Cult Projections: Q&A With Jeremy Kasten

Cult Projections: This is your fourth collaboration with screenwriter Zach Chassler, did he come to you with The Dead Ones screenplay already written, or did you ask him to write you something to direct? How did it originate? 

Jeremy: After the creative difficulties of making The Wizard of Gore – I struggled with the financiers to make the film I believed the audience would respond to (for example, they wanted to cut the gore OUT of the movie) – I decided to shoot a smaller movie I could really believe in and consequently do for a more modest budget with a cast of mostly unknowns. I met our executive producer, Niels, and Zach wrote The Dead Ones based around discussions we all had about genre films that can speak to their core audience. I’d done a bunch of films that I felt approached their subject matter indirectly (The Wizard of Gore, for example, being about misogyny seemed to be lost in translation) and wanted to make a film that was direct and could not be misinterpreted. Whether I succeeded is up to the audience.

CP: The film’s production and release history has been a true labour of dark love. I believe principal photography was way back in 2009 …? What was the post-production process like? When did you start running into problems? Why has it taken so long for the movie to reach the festival circuit and finally distribution?

Jeremy: Certainly the subject matter was a challenge. When we filmed in 2009 we worked hard to ensure our production would be discreet about the project, but at the same time remain proud of the story we wanted to tell. It wasn’t always easy working with vendors and locations that may have assumed the worst. Several of them had no problem with us making a violent movie about killing teenagers, but took offence with us asking questions about a horror we’ve all been living with for twenty years by setting that movie in a school. Even at that time, before the wave of school shootings became an almost weekly occurrence it was tough to get folks to sign onto the film. Once we left my hometown of Baltimore, where we filmed the movie, we had about 70% of the film in the can and had to find a way to continue. Every time we had a potential investor interested another tragic incident would occur and they would get cold feet. Over the eleven years the film was incomplete, I self-financed post-production a little bit at a time as I could afford it. Back in Los Angeles, I recruited a high school intern and a friend with a DSLR to complete principal photography. The editor, assistant editor, the intern and I would sneak around various schools in Southern California, probably risking our lives wearing the gas masks and wardrobe while carrying realistic looking weapons. At night. On stolen school locations. However, our entire crew – the young actors, in particular – really understood what we were trying to do, and the challenges only served to make us a tighter team. The film was completed in 2019 and after our first film festival we found a sales agent to secure distribution. The film played at one festival in the US before COVID-19 shut the festival circuit down.

CP: Did you know while you were shooting the movie, or maybe it was during the editing, that your movie was likely to be controversial, that it might become a difficult movie, something that might trigger the wrong response?

Jeremy: I did and I intended to. In recent years people have asked me, if this subject matter was important to me, why I didn’t make a drama? School shootings are horrific. To me this had to be a horror film. I made The Dead Ones with an outsider teen audience in mind, because young outsiders are often genre fans. I know, because I was one myself. This movie tells a story of choices, consequences and the value of resisting vengeance. It’s a journey that outsiders will recognise and understand. Although it’s set in the aftermath of a high school shooting, my intention never was – or will be – to trivialise this real-life horror that increasingly plagues our world. Instead, I wanted to create a disturbing reflection of modern adolescence. The Dead Ones is a film with a message of hope for outsiders. Of course, I fear the a viewer getting the wrong message from the movie and would be devastated to have someone dress as one of the horsemen for Halloween or not “get” the film’s message and inadvertently relate to the wrong side of the morality. But with each choice we made, from script to production and at every stage of post-production, we tried to craft it in such a way that it was impossible to misinterpret my intentions.

CP: In many ways the movie is more incendiary now than it was when you were making it. Has your perspective changed much? Has Chassler’s, do you know?

Jeremy: No my perspective has not changed. I can not speak for Zach but for me, despite COVID-19 making the notion of young people in schools seems quaint and a thing of the past, the proliferation of guns and the unwitting radicalsation of people, especially children, by the gun lobby in the US, makes the film more important to me than ever.

CP: What do the central cast think of the movie, now that they’re so much older? Have they been on the festival circuit with you? Are they supportive? Are you still in touch?

Jeremy: It’s funny. When we filmed The Dead Ones the cast were all high school aged and casting real young people was quite important to me. Throughout production I spoke with the cast at great length about the function of making a horror film with a message. Now they are adults and the cast understands in a whole new way what the film set out to accomplish. I believe they are all very proud of the work we did.

CP: A powerful horror movie should definitely make the an audience feel a little uncomfortable, it should be confronting, even disturbing, but also thrilling, exhilarating, to provide some kind of relief. As a filmmaker what do you feel the director should do in order to reach some or all of these goals.

Jeremy: I believe that in order to make anything for an audience it must not be taken it lightly. Every person working on a film has to approach their job with utter seriousness. Even horror-comedy works to me when the actors are not winking and nodding about being funny or silly. More-so with a film that is meant to frighten. All movies that work well, work because of their cast. You can make a film with mediocre cinematography or music or lighting but if the performances are believable then then film might work. The reverse simple isn’t true.

CP: What line exists, if any, that a filmmaker shouldn’t cross when making a horror movie?

Jeremy: I think making a film exists simply to stimulate an audience for the purposes of going farther than what has proceeded it in the canon of horror has been done to death. That bridge was crossed long ago by the elder statesmen of the genre and I have no interest in seeking out films that are venial just to see how far a film can. That to me is as boring as shitty porn or watching an open-heart surgery video.

CP: What are the most important components when making a horror movie? What elements should never be compromised?

Jeremy: Young filmmakers need to focus on learning about working with actors. Actors are the key. Also, a true understanding of editing makes films more affordable and approachable in post-production. Getting clean, great sound from your dialogue can’t be overstated, too, as actors are often quiet in the scariest moments. Original production design makes a big difference–I see too many films that believe that simply by scoring a creepy cabin or basement in which to film will allow the vibe to translate. It often doesn’t. Lighting, practical effects, digital effects and show-offy shots are too often the places filmmakers get caught up and put all their focus. That stuff is fun but should be secondary to the filmmaking.

CP: The pandemic has caused a massive disruption to the film industry, in terms of production, screening and distribution. How do you see the future of production? Will there be a return to micro-budget and medium-budget filmmaking? Does the future look bright, or dim?

Jeremy: I think the cream will always rise to the top because genre fans are so good at seeking out the films that don’t necessarily get put in front of them. However, I do worry about a world where the vertical integration of the industry—meaning the few outlets like Apple, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, control the means of distribution, the fees for films, and the stories we get to see—prevents movies being profitable. It has been this way forever and it seems to be getting worse. I long for the days of B-movies playing drive-in theatres for a good fee and I believe today many more interesting films would come find an audience if such an outlet existed.

CP: What advice would you have for budding horror filmmakers?

Jeremy: Watch everything. Especially the classics. See old movies. Especially silent movies. Never give up. Stop telling people that you could do it better – go out and make films. It is an incredibly discouraging business, but most movies do not get completed for a lack of agility and stick-to-itiveness. Learn about the business. Do every job on a crew and work for a distribution company. Seeing how the sausage is made and coming to grips with your film being “product” is key to seeing a movie through to an audience.

CP: Can we expect another intense, nightmarish feature from you soon? If so, what’s on the cards?

Jeremy: I have so many films I would like to make but it is incredibly difficult to find financing for movies now. We will see what The Dead Ones brings.

CP: Thank you Jeremy!

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