(James Felix McKenney with Michael Rooker)
(all photos courtesy of Monsterpants/James Felix McKenney/Dark Sky Films/Glass Eye Pix)
James Felix McKenney is quietly carving his own little niche in the horror and sci-fi community. You might say he's an up-and-comer, but with four features behind him, one in post-production, and yet another in pre-production, he's far from a rookie in the indie scene. McKenney cut his teeth on earlier features, the darkly humorous and bloody satire Canniballistic!, and the slow burning The Off Season. As imperfect as those films might seem, they heralded the great promise bubbling within the talented director. He followed up with the critically acclaimed films Automatons and Satan Hates You, two works that are like night and day, yet united by McKenney’s unique stylistic touches. He appears poised to break through even further with his newest offering Hypothermia (Dark Sky Films, Glass Eye Pix).
McKenney’s films bear little resemblance to one another. They are each utterly unique, finding common ground only in clever writing and recurring cast of McKenney favorites like Don Wood, Christine Spencer, and the iconic Angus Scrimm. It’s McKenney’s never-say-die-attitude, as well as his versatility that drives him where others might stall at the first screenplay draft. Making the most of his typical micro-budgets, McKenney elevates his films with wit, quirkiness, and more than a few effective scares. With such an impressive track record, it’s clear why he was hand-picked by Dark Sky Films to bring a new project to fruition.
Set in the harsh climate of arctic weather, Hypothermia is a character-driven horror film with a message. Before you scoff at horror films making political statements, Mr. McKenney is quick to point out that it's also a monster movie that doesn’t hit the audience over the head with an agenda. Rather than patronize horror fans with the same old predictable garbage, he’d rather give them a chance to flex their brains while squirming in their seats. McKenney is determined to push the envelope, but not at the expense of a fun time at the movies.
I caught up with Mr. McKenney for a brief conversation about his body of work, as well as for updates on the progress of his newest film. Before reading on, make sure you check out the new teaser trailer for Hypothermia up at TwitchFilm
Full Interview Transcript Starts Here:
ATHO: Satan Hates You is still blazing across the country on the festival circuit, VOD, and limited screenings. Have you been happy with the reception received by the film?
|(Satan Hates You)|
To me, the whole point of making low budget films is being able to take risks and create the kind of films that one wouldn't be allowed to do on a larger scale, and that's what we did with SATAN. I knew that some people who saw the movie would have all sorts of crazy interpretations of the film and for me, that's a really fun part of it all.
I think the reaction we received that was the most rewarding was from a woman who was both a Christian and a horror fan. She approached me after a screening with tears in her eyes, thanking me for the way we handled one of the more sympathetic church-going characters in the film. Real tears! You don't get that kind of reaction to a horror movie every day! I was walking on air for the rest of the night!
JFM: Keeping up the momentum is the easy part. I actually have the opposite problem -- I wish things could move ten times faster! I write and shoot very quickly and wish we could follow in the Corman tradition of getting the film made and out to the public a quickly as possible. With today's digital technology that should be a breeze.
The actual creation of the film doesn't take that long at all, but the preceding and final stages take FOREVER. Once I've written the script and we've decided that that's the movie we're going to make, I'm ready to go. But there are always delays while money is raised, contracts are signed and schedules are worked out, resulting in a production starting often months after its intended date.
And then on the other side, you've got post-production, where you're relying on other people's time and talents who may not be available when you're ready for them. This was the case for both SATAN HATES YOU and HYPOTHERMIA where there were so many projects in the Glass Eye Pix pipeline, yet limited personnel and resources, so I had to be really patient and wait my turn in order to get the movies finished.
|(Don Wood in Hypothermia)|
Someday I'd like to be in a position where I could have a regular source of funding and distribution for these little genre movies with enough money to support a small post-production staff, so we can just keep cranking them out. I don't think I could ever quite match the output of someone like Takashi Miike, but my goal would be to make and release two films every year.
ATHO: For your latest film, you've chosen to shoot a monster movie in the freezing snow, something that could spell disaster for most independent filmmakers (and even those working with large budgets). After your experience shooting Hypothermia, do you think the risk was worth it?
JFM: Absolutely! It was a lot of fun being outside on the frozen lake. Sure, stuff went wrong. But for the most part, it was the usual problems you have with any film project and had more to do with the production itself, rather than the elements and the location.
We did get hit by a blizzard at the end of the shoot, which cost us some coverage that I really wanted to get, but there's always something. Fortunately, we had an amazing crew as far as the guys and gals who were out on the ice day after day and they, along with our cinematographer Eric Branco, really pulled off some miracles under very tough working conditions.
|(Michael Rooker in Hypothermia)|
JFM: I never meant to make four films with Glass Eye Pix. It just sort of happened. When I first started working for the company, it was just Larry and I in a dingy little basement office, talking about monsters all day while we were promoting his movies and cooking up all sorts of new projects.
It was really fun and Larry pretty much gave me total freedom to make the first three movies that I did with Glass Eye Pix, which was really valuable, especially in the cases of AUTOMATONS and SATAN HATES YOU, which were very odd little projects. The company has grown and changed quite a bit in recent years, and so making HYPOTHERMIA was a very different experience. But hey, that's progress!
ATHO: On Satan Hates You, you were able to work with some horror heavy weights like frequent collaborator Angus Scrimm, Michael Berryman, Debbie Rochon, and Reggie Bannister. Hypothermia has another genre vet Michael Rooker in the credits. It seems like you've cast these icons not for simple cameo recognition, but for the sake of creating real worthwhile characters. What sorts of factors go into your casting decisions?
JFM: It's simple -- I just cast people I like. I'm always happy to see someone like Michael Berryman pop up in a movie, so why shouldn't I hope to include him in one of our films? And we've all seen Angus play the villainous Tall Man in four films, why not enjoy another side of him by casting him as a gentle nice guy?
|(Michael Berryman in Satan Hates You)|
They also know what to expect when coming into a little no-frills production. We had a number of veteran genre stars on SATAN, and all of them were extremely professional, modest and flexible. There's no time on these kind of productions for waiting on an actor who isn't taking the job seriously or needs to have their ego stroked between every take. I'm a filmmaker, not a wet nurse. My job is making a movie, nor coddling some prima donna. That's why I always look forward to working with Angus, not only is he eternally humble and professional, he's also one of the most decent human beings that I know.
The same goes for some of the other regular cast members in our films; Don Wood, Christine Spencer and all the rest. We've been working together for quite sometime now that we all know what to expect and it makes everything really easy.
ATHO: You have your own production company - Monsterpants - which is putting out small, but passionate projects. WIth the inclusion of Nathan Wrann's Burning Inside, do you have plans for expanding beyond production of your own work?
JFM: Right now MonsterPants is only producing my films, which is a job and a half already. I have given some thought to maybe having other directors make films from scripts that I've written, but that's still quite a way down the road.
BURNING INSIDE was produced by Dalton Gang Productions and Manic Entertainment. I really enjoyed the film and Nathan was having a difficult time getting distribution for the movie, due to its experimental nature and the fact that it is primarily in black and white. My MonsterPants producing partner, Lisa Wisely, and I had recently created our own label called Channel Midnight in order to release a remastered version of my first film, CANNIBALLISTIC! and thought that maybe both we and Nathan could benefit by testing the distribution waters with BURNING INSIDE.
Right now we're busy working on pre-production for our new film, THE GIRL FROM MARS, a science fiction / romance starring Pauley Perrette. So we've put the distribution business on hold until things stabilize a bit more and we have the time to focus our complete attention on Channel Midnight.
ATHO: We've spoken before and you stated that your earlier features (The Off Season, Canniballistic!) showed you exactly what you did and did not want to do in your film work. Have you reached a satisfying point with Satan Hates You or Hypothermia?
JFM: Both AUTOMATONS and SATAN HATES YOU are almost exactly the films that I set out to make. I am extremely happy with how each turned out and they are easily my favorite films that we've done so far.
|(Christine Spencer in Automatons)|
ATHO: If some hotshot producer gave you a blank check to fund your dream project, what would it be?
JFM: I do have a story that I've been working on that would be sort of my STAR WARS, more for my own amusement than anything else. It's a big fantasy "quest" movie that takes place on an alien planet that has elements inspired by "Conan the Barbarian" and "Dune". If this were a Hollywood pitch meeting, I'd probably be comparing it to AVATAR and THE LORD OF THE RINGS, although it's much more akin to the latter.
I love monsters and alien creatures, so I wanted to create something that takes place on another planet, populated by all sorts of bizarre species. In fact, the Lake Man monster in HYPOTHERMIA started out as one of the alien races in this script, although the the creature in the near-finished movie is quite a bit different than the original aliens that he was based on.
But it's more of a hobby project than anything else. I've enjoyed building the world, populating it and imagining all of the cool toys and action figures that could come from this movie, but realistically I know that our fictitious hotshot producer is likely to come along and give me the $100 million to make something like this. But that's cool. I'm perfectly happy not dealing with the headaches of Hollywood as we continue to make our own unique little films.
For more information about James Felix McKenney and his work, please visit the following sites:
MonsterPants Offical Site
Dark Sky Films Official Site
Glass Eye Pix Official Site