When I wrote my piece selecting the best of the 52 films I saw at the Los Angles Film Festival this year, I awarded Saturday Morning Massacre “Special Recognition for the Most Fun I Had Watching Any of the 52 Festival Films.” The film was the great guilty pleasure of the festival, and could easily end up being the great cinematic guilty pleasure of the year. Saturday Morning Massacre is, in essence, a live-action hard-R version of Scooby-Doo in which all of the sex, violence, and drug use hinted at in the pervious cartoons and live action films are no longer insinuated, but rather exploited for full comedic effect. The real genius in the work of the cast, writers, and director Spencer Parsons (I’ll Come Running) is that the film displays enough intelligence, humor, thrills, and genuine heart, that it far transcends the label of being another “horror-comedy.” The film screens next at the Minneapolis Underground Film Festival on Saturday, August 18th and the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama on Saturday, August 25th. Visit the film’s Facebook page for up-to-date information on these and other soon-to-be-announced festival screenings.
While they were in town for the Los Angeles Festival, I had the pleasure of enjoying a conversation with Parsons, Jonny Mars, who co-wrote and co-produced the film, and played the Shaggy-esque character, Ashley Spillers, who received rave reviews at the LA Film Festival for her performance as the Velma-esque character, and Josephine Decker, who played the Daphne-esque character. Here’s what they shared with me about developing and shooting the film in a short amount of time and balancing being faithful to the mythology while carving out their own unique landscape
Jackson Truax: Spencer, I know that this project was brought to you to direct. What was your initial reaction to it?
Spencer Parsons: [It was] a really interesting idea. “Hard R Scooby-Doo” seems really sophomoric and kind of is, but then it was morphed into, “How can it be sophomoric in a good, fun way? And how can we…do something a little more unexpected and interesting with it?” It put us all on our game to make something better and more exciting than just the quick concept.
Jackson: There are a number of different people with screenwriting credits, including you and Jonny. It sounds like you had a tight screenplay written before shooting. What was the process of writing it? How did you meet those challenges and answer those questions?
Jonny Mars: The process itself literally was Spencer, producer Jason Wehling, myself, and Kat Candler, another writer/director from Austin, Texas, sitting around for a day with a dry erase board and mapping out the narrative. And then we turned it over to Jason and [writers] Jory Balsimo and Aaron Leggett. Obviously Spencer was involved in that, being the director. They went off and made a…thirty-page treatment. We did all of this in six weeks. We had three weeks to batten down the story… So when we got into making the film, we knew what each scene was supposed to do. I know my process in working with Spencer, and a lot of the scenes I do with Ashley too, we would be there, on the day, and say, “This scene’s supposed to do this.” And we would walk through the motions of how we would do that. I don’t want to call it straight-up improv, because there was a direction within the scene that we were going toward. But we would spitball, “What if we did this?”
Spencer: We’d write it through the rehearsal process… Basically, it’s a process of writing a movie as you make it. We were all engaged in the writing of the movie.
Jonny: I think that’s also why the characters feel so lived-in.
Spencer: Especially with it being made under such a tight time constraint.
Ashley Spillers: You would definitely point out things you wanted us to hit and when and where. And even certain things like, “Maybe say something along the lines of this or that.” So by the time you worked it out a few times, we had ourselves a nice little scene. It didn’t feel like you were just pulling stuff out of your ass. Because you weren’t.
Spencer: Because it had been made up by everybody to begin with, there was a little bit more comfort level to lop in some new crazy add-lib in a given take. Or haul off and slap somebody unexpectedly. There was a little bit of a safety level that we reached, where things could be add-libbed or improved in the moment, but it wasn’t just total chaos. It was organic.
Ashley: And it made sense.
Spencer: It would make sense. And it would be organic to what everybody been through a bunch of times.
Josephine Decker: I remember the scene with Adam Tate [who plays the Fred-esque character] before we’re about to find the hand the dog is eating… Sometimes we had to shoot scenes pretty quickly. But we got to roll on that for a while. Then the whole cheating backstory…was just something that made sense, that she would have done that to him. But I don’t think we had planned that at all.
Spencer: That kind of thing became a wonderful surprise… In a weird, crazy situation for people, they are under duress. And weird, crazy, unexpected stuff bubbles up and comes out, and not related to anything else going on. That’s sort of an interesting reality that you can get at. In this case, we were under duress. We had to get these scenes done. And some of these weird, crazy things would come out. And it would actually make sense. For some of them…they would get thrown out in the editing room because it didn’t jive. So then there was a job of editing that material and deciding whether it was right. So that was a line that we always liked…but it was always on the chopping block. Then in the final edit, we realized it was landing. And the rest of the movie formed around it in a weird way where it made sense.
Jackson: You’ve talked to how much the film evolved during shooting, but at the same time, there’s a great deal of production value, including a lot of production design, choreography, and visual effects, that can’t really be discovered on the fly. How did you balance those elements with your evolving shooting process?
Spencer: In terms of visual effects…we had a schedule that we could always go back to. So we would plan them out on particular days. On of the things about shooting in sequence that’s good, is that you’re escalating as you go along. So you’re not going to hit your biggest, craziest notes early on. So it allows for a little bit more planning time during the shooting. So we were able to plan around those things, but at the same time, find the scene that would fit around it and figure out how to shoot it. Stuff was not storyboarded. It was not shot-listed weeks in advance, as maybe should be done. In fact, we were able to move in and look at the space that something was going to take place in and talk about where the cameras were going to go. And what were the implications for [editing]… That’s something I take pride in paying attention to… How are moments cut in order to most naturally arrive at a big effect? The original special effect is the film cut. Someone could appear or disappear based on a cut. So using editing language and planning ahead, I could figure out how we were going to use these practical effects on set, given the craziness of the improv.
Jackson: Ashley and Josephine, how did you initially come to be involved in the film?
Josephine: Spencer had seen a film, Art History, that I had acted in that Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs) directed… I didn’t know [Spencer] at all. I think he e-mailed me, just one paragraph, “Hi. I don’t know you. I saw you in Art History. I’m shooting this Scooby-Doo thing. It’ll be great. Are you interested?” It was literally two weeks from when they were about to start shooting. It couldn’t have been more perfect timing for my life at that moment. It worked out. I think you were still looking at other people at that point. But I was very happy.
Spencer: I was, too.
Ashley: Me, too.
Spencer: I really liked Josephine’s performances… It just worked out just right.
Ashley: Jason Wehling just called me one day. And said, “We’re shooting this movie. We’re going to do it really quickly. We’re considering you for one of the main parts. Will you come down to the creepy house where we’re shooting it and meet Spencer and Jonny…and that’s what I did. They told me a little more about it when I got there. I can’t really say “No” to something like that. It’s just really exciting. I met Spencer and started talking to him. I talked to him a lot, I think. And rambled a little bit, like I tend to do. Then they gave me a part.
Jackson: When building these characters and playing these scenes, how did you navigate how closely to model things after Scooby-Doo characters, or where to make your characters their own three-dimensional entities?
Ashley: I did a little bit of research. I looked at a lot of photos of Velma and watched some Scooby-Doo and stuff like that. Just to get an idea of that sort of world. More than anything, I just started to look at her as a person who’s passionate about doing that sort of work. And comparing her myself in a lot of ways in things I’m passionate about. And, what would drive you ? You have no money. You have this group of your friends and you all do this together. Really, I was just looking at it from that point of view.
Josephine: For me, it was actually really hard. I don’t have a lot of acting background. In most of my acting experience, I’m playing super naturalistic. I’m just basically being myself, documentary-style. So to be dressed up in this mini-skirt, and to be wearing those clothes and high heels. I never wear high heels. I was [thinking], “Who is this person?” It was actually really a challenge to find the character. I was staying with Jonny at the time. He very sweetly gave me his bed and slept on an air mattress. Even through he was going through a divorce and hadn’t slept in three months.
Jonny: Gotta make the movie.
Josephine: So I slept on his bed. But everyday driving home…I would [say], “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m doing.” He [said], “Just look like you’re thinking. You’re really good at looking like you’re thinking. And it’s all about the marks. Just move from Point A to Point B. Acting is hitting your marks, and looking like you have something else going on. You’re really good at looking like you have something else going on.” Actually, that was very, very helpful advice. Luckily, when the shit started hitting the fan in the movie, when people started dying, that became a lot easier… I could let the idea of what a person who wears high heels and short skirts is float away. Because she’s just terrified.
Jonny: As an actor, I like to take the despicable and make them likeable. I’m always trying to find what’s wrong about a character on the surface, and explore that. Hopefully I can create a change within the arc of the character wherein, by the end of the film, you actually learn something and hopefully begin to like them. I know in talking with Spencer, we wanted to take Floyd, the Shaggy-esque character, pretty dark… From the get-go, we wanted to explore the reality of someone like Shaggy. It would be bad. It shouldn’t be loveable in reality. That’s what we were doing. We were working from reality. All these characters needed to feel real. Floyd’s place within the gang is very cool. Floyd is obviously highly intelligent. I know a lot of highly intelligent people who do lots of drugs. It doesn’t necessarily affect them.
Spencer: They can be very functional.
Jonny: Absolutely. For me, it was, okay, Floyd needs to be a functional drug addict who’s highly intelligent. But at the same time, because there was this relationship with [the Velma character]…I was concerned at time that maybe Floyd’s turning too much here as the film changes. But I felt like that’s what would happen. He’s smart. Just because he doesn’t necessarily want to lead the gang, or work, doesn’t mean that he’s not hyper-intelligent or that he doesn’t have a heart. So the minute that the girls are in trouble, for Floyd to take charge was cool. It was a chance to create a change within the character.
Spencer: It was nice to have a character’s better self come out under duress. It showed he was helpful and he could be more intelligent.
Jonny: Just because he disconnects in his own life, it was cool that when a change occurred, he had to connect and be human.
Jackson: Saturday Morning Massacre is equal parts funny, intelligent, scary, and sexy. How did you settle on that balance in tone, and what were the biggest challenges in executing it?
Spencer: It’s definitely a challenge. But frankly, that’s what I want every film that I make to be… The last one was much more serious. It was a much more serious-minded kind of movie. But I wanted it to be funny and sexy and all these other things in this serious package. Because to me, that’s how life is. This is like life pushed into some ridiculous cartoonic screen, actually. But I just like movies better when all this stuff coexists. So to me, it’s more of a natural. But it is always a challenge at every stage to figure out, “How to we segue? How do we make it from one of these beats to another? How do we reconcile this stuff?” I think one big way, and this is where I depend on my cast in everything that I make, is that if the actors can emotionally feel that stuff, if they can make these changes and credibly feel it and not sort of fall apart, then we’re going to be great… Because it’s all about the situation the people are going to be really living in front of the camera.
Jackson: Josephine, your character brought a lot of the sexual element in the film, particularly in one pretty intense and specific scene. What unique challenges did that pose, if any, and how did you get to where to needed to be as an actor in that scene?
Josephine: It’s so funny. The previous experience I had had acting was more physical theater and performance art. So it’s all about these very intense very physical things. So I feel like sex scenes are the easiest thing to play. And the terror scenes were one of the easier things to play. You let your body do a lot of the work, instead of your brain. When I get caught up in my brain I get confused. To make out with someone and make that look realistic, I’ve done that plenty of times in my life. I know how that goes… It felt very natural and safe. And also, Adam Tate…is just a gentle soul. He’s not scary at all. It made it easy to be attracted to each other.
Jackson: Ashley, you play a character who’s really quirky, but at the beginning you ground the events in a reality that feels very relatable, and in many ways are a real instigator of a lot of the events in the film. How did you find the character that so quirky and silly, but then make those emotions feel so real?
Ashley: It was really nerve-wracking for me. That’s the thing I think that scared me the most was taking the lead as [the Velma character] and being the one to sort of drive everything. Because I think I do relate more to the quirky, silly stuff. I do that a lot. But why shouldn’t someone who’s like that too be able to keep a group together and be the one who’s saying, “No, were going to do this” and encouraging everybody? I was really proud to be able to do that. Because I think a lot of times somebody who is that way, I’m a little bit like that, don’t always have the greatest confidence that you can be the one who can rise up and take care of business. So for me it was difficult… That’s really the answer, to just do it.
Jackson: Spencer, the film is playing at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week to some great acclaim. What are your next plans for getting the film into the world?
Spencer: We just want to get it to as wide an audience as possible. We’ll be going to some festivals. One of the things that’s exciting is that when you’re going to make a movie this quickly, there’s an idea of, “Let’s make something quick and easy that can go into this budding [Video On-Demand] market that’ll fit. I think for a lot of those movies it doesn’t even have to be that good, honestly. But we came up with something, as we were working, that we knew was better than that initial idea. It kept getting better and better. So hopefully we can find a wider audience through more venues… The horror fans that show up to Redbox, we want to please them. But it’s nice that we’re finding that the movie can find a wider audience.
Jackson: Is there anything in particular you’re hoping audience members will be thinking and feeling as the credits roll?
Spencer: I just hope they’re having a good time. I hope we’re throwing a good party, frankly.
Jonny: Yeah, I hope you’re exhausted from having so much fun. I hope that you love the Vesperian Sorrow song that is blasting as the fucking credits roll. That you get the party that we’re throwing.
Ashley: At the end of the day, it’s a really fun movie. I just hope that people really enjoy it and it just brings some joy and fear and everything to their day.
Josephine: I never know what other people experience when they go to movies. But I already knew everything that was going to happen in the movie –
Ashley: You were still terrified.
Josephine: I was so terrified. I almost had to hold Ashley’s hand. So I hope that other people get that same experience.
Jonny: I hope that when someone watches it, they realize that some smart people made that movie. And there are some great performances. And if you’d like to see us do it again, please contact us. And hopefully you have a budget. But we want to keep making movies. And we love doing that in Austin, Texas. We make competent films. I hope at the end of the day, it just really shows that there’s a scene that exists in central Texas. Those people know how to make movies and we make them right.
Filed under: LiC Interview