Your new movie Killer
Piņata - in a few words, what is it about?
It's the heartwarming story of a piņata that is sick of seeing his
kind abused by humanity for sport, so he decides to give them a taste of
their own medicine.
did the project fall together in the first place?
There are two events that lead to
First, Jenn, Paul, and I
own a company that has nothing to do with filmmaking. And when we started
the company, we decided that, instead of playing the radio or Spotify,
we would put on bad movies from Netflix and Amazon. Our rule was that
it couldn't have more than two stars. So it was this Mystery Science
Theater 3000 existence, where these terrible horror films were
constantly on loop. Well, maybe terrible to mainstream audiences, we
sincerely enjoyed a lot of them. But then we ran out. Within a year,
we literally watched every terrible horror film on both platforms, so
we decided it was time to make our own.
The other event occurred in the fall of 2013, when I
was at the Austin Film Festival. I was talking to Leigh Whannell (I
don't know Leigh personally, we were at the bar and struck up a
conversation). And we both admitted that we were interested in trying to
make a micro budget film, just to see what would happen. When we were in
film school, you didn't have all these great digital toys, and we
wondered what would happen if you took a couple of grand and threw it
into a film.
was the perfect mix to attempt that.
were your inspirations when writing Killer Piņata,
and what can you tell us about your co-writer Megan
Macmanus and her collaboration with her?
Definitely Charles Band's Full Moon or
Empire films. I
love Puppet Master, I love
Dolls, these great tiny creature features
with David Allen's wonderful stop motion animation. But I also liked
that Band created this comic-book-company-as-movie-studio. Dollman,
Demonic Toys, Oblivion, they're really fun movies. I also liked the
Vestron stuff like Dolly Dearest and Ticks, just low budget
straight-to-video horror fare. So Killer Piņata was a way for me to scratch that
creative itch, to make a film like the ones I grew up on.
Megan I've known for about 12 years. She's an
incredibly accomplished comedy writer, who is now also working on YA
novels. She was a semi finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship, which is
incredibly difficult to do. We've wanted to work together on something
forever, and threw a couple of ideas around over the years, but because
we write such different things, it was hard to find that project. When
Killer Piņata came up, it was the perfect marriage. Working with her is a joy. It's
fun to read Megan's writing, I always enjoy whatever new thing she's
What can you
tell us about Killer Piņata's
brand of humour?
It's a little South Park. Inappropriate,
over the top. With something like this, we knew we had to go big, bold,
and bawdy. But we also didn't shy away from the long-form joke, which we
set up the entire film, and then pay off in a brutal, bloody way in our
Having covered humour, you also have to
say a few words about Killer
Piņata's approach to horror - and how hard was it to make the
titular piņata even remotely menacing?
You really can't make the Killer Piņata menacing, because he's small and
adorable. And we made a decision, particularly with the party scene, that
we wanted the audience to feel bad for him. We wanted them to understand
his motivations. So we were put in a position that we had to create true
tension outside of Killer Piņata himself. That would be the sequence where the lights
go out in the house, Martin in the backyard, in the final act when Lindsay
and Scott are hunting Killer Piņata, etc. We used the absence of Killer Piņata
tension. And then on some of it, we went full Peter Jackson and delivered
the gore, to show that he was a real threat. He's incredibly strong and
ruthless (and perverted), so ripping things off is not a problem for him.
Do talk about
your directorial approach to your story at hand?
school, haha. We had a less-than-tiny-budget, so I knew that we would have
zero time for prep or rehearsals. I think we did great with the time that
we had, but generally I would have about 10 minutes to work out the scene
with the actors, and basically the first take was always a rehearsal take.
I knew from the beginning that 98% of Killer Piņata's stuff would be practical
effects, so I spent a lot of time figuring out every shot I would need to
successfully hide the puppeteer, or shoot around the practical gore
effects, which were filmed six months after principal photography ended.
But those were exciting challenges to me.
can you tell us about your cast, and why exactly these people?
of the best casts I've ever worked with. We cast for three days in
Chicago, and saw A LOT of actors. Many of them were great. One of the
amazing things about making films in Chicago is you have this incredible
bench of theater talent, so they're bringing these skills to your set. It
was such a good turnout, that if we didn't get the people we wanted, we
had 2-3 back up options that were also fantastic. That's how good we had
it during the audition process. And two of them - Nate Bryan, who played Chad,
and Joette Waters, who played The Shopkeeper, completely changed how the
characters were originally written. Their take was the better take, so we
cast them and formed the characters around what they came up with. Eliza-Jane
Morris was the only actress we cast before our fundraising began, and
I think Lindsay Ashcroft was next. And they were a great start to the
process. Billy Chengary, who plays Scott, we almost didn't audition, because he
came through on the last day, and I just felt we already had some good
options for Scott. Jenn Kunkel, the producer, made the case that we should
see him, and I'm glad she did. Every day, they came in prepared. Off book,
ready to work, and that kept our days on time. As a group, they just
instantly got what we were doing, and it made my job much easier, because
they all had the sense of timing that Killer Piņata needed.
few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?
of the best experiences I've had, either on a film I've directed or just
worked on. It was tough, because we were shooting a feature in 8 days. And
not only that, Jenn, Paul, and myself were the primary crew. We were
shooting, catering, recording sound, and after it was all done, we'd start
prep for the next day. Again, we didn't really have a pre-production
period, so pre-production was done one day at a time, with Jenn and I
cleaning up the set (which is her actual house), then running out to get
what we needed the next day in order to start shooting again in the
morning. Add to that the difficulties of operating the puppet, with the
gore, with the limited stunts - and by the end, by day 8, we were all
pretty raw. I love working with Jenn and Paul, they're invaluable
collaborators for me. They bring so much to each production, they have
great ideas, they're very supportive. I just couldn't ask for a better
you can tell us about audience and critical reception of Killer
We've been thrilled with the reception.
Our biggest concern was that people wouldn't get that we were in on the
joke. Or they would think that we were making fun of micro budget horror.
This was a movie made by people who love these kind of movies. We had a
sold out premiere in Chicago, and to hear them laughing and screaming
makes all the work worth it. Some critics have said that it's a little
slow in the beginning, and I do agree that we could have changed the first
20 minutes or so. In hindsight, I should have opened with a big, bloody
kill - which would have bought me more time for character development. But
noted, and we'll definitely work around that on Killer Piņata 2. Overall though, I
couldn't be happier with our reviews. I mean, again, we made this movie
for $2500 and shot it in 8 days. The fact that people are digging it, that
they get it, is dreams-come-true territory.
Any future projects you'd like to
We're working on short film that we're shooting in
June called Eyelash. Then we're setting our sights on the next features.
Killer Piņata 2 is definitely on deck, Megan and I are working on the script now, and
we're really holding ourselves accountable to make it next level. We've
had some early discussions with LC Films on that, as they've been an
invaluable partner for Killer Piņata's
release. And then later this year, we're going
to start working on Welshgate, which is the script that brought me to the
Austin Film Festival. There have been a couple of attempts to make it by
other producers, but the financing just never came together. So we're
going to take a stab at it.
What got you into filmmaking in the first place,
and did you receive any formal training on the subject?
was always into film and comicbooks. As a kid, my dad would get mad at me
because I could remember box office opening numbers, but not math. I would
just spend my weekends watching movies, mostly horror, and reading Fangoria. I started making movies when I was 10 or 12. Like most kids, I
just used our home video camera. Because there was no such thing as the
internet (calm down everyone, it was 1990, I'm not a dinosaur), I had to
teach myself everything. I remember the first actual screenplay I found
was Bugsy, because the local Waldenbooks was selling it. So I studied
Bugsy to learn how to write screenplays. In high school, I made four
features, then went to study film at the college of Santa Fe, where,
ironically, I got in trouble for making movies. So I did receive education
in filmmaking, but I've also just always made movies. I took a little
break between 2005-2009, but I can't stop. If I'm not writing a
screenplay, or making a film, or making a comicbook, I'm just not happy.
can you tell us about your filmwork prior to Killer
Kind of a mix of things. I worked on SyFy
Channel original movies for a while as a post production coordinator. My
first movie was actually Puppet Master Vs. Demonic Toys. Unfortunately, I
came in after that was pretty much done. I tried to do what I could, but
it was already locked. I also got to work with Bruce Campbell on two films
- Man With The Screaming Brain and
Alien Apocalypse, so that was a dream
come true. We spent a couple of years trying to get Welshgate off the
ground, but I was only on as writer at that point. And then a few other
things I was brought on as a hired writer that died in the financing
process, which was a bummer, but that's how it goes. I made a couple of
small features in my early 20s, Grindhouse probably being the most notable
How would you describe yourself as a
Good question. I'm not sure how to answer that. I
guess my goal for each film is to be entertaining and clear. I'm a big fan
of working out your shots and edits so the spacial relationship in the
scene is clear in each scene. I hate shaky cam and frenzied editing. I try
to find the movie in the shooting, in the camera placement and pacing, not
in the edit, so I spend a lot of time thinking about how to structure each
scene to achieve that goal. I also like the challenge of trying to bring
new things to the audience. I'm a horror fan, and I still watch a lot of
horror movies, so I know how stale it can get sometimes. The animated
sequence in Killer Piņata
came from that yearning. I don't want my movies to look
like other horror movies. And even if I fail, I failed trying to do
Filmmakers who inspire you?
Craven, always Wes. His early work was so courageous, it just had this
rare honesty, which is what makes some of it hard to watch. John
Carpenter, the best horror shooter there ever was. Each of his films is a
masterclass. Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, Vittorio De Sica, Paul Thomas
Anderson, Charlie Chaplin (City Lights!). Of the new guys, I love what
James Wan is doing. Just incredible stuff. Another emerging director is
Jill Sixx Gevargizian, who made this short called The Stylist.
Jill is incredible, and I can't wait to see what she drums up next. Keep
an eye on her.
My favorite movie of all time is actually
There Will Be Blood. I think it sums up the American ambition
to go from getting the paycheck to become the one signing the paycheck.
The Thing is my favorite horror film. It has no equal, in my opinion.
Nightmare on Elm Street is what made me want to make horror films.
Dick Tracy, The Deer Hunter, The
Fly, May, Saving Private Ryan,
Edward Scissorhands, Halloween,
Bride of Chucky, I Saw The Devil, the list
could go on and on, haha.
... and of course, films you really
The only movies I really deplore are the ones made
just for the money. All films want to make money, of course, so we can
make more. But I'm talking about those romantic comedies from the late
90s/early 2000s, many of the horror remakes/reboots. And it's not that I'm
against remakes. Two of my favorite films are remakes. But those filmmakers wanted to remake them. I'll take a disaster of a film if you can
see the filmmakers had their heart into it. And as Kubrick said, you
learn just as much from the bad ones as you do the good ones. So it's
never a waste of time.
Feeling lucky ?
any of my partnershops yourself
for more, better results ?
The links below
will take you
Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever
Anything else you're dying to mention and I have
merely forgotten to ask?
I wanted to give a special shout
out to Dark Alley
SPFX, who created the two big gory moments at the
end, and advised us on the rest. A lot of effects houses wanted nothing to
do with Killer Piņata, due to the nature of the
effects, and Alex and his team were a
total save. And thank you for spreading the word about Killer Piņata.
Jenn, Paul, and
I really appreciate it.
Thanks for the interview!