EXCLUSIVE: Michael Stephenson Talks The American Scream
Documentary filmmaker Michael Stephenson discusses The American Scream, airing on Chiller TV Sunday, October 28 at 8 PM ET
Michael Stephenson made the world remember Troll 2 all over again with his hit documentary Best Worst Movie back in 2010. The filmmaker is staying in the 'horror documentary' genre, so to speak, with his latest film The American Scream, debuting on Chiller TV Sunday, October 28 at 8 PM ET. It will also be screened in limited release through the Tugg platform, where fans can request screenings in their hometown.
This film takes us inside the world of "home haunters," those people who are incredibly obsessed with turning their homes in spooky spectacles for Halloween, spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on just one single night of the year. The American Scream explores three households with the same passion who all live in the same town, Fairhaven, Massachussets. I recently had the chance to speak with Michael Stephenson about this truly fascinating documentary that sheds new light on a passionate Halloween tradition shared by many nationwide. Here's what he had to say.
First off, I was curious how you discovered this town? Were you aware of these families before? Did this come about after Best Worst Movie, or were you working on something like this before?
Michael Stephenson: I'll give you the short answer first. We got really lucky. We did Best Worst Movie, and then this idea came to me through one of my producers, Meyer Shwarzstein, who I did Best Worst Movie with. Prior to that, the Chiller network were fans of Best Worst Movie, and they had asked him what my next project was. Meyer said he had this great idea about people who made home-made haunted houses for Halloween. He called me with the idea, and within an instant, it felt great. I was able to, right off the bat, connect with it. Basically, I grew up in a small town where Halloween was really big. Everyone trick-or-treated, and it was something that brought our neighborhood together. We had this one lady, who, every year, would transform her home into this crazy witches lair. There was this wooded path through her backyard. From when I was 10 until probably 14, that was one of the highlights of my year, going through this lady's yard. Right off the bat, I was emotionally connected with the idea, and I said, 'Wow, let's do it.' I was really interested in a small, slice of life, small town story. I wasn't so much interested in haunting, or commercial haunting, or something very broad. I wanted all of these haunts to speak to the community and the holiday. We announced the project and we encouraged people throughout the country to submit their haunts, in consideration for this story. We had over 600 haunters submit, and from that, we whittled it down. One of the things that was important to me was a setting, and we wanted it to feel like Halloween. We had haunters submit from California, but, unfortunately, 80 degrees and palm trees doesn't feel like fall to me. We noticed there was a great concentration of home haunters in New England and the East Coast. We decided to focus on that area, and from that we limited it to our top 12. The intent was, we were going to visit each of these top 12, and ultimately decide on a top three. I never wanted to do a big, broad-reaching, snapshot kind of story. I really wanted it to be centered through primary characters. Before we left on our trip, the night before I came across this picture of Catherine (Bariteau), in front of the spider with this huge smile on her face. She's Victor (Bariteau)'s daughter. The picture took hold of me. I stared at it for awhile, and we looked at our driving route, and Victor was close enough to one of our other haunters, so we thought we should pay him a visit. Victor was our 13th haunter out of our top 12 for consideration. He submitted his application, and nothing really jumped off the page, and it wasn't until I came across that photo of his daughter and the spider that I took another look. After we met Victor and his family, one of the first things that happened is his daughter came in and dumped this big box of bloody Barbie dolls at our feet. Right as we were about to leave, Victor is like, 'You know what, while you're hear, you should visit my neighbor a couple of blocks down the road, you should visit him and say hello too.' We took a walk, and that's how we found Manny (Souza). We walked into his backyard, junk strewn about everywhere. Manny popped his head out and said, 'What do you want?' We thought it was perfect. Then, we were two weeks into shooting, and Manny said, 'You know, there are these two other guys who do this sort of thing too, but they're a few blocks away, but you're probably not interested.' We said, 'No, now we have to see what's behind that door.' We met them, and within five minutes, we were filming them. We have three families, all within this small town, who are all doing this, with the same amount of passion for the holiday, with varying levels of skill and interest.
Did these other towns you were looking at have multiple people within the same town? Or were you originally just looking at one family?
Michael Stephenson: I always had it in my head, that it would be wonderful if we found two people who did it within the same town. Up until we found Victor, all of our haunters we were considering were within an hour of each other. We did not come across any other neighborhood that was small with three families who were doing it, within blocks of each other. It's pretty wild
With three families in the same town like that, is there a history of the town being known for that aspect of Halloween?
Michael Stephenson: Yeah, it's wild. We drove into the town, and the first feeling was, 'Man, this town just feels like Halloween.' Up until that point, we hadn't quite found a sense of place or setting we were after, and right off the bat, Fairhaven was what we were after. Then, as we got to know the town, we felt as if we had stumbled into the epicenter of Halloween. There are these three haunters, but there are probably 17 or 18 other families or people who will do elaborate yard displays. It's very heavily concentrated, in people who celebrate Halloween.
We get these little glimpses at their jobs and their lives outside this world, like Victor being this IT guy. I was wondering if they dumped all of their vacation time into October? Can you talk a bit about how they balance their work life with haunting?
Michael Stephenson: Yeah. Victor, all his free time was spent towards getting ready for the haunt. As soon as it's done on Halloween, they're thinking about what they're going to do for the next year. You're right. With Victor, he takes all of his vacation time in October, leading into the haunt, so he can finish building. Victor's home haunt has almost been a dress rehearsal for his dream, his pro haunt, for years. His purpose for doing the home haunt is much deeper, and meaningful, and driven, than Manny. He is the more average haunter, perhaps. He's a guy who just does it for fun, does it for the kids. The Silly String kind of sums up his haunt. It's about enjoyment. Victor, it's about his dream. The Brodeur's, the father-son team, they do it with the same level of desire and passion for the holiday, but they're a stark contrast to Manny, and most definitely to Victor. It was interesting to find these characters who are in this world who are really different in every way, except their passion for the holiday and doing things for the community.
I loved the actual footage inside these haunts, to get a glimpse of what they're like. I have to imagine it's kind of tricky to pull off these shots without getting in the way. Can you talk about getting the shots you needed, without being too intrusive to the haunt itself?
Michael Stephenson: Our crew is very, very small. We had me and three other shooters in different haunts throughout that night. There was never more than one or two of us, max, at that location shooting. Going into this, I knew we'd be dealing with a lot of low light, and low light is so great when it's pulled off, but it's hard. I fortunately found this really great low light lens, which allowed us to get those shots. That helped in maintaining a low profile. Most of these haunts have dark corners and dark spaces, that we could just stuck ourselves into. We also set up security cameras that were running the whole time.
I loved that the Brodeur's ran these haunts, but they're actually professional clowns.
Michael Stephenson: I know (Laughs). That's one of those surprises when you make a documentary, you have these things that come out of nowhere. As soon as we found out these guys are actually professional clowns, it was just a moment of, 'How could we have ever imagined?' These guys dress up all year. It's their job. It was pretty great.
Can you talk about when you actually shot this? Was it just this past year?
Michael Stephenson: We shot this last year. We started shooting towards the end of September. We shot all the way through October and into the first week of November. Then we picked back up with Victor and shot the ending in April of this year. It's a relatively short amount of time, in terms of making a documentary.
Have you kept in touch with these guys since then? With most movies like this, I've come to expect that card at the end, where this guy is doing this now, etc. Do you have any plans for the DVD release, showing what these guys are up to now?
Michael Stephenson: I still stay in touch with them, yeah. One of the awesome things when you make a documentary is you get invested in these people, and you form relationships. It's the same with George (Hardy) in Best Worst Movie. I still talk to him weekly. With Victor, and Manny, and the Brodeur's, I'm still in touch with them, very much so with Victor, because he has opened up his own pro haunt. This September and October have been very big for him. We went to Fairhaven last week, to screen the movie for the town, which was super-rewarding because the whole town came out to celebrate. They are these, essentially, ordinary people on this big screen doing these extraordinary things. It was one of the things I was most looking forward to in making the film, being back there, in the town it was made, to watch with these guys. The day after that screening, Victor took me to his pro haunt. It was during the day, so it wasn't in operation, none of the actors were there, but he gave me a tour. It's amazing. It's in a mall, so from the outside, it's very non-descript. It looks like you're walking into an old Circuit City or Best Buy. You walk into it, and it's magical. He built this haunted mansion or manor, that winds its way through 15,000 square feet of haunted rooms. It's really transformative. He's an artist, ultimately, and a big part of this movie is rooted in creativity, and that art vs. family argument, the balance between passion and obsession and pursuing your dreams and going after what you want to go after in life. To see Victor's creation, and something he had been thinking about and wanting to do for years, to see it in it's physical form and see how happy he was with it, was super rewarding.
Can you talk about the scale of his pro haunt, compared to his home haunt? I presume his family is still very much involved.
Michael Stephenson: Yeah, it's 15,000 square feet, and his home haunt was maybe 1,000 square feet, tops. In terms of physical space, it dwarfs the home haunt. His family is also very much involved. As you would expect from the pro haunt, he's had to widen it up, and he has his friends involved still, but he has others who weren't a part of the home haunt, who are now actors in the pro haunt. It's gone from what was a very serious and very good home haunt, to what is actually a full-blown professional haunted attraction. It has the same level of detail and skill as you would imagine in Disney's Haunted Mansion. It's really, really amazing.
What would you like to say to anyone who's curious about The American Scream about why they should check it out on Chiller this weekend?
Michael Stephenson: I think the biggest thing is that this movie really isn't so much about haunting or haunters. This movie is about real people pursuing their passions, and even dreams. This is a movie that's about family, ultimately, and community. I think community and tradition and family are... well, people are starting to not trick-or-treat as much anymore, or at all in some cities. Anything that brings a community together, or a family together, or anyone who is pursuing their dream or passion, I think that's something worthwhile to get behind.
Great. Thank you so much, Michael. It was a real pleasure talking to you.
Michael Stephenson: I appreciate it. Thank you. Have a good one.
You can watch Michael Stephenson's fascinating documentary The American Scream on Chiller TV Sunday, October 28 at 8 PM ET. The film is still playing theatrically in limited release, so check your local theater listings if you watch to check this out on the big screen.