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An Interview with Todd Tjersland, Director of Midnight Movie Madness

by Mike Haberfelner

January 2011

Films directed by Todd Tjersland on (re)Search my Trash
 

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Your new movie is called Midnight Movie Madness. In a few words, what is it about?

 

It's a celebration of all the crazy horror and exploitation weirdness I grew up with, boiled down into bite-sized chunks for the late night party crowd.

 

Very obviously, Midnight Movie Madness was inspired by grindhouse/drive-in genre fare from the 1970's and 80's. What can you tell us about your love for this kind of movies?

 

For me, I love a movie because it is so good it's great or so bad it's good. Anything that lands in-between is mediocre and quickly forgotten. A lot of these old grindhouse flicks fall into one of these two categories--either brilliant, powerful stuff like Keoma or complete horseshit like The Pit. Both films are unforgettable fun (for very different reasons) and both have a place of honor in my collection.

 

Any other sources of inspiration?

 

Definitely! The anthology horror comics of the 1950s-70s (Creepy, Tales From The Crypt, Weird, etc.), 1930s pulp fiction magazines (Terror Tales, Spicy Mystery Stories, etc.) and of course, old time radio shows like Inner Sanctum, Suspense!, and The Witch's Tale. Movie-wise, the biggest inspirations were, of course, Creepshow and Grindhouse.

 

While being a loving hommage, Midnight Movie Madness is also very tongue-in-cheek in approach. How would you describe the humour of your movie, and how much of it was actually in the script, how much was improvised on set?

 

A lot of the comedy was improvised; I like to stay flexible and collaborate with my cast as closely as possible while we're "in the moment." Having worked with many of them before, it was easy for everyone to come together and really nail the kind of brain-damaged lunacy I was going for.

 

The movie's website, and when will it be coming out (tentatively)?

 

I would like to see the film released sometime in 2011. We're currently seeking various foreign and domestic licensing deals. In the meantime, you can watch the trailer at the film's website, www.MidnightMovieMadness.net 

 

Why did you choose the anthology film format for Midnight Movie Madness?

 

I have a lot of different ideas and the anthology gives me the creative freedom to play around with more of them than usual. I'm also a fan of the format; some of my favorite films growing up were horror anthologies like Asylum and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors.

 

Your favourite segments of Midnight Movie Madness, and are there any you have grown to hate?

 

I like them all, they were a blast to make, but my favorites are Blood Money, Death Moon and Meltdown. They are the ones I'd most like to expand and remake as features, anyway. I also love the faux-trailer we did for The Sex Killer, which was my take on the slasher film, as well as a send-up of just about every sleazy exploitation trailer ever made.

 

There are several actors that appear time and again in the different segments of Midnight Movie Madness, and I'd like you to say a few words about each of them!

Ada Mae Johnson aka Noname Jane [Ada Mae Johnson interview - click here]?

 

Ada is wonderful to work with and we've become good friends. She is so sweet and supportive, constantly surprising me with her raw enthusiasm and ideas. On top of that, she is a huge horror fan and brought that love and understanding of the genre into her performance. I couldn't have asked for a better lead actress than Ada. I hope people see her in this and give her more work in mainstream films.

 

Isaac Cooper?

 

Isaac and I were long-time collaborators going back to The Necro Files, where he played the main zombie. He was instrumental in helping me structure my first novel, Deathbreed, and is a multi-talented actor/artist/editor. Having the right editor is vital to a project; I don't think most people realize that an editor can make or break a project in the cutting room. It's an "invisible" art form; by that, I mean if you notice it, it's bad, but when you don't notice it and become immersed in the "reality" of the film because of it, then it's good. Editors are every bit as important as directors and can make or break a picture. It's a shame they don't get more credit.

For Midnight Movie Madness, Isaac not only had to edit the film, but he was in charge of creating all the digital special effects and graphics. He put in a lot of research into recreating the film grain and damage common to beat-up old grindhouse prints, which was crucial to the look and feel of the film. I couldn't have done this project without him; it's his success just as much as it is mine.

Jace Micheau?

 

Jace is a great guy and a very giving actor. He goes absolutely crazy for horror and gore and jumped at the chance to throw himself into his role, regardless of whether he was playing a vampire, zombie or cop. And his sense of comic timing is spot-on. He had all of us cracking up during Revenge of the Hand. That's the segment where he plays a horny retard caught masturbating by his grandma so she chops off his hand... and, since it is Midnight Movie Madness, the severed hand naturally comes back to life and crawls around the house strangling everyone! Jace just steals the show here; it's one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

 

Steve Sheppard?

 

Steve and I are old pals. He played the drug-addicted psycho cop, Detective Manners, in The Necro Files. Not to disappoint anyone, but Steve is nothing like the maniacs and mad scientists I make him play in my films; he's a really nice, down-to-earth guy and always willing to lend a hand. As  an old school punk rock musician, Steve embodies the punk aesthetic of "fuck art, let's dance!"

 

Any other castmembers or crewmembers who deserve special mention?

 

I really enjoyed working with Kordelia Devonshire, the snackbar intermission go-go dancer. She did an absolutely fantastic job and was so much fun to work with! I'd been dying to do a nudie-cutie 1960s-style loop like that for years after watching retro-junk like Kiss Me Quick! Kordelia captured that sexy '60s magic for me perfectly.

 

Let's leave the present behind for now and move forward into your past: I've read somewhere that before becoming involved with movies, you were thinking about becoming a comicbook artist. Would you like to elaborate on that?

 

As I said, I grew up reading horror anthology comics like Creepy and Eerie, and I wanted to be the next great genre artist like my heroes, Berni Wrightson, Richard Corben and Frank Frazetta. Unfortunately, the comic book market tanked right around the time I was being considered for a job at Dark Horse Comics and I made the fateful decision that pursuing a future in comic book art was financially impractical. Instead, I re-focused my energies on writing, marketing and filmmaking. Whatever I do, I have to stay creative and keep challenging myself.

 

How did you get into filmmaking in the first place?

 

A guy contacted me about a horror film he had shot but needed finishing funds for. I took a look at the work print and decided it would be a good investment. The director's name was Matt Jaissle [Matt Jaissle interview - click here] and the film was Back From Hell (1993). It was a terrible picture about satanic ninjas stalking a Hollywood actor during the apocalypse, but I doubled my money on it and got my foot in the door.

 

You started producing horror movies in the early 1990's, right? A few words about your early movies?

 

Well, after the modest success of Back From Hell, Matt and I teamed up for the sci-fi actioner Legion of the Night (1995, aka Dead City, which is the 1998 director's cut). This one is about bionic zombie ninjas vs. the mafia. It starred Bill Hinzman (the famous "They're coming to get you, Barbara!" graveyard zombie from the original Night of the Living Dead) and the late Ron Asheton (punk rock guitarist of Iggy and The Stooges fame). They play the mad scientist and Igor who create the army of undead cyborg assassins. Made for around $50k, the film went on to gross over half a million dollars worldwide. The distributor advertised it as "Quentin Tarantino meets Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" if you can believe that!

 


Flix.com

I think your career as a producer first eclipsed with Matt Jaissle's The Necro Files in 1997. What can you tell us about that one, and how does it relate to Midnight Movie Madness' Dong of the Dead?

 

I rehired Matt to collaborate with me on The Necro Files about two years after Legion of the Night wrapped. I'd decided this new picture would take a darker, less commercial tone. I wanted to make a film so bizarre and crazy it would become an underground cult classic... I didn't care about the money; this time it was just for fun. Unfortunately, the film was confused as to what it wanted to be: Comedy, horror, exploitation, or what? Still, it made a modest profit and went on to attain some kind of international cult status but I was never really satisfied with it. That's why, when the opportunity to re-cut the picture for Midnight Movie Madness came up, I jumped at the chance.

Retitled Dong of the Dead, this lean, mean, 17-minute new version of The Necro Files includes never-before-seen footage as well as new digital effects, more gore, all-new music and many new sound effects. The editing is much tighter; in fact, it's been completely recut from the source material. In short, it plays up the twisted comedy strengths of the original and makes it more chick-friendly, which was one of the major complaints leveled against the original film. Guys got in all kinds of trouble if they showed it to their girlfriends, or if they got caught watching it by them. (laughs) So Dong of the Dead is a vast improvement over the original, at least in that sense. Compare them and see for yourself.

A few words about Matt Jaissle [Matt Jaissle interview - click here], a man you have collaborated with time and again over the years?

 

Ah, Matt... Let's just say we have creative differences. We went our separate ways over a decade ago after The Necro Files. My last involvement with him was when I played a mafia hit man opposite Steve Sheppard in the superhero film, Anti-Hero (1999). Matt's still around, though. After taking a decade off, he's got a new action/suspense film out called 300 Killers (2009, aka Drug Cult). It continues his curious fascination with drugs, ninjas and the breakdown of modern society.

 

What can you tell us about Necro Files 2 from 2003?

 

The less said about that sequel the better! But since you asked... A late night British TV show, Sin Cities, had contacted me for an interview. No problem, except they would only agree to do it if I was filming a sexy horror movie whose set they could visit. So I quickly lied and said that yes, of course I was filming a sequel to The Necro Files, and they should come right on over and make me famous. (laughs) I threw together a crazy scene for them, casting the show's host, Ashley Hames, in the lead. The Sin Cities segment turned out great and was one of the highlights of their third season, so much so that they came back to shoot me again for the final episode of the fourth and final season.

After the TV show crew had left, I figured since we'd already shot one scene, we might as well do the whole damn movie. And so we did. It was a disaster--not that it doesn't have its moments. The cops investigating the murders were certainly funnier in the sequel so that's something, at least.

 

If my information is correct, Misled from 1999 is your debut feature as a director. A few words about that one, and what made you go into directing?

 

I've always wanted to direct; that's where all the glory is unless you're an actor, and I like having that level of control, to be the master storyteller. It was always in the back of my mind to make the transition when I was writing and producing.

 

You're also responsible for the notorious Faces of Gore-series. A few words about the series and the philosophy behind it?

 

I don't even like to talk about this series anymore. Faces of Gore was an attempt to create a parody of the shockumentary genre, which was the only new thing I could think of to inject some originality into so disturbing and tired a subject. Unfortunately, the parody and black comedy elements were lost on most viewers and the films were taken to be dead serious! This was not my intention going into production. I ended up taking a lot of heat from it. The series was banned in the crucial German direct-to-video market before Faces of Gore 3 and Best of Faces of Gore (which included 30 minutes of new footage) could be released, which killed the franchise. These latter sequels did receive a limited USA release on VHS. Unfortunately, I probably get more emails from die-hard fans of this series than for the films I'd rather be known for. I don't know what to tell these Faces of Gore fans anymore than I know what to say to the people who were pissed-off by it. (laughs) Suffice it to say that the series was an ill-conceived experiment I deeply regret. It is not representative of myself, my views, nor my artistic vision. Anyway, it's a closed chapter of my life and one I prefer to move on from.

 


Besides making movies, you have also released a book in 2007, Deathbreed: A Zombie Novel. A few words about that one, and what made you go into writing books?

 

Writing Deathbreed saved my life. I was in a very dark place at the time, lost in-between projects, and needed to exorcise some personal demons... Writing a novel gave me the luxury of not having to deal with a bunch of different egos and personalities on set. I didn't have to panic over "how am I going to pull this off on my budget?" or answer to anyone but my muse. Finally, I could just relax and do whatever I wanted; there was no need to rush it. It was a very liberating experience and one I am keen to repeat in the future.

Deathbreed draws heavily on my trademark twisted sense of humor and love of noir. It was influenced by the bleak, bitter writing of Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me), David Goodis (Shoot The Piano Player) and Charles Bukowski (Ham On Rye). If you like any of those authors, and love zombies, then you'll dig Deathbreed. Basically, it's character-driven, pitch-black neo-noir survival horror on steroids. Besides offering up a logical mix of fast and slow zombies, what makes it so unique is that you get to spend some time with the characters in their miserable, daily lives before the zombies appear. The characters are essentially the walking dead, only coming to life when the zombie apocalypse shatters their meaningless existence and forces them out of their complacency.

Then the question becomes do you want to be the hero or the villain? What does survival mean and what will you sacrifice in order to achieve it? There are all these powerful themes and social commentary working under the surface but, of course, I make sure and deliver on the brutal zombie gore, sleaze and twisted comedy to keep things moving along. So you can enjoy the book on whichever level you choose.

 

Any other films you'd like to talk about, any future projects?

 

Sure, I'm glad you asked! Right now, I'm developing a screenplay adaptation of Deathbreed, trying to retain the raw edginess of my novel while removing some of the darker elements to give it more mainstream appeal. This means playing up the comedy angle a bit more, adding, altering or removing a few of the nastier Charles Bukowski type scenes that would detract from the picture's popcorn appeal. It's basically Clerks meets Shaun of the Dead, anyway, so it's an easy transition to make.

 

Your films and book are all firmly rooted in the horror genre. Why is that, and is horror a genre especially dear to you?

 

I've always loved horror because I enjoy the catharsis of being scared in a safe and secure way, and I also like to see how different people react in crisis situations... no matter how improbable (like being chased by Killer Klowns From Outer Space). Horror is also an easy genre to break into and the fans are best; they are the most accepting and forgiving fans out there! Their expectations are never sky-high and that gives me and others who work in the genre the freedom to be able to play around with new ideas.

 

Writers and directors who inspire you?

 

George Romero, of course, but I think the directors who inspire me the most are the Italians: Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci [Lucio Fulci bio - click here], Enzo G. Castellari [Enzo G.Castellari bio - click here], Antonio Margheriti [Antonio Margheriti bio - click here]... Hell, even guys like Joe D'Amato [Joe D'Amato bio - click here], Jess Franco, Amando De Ossorio, and Bruno Mattei [Bruno Mattei bio - click here], to a lesser extent. The Spanish and Italians are masters at creating mood, no matter how nonsensical the scripts. I love how they fill up the screen with faces in close-up and really wring maximum emotion from every scene. I just wish more of their films had a better balance of style AND substance. It's rarely enough to paint a pretty picture if you can't tell a decent story to go with it.

As for writers, my early influences were mostly what you'd expect, Stephen King, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, but I also really loved the early work of James Herbert (The Fog) and Shaun Hutson (Slugs) as well as William W. Johnstone's trashy Devil's Kiss trilogy. Beyond horror, though, my other great loves are fantasy, historical fiction and hardboiled/noir, as exemplified by Joe Abercrombie (The Blade Itself), Bernard Cornwell (The Archer's Tale), James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) and Mickey Spillane (I, The Jury). My favorite novel, however, is Ask the Dust by Joe Fante (just don't watch the horrible movie version).

 

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Your favourite films?

 

It's a real mix of mainstream and oddball stuff spread across many different genres, with the original Star Wars trilogy and Romero's original Dead trilogy at the top of the list, but I'll just stick to the more obscure cult classics that the people visiting your website will probably be the most interested in:

 

Bloodsucking Freaks, Burial Ground, Cannibal Apocalypse, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, Class of 1984, The Creeping Flesh, Emanuelle And The Last Cannibals (aka Trap Them And Kill Them), End of the Line, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Fight For Your Life!, Four of the Apocalypse, Horror Express, Infra-Man, Keoma, Kiss Me Deadly, Lady In A Cage, Lady of Burlesque, Mannaja: A Man Called Blade, The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, The Night Walker, Pieces, The Pit, Psychomania, Rabid Dogs, Savage Streets, See No Evil (aka Blind Terror), Sleepaway Camp, Slugs, Street Law, Star Crash, Strip Nude For Your Killer, Suspiria, Troll 2, and Werewolf In A Girl's Dormitory.

 

... and of course, movies you really deplore?

 

I deplore anything that seems more motivated by money than art; you know, the kind of soulless, paint-by-numbers hack-jobs that pad out theater screens and video store shelves regardless of how high or low the budget. And they keep pumping out this brain-dead garbage simply because some company needs more product to sell, not because they have new stories to tell. I understand the need for crap filler product, but that doesn't make me like it any better.

 

Your website, Facebook, blogspot, whatever else?

 

You can find my blog and links to my other sites at www.toddtjersland.com 

 

Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

This is an exciting time for new filmmakers. The technology has gotten so cheap and so prevalent, and new avenues of distribution are opening up all the time. So if you've got a dream and a cool story to tell, there's very little to stop you from getting your film made. Go for it. Believe in yourself and your vision and who knows? Maybe you'll make the next cult classic!

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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