Stanley Film Festival 2015 Interview: Directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion Talk COOTIES
[Cooties directors Jonathan Milott, left, and Cary Murnion, right. Photo by Jessica Bartnhouse/Wicked Bird Media.]
Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion have gone from sentient boobs to creating a good horror comedy to zombie children. Next, they'll terrorize Jane Levy on set this summer in Brooklyn in a neo-Civil War. On behalf of ScreenAnarchy, I spoke to them about all this, and how much fun it is to kill kids onscreen. And no, I didn't prod them to talk about Todd Brown or XYZ Films, but it's clear that they're fans.
Lionsgate will release Cooties on September 18 as a limited release in theaters and on VOD.
ScreenAnarchy: First up, tell us how COOTIES came to be.
Jonathan Milott: I'd say it was Todd.
Cary Murnion: Todd did it.
Milott: Todd Brown from ScreenAnarchy hooked us up.
Murnion: We did a short film called Boob, about a boob that comes alive. Every horror movie has something that comes alive, and we thought, why not do a film about a boob that comes alive?
Milott: 'Cause that's everybody's normal thought process, right?
Was this boob found in the wild or was it attached to someone?
Waller: It was on a woman. The whole premise that that there are experimental breast implants, and a doctor puts one in and kind of a Frankenstein thing happens where electricity comes down.
Murnion: There are experimental breast implants because everybody wants to make their breasts bigger or smaller.
Milott: So this Frankenstein thing happens where electricity comes down and shocks the boob, and it comes alive and jumps off the woman in a very bloody way. It takes place in a very weird, German-kind of hospital, and it runs away and tries to escape.
So Todd Brown from ScreenAnarchy saw it at SXSW and passed it on to the SpectreVision guys, who were looking for a director. It had the same dark comedy vibe as Cooties, and they loved it.
Murnion: Our biggest reference was Shaun of the Dead, but there aren't a lot of movies that are funny as well as actually scary. I can think of two or three off the top of my head. Boob was very similar to the tone of Cooties.
Speaking of horror comedies, they're really hard to get right. How do you work a balance between something that falls flat and something that's rolling-on-the-ground funny?
Milott: I think it IS hard and you have to commit to how you approach each feeling. When it's funny, you let the actors be as funny as you can. When its scary, you switch tones in how the film looks and what the actors do. You build up that throughout the film. Have it be gross. Have it be scary. Have it be impactful. Have the actors really commit to what they're doing.
Murnion: One thing we did a little different from how most comedies are---comedies are usually less cinematic from most horror movies. We would try to play the comedy through cinematic tools like horror.
Milott: There aren't a lot of funny movies where you go: "Wow, I really love how that looks."
Murnion: Other than Edgar Wright's stuff.
Milott: Yeah, he does that really well.
Cooties premiered at Sundance in 2014; however, what played at Stanley was a different cut of the film. How is this new cut different?
Murnion: The new cut is more of how we envisioned our movie. We had much grander ideas for the ending of the cut that played Sundance. We didn't have the time or budget to shoot it. So when Lionsgate came onboard, they gave us the time and budget to do what we wanted to do. It wasn't, "Oh man, we have to redo the ending for Lionsgate." They let us do what we wanted.
It wasn't just the ending; we tightened up the whole pacing of it. The jokes are better.
Milott: A lot of times, tests are made on movies. Not necessarily an audience test for marketing, but to see how things are playing. Especially with comedy and horror. There were things people were laughing at that we didn't know were supposed to be funny. And there were other jokes we thought were hilarious that just fell flat. Sundance was essentially our first test audience; we hadn't shown it to anybody, so we used that opportunity to fine-tune some things like character moments and things that weren't funny and hurt the pace.
Murnion: We had two test screenings with Lionsgate after what we learned from Sundance.
One of the great things about COOTIES is that you Go There---there are kids on fire. Did you get any pushback from Lionsgate or SpectreVision?
Murnion: SpectreVision was fine with it, and Lionsgate was there from the very beginning. They came on set. They knew it was a rated R movie with kids as monsters. We shot things from different angles so in editing, we could show more or show less. But there was nothing that we did that they didn't want.
Milott: Walking Dead on TV point-blank kills people. They've killed kids on that show.
Murnion: In the first episode, they killed that little blonde girl who's a zombie. It's okay if you're killing monsters. And for us in Cooties, once the teachers started killing kids, they had already killed plenty of adults. They were monsters, they deserved to be killed.
Milott: You're not killing kids, or people, you're killing monsters. At least that's how we justify it.
Was there anything you had to leave out of the film for pacing or story's sake that you wanted to keep in the film but couldn't?
Milott: Lots of funny stuff. There's a whole other movie that could be a lot sillier. But then we'd lose all the scary moments because it would be too funny. There's a recurring joke where Rainn Wilson tries to pronounce "dual rear wheel" and can't, and he goes even longer. We were lucky to get in the "Hobbit" moment, because it was so self-referential with Elijah, but it was too funny to leave out. That's all Rainn improvising. The first take, Elijah didn't break character, but I could see in his eyes, "Oh my God, he just called me Hobbit!"
Murnion: There was a debate afterwards, because there are a lot of movie references, but another thing that was really funny was when Doug (played by co-writer Leigh Whannell) has his hands covered in the puke; he had done so many takes of that, and at one point, he licked his fingers. It was so gross. But if you keep that sort of stuff in the movie, it gets so ridiculous even though it's fucking hilarious.
How much of the film is improv versus script?
Millot: There's a lot of improv because of who we cast. The script is hilarious in its own right. Because of the cast, I think Leigh felt the need to push for improv. Rainn, who's known for his improv, said, "Leigh, your script is awesome, let's stick with it as much as possible."
Murnion: Leigh and Ian (Brennan, co-writer) were also both on set, re-scripting as they went.
What's next for you?
Murnion: An action film with XYZ Films called Bushwick. The premise is "What if Texas wanted to secede from the United States?" And they actually do
Milott: It's not very hard to imagine.
Murnion: In the story, they hire their own Blackwater-type army and invade the biggest cities. We're filming a small slice of that. We follow a girl home for five blocks in Brooklyn and things go down. She doesn't know if there's a terrorist attack, but it turns out to be a modern-day Civil War.
Milott: It's a small, independent action movie. It starts with a 20-year-old girl coming out of the subway and houses and buildings start getting blown up, and she has to escape.
Murnion: We hope to be shooting in June or July. We've got Jane Levy onboard from Evil Dead (Would you like to know more?) We're getting other cast members set up.
You should give Kurt Russell a call.
Murnion: We SHOULD!