Stanley Film Festival 2015 Interview: COOTIES Stars On Bringing The Horror of The '80s Back
From many people who attended the Stanley Film Festival this past weekend, I heard that Cooties was a stand-out among the features.
I spoke to writer and actor Leigh Whannell, actor and producer Elijah Wood, and actor Alison Pill on tainted chicken nuggets, violent '80s horror films that were made for and with kids, jokes on the cutting room floor, and which draft of a script you should hand in to your producers.
ScreenAnarchy: Tainted chicken nuggets. Leigh, as co-writer of COOTIES, how did you come up with the idea for this story?
Leigh Whannell: Josh Waller, one of the producers came up with the idea, and I got ahold of it, and Ian (Brennan, co-writer) and I were fleshing it out: where did this come from? It made sense to tie it into school lunches. We decided early on that we wanted to focus on the theme of how we're treating kids today. How we're over-medicating them and feeding them genetically modified processed foods.
All that stuff, we wanted in there, so it was a great way of tying it into that, that this virus would come from this disgusting way that they make chicken nuggets.
The opening credits are incredibly brutal and disturbing.
Elijah Wood: Yeah.
Alison Pill: It's also a great way to show how they make the nugget. The fly pooping...
Whannell: The scissors cutting the chicken's head off.
Wood: It is brutal.
Pill: That's our first AD, the chicken man cutting the chicken's head off.
Whanell: He wrings the chicken's neck.
UGH. Moving on... What was it like working with so many kids?
Pill: Here's the genius of the script. Working with kids, there are so many limitations because of the budget and timeline. But we really didn't have many scenes with them. They're running through the halls and so are we, but not always in the same shot. We had grown women playing body doubles, and we shot over the head of some of them. Despite the fact that they're the center of the movie, we don't have many scenes with them.
How much of the film was improvisation versus script?
Wood: I'd say it was about 98% script, but there's a lot of scenes, especially the early scenes, in which there was a ton of room for improv.
Pill: Improving was essential to getting to know each other and the characters, but not too much; the script was really that funny. The odd little sprinkling of improv is there, though.
Horror comedies are really hard to get right. How do you try to keep a good balance of scary and funny?
Wood: It's an extraordinary set of circumstances. The scenario is CRAZY. We are playing grounded in reality.
Pill: What are the things you would think of in an emergency? How do you act? Lucy says "everything is fine now!" And it's not. Nothing has been solved.
Whannell: We've just seen people ripped to pieces!
Pill: "But it's okay! We're all safe!" It's what that character says that makes him who he or she is. There's no winking at the camera, there are fucking killer kids out there!
Wood: It's that base from which the comedy and the realistic horror come from---it comes from the same place.
Whannell: Even if you do a comedy, you'd do it straight, as you would do in a horror film. The actors act as if this is really happening---deal with it.
Wood: Deal with it!
Leigh, how many versions of the script did you write before settling on the shooting script?
Wood: I can't remember, it's been so long.
Whannell: The first draft I gave you was actually my third draft. As any writer knows, never hand in your first draft. "This just fell out of the printer this morning! Call it my vomit draft! There might be a few mistakes in there! Is it even English? I don't know, it just spilled out!" You hand them something you've perfected. I can confess that you got the fake first draft now.
Wood: (Laughing.) It's okay.
Whannell: They really liked it and it was a really easy process. We'd go back and forth with different notes. A lot of the stuff we had to change was budgetary; it wasn't "I don't like this character." Originally the character Jorge Garcia played was running around with us (and not in a van). Josh said there were too many characters.
There were a lot of budgetary things, which I'm used to, like "you know the scene where the demon rips the roof off and reaches in and plucks the baby out of the crib? What if we didn't do that?" The roof stays on because we can't afford it. It's the diet Coke version of that, which I'm used to as I type.
Because you didn't have Jorge inside the school but in a van, it resulted in the absolutely hilarious llama scene.
Whannell: I'm glad something good came of it!
Wood: The limitations on that particular character actually made that character funnier!
Pill: It works so well. This observer out in the lot!
Did you shoot in an actual school?
Wood: Yeah, it was a real school and it was awesome.
Whannell: Yeah, we had to shoot in the summertime.
Pill: We shot in a wonderful school in Frogtown in L.A. Really impressive principle and really cool school. What was awesome is that we were paying a public school to shoot there. New computers were coming in because of the location fee, new tech stuff.
Were there any scenes that you guys were proud of, or dialogue that was really funny, that had to be cut because of pacing or storyline?
Wood: I can't think of anything...
Whannell: There were little lines here and there.
Pill: There's Jack (Brayer, who plays a teacher named Tracy) saying some stuff, and there's a joke "Tracy Lacy" and you (Wood) mouthing "Tracy Lacy?!" And that stuff I loved.
Wood: Oh yeah! Maybe we should put that back in.
Whannell: When my character Doug goes up to you guys and says (in an oddly affected lilt), "OH-KAY, JOKE TIME!"
Wood: Wait, that's not in it any more?? I missed the first twenty minutes of the screening because I had to intro the press screening.
Whannell: Yeah, that got the chop.
Wood: "OH-KAY, JOKE TIME!" What was the joke that was the last one in the film? It was in it for awhile.
Whannell: (in an old timey 1940s-announcer voice) "What's got two thumbs and murders prostitutes?" Then Alison's character says, "Doug, stop it." I miss that.
Pill: There's also the song that will be on the DVD extra.
Whannell and Wood: The song!
Pill: Calvin's song. (Armani Jackson, who plays one of the two children who hadn't eaten the nuggets, Calvin.) This will be a worthy DVD/Blu-ray. There are hours of great stuff.
Wood: Someone needs to cut together a blooper reel.
Whannell: There are so many times when Rainn (Wilson, who plays the phys ed teacher) insults someone!
Wood: Alison has the best laughter. It rings through the halls.
You should do an auto-tune of the laugh with some of the insults and try to get it to go viral.
Did you get any pushback from Lionsgate from some of the content, which includes killing kids and lighting them on fire?
Wood: We were on our own initially.
Whannell: They came in when we were done and wanted to buy it. It was too late! I was talking to Jason one day (presumably a Lionsgate exec), and initially he told me he might have an issue with it. But then he saw it, and told me, "it didn't feel brutal at all." There's a way you can make the film hardcore, but he told me "oh, it's not that movie." He was worried.
Wood: And that wasn't the movie we wanted to make. We definitely wanted to skirt the taboo to a certain degree, but we were also aware of the lines.
Whannell: We were also inspired by Gremlins, which is a great kids movie.
I remember seeing GREMLINS in the theater as a kid and at some points, being really scared.
Wood: I got really scared, too.
Whannell: That was the movie where I figured out that you didn't have to watch the screen. "What a minute, I have hands!" And I covered my eyes.
The press screening went really well. Coming out of it, a few of us were yelling, "Nap time, motherfuckers!" (A line in the film.) It was exhilarating that there were no rules.
Wood: Aw, that's really great. That's awesome!
Whannell: That's great for you to say!
It reminded me a bit of the film WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?, which you brought a 35mm print of to the Stanley last year, as well as RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD.
Wood: Yes! We really wanted to do an homage to Who Can Kill A Child?, but it was time and budgetary restrictions that ended up fucking us in the end.
Whannell: Oh yeah.
Wood: There's that montage where you see the kids playing with the body parts, still being kids. I really wanted to do a teacher strung up like a pinata, like they do in Who Can Kill A Child?.
Pill: The body parts that we loaned were good but not amazing. We couldn't have close-ups of that shitty styrofoam arm.
Whannell: For me personally, this film is tribute to the '80s violent kids movies that I grew up watching, whether it's Gremlins or Critters. Movies where shit would go down. These days, they seem to be so much more cuddly with kids in those kinds of movies. I remember growing up and going to the video store and watching these films. Cooties, for me, is a tribute to those VHS '80s staples.
Wood: I saw someone on Twitter post a mock-up of a VHS cover of Cooties. It's Jay Shaw's poster, and it looks like a well-worn VHS cover.
Whannell: I would love to do a VHS, an old VHS classic like Critters---and I haven't seen it in awhile, so I don't know how it holds up, but it was violent. And The Gate!
Wood: Do you know what I just saw for the first time? The Monster Squad. It's incredible!
Whannell: Written by Shane Black?
Wood: Yeah. I don't know how I missed that movie. It came out after The Goonies, and that was a huge movie for me. 1987, I think it came out. (Yep.)
Whannell: It was a little like Lost Boys, but didn't quite get there.
Wood: It was so good!
Well, I thank you for bringing the spirit of the '80s back.
Wood: Thank you!
Whannell: Awesome, cheers. So nice to meet you, glad you enjoyed it.
Pill: So nice to meet you too!
[Photo above by Jessica Barnthouse/Wicked Bird Media.]