Shawn Papazian

The director drags us into his killer Winnebago for a behind the scenes look at this latest Raw Feed thriller

There's no other way to say this. Rest Stop: Don't Look Back is batshit crazy. It is one of the most original slasher sequels to ever appear on the horror circuit, and its working mythology is captivating from start to finish. Director Shawn Papazian and writer/producer John Shiban didn't just set out to make a carbon copy of the first film. They are actually creating an epic story that will span the course of many future sequels. It almost feels like a TV series in a way. And I can't wait to watch how this plays out in the years to come.

Rest Stop: Don't Look Back is the latest entry in Warner Brothers' Raw Feed horror line. And if they keep making direct-to-DVD movies this good, I might as well stop going to the theater. Seriously, you won't be disappointed with this gory ghost story. It is better than anything Lionsgate has planned for Halloween. (Yeah, Saw V, I'm looking right at you!) We recently caught up with Mr. Papazian to discuss the making of this home video classic. And he was almost as much fun to talk to as his film is to watch.

Here is our conversation:

These Raw Feed films have been coming out on DVD, and they are way better than most of the horror films I am seeing in the theater. What sort of aesthetic do you guys adhere to over there at Raw Feed?

Shawn Papazian: Good question. I would love to answer that. But unfortunately, Warner Brothers would have to be the ones to answer it. I would love to have our films playing in a theater. Their plan is to roll it out on DVD. And build this brand via the DVD world. Aesthetically speaking, Raw Feed is setting a tone. This is a unique genre within a genre. We are mixing a lot of different nuances. I don't think these films are straight down the line. From a marketing standpoint, maybe starting out in the DVD world and getting a surge or a buzz is a good way to do it. But quite honestly, I don't know how to answer that.

I recently saw Otis, and that is a great modern day horror film. Watching Rest Stop: Don't Look Back, I realized that you guys are really injecting a lot of unrealized imagination into the realm of horror. Is working with Raw Feed a little less restrictive than the average horror film environment?

Shawn Papazian: Warner Brothers has been fantastic. We were really given the reigns on this one. They allowed us the ability to play more. We didn't just throw it down the middle. I really wanted to put an artistic twist and twang to my version of Rest Stop: Don't Look Back. The producers were very open to it. They were open to me shooting it in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. We wanted to give it a cinematic feel. You don't really see that in a lot of horror movies. We really wanted to get in that The Twilight Zone type flare. If this were a theatrical release, we would have had to hone in on one certain aspect, and made the film more specific. Going with this fairly new medium gave us the opportunity to really open our wings. We were able to play with other genres, and tie in other pieces of cinema. It was very refreshing, and very free.

It really struck me that the victims from the first movie came back as ghosts, here. I've never seen that in a slasher movie before. How did you guys come up with this idea? That these victims aren't really going away? That all of these slaughtered ghosts are looming around this old Rest Stop?

Shawn Papazian: John Shiban really keyed that idea up in the first film. That was his intention from the start. What happened was, it wasn't that well received. People didn't understand that it was a ghost movie. So, going about the second one, he really wanted to clarify that this is a ghost world. That is why we start Part Two off with a prologue. To get you a little bit more in tune with the questions and answers from the first film. John's idea for the first one was to take it a step forward, moving it away from your average slasher flick. He wanted to make it a ghost slasher movie. And he wanted to make it real. He wanted to create a supernatural feeling within the storyline. And it is very hard to make ghosts feel real without playing to this whole idea that they are here one minute, and then they are gone. It's a hard concept. Turning this into a slasher movie, with the horrific elements that the genre appeals to, while also giving it a surreal feeling is what we were really going for. We really wanted to set it apart from the genre norm. So we created this subgenre. In moving forward, we wanted to make it a ghost saga. We thought that would be very interesting. Ghosts don't feel. That's what we know. They are here, yet they are transparent. We had to make them real, yet not. It is a unique version of looking at this genre. It is working. We are on our second one, and hopefully we will soon be on to our third.

The film reminds me of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and some of the later Phantasm films. Not so much in the way it is structured, but in the fact that these franchises took their sequels into uncharted and unexpected territory. Did you look at those films for an arc, as far as where you'd want to take a sequel? And how crazy you could go with one idea and one concept?

Shawn Papazian: Let me answer it this way. What we wanted to do was set up characters. We wanted you to enjoy those characters. And we wanted you to become enriched in these characters' lives. And their backgrounds. And their motivations. John comes from a TV background. He understands taking an arc and running with it for many, many hours. By continually re-involving the characters and the plot, we are getting to know more about them. We get to see their motivations, and the secret reasons why they are here. We also get to know them better as an audience. We want to use all of the upcoming movies to focus on that overall arc.

But speaking of sequels, this isn't your typical rerun of the same storyline. This isn't like a Friday the 13th movie, where they recycle everything that came before it in the previous films.

Shawn Papazian: No. It is not linear, if we want to call it that. It is very non-linear in its storytelling. It's like when you dive into a TV series. There is a linear way to tell it, and a very non-linear way. Look at The Sopranos. Every new episode had you asking, "By God, what is happening here?" You look at a cop drama, and they solve the story in the last act of the episode. What is happening here, with Rest Stop, is that if you compiled all of the footage, and the various offshoots that you see in the special features section of the DVD, you'd have one massive novel. Taking apart the novel, and them placing each chapter into a sequel, is the overall plan. It is like having a bible in your head. We are pulling from that bible for each segment that we produce. The prequel, the sequel. There is a master plan to it all. That is the overall big arc. Pulling from that is the idea that John has, if that makes sense.

That makes total sense. Last night, watching the film, it did seem very much like an episode of a TV show. How long do you think you are going to keep this story going. How many sequels or episodes are you planning to make?

Shawn Papazian: It is unlike Jason, where on the thirteen or fourteenth one you are going, "Okay, I get it!"

By the second one, you're going, "Okay, I get it."\

Shawn Papazian: Yes. It becomes obvious that it is just about brutalizing the participants, so to speak. What John and I wanted to do is set it up where there is no ending. With the The Twilight Zone, you didn't say, "I love the first six!" No. You loved them all. Especially if you were a fan of The Twilight Zone. It didn't matter, because each one was relevant and informational to the overall genre that was created when they opened up The Twilight Zone doors. To answer your question, we will keep doing this as long as the audience is embracing the story. We'd love to keep pumping them out. There are so many various story points that we'd love to keep exploring. And opening up. We've created this little world. And we have created new characters every time. And they are all part of the master plan. We could carry this franchise on for many, many episodes.

You guys had a screening for Rest Stop: Don't Look Back, and it looked great on the big screen. As this becomes more and more popular, do you think, much like they did with High School Musical 3: Senior Year, that you might eventually release a theatrical version of the series?

Shawn Papazian: There have been some soft discussions that this could become a possibility. I would embrace it like no other. Starting out in the DVD world is where this brand will really resonant hard. At the end of the day, a theatrical release would be a major opportunity and a huge delight. If it were to reach that potential. That is my goal as an artist. To eventually get something in the theaters. I think once it carries itself a certain way, and I think it does, we will see it on the big screen. I personally made the movie in such a way that it could be theatrical. Why couldn't it be theatrical? Once again, it was our mandate to fit it into the realm of DVD. For a lot of reasons. If a theatrical release emerges from that, great. I hope it does.

How do the actors feel about having to come back after their demise? In your average slasher, once you die, that's it. Do they consider their ongoing participation a blessing or a curse?

Shawn Papazian: The actors embraced what we were doing. They all thought it was cool. At the end of the day, when you look at even the Winnebago family, and the way I directed them, and the prologue versus the way they were presented in the second act, it makes sense. Other characters came in contact with them. And there is a tonal change. They weren't ghosts in the prologue. And then they became ghosts. It is exciting and fun for me, along with the actors, to figure out the challenge of being human and then being a ghost. What the difference of those things would be, and how they are viewed. Hopefully those nuances came about, and they are visible in the film.

With a movie series called Rest Stop, is it a challenge to find new and interesting ways to get your characters into the bathroom?

Shawn Papazian: Yes. (Laughs) Because you don't want to beat the location to death a hundred times. You want to make it part of the organic process. And I think we did it gently in the second one. It became part of their exploration. To figure out where our two characters from the first film were left. And where they were noted as having been seen. Having the ability to see them into that bathroom in an organic way is great. We all use the bathroom. And that comes in a vary obvious way. Then something flips on you. Jessie is in the bathroom, and she realizes that something very odd is going on. That opens you up into this idea that you are in a ghost arena. In the future, I don't think we will need to overstate the use of the Rest Stop. We won't have to keep bringing it in. But it is the key point in the overall master plan that we will be answering further down the road. Why are we at a Rest Stop? Well, one reason is that it's a great little idea to pull from. Next time you are driving down the highway, and you see an empty Rest Stop, maybe you'll think of our movie. That is what motivated John, originally. But we don't want to over kill it. By introducing more locations in the second film, we took that link away from it. But it will always be a character in the whole master plan. In future episodes, we will see why this Rest Stop is relevant.

Maybe some of the eyeballs are buried under there?

Shawn Papazian: Or maybe that is a red herring. Or maybe that wasn't true to the overall master plan. You'll notice at the end that the driver came back. Maybe that was something that wasn't so specific. Or maybe it is. We left it kind of open-ended on purpose. When we dive into the third one, we will try to flush out and explain that. Or maybe we wont explain it at all. It might just be a red haring. Once again, this will all be determined in the third one.

I was watching an interview with Graham Norris here, a second ago. And he says that you guys actually shot his outhouse scene in a real abandoned, dirty outhouse in the middle of nowhere. Is it true that you stuck him in there, and ran him over for real?

Shawn Papazian: No. (Laughs) First of all, we rented an outhouse. Obviously. Then we broke that scene up into sixteen different locations. We shot some of it on the stage, we shot some of it outside of the stage, and then we shot a lot of it out there in the environment, at an actual location. Our special effects guys are the ones that created the stuff in the toilet bowl. At the end of the day, John and I love realism within our movies. We wanted this to feel real through out. In making the actors believe in this, we gave them a real environment to play in. We had to get a certain type of performance to get what you'd call a "real feeling" film. I think I tried to stay true to that as much as possible. We did a lot out in the environment. Obviously, we had to do some of it on stage for technical reasons. But I think putting the outhouse scene in a real location is what enriched that moment. Graham didn't know that we rented it. He thought it was just there. But we had it sketched out ahead of time. We wanted a real outhouse. And we wanted something that Graham could wrap his arms around as an actor. To make it real. And that is what we did.

He made it sound like you guys actually dumped real garbage on him. Like, actual sewage.

Shawn Papazian: (Laughs) That was all made by a special effects team. If he felt that, then great. I didn't want him or the other actors thinking that everything was fake. I put them in that environment and gave them the impression that it was real. I did that on purpose, so that they would naturally react to it. If I told him the shit was fake putty, then he would react to it differently. I wanted him to think it was real shit. While we didn't dump real shit on his head, we didn't tell him it was fake, either. We let his imagination fly.

After hearing him tell the story, I could smell him through the TV for the rest of the movie.

Shawn Papazian: I'm glad you feel that way. And I hope Graham doesn't kill me later in letting him know that it wasn't real. But I like to have fun with the actors. Not explaining all the details is sometimes good for their performance.

What are John's plans for evolving this crazy Winnebago family?

Shawn Papazian: John would be the best one to answer that. At the end of the day, the Winnebago family is the catalyst for this whole environment. We wanted to set it up where everyone is coming back to this family. Why is this family always a part of this? In the second one, we get to understand more of the reason why. But you are not understanding where they came from. In the third one, we will hit upon the idea of where they came from. As you travel through the different sequels, you will be able to wrap your arms around the master plan. You will see who this family is and why they are there. And how. And all of the other relevant questions you would ask to understand their motivation and being.

About the DVD's alternate ending. How does that play into the mythology of the series, since every thing on the DVD sort of plays back into the overall scope of what we are seeing played out?

Shawn Papazian: I think that is just an underlying point that he is a ghost. The way I ended the actual film, you are left wondering, "Is he a ghost? Or is he just within this perpetual ghost environment?" With the real ending, where he comes home, you understand that he is a ghost. If you keep picking up those little pieces, like the unseen ending, and you push them into the master plot, you will get a lot more clarity about who's who, and where we are at. And hopefully you will understand a little better about the fact that this is a ghost world.

Rest Stop: Don't Look Back hits hard on both Blu-Ray and DVD this September 30th, 2008. Don't think about it, just buy it!

B. Alan Orange at Movieweb
B. Alan Orange