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Jay Lee is not your typical horror director. For one, he started off in the indie drama world, and not only does he write and direct most of his films, but he also serves as the director of photography and, sometimes, the editor as well. Lee pulls a triple threat in writing, directing and shooting his latest film, Zombie Strippers, which hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on October 28. I had the chance to speak with Lee over the phone for his horror film, and here's what he had to say.
First of all, where did just the general idea of Zombie Strippers come from? How did that whole inception start?
Jay Lee: OK, here's the story about how that happened. My sister, Angela Lee, produced the film. We'd been making independent films for quite a few years, essential, meaningful, character-driven, concept-driven pieces. We were at Sundance and all of that, but we weren't exactly making the best living at it, making independent films. So we decided to make a business move and we made a horror movie. It was a thing called The Slaughter and it was a shamelessly marketable film. It had all the stereotypes and all the essential things to make a film that would just sell, go straight to DVD. I made a joke one day and said, 'Well, at least we're not doing something like Zombie Strippers.' It got around the cast and I kind of started thinking about it. I did some research on the title and no one had done it yet, which kind of surprised me. So, I said, 'Here's our next film. It's Zombie Strippers. The title sells itself and we can make a shamelessly schlocky film.' At the same time, now we can use some of our content and story and subtext that we were doing on our independent films with something as absurd as Zombie Strippers. So that's how that all came about.
So, was the title alone as easy of a sell than you had planned?
Jay Lee: It was actually easier. I never wrote a synopsis for the script. I'm actually convinced that a lot of people hadn't read the script. They actually went in and greenlit and went into executive positions of the film. I'm sure they thought Zombie Strippers with Jenna Jameson was all they needed.
Did you write this with Jenna or Robert Englund, or any of these other guys in mind?
Jay Lee: There was definitely Jenna more than anything. I'd like to say that I wrote the part in the script literally for Jenna, but I knew that in the back of my head, it was a longshot getting her involved. It was a role that Jenna could do... I'd like to say I wrote it for her, but I don't think that was necessarily the truth. The character made sense, it was something that Jenna could sink her teeth into, definitely. Then when tried to get her. Angela somehow got the script to her, I'm still not sure how she did it, but when Jenna read it she said there was so much in there that she wanted to do. She wanted to do the horror, of course, the humor, the politics of it, so she did it. Robert Englund, the role was really just written for someone who was a horror icon. It wasn't specifically for Robert Englund, but he was one who definitely wanted to do it so we said, 'Please, please come on board.'
So what kind of budget were you working with on this? Was it constraining at all or did it make it more challenging and better for the film?
Jay Lee: Well, I wouldn't say necessarily better for the film, but it was definitely more challenging. It was a million dollar budget, basically. It was basically trying to cram as much as we could into the time. The main thing about shooting something on a budget of a million dollars, all the effects, the dance sequence and all that, it was a time consideration. That was the hard part was to get it all in with the time. I personally don't mind being overwhelmed with work. I actually shot the film too, so I was on the sets trying to get through 70 set-ups a day, which is fine for me. I actually like working that way. Then, when you're down for 45 minutes waiting for effects to be prepared, that's when it starts getting hard, is the waiting. With the budget, we couldn't afford to wait too much. A lot of it is when they were setting up an effect, we'd have the camera turned around and shooting something else at the exact same time, but a lot of times it didn't work out that way.
70 set-ups a day? That's kind of insane, isn't it?
Jay Lee: Yeah, yeah. We definitely were just flying through. We didn't want to do something that was just standard, where we just shot everything in masters and just dealt with it in editing. We definitely tried to style it as much as possible and have the thing storyboarded where we have 20 shots per scene and get through as many as I could in the time allowed.
Can you talk a little bit about shooting and directing at the same time? It's not a very common thing to see a director as the DP as well. I see you've also done that on a few films before too. Is that just a natural process for you, doing both?
Jay Lee: Yeah, it kind of is. The two main reasons why I did it, and I'll probably do it as much as I can, is I love doing it. I love shooting it. I just love setting up the lights, I just love constructing the visuals. I love actually doing the physical framing of the camera. Ridley Scott said it's kind of essential for a director to shoot his own stuff, which he used to do before he got involved with the unions and then he couldn't do it anymore. I just love both aspects of filmmaking and just conducting the whole thing and watching it happen through the lens. The other reason why I do it is because I'm... cheap. It cut a huge chunk out of the budget that can go someplace else by not getting paid, or getting paid, literally, a dollar and do it. For me, it kind of is natural. I've worked with other DP's before, which works well. I do like to work with other people because I can learn from other people and if I ever get involved with DP's that are better than me, I definitely want to work with them, which probably won't be too hard to find in this town. It is part of the creative process and I just want to do as much of it as I can.
Can you talk a little bit about the politics involved here? There's some pretty outlandish themes going on.
Jay Lee: Well, really I just think it's a satire on reality. The work that I kind of used as inspiration for the political and social themes was a play called "Rhinoceros" by Eugene Ionesco. Ionesco wrote this play, basically it was about a town of people just turning in to rhinoceroses and just trashing this small French town, but everyone was kind of ignoring it, ignoring the brutality of these animals. That was basically Ionesco's commentary on the rise of Fascism in Europe. What I wanted to do with Zombie Strippers was make a parody on the brutal regime of this country that has kind of been in power for the past eight years, and how people can just ignore it. All this stuff that's just unexplainable is happening and people just keep ignoring it and letting it happen. That's why I put all these American twists into the whole story, with the Robert Englund character who's the capitalist who's making money off the whole thing at the same time. The brutality is running amok, people are being mercilessly slaughtered, people seem to be ignoring it or accepting it and, at the same time, someone is making a buck off the whole thing.
Once you got Jenna and Robert, how were they like to work with on the set? They seemed to really embrace these characters.
Jay Lee: We couldn't have stumbled upon two better actors to work with. Jenna was very very patient, to say the least, through her makeup process, but she just was having so much fun with it. We saw the more comfortable she got with us, the more she was parodying herself, the more she was playing with it. Especially in the editing room, the more I'd watch her performance, I'd notice something else, these little tiny details she was always infusing into the character and how authentic it is because she is having so much fun. With Robert, he's one of the nicest guys I've ever met in my life and he's probably the most professional actor I've ever met in my life too. He had every line down perfectly, he was supportive of the film 100% and everyone around it. Nothing but positive stuff from him, whether you're in the video village watching, or working with the other actors, everything was supportive. Even when he cut his hand on something, he knew exactly the type of makeup to put on his hand to cover it up. That's what a pro this guy is.
You have a pretty prime October 28 release date. I imagine you'd be hoping for a lot of Halloween party action with this?
Jay Lee: Yeah, hopefully. That'd be great. Originally the DVD was supposed to come out in the spring. I believe it was April or March or something, and that was when we were all gung-ho about getting everything done and rushing to get it done in time. Then when Sony marketing decided to give it a limited theatrical release, everything was pushed back to October, which I think is a much better time to have the film out. The political relevance, hopefully it will have a five-day lifespan, but we wanted to have it out this year so it does have a little bit of relevance, politically. The studio did allow me to put a lot of the deleted scenes in there. Hopefully you'll be able to see a lot more of the characters and the story on the deleted scenes. Paco has a more noble ending, Jessy and Davis have more of a resolution to their characters. There's definitely a lot more with the DVD coming out.
So what's next for you? Do you have any other projects lined up and are you going to stick with horror for a little while or maybe go back to the indie scene?
Jay Lee: We're actually kind of doing both. We definitely are sticking with horror. The people we've been talking to have been interested in horror and so that seems to be where the ball is rolling right now. We do have a number of scripts. Unfortunately, Hollywood right now, we're coming out of a writer's strike and coming into an actor's strike, so nobody's doing a whole lot right now. We're actively talking to investors, we have a slew of horror films we want to do. The one that we're hopefully going to get moving any day now is the opposite of Zombie Strippers. It's a very very disturbing film about snuff films. It's dark, we want to push the envelope the way we did with Zombie Strippers, but with this one we want to push the envelope with the reality and how disturbing it is. Of course, you can only hit a genre so many times, so there are some comedy-horror's we'd like to do, there are some serious horror's we'd like to do, an 80s slasher film, we'd like to have fun with that too. We're definitely going to be in the horror world for a few more years here and then hopefully we'll be able to do the other stuff that we want to do, the artsy-fartsy films, the character pieces, stuff like that.
Finally, for a film that essentially started out as a joke, how has this whole experience been for you? It seems like it's been quite a whirlwind experience from this odd inception to this movie starring Jenna Jameson and Robert Englund.
Jay Lee: Yes, it's definitely the biggest thing that has happened to me in my career so far, so it's kind of funny how fast it moved. The other films kind of took awhile to get going and, even with all the scripts that we almost got going and didn't or things we started that ended up falling apart, this is the one that just started as a joke and became this unstoppable train and the next thing I know, a year and a half later, we're sitting in a movie theater, watching it in a sold-out midnight screening at a prominent L.A. arthouse. It's definitely been a crazy ride and here we are on the eve of a major DVD release. It's been crazy, it really has. It's been surprise after surprise. Sometimes I have to remind myself that this is actually really happening.
Excellent. Well, that's about all I have for you, Jay. Thanks a lot for your time and I'm definitely looking forward to your new projects.
Jay Lee: Oh, great. Thank you very much and hopefully we'll have more of these interviews soon.
You can catch all of the horror excitement when Zombie Strippers heads to DVD and Blu-ray on October 28.