LA Film Fest 2012 Interview: SATURDAY MORNING MASSACRE dir. Spencer Parsons & actor/prod. Jonny Mars on Ghosts and Scooby Doo
Using Scooby Doo as a jumping off point, director Spencer Parsons's latest is a horror-parody of the classic cartoon series starring Ashley Spillers, Jonny Mars, Josephine Decker, and Adam Tate as questionably competent paranormal investigators.
After the world premiere of SATURDAY MORNING MASSACRE, we talked with director Spencer Parsons, producer/actor Jonny Mars, and stars Ashley Spillers and Josephine Decker about ghosts, Scooby Doo, and the mansion that inspired them to make a horror-parody film.
This is your second time at LAFF--how has your experience been different this year?
Spencer Parsons: Well, it's always a different experience--different filmmakers, different films, different vibe. It's been great both times. It's fantastic to return. I really honestly couldn't be happy premiering this movie at the same festival cuz we had such a good experience last time. Everyone's been phenomenal. The downtown vibe is different from the Westwood vibe from the last time we were here, but it's a great festival.
Saturday Morning Massacre is an Austin film, but you don't actually live in Austin anymore--I read you left to teach at Northwestern. Do you still identify as an Austin filmmaker?
Parsons: Yeah, absolutely. I'm still making movies in Austin and my creative partnerships are with folks from Austin. It's possible to make films from pretty much anywhere now. In a lot of ways, I moved to Chicago so I could afford to be an Austin filmmaker.
Mars: It's true now, huh? That's kind of the way it is.
Parsons: There's a lot of time splitting. I could make a list of things I wouldn't do the same way, yeah. But you just figure it out.
Mars: He basically came down to live with us for a while.
Parsons: I took a lot of editorial down to Chicago with me. There were a couple trips back and forth. And for the last stretch, I just came back down and lived in Austin for a while. It wasn't the same as really living in Austin because we were working around the clock but it works out--it's possible. It's definitely possible.
You've said you didn't have much time at all to prepare for this film, or to shoot it. What were the circumstances you were working with when making the movie?
Parsons: It's one of those crazy old-style exploitation movie stories. Like when Roger Corman had an extra set sitting around and turned around and said, "Griffith, I want you go off and write a brand new movie for us." So he goes away for three days and two days later they're shooting Little Shop of Horrors. So it was one of those kind of things.
Our executive producers were looking at a house that they were going to buy--this beautiful old mansion on this really big piece of land with a bunch of schools and all kinds of stuff in Austin--and while they were touring it, they decided it would be a great place to shoot a horror film so they made some calls. But the one catch was they were going to fix it up in just six weeks, so we basically had to go from zero to a shot out movie in six weeks. So it was a wonderful challenge. It really forced us to write the movie by making the movie, which is actually a practice I really believe in. That's common to both art cinema on one hand and exploitation cinema on the other. All the French New Wave guys said it and Roger Corman was doing it that was because he had to. So we took inspiration from that.
Do you think you need to have those kinds of crazy constraints in order to foster the kind of creativity you need to make a good movie?
Parsons: You often have constraints, and they're often quite crazy. Any movie offers its constraints, and these were our particular constraints with this movie.
Mars: There's no right way to make a movie.
Mars: There are wrong ways though.
Parsons: Yeah, there are definitely wrong ways, and we find that out every time we make one.
Mars: That's why we went to Spencer with this--this movie was built for him. I've worked with Spencer a lot over the years as an actor, and we were friends too. He'll do what it takes. Jason [Wehling, screenwriter] and I call ourselves "dirtbag filmmakers"--meaning, we'll do whatever it takes. We'll get in the dirt and throw it around, do whatever it takes to get it done. We knew it was a monumental task to make this movie in six weeks but we also knew Spencer was a genre junkie and our friend who was available and would bust his ass to make it happen. We all went at breakneck speed and surrounded ourselves with as many creative people as possible and made this crazy stew.
Parsons: That really happens by default when making almost any movie though. You can sit around and cry into your beer about how the conditions aren't going to be perfect when you're going to make it, but I'd rather just go make the movie. If we get going and everybody's good and we're all good to each other in the process, then we'll make something interesting. The process itself produces something really fun and interesting that can only be captured under those conditions.
Were there any scenes that could've turned out totally awful given the conditions but ended up looking amazing?
Parsons: That's actually a really difficult question because I feel like that could describe the whole film. This is going is going to sound weird and boastful, but really, the whole movie was like that. It's like under this particular duress, everything had to be made up and held together based on yesterday's experiences. We shot almost everything in sequence and every time we threw ourselves into every scene and it was like, "Oh wow, it's a miracle that that turned out okay." And even some of the stuff that didn't turn out as well, we figured out a way to make it work. Like we wouldn't have come up with it in advance but ended up finding a way to make it work even better than if we had come up with it beforehand.
Mars: My answer would probably be the scene where we're looking for Hamlet. Cuz that was sort of pieced together throughout the shoot. We typically had three units working at all times to cover the amount of material we needed to cover. Any time anyone wasn't with the main unit, with Spencer, we'd grab an actor and put them somewhere in the house with a flashlight looking for the dog. So that was cobbled together in the end--Spencer took that and made it what it was. And I think that turned out pretty cool. That was everybody pitching in and making it look good.
Parsons: Yeah, there were particular strategies like that for when we had to be in two places at the same time. In general, we used more strategies than intensive planning--you just can't storyboard the whole thing for a film like this. That's the most important thing you can do.
Mars: We shot the chapel scene last--
Spillers: That was the scene I ended up being most proud of because I was so stressed out about it. I was like, "How the fuck am I gonna do this?" It worked out. I was worried about a lot of things but I think it turned out great!
Mars: We shot that scene last to give the art department as much time as possible to build that space. You [Spencer] told a great story about the school at the Q&A.
Parsons: We're finishing it up at the school and it's the rare experience of losing dark rather than losing light when you're making a film. The sun starts to come up and you can adjust the f-stop to try and get away with it and adjust it again but eventually it's like, "No, it's going to be day in a minute, we need to call the scene." So the sun is coming up and we emerge from this school and everybody is covered in fake blood. Everybody that smokes is smoking. A lot of people who don't smoke are smoking. And all these kids are coming out. So a teacher comes over and says to me, "Um, excuse me. Would you mind not smoking in front of the children?" We were completely covered in blood and she's worried about smoking!
How did you handle casting? Were you actively looking for people who resembled the Scooby Doo Mystery Team in terms of appearance or personality or general vibe?
Parsons: When we started, Johnny was going to play Shaggy. And he didn't want to do it--
Mars: Yeah, I wasn't happy about that.
Mars: Cuz I always play the pot dealer.
Parsons: Johnny played a fundamentalist Christian coke dealer in my last film.
Mars: I played a pot dealer in another film and I wanted to expand. I wanted to play Fred but they just weren't having it.
Parsons: It didn't really make sense.
Mars: Jason and I immediately thought of Ashley when we started talking about the concept and Spencer hadn't met her yet.
Parsons: Then I met her and it was like, "Yep, that's it, let's go." I'd seen Josephine [Decker, who plays Gwen] in my friend's movie. I hadn't met her, but we did some quick introductions and then Paul Gordon came in as a cop. A lot of our supporting parts were from calling in favors from around town, so that was all easy. But then the Fred spot in the whole thing was really hard for some reason. Everyone we got in touch with was really weird or had an attitude. Basically all these guys--
Mars: All these Freds!
Parsons: Ha yeah, all these guys who played a minor character on like Friday Night Lights once who were being all cagey and stuff. There were a couple people who were actually really cool but they just got back to us too late.
Mars: And one guy's dad wouldn't let them do it.
Parsons: Yeah. There was nudity and his dad was a little worried about that. Have we given away who that is yet? We should probably stop talking about him. He seemed to be okay with it, but he said, "I have to ask my dad about it" and as soon as he said that it was all over for him. Anyone who's dad has to weigh in is just not gonna work out. But then one night we were just at some random bar and Jason spotted Adam Tate across the way. Turns out he had some friends in our art department and he worked for the Austin Film Society--so he was hooked into the community already, we just didn't know him yet. He auditioned and was really right for the part and that was it. He just threw himself into this really tough role. When you're trying to do a kind of live action Scooby Doo, you know everyone's gonna hate Fred. You can't not hate Fred. That guy is automatically going to be a douchebag. And I really wanted to like the character. I wanted to figure out how to like the character because that's more interesting than painting him as the douchebag. Adam was really good at planning both sides of that--the expected douchebaggy parts and the fun and likeable part too.
So do any of you believe in ghosts? Have you had any paranormal experiences?
Decker: I have a cousin who is psychic. It's totally eerie. My dad keeps losing money to her because over the phone, if he's thinking of a five digit number, she can guess it. If you're thinking of something in your head, she can draw it. It's not tricks. I think it scares her too that she can read minds. I guess that's not really ghosts though.
Mars: It counts--it's paranormal.
Spillers: I've never seen a ghost. But sometimes I get feelings. But everyone has those, right? Where you just kind of feel a presence? I have weird dreams about things.
Mars: Maybe you shouldn't tell people about that!
Parsons: I know plenty of people who've had those experiences but personally, I really, truly, do not believe in ghosts and stuff. However, what's interesting to me is the natural explanation for things. The natural explanations are often really difficult to arrive at and there are often a lot of crazy things going on. When you get into the science of things, the natural explanations are often much stranger than the supernatural explanations.
Saturday Morning Massacre premiered at LA Film Fest on June 16.