This week FDTC contributor Jay Kay talked with Night of Something Strange’s co-writer, producer and director Jonathan Straiton about the magic of FX/make up, classic horror inspirations, casting, gross out and the joy of indie filmmaking battle!
Jay Kay: Before we get into the sick, twisted and hilarious origins of Night of Something Strange, could you talk about the journey that has seen NOSS film be selected, screened and win awards at such genre film festivals as the NYC Horror Film Festival, Frightfest and HorrorHound among others!
Jonathan Straiton: For me that’s the pinnacle to be accepted by your peers and the fans of horror is the ultimate reward! Towards the end of post-production, I was so knee deep in the project I wasn’t sure if it worked anymore, but once we started getting positive feedback, it was like okay yeah it works! Especially when we would sit in on our screenings, watching the audience and their reactions, it’s such a rush. It’s funny because all the years of hard work makes that 97 minutes of gasps, screams and laughs all worth it. That’s what it’s all about!
JK: Did the level of crude humor, sexuality and gore hurt your selections into particular film festivals?
JS: Oh, I’m sure it did just as much as it helped get into film festivals. The fests that rejected the film never said either way. I knew going in that this was not going to be for everyone. The things people dislike are the exact same things others really like.
JK: There is a lot to love with Night of Something Strange. Talk about where the idea for this film came from and why you partnered with SRS Cinema?
JS: Early in my career as a filmmaker, I really struggled to find my place in the business. I was so focused on the market and what distributors wanted rather than what the audience wanted. I followed all the rules and it got me nowhere. Sure, I had the big releases in Redbox, Walmart and Blockbuster but ultimately that exposure that I had longed for didn’t feel like I thought it would. Plus, I got screwed by the distributor. So, the next project I was going to release myself and what better way to say “Screw You” to all the rules and bullshit in the film industry than Night of Something Strange!
I knew that I wanted to make something disgusting, offensive, shocking, and something special. The idea happened at Cinema Wasteland back in 2007. I would go with Ron and help him run his SRS Cinema booth. We talked about being best friends but hadn’t worked together yet, so we came up with a grindhouse double feature idea, and at the time Tarantino /Rodriguez’s Grindhouse was big, so we were like why not?! I came up with idea about it being centered around an STD virus, it hadn’t been done yet and what's scarier than STD’s! Ron came up with the 70’s theme and I the 80’s, the eras we grew up in. At the time, we were still working on other projects but the idea stayed with us over the years. Eventually they grew into their own separate passion projects. I decided to lose the 80’s theme as I didn’t want all that 80’s retro gimmicky stuff but instead wanted to make something that looked like it was made in the 80’s by channeling the 80’s horror I grew up loving. I wrote the script back in 2009.
I planned to start shooting in 2010 but then my father passed away unexpectedly which halted my world! It took about a year to come to terms with my father's death, I decided to revisit the script and realized it wasn't what I wanted to make anymore and completely rewrote it with the STD element still intact. I got with Ron and asked if he could help me with the script. Ron is an amazing writer and he’s written a lot of scripts, so it was a no brainer. Ron brought so much magic to the story. I was like why didn’t I get with him in the beginning!
JK: I think we see an homage to Motel Hell and Texas Chainsaw Massacre among other films within the narrative. Was the strange motel owner and his family part of the original drafts of the film or did they come later?
JS: That came a few drafts later. It was in part pulled from another script I had been working on prior to Night of Something Strange. And I wanted to just throw as much strange shit in one night at these characters as I could. Anytime I started to see where the film was going I changed it because I knew the audience would see where it was going too. I wanted it to be like one of those cluster days of shit just constantly going wrong and then when you think it can’t, it goes sideways!
JK: This film redefines not only the rules of the infected sub-genre of horror but body horror and the recently popular STD/sexual horror. When sitting down to write this film with Ron Bonk and Mean Gene, what was the group thought about what you wanted your infected to be like, act like and attack like? Where did you draw influence?
JS: It always came down to what WE liked and what WE wanted to see. All three of us have similar sense of humors so the comedy was the easiest for us. Several films influenced Night of Something Strange, mainly The Blob (88), Night of the Creeps, Evil Dead 2, Cabin Fever, Friday the 13 th and Return of the Living Dead. The Blob was the biggest influence, that was one of my favorites!
JK: Night of Something Strange per IMDB was made for $40,000.00 dollars! If that is true, then that is more insane than the bedroom scenes! Can you talk about what aspect or aspects made this film look like so much more than what was spent on it?
JS: Yep $40k was it and it went fast lol. Most of it went to equipment, SFX, and locations. None of the main actors were paid nor the crew, including myself. They were from all over and we did cover their gas, food and lodging. They really brought their “A” game and I am forever in the debt for that! They definitely deserved to be paid top dollar, just wasn’t in the budget. We eventually ran out of money as most productions do and I took a loan out on my car for about $8,000.00 to just to finish the film.
Despite the limitations of the budget, I never sacrificed any of the visuals, which I think make the film look like a high budgeted film. I put a lot of focus and effort on the cinematography. I got the best cinema lens I could. I worked on detailed storyboards for months and shot hours of test footage. For post-production grading, I took a crash course on color science and really worked on my grading game. I bought a broadcast color monitor to insure color accuracy. I really went all out and I was methodical about the coloring and look. I knew that because I was handling all the post work and I didn’t have a deadline, time was on my side.
JK: I would think one of those areas is practical FX and makeup with artists like Nicola Fiore and Colby Flinchum. The film is full of gore for gags, blood, fluids and prosthetics that are up there with some of the best you will find over the last four decades. Can you talk about the work that went into film from a practical side and the fun it was to get gross, nasty and funny?
JS: The FX as you can imagine were super important. We had issues right from the beginning, my original FX guy bailed 6 weeks before production. His replacement was the single worst nightmare of the shoot. He was an older self-proclaimed Hollywood SFX veteran. He looked down on indie films, especially Night of Something Strange because of its loonesey. He treated everyone like shit and let them know they were beneath him. I was the last to know because I was so consumed with filming and he would be nice to my face because I was paying him.
So, we were without a FX/Makeup guy for a few days. Nicola stepped right in and did her own zombie make-up and helped with others. She’s got a lot of friends in the industry. She started calling FX guys she knew and asked for walkthroughs! She’s a great resource. My wife then found Colby on production hub. He wasn’t very experienced in film but knew what he was doing. He came in right away and mimicked everything we had to shoot in order to match the previous effects artist. He was great and such a nice guy. We accomplished the effect with a 10th of the crew, no real professional FX guy on set and made it simple and it came out 100 times better. That’s just one small example of how if something didn’t work, we fixed it whether it was right then or reshooting it months later. My wife always tells me to “Keep it simple stupid!” and that’s a statement I try to live by now.
JK: I see some of the cast from Ron Bonk’s She Kills is a part of your film. It is hard to find not only talented actors but talent who has timing, reaction and the ability to snap off a line that makes you laugh, cringe and perhaps say what the hell!? Talk about the actors Trey Harrison who plays Dirk and Michael Merchant who play Freddy? What makes them so good at raunchy horror comedy?
JS: They’re both phenomenal actors and both in different ways. Trey has such a great presence about him. He’s such a perfectionist and so dedicated to his craft. In Between intense scenes he would be doing pushups to psych himself up and not in a macho “Where's the gym?” way but just to keep his adrenaline going. Michael is a character actor all the way. He becomes the role in such a way you think that’s who he really is. People hate Freddy and Michael is the opposite of that character. He openly talks about being more like Jason’s character and how he channeled the bullies that used to pick on him in High School. We all have become extremely close and just love working together. It’s never been about what won’t they do but what can they do.
JK: What was the rehearsals and table readings like with the smart, snappy, campy and very funny dialogue?
JS: Because everyone was all over we had to do rehearsals on set. I think everyone at first wanted to do the project just to see if it could be done and if so, HOW! To my surprise everyone understood the dialog and needed very little coaching on how to deliver it. I was really blessed with this cast.
JK: I would be remissed if I did not mention the fitting and scene raising film score work done by Paul Amos! What was the conversations like with Paul about the tone and what was to be expressed by the score since you he takes it into so many wicked and wild places? Did his work on television help to decide he was the right person for this film?
JS: Billy Garberina worked with him on previous project and recommend Paul. Paul asked me to send him a scene, so he could score it and see if we were a fit. And boy did we! There were very little changes from the stuff he would send me and he works really fast! I expressed that I wanted something very cinematic and not that 80’s type synth music because again I wasn’t make an 80’s period piece but a film inspired by the 80s. He understood right away and gave me exactly what I wanted and even stuff I didn’t know I wanted lol. One thing to note, when I edit I turn all the footage black and white because any colors inconsistencies between shots would throw me off and I wanted to just focus on the edit, not the visuals... yet. I think the Night of Something Strange “black & white” version I gave Paul, inspired him to some degree when creating the score. I really owe a lot to Paul, he was so patient with me and stuck with me through all the years that the film took to finish. Also, he’s super humble and a true calibrator. I love him.
JK: Where can we find out more about NIGHT OF SOMETHING STRANGE and check it out after its film festival run is complete?
JS: For all the listings and up and coming DVD release, checkout Nossmovie.com.