Tuesday, October 18, 2011

FANTASIA 2011 / TAD 2011: MONSTER BRAWLThe Evening Class Interview With Jesse T. Cook and Jason David Brown

In his introduction to the world premiere of Monster Brawl at the 2011 edition of Fantasia, director Jesse T. Cook recounted that his first break with the project came when he met with Anchor Bay Canada a couple of years back after he'd filmed a short sequence. They became interested and supportive of the film all the way through production. Having come from nothing—literally raising funds door to door while working as a bartender and a drywaller on the side—Cook's next blessing came in the personage of Art Hindle who helped secure financing for the film. With money in place, Cook and a crew of high school friends got together last summer to make their monster movie.

And it's truly a film
filled with monsters taking it to the mat. As I wrote for Twitch in July: "Jesse T. Cook's Monster Brawl, which has just seen its world premiere at Fantasia, is—in my opinion—the undisputed smackdown hit of the festival, if not—indeed—this year's bumper crop of comedy horror. Its simple premise of melding iconic horror with Wrestlemania broadcasting is achieved through an abiding respect and love for both genres, and with a consummate ensemble of actors—including narration by Lance Henriksen, and hilarious turns by Dave Foley and Art Hindle as sportscasters—coupled with remarkable make-up effects by the Gore Brothers [Jason and Jeff Derushie], Monster Brawl will appeal to audiences of all ages and is a shining testament that we love our monsters—yes we do!—especially when they take each other on. This is a ringside ticket you will not want to miss!"

Fortunately—for those who did miss that ringside ticket at Fantasia—Toronto After Dark (TAD) offers another opportunity when Monster Brawl opens their sixth edition later this week with an already sold-out gala event. An admitted effort to make "a really fun monster movie", Cook asked his Fantasia audience to think back to when they were watching Monster Squad or Wrestlemania on television; the clear inspirations for Monster Brawl.

My thanks to Susan Curran of Anchor Bay for facilitating an interview with Jesse T. Cook and Jason David Brown, which was conducted in the boisterous patio of the Irish Embassy Pub and Grill; not the most ideal conditions for a conversation—my recording with the Gore Brothers, in fact, was totally washed out by the noise—but, it was definitely a welcome opportunity to lift twobeer with Jesse and Jason and to congratulate them face to face for this audience favorite. Further thanks to Mitch Davis for his consummate moderation of the Q&A after Fantasia's world premiere, some of whose questions I've incorporated into this transcript.

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Michael Guillén: My focus at Fantasia this year has been a comparison of the international reach of national cinemas as opposed to the international reach of genre films. So kicking off with the notion of a national cinema, I'm curious if you identify yourselves as Canadian filmmakers and if you consider Monster Brawl a Canadian film?

Jesse T. Cook: Yes and no.
Monster Brawl transcends countries. If you were a viewer in Antartica, you would know who Frankenstein is. We set it in the States but that was really for no reason in particular. We had the shout-out to Canada with Dave Foley—"Good evening monster fans in Newfoundland and Canada!"—but, in the sense of the spirit of the film and the struggle we all went through to get it made, I feel there's something very Canadian about that. But in terms of calling it a Canadian film? No. Not at all. We started our company to specifically make genre films because we think that's the doorway to making "big" movies, but that's also what we grew up on.

Guillén: I'm further intrigued by the notion that—when it comes to financing—a national cinema promoted as an art house film has a better chance of receiving government subsidy. Much more so than a genre film aimed at an international audience.

Cook: Absolutely! The fact that we had to raise money and woo investors was a major responsibility for us at the end of the day. We didn't hand off the film to a sales agent or anything. Matt Wiele, one of our producers, is the sales guy and we did everything in-house. We made the film knowing what kind of numbers we might expect from various territories—we were very strategic in our process in terms of that—but, you're absolutely right. In terms of government funding, genre suffers, though I do feel they're starting to get on board with that now, if ever so slowly, kicking their heels. It's been kind of shitty for us. We applied for government funding years ago and essentially got laughed out of the room. But we had to use any negativity or doubt as rocket fuel, y'know? You can't just keep your head down.

Guillén: Should Monster Brawl get out there on the international genre circuit and do well—which I predict it will—will you emphasize its Canadian production as a strategy to perhaps gain future funding from Canadian government?

Cook: No. We're set through our company to make 10 movies over the next 5 years. We're not really asking for government money at this point. We have the mentality that movies should be made through private capital and enter the market. We wouldn't have half the movies made in Canada if we all had to pay for it.

Guillén: When you say you're set to make 10 movies over 5 years, what do you mean? What have you set up?

Cook: Our investment structure was that we would raise the money to make two features. All the tax credit and sales money that pours in funds the next film. So we're feeling psyched. We have that workman's eye. We couldn't rely on anyone else. We tried the studio route and the grant route but ended up having to go door to door to do it.

Genre films go in all different directions and you have to outshock the last filmmaker, which is all cool and has its place; but, we wanted to do something more youthful and innocent, like from the days when we watched our first
Wrestlemania episodes. That's why you're not going to hear any swear words in our film. We made a film a few years ago that was all swear words but this time we wanted to appeal to as many people as possible. The gore is selective. It's not fountains of blood everywhere. Even the CG blood that was put in, I'd always say, "Don't have it spray. Keep it subtle." No one would even notice it.

Guillén: I have to admit that I'm glad you left your two bodacious babes alone. I was worried you were going to have them gutted and torn limb from limb.

Cook: [Laughs.] No reason to. They were just doing their job.

Guillén: Jason, you have worn multiple hats in this production. Not only are you the film's storyboard artist and production designer but you played the roles of Cyril Haggard, the Cyclops, and Swamp Gut. And as I was telling the Gore Brothers a little earlier, my favorite monster in the film was Swamp Gut. Not only because Jeff and Jason Derushie's makeup effects were remarkable, but because your performance was hilarious with hints of genuine pathos. I cared for this creature and for you, as the actor, within this get-up. The Gore Brothers told me you were sweating through the latex.

Jason David Brown: Swamp Gut still haunts my dreams. I see his face when I go to bed at night some days. I still have vivid dreams about those days on set, stripping out of that fat suit covered in latex. What do you think? It took four-five hours to get it all on and within the first hour of shooting I was already overheating. It was a constant struggle. A fat suit on a summer day is already hot and then you're sealed in rubber inside a factory. It was the most uncomfortable thing I'd ever gone through.

Guillén: How did you keep from passing out while getting so overheated?

Brown: I just kept thinking about the movie. I kept getting dehydrated and overheated, but I didn't want to be a swamp monster in slowed-down shots.

Cook: We had talked about doing a
Swamp Thing remake years ago. Now I'd like to do the Swamp Gut origin movie. But, yeah, that was the thing for us: we had to pretty much get guys who could do the jobs of 10 men and Jason was one of them. We did the concepts and story together and that was going to be it and then I said, "Hey man, can you draw up some storyboards?" And then it was like, "Can you build us two crypts?" He was the only one working on the movie for the first month before we hired the whole crew. And then I was like, "Do you mind playing Cyclops? And then Swamp Gut as well?" [Laughs.]

We didn't have an infrastructure. We didn't have production managers or assistant directors. Our grips were electric so these guys did the craft and picked up the actors from the airport. The whole movie was billed to two bank cards.

Guillén: I'm fascinated that you've graphed out a production plan to make 10 movies in 5 years. I've spoken with many first-time or sophomore directors who feel lucky to have made what they've made and who never know if they're going to be able to make another movie.

Cook: That's how we felt after our first film. I had to go back to bartending and I thought, "We're done. We'll never make a film again." But we started up again raising money, only this time we did it a lot more smartly.

Guillén: Could you talk to me more about this investment structure?

Cook: Sure, though it's probably public knowledge. We wanted to raise $600,000. We wanted to make two films for $300,000 each. That was a strategic budget for us. Our whole mantra is that you can make a $1,000,000 movie and probably earn $1,000,000 back, or you can make a $300,000 movie that looks like it was made for $1,000,000 and you might get $1,000,000 back. That's the whole thing, right there, summed up. Our lawyer was great in terms of what we could get for a broadcast deal, and a U.S. deal, and our tax credit. The fact that we made two movies, dividing everything by two, meant that everyone had been paid back, we had the next movie funded, and everyone got a little change in their pocket as well.

The problem with that format is that we want to make bigger films. We don't want to be making these movies five years from now. So the plan might shift slightly, but—unless you're getting into that $5,000,000 or $10,000,000 budget?—anything less than that is going to be tough to get your budget back, unless you are one in a thousand.

Guillén: What type of film do you want to be making in five years?

Cook: Oh my God, the possibilities are endless.

Brown: We have so many ideas

Guillén: So what's going to be your distribution strategy with Monster Brawl? How will it roll out?

Cook: We already have deals in place in Canada, and we just did a German deal last week, we're gearing up for a sales marketing event in November, and the film is booked into other festivals. We also have a whole other film to launch as well.

Guillén: That would be your Civil War zombie movie Exit Humanity? [Exit Humanity will also be screening at TAD later this week.]

Cook: That's right.

Guillén: Any plans to screen in the U.S.?

Cook: The strategy with the U.S. is that XYZ Films are going to handle distribution there. I think we're in good hands with them. Internationally, we're handling our own sales in-house.

Guillén: What are your hopes for Monster Brawl? You've been honest enough to admit that very few people got paid in this production, that it was a true labor of love. But in contrast to a multi-million dollar genre film that ends up being soulless, Monster Brawl has an engaging raw energy.

Cook: My dream scenario would obviously be that everyone who worked on
Monster Brawl in whatever department will move on and work on big movies that advance their careers but that they'll still be willing to come back. We want to make Monster Brawl 2, not as a part of our low-budget slate that we have with our investors, but as a separate project that might be supported by a studio. It would be great to call all these folks back and say we're making Monster Brawl 2 but with a $5,000,000 budget this time where everyone would be paid tenfold what they made on the first film. That would be the dream for me. I feel our whole team is ready for it. We've made three films now for under a half million and now we want to make a film with a real budget.

We don't want to be corrupted, though. As I was telling Jason on the way to Montreal, I see a few things in Monster Brawl that I might have changed if we'd had more money, but it's possible that more money might have corrupted this project.

Brown: Because we had to work so hard to make very single aspect of it work. We had one month to make
Monster Brawl happen.

Cook: We had full control with
Monster Brawl with every single expense down the line. We didn't have unnecessary handlers or anyone over or above us.

Guillén: Is that what you're hoping to maintain with the next 10 films?

Cook: Absolutely. We'll have to scale down in size for the next 10. We won't be bringing back 8 name actors next time or 38 characters, plus numerous locations.

Guillén: That was a huge enterprise.

Cook: It was suicidal. It was crazy. We had to debate whether or not we could afford pizza to feed the cast and crew because we wanted Dave Foley and Lance Henriksen. Granted, Lance did it as a favor to us.

Brown: Honestly, I don't think we planned on Monster Brawl being as big as it was. Everything snowballed.

Cook: We had originally conceived it as a mockumentary with people talking into the camera while zombies strayed in behind them. We wanted to have that documentary feel but then we had to shift gears, which was to add the back stories. The film had to be either a full-on pay-for-view broadcast with a documentary look to it or it had to have all these kooky back stories. It's an odd movie. Frankenstein, who's the main character, doesn't even come in until after the hour mark. We had to get the formula down where a pair of fighters fought, we got them off, and introduced a new pair.

Guillén: Talk to me about how the two of you collaborated on the script.

Brown: We worked on the story together but the whole fucking idea was Jesse's. I'm not bragging but I remember everything so that—when we sat down to start talking about monsters—it was like a fountain, you know what I mean? We started collaborating and every day I looked forward to when Cook was going to come over. Everybody else would go to bed and we'd go down into the basement and talk monsters.

Guillén: So you guys have always liked monsters?

Brown: Oh yeah! My attic is like a shrine to everything sci-fi that's related to monsters. When I was in public school, we used to act out scenes in the schoolyard. I'm not exaggerating.

Cook: He had an authentic Michael Myers mask and he would stand behind his neighbor's fence staring into their windows. It was dumb as shit.

Brown: But too much fun! We were seven years old on the school yard acting out scenes from
The Neverending Story. The passion for film has always been there.

Cook: We were just small town guys. I played hockey with the producers of this film when I was five. I've known most of these guys since at least high school and have brought on new guys like the Gore Brothers. We keep adding to the group.

Guillén: Did you have a lot of versions of the script?

Cook: Absolutely. It took on many forms. Many different fight matchups were in it. The Grub (Chris Rutte) was originally the manager for Swamp Gut. Kevin Nash was originally one of the announcers, but then ended up as Colonel Crookshank. There were so many factors that altered the script. Scheduling was an issue about which monsters would fight who. It eventually all settled into this final version.

Guillén: Can you talk about your editing?

Cook: It was my first time editing. I was taught by Chad Archibald—who screened a film here last year called
Neverlost—and John Geddes, one of the producers of Monster Brawl and the director of Exit Humanity. I edit by deduction. We had two or three cameras set up for each fight. I throw everything I ever film into the editing process and whittle and whittle and whittle it down. But I'm going to give this one to Phantom City Creative because they must have done about 400 friggin' shots on this thing and really made it look like a television broadcast, which was the format that we wanted.

Guillén: You mention that as kids you were acting out The Neverending Story, but most of the monsters in Monster Brawl hearken back to Universal Studios and their golden era of monster making. Why did you decide to pay homage to that period?

Cook: We wanted to do Frankenstein all along, with Robert Maillet in the role obviously. I had to figure out if his character was going to be like Karloff's at Universal, which is actually from Mary Shelley's novel. Before the script was even written, we sent Robert Maillet drawings of him as Frankenstein and one thing led to the other so we were able to sign him on. It was a hellish time for him. It took six hours to get his make-up on and literally a barbecue brush to scrub it off. Other characters like Dracula were problematic because we didn't have the rights to use them, so we came up with Lady Vampire (Kelly Couture).

Guillén: So you could use Frankenstein because of its literary precedent and because it's out of the copyright domain but you couldn't use Dracula? Could you use the Werewolf?

Cook: We couldn't use The Wolfman, though anyone can make a movie with a werewolf. You can even have a movie with The Mummy. But we couldn't use Swamp Thing or the Creature from the Black Lagoon; we had to create Swamp Gut. We wanted a fat monster like Andre the Giant.

Guillén: In terms of comic subtext, Monster Brawl had two brilliant moments. The first was the use of hieroglyphic subtitles for the Mummy and the second was Swamp Gut's ecological address.

Brown: [Chuckles.] We thought of that at the last minute.

Cook: We were sitting at Jason's house and we started thinking, "What if we make Swamp Gut sound like a scientist or something? Like he's really smart with words?"

Brown: That, again, is a Swamp Thing influence. Alec Holland—the guy who turns into Swamp Thing—was a brilliant physicist who was working out in the swamp on a secret cure when something goes wrong, a bunch of henchmen torch him, and he turns into the Swamp Thing.

Cook: I was delighted to see those scenes play because they were added in only a week ago. They were never in the script.

Guillén: Let's talk about reception a little bit. Clearly, at your world premiere, you had an audience who loved the film, with some folks favoring one monster over another, which fed the film's central thrust of competition. Were you expecting your audience to choose favorites like that?

Cook: Yes and no, in a way. People seemed to really like Witch Bitch (Holly Letkeman) online....

Brown: There were some people who said that Witch Bitch was going to win it all.

Cook: I couldn't believe the audience booed the Werewolf (RJ Skinner) inexplicably for no reason. At first, I thought they were howling along with him but then I realized they were actively booing him. In the movie he's a sympathetic actor whose pregnant wife gets murdered but the audience was cheering for Frankenstein!

Guillén: Was this movie as fun to make as it was to watch?

Cook: Absolutely. As I said, most of these guys were my high school friends who worked on our first film and so it was just a riot the whole time. We had a warehouse where Jason singlehandedly built the graveyard set himself. It was a 360° set about half the size of a football field. It was a blast. I think everyone had a good time.

Guillén: How much wrestling experience did your actors have?

Cook: Robert Maillet, Rico Montana (who played Zombie Man) and RJ Skinner (who played the Werewolf and the Mummy) all had wrestling experience. Witch Bitch and Lady Vampire, Holly and Kelly, were part of a tremendous group of South Ontario wrestlers. We had to bring these guys on because we knew that we had to get the horror and monster elements right and we brought these guys on to get the wrestling elements right. They would read the script and say, "That's not even a move." They served as technical advisors. We also brought in Leif Havdale, Robert Pattinson's stunt double in
Twilight, as our stunt coordinator and he was phenomenal. If we wouldn't have had him, I don't know how the fights would have looked the way they did.

Guillén: What went into deciding how to match up the monsters?

Cook: Initially, the script had seven fights. It was a tournament. Eight monsters with the winner moving on all the way through. But because of timing and scheduling, we could only do five fights. So we decided to do it more like a wrestling event where you have lower tiered bouts before the two heavyweight bouts. I would love to have had that middleweight bout between Cyclops and Lady Vampire. Every single combination you could think of was in the script but that was compromised by having to constantly figure out the schedules of actors and everything else. We settled for the middleweight tier and the heavyweight. There was originally even going to be an intermission with a royal rumble with trolls!

Guillén: And so finally, what's next for you?

Cook: Next up for us is
Exit Humanity. Then in the Spring, probably around March, we go back into shooting two movies back to back again, but with a slightly bigger break inbetween. But they won't be on this scale. We could never pull this off again because people have to get paid. There's no way that we could pull all these resources together again. This is the last freebie.

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