Mind the viscera: Austin's horror filmmaking scene is exploding
By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 23, 2011
Will 2011 go down as the year the Austin horror filmmaking community definitively established itself as a vital hub for gore? Consider the evidence: At the time of this writing, there are just under a dozen horror films either in preproduction, production, or postproduction, with several already having spun off into other projects, like cranial projectiles from a zombie's blown-out skull spatter.
While Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly's much-discussed seriocomic vampire opus Destroy continues to wait on financing (Michael Stephenson, of Best Worst Movie, is slated to helm), other current or forthcoming Austin horror productions include Lindsey Alloway's Postmodern Undead, now in preproduction; Ain't It Cool News alum and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill's already-wrapped Sinister, starring Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio and slated for an August 2012 release from Summit Entertainment; Jesse Dayton's directorial debut, Zombex, featuring Malcolm McDowell and Sid Haig; a big-screen adaptation of author/Masters of Horror screenwriter Stephen Romano's new novel, Black Light, to be produced and/or directed by co-writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan of Saw infamy, as well as producer Michael De Luna; the locally shot comic-book adaptation Bad Kids Go to Hell from Matthew Spradlin and Barry Wernick; a potential 13-episode series based on Brian McGreevy's buzzed-about forthcoming genre novel Hemlock Grove, to be adapted by McGreevy and longtime writing partner Lee Shipman for Netflix and Gaumont International Television (with Eli Roth set to direct and produce, no less); and a series of horror scripts from Richard Garriott: Man on a Mission producer Brady Dial, progenitor of Were-Bot Productions. Oh, and lest we forget, Austin teen wunderkind Emily Hagins of Pathogen and Zombie Girl fame recently struck a deal with MPI Media Group for distribution of her undead prom comedy My Sucky Teen Romance. And that's just the sticky crimson tip of the blade.
That's a lot of potentially screaming people sitting in dark rooms. So ... why now? And why Austin, a city that's still probably recognized more in the global cinephile community for the decidedly unchilling Slacker and our occasional flirtations with mumblecore as much as it is for Robert Rodriguez and his Troublemaker Studios' semifrequent forays into gore-gore girls, green-screen mayhem, and predatorial alien outliers?
Ask anyone, and one of the most recurring of the myriad answers you'll get is this: Fantastic Fest. Tim League and Harry Knowles' dream fest started out as just that – a dream – but there's no denying that in its six-year existence, this annual and truly international infusion of genre films, filmmakers, writers, and fans into the Austin area has sparked friendships and collaborations (including the upcoming 26-director Drafthouse Films anthology pic ABC's of Death) that have begun to bear some seriously warped fruit.
"We've always been horror fans," League says, "and we tend to attract horror fans. I'd like to think we nurture that community, because we certainly show a shit-ton of horror movies. In the case of Emily [Hagins], I'd like to think the Alamo and Fantastic Fest had some probably ill-advised misshaping of her mind.
"In terms of why the Austin scene is taking off, there has been something really interesting happening over the last five years – and it does coincide with Fantastic Fest taking off as well – and that is that [horror] movies are just about the only movies that are selling. It's not like there's a giant market for mumblecore movies. Those indie dramas that are the Sundance darlings aren't the movies that you see get the deals at market festivals. And with the rise in market share of iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix, there's decent deals to be made for independent horror films."
With all the brouhaha about Austin becoming the third coast of film production over the past 20-odd years, it's easy to forget that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel's 1974 paean to rural family values, was one of the very first regional, totally independent, expectation-defying genre films of the modern age of horror. Floridian Herschell Gordon Lewis may have beaten Hooper to the punch by more than a decade in terms of drive-in tickets sold and viscera splattered onscreen, but his 1963 cri de Grand Guignol, Blood Feast, while defiantly vile and generically very much of its place and time, today plays like the amateurish hack job it is compared to Leatherface's squealing nightmare antics.
Hooper's film, however, altered the course of Austin-based indie filmmaking in its own unique way. It not only got under the skin (before flaying it and wearing it, that is) of the collective zeitgeist, both in the city and out, but also set a template that practically defines all Austin filmmaking (and indeed all indie filmmaking, everywhere) today: Do what you can with whatever's at hand, get everyone you know involved, and aim for the audience's gut. Whatever the cost, get a reaction. And get it done.
In the Austin of here and now, with (relatively) inexpensive gear readily available to anyone with the means to snatch up a camera and point it at a squib-laden deadite, it's easier than ever to shoot/chop/rock your own dark dream. Add to that the hyperliterate world of genre cinephiles fostered by what has increasingly become a nearly year-round film festival schedule and the presence of core gore special-effects crews like Hawgfly Productions Inc., edutopian idealists like the Austin School of Film, and, yes, the undeniably influential, genre-edifying Alamo Drafthouse (and the increasingly vast empire that name now signifies), and it's a wonder the long-simmering horror film community took this long to boil over in the first place. And so few zombies!
Well, OK, that last bit's about to change thanks to director Jesse Dayton's upcoming splatterthon Zombex, a genre-bender from the longtime Austin musician who until now has been best known among the Fangoria crowd for penning the hickabilly C&W songs for Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects. He's also known for his psychobilly alter ego, the titular leader of Captain Clegg & the Night Creatures, who cued the best parts of Zombie's Halloween II and ended up being something of a minor sensation.
So how did the goateed hard-charger make the frankly unheard-of move from playing with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings to directing his first horror feature?
"It's weird, because during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was just starting to make a living playing music, you almost had to be a closet horror movie fan because the genre was kind of for geeks at that time. But when I met Rob, it unleashed my inner horror fan, and I began doing more stuff with him, including The Haunted World of El Superbeasto.
"When he shot Halloween II, we did a whole bunch of videos that Rob directed that are on the outtakes on the DVD. I got to sit there and work with him the whole time, and it was kind of like being in my own little film school, you know? Rob just really encouraged me to try my hand at it, and I learned most of the ins and outs of dealing with the crew, getting the lighting right, and what lenses to use from working with Rob."
While Halloween II was a box office success, Dayton's Captain Clegg persona took off on its own via a CD release, Rob Zombie Presents Captain Clegg & the Night Creatures, so much so that Zombie recruited Dayton and his band as openers on his 2009 tour. It was, as Dayton says, a helluva tour, but more importantly, "every day that we were on tour I'd write three pages of the script for Zombex."
Why another zombie movie in a market already as full of the walking dead as George Romero's brainpan?
"I had been telling my best friend Lew Temple [aka Banjo of The Devil's Rejects' Banjo & Sullivan] that we should make a horror movie together," explains Dayton, "and do it for a lot less money than I eventually ended up making Zombex for. At first I wrote a script about a dysfunctional Pentecostal family in East Texas. I sent it to a screenwriter friend of mine in Los Angeles, and he suggested that I write a zombie movie because it'd be a lot more accessible. That wasn't what I wanted to do, though."
Dayton continues: "Two weeks later I was driving and listening to the radio when I heard Alex Jones go on this big rant about the government being involved with the [Food and Drug Administration] and the pharmaceutical companies. He said something like, 'The Xanax is turning you all into zombies!' And I was, like: 'Boom – there it is. There's my hook for the movie.' I pulled over to the side of the road and wrote a five-page treatment for the whole film in about 15 minutes.
"When I got off the road with Rob, I sent the finished script to some producers and met [Austin producer] Karma Montagne. They liked it and said they wanted to make it and would I be interested in directing? Of course I said yes. We used an all-Austin crew, and we shot in Pittsburg, Texas; New Orleans' French Quarter; and the rest of it in Austin. The whole trick is to surround yourself with good people and then, once you've done that, trust your instincts."
Two of those good people Dayton worked with on Zombex are Meredith Johns and Carolyn O'Hara, founders/owners of Hawgfly Productions Inc., the gutsy, gory, and altogether awesome special-effects makeup company responsible for more visceral, locally lensed cinematic moments than even Robert Rodriguez. Or at least more viscera than Mr. Rodriguez, seeing as they're the ones who provided the silicone entrails with which Troublemaker's favorite antihero Danny Trejo Tarzanned his way out of a hospital window in 2010's Machete.
Anyone who was weaned on the special-effects makeup stars of the predigital era – hands up if you forced your parents to watch Rick Baker's Oscar win for 1981's An American Werewolf in London with you! – will note that while the special makeup effects heroes of the Eighties and Nineties were all men (Baker, Rob Bottin, Tom Savini, Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, Giannetto de Rossi, Carlo Rambaldi), the moment the millennium hit, the field was suddenly all ... men.
Unique in its industry, Hawgfly Productions remains (to our knowledge) the only female-run SFX company in the country and, quite possibly, the world. It figures they're from Austin – Johns is a native – and their SFX workshop, located in an unprepossessing office park near U.S. 183 and Burnet Road, is crammed top to bottom with spinal remains, "gore cannons," and body parts of every imaginable ghastly description. (There's also a nap room.)
Ask them about Hawgfly's origin story, and you'll get two interlocking anecdotes just odd enough to scream Austin! and sound utterly fated.
Johns: "I grew up painting and sculpting and was a budding graphic designer from a family of engineers and artists. I was miserable doing graphics, however, so I volunteered on a zombie movie. I'd come home every week covered in blood, and I loved it. That's where I met Carolyn [O'Hara]. The pair of us would be the first two people there every day, so we'd sit and talk about how much we loved doing this zombie film. At one point I said to Carolyn, 'I think this is what I'm supposed to do,' and she turned to me and said, 'I think this is what I'm supposed to do, too.' We immediately began volunteering on some more films and then it just grew from there. That was just over eight years ago, and we formed Hawgfly in July of 2004."
O'Hara: "I had no idea that I could work in movies and no particular fondness for horror movies, but I was a sailor in the Navy when I was 17 – it seemed like the most romantic possible thing to do at that time – and while I was there, I learned how to do fake tattoos because I thought they'd make me look older. Fast-forward 20 years later, after I'd long since finished school with an architectural degree, and a fellow architect who knows me tells me she's working on a film and asks if I could come by the set and do some fake tattoos. I said 'OK,' and by the end of the very first day I knew I loved [working on movie sets]. I loved everything about it. And the tattoos would be my door into the movies."
It wasn't long after the two ran into each other on the set of the aforementioned zombie film that they realized they could not only work together but also work as professionals in a field heretofore dominated exclusively by men, and – voilà! – blood everywhere. The rest, as they say, is herstory.
In the seven years since birthing Hawgfly, Johns and O'Hara's résumés have swollen to include all manner of genre gigs, from the Coen brothers' True Grit and Brit director Simon Rumley's locally lensed Red White & Blue (executive produced by Tim League) to Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and TV drama Friday Night Lights. Johns was nominated for an Emmy for her work on 2010's Temple Grandin.
"Machete was a big turning point for us because that was the first time Robert [Rodriguez] had used anyone other than [effects house] KNB in 16 years," she admits. "I had worked on Shorts and Grindhouse ... "
"Where she spent three days airbrushing go-go dancers' butts and boobs," interjects O'Hara.
"True. And we should mention that it's not just the two of us," adds Johns. "We have a crew of about 10 people we can call on at any time depending on the project. Doug Field of Bloodyfield Special Makeup Effects is our go-to guy and usually my second on the bigger films like Zombex and Machete."
Asked about the gender issue, Johns, a member of IATSE Local 484 (Studio Mechanics of Texas: Film, Television, Commercial & Music Video), admits, "I think I sometimes catch people off guard because I'm a young woman doing the blood and guts. But I love to see the women doing it, like Emily Hagins. Early on with Hawgfly, Carolyn and I were, like, 'Not only are we going to find a niche in horror but we're going to carve into it with the whole woman thing, too.'"
And so they have, with a vengeance. Their recent Halloween re-creation of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead at Highland Mall had them working around the clock, overseeing a crew of 15 that transformed some 200-plus men, women, and children into a suppurating, shambling hoard of the walking dead. They put the lie to Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed." At Hawgfly Productions, everyone bleeds. All over the place.
Although it may at first seem as if all of this has happened overnight – the myriad elements of the Austin horror scene bursting forth in a froth of glorious gore as though from John Hurt's Alien-colonized chest, that's not the case. Nothing happens overnight. The people profiled in this piece have been working on their various thrills and chills for years now, and it's down to part luck, plenty of hard work, the cinematic synergy of new distribution avenues, endless networking and cooperation, and, more or less indefinably, the temper of the times. As nearly everyone interviewed for this article noted, horror films almost always make at least some profit, even those with limited budgets and limited time. And here in Austin, there's certainly no shortage of talent. Or horror fans.
"A big part of what's happening in Austin now has to do with the changing models in Hollywood," says Sinister scribe C. Robert Cargill, aka Ain't It Cool News' "Massawyrm."
"Piracy has splintered the way movies are being made into two camps: dumbed-down, even more expensive Hollywood films that appeal to a much wider audience, and much cheaper movies that are very niche-driven but yet have guaranteed profit. And if you can make a halfway decent horror film, you can turn a profit on it. If you can make really good horror, you can
make unbelievable profit off it."
Which is key, especially when you're struggling to hold down a day job while spending your nights and weekends experimenting with new and creative ways to kill (or, you know, horrifically maim) people using little more than silicone, latex, and boundless imagination.
"I like to say everything's just bloodier in Texas," adds Hawgfly's Johns, revamping the state motto, we think for the better.
"What's so cool about Texas and Austin in particular is that no other place has such a concentration of both horror fans and filmmakers who either want to work or are already working in the genre," Johns adds. "And that's the thing. Austin has this independent market and an indie filmmaker can actually survive here, as opposed to L.A. or New York or wherever. Now we have the crew base to help support that indie filmmaker. A lot of the Austin horror scene has been about people toiling away in the darkness, doing their own thing, on their own, for a long time. This blossoming of the scene that we're seeing now mirrors the fact that we're all maturing together and our projects are beginning to mature and shine right along with us. Everybody's work has become a lot more professional, and as a result, that's attracting bigger films and bigger filmmakers."
That may be the understatement of the year: Thanks in no small part to her connections in Austin's genre film scene, Johns scored a gig on location in Nashville, Tenn., working her special makeup effects magic on the set of legendary Korean director Park Chan-wook's American debut, Stoker. "He's one of my all-time favorite directors – I mean, Oldboy? C'mon! It was a dream come true."
That dream – alongside the delightfully sick and twisted creative visions erupting from the burgeoning ranks of Austin's genre filmmaking scene – will soon enough be audiences' giddy, goose-pimply nightmare. It's homegrown horror from deep in the bloody heart of Texas, chain saws optional.