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An Interview with Spencer Parsons, Director of Saturday Morning Mystery

Saturday Morning Mystery answers the age old question of what would happen if you put Scooby Doo and the gang into a situation much more harrowing than their typical mystery. It's a blood soaked combination of Hanna Barbera, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and that nightmare that you keep on having but are afraid to tell anyone for fear that they'll stop thinking you're cute and funny, and start feeling uneasy around you. Director Spencer Parsons sat down to talk to me about the making of the film and the interesting backstory behind it.

Jason Howard: We should start by asking - are you a fan of Scooby Doo and it's many copycats?

Spencer Parsons: Well, yeah, it's definitely something I was really into when I was a kid and I have a certain nostalgic appreciation for it as an adult. But, if somebody had said to me a few years ago that I'd be directing a movie inspired by Scooby Doo or Jabberjaw or Goober and the Ghost Chasers, or, my personal favorite, The Buford Files, I would have laughed in their face. It's not necessarily what I would have pictured getting myself into. In fact, when the producers, Jason Wehling and Jonny Mars, came to me with the idea and asked if I was interested in directing it, I thought it was nice, but I wanted to do something more like Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Or a comedy horror like Re-Animator. That was my feeling about it. But, then this kinda cool thing happened. In speaking about it more, I realized it could be really fun to jump in with the expectations of a Scooby Doo mystery, even if you were gonna go kinda dirty and gory with it. I thought we can really push it into a realm that would be unexpected, in R-rated Scooby Doo terms.

JH: How did they approach you to do this project? I heard that, in this particular case, the script didn't necessarily come first.

SP: You're right, the script was not first. Basically what happened was the opportunity came up to shoot in the mansion, which was our main location. The guys who had just bought it thought it would be really cool to shoot a horror film in it, so they called Jason, who I had worked with on other projects before this, and they said "why don't you come check it out?" After he did, he came to me, knowing I was a big horror fan. I was already working on another horror project that was kind of difficult to get going, so he asked me if I would be interested in working on it, and we hatched the story from there. The location came first and then the story came later.

JH: Did having the location first affect the writing process at all? Did you write inside the house for inspiration?

SP: We did. We spent time inside the house just looking around and getting inspiration. There were some very particular locations in the house where we knew we wanted to shoot. The cellar in the house is very creepy, so we knew from the get go that we wanted to shoot down there. And, the hallway with all the doors - that's actually a remarkably simple layout to that mansion. That was another element that we used. Every day that we were shooting started with going through the house to the specific locations where we knew we'd be shooting that day and really working through where cameras where going to go, and even to some degree, rewriting the script a bit to adjust the order to what was presenting itself to us on the day. There was really no other choice, because our script was mostly structure. A lot of the details came about during the of making the film and in using the location day to day.

JH: With such a spooky location at your disposal for the shoot, did you experience any odd situations?

SP: Well, we shot all night, sometimes with lanterns and flashlights - those are the only light sources for a whole lot of the shots in the film. So, it gets a little crazy when you're working all night, even a 23 hour day at one point when we started in the day, went into the night, and back into the day again. At one point, one of our monsters, a really great guy named Sean Ryan, needed to take a nap in between setups and he wasn't going to be in the next scene. We found him asleep in a sleeping bag, holding on to the rubber axe used throughout the movie to murder people, hugging it as if it was a teddy bear. He was also in full makeup and everything, so it was an interesting sight. But, Sean's great. One of the awesome things about having him on set was that, in the first couple of days of shooting, when we didn't even have scenes with him, our costume and makeup departments were doing R & D on his look for the film in order to lock in what that was going to be. We didn't have a lot of pre-production time for them to figure that out. So they were just trying things out on him and he would wander around in the dark with his various looks, in his various costumes before it was blocked. He was doing his best to lurk in the shadows and scare the other actors whenever he could. We had this constant, weird tension where they, of course, knew their lives weren't in danger, but always had to worry that Sean might jump out at them at any time.

JH: Now, it looked to me as though the effects were mostly practical. Was that the case?

SP: Yes. I would add that there's no CGI, but there are a few compositing effects and things like that. But, basically, our toolkit was very similar to what filmmakers were using back in the 1930's and 40's to make a horror film. I also love all of the 80's transformation movies, like An American Werewolf in London and The Thing and I spent a lot of time looking at how they did those effects. Although I was out of practice, I felt very confident to do practical effects, which in this case were far simpler than something like The Thing. We wanted to shoot something that would look very credible, even with a smaller budget.

JH: You had mentioned originally being a fan of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but I also definitely noticed a vibe of Texas Chainsaw 2 at various points.

SP: Yeah, it's definitely more like Texas Chainsaw 2. The art direction of the lair at the end is definitely a throwback to Texas Chainsaw 2. Even in the costuming - you can never see it, so people will have to take my word for it, but Ashley, who plays Nancy in the movie, has a little necklace around her neck that says, "The saw is family" on it, so we were definitely aware of Texas Chainsaw 2. The original is a bit closer to my heart, and I actually find the original to be funnier than the second one. But, here's the thing - when you start with Scooby Doo, you're starting with comedy. And, you're starting with something that's broader, so even if we're going to take into a pretty dark place, ultimately where you're going to end up if you start with Scooby Doo is going to be more like Texas Chainsaw 2 than the original.

JH: What kind of audience do you think is the right one for this film and how have they responded so far?

SP: We've gotten amazing responses. We've been really gratified. People have been loving the film. I think the ideal audience for it is, on the one hand hardcore horror fans who grew up on these cartoons and maybe got their first taste of horror being spooked out by the ghosts on Scooby Doo until the masks were pulled off. And, on the other hand, I think it's played really well for horror fans that don't normally want to go in for gore or slasher type violence. We pushed them farther than their comfort zone and it was actually pretty fun. I hope that it finds an audience very much like I was like in college. The version of me in college is our mental picture of our audience.

JH: Speaking of audience expectations, since you were starting with the framework of Scooby Doo and various Hanna Barbera cartoons, did you feel any pressure to make sure that you were pleasing audience members who might discover your movie through their fandom of those types of franchises rather than being horror fans?

SP: Yes, a little bit. But, ultimately, we're in the exploitation business and the first rule of exploitation is to know your audience and know them very clearly. So, for sure, it's more aimed at a horror audience than the cartoons, but we did have some interesting problems to deal with as far as the homage aspect. One of the ones that became a fascinating challenge was the idea of a Scooby Doo ending, which means that thing where you just kind of pull the solution to the mystery out of your ass at the end. That's an expectation that the audience may have going in. So we tried to play with the idea of the Scooby Doo ending and come up with something that would be, one hand, more Texas Chainsaw, but on the other would play a bit more like Scooby Doo, with a bit of the surreal, like a Dario Argento movie. A movie like Tenebrae has a bit of a Scooby Doo ending. The killer at the end of Dario Argento's giallos, when you get the explanation, it's a lot like that. So, we tried to take inspiration from that. We wanted to deliver something that would be irrational and Scooby Doo-ish, but putting thought into it.

JH: I definitely sensed, and you kind of touched on this earlier, a throwback to 80's horror in the film. Do you feel like that's a resurgence right now, going back to the good old fashioned blood, gore, and T&A?

SP: You know, I hope so, cause those movies are really fun. 80's horror got kind of a justifiable bad name for a while, because they got to be too ridiculous - too much funny, not enough scary. But, the best ones, like the Frank Henenlotter films Brain Damage and Basket Case, or Stuart Gordon's films from that period were so funny and so creepy at the same time. There's something so wonderful about that combination of fun and creepiness. And, horror, you know, is also about sex. I'll just say, right out, I want to see the sexy come back to horror. I'm kind of bothered by the fact that that's kind of off the menu for many horror films these days. It's not just about flashing tits or whatever. It's also that, a lot of the wellspring of horror stories come from people's fears about sex and relationships and that's an important part of the whole package. And, yeah, I do think it's fun when people get naked in a movie, so we did that, as well as all the other stuff in this film.

JH: Absolutely. What was the casting process like? I noticed a large number of Austin-based actors.

SP: Yeah. I used to live in Austin and, in many ways, I'm still an Austin-based filmmaker. So the first round of casting was pulling together folks that I knew and had worked with before. There were people that I had worked with a bunch, like Jonny Mars and Paul Gordon, who had been a roommate of mine. I didn't know Ashley before this, but Jason and Jonny were familiar with her work and then I thought that when she auditioned, she was terrific. And, there were a couple of ringers from out-of-town - Josephine Decker, who's really, really great, I had just seen in a couple of movies, so I said, "can we please call Josephine - she's going to be worth the plane ticket." We didn't have much time, so it really had to be pulled together quickly.

JH: Now, how did it come about have a veteran like Sonny Davis in the movie? He's one of those guys that we've all seen in a ton of movies - we know his face, but don't know the name.

SP: Sonny's been a friend of mine for a few years. I had cast him in a short film that I did just a couple of years earlier. We always look for opportunities to work together. It was wonderful of Sonny to bring along his history of having been in movies like Terrorvision and The Evil Bong franchise. We had B-movie royalty in the film, which made me really excited.

JH: Can you talk a little bit about your feelings on the state of the Austin film industry? Did guys like Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater open that up for everyone else?

SP: Things really opened up in Austin in the 90's. I think it was a town that always had a lot of potential and a lot of that potential was realized in the 90's. The tricky thing about Austin is that it has a really amazing scene, but I'm not sure as of yet, that it's really a fully functioning film industry though. I think it's important to draw that distinction. On one hand, really having a more vibrant industry could bring a lot of jobs and things that are absolutely necessary to keep that community going, but there are downsides to that as well. Part of the vibrancy of the Austin film scene is that there are a lot of crazy Texans and crazy wannabe-Texans gathering in this wonderful place and doing stuff because they love it, not because it's a job or because they think they can make tons of money on it. They're doing their own personal visions. I wouldn't say that would go away because of being professionalized, but I just don't know that if the industry fully comes to Austin, that it'll support the kind of wonderful, crazy productions that have always been possible. In many ways, it might be just as tough to get those personal projects made in a more industrial setup. But, I think it's a wonderful place - a tremendous cauldron of talent.

JH: You're first feature, I'll Come Running, was definitely not horror. Is it your intention to not pigeonhole yourself into one genre?

SP: Well, I prefer storytelling and whatever story is best. On the one hand, I'd say, yes, you're right - I'm not interested in being pigeonholed. With I'll Come Running, maybe not on the surface, but there are lessons that I learned and elements of the way that movie worked that come more from my attention to horror films than art films or romantic comedies. I guess, when it comes down to it, as an artist, I don't want to be pigeonholed. There are projects that I'm working on that are not horror. But at the same time, I love horror, and if that is how I'm pigeonholed, then that's a great pigeon hole to be in.

JH: How do you feel that the current film industry has been affected by newer aspects like YouTube, digital cameras, camera phones, and Video on Demand (VoD)? It seems as if it may be easier than ever to make a movie, but not necessarily to get it released.

SP: Absolutely, that's right. Although I guess we should put quotes around the word "release," because it may be harder than ever to get a movie into theaters and it may be more difficult than it should be to get attention for your film, or a large number of eyes looking at it, but on the other hand, we now have more possibilities in how to see movies than ever before. I guess the big question or big problem that we have is the issue of gatekeeping. That has its plusses and its minuses. The big plus is that when you're paying attention to movies, you're paying attention to the gatekeeper. They can tell you what you should check out, which helps you to find stuff, especially on the internet. But, on the other hand, the gatekeeping can decide that lesser work is more important for whatever reason - because of the internet or the influence of the people that made it or the influence of some of the people that like it. So, it can be a real problem - we have all these amazing means of getting the work in front of people, but we still have a lot to iron out in terms of how best to get people to watch and, the even bigger problem of how they can build a career on that. Sustainability is always a big issue. Can you get to make your next movie if the movie you're making now is incapable of making any money because the people that are seeing it in the outlets that are available really aren't that profitable for the filmmaker?

JH: You're also a teacher of the art of filmmaking. How has that experience informed your own craft?

SP: It really informs it. In one very simple way, it's my job to watch films and pay attention to them. I'm working when I head to the video store or queue up something on Netflix, rather than just wasting my time. That's obviously awesome. The funny thing is, that I also learn from my students. Everybody knows that some student films can be absolutely terrible to watch. But, sometimes even the bad ones have moments that you can learn from and by working with students regularly, and talking with them about how their films work and don't work, and about wonderful discoveries that they make, for me, that always has revived my senses and makes me much more excited about film.

JH: Have you had any students come through your course that made you feel like you were looking at the "next big thing" or someone that you were sure was going to make it?

SP: It's impossible to predict, but I will say this - Brian Bertino, who made The Strangers, was a student of mine and PA for me. I always knew that Brian was super smart, really passionate, and loved movies. I knew that guy was gonna have some kind of career. Could I have predicted that he was going to scare the bejesus out of me in The Strangers? Absolutely not, but, I love that film. And, I don't just love it because it's Brian. I love it because it's a great film and I'm proud to say that I worked with him.

JH: Any upcoming projects?

SP: Yeah, I'm about to shoot a short that's based on a true crime that took place a few years ago that I'm really excited about. I'm calling it Bite Radius, even though there are no sharks in it. It's kind of a nifty little noirish piece about amnesia and bodily mutilation. I'll be shooting that a little bit later this summer. I guess, maybe at some point down the road a little bit, I'd like to expand that story into a feature, but in doing the short first, I'm able to do some things that I might not be able to get away with in a feature. So that's really exciting for me. I've also been asked to do a segment of a horror omnibus called I Scream, You Scream. It's going to be me, and also Eduardo Sanchez is doing a chapter, and Huck Botko is doing a chapter, and Jack Perez is doing one. Kris Swanberg is going to be making one, and I love her script. I think it's going to be really great. I'm really excited about what that film is going to be with all these directors. It's a good combo of both horror genre directors and folks that haven't done that before, but I think are going to make some really scary stuff.

JH: Lastly, we all want to know - Daphne or Velma?

SP: Daphne or Velma? I really don't mean to be coy about this, but I would have to say that it would depend on my mood. But, I've always kind of had a thing for librarians, so maybe Velma.

Interview by Jason Howard for Influx Magazine

Follow Jason on twitter @Jason_Influx

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