Director Jon Knautz Talks {The Shrine

Jon Knautz, the director of Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer discusses his latest movie, which just won Best Canadian film at the Fantasia Film Festival

Director Jon Knautz is best known for his work on the comedy/horror film Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, which blurred the lines between satire and slapstick. But his latest movie, The Shrine is a straight-up horror film in the classic sense and revolves around a group of journalists that travel to Poland to investigate a small town where people have been mysteriously vanishing. The movie stars Aaron Ashmore from Smallville and features actor Trevor Matthews, who also appeared in Jack Brooks. We recently had a chance to catch up with director Jon Knautz to talk to him about his latest film The Shrine, which just won the prize for Best Canadian film at the Fantasia Film Festival, as well as discuss his talented cast and what the director pans to do next. Here is what he had to say:

To begin with, what can you tell us about your new film "The Shrine?"

Jon Knautz: The Shrine is our first straight horror film, opposed to our last one, which was Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, which was more of a horror/comedy. So after we finished Jack Brooks I was kind of like, okay time to see if I can, you know?" Because the comedy in Jack Brooks served as bit of a safety blanket. We could kind of fall back on it if something didn't work out right. It was like, "Oh it's a comedy. It's supposed to look funny."

So then with The Shrine we thought we'd try to make something that was just straight horror. It came from a lot of different ideas. It basically built off of one particular concept that I can't really reveal cause it's actually our twist. Essentially it's about a group of journalists that head over to a small remote town in Poland to investigate people that have gone missing in this town. They sort of get caught up in this scenario and start to dig too deep into the secrets of the town. The local villagers suddenly won't let them leave and they become the next victims of human sacrifice of a sort of cult that exists in the town that practice human sacrifice for some unknown reason. Then the movie turns into survival horror as these journalists are trying to escape after they've sort of dug too deep.

You mentioned that with "Jack Brooks" you had the safety-net of comedy to fall back on if the horror aspect of the film didn't work right, what were some of the challenges as a director making this film and not having comedy to use as a crutch?

Jon Knautz: Definitely with the creature effects in this film, there's definitely less creatures in this one than in Jack Brooks. In Jack Brooks we had a whole flood of them at the end. There are some funny little practical effects we do in this one but those in particular, the creatures with the masks. Being a way to execute them in The Shrine that would not be kind of silly and ridiculous. Because when you're shooting someone in a rubber mask, no matter how you do it, you got to be careful because it can look a little over the top and funny. We really tried to stay subtle with the way we executed it on The Shrine. The Shrine is a lot darker physically as well so we can hide things in shadows.

Hiding the twist was a big challenge in this one. We didn't really have a twist in Jack Brooks that we were trying to hide. Where as this one is doing that sort of the whole way through, so that was definitely more of a challenge. I think in general just not dealing with silly, funny dialogue and silly moments. You just fall back less on the comedy and really try to suck the audience into like sort of a detective story within the horror genre as these journalists are digging deeper and deeper into the town and the secrets of the town. That was definitely the challenge. The overall serious tone compared to the first one.

You co-wrote the scrip with Brendan Moore so coming off of "Jack Brooks" where did the idea for doing a straight horror film featuring a group of journalists come from?

Jon Knautz: The idea came from a few different things. We still wanted to penetrate the horror genre and the horror audience. Horror/comedy I think is bit of an acquired taste and we wanted to do something a little more general so we thought, "Ok let's just do a straight horror film and try to appeal to the larger masses." The idea came from a few things. I was definitely looking at films like The Exorcist and Carrie going back to the 70's and kind of pulling in the supernatural elements into the film which I really wanted. I read Scott Smith's "The Ruins," the book I thought was unbelievable and that sparked a couple of ideas.

I was also very influenced by Apocalypto, specifically the human sacrifice element of it, the Mayans and what they are doing in the name of religion and their beliefs. Just the whole idea of a group of people like the Mayans in Apocalypto in what appears to be a very ritualistic but brutal form of human sacrifice where they are just killing people in the name of the sun gods or whatever they're doing. I just thought that that was a really interesting concept to play around with so that was a big influence as well. When we came up with the idea of the twist, which of course I can't say obviously, then we kind of worked backwards from there and then sort of crafted this whole story together.

Can you talk about assembling the cast for the movie and the importance of finding the right actors to fit the tone of the film?

Jon Knautz: Well Aaron Ashmore was somebody we kind of wanted right from the beginning. It's just one of those things where as we are developing the script we were like, "Aaron Ashmore would be good for this part." We just kind of went after him right off the bat. We approached him right off the bat. He really dug the script so he jumped on board. I think he was excited about playing that particular part. It was a bit of a different role than he's been playing. He's definitely playing a little more of a macho role in this film, so I think he was digging that.

Then with the other characters ... Cindy Sampson; who played our lead female journalist Carmen in the film, we had looked at a lot of different people because that particular character, she's got quite a bit of range in this film. What she has to go through, it was really tough finding the right person to do it and Cindy came in and was just amazing. We had everybody go on tape because we had to do these very specific scenes in the film and she had a fantastic performance. It was one of those things where she just got it. Her interpretation of the script was just spot on, so we were really excited to get her on board.

Actor Trevor Mathews, who was in "Jack Brooks," is in "The Shrine" as well and he is also a producer on the film. Can you talk about your working relationship with him and the unspoken short hand that the two of you have together on the set?

Jon Knautz: Yeah there's definitely a short hand, which is great. We've opened up a branch of our company in Los Angeles now so we're working down here, Trevor, Matt Brulotte our editor and myself. Yeah we're always making films together and we're pretty used to working with each other at this point. Working with them onset is great. Trevor sort of, jumped on board playing one of the bad guys in the movie. Going a little bit against the grain from Jack Brooks. It's a pretty physical role and he was kind of perfect for it. Working with him is fantastic and we're friends as well so it's super easy.

Finally, John what is next for you after this film?

Jon Knautz: We've got several projects lined up actually, basically everything's in the script stage right now. We've got three features. All in the sort of dramatic, suspenseful thriller genre and a couple short film options that we're looking into that can be expanded into features as well. The next one's not going to be straight horror this time. We're going to move a little more into the thriller world. I think we're dying to make a movie that's something different that doesn't have to deal with the supernatural and do something more grounded and real. The Shrine was approached in a very realistic way and there's a lot of reality to it but there are these supernatural forces that get involved, which is what I love and why I wanted to make the film. Now with two sorts of fancy supernatural films under our belt, we're going to move into doing some more realistic thrillers.