The 13th Floor

Director Jon Watts: How CLOWN Went from Fake Eli Roth Trailer to Real Eli Roth Production

This Friday, the long wait for the U.S. release of Jon Watts’ CLOWN ends—and appropriately enough, the journey started out with a joke. As Watts explains in this interview, he and his friends’ mock trailer about a loving dad becoming a demonic clown wound up becoming a real movie, which filmed in 2013 for release by Dimension Films. It then went into U.S. distribution limbo for a couple of years, though it has since been released in other countries, before finally landing on its June 17 theatrical/VOD date, courtesy of Dimension and Anchor Bay.

In the interim, Watts and his co-scripter Christopher D. Ford boosted their profiles with last year’s thriller COP CAR, starring Kevin Bacon as a crooked rural sheriff pursuing two young boys who have stolen his cruiser for a joyride. The upshot was Watts landing the plum assignment of helming SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, which reboots the webslinger as part of Marvel Entertainment’s shared cinematic universe. Now, as Stateside audiences finally get the chance to see Watts’ first feature, he talks about its conception and creation.

clw_7663-h_2016 How does your film deviate from other evil-clown flicks?

Jon Watts: Well, it’s fun to describe the premise, because it’s so silly, but we treat it deadly seriously in the movie. The clown doesn’t show up for this boy’s birthday party, so his dad finds what he thinks is an old clown suit in a house he’s trying to sell; he’s a real-estate agent. He puts it on and saves the day: His kid loves him, his wife loves him. Then he falls asleep in it because he’s so exhausted, and the next morning he finds he can’t take it off, and he can’t take the nose or the wig off. It starts to get tighter and tighter, and he can’t figure out what’s happening, and what we discover is that it’s not a suit; it’s the skin and hair of an ancient Nordic demon called the cloyne [laughs], and it’s slowly bonding with him and taking him over, and he has to figure out how to stop from becoming this child-eating monster. It’s a lot like that movie BODY PARTS, which is one of my favorites. Children in jeopardy seems to be a theme in your films. Is that accidental, or something you find transgressive and interesting to explore?

JW: I’m not doing it on purpose, but it does seem like a trend. I don’t know; at least in SPIDER-MAN we’ll be safe!

clown-a-20150319 Tell us the whole story of Eli Roth took CLOWN from prank trailer (which you can watch below) to feature film.

JW: Chris Ford and I and some of our friends from New York University have always had this YouTube page where we would post dumb videos. One weekend, I was like, “You know that horror-movie idea we always joke about, with the guy turning into a clown in a Cronenbergian way? Let’s make it as a fake trailer, and see if we can fool the handful of people who follow us on YouTube.”

So we went out over the weekend and shot it, just for fun. And as we were editing it together, it was turning out pretty convincing, and the last thing we put in was the title card saying that it was from Eli Roth. We felt that putting Eli’s name on it would totally “legitimize” it, and also fill in the blanks of what we weren’t able to shoot for the trailer, because if it’s from Eli, you assume it’s going to go into some dark, twisted, awesome place. So we said, “From Master of Horror Eli Roth,” and just listed ourselves as the screenwriters. We put it on-line not thinking anything would happen with it. And the next day, it had so many views; it was being posted all over Instagram and Twitter as Eli’s next movie. You weren’t worried about any repercussions once Roth found out?

JW: Well, no! Nothing we had put on YouTube had ever gotten…any attention, really, and I had no idea that Eli Roth had such a strong social-media presence. Then I got a call that day warning me, “Eli’s gonna call you.” I was thinking, “Oh no, what have we done?” When he called, I was like, “Please don’t sue us, we were just joking around!” And he was like, “No, this is cool!” and listed a bunch of movies it reminded him of, because he’s like an encyclopedia. He was an NYU guy too, so I think that maybe helped a little bit. Then he asked, “Do you guys want to make this movie?” We were like, “Yeah!” and then we flew out to LA and met him, and he was like, “OK, I’ll get this thing set up!” So he got us paid to write the script, and we shot it in Ottawa. I think he had sold it to Dimension before we had even written it, or maybe right after. The whole existence of CLOWN is still unbelievable to me. How did you find an actor who could both play the loving father and have the physical presence to perform the monstrous side?

JW: It was such an insane audition, because we didn’t give anyone too much of a direction about what the monster would be like. It’s supposed to be from another time, basically, so what that was, exactly, was something we left open in the auditions. But Andy Powers, who plays Kent, who becomes the clown demon, was great. He was just fully, fully committed. And he was a really nice guy, which was indeed the hardest thing—to find someone who could be sufficiently disturbing, but believable as a nice, regular suburban dad at the beginning. And he did it! Who did your FX?

JW: Tony Gardner, who’s amazing. It’s a transformation story, so we started where we wanted the monster to end up. We figured out what the actual Nordic demon cloyne looked like, and then worked out in various stages how a person would change into that. We wanted it to be a very asymmetrical, gross, THE FLY-style transformation. In our story, all the things we associate with being a clown are based on this creature, in the way pagan traditions became Christianized. Our idea is that the concept we have of a white-faced clown with colorful hair is a cleaned-up version of this monster. Like a Krampus, that sort of thing.

CLOWN arrives on VOD and in select theaters June 17th!