The 13th Floor

Interview: Talking with John Skipp and Andrew Kasch from TALES OF HALLOWEEN

The new holiday-themed anthology horror film TALES OF HALLOWEEN opened last week to rave reviews! In addition to a theatrical run, the film is now available on most VOD platforms. Be sure to check out this instant Halloween classic!

We caught up with writer/directors John Skipp and Andrew Kasch to discuss the larger film, their segment “This Means War”, and how this awesome project came to be!

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Blumhouse.com: Can you tell me a little about how you became involved TALES OF HALLOWEEN and how the concept for your segment was created? 

ANDREW KASCH: A bunch of us were at our friend Erin’s birthday party last summer. Axelle Carolyn, Adam Geirasch and I somehow got talking about how much fun it would be to pull the L.A. horror community together and do a themed anthology. The next morning, the three of us met at the Jumpcut Cafe (where we held most of the subsequent meetings; we miss it!) and started throwing ideas and names into a hat. Once Mike Mendez and Epic Pictures became involved, the whole thing happened ridiculously fast!
As for our concept, I’m a total haunt junkie. For me, Halloween is all about attractions and yard displays and the Los Angeles area has some of the best in the world. Our original pitch was set in a Christian church “Hell House” that the Devil had literally taken over but the production was in favor of another idea we had about suburbanites battling for yard display supremacy.

JOHN SKIPP: Once that happened, it was my job to figure out who these dueling characters might be. And that’s how Boris and Dante were born: embodying the genuine horror rift between quiet classicists and bombastic goremeisters. A rift that exists to this day.

BH: Special effects and art design played a large role in your segment as the neighbors decorated their rival houses. Can you tell us how you created the distinctive looks as well as some details about the final big effect? 

AK: We spent a long time with our amazing production designer Anthony Pearce and his crew designing the schematics and lighting to give each house the proper flavor. Our older generation Forry Ackerman-type (played by Dana Gould) needed to have lots of spooky gothic fixings with fog and cooler colors, while his metalhead neighbor (played by James Duval) needed to go into garish Rob Zombie territory. That meant a lot of red lights and naked bloody torsos.

Little did we know what we were in for- building two whole yard displays in two days. The logistics on our short schedule made it a total nightmare to deal with. On top of that, for our first day of shooting, our art department lost two key people due to family emergencies, and a fire erupted through downtown L.A. which shut down the interstates and delayed our crew and prop construction. This caused a giant ripple effect on our entire shoot and at no point were the two houses finished at the same time. We had to abandon almost all of our pre-viz and shot lists and improvise things because our art department were working on the displays the entire time. And on top of that, we shot in December so all the neighbors had Christmas lights up. It was a huge exercise of constantly having the rug yanked out from under us and trying like hell to not fall flat on our faces.

The final impalement (spoiler alert) had to be achieved simply since we were scrambling to finish at the end. Our FX team just glued a wooden beam between them and splashed them with blood. Then we laid them onto some sandbags which we removed in post. Since we had only a single night to get most of this stuff, we really needed to strip things down to the essentials and keep things as simple as possible.

JS: Filmmaking is a dance between departments. And on the technical end, for the climax, it broke down to production design, stunts, and cinematography. Because we never saw Boris’s full lawn display until the moment we got to shoot it, the only thing we had to work with was the actual lawn we were gonna be shooting in. So we measured that shit out, foot by foot. Figured out where the graveyard went, the mausoleum, the open coffin, the most pivotal of the German Expressionist cutout trees. We figured out where out fight zone was, and exactly what moves we’d be doing.

There were two key breakaway pieces in the set that had to work, or we’d be screwed. Anthony, art director Kyle Hester, and the rest of the crew made sure they worked like crazy.

That’s when stunt coordinator Nils Allen Stewart came in, brought the two most perfect stunt doubles imaginable (including his son, Booboo Stewart, doubling for Jimmy), and nailed shit down. The time we spent together on the night before the fight scene let us know that the fight scene we envisioned was totally pull-off-able. It was Nils who came up with the sandbag trick, and, in doing so, saved our asses.

Then it was a matter of how to shoot it. We had a very clear idea of how everything needed to cut and every shot required. Enter Director of Photography Jan-Michael Losada who knew exactly where to put the camera,  often better than we’d dreamed of ourselves. With Steadicam badass Dean Smoller on board, we were a fucking machine, man! (laughs).

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BH: Such an impressive cast! How did you go about casting your actors? What were they like to work with on set? 

AK: Dana Gould was a comedian we both loved and my pal Frank Dietz (star of ROCK N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE) was good buddies with him. Dana is sort of renowned for being a hardcore sci-fi/horror buff from the Famous Monsters generations, so we knew he would bring an authenticity to this that a regular actor couldn’t fake. Of course, when we made the pitch Dana screamed “That’s totally me!” and just relished playing the character, which he modeled after several of the snootier classical horror historians. He kept everyone laughing the whole shoot, and I had a ton of fun quoting PLANET OF THE APES and ED WOOD lines with him the entire time.

James Duval has been a friend since I moved to L.A. He’s just the kind of guy who everyone in town is pals with, and he’s always down for anything. Having done a hundred indie movies, he totally knows the drill and easily adapted to our crazy guerilla schedule. I still don’t know where the dude gets his energy. I remember driving him home after we wrapped an all-night fight scene, and he was still talking a million miles a minute, and all I was thinking was “Dude, just keep talking so I don’t nod off and crash the car…”

Both Dana and Jimmy got along swimmingly. I love both those guys and would work with any of them again in a heartbeat. And of course, we were blessed with a slew of cameos from Elissa Dowling to Sean Clark to Felissa Rose and 50+ other genre faces in the crowd of screaming extras (including some Blumhouse folks you may know).

JS: We’d just cast Graham Denman as the star of our CLOWNTOWN pilot. And when I saw Thomas Blake hilariously perform in POINT BREAK LIVE – an unbelievable live staging of the movie POINT BREAK – I knew he and Graham would be perfect as Dante’s right-hand men. We’re both good friends with Elissa. We knew Lombardo Boyar from BIG-ASS SPIDER! Adam Green and Graham Skipper were already part of the cast, thank God! And everyone else just came in for the fun.

BH: Tell us about the actual shoot. How did you select the location? What “look” were you going for with the neighborhood? 

AK: We needed a good clean suburban look for the houses. At first, there was talk about shooting on the Universal backlot, and the thought of shooting this on the cul-de-sac from THE BURBS totally thrilled me. When that proved too costly, our line producer found a neighborhood in Eagle Rock and convinced two neighbors directly across from each other to let us use their lawns. It took a lot of scouting to give us the spaces we needed to stage all this stuff.

JS: He gave us three sets of houses to choose from. But the second we saw that one, we knew both a) that this was the place, and b) whose house was whose. “Okay, Boris? You take the gray one. Dante, you get the more modern one.” Done and done.

BH: Music seemed to play a huge role in your segment. Can you discuss a little about the musical motivations and selections for the piece. 

JS: Because our piece plays almost entirely as a silent movie – there’s maybe one minute-and-a-half of dialogue in the whole thing – music was INCREDIBLY important. It emotionally steers everything that’s happening and actual propels it with its rhythms.

AK: The idea was to take a classical music approach for Dana’s character and a punk metal style for Jimmy’s character, then merge them together during the brawl. Our composer Michael Sean Colin did a variation on Danse Macabre on violin, which is promptly interrupted by screaming death metal. We were lucky to get two rock tracks, one from my pal Sean Smithson who is an old-school headbanger from the band Sacrilege BC. The second was the metal version of “Night on Bald Mountain” by a group called Dead Rose Symphony that we found on YouTube. We temped the fight with that music, so Skipp and I just contacted them on the off-chance that they would let us use it in the film – and to our complete shock, they said YES! It never hurts to ask…

AS: Actually, Michael came up with an original composition that modeled the orchestral recording of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance #5” we’d used as our temp track. Because we’d already locked our picture, I was very specific in wanting him to match every time the orchestra organically sped up or slowed down: not just to match the cut, but so that it felt alive, like real classical music, and not just quantized to an artificial beat. And he brought in a terrific violinist named Katie Page to nail that human vivacity, in perfect concert with his digital orchestration.

Then they did an arrangement of “Danse Macabre” again featuring her violin. He restated his “Hallowgarian Dance” theme as rock, added a moody organ patch to the end, and that was that. I totally trusted Michael because we’d worked incredibly hard to together on the soundtrack to ROSE: THE BIZARRO ZOMBIE MUSICAL (a project we’d still like to get off the ground). As a composer and arranger, I don’t think there’s much he can’t do. Incredibly versatile and knowledgable. And a sweetheart, besides!

As for Dead Rose Symphony…the second Andrew plucked that off the internet, we knew we had to have it. It was precisely the balance of metal and orchestral we needed to sell the scene. And as it turns out, Kirk McWhorter of Dead Rose is a talented composer in his own right, who should definitely be scoring mood-drenched films. So when we posed the opportunity, he happily said yes. And the movie would not be the same without it.

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BH: Your massive crowd scene is like a “who’s who” of the LA horror scene. How did you recruit your crowd, and what was it like filming such a huge scale set piece? 

AK: We literally sent an e-mail blast to everyone we know, hoping we could get at least fifteen people to show up. That night, I was directing a scene across the street and when I finished, I turned around to see sixty costumed extras lined up at the other house. It was incredible! I remember Neil Marshall walked up to me and said “I don’t wanna tell you how to do your job, but SHOOT THE SHIT OUT OF THIS!” And that’s what we did! We had this massive crowd in Halloween outfits screaming their heads off on a suburban street as James Duval started pile driving himself onto a rubber mat, and Skipp ran back and forth to draw their eyelines. It was the most fun I’ve ever had filming anything in my life!

JS: MOST FUN I EVERY HAD, TOO! I’m hoping to God somebody got some footage of that!

Aside from the movie people, we also had some amazing writers on set- frequent collaborator Cody Goodfellow, Fungasm author/filmmaker Laura Lee Bahr, and Lisa Morton, president of the Horror Writer’s Association and one of the world’s foremost authorities on Halloween history and lore. (Her sweetheart, Ricky Grove from ARMY OF DARKNESS was also there.) And the biggest surprise was Andy Merrill (Brak on SPACE GHOST COAST TO COAST) who showed up but somehow managed to avoid being caught on camera. Goddamit!

BH: Discussing the larger film as a whole, how did all the TALES directors work together to make sure that each segment was distinctly different? 

AK: We talked a lot when crafting our scripts to make sure nothing felt derivative and to help build a through-line of the town and various sub-characters. After that, we all kind of split up and did our own thing under the watchful eyes of the producers. And to their credit, they gave us a lot of creative freedom.

JS: We’re all very different people, coming at this very different angles. So variety was never the issue. I think the trickiest thing was to make them all feel like part of the same movie. That’s where Epic Pictures very wisely provided an excellent camera package full of the best lenses we could ask for, thereby guaranteeing that everybody’s shit would look great. This allowed us to be as widely variety-intensive as we were, while pulling it all together.

Tonally, this movie pretty much spans the gamut from moody to manic, which is pretty much my favorite thing about it. It doesn’t just play one note over and over. It’s all up and down the Halloween scale. So you get a very traditional yet genuinely spooky and effectively jump-packed piece like Axelle Carolyn’s “Grim Grinning Ghost”, rubbing up against Lucky McKee’s wildly experimental and jarringly bi-polar brainfuck “Ding Dong” with gobs of giddy mayhem to either side.

To me – as a guy who’s edited wild fiction anthologies for going on a couple decades – I love this movie, because it hits so many of the notes. And the one you like most versus the one you like least is pretty much a Rorschach test on what you truly love about horror.

BH: It seems like it could be difficult for two vastly different people to come to agreement on the same project. How do you work together? Do you have a process? 

AK: We have our disagreements from time to time, but largely our sensibilities are so in perfect synchronicity. It’s way easier than you would think, especially during a chaotic low budget shoot where we can divide and conquer the hundreds of cast and crew questions that fly our way.

JS: Lemme tell ya about working with Andrew Kasch! (laughs) Last night, he hatchet-stabbed me three times in the chest for refusing to piss on the dog he’d just set on fire. I’m a little weak from blood loss and, um, dying. What was the question again?

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BH: You both come from distinctly different backgrounds (John- writing and Andrew- editing). How have your backgrounds prepared you for directing? Do they compliment each other? 

AK: Absolutely. Editing is where you really create your movie and if you don’t have an instinct for it, then you don’t have a full vision. You sometimes see that in the film and TV world, where a director will just roll 5 cameras at once and expect you as an editor to figure it out. You want to smack that person and scream “Make a decision! That’s what directing is all about!”

JS: I, on the other hand, come from writing, which is where the movie is invented and envisioned. Every line of script I write has a camera angle full of mood and momentum in mind. I’m super-specific. And so is he.

So we pretty much have the front end and back end covered. Then we meet in the middle, and make decisions on how every second should play in advance. What’s the best way to shoot this story moment? What are the shots that we absolutely need? And how do we ladle in the filmic gravy, make sure every bite tastes great?

My favorite part of collaborating is laying out the pieces and paying attention to every single one. If we disagree on how a moment should play, then we discuss every detail specifically in advance with the camera, performance, and cut in mind. Our whole agreed-upon approach is entirely dialed toward the moment-to-moment, designing every frame.

Once we super-clearly know what we want, we can walk onto the set with a clear game plan that all of our team can follow. So if circumstances change – which they do, all the time – we can improvise on the spot.

My favorite thing about working with Andrew is that he’s both immensely skillful and resourceful, with  great and workable ideas firing out non-stop. As a human idea machine myself, we always have a lot to play with. In the end, we both want what’s best. And loving and respecting each other definitely helps.

BH: What’s next? Any upcoming projects or events you want to plug? 

AK: I’m neck deep working on DC’s LEGENDS OF TOMORROW which is a fantastic show that I think will make sci-fi and comic book geeks incredibly happy. Outside that, Skipp and I are shopping a project called CLOWNTOWN about ex-circus clowns fighting the supernatural which we shot a mini-pilot for last summer. And we have about a half dozen other scripts we’re trying to get made. More than anything, I’m dying to get back behind the camera. Making movies is like oxygen.

JS: While Andrew’s making superheroes collide, I’m editor-in-chief of Fungasm Press, an indie fiction line devoted to amazing genre-defying books that I love with all my heart. And my new solo short story collection, THE ART OF HORRIBLE PEOPLE, features some of my favorite writing from the last ten years, with more than a little to say about L.A.

But what I really wanna do is direct maybe a dozen feature films, and maybe a TV series or three, with Andrew before I die. Anything to wipe away the taint of NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST. 5, a movie I only like because making it introduced me to Andrew, and changed my life when he brought me in to talk about on NEVER SLEEP AGAIN: THE ELM ST. STORY.

Thank God for TALES OF HALLOWEEN! A movie I’m actually proud of, because it truly delivers on the dark joy of the season. A party film, I think, for generations to come!

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