking about doing a movie together, a horror film, which they had never made one.

I don’t want to make it sound like they weren’t into horror films, but there is definitely a few people, like me and Scott who are really into horror films and spent a lot of time watching them. And I was interested, it was like, man, you know what… if you guys end up doing it, I’ll fly out there and shoot the movie, you know, basically offering myself to my best friends. And I didn’t hear anything about it for awhile, and then I got a call that it was actually happening.

I think their idea originally was lets make a low budget indie film that we can show that we can make profitable. So if we spend X amount of dollars, if we spend fifty thousand dollars on, we can just get fifty thousand and one dollars on it, then we can show people that we’re worth their investment. So that, coupled with wanting to work with them, wanting to work with David and Dan. They all made short films together, experimental theatre in Atlanta.

They had this idea to do, instead of an anthology, why don’t you take a linear story that has a very clear beginning, middle and end… it was originally an experiment, they didn’t create it this way, but originally… it was like, I’m going to make twenty minutes of a movie and then I’m going to pass if off to you and you have to pass it off. So your going to shoot another twenty minutes of the movie and pass if off without knowing anything. I imagine it would be a tough road to hoe for the person picking up the last act. I mean, God bless Dan Bush who did act three.

But they got together and decided to tell this story in three parts from the perspective… one of my favorite things about The Signal is that it’s sort of a real character piece. There’s a lot… every character is fully developed, regardless of screen time. In terns of structure though there are three different directors and ostensibly three writers. And they had a character that was going to be the driving force behind their act.

And before they were called transmissions they were like, act one was called Mya, act two was called Lewis and act three was called Ben. And I think that kind of took away from them being character pieces, I like it better when they are called “transmissions”. So David was dealing with what was going on with Mya. Jacob decided to deal with what’s going on in Lewis’ head. And then Dan dealt with Ben. And that’s how I got involved. I didn’t audition for it. Or I spent the last ten years auditioning for it I guess.

Exactly.

We were told it was going to be on the super cheap, and so we didn’t have a lot of time to shoot it. So I went back over on the holidays two years ago and we did the table read. And then we had birthday, Christmas, New Years. Then we came back and rehearsed for a week, called it “Signal Boot Camp“. And it was amazing because it gave us an opportunity to really… they had the script done for awhile which I know is going to piss off a lot of people that want to believe we got an advanced copy of [Stephen King’s] “The Cell”. Which, if we knew anyone that would have gotten us an advanced copy of “The Cell”, we certainly wouldn’t have been needing to spend fifty thousand dollars on a movie. If we had that kind of connection we would have been able to spend sixty-five [Laughing].

I’m glad you addressed that by the way because I found a whole bunch of comments about that on IMDB.

Well, you know it doesn’t matter how many times you say it. I don’t mind criticism. If it’s legit criticism.

Yeah, selfishly if they hate my performance, cool, I’m okay with that. If they don’t like the story, I’m cool with that. If they think the acting sucks, if they think the writing sucks, if they think the directing sucks, I’m okay with that. You know, its like, we did what we could, some people are going to like it, some people aren’t. But what pisses me off is when you go out of your way to try and explain, you know, we got asked that question at every festival this year. ‘So, have you read Stephen King’s “The Cell?’ And every time the answers have been the same. But there still have been people that can have that information in front of them and say, ‘you guys ripped of Cell’, and, ‘we didn’t man’ I wrapped picture and then I went to a book store and I saw that Stephen King had a new book and I was stoked.

I was like, ’sweet, what is this’. I opened it up, I’m in the middle of Atlanta, this is like the third week in January. And I’m looking at it, I literally still have stained blood from wrapping the movie, and I read the insert. ‘F*ck!’ I think I called Jacob and I called Alex and I’m like, ‘man, I think we’re gonna have a problem.’ And it was very quickly one of those things, we were like f*ck it, it doesn’t matter. Realistically, and I’ve read the book, I don’t really think that… they’re nowhere near as similar as our movie is to like THE CRAZIES. Or, I saw someone online venting on VIDEODROME. And those are certainly influences but that’s the other thing, it’s like, look man, if we had ripped Stephen King off, this movie wouldn’t be coming out. We’d be getting sued.

Absolutely.

So at the same time, it’s really flattering, that someone would put our movie in the same sentence, or in the same paragraph of anything that Stephen King has done. We can’t approach anything that he’s done. But at the same time it’s like, look, I know that some sixteen year old kids from Manchester are getting on there talking shit. I think that once the movie comes out, that will kind of go away.

I agree man. You read every one of those posts and it’s like ‘I haven’t seen it yet, but… they ripped off Stephen King.’ And you’re like, ‘…you know nothing.’

I love that.

You know nothing!

I love it when people don’t know what the f*ck they’re talking about.

Welcome to the wonderful world of internet.

Sweet. It’s great. [Laughing] Somebody else wrote in something that was like, ‘I heard the acting sucked shit’, and they were like, ‘I heard that Ben was the only person that was worth a shit in this’ and I know that it was Justin. I know that it was Welborn. It had to be him. I’m officially throwing that out. I think that it was Welborn talking shit. [Laughing]

Okay.

Its all been such a new experience. It’s frustrating for me personally because the only other thing that people in this genre would know about me as an actor for, if they had any idea, and I’m like, ’ah man, that’s twice in a row that people think that I’m shitting on King.’ You know, anybody else [Laughing].

With the film there is a strong social consciousness about it. It really did remind me of, and not to put another, ‘hey, you ripped off…’ but it did have a little Romero social statement going on.

You know, I caught the same thing when I read the script. But to be honest, I don’t think that at the time, most of the guys had an extensive experience with Romero. But yeah man, I totally agree. It reminded me of The Crazies. And I asked them, when I stayed in Atlanta, I was asking about it, if they had seen The Crazies and they didn’t know what I was talking about. But yeah, and I don’t know if I can speak for everybody on this but I think I can speak for most of the guys and the ladies, I hate stories with a message. You know, like I don’t want to be preached to. Ideas are fine, you know, like bring up ideas. Make it an allegorical story, that’s fine. But don’t beat me over the head telling me how to feel about something. If I want to do that I can watch the news. But yeah, I think that with The Signal, no one was trying. No one was actively trying to make a very specific statement. We were all aware of the ideas. It’s just due diligence to be aware of the pros and cons of a media saturated society. What happens when your cell phone stops working… people flip out.

It used to be, you know, you’d have to get home and dial that shit out rotary style if you wanted to talk to someone, so you could just deal. Back then you had to mail letters, you know, snail mail. Some sixteen-year-old kid today could never deal with that. And it’s not their fault, it’s what they know. There’s such an immediacy. The worlds such a small place now. There is just an instant global impact for everything, it seems like. And those are things that are on our minds. Certainly not to take a judgment one way or the other. That’s another thing, I don’t want to watch a story where people are judged. That was one thing we worked hard on in The Signal, was to - again, specifically I can only speak in my case - with Lewis, it’s okay for people to judge him. It’s okay for people to call him a villain. But I feel like it would have been a disservice to the story to have treated him that way. You know, in setting him up. I certainly don’t see Lewis as the villain of the film.

I don’t either.

I don’t view any person in the film as a villain.

Except Anessa… [Laughing]

She’s totally unlikable [Laughing]. And she’s a lousy performer [More Laughing]. She talked shit about me the other day in a pod cast, so I’ve gotta make up for lost time. But it was like, let everybody else worry about that, we wanted to try and it people that… you can’t accept some of what Lewis does but maybe you could see how he got to where he was. If we did are job, you’ll understand all of that. It was incredibly tough. I did not envy Justin and Anessa for having to figure out how to start their characters off being the traditional romantic story in the film. To start them off in a situation where they are very aware that Mya’s got a husband at home that loves her and is waiting for her. That’s an unenviable position.

It’s refreshing to see “characters” that are explored as well as they are here, especially in a horror film.

When you don’t have a studio telling you where the stories gotta go, or you have to have a decapitation. You can put your decapitation wherever you want. You find the appropriate time for it. We had no one telling us to ratchet up the gore, we did that all on our own. You know, something that I don’t even notice, just because I was there… what I noticed more than the gore, is the fighting, the combat in it. Someone was asking, ‘okay, so how did you achieve these things?’ and they are asking like how did a character lose their head and how does another one get their brains bashed in.

I can talk about that very technically and give a bunch of credit to Toby Sells, our effects guy. But if you’re asking about… what they were asking about, was that it didn’t look like people were pulling the punches in a lot of the combat. And after that I’d say, ’oh, you know, we didn’t, I got stabbed, Justin got hit in the head with a baseball bat more than one time.’ It was a foam bat but I did try to use the seam part to hurt him [Laughing]. And that’s the great thing about being friends with people, it’s like, ‘alright… hit me. Just don’t lose a tooth and avoid my nose if you can, don’t mess this shit up [pointing to his face]. I can bleed but you can’t break it.’ And that’s my favorite thing about doing films, is that you get to go in there and get your hands dirty, I love that.

Speaking of characters, I really loved seeing the usage of “Leave” by Heavens… but I hear it’s changed since I saw it.

Originally when they were getting the movie together, we were rehearsing… we spent a lot of time rehearsing. We spent almost as much time rehearsing as we did shooting the movie, which isn’t a lot of time but, we had it.

Still, that is a luxury.

It was awesome. While we were doing it, this guy, our buddy J.T. was told by the directors we want a song that’s like “A Perfect Day” by Lou Reed. So go off and write a song that sounds like that. He’s like this very talented wonder kid. So he showed back up the next morning or afternoon and all night long, he recorded a song. ‘Want you guys to hear it.’ and he played it for them, they listened to it and he actually just covered “A Perfect Day”. And they were like, the song’s so f*cking good that we’re never going to get the rights for it. But this was back when we were like a fifty-thousand dollar movie that no one was going to see. But they kept it in, and everything was fine until we got into Sundance. And then Lou Reed found out it had his song, his management company found out and they wouldn’t give us the rights to it.

And so once we lost that song, it was essentially a character in the film, they were on a scramble to try and replace it. And on the soundtrack, there’s gonna be some Heavens, a “Patent Pending” remix is going to be on it and they’re friends (with the band). We did a total of three different songs. We were thinking about Bauhaus’s “Ordinary World” for awhile. But what they ended up settling on and this was because Magnolia had a relationship with this guy. This guy named Dave Wingo who does David Gordon Green’s music and you know, David’s worked with Magnolia so a friend of a friend of a friend, you know. And this guy saw the movie and he had retooled a couple that he had done, a Joy Division song, it’s really cool, it’s called “Atmosphere”. I love what he did with it and I think that it’s going to be appropriate.

Let me know what you think. Send questions and comments to [email protected]

READ THE ARROW'S REVIEW OF THE SIGNAL HERE

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