The writer/director of this new horror project talks about his feature debut, Midnight Meat Train and future projects

Jeff Buhler is a new name to the horror game, but it sure seems like he's going places. His first film, Insanitarium, was just released on DVD on July 15 and stars Jesse Metcalfe, Peter Stormare and Lost's Kiele Sanchez. He also wrote the upcoming Clive Barker adaptation Midnight Meat Train, which hits theaters on August 1. I had the chance to talk to this new horror filmmaker about Insanitarium and more, and here's what he had to say.

Insanitarium is such a perfect name for a horror movie and it's not like this the first insane asylum horror movie. Were you kind of surprised that this name wasn't taken when you first started writing this?

Jeff Buhler: I don't know. I thought it was so weird that maybe we'd get lucky and it'd clear, and it did. I was very appreciative about that, yeah. It's a cool name.

There are so many insane asylum movies, it's just such a perfect fit. I'm shocked it wasn't used earlier.

Jeff Buhler: I am too. The closest thing that I've seen out there is Insane Aquarium, which is a childrens video game, which I get a lot of questions about. 'Does this have anything to do with that?' And I'm like, 'No, you should definitely not let your children watch this movie.' (Laughs)

Insane Aquarium? Wow.

Jeff Buhler: Yeah, it was a video game for kids called Insane Aquarium and, I don't know, you're like a little fish and it's like a Finding Nemo thing for six-year olds. Maybe there are a couple of six-year old kids that might accidentally rent the movie on Amazon or something, Netflix, by accident.

That wouldn't be good. So where did this whole concept come from and what were some of your influences when you were writing this?

Jeff Buhler: Well, basically the movie was meant to be a classic B-movie romp. I would say the most direct influences were Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or the classic George Romero zombie movies which I grew up on and loved, and still love today. Even a little bit of 28 Days Later which upgraded that genre. It isn't really a zombie flick, in the sense that the psychopaths in the mental institution do not get up from the dead. There's not some sort of a voodoo thing going on there. It does have plenty of those conventions. It plays with some of the mad scientist movie conventions. What we wanted to do was just make the best B-movie that had all those genre trappings that we could make.

Yeah, the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest thing is something I noticed. Was Molly Bryant's Nurse Henderson kind of the Nurse Ratched of this movie?

Jeff Buhler: (Laughs) Yes. Yeah, there's a lot of little things. I tried to embed a little bit of trivia in the movie that genre fans will pick up on. The crazy guy who ends up in the cage, his name is Loomis, which is a reference to Halloween, the brother and sister's last name is Romero, which is a reference to the zombie flicks. We've got Jack, which is a reference to Jack Nicholson's portrayal of McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. There's lots of little references in there that are meant to tip our audience off that we understand that this isn't blazing new territory. We're playing in a sandbox that's had a lot of great movies done in it before and we wanted to play with those conventions and have a little fun with it.

This is your feature writing and directing debut. What was it like stepping onto the set for that first day?

Jeff Buhler: A little terrifying (Laughs), to be honest with you. I'd had some success as a screenwriter, which allowed me to get this one set up and when they agreed to let me direct it, I was a little shocked. Usually, it takes a couple of more projects to get that opportunity. I was very lucky that I had producers that completely supported me and the studio execs at Stage 6 had completely supported me. Luckily, since I had written the script so many times, I knew the characters and their motivations, but that first day, you just have to hold your breath and hope that the crew you surround yourself with does their job. The second day is when you really start directing. It's when you step on the set and go, 'O.K. I know what we're doing now.' Day One is just insanity.

You have such a strong cast here with Jesse Metcalfe, Peter Stormare, Kiele Sanchez from Lost, Olivia Munn, Kevin Sussman and many others. Did you write Stormare and Metcalfe's characters with them in mind, and what was it like working with the rest of this cast?

Jeff Buhler: Well, it was interesting because the character of Jack that I wrote was always a very dark and disturbed and edgy character. Jesse Metcalfe did not immediately come to mind, when seeking a character like that. When it was suggested to me, I thought that would be interesting, but he's always been in different types of roles, whether it be John Tucker Must Die or Desperate Housewives. When I met with Jesse, I could see right away that he really had a strong desire to broaden his range a little bit so that he had a little bit of edge and could tackle some material like this. I think he was really excited about doing something a little different. From our first meeting, I knew he would be right for it. Then Stormare, I'd just been a huge fan of his for ages, Fargo and Constantine. We pushed really hard to get him and ended up getting him to come on board right before we started shooting, which was a fantastic coup.

With the rest of this young cast, what was it like directing for them?

Jeff Buhler: Well, it was fun. There was definitely a sense of camraderie. I think everyone had a blast. The people I've talked to said it was probably one of the most fun movies they'd made. They took their roles very seriously and they sunk their teeth into the characters, no matter how ridiculous the situation was. Everyone played it very straight, which was my one mantra. If we take this situation very seriously, and how crazy these characters are, that's what's going to sell it to the audience. We didn't try to ham it up to much. Once we kind of set up the parameters, everyone took it very seriously and had a blast with it. It was a lot of fun.

I read that Peter Stormare improvised some of his parts like the pantyhose in the mouth scene.

Jeff Buhler: (Laughs) Yes, he did. We have a couple of featurettes on the DVD and we discuss that briefly in there. He's a nut, that guy.

What kind of budget did you have to work with? Was that constraining at all, or is that just part of the challenge?

Jeff Buhler: Yeah, it was definitely a part of the challenge. We had a limited amount of money. I think the physical production budget was somewhere between $2 and $3 million bucks, when it all came in. Some of the challenge was, when you're at a budget level like that, you have to make certain comprimises. Look, I wanted to shoot on film because we were shooting on a lot of overlit, white sets and I just thought that would expose better. But film is a lot more expensive than digital video, which is fantastic. I have nothing against DV, it just depends on the material and what kind of a look you're going for. So, that cost us a few days. We had a very condensed shooting schedule but we were very fortunate in finding a hospital that was modern. It didn't look like an old hospital and it had an empty wing where we could build these set pieces. The laundry chute and the maximum security prison were actually built inside of the hospital that served as our location. There was this empty warehouse that we used as a soundstage so we were able to shoot in one place for 18 out of 20 days, and that basically made it possible.

I also read that you employed almost all practical effects instead of CGI. Do you think that CGI takes a lot away from a horror film, or just any film in general?

Jeff Buhler: Well, I think CGI is a fantastic tool and we used it where we had to. I tried to use as much practical as I could because I think, especially at this budget level, we don't have the kind of money that you would have on a Sam Raimii flick where you can go back and hone CGI effects to make sure they blend seamlessly in with all the images. If you capture something on camera, and it looks good on camera, you got it and you're done. We worked very hard to design a lot of special effects to be done on the set, on camera and then you don't have to be faced with that whole, 'lets fix it in post' problem, which you know you're going to be running out of money and we didn't want to be facing that. The CGI effects that are in there are pretty good. We tried to blend them in as well as we could but everything that was done by Matt Mungle Creations, the guys that did the practical special effects, was absolutely amazing.

Midnight Meat Train is getting some pretty decent buzz. How was that whole experience and what was it like working with director Ryuhei Kitamura?

Jeff Buhler: Ryuhei, the first time I met him, I knew we were kind of like-minded people. He wanted to do what I wanted to do, which was to respect Clive Barker's original material. I'm a huge Clive Barker fan. I read the Books of Blood in high school and I've always loved the story of Midnight Meat Train, so it was an honor for me to be able to give it a shot. Working with Clive, he was a great mentor for me. It was the first time I had adapted someone else's material and he was very gracious in letting me take some liberties with the characters, as long as I remained true to the spirit and the tone of the original short story. Ryuhei came in and did exactly the same thing. He's a fanstastic visual director. If you've ever seen Versus or any of his other Japanese-language films, he's just an unbelievable director. It was just a good combination.

Is there anything that you're working on writing right now and are you going to be at Comic-Con next week?

Jeff Buhler: I will. I'm coming down for the midnight screening of Midnight Meat Train, which would be on the Friday of Comic-Con, the 25th. I'll be coming down with Clive and checking that out. That'll be fun. I just finished a script for a Brazilian director, his name is Dennison Ramahlo. He just finished the latest Coffin Joe flick, which is called Embodiment of Evil. He's an unbelievably talented director. He and I have been working on an original called The Hell Within, which we just finished the script and now we're heading out trying to find financing for that right now. I'm working on a couple of other projects that hopefully I'll get to direct in the future.

Finally, like I said before, this is your feature writing and directing debut. Do you plan on just staying in the horror genre for awhlie or do you want to mix it up and try some other genres after this?

Jeff Buhler: (Laughs) The funny thing is, I have a couple of comedy ideas that are really light-hearted and I think my sense of humor comes through in Insanitarium and I hope that someday I'll be able to do that, but right now, I'm getting a lot of heat from the horror stuff so that's what I've been doing. Got to keep things rolling. But I don't know, maybe I'll do Broadway musical someday (Laughs). There are a lot of things I'd like to do but I'm sticking with horror right now because it seems to be working.

That's all I have for you today. Thanks so much for your time today, Jeff.

Jeff Buhler: All right. Thank you.

You can find Insanitarium on the DVD shelves now and you can check out Midnight Meat Train when it comes to theaters on August 1. That midnight screening of Midnight Meat Train isn't on the official Comic-Con schedule, but we'll bring you word on the when and where as soon as we have more information.