The Frida Cinema: Later Days: Interview with co-director and co-writer Sandy Sternshein

Later Days, the recent independent comedy film, features local film teacher Sandy Sternshein as a co-director and co-scriptwriter alongside Brad Riddell.

A Gen-X love letter to 1980s comedies, Later Days follows a married middle-aged couple, Mike (David Walton) and Pam (Majandra Delfino), with Mike planning a surprise 1980s prom-themed birthday party for Pam, with their friends and former classmates attending. However, the intended happy nostalgia-fest turns into an unexpected rollercoaster ride.

Sternshein originally from Long Beach, has had a lifelong passion for film. After attending USC film school, he took the path of indie filmmaking. Eventually, he became a popular film and media teacher at the local community colleges, Santiago Canyon College and Santa Ana College, as well as the popular arts charter school OCSA, Orange County School of the Arts.

In his classes, Sternshein encouraged students to follow their writing strengths in a variety of genres, whether it be comedy, action, or horror. He also exposed his students to a wide variety of filmmakers and films, including obscure documentaries, foreign, and classic films, to challenge the way they interpreted film, the filmmaking process, and inspire creativity.

Sternshein shares with us his path from becoming a film teacher, to making an indie movie, and the knowledge he inspires to pass on to others along the way.

Bonilla: What is your connection to Orange County?

Sternshein: I was born in Long Beach, but I grew up in Seal Beach and Los Alamitos. I’ve mostly lived in Orange County, even when I went to USC, I lived in Seal Beach. Jen and I, when we first got together, lived in Hollywood for a couple of years, when we were working in production. I’ve always felt like this is my home and I am much more productive here than I am in LA.

Bonilla: What led you to pursue an education in film?

Sternshein: I went to Whittier college as a religious studies major. The truth is, I wanted to go to NYU as out of high school because Spike and Martin Scorsese went there. It was the school of schools. But I ended up at Whittier. Whittier didn’t have a film major, but I think they had a minor.

I took a class called “Religion and Cinema”. We didn’t have a great film department at Whittier, but this class was life-changing. We’d watch Peter Sellers and Hal Ashby films.

That class exposed me to the idea that to create good films, you have to know things about the world. You have to read everything you can get your hands on and watch everything you can. That class changed it for me. I liked this class so much I decided to become a religious studies major and not a film major.

I ended up going my junior year to Israel, studying in Tel Aviv. I saw the world and the experience opened my eyes.

In 1999, I went to graduate school at USC, right after my wife and I got married. She went to law school and I went to USC’s film school.

Bonilla: What led you to go into teaching?

Sternshein: I knew I wasn’t going to make a million dollars right away at being a filmmaker. If I got an MFA, I could teach film. I had taught before in the Whittier City School District. I knew how to teach and was good at it. So, I could have a career as a screenwriter and make some money.

Bonilla: What film classes did you teach?

Sternshein: At OCSA, I taught screenwriting, production one, production two, and a web series class.

For Santa Ana College, I taught postwar cinema from 1945 to the present day, mass media, introduction to film production, directing/producing from film and television, and all three screenwriting classes, beginning, intermediate, and advanced.

At Santiago Canyon College, I taught mass media and the three screenwriting classes, beginning, intermediate, and advanced.

I’ve taught pretty much everything film-related.

Bonilla: How did you become affiliated with OCSHA? 

Sternshein: OCSA started at Los Alamitos High School when my wife was there. My son is at OCSA in Santa Ana. My wife Jena and I both taught there. My kids went to El Sol, a dual immersion school across the street from OSHA, on Broadway, in Santa Ana.

I re-connected with Ralph Opacic, who had been a teacher and friend, who also founded OSHA. Then, I started teaching film classes and screenwriting there. Later, I taught at Santa Ana College and Santiago Canyon College.

Bonilla: How did you approach film writing when you were teaching?

Sternshein: Like great literature, I wanted to introduce my all students, to this way of telling a story, this personal, independent way of making movies of writing stories. Though they’re small, little stories, they say something about us, about life.

I recently spoke to a class of aspiring filmmakers. I told them, “I know you’ve been through a lot of struggles in your life. Honestly, you can’t be a screenwriter, without some adversity”. I guarantee you’ll come out of it a better writer because you understand.

You have to go through suffering and pain to tell a story with empathy. When you come across people on the camera, or when you’re interviewing them, you have some empathy and bring some of that to the page.

Bonilla: What inspired you to go from teaching to full-time filmmaker?

Sternshein: In my class, at the end of the semester I would tell my students to, “Go out there. Tell your story. Don’t wait for the gatekeepers. Don’t ask for permission”. This is a pitch that I’ve been giving for years. But, I wasn’t doing what I was saying. The more I gave that speech, the less authentic I felt.

Finally, I did two things. One, I went to my wife and I shared, “I’m thinking about getting out of teaching, so I can go make a movie”. It wasn’t her favorite idea, but she agreed, “If your miserable and that’s gonna make you happy. Then absolutely”. And so I did.

Second, I went to Brad, who had moved to Chicago as a tenured professor at DePaul University. He ran the screenwriting program there. I asked him, “I want to try to raise some capital and make a little movie, at one location. What do you want to do?” We threw some ideas around and I pitched this movie.

In 2017, I pretty much walked away from teaching to make this movie. Here we are four years later and it’s finally coming to the screen.

Bonilla: Which film and/or filmmaker inspired your filmmaking?

Sternshein: Spike Lee for sure. I remember seeing Do the Right Thing and it changed me. This idea that the hottest day of summer where everything comes to a head was amazing. Ernest Dickerson‘s cinematography was so warm.

Then, I saw a flyer at McDonald’s that Spike was going to be at Cal State Long Beach. My mom, a teacher, let me take that day off from high school to see him. I was probably a junior in high school. Jungle Fever was coming out and he was beginning Malcolm X. It was life-changing just to hear Spike speak.

As an undergrad at Whittier college, I was in charge of the speaker series. We got Spike to come and speak to at Whittier. Then, I got to have dinner with him. He was so cool. At the time, his production company 40 Acres and a Mule West. He hooked me up with one of his creative executives and was really supportive early on in my career.

Bonilla: How did you meet your filmmaking partner Brad Riddell? 

Sternshein: My film partner Brad Riddell and I went to USC together. In our last year, in a scriptwriting class, my screenplay ended up on the first year of The Blacklist and his screenplay ended up becoming a part of American Pie Presents: Band Camp. Brad went the studio route, while I went the independent route.

Years later, we became friends again, and we wrote some comedy together, including a web series.

Bonilla: Where did the inspiration for Later Days come from?

Sternshein: 10 years ago, I threw my wife an 80s prom at the Orange Elks Lodge. She’s an overworked corporate attorney and works hard to support the family. I was home with the kids. At night when she gets home, we’d high five, and I go teach till 10 p.m. Then we’d finally get to bed together and immediately fall asleep. We were like two ships crossing in the night.

For the party, I got everyone in costumes. I thought it was going to be a fun night. But, what’s crazy, is when we put on those costumes, we realized that everyone diverted back to their high school self, and the cliques formed.

Brad had a band camp-like reunion. That didn’t go well. People had issues and all this stuff surfaced.

We thought, “What if the people on your Facebook feed, where everybody’s getting along, liking your photos, who you haven’t seen since eighth grade, all ended up in the same room for a night, and it all goes horribly wrong?”

Bonilla: How did you and Brad delegate the responsibilities of co-writing and co-directing?

Sternshein: We work well together and don’t fight a lot. We also had basic rules with the cast and crew, creating a nice environment on set. Somedays I’m working with the camera and he’s working with the actors. For the most part, we’re both weighing in on things, with one person delegated to speak to the cast and crew.

It was our first directed feature. We’ve been around a lot of movie sets, so it went well. I think in a lot of ways it went better than usual because there were two heads. Usually, a director is frantic since he’s constantly having to make multiple decisions in the same second on set. We still have chaos, but there were two of us making sure everything was going as planned and we weren’t missing anything. I would work again with Brad. I really enjoyed it.

Bonilla: What lead to the decision to film Later Days in Chicago?

Sternshein: We got a tax incentive to go shoot in Chicago, getting 30% of our budget back to shoot in Illinois. It was a huge deal.  Even though it’s supposed to be set here in the city of Orange. It ended up making it a Chicago story.

We raised all the money ourselves. Brad and I went to Chicago and pitched to the CMA, the Chicago Media Angels.  We were also selected by the SAG/IFP Table Read Series. Also, in Chicago, they had a series where they were reading scripts publicly. They chose ours and we were able to get more financing there.

We did all this about March 2019, before we shot that September. Everything was done in 19 days. We got everything edited by January/February 2020. But, in March, COVID happened.

The good news is that during that time, we worked on the soundtrack and everything else. We needed an authentic 1980s soundtrack. So, we have about eighteen well-known 80s songs on it. It’s pretty cool.

Bonilla: Later Days has a John Hughes feel to it. Was Hughes an influence on the film?

Sternshein: The John Hughes influence is huge. We’re going on 50 and were 13 when Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and all those movies were coming out. We love these movies. Brad also teaches a class at DePaul University which is a John Hughes film class.

When we sat down to write, we thought about The Breakfast Club, wondering, “What if Anthony Michael Hall was the CEO of Facebook?”, or, “What if what if Emilio Estevez, who was the big jock was a stay-at-home Dad?” Also, “How would those guys come to a meeting?” Imagine Anthony 25 years later, with a chip on his shoulder, wanting to everybody that he’s the man.

Since, Hughes’s films took place in Shermer, Illinois, a fake city, in his honor, our movie is set in West Shermer. Also, Audrey Francis who plays Karen in Later Days, is wearing Haviland Morris’ dress from Sixteen Candles.

Bonilla: How else did you inject the 80s film style into Later Days?

Sternshein: This film was shot to look like an old film, using a process to make the film look a little grainy. We really wanted that party to look like something out of the 80s.

The costumes were handmade by Sarah Albrecht. They’re amazing. Sarah did an amazing job. I’m so grateful for her. There’s a couple of Easter eggs we put in the film through famous-looking costumes and stuff in the background.

Bonilla: What does Later Days mean to you? 

Sternshein: Later Days is a very personal story. It was how I felt coming out of raising my kids with my wife. Adulting is hard, especially not seeing your wife all day. When you get this age, our parents are getting sick and dying, and all of the sudden, you feel mortal. You have to deal with that now.

Bonilla: How have audiences reacted to the film so far?

Sternshein: Everybody says it’s a sweet movie. Though it’s an R-rated movie, it’s wholesome. I’m kind of a sarcastic and edgy guy. So, when people I know see Later Days they say, “I didn’t think you have that in you”. It surprises them.

Bonilla: Do you have any upcoming projects?

Sternshein: We’re excited to continue to make more films and produce films. We’ve optioned the award-winning book called The Kindness of Strangers by Katrina Kittle. It’s a dark, but an award-winning book. Currently, Dominica Scorsese is attached to direct and we’re producing that.

Brad and I are writing a skateboard comedy called Back to the GrindTony Hawk is producing it, with Troy Miller attached to direct.

Bonilla: What do you hope that audiences take away from this film?

Sternshein: I hope people walk away thinking it’s a sweet and funny little movie, with a great soundtrack. I’m excited for people to see this and meet the characters. These are characters that we’ve been thinking about for a long time.

Overall, I wanted to make a movie for my wife to enjoy when she’s tired on a Saturday night, as she asks me to put something funny on. I feel like we made this movie for her and Brad’s wife, Tina. A movie that they could curl up on the couch, laugh to, and be distracted from all the complications of the modern world.

Later Days is now playing at select theatres nationally, TVOD, and digital platforms.


Daily Dead: WELCOME TO THE BLUMHOUSE: Interview with THE MANOR Executive Producers Sandy King and Richard J. Bosner

10/8/21 7:56 AM | JUSTINA BONILLA

The Manor, one of the four films of the Amazon Studio and Blumhouse Television series Welcome to the Blumhouse, features a strong backbone of producers, including horror veteran producer Sandy King andhorror newcomer Richard J. Bosner.

King established herself in film as a script supervisor on a wide variety of films, including Sixteen Candles. She’s best known for her collaboration with horror icon John Carpenter, in multiple roles as an executive producer, producer, and script supervisor for many of his beloved films, ranging from They Live, to Big Trouble in Little China, and In the Mouth of Madness.

Bosner has produced several independent, including Other People and Black Bear, which both premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. He was a co-producer for The Wannabe, which also featured as an executive producer, film titian Martin Scorsese.

Together they share their love for the horror genre, their experiences as producers, and their participation with The Manor.

What is your go-to Halloween movie?

King: I’d say X the Unknown. It’s a hammer horror film.

Bosner: Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. I really love that movie. It’s kind of why I love The Manor too. It’s got that gothic horror vibe.

What inspired you to pursue producing?

King: I got trapped into it. It was nothing I aspired to. I was happy being a crew person.

Starting back when I did a TV movie with Carl Borak. He drafted manager associate producing a thing called Key Tortuga, shot largely in the Bahamas. He kept giving me more and more responsibility, and said, “Okay, you’re an associate producer.” I’m like, “What? No, I’m happy being a script supervisor.” Things like that kept happening to me, where I kept accidentally falling into the role.

Once I was with John, everybody kept asking me questions and having me do more things, just by virtue of how close I was to him. I gave up and I finally said, “Fine”.

Bosner: Ever since I was a little kid, I was always wrangling my neighbors, putting them in plays and movies, making them do all kinds of things. Over the years, it kept snowballing. I do enjoy finding different creative people and bringing them all together to achieve one vision. It’s really enjoyable when you find the right group of people to do that.

What do you like about the horror genre?

King: It’s an allegorical genre and an allegorical story format. Good horror is talking about something else. It’s got other layers to it. And you can entertain and inform at the same time. If you make Gandhi, you’re preaching to the converted. If you make They Live, you’re saying something else to an audience that would not necessarily walk in, if you told them you were talking about social justice and who you are. So, in a film like The Manor, we can talk about another societal issue and entertain at the same time.

Bosner: I’m really drawn to the fantastical realism of it that doesn’t have to be set in reality. You can get these messages across in an entertaining way. This is only my second horror film that I’ve done, but I’m such a horror fan. I’ve always loved horror, or even though I end up doing Sundance prestige types of movies. I get to do something like this with amazing people like Sandy and Axelle, it’s doesn’t get any better than that.

How did you become involved as executive producers for The Manor?

King: We drafted Richard as a problem solver. I had worked with Axelle on developing the script and wanted to see her surrounded in a comfort zone that led her to a more European sensibility.  That let her do something female-centric and something that would be considered ageist, in what other people considered a teen genre. We share an agent. So, being together was an easy fit.

At the same time, Richard was a great producing partner to bring into it, because it was basically Richard and I against the world, getting Axelle’s version there. And Richard had no choice.

Bosner: It was such a great experience. I felt very blessed to be invited in to help execute Axelle’s vision with Sandy. Axelle did an amazing job as a director, leading with kindness. That sometimes gets overlooked. She did take care of the crew and appreciated what the crew did on the movie. It was always very apparent. That’s such a great environment to be in when you’re creating, to just feel that around you the whole time.

What is your favorite scene in The Manor?

King: I really liked the scenes between Barbara Hershey and Nicholas Alexander. I thought the relationship of the grandmother with her grandson, and watching him be torn between the two realities, really worked for me. Nick did a great job being torn and having to face the things he did.

Bosner: I really like the climax of the movie. That was really fun. We did that out at the Golden Oaks Ranch in the middle of the night, with the snakes and everything around us. We did have a snake wrangler, but I kept thinking the snakes would get us, but it didn’t so we were fine. That was pretty crazy, but fun.

Sandy, how important was it to get the message out about ageism?

King: I happen to think it’s now become more ageless when you can get the studios to recognize that. First of all, everybody for whom it used to be a teen genre is now my age. They didn’t quit loving it. Also, the same way horror used to be considered for 14-year-old boys, but more women now embrace horror than men. We’re brought into the world bloody and screaming, so that may have something to do with it.

It’s a matter of convincing studios that their old presumptions are outdated. You notice that the European films that everybody likes to stream, don’t have those rigid ideas that you have to be between 17 and 23-years-old to be cast, you know, white bread stuff. They’re much more integrated, both age wise and diversity. They’ve embraced those things a lot longer than we have in this country. So, I thought it was great that Amazon chose this one before the Blumhouse association. And that’s what our origins with this film are.

Richard, are you looking to produce more horror films in the future?

Bosner: Yes, absolutely.

Is there a chance you will work together again on another film in the future?

King: I’m dragging him everywhere.

Bosner: Yeah, she’s stuck with me. We’re both stuck with each other. So there we go.

The Manor is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.


Daily Dead: WELCOME TO THE BLUMHOUSE: Interview with MADRES Director Ryan Zaragoza

10/7/21 7:43 AM | JUSTINA BONILLA

Our fourth and final Amazon Studios and Blumhouse Television Welcome to the Blumhouse directorial interview series, interviews the director of Madres, a hauntingly disturbing tale from the 1970s, based on true events.

Madres, directed by Ryan Zaragoza, goes back in time to a small 1970s California migrant community, where Beto (Tenoch Huerta) and Diana (Ariana Guerra), a young Mexican American couple are planning to start their new family. However, as strange symptoms and blood-chilling visions haunt Diana, the couple is forced to face the possibility that they are the newest victims of a local curse, or something far more terrifying.

Zaragoza has directed/written multiple short films such as Bebé and The Painter. He has also directed for The CW television series All American and for the upcoming Disney+ series Just BeyondMadres is his directorial feature film debut.

What is your go-to Halloween movie?

The one that scares me the most is The Exorcist. I can’t watch. I’m shocked when people are just so blase about it and think it’s outdated. To me, it’s terrifying, bold, and just such a great film. So I try to watch that when I’m looking to get scared.

Which filmmakers influence you?

I’m a big Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg fan. Paul Thomas Anderson, I think he’s my guy right now. I’m always fascinated every time he has something to say.

What is your favorite Blumhouse horror movie?

I really like Get Out. That opened up the doors for everything. I think the risk they took on, allowed for a series like this to get made.

How did you become a part of the Welcome to Blumhouse series?

I’ve been talking with Blumhouse for a little while, and they knew the types of films that I want to make. I think the series is really amazing. The platform that they give to filmmakers who are just starting out in their feature careers. They sent the right script my way which piqued my interest. I attached myself as soon as I could.

What inspired you to choose this script for your directorial debut?

Two things, first, that it took place in the 1970s. I am just a huge fan of 70s filmmaking and 70s horror filmmaking. I saw it as a vehicle to help contribute to what those filmmakers were doing at the time and pay homage to that style.

Second, because the story itself dealt with the Mexican American community and population, which is my background. I’m Mexican American. It gave voice to a group of women who were affected by a real-life horror that isn’t really discussed. I saw it as a chance to shed light on the issue.

With Madres evaluating the cultural differences between Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans, how important was it for you to explore a topic like this, which we normally don’t see in films?

This was a huge part for me. I saw this story about a woman who speaks very little Spanish and her husband who is fluent, as it’s his first language. Language is often associated with culture. I saw that immediately as an opportunity for great conflict.

Also, I wanted to express my own ideas and my own feelings on the subject through this story. I found moments for these characters to have conversations that address the issues because they’re not black and white. They’re very complex. You can see one way or another, by taking those moments and leaning into the conflict.

How was your experience working with Tenoch Huerta?

Tenoch’s been on my radar for years. I am such a fan of his work and his ability to disappear into his roles. Honestly, I have made quite a few pitch decks and look books. If there is a Mexican male lead, he is the picture that I’m using. He’s just that guy for me.

When we first set out making this film, he wasn’t available. But then the pandemic happened, and we got shut down. By the time we went back up, he became available. So it just became this great moment of, “Oh, I get to finally work with this guy”. Tenoch lived up to every expectation. He’s just a wonderful person.

He’s got something coming up in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. It’s a big deal. I’m so happy for him!

What was your favorite scene to film?

I have two. One of them is Diana and Beto having a big fight about speaking Spanish. Beto uses celery as a way of symbolism and communicating that he’s sorry, in his very sweet way. I feel like I put a lot of myself into that moment. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. So, I remember being very teary-eyed as we’re filming it. It just felt like a very raw thing for me to create.

Also, the chopping sequence, I really had fun shooting and making that. It was enjoyable. I could feel the tension building as we were shooting it.

Was there a scene that was the most challenging scene to film?

I think the most challenging scene to film for logistical reasons was on the farm. We were on such a tight schedule to create as much interesting and hopefully beautiful imagery as we could, we got rained out that day. And, we were constantly on the fly, just trying to film as much as we could.

Then it was super-hot. There were these love bugs that were all over everybody. It was really difficult, but everybody had great spirits. That was another beautiful thing. The cast was just so bright and cheerful. They made everything that was hard, much easier.

What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

Hopefully, this is the start of a conversation with an audience that either feels like they aren’t spoken to, whether you’re of Latin background or you just like the style of filmmaking that I’m trying to do.

In the future, what type of projects do you hope to direct?

I’m looking to explore a lot of different genres like action, sci-fi, or drama-romance. I have quite a few projects that I’m ready to hop into. So we’ll see what happens next.


Daily Dead: WELCOME TO THE BLUMHOUSE: Interview with THE MANOR Director Axelle Carolyn

10/5/21 11:02 PM | JUSTINA BONILLA

Part three of our Amazon Studios and Blumhouse Television Welcome to the Blumhouse directorial interview series interviews the director of The Manor, as she reveals the film’s horror roots and eerie happenings.

The Manor, directed by Axelle Carolyn, reveals the struggle that Judith (Barbara Hershey) has as she adjusts to the new life in a nursing home, while a supernatural force is terrorizing the elderly residents. Despite Judith’s pleas for help, it’s up to her to find out what is attacking her fellow residents before it’s too late.

Carolyn has a diverse writing and directorial horror track record, including directing and writing for the anthology movie Tales of Halloween and writing for the Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Recently, she has directed multiple television and streaming series, such as The Haunting of Bly ManorCreepshow, and American Horror Story.

What is your favorite creepy house movie?

Oh, wow. There are so many. That’s definitely one of my favorite subgenres. In my bedroom, I have a collection of pictures of creepy houses from horror movies. The Haunting is a combination of a great house and a great movie.

Which films and filmmakers influence you?

Growing up, I was a huge fan of Tim Burton and David Cronenberg. I think that those have always stayed. Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow were really defining movies for me. The Fly for sure is amazing. West Craven and John Carpenter, the Greats of the genre. Then, looking back further, Terence Fisher.

I really love Hammer movies. I grew up watching a lot of Hammer movies because those were the ones that my parents thought were acceptable, which is funny because a lot of them have a lot of boobs and blood and stuff like that. They really shaped my view of horror, my aesthetic, and what I like about the genre.

I remember Tim Burton, in the interview once said that he loved horror movies. He always aims to make a horror movie, but it always kind of comes out as something else. He always ends up making a Tim Burton movie. I thought, “This is bullshit. If you love horror, you’ll just think really scary stuff.” Now, I realize growing into filmmaking, you can only make the stuff that’s inside of you. You can love horror as much as you like. But, if your taste is more towards something that’s slightly different, that’s what will come out when you make it.

How did you become a director for Welcome to the Blumhouse?

I wrote the script a little while ago. It was a bit of a journey to get this made. We shot this two years ago. And, before that, it went through a bunch of different iterations, because I was trying to figure out exactly what it was, then bringing it to people and companies.

It was very hard to get it set up, because of the fact that the protagonist is older than usual. Also, the fact that I’m presenting, a bunch of protagonists who are in their 70s. A lot of the feedback was, “We love the scripts, but could we make it about the grandson? Or can we change it and make it about the younger people?” No, that’s not the subject matter of this. Eventually, my reps send it to Amazon Studios.

Aldo Chang at Amazon Studios saw that this was a unique opportunity to do something different. And, to tap into talent, who hadn’t maybe been given the lead role in a while, or just really a chance to do something very different and very unique. He brought it to Blumhouse, because at the time, Amazon was just starting their deal on Welcome to the Blumhouse. This was actually the second movie to be shot in that series.

As the scriptwriter, what influenced the story?

I think it’s partly from visiting loved ones in nursing homes, what it does to you, how it affects you, and how scary those environments are already. And then places you can’t escape easily. It seemed ripe for that kind of movie. There’s a lot thematically to explore as well about the way we treat the elderly and the way we build those nursing homes. There was a lot of stuff about the way that society deals with age. The way that I see myself aging. A lot of anxieties went into that. It’s a way of channeling all that into a supernatural movie.

How was your experience filming at the iconic Stimson house?

I love that house so much. The fact that it was the opening house in House II: The Second Story makes it even better. It’s such a beautiful place. This is my dream home in so many ways. The interior is all this wood carving, all those stained-glass windows, everything feels like it has history, it has a smell, and everything feels rich and amazing.

We got to go in, remove all the furniture, add wallpaper in some places, and dress it the way we wanted. It really molded into what we wanted. It’s one of the biggest elements of the story. Finding the right house sets the tone for everything else. We were very lucky to get that.

What was your favorite scene to film?

Probably all the scenes with the creature, because I love working with prosthetics and practical effects. The point of the movie is not to be absolutely terrifying. We’re not making The Conjuring. But there was enough in the supernatural moments that I liked to put together. It was really fun seeing the monster come together, seeing that suit being put together. All those moments were really, really cool.

Also, directing Barbara with the monster. How great is that? Her reactions are so truthful and so perfectly calibrated.

Was there a scene that was the most challenging to film?

In some ways, everything is challenging. We don’t have unlimited resources or time. So everything is finding that certain pacing. I know that the more emotional scenes of the movie were difficult to shoot, but they’re also beautiful in their own way. There’s a couple of big emotional scenes that we shot early on in the movie that I wish we could have shot later in the schedule because Barbara and I learn to trust each other a little bit more closely. It would have been easier to do later in the day because it does require a lot of trust in your director to be that vulnerable on camera. But it turned out great. She’s fantastic.

Both leads, Barbara Hersey and Bruce Davison have been in memorable horror films. Do any of the other actors have a history with horror films?

Jill Larson was in The Taking of Deborah Logan. She’s also the manacled woman in Shutter Island that goes, “Shhh”.And she’s this gorgeous blonde in real life. Then, Fran Bennett was in West Craven’s New Nightmare. She’d really scared me back in the day. She was playing the part that would be the nurse in The Manor.

Overall, what was your experience working with this cast?

Sometimes things are really hard when you’re trying to put a film together. Filmmaking is not easy. And sometimes, things come together so nicely that you can’t even believe the luck you have. Assembling the cast for this, seeing how the cast got along, and they built relationships the way that you hoped they will. It was such a joy. It was such a blessing.

What has been the best advice that you received from another director?

Directors are not good at giving good advice. However, there’s two that stick with me. One came from Tom Holland, of all people who said, “Don’t”. When I told him I was making my first feature, he said, “Everyone and their mothers are directing these days.” At first, I was very taken aback by that. But I think what he meant was, if you can let anything convince you not to become a director, it’s probably best to stop now. Because it’s going to be so hard, that if anything can get in your way and make you reconsider, it’s probably not for you. You get that door slammed in your face so much. I’ve been so lucky to work consistently in the past couple of years. Before that, it took 15 years of sometimes getting to make an indie movie, but not like not being able to get stuff, not being able to properly set up a career. Then, you have to deal with reviews.

The second one was John Carpenter, who I asked for advice before shooting. He told me, “Sit down. Sit a lot.” I do that a lot on set because my back does hurt. Those are long days.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I’m hoping to get a couple of features made. I have a script I’m finishing. I have another script that I’m attached to that I’m hoping will get made. I just finished shooting the season finale for American Horror Story. I also have an episode of Creepshow coming out soon. There’s a lot of cool stuff coming out right now. Also, I’ll have episodes for another show that comes out next year.

[Photo Credit: Kevin Estrada / Amazon]


Daily Dead: WELCOME TO THE BLUMHOUSE: Interview with BINGO HELL Director Gigi Saul Guerrero

10/1/21 10:04 AM | JUSTINA BONILLA

Part two of our Amazon Studios and Blumhouse Television Welcome to the Blumhouse directorial interview series interviews the director of Bingo Hell, who reveals just how blood-thirsty seniors can get over their beloved bingo game.

Bingo Hell, directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero, shows the unwanted gentrification of the Oak Springs barrio on its older residents, especially Lupita (Adriana Barraza), who calls it home. Soon a mysterious force takes over their beloved bingo hall, thrusting into a battle for the soul of their beloved neighborhood.

Guerrero has made a name for herself in horror as the director of several Crypt TV shorts, most recently Mistress of Bones. She also has directed several projects for Blumhouse television, including The Purge series episode “Hail Mary” and the Into the Dark: Culture Shock.

If you were a character in your movie, what would be your weapon of choice?

After the movie was made, I thought, “What if Lupita, used a chancla (Mexican slang for a sandal)?” That thing is deadly. I should have just done that. Honestly. That, or a flame thrower would have been great.

Recognizing that Bingo Hell has such a badass leading lady, who is your favorite cinematic leading badass lady?

I love Ripley. I think she’s so strong, in all the Alien films. She’s the best example of a survivor.

How were you selected for Welcome to the Blumhouse?

After the success of Culture Shock, Blumhouse trusted me enough to ask, “So what is next?” That, to me, was amazing, because they really are open to hearing new voices, and taking risks on such wacky stories. So, it felt the right time and place to introduce to them the idea of Bingo Hell.

As co-writer of the script, what influenced the story of the script?

I was catching up with co-writer Shane McKenzie. He shared to me, “Gigi, you’re not gonna believe where I was last night. I went to visit my mother-in-law and went to her bingo hall. And boy, it was terrifying.” He continued, “It was crazy to see all these older folks be so competitive at the game and be so into it. I didn’t want to mess with any of them.” I also shared, “Listen, my grandma loves Loteria (Mexican Bingo). And it’s the same thing. You don’t want to take that away from her.”

Shane asked, “What would happen if we took it away from them?” Right away, we were both realized that’s going to be the movie. We got so inspired by the people that we know, his mother-in-law and my grandma. The characters in this film are based on people we know. And yes, they are that stubborn.

What was your favorite scene to shoot?

At the very end of the movie when the whole community comes together for the fight. The big fight was a blast to shoot. I don’t think these actors were acting. They were beating the crap out of the stunt double. I felt very sorry for him. I had to yell at them, “Cut! Cut! Pace yourselves!”

A lot of the dialogue in that scene we didn’t write. All that swearing, like “Who’s Your Mama now?” and “Fight me now!”, were not us.

What was the most challenging scene to film?

The most challenging to shoot was, Clarence in the auto shop when he’s going from reality to fantasy. That was also day one of shooting. It was an exciting challenge.

Grover Colson was the wonderful actor who played Clarence. He had never worked with fake blood and didn’t know what it’s like to be near fake blood. He’s worked in this industry for forty-plus years. He admitted to me, “Mam, I don’t know what it’s like to have blood on me.”

I assured him, “Well, we’re about to make up 30 years of that. So, the moment you feel blood Grover, close your eyes.” And, sure enough, he had fun. He even asked us to, “Take my pictures.” It was a good time.

How was your experience as a director working with Adrianna Barraza?

Before I speak about just Adrianna, this entire cast was a dream come true. They’re all such seasoned actors. That to me, as a filmmaker, has always been a dream. As a new director, I needed to really take into account that I had amazing actors. They have a lot of emotional scenes and a lot of banter. So, I had to just stretch out those scenes for them to play with. That was awesome.

Working with Adrianna was unbelievably great. She’s such a ray of sunshine, always so happy, always so lovely. But the moment she had any of those weapons in her hand, you need to be six feet apart, because she was into it.

That enthusiasm was so contagious. She never had done a role like this, despite working in the industry for so long. She mentioned how, “This is the first time I feel that I’m playing a character that allows me to do everything, from comedic to emotional, to just chingona (Spanish slang for a badass woman).” I could tell in the movie that she’s having a blast. So that trust was set from the beginning with her.

What is your favorite Blumhouse horror film?

That’s a tough one because there are so many good ones, but I feel that the best Blumhouse film is The Invisible Man. It’s a very solid movie, well-acted, well-executed, and a super scary film. It’s one of the best reimaginings I’ve ever seen to.

Currently, what are your top five favorite horror films?

Oh, that’s a list of 100, but I love The Devil’s RejectsRECFrom Dusk till Dawn, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise. Also, I can’t help but say I’m a sucker for Gremlins. That is definitely the best horror and holiday movie ever made. These films inspire me, so much.

Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to share?

For directing, I’m excited that Blumhouse and I are still working on a few more scripts. So hopefully something gets made in the next year. It’s one of those moments in a career that you’re hustling, rewriting, developing, and hopefully, someone says, “Yes”. So I’m excited to see which egg is going to hatch first.

For appearances, there’s going to be two animated shows that I do the lead voice for. That will get announced at the end of this year or the beginning of next year. These are the two biggest roles I’ve ever booked. My parents can watch these. I’m excited that people can enjoy my work, now through my voice. So, I look forward to sharing those very, very soon.

Bingo Hell premieres on Amazon Prime on October 1, 2021.


Daily Dead: Welcome to the Blumhouse: Interview with BLACK AS NIGHT Director Marritte Lee Go

9/29/21 9:46 AM | JUSTINA BONILLA

Welcome to the Blumhouse, the thrilling horror film series from Amazon Studios and Blumhouse Television makes its highly anticipated part two debut for the Halloween 2021 season.

In this four-part interview series, we interview the four directors of part two, who put the bloody in bloody good time. They share their passion for filmmaking, along with the gory details of creating horror cinema.

Black as Night, directed by Maritte Lee Go, follows the 15-year-old Shawna (Asjha Cooper), and her best friend Pedro (Fabrizio Guido), as they spend the summer together in New Orleans slaying vampires. The deeper they explore the secret underworld of the vampires of the Big Easy, Shawna also discovers an unlikely path of self-discovery and finds the inner strength to fight back against her biggest fears.

Maritte, who is an assistant director, producer, writer, and actor, makes her directorial feature horror film debut with Black as Night. She has previously directed the short films Illipino and Remittance. In horror, Maritte wrote and directed the “Vehophobia” segment of the 2021 horror anthology film Phobias.

What is your favorite vampire movie?

Maritte Lee Go: 30 Days of Night and Interview with a Vampire. I have watched both of those movies way too much.

Which films and filmmakers influence your directing style?

Maritte Lee Go: Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro Iñárritu. I love everything they do. I watch their movies over and over, like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. They’re really grounded in movies that explore humanity, the pain of humanity, the obsession with perfection, and just being greater than then who you think you are or where you come from. And I really analyze their work a lot. I take a lot of inspiration from their movies.

What drew you to the script for Black as Night?

Maritte Lee Go: I was immediately drawn to it. I love horror films. I’d never seen a movie like this, with a black female lead. I’d never seen anything tonally like this either. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a similar tone. The script was also very original.

So it kind of added that other layer, combining so many of my loves. I was able to explore, comedy, drama, horror, and put all these loves together in one script. It’s a well-rounded, deep movie that is also super fun.

How did you become a director for part two of Welcome to the Blumhouse?

Maritte Lee Go: I was pitching another film to Amazon that I had been developing. And luckily, the execs really liked how I pitched. They didn’t buy the project. But they really liked the way that I thought. So, I was able to pitch this movie. I had previously done another horror anthology, so I was already in the horror space.

When I read the script for Black as Night, fell in love with it, put together a pitch packet, and a pitch reel. I pitched my heart out, telling them my vision of how I saw the movie and they loved it.

What was your favorite scene to shoot?

Maritte Lee Go: My favorite scene to shoot is the death of the mother. We had to do this in several parts because, of course we can’t just throw the actress out of a window. But we did throw a stunt woman out the window. We also got to light her on fire.

We had to film it in three different locations. It was the actual apartment, where we did that scene. Then, we had to build a separate stage to lite the stunt woman on fire. Finally, we went to another building that looks like the projects where she’s jumping out of the window. It was just so exciting, so scary.

Lighting someone on fire is no joke. There was this thing that ignites so fast, and she’s running around screaming in the process. We had to protect her hair and her skin. It takes a long time. So it was a very dangerous act.

And then, jumping out of the window of the building. It was on the fourth floor, and she landed in over 200 boxes. It’s crazy because she really jumped out of a window and landed in boxes. It was awesome. It’s a huge adrenaline rush. And I just love that it looks so good.

What was the most challenging scene to film?

Maritte Lee Go: The challenge was being stopped by COVID. Then, shooting through COVID. This is a small-budget film. We didn’t get more days to shoot, it was just reduced hours, reduced crew. And then, we were into another season where lightning storms were happening. So with reduced hours, less crew, and trying to do a vampire movie where people can’t touch or breathe on each other is very hard.

People are coughing in the movie. That’s the most terrifying thing you can do nowadays is cough public. So, we had people covering their mouths and moving their shoulders like they’re coughing, but they’re not actually coughing. And for the bites, people had to just position their heads to make it look like they’re biting. We had to digitally remove all of their masks.

We were shooting through storms. It rained for like three hours at the beginning of the day. So a lot of the scenes were done in one to two takes because there was really no time to get it done. We realized, “If we don’t get this, then we won’t be able to tell the rest of this scene, which will affect the story”. There was a lot of trying to figure out how to do everything very fast. But, huge challenges, with such a huge payoff. I mean, what an opportunity and how lucky we are to be able to work through a pandemic.

What was it like to work with horror icon Keith David?

Maritte Lee Go: Keith’s amazing. He’s a very intimidating, powerful person in real life. He just has so much power. He has this booming voice that everybody stops to listen to. He’s extremely knowledgeable and talented. I was able to hear his life story before he started shooting.

Keith really vibed with so much of his character in the movie. He could relate to it and understand why people could get a certain way. He’s a very talented person. It was such an honor to work with him and I can’t wait to work with him on another project.

If you were a character in Black as Night, how would you kill a vampire?

Maritte Lee Go: I would love to be a Japanese Samurai is with a giant sword. And I would just slice their head off and blood spraying everywhere. Kill Bill is on my mind right now. But that’s such a badass way.

What is your favorite Blumhouse horror film?

Maritte Lee Go: I’ve probably seen Insidious the most. The tension in Insidious is insane. So I watch every scene over and over, to figure out the sound design and the editing. There are other films where they hold tension in silence for so long, I’m yawning. But, for some reason, director James Wan is such a master of tension. He’s brilliant.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

Maritte Lee Go: Yes, I’m taking a slight departure from horror on my next film, exploring genres. I’m set to direct a Miramax film. It’s a musical. And I’m really, really, really excited for that. We’ve been prepping for the last few months and we’re set to shoot next year.

Black as Night premieres on Amazon Prime on October 1, 2021.


Latin Horror: Fright Favorites: Interview with author DAVID J. SKAL

‘Monster Show’ historian on his latest literary contribution

LATIN HORROR With Halloween quickly approaching, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), is gearing up its classic horror film lineup, with thrills and chills. A book accompanying this popular spooky programming is the celebrated horror film history book Fright Favorites: 31 Moves to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond.

Fright Favorites author David J. Skal, who is a highly regarded horror history author and authority of classic horror cinema, shares with us his history as an author, the creative process of creating Fright Favorites, and advice for aspiring writers.

Justina Bonilla: What inspired you to write non-fiction horror?

David J. Skal: I started as a science fiction writer. I had done a number of novels and they got good reviews. They didn’t make a lot of money for me. So, my agent suggested doing nonfiction. With a novel, especially if you’re not a bestselling novelist, you must complete the book and shop the whole thing around. But, with nonfiction, you can do a proposal, with sample chapters. 

“When I was a kid, I was just fascinated with that old movie Dracula. I couldn’t get enough of it. I’ve never read a story about the behind-the-scenes”.

– David J. Skal

I said to my agent, “When I was a kid, I was just fascinated with that old movie Dracula. I couldn’t get enough of it. I’ve never read a story about the behind-the-scenes”. By that time, I had been working in the theater and had quite a bit of entertainment industry experience. Whatever is on the screen, or the stage, there is an equally interesting backstory. I didn’t know what was there with Dracula.

Since I was going on vacation at the time, my agent said, “Write up a one-page description, and I’ll talk to you when you’re back”. Then, my agent had 20 New York publishers that wanted to talk to me about my book Hollywood Gothic. I went with W.W. Norton. I’m still doing books for W. W. Norton, one of the last great independently owned New York publishers. 

I thought my book Hollywood Gothic was a one-shot. Then W. W. Norton came back and asked, “What’s next?” After the whole history of horror movies and The Monster Show books, I did a biography of Tod Browning. It just snowballed. I didn’t expect any kind of a career as a film historian.

I’ve also co-edited the Second Norton Critical Edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is kind of my bestselling book. And, years later, there’s always a new audience.

Bonilla: Would you consider writing fiction again?

Skal: Yes. I’m returning to my fiction writing. There are a number of unfinished novels and ideas for novels that have just been on the back burner, while I’ve been playing Mr. Monster for the world. Until they pound a stake into me, I’ll write. I love books. I’ve always loved books. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.

Bonilla: How did you decide on the idea of Fright Favorites?

Skal: I was commissioned to do this. I came up with the idea of 31 films to look at. It’s a format that’s very flexible and will lend itself to a series whether I do it, or somebody else takes it over. 

Bonilla: Were you able to get in a few of your favorite films? 

Skal: I’ve got all my favorites in. However, it isn’t just my taste. There are a lot of cooks involved in this stew. Originally, we were going to do 31 films and it was clearly apparent we couldn’t accommodate everybody’s taste. I offered, “What if we have a, ‘If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy this’ spotlight section and effectively spotlight 62 films”. That seems to have worked. We can very easily turn this into a series. The feedback I’ve gotten has been very positive. 

I think it’s a very nice assortment of films. There’s nothing in the book I don’t like.

Bonilla: Was there any film that was repeatedly requested?

Skal: Of all the films, Hocus Pocus was the most requested from TCM and my publisher. I didn’t realize that there had been such a cult that grew up with that film. It’s certainly a unique film. Director Mick Garris (who wrote the Hocus Pocus screenplay) later thanked me for putting Hocus Pocus in the book.

TCM wanted to be sure we had family-friendly films in the book. That was at the very top of their list. 

Bonilla: With the inclusion of sci-fi films Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Them in the book, how important was it to include that sub-genre

Skal: In terms of how Hollywood approaches horror and science fiction, they don’t really make a distinction. Hollywood uses all the tried-and-true horror tropes in science fiction. Alien is set in a spaceship, but it’s a haunted house picture, where something jumps out at you. Science fiction purists very often don’t like film adaptations of their favorite books, because of that. 

Aliens and other extraterrestrial phenomena are just as useful for eliciting scares and screams as crypts and cobwebs. People go to these kinds of movies for the same reason. They go for a thrill and to see something they’ve never seen before. Horror and science fiction do equally deliver the goods. People are still debating whether Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein is a horror novel or one of the first science fiction novels. That ambiguity you know has persisted especially in the world of horror and science fiction films.

Bonilla: Though TCM is known for classic films, what lead to the decision to have modern horror films a part of this book, such as Hereditary and Get Out

Skal: Get Out was such a popular and breakthrough film. It’s one of the first big mainstream Black horror movies. Black horror had been in short supply. This success was amazing. Director Jordan Peele was wonderful. 

Hereditary is a family film, about the dynamics of the family, and how a family deals with grief and loss. It pushes the family all the way over the edge into horror. The extreme emotions are more extreme in that film than in many other things we’ve seen recently. It’s a bravura effect. I thought leading lady Toni Collette really deserved an Oscar. It was such an amazing performance. But the scream queen doesn’t usually get the Oscar. Maybe someday.

“I always knew these movies were important. People made fun of me for it. But, you prove that they were important.”

– David J. Skal

Bonilla: How have readers reacted to the book?

Skal: I was surprised how many people were excited by it. I thought, “Why haven’t I done this sort of thing before?”. 

There’s one kind of fan letter I keep getting from people, saying, “I always knew these movies were important. People made fun of me for it. But, you prove that they were important.”. That’s one of the nicest things that I hear over and over again over the years. That I give validation to this freaky interest that those of us had as kids and people thought we were we were crazy. Maybe, we were crazy. But, it’s a special kind of crazy. 

We recognize each other across a crowded room all the time. When I’m around people who have nothing to do with the industry or horror movies, and I’m introduced and somebody says what I do for a living, suddenly somebody talks about seeing Dracula and Frankenstein for the first time. It’s just these wonderful touchstones in people’s lives.

Bonilla: Is there a chance for a volume two?

Skal: I’m ready to do it. We are giving the book another push this year because it’s tied to the 31 days of October on TCM. After this coming year, I think there’s a good chance. And, certainly, let TCM know that. Write a fan letter to TCM. 

Bonilla: What upcoming projects do you have?

Skal: I’m in this third season of Eli Roth’s History of Horror. We already shot it under distance conditions. It was quite elaborate to see what television production is like these days. 

I didn’t realize it was gonna be a six-day commitment. I had to commit to self-quarantine for a number of days, take a COVID-19 test, and wait several days for the results. It’s like working in a straitjacket in some ways, but it’s one of the best series out there. 

Eli Roth’s History of Horror has been one of the best-edited compilation series that I’ve ever seen. It’s fun to be involved in. They’re going to have a lot of great people in season three. I only saw my segment. I’m as eager as everybody else to see it. AMC has had great success with the show. Anything that keeps monsters alive, I’m happy to be a part of.

I’ve been writing a brand new, massively expanded version of my Browning’s biography, which will be out later this year. It’s a limited-edition art book with much more to learn about Browning.

Also, this fall, I’m going out on the fan convention circuit, meeting people who read my books.

Bonilla: How does it feel to be writing horror all these years?

Skal: I never thought I would be writing this long about horror movies. That I’d still be doing it, with people paying me to do it, and appreciating it. 

Bonilla: What advice do you give to those interested in a writing career?

Skal: This often happens. Students and fans will ask about doing exactly what I do or planning a career as a film historian. Whatever you do, keep your day job. You also have to have a real thick hide. 

If you want to write about movies, it’s got to be the most important thing in the world to you. To have some bottomless fascination that you can’t even explain, or get to the bottom of yourself. 

Also, discipline, because you have to get into a regular pattern to write. When something clicks and it’s working, you have to give yourself a daily quota. You have to be at your computer at the same time, same hours every day, no matter how much you turn out. Even if it’s only one page at the end of 12 months, you’re going to have a heck of a lot of stuff to work with. Don’t procrastinate. It’s still one of my biggest problems. After all these years, you think I know better. But it’s easy to not start. And you’ll just regret it later. So, write. Write. Write. Write. Write.


The Frida Cinema: History of Horror Interview

Kurt Sayenga
Photo by Bret Curry

The critically praised and fan-favorite horror documentary series Eli Roth’s History of Horror, from AMC, made its season three premiere on October 1, 2021.

The showrunner for Eli Roth’s History of Horror, Kurt Sayenga, is an established television documentary series director, writer, and executive producer, who’s best known for the science television documentary programs Through the WormholeMicrokillers, Origins: The Journey of Mankind, and Breakthrough. Sayenga is a film buff and dedicated horror film fan, who, combined with the talents of horror master Eli Roth, created a program delighting both staunch horror movie fans and casual viewers.

Sayenga shares with us what it takes to develop a horror documentary series, the films that make the series, and the impact of horror cinema.

Bonilla: When you’re developing the episodes, is it the film topics, or the films of interest that come first?

Sayenga: It’s a little of both. We come up with general topics that fit into the template that we’ve established with the network, then think of films that will appeal both to film buffs and casual viewers, who mostly know newer or the most famous horror films. Then, we run about a dozen potential episodes past the network, and they tell us what works for them. We have a very long list of films we love and want to cover, and we’re steadily working our way through it.

Several episodes this season lean into relatively newer films, like the “Holiday Horror” episode, which has a lot of slashers. That genre did not exist until Black Christmas and Halloween.

The “Mad Scientists” episode has more classic horror and traces certain themes across time. For instance, you see that it’s a straight line from The Island of Lost Souls to Ex Machina. And in the case of Frankenstein, we focus on the doctor and not so much the monster, which right off the bat makes it unusual in the pantheon of horror documentaries. The Colin Clive Dr. Frankenstein is a very different man than Dr. Frankenstein played by Peter Cushing, in the Hammer films. Cushing is the star of those movies, and in many ways, he’s the real monster.

Bonilla: How did you pick the topics for the series, such as “Vampires” and “Nine Nightmares”?

Sayenga: The “Nine Nightmares” episode happened because somebody at the network had the idea of making an “Eli’s Top 10” episode. That was a problem because we had already covered a number of Eli’s favorite films in season one. And Eli, was not thrilled with the idea of doing a top 10 for many other reasons, partly because it’s very reductive. Ask him to just name his top 50 Italian horror films and he’d be frustrated because he loves so many of them.

We wound up putting together a bunch of films that he likes that would be hard to fit in any other category, like Cannibal Holocaust. There’s no way in hell you’re gonna get an entire cannibal episode on AMC, which takes advertising, but we could smuggle it in by making it part of the broader category.

Bonilla: What was one of the biggest challenges of filming during COVID?

Sayenga: Conducting the interviews. I thought that with COVID, nobody would come out. And then, if we were lucky, we’d get remotes. Before the vaccine when we started shooting, there was maximum fear, justifiable fear. But we were able to get a lot of great people as it went along, and things got slightly better. Most of the interviews were conducted on set under very strict COVID protocols, and several others were remote interviews, which is something I would ordinarily not condone. But went along with this season because there was no other choice since people weren’t flying and the borders were closed.

There is an element of the person-to-person interview that just gets lost when we’re communicating through Zoom. I was fortunate that I had already interviewed a number of these people, like Edgar Wright, who I talked to at a great length in season one and great length this season. Though he was in London at the time, Edgar and I had met before. So, we already had a connection. It helps to meet someone and sit there sharing some space. Overall, the interviews came out much better than I expected, despite the weirdness of COVID.

Bonilla: How are guests selected for the interviews?

Sayenga: We reach out to all the key creatives in front of and behind the camera, if they’re still alive, and we try to work it out with their managers and their schedules. That is a very challenging process, particularly with actors. We can usually get directors and writers on board for the show with no problem – if they’ve seen the show, they know we’re approaching it from the creator’s point of view. Once we’ve made those connections, the actors are more inclined to come in. For instance, Christopher Landon, who directed Happy Death Day, was one of the first people we lined up this season, and that helped get us Jessica Rothe, the star of Happy Death Day.

I’m not sure why, but we had trouble getting women, especially actresses, for interviews. This season was just the opposite – it’s very gender-balanced. Fortunately, Eli’s making a movie with Cate Blanchett and Jamie Curtis in it. Thus, we were able to get Cate and Jamie.

Bonilla: How do you decide which films to interview guests?

Sayenga: I interviewed 60 people this season and have a bed of another 160 interviews done for the first two seasons. There’s some material I can use from the earlier interviews, but not a lot. We cover about 80 or 90 films a season, and there are very few people who can talk about everything. We break it up – and usually, I will run the list of films past the interviewees, and they can tell me what interests them. I also have a group of people like Joe DanteMick GarrisRob ZombieRebekah McKendry, and Quentin Tarantino, who has seen every film you can think of and can talk about them at length.

I am particularly happy when I run across actors who are also film enthusiasts. You would be surprised at how many of them aren’t.

I also listen to a bunch of podcasts to hear like who’s good at interviews. So, I poach a lot from the Trailers from Hell podcast, The Movies That Made Me podcast, and Mick Garris’s Postmortem podcast. They get a lot of good people on their shows.

Bonilla: What inspired the episode topics for this season?

Sayenga: The “Mad Scientist” episode is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve made a lot of science films in my career, and I think part of came from watching mad scientist movies in my childhood. I was fascinated by the figure of the genius rebel going their own way, no matter the consequences, perhaps going too far in their pursuit of truth.

“Infections” is a great episode, and I’m sure the inspiration for that is fairly obvious. Besides, where else would we get a chance to cut from Dustin Hoffman throwing his coffee against a whiteboard in Outbreak to Kate Winslet poking her finger at a whiteboard in Contagion?

“Psychics” gave us a good way to dive into some of the better Stephen King adaptations, Doctor Sleep and The Shining. That’s an all-star director episode with films like ScannersThe Dead Zone, The Fury, Beetlejuice, and The Frighteners. Also included, is The Gift, an underappreciated movie directed by Sam Raimi, starring Cate Blanchett.

“Sequels (That Don’t Suck)”, was an idea that Eli and I were banging around for a while. It starts with Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and ends with Gremlins 2: The New Batch. There is much mayhem in between. I think that will be very popular and so does the network. They made it the season premiere episode.

“Holiday Horror” is another idea we’ve been wanting to do for a while. It runs from the low-budget holiday-themed slashers like Black ChristmasSilent Night Deadly Night, Terror Train, My Bloody Valentine, and Mother’s Day to slick modern movies like Halloween 2018Happy Death Day, and Krampus.

“Apocalyptic Horror” gave us a way to cover some zombie films we couldn’t get into back in the season one “Zombie” episode, like Zombieland and Train to Busan. But it also has some of my favorite films, like War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’m particularly fond of a segment on The Last Man on EarthThe Omega Man and I Am Legend, which stars Vincent PriceCharlton Heston, and Will Smith. These films were all based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. It’s one of the most influential horror stories ever written, even though it’s never been faithfully adapted.

Bonilla: What is your favorite episode this season?

Sayenga: It’s tough to choose, but I’ll go with “Mad Scientists”. It’s probably the darkest of the six episodes.

Bonilla: After ‘History of Horror’, would you consider writing, producing, or possibly directing your own horror content? 

Sayenga: Yes, of course. I’d love to do that.

Bonilla: What are your current go-to horror films? 

Sayenga: Rosemary’s Baby, RepulsionPsychoThe HauntingDead RingersAudition, John Carpenter’s The ThingBride of FrankensteinThe Silence of the Lambs, Cat People (1942), The Cabin in the Woods, Train to Busan, Godzilla (original Japanese version, 1954), and Quatermass II.

Bonilla: When you watch a horror movie, how does it engage you?

Sayenga: I’ve seen so many horror films and films in general that it’s difficult to watch them purely as entertainment. I’m very conscious of the craft, or lack of craft that’s going into the film. I am way too conscious of how special effects are created. Any movie that can get me past that is a movie I will return to because it made me put my dispassionate technical brain to the side.

But to be honest, a lot of horror films frustrate me, because the characters are rock-stupid and blind to their situation. I watch how people act in horror films, and think, “Don’t do that. Don’t walk into that room. Why are you not turning on the lights? What’s wrong with the lights in this house? Why are you staying in this creepy house where the lights don’t work? Why do you not pick up a weapon of some sort just in case a serial killer is on the loose?” I’m not a fearful person, but I am a person who believes in being prepared for the worst.

Bonilla: In Psychology Today, they are suggesting that Horror (horror) fans are coping better with the pandemic. Why do you think?

Sayenga: Yeah, horror fans are coping better with this. Anyone paying attention to horror films saw all this coming. If anything, horror fans were prepared for a much more worst-case scenario than what we just lived through. For some people, me included, horror is rehearsal and preparation. And ultimately, horror addresses our fear of dying and coming to grips with that.

I’ve made several films about pandemic diseases for National Geographic, including one that had a “what if” fiction component. It conjured up the crazy idea that there could be a zoonotic transmission of disease from a bat to a pig to a human in a pig market in China. We shot this with an actress in Hong Kong who then flies to London, and along the way spreads this highly contagious airborne virus everywhere she goes.

Contagion of course tells a similar story in a masterful way that tracks closely to reality. Things were worse in Contagion, as far as rioting and stuff like that. I’m surprised that it wasn’t worse here. But the virus in Contagion had a higher lethality rate, so that makes a difference in how people respond to it.

Bonilla: What can audiences expect for season three?

Sayenga: Season three is a big crowd-pleaser. It has a lot of ‘80s horror, classic horror, and modern horror. It has movie stars, brilliant writers, directors, and a new batch of film scholars with fresh takes on the genre.

By season three of anything, usually, everybody’s in the groove. They know what the series is and know how to make it work. That’s certainly been the case with season three. People seem to really like the second season and this season is very much in the vein of the second season. We know what we’re doing and we’re having a good time doing it.


Latin Horror: Dracula: A 90th Anniversary Interview with Monster Historian David J Skal

On February 14, 1931, the film Dracula was released, with Bela Lugosi creating one of the most famous characters and iconic roles in cinematic history, Count Dracula. This groundbreaking horror film forever changed Hollywood and international cinema.

Over the last 90-years, Dracula has become the most popular monster from the Universal Studios classic monster series. His fang marks can be seen throughout a variety of films from America’s, Interview with a Vampire and Twilight to England’s Horror of Dracula, Mexico’s El Vampiro, and Korea’s Thirst.

The fascinating story of Dracula from stage to screen and beyond is shared in this extensive interview with American cultural historian and author David J. Skal.

Skal is highly regarded as a Dracula and vampire authority. He’s written multiple books on these topics such as The Monster Show: A Cultural History of HorrorHollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage and ScreenV is for VampireRomancing the Vampire: From Past to Present, and Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula.

Horror historian, critic, writer, and commentator, DAVID J. SKAL, and friend.

Dracula Before Universal:

Justina Bonilla: Is there truth in the story that Bram Stroker did not properly copyright Dracula?

David J. Skal: That’s true. Bram Stoker messed up his copyright registration in the United States. And, in fact, it was never copyrighted here. Anybody could have made a film. However, they couldn’t distribute it overseas because there was the Berne Convention. Copyright took care of it in Europe and around the world.

Bonilla: The film Nosferatu is known for committing copyright infringement against Dracula. How did Stroker’s estate react to this?

Skal: Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcombe Stroker staged an amazing war that lasted years against the German producers of Nosferatu, who essentially pirated the book, got the German courts to declare it plagiarism, and have all prints and negatives destroyed. Which fortunately for us, never happened.

It’s funny because Nosferatu is one of the most artistically acclaimed adaptations of Dracula. And as far as I could determine, Florence had captured a copy of the Nosferatu print that was being shown in London and refused to see it. She missed out on quite an event and spent her time selling it to Universal Studios.

Bonilla: How did Florence sell the rights to her husband’s novel to Universal Studios?

Skal: She was really selling the rights to the Dracula stage play, written by John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane to Universal Studios. That was very different from the novel. It was a big hit on Broadway. Dracula traveled around the country and broke records city after city.

 Bonilla: What was Bela Lugosi’s experience in the Broadway production of Dracula?

Skal: Lugosi didn’t start taking English lessons until the late 1920s, around the time he did Dracula on Broadway.

The producers of the Dracula Broadway show ended up directing him in French because it was a language they both could understand. He often learned his roles phonetically, deliberate by syllable at a time. That’s where his very deliberate spooky voice came from. It’s a Hungarian speaking English phonetically.

Onstage, Lugosi would sometimes be thrown off guard by somebody throwing him or a different line or flubbing up. Then, he suddenly would be on a different track.

Universal Studios gets bit by Dracula:

Bonilla: Before Dracula, were there any previous supernatural Hollywood films?

Skal: In the history of Hollywood, there had never been a supernatural horror film. There have been scary movies in the silent era. If something spooky, unnatural, or paranormal seems to take place, it always was explained away. It was a plot to steal somebody’s inheritance or that kind of thing. It’s a formula that came from the stage. Dracula was different. Universal Studios was attracted to it when it was founded in 1915.

Bonilla: What was Universal Studios status as a studio at that time?

Skal: Universal Studios was not the big deal it is today. It was very much a second-tier Hollywood studio. It made its bread and butter doing Western serials and programs that would enable a dependable supplier of programming to theaters all over the country. Their film All Quiet on the Western Front was an unexpected success.

Nobody thought Universal Studios could do anything on the level of Dracula. It’s still a remarkable achievement. Dracula was going to follow it as another “Universals super-production”, based on a famous novel. Then the stock market crash hit.

Bonilla: Who at Universal Studios was keen on making Dracula into a film?

Skal: Universal Studios lavished attention on Dracula for a very interesting reason that I tell in my book, Hollywood GothicPaul Kohner, who came from Czechoslovakia, was Carl Lemley Sr.’s protégé. Lemley Sr. himself was from Germany. Kohner was kind of a second son to Lemley.

Kohner expected that he was going to take over the reins of the Universal Studios when Lemley Sr. retired. And, low and behold, Lemley Sr. pulled a switcheroo and gave the studio to his 21-year-old son, Carl Lemley Jr.

We must credit Lemley Jr.’s enthusiasm for horror movies, which made all the Universal Studios classic horror films happen. His father didn’t want to have anything to do with it really. But they had their eye on Dracula for a long time, and Kohner was initially going to produce and direct it.

Bonilla: Is it true that Lon Chaney was considered a choice for the lead role of Dracula?

Skal: Yes, when Universal Studios bought the rights to the novel and the stage play of Dracula, they did it with the understanding that they needed Lon Chaney Sr. “The man of 1000 faces”, one of the biggest, bankable stars in Hollywood, to take this on.

That was one of the reasons that Lemley Sr. finally agreed to do it. The play had a track record, and that Chaney Sr. would star in it. They made overtures to Cheney Sr., who was under contract to MGM, so they’d have to get a loan out contract from him. What MGM didn’t know or was keeping secret that Cheney Sr. was suffering from lung cancer. He died suddenly right in the middle of the negotiations.

It’s unlikely he would have done it, because his last outing with Universal, The Phantom of the Opera, even though it was a huge worldwide success, it was one of the most embattled and difficult productions Universal had ever done. They went through multiple directors, and then Cheney Sr. essentially was directing himself, and I think he was very happy to go back to MGM.

Bonilla: Was anyone else considered for Dracula?

Skal: Kohner had planned to use Conrad Veidt, the great German silent actor, in what would be his first talking role. However, Veidt got cold feet about doing a talkie. So, he fell by the wayside.

Bonilla: How did The Great Depression influence the production of Dracula?

Skal: All the studios were just teetering on the edge, including Universal Studios. They had the Dracula rights and were committed to going ahead with it. But the budget was suddenly dwindling. You can see this in Dracula.

Dracula opens and some of the first sequences that were filmed are in Transylvania, in Dracula’s castle. They’re very atmospheric and quite cinematic. Then, the film becomes more like a stage play because that was the most economical way to do it. That’s always been one of the main criticisms of the film.

Dracula’s Production:

Bonilla: How was Todd Browning as a director?

Skal: From what I’ve learned about the filming of Dracula, it was a film that really got away from Todd Browning. He was a great silent director, but talkies really threw him off. He couldn’t keep up the steady stream of conversation.

Browning was involved in all aspects of the story, writing the final intertitles for silent film, and editing. With talkies also came in the trade unions and one person like him, couldn’t do it all anymore.

As Browning was described to me by David Manners, who played John Harker, he said, “He didn’t direct any scene that I was in. He was a figure sitting back, in the shadows all the time. It was Karl Freund, the cinematographer, who directed any scene that I was in, in Dracula”.

Some people don’t believe me and say, “Oh, Manners must have been senile by that point”. He was not. Manners was absolutely lucid. It was a wonderful conversation I had with him. It was very surprising to hear that.

Bonilla: How did Karl Freund’s camera style influence Dracula?

Skal: Freund used a mobile camera to great effect at the beginning of Dracula. Then, the camera became more pedestrian.

Freund is also credited with inventing the three-camera technique for television sitcoms. He also was the director of photography for I Love Lucy.

A friend of mine met Freund at some trade event back in the 1960s. I believe it was in Cleveland. My friend approached him, asking about Dracula. Freund said, “Why do you want to ask me about that?”

Bonilla: What was the cast experience on set?

Skal: Nobody had a good memory of working on Dracula. Manners said that he and his costar Helen Chandler, who played Nina, would just snicker among themselves when they were off-camera. It’s interesting, that the two of them were not having the greatest time doing Dracula. They thought it was a disorganized and crazy production. They also saw Lugosi as a very odd man. In Dracula, neither of them really looks pleased.

Dracula’s Impact on Cast:

Bonilla: What do you see as the impact of Bela Lugosi’s interpretation of Dracula?

Skal: It’s so iconic. No matter how good the other versions of Dracula are, or how technically innovative they are, they always raise the memory of Dracula.

Bonilla: How did this film impact Dwight Frye’s career?

Skal: After DraculaDwight Frye kind of typecast himself and did a number of these kinds of films. Toward the end of his life, wasn’t even doing full-time acting work. He died young in the early 1940s.

Bonilla: Were you able to connect with any living cast members of Dracula?

Skal: When I started researching for my book Hollywood Gothic, I was approaching people who were at the limits of living human memory. I was lucky to get to know three people who appeared on screen, Lupita Tovar Kohner, from the Spanish-language Dracula, Manners, and Carla Lemley, the niece of Lemley Sr., who became a close friend.

Bonilla: What was Carla Lemley’s role in Dracula?

Skal: Carla speaks the first lines of dialogue in Dracula, “Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass are crumbling castles are found of a bygone age”.

Bonilla: What did Carla remember about filming her part in Dracula?Skal: When I first contacted Carla, I told her I was doing research for my book Hollywood Gothic. She said, “Dracula? No, I don’t remember Dracula. I was in The Phantom of the Opera”.

I recognized her voice immediately on the telephone. Carla had been dragged in one day by the casting office and was told, “We need you to do a bit part. Go to costume, and here’s your dialogue”. Her dialogue was written on the back of that travel brochure she reads in the film. She just read the part cold and never met Browning or Lugosi.

Bonilla: Did Carla ever get an opportunity to interact with fans?

Skal: Yes. When Carla was the last living Lemley, I took her to fan conventions around the country. People would come and have her autograph pictures of Boris Karloff and Lugosi because she was this living link.

Bonilla: What was Lugosi’s life like in later years?

Skal: Lugosi was the first major star to come out with an addiction problem publicly. He had suffered injuries in World War I that gave him excruciating sciatica pain in his legs. He became addicted to Morphine and later Demerol.

He did get clean a year before he died and thought it was going to be the beginning of a resurrection of his career, which sadly never happened.

Bonilla: Since Lugosi never finished filming Plan Nine from Outer Space, how was his role completed? 

Skal: Lugosi died before they could shoot all his scenes for his last film Plan Nine from Outer Space. The director, Ed Wood’s chiropractor, would hold up the cape in front of his face and pretend to be Lugosi.

Dracula’s Influence:

Bonilla: How much of an impact has Dracula had on those involved with the book, play, or film?

Skal: Going back to the time when Stoker wrote it. Everybody who has crossed the path of Dracula has gotten involved in its peculiar energy. Dracula possesses you. It just brings out the most possessive and predatory instincts. The agent who negotiated the Broadway rights for many years told me, “I dread having to negotiate a new production of Dracula because it brings out the worst negotiating instincts in everybody involved. Everybody wants to possess it, control it”.

A lot of the people who’ve tried to control Dracula have not had happy careers. Lugosi, perhaps most among them, became so typecast in the role of Dracula, because he did such a good job, could do almost nothing else. He didn’t have special makeup. That was his voice, his face. Though he was a trained classical actor from Europe, all people could see or hear was Dracula. It limited his opportunities. He went to the grave in his Dracula costume.

Bonilla: What lead Lugosi’s son, Bela Lugosi Jr., to sue Universal Studios?

Skal: Lugosi thought that the role of Dracula was his and didn’t negotiate very well. He was paid less than other actors in the film. He made $3,500 total. A lot in the Depression era, but not what big stars in Hollywood were making. He never saw another dime from Universal Studios, no residuals, nothing.

Lugosi’s son, Bela Lugosi Jr. had to sue Universal Studios in the great tradition of Florence Stoker, for his father’s image used for marketing and merchandising. It went on for years and years. Again, another chapter in Dracula’s ability to bring out the most combative instincts.

Bonilla: What makes Dracula a classic film?

Skal: Dracula is a classic film because it changed American moviemaking. It set in motion this whole imaginative current in American cinema, the outright fantastic without any explanation, or apologies.

Without Dracula, the whole history of Hollywood would have gone in different directions. Maybe a supernatural movie would have come along in Hollywood at some point, I suppose, but nothing like Dracula.

Bonilla: How did Dracula and the other monster films influence other film genres?

Skal: The Universal Studios cycle of classic horror movies, set in motion the science fiction films of the 1950s. Without those monster films, some of the biggest blockbusters of all time would never have been made.

Dracula and The Monster Kids:

Bonilla: How did Dracula and the other Universal monsters influence “The Monster Kids”?

Skal: For a lot of us, we were inspired as kids by these pictures. I was one of those kids. We became “The Monster Kids” of the 1960s when the Universal Studios monster movies were showing up on television. We made our own eight-millimeter versions of Dracula and Frankenstein in the backyard and basement. And some turned out to be filmmakers like Steven Spielberg.

Bonilla: As a Monster Kid, what is your favorite scene in Dracula?

Skal: Renfield’s arrival at Castle Dracula. 

Bonilla: And your favorite Dracula line?

Skal: “I never drink…wine.”

Many people believe the line originated in Stoker, but it’s original to the 1931 film. I’ve always believed it was one of Browning’s personal contributions to the script. Interestingly enough, the line was added to the stage version starring Frank Langella in 1977, and ever since, theatre companies have found ways to squeeze it back in. It has never actually been part of the Deane/Balderston published script.

Bonilla: Why do people love monsters, especially Dracula?

Skal: You get a piece of these monsters on you anywhere, and they stick to you. It’s not easy to brush off. People are going to remember. On some level, monsters are so important to us all. There are oldest and best and most reliable imaginary friends. 

Bonilla: Do you think the film would have been as successful without Lugosi?

Skal: It would not have been as successful without Lugosi, even if a major star like Chaney Sr. had played the part. Of all the actors considered for the part, only Veidt might have achieved a screen characterization comparable to Lugosi.

Bonilla: What do you think has led to the long life of Dracula?

Skal: The main reason, almost certainly, is Lugosi’s riveting, iconic presence. It was an indelible star turn, instantly recognizable today even to people who have never seen the original film. Few screen performances have ever had that kind of longevity and impact.