The up-and-coming horror auteur shares the bloody details behind his latest flick
In the grand tradition of such classic films as Purple Rose of Cairo, Last Action Hero, and Demons comes Jack Messitt's directorial debut Midnight Movie. The film centers on the late night revival of a classic 70s slasher flick that comes to life inside the very theater where it is being shown. One minute, the killer is hacking up teens on screen, the next minute he is lurking about the lobby killing audience members for real. It is a gruesome, gory blast that horror aficionados don't want to miss.
Director Messitt got his start in the business working as a cinematographer and camera operator on such shows as Bones and Campus Ladies. Midnight Movie marks the first time he has stepped behind the camera as both the writer and the director of a project. We recently caught up with Mr. Messitt for a chat about his upcoming thriller. This is our conversation:
Are you a fan of the midnight movie? Do you still frequent a lot of the local late night screenings?
Jack Messitt: No. But I think the midnight movie has a wonderful lore behind it that is ripe for being the subject of a horror movie.
Are you at all disappointed to see the decline of the midnight screening over the past couple of years?
Jack Messitt: No. I think that the midnight movie runs at an ebb and flow. While we might be at the downside of that phenomenon now, they will certainly come back.
Are you planning any special midnight screenings for this film when it finally comes out?
Jack Messitt: I certainly think it is open for that. This is the perfect title for a midnight screening. We are talking to distributors right now. That type of release is something I am certainly open for. And I hope that the distributors take advantage of that.
Are you planning to go the William Castle route, where you actually have the killer show up in the theater? Or is that something you wouldn't announce to those attending?
Jack Messitt: If we had plans for that, I would definitely keep it under wraps. But there certainly have been discussions along those lines. That sort of thing just might happen.
You started out as a cinematographer and a camera operator. How did this project fall into your hands?
Jack Messitt: The producers, Jacque and Liam, were friends of mine before hand. When the movie was green lit, I read it and I had a lot of initial ideas on what their script was missing. So I had a meeting with them. Being a camera operator was certainly a foot in the door for that meeting. They liked my ideas, and the direction I suggested that they go with this. They took a chance on me, and hopefully it paid off.
One of the most interesting aspects of Midnight Movie is that you track the history of violence in film with each on screen kill. Can you tell me how that idea came about?
Jack Messitt: When I went about constructing the film itself, I looked at a lot of these modern day horror flicks. One of the problems I see with gore movies today is that the first kill is at such a heightened level, I don't know where you go beyond that. Our movie has a really nice progression to that type of gore. With each kill, we give you a little bit more and a little bit more. So, at the end, that is where you are getting the full on gore. It gives the movie better pacing, I think.
Are you also doing that with the sex and nudity in the picture?
Jack Messitt: (Laughs) Its funny. While we do have some nudity in there, it is at a minimum. It is certainly not the focus of our movie.
So you don't have it starting out with the girl in the bikini, and then by the end of the film, you have her showing full frontal nudity?
Jack Messitt: No. We didn't do that. But with the kills, we certainly wanted to mirror the history of horror. So, the first kill you see what happens before and a little after. You don't see the actual kill itself. With each progressive kill, you do see more. But with the nudity, it wasn't done in that same fashion.
Now, where did the design of the killer's corkscrew killing instrument come from?
Jack Messitt: When I signed onto the script, the movie within the movie wasn't very defined. That was one of the first things I wanted to tackle. As I worked with the writer, we went through a couple of different phases. One of the biggest changes early on came with the movie within a movie, because it was originally based on a 1930s horror film. The killing instrument was a fire poker. The problem was, to today's audiences, the 1930s horror film doesn't really hold up. At that time, they may have been terrifying. But for today's audiences, they are not going to have the same reaction to it. When I did my draft of the script, I updated it to the late 60s early 70s horror films. Because films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead still really hold up today. I think they are legitimately creepy. In doing that, we lost the fire poker. The biggest challenge was coming up with a unique killing instrument, because every implement out there has been used in a horror film. We've seen the chainsaw, we've seen the butcher knife. You name it. To come up with something unique was really a challenge. During one of the many production meetings, my producer Jacque suggested a corkscrew knife. That touched a memory of mine. I had written a serial killer novel when I was in college. And the killer had this implement that was this coned shape knife sort of instrument. You could puncture someone's chest with it, and as you pulled it out, it had razor sharp edges. It would pull out this chunk of flesh. Jacque was sold on this idea of the corkscrew knife. It came from a fifteen year old idea I had. That is basically how I came up with that.
That is pretty awesome.
Jack Messitt: I have to say, it is pretty terrifying. I have it at home, the one we used on set. Just looking at it, it is a scary piece of metal. Let me tell you about the killer's mask. That is something else we really struggled with. The script always had the killer in a mask. And masks have been done to death. To come up with something that is unique and scary was a great challenge. So, we went through a lot of design phases and a lot of failed designs. Then, one night I was frustrated and starting scouring the internet. I kept coming to these two iconic images. One is the Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn poster, with the skull and eyes. That has always stuck with me since that movie came out. The other image was the Hannibal Lector restraint mask. I started playing around, and I cobbled together an idea I could use. Lunar Effects took my ideas and defined them. That's how they came up with the mask we now have.
Why did you gravitate towards those two images?
Jack Messitt: That is really hard to say. Horror really has the capability to do that. It implants little images in your head that you will forever be branded with. The first time people see Jaws, it then sticks with them every time they go to the beach. They've thought about that movie at some point. Horror just has that special ability.
How did you go about casting the killer for your film?
Jack Messitt: The killer is in a unique position. While you don't see his face, there is a lot of acting involved. I acquaint our killer with David Prowse as Darth Vader. He brings a lot to the table. What I needed in our killer was someone that could handle the physicality of it. Early on, I decided that our killer needed to be a stuntman. We needed him to be able to help our actors with the scenes. The stuntman had to get through the choreography of a certain scene. These were actors that weren't used to doing it. By having someone that is already a trained stuntman, things usually go a lot more smoothly. And that was certainly the case.
Did you ever look to Last Action Hero or Demons for any sort of inspiration in directing this particular film?
Jack Messitt: Last Action Hero is interesting, because it takes its genre and really turns it on its ear. While it was successful on some levels, I think it disappointed the very audience that it was trying to please. Because it was making fun of itself so much. Demons? I didn't actually know about Demons until we were well into production. When someone brought it up to me, I purposely did not see the movie. Because I didn't want to rip it off. Now, I just saw it the other day since finishing the film. There are some odd similarities. At the same time, we have a very different feel to our movie.
Demons seemed kind of incoherent when I saw it. But I don't know if I saw some sort of international cut.
Jack Messitt: It didn't have a story flow that was really all that solid to me. It had some neat images and some great sequences, but as a whole, the storyline was really weak. Whereas our movie has a great solid storyline that makes you want these characters to survive. We do that in a way that >Demons, maybe, didn't.
While it does crib some of those ideas, the overall story you guys are dealing with is something we haven't really seen before.
Jack Messitt: I think we managed to pay an homage to a lot of different horror films of the past. I think we do it in a way that is unique to our film. You can't not give a wink to some of the films that have come before this. As long as our take is different, which I think it is, the audience will really enjoy it.
How difficult is it to actually scare an audience nowadays?
Jack Messitt: (Laughs) It is very difficult. Audiences are inundated with so much, they become desensitized to the violence. Especially with today's subgenre of horror, like the torture porn films. Those films are only giving you the gore. People are so used to it. The key to scaring an audience is to endear them to characters that they want to see survive. If you do that, when you put those characters in a situation with the killer, it puts people on the edge of their seat.
You talk about the torture porn genre. Do you think there is a level to what is acceptable at this point? Or is it a free for all?
Jack Messitt: Well...The unacceptability factor is a line that moves a lot. What might be acceptable today might not be tomorrow. What is not acceptable today might be very acceptable tomorrow. If you look at movies like Hostel, the movie starts with the gore already at such a level, there is no natural progression. Where do you go after you start chopping people's fingers off in your first scene of gore? That makes it difficult for those movie to sustain themselves.
You started out as a cinematographer. How did you go about choreographing the kill scenes in this film. Did you actually grab the camera and stage some of those scenes yourself?
Jack Messitt: I am a firm believer in using a camera operator as well as a director of photography. When I first signed on to this project, everyone told me that I would be shooting it as well. Being a DP, or being a camera operator, or being a director? Those are all full time jobs. To get the most out of my shooting days, I needed someone in those positions. They are all extremely important.
Was it easier for you to choreograph some of those scenes, though? Having come from that background?
Jack Messitt: Having a past that was very visual, the shot lists were a little more second nature to me. That certainly helped in giving our film a bigger look than most million-dollar movies. Because the covers that we chose, and being able to shoot as much as we could in a single day came from my previous work background. The production value of our movie is certainly huge because of that aspect.
You spoke earlier about the iconography of some of the early horror films. Have you been working hard to get a really iconic poster for this put together?
Jack Messitt: Yes. I think we have come up with a temporary one until the distributors have their say. I have had a big hand in all of the marketing materials we've used so far. And it has been very beneficial, because we now have a lot of distributors that are very interested in acquiring the movie.
How difficult was it to get midnightmovie.com?
Jack Messitt: I feel very lucky about that. We ended up buying it off of somebody. It wasn't as expensive as I would have assumed. Again, I feel hugely lucky that we got it, and I think our movie really lives up to that name. It's a really solid website.
Are you guys going to keep that site, or maybe turn it into a shrine to the Midnight Movie?
Jack Messitt: It is hard to tell what the future will bring. Hopefully people will be visiting that site for a good reason. For such a low budget movie to have such a high budget website is very unique. It's a big reason why the distributors are so happy about actually getting the film.
What are your plans for the film? Do you have any idea when audiences will get to see it?
Jack Messitt: We had a screening for distributors last night, and we are talking to them right now. I can say that we got a shockingly good response. We don't have a set date yet, but I will keep you posted.