Josephine Decker was in the parking lot of a Mexican dive when she got a call from producer Jason Wehling outlining what she’d be doing in “Saturday Morning Massacre.”
“I just want to be sure you’re okay with this: you’re going to be covered in blood in a tank top, probably going to see your nipples through the second half of the movie and there’s a sex scene fully nude,” Decker recalls, before giving it a thought. “I’m like, yeah, sure, it’s fine.”
For a veteran of two Joe Swanberg productions who once famously shed her clothing at the Museum of Modern Art to counter the performance art of Marina Abramovic, the nudity wasn’t so much an issue, but even with a warning, Decker probably couldn’t have been entirely prepared for what would happen on the set of “Massacre,” the latest film from Spencer Parsons which debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week.
A wackadoodle horror comedy that Parsons described in his introduction as having influences ranging from B-movies and Zalman King flicks on cable that one would watch late on a Friday night to the bleary-eyed, sugary cereal-fueled marathons of cartoons of the next morning, the film directs a “Scooby Doo”-esque team of paranormal detectives towards a long-vacated mansion that was once owned by known Satanists. With Decker, newcomer Ashley Spillers, actor/producer Jonny Mars and Adam Tate doing their best variations on Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Fred, respectively, albeit with tabs of LSD and Oberlin degrees thrown into the mix, “Saturday Morning Massacre” takes nostalgic familiarity and repurposes it for its own gleefully anarchic means.
If the thriller gives off the feeling of flying by the seat of your pants, that’s both a testament to the loose, thrill-ride vibe set by Parsons and the cast and a direct result of the way the production came together around a real-life mansion in Austin where the creaky home elevator and the ivy-lined gates made for a perfect haunted house that spooked the filmmakers into racing against the clock to capture something there before its new owners planned to renovate it. While in Los Angeles for the film’s debut, Parsons, Mars, Decker and Spillers spoke of the heavy improvisation that went into the fun and frightening flick and the agony and ecstasy of shooting the film in sequence, and you’ll discover why they’re so fond of the phrase “when shit got real.”
Spencer, since the drama “I’ll Come Running,” you relocated from the University of Texas to Northwestern because of your day job as a film professor and this is an Austin crew, so was this like a homecoming of sorts?
Spencer Parsons: Kind of. I made a short film in Austin in the intermediate time and I’m also working on a screenplay with Andrew Bujalski, who’s also based in Austin, so I was spending a lot of time in Austin anyway. I didn’t really want to move away from Austin at all. I had built up a great community and I still really consider it home, but professionally I needed to move on. I got this great offer from Northwestern and the rest is history, but I’ve wanted to keep my creative and personal ties close, Officially I am both an Austin and Chicago filmmaker and proud to have the dual citizenship.
In the case of this film, it’s fair to ask where the hell did this come from?
Jonny Mars: It came from opportunity. Glass House Productions is Jesse and Clark Lyda, they bought the mansion that’s in the film and they were going to flip it into a B & B, which they’ve now done, [but] as they were walking around, looking at the grounds, they were like man, we could shoot a horror film here. Who do we know that can do that? So then they called Jason Wehling, one of the other producers, and he went down there and took some photos and was like, “Hmm, okay, this could be cool.” Then he called me up and said, “Hey Jonny, you’ve got to come see these photos.” I just made a couple of these back to back. I was not in the best place in my life and I was not going to make a movie. He said just come down, I’ll buy you a beer. After the first photo, I’m like “When are we doing this?” The location was just that amazing. Then he told me we had six weeks to do it.
We sat around, had some beers and came up with some ideas that you could shoot in a mansion and one of those themes that kept coming up was a Scooby Doo-esque theme. And we went back and pitched it to Jesse and Clark (and Alan Burke?) from Arts and Labor to try and get a little bit of money to help fund this thing and we went to Spencer and pitched it to him and he didn’t like it. [laughs] But he came around and added his own little twist to it. A year later, we have a movie.
Spencer, this was so different from your last film “I’ll Come Running.” Was it fun? Was it scary?
All of the above. I want to be able to make different kinds of stuff, so I’m not intimidated by the idea that it’s completely different from “I’ll Come Running” in certain respects. But maybe I’m the only one that [sees some connection] like there are things that are similar that embarrass me a little bit. Whatever, it’s all movies. You do one right after another and they should all be their own animals, so it was exciting on one level just because I’ve been working on some other horror-related stuff. I’m a big genre fan and my mind does go into those kind of corners, so it was an opportunity to learn on the job how to make a horror film. I [also didn’t want it to seem] like oh, I’m playing at making a horror movie or this is a warm-up or a parody. I mean, it is parody, but parody in the sense that we’re going to take the idea that it’s a bit of a parody idea, then run with it to the logical extreme and really make a movie that’ll be scary. I was glad that I turned out not to be completely incompetent.
For the actors, what was it like playing off those “Scooby Doo” characters? You want to make them your own, but at the same time stay true to what people enjoyed about them.
Ashley Rae Spillers: It was fun. More than just looking at the actual character and trying to repeat something that’s already been done completely, it was like finding out who this girl really is and why she does what she does and what drives her [to be] a person who’s really passionate about doing this sort of work. Finding like the person behind the cartoon was fun.
Josephine Decker: For me, it really came together when [a climactic scene, after which Parsons raises an eyebrow at the spoiler]
SP: When shit gets real.
JD: When shit gets real…when the traumatic things start to happen. I had been in all these naturalistic films, [so] to be dressed so sexily all the time and in high heels and running from monsters basically, it sometimes was hard to find my center. But then as soon as scary things really started to happen, I was like oh yeah, she’s just totally terrified and losing her mind. That’s when I think I really connected with the character in a deeper way.
What was it like to shoot in the house? Was it actually as creepy as it would seem to be from the film?
AS: At first, no. At first, it was like wow, this place is beautiful. But then slowly, because we pretty much shot it in order, it starts to get a little scarier in the atmosphere and you get really into it.
SP: We didn’t have big movie lights for this. We were very limited and we were intentionally doing a lighting scheme that was built around flashlights and the lanterns. So the house was just very dark for everybody and for the camera, and that helped the mood. One of the folks playing one of our monsters in the movie, he lurked around even when he wasn’t needed on set and hide in dark places and frighten people.
AS: And breathe heavily.
SP: Breathe heavily and make creepy noises. He [went] so into character at one point that he’s catching a nap on set in a sleeping bag holding the rubber axe that he uses as a weapon through most of the film as if it was a teddy bear.
JD: There was just this turning point where one day it went from being oh, our set to [where] I really started to think I was going to die at any moment. The elevator scene is like the scene where it just turned and reality was gone and we were living in the fantasy. And there was a murderer who was out to get us.
JM: I was never scared, per se. I basically lived in that house before we started shooting, just trying to figure out what we were going to do when we were there every day, setting it up, cleaning it up. I was just so busy I never really had the chance to like really focus on the place being empty, but I will say when it’s dark and you’re alone up there and turning the lights off to get out, you’ll run. You don’t want to linger.
AS: You spook yourself out.
JM: [SPOILERS UNTIL THE NEXT QUESTION] You do spook yourself out. I love telling the story [about] the elevator scene that they talk about. That’s when shit got real. I died that day. It was a great day for me. I had too much other shit to do. I couldn’t be in the movie anymore. [laughs] It’s like can we just kill me? The sooner we kill me, the easier this will be for everyone. But that’s when Officer Lynch, Paul Gordon, comes back into the fray and I remember I just died and went outside, smoked as many cigarettes as I could in 10 minutes and was just trying to relax and be prepared to produce now.
I walked back in and Paul Gordon’s down there in the stairwell at the bottom of the stairs just staring up at all of this craziness. We shot this movie is sequence, so the last time he left, he was doing the tour [of the house, nearly a half-hour earlier in the film’s timeline] and it was a totally different vibe. Now, he shows up, we’re all covered in blood. [looking over to Decker and Spillers] They’re screaming bloody murder, Paul Gordon’s just looking up at this thing and I could just see the terror on his face. I said, “hey Paul, are you doing okay?” He’s like, “uhhhhhh…I think. I don’t know.”
AS: He was intimidated.
JM: He was totally intimidated, so much so that in the first few takes, he walks up to say his lines and nothing came out. It’s true. There’s no audio. We’d go up to the footage and we’re like where’s the audio?
SP: He opened his mouth. There’s just nothing that came out.
JM: Nothing could come out. He was just so freaked out by what was going on. It was real, man. You could definitely feel it.
It’s amazing you could shoot the film in sequence because it seems like no one gets to do that.
SP: It was absolutely necessary.
JM: We didn’t have a huge budget, so we didn’t have costumes, per se. We were wearing what we had, so once we got blood on it, the blood was on it.
SP: Once there’s blood, we couldn’t be sure that anything could get clean enough to go back to earlier in the movie, so there’s no way out. But it was also because of the nature of how we’re putting together the story. If you’re going to do as much improvisation as this, it becomes really crazy higher math to work yourself forward and backward if you just made a little change. We had the freedom to make the changes that we could track all the way through the movie. They’re going to make the story better.
So the cast was progressively drenched in red corn syrup as this movie went on?
JM: That was the routine. We told them we’d do that every day.
JD: It was terrible. It was the worst because Austin at night in April is actually not as warm as you think it is, especially when you’re not really wearing much clothing. So they would pour blood on me and it was probably good… for the titty shots, basically. [all laugh]
AS: I just loved going out for a beer when we would leave set and go sit in a restaurant. Jonny and I would go sit and have a beer at 8 a.m. and we would just be covered in blood and wouldn’t even worry about getting rid of it. People [in the restaurant] are looking like, “Are you okay?”