When Jason Eisener was a kid, he wasn’t one to keep his toys separate from one another while he was playing with them. If dinosaurs got mixed in with the wrestlers, then it was quite possible that Macho Man Randy Savage would be facing off with a Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Optimus Prime coming in to cool things down. As an adult, it might seem impossible for him to replicate the experience cinematically — what with the major corporate brands involved, however would he get the rights to the universally recognized characters to do such a mashup? – but “Kids Vs. Aliens,” his gloriously bonkers mashup, nonetheless taps into a feeling that anyone of a certain age knows about the time when their imagination had no limits when his native Nova Scotia is invaded by extraterrestrials and the teenage Samantha (Phoebe Rex) and her younger brother Gary (Dominic Mariche) and his two knucklehead friends Jack (Asher Greyson) and Miles (Ben Tector) are the last line of defense.
Of course, their parents are nowhere to be found for much of “Kids Vs. Aliens” swift 75-minute runtime, which leads inevitably to a monster house party at the suggestion of Samantha’s boyfriend Billy (Caleb MacDonald), yet when far more intense lights than the strobes that line the dance floor start peeking through the windows, youthful naïveté has its advantages when Sam and Gary are far less afraid of the unknown interlopers than they might if they knew any better, armed with wrestling moves and makeshift weapons they hope will carry the day. Still susceptible to other forms of dread such as worrying how they’ll be perceived by the others in their class, there are reminders throughout that you’re watching kids be kids, though that ends up being cause for celebration in Eisener’s eyes, seemingly having gotten back in touch with his younger self in his return to the big screen after finding success with the documentary series “Dark Side of the Ring” to follow up exploding onto the scene with “Hobo With a Shotgun.”
Driven strictly by the goal of having a good time, “Kids Vs. Aliens” delivers it in spades, winning over the very adult crowd that packs into the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar for Fantastic Fest last fall and is now set to invade theaters and households on VOD this week. To mark the occasion, Eisener spoke about the literal homecoming of making the film, embracing the limitations of a spare budget and plans to expand the universe of the film to the scale of the one he brings into it.
This seems like the movie I would’ve wanted to watch when I was the age of the main characters – was that a driving force?
It’s very much inspired by the childhood of the co-writer John Davies and myself. We have known each other since we were five years old and went to school together and went even to community college where we discovered filmmaking together. So many of the shenanigans in the movie with the kids is based off what John and my siblings would do growing up. Ever since I made this short film 10 years ago called “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” for “VHS II,” I’ve wanted to make an R-rated kids’ horror movie and we weren’t able to get it made back then, but luckily the stars were in my favor this time and we got to make it.
You’ve been quite busy in the years since your first feature, but have you been itching to make another?
Yeah, I’ve spent every day since I’ve made “Hobo” trying to get other movies made, and it’s tough. It was just a miracle that that movie got made and with this, it was the easiest film that ever came together. I talked to Brad Miska, one of the producers on the “VHS” movies, and he expressed the idea of making “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” into a feature film and he pitched it to Mark Ward at RLJE, who loved the short film and always wanted to see an R rated kids’ movie, too, so he pretty much greenlit it on the spot, without there even being a script and the whole song of dance that I’d been used to doing for 10 years. It was amazing just having someone who finally believed in me and allowed me to make another movie.
Was it difficult to get the right group of kids together?
Yeah, I saw tapes from hundreds of kids all over Canada. The majority of the cast is all from Nova Scotia, my hometown, where we shot the movie, except for Dominic Mariche who plays Gary and Asher Grayson who plays Jack. When I saw Dominic’s audition, he just had so much confidence that I knew that this kid could hold the movie and bring so much personality to it, and when I met Asher, I fell in love with him, but our production could only afford to bring one kid and their parents from away to Nova Scotia [yet] I just knew that he would bring so much heart to the movie that it didn’t matter if we had to sacrifice days of shooting or I had to give up an editing fee, so I had to figure out how to make it work. We were able to bring him as well, too, and I think that was one of the best decisions that I made for the movie.
Then the kids had so much fun and when I was a kid and their age, that’s when I was discovering my love for making movies, so when I would see these kids get interested in the behind the scenes making of the movie, that really warmed my heart. I could tell some of them will go on to be actors, but maybe some of them will become filmmakers or crew members, because I could just see the spark light up in some of them, so that was cool.
I’ve heard that the main setting was actually your parents’ house. What it was like to build around?
Oh my God. We shot the short “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” that it’s loosely based on at my parents’ house because we had $20,000 for the budget, so I just had to pull in a bunch of favors and my parents let me shoot there. It was a nightmare because just one of the golden rules of filmmaking is don’t shoot at your house and when it came time to do the feature, I wanted to stay far away from my parents’ house, but we were location scouting and sometimes we’d find a great place and then the people who owned the home found out what kind of movie it was, and then they kicked us out. My parents saw that I was struggling to find a place and they offered up their home again to me.
It was honestly one of the sweetest things [knowing] what you see what we do to their home — we let the kids spray paint we hired all these theater kids from a local theater program for this insane party. We were shooting all night, doing those party scenes until sun up pretty much, but those were fun because we had someone actually DJing in there. We just tried to create the party atmosphere in there, and I was just running around going crazy, just getting everyone hyped up. For me, the hardest part was turning off that it was my parents house so that I could allow for the craziness to take over. I didn’t want to be like, “No, no, no, don’t do that. Don’t do that. Be careful of the floors.” I had to shut off that this was my parents house so that I could make that as crazy as it is. I never had an insane party at my parents house growing up, but this was me getting to do it. I just had to do whatever I could to get my parents to not see it happening while it was happening, but they were so amazing about it. Now it’s cool we get to immortalize the family home in a movie and I don’t know, maybe it’ll be one of those locations that people would want to see someday.
That may not even be the wildest thing about this – as I understand, it was the middle of the fall when you were filming those underwater scenes. Was that difficult?
Yeah, originally we wrote the film to take place in the summer like the short and when we did the short, it was great because we would just hang out on the water all day and it was super warm and comfortable even through the nights. But [for the feature] our production just kept getting pushed, and at first I thought, “Okay, we’ll embrace the fall,” and then we just got this record breaking weather with weeks and weeks of rain. It was freezing and we were put those kids into the water, but they all were troopers about it. The production would get really intense, but once one kid did it, the other kids wanted to do it and I can relate. I remember being a kid and being like, “This thing that you’re not supposed to do, going swimming in December, now they’re doing it,” and for some reason it just feels fun because it’s not something you’re really supposed to do.
You’re really able to create a huge sense of scale simply through what you’re able to achieve with the lighting, which is so colorful and vibrant. Was that something you knew you could lean on early?
Yeah, I had Matt Barkley, the cinematographer of the movie — and this is the first movie that he ever shot — is actually 10 years younger than me, and I wanted someone to bring a youthful energy into the way it’s shot and he did that. He brought all these really cool tricks to lighting things. He got us a drone with a light on it to be the UFO, and he just did such a great job of creating the atmosphere but then also giving the rich color to it that I really wanted.
You’ve also got two halves of the score where it’s synth in the beginning and then more classical at the end. What was it like to figure out the music?
Yeah, something I’ve always wanted to do is blend sort of some synth music with an orchestra and I had always wanted to work with an orchestra as well. We used a lot of the budget to be able to do that – we hired an orchestra from South Africa and my composing partner Andrew Gordon McPherson, who composes all the music for my TV show “Dark Side of the Ring” and “Tales from the Territories” had it laid out with computers and instruments in his home, but to see an orchestra play the music and make it so full and bring it to life was a dream come true. The music really drives the movie, so we spent a lot of time working on it and Andrew had made me music while I was in development and while I was shooting the film, he was sending me music, so I would play it on set just so that everyone could get into the vibe of the movie. I’m so happy with how the soundtrack turned out. It’s probably one of my favorite aspects of it.
It’s just so propulsive and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the film is sequel ready, but when you were thinking of this, were you actually thinking there is a larger universe here from the start?
One of the things I was very passionate about was creating this expansive universe for it. I feel this movie is just the beginning of it. John and I spent a lot of time dreaming about where the sequel goes. We’ve written a treatment for the sequel, and I want nothing more than for the story to continue, kind of like the movies and the toys that it’s inspired by like “Masters of the Universe.” I wanted to create something that had just as much of an expansive world as that and I was so inspired by the toy play sets when I was a kid [where] I would just lose my imagination with creating stories around it. I felt like this movie was creating my own universe that could, maybe one day, have its own toy line and kids could use it to create their own stories and light up their imaginations.
“Kids Vs. Aliens” opens on January 20th in theaters and will be available on demand and on digital.