Fantasia 2015 Interview: Axelle Carolyn Talks TALES Of HALLOWEEN
For those who haven't heard, Tales of Halloween is a whole lot of spooky fun, and if you're going to be at the Bruce Campbell Horror Fest inside Wizard World Chicago or Film4 FrightFest in London, you'll be able to see Tales before its U.S. release date on October 16. You can read my original Fantasia review here, so let's dive right in.
I sat down with writer/director/producer and Tales creator, Axelle Carolyn (Soulmate), for a in-depth chat about how the film came to be, what went wrong, and who or what fledgling filmmakers should avoid.
[In the photo above, Axelle Carolyn takes the stage at Fantasia 2015.]
ScreenAnarchy: How long did the process of putting Tales together take, from concept to the Fantasia world premiere?
Axelle Carolyn: Almost a year and a half. We pitched it to Epic Pictures in March of 2014 and it took a little bit of time to figure out what the requirements would be --- toward the end of April. Then we started working on the scripts. I always feel like it was really quick, but at the same time, post-production was really slow. That took six or seven months.
How did you get together with Epic?
I approached them with the idea of all of us working together (Carolyn, Neil Marshall, Mike Mendez, John Skipp, Adam Gierasch, Darren Lynn Bousman, Lucky McKee, Dave Parker, Paul Solet, Ryan Schifrin), and about the stories. Originally, I was thinking thirteen stories, but thank god we cut it down a little bit. It was the idea of different stories happening in the same town on the same night with connective tissue, but not necessarily connected. I pitched it to Neil, who liked it, and Adam Gierasch, who got really excited. Neil's very British, like [Carolyn makes a neutral face] "yeah, it's quite good." That's the best you'll ever get, haha.
But Adam was very excited, and I pitched it to Mike Mendez, who said yes because Neil and Adam were onboard, and there was momentum. Mike had just worked with Epic and Shaked Berenson on Bigass Spider! He had a really good time with them and considered them friends. I don't think I'd ever met them before then. But he felt like it was the same family, which was the spirit of the project.
The lawyer that we spoke to was in Friday the 14th Part 3, Neil's accountant ended up being an extra in his segment, everyone had to be friends or someone we liked, and everyone got onboard very quickly. Mike made a call to Epic on Wednesday, and by Saturday or Monday, they were onboard. They were true to their word that we would have final cut. They pretty much let us the craziest things we wanted to do. The only thing they didn't want was found footage.
No found footage!
We all agreed to that. That was fine!
As producer of TALES, what were the parameters that you set for each segment?
It was as simple as "it takes place on Halloween," not "about Halloween." It also had to be in the same universe as the others to be consistent; we decided on all the tales taking place in a suburban neighborhood, kind of like in the film Halloween. We gave them an idea of what the budget would be, but it varied.
Some people went very elaborate, while some kept it pretty simple. They had an idea that we would all be in the same ballpark, that we would all be shooting on the Alexa, and sharing the same camera and lighting equipment. Most of us shot in two days, some in three days. Thankfully, Shaked and Epic didn't make us fit into one number for the budget; Neil's film is elaborate and needed more funds, and they were fine with it. They wanted the film to be as good as possible. We didn't take advantage of that, but only asked when it was really necessary, and they could see that. It was a great experience.
The film is very cohesive-looking. Did you all share the same DP and editor, too?
Thanks, but no. It looks the same because we shared the same color correction and post-production guy. Jan-Michael Losada was the DP on three tales ("Grim Grinning Ghost," "This Means War," and "The Ransom of Rusty Rex"), who was awesome. But mostly we were asking each other who they'd worked with that they'd liked. Mike had worked with Richard J. Vialet on Lavalantula, and they shot Mike's segment and Richard shot Neil's, too. But if anyone else needed help with special effects or something, we'd lend out crew. It was really cool.
Did you all shoot concurrently?
Pretty much. We shot the segments on all the same equipment, and we rented it for a month, so we'd shoot two days there, then two days here, have two days off, and start again. Most of the cast and crew were different from one shoot to the next, but we stuck to production rules like five- or six-day weeks. I was on set everyday, and it felt like we made ten features. We had something like 400 different cast and crew members!
In TALES, I noticed so many fun horror homages: a little HALLOWEEN, THE THING, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and THE 'BURBS. Did you all plan that?
It's a love letter to Halloween, and as horror directors, I think it was bound to happen, but did we plan it? Not necessarily planned --- or in the script, either. Sometimes things came up on set. Dave Parker's "Sweet Tooth" opens up the film and I love it, I think it's brilliant. It has an '80s slasher vibe that makes it work. It has a very nostalgic feel. (There's also a "Carpenter" chocolate bar in Albertus font as a featured prop.)
Our generation is going back to the films of the '70s and '80s and recreating the atmospheres of the films we grew up watching --- it's so much fun to see it keep happening in the zeitgeist.
Those films were great. We wanted to appeal to a very broad audience in terms of age; some of the films focus on kids, some on grown-ups. I think the youngest character was seven and the oldest was 70-something. It's a childhood thing for us; we celebrate Halloween just as much if not more, than the kids, and more than other adults. Audiences of any age will want to watch this. More than a horror movie, this is a Halloween movie. It's not going to gross you out or scare you from beginning to end. What we want to do is encapsulate the spirit of the holiday, which is spooky, rather than scary, and a lot of fun. There's a little bit of anything goes --- within safe limits. We want to surprise, shock, and amuse you.
Sometimes there are happy accidents; things that initially aren't great end up forcing better choices. What went wrong and then what went right?
There were a lot of happy accidents; lots of people who couldn't make it were replaced by people who were amazing. On my episode, on the second day, there were so many things that didn't work out. We were supposed to shoot on the streets, and the generator didn't work. It was put where it wasn't supposed to and we couldn't move it. ... We put the portable generator in the van, and the van broke down, and we had to fix it. In the meantime at the next location, we couldn't move the generator because the cables weren't long enough, and when I got to my NEXT location, the toilets have been placed right in front of where we were supposed to be shooting!
I don't know how that happened, but when you have that many different people and films, there's a lot that gets lost in translation. We shot the chase scene in daylight, and it was supposed to be night. It was ridiculous. It was six a.m., and the sun was coming up, and we had to finish it. I looked at the rushes, and what I wanted wasn't there. So while we were shooting "This Means War" with the two neighbors fighting, there was a day in between shooting for production design --- they had to build the yard haunts.
We took advantage of the fact that we still had the camera and did a day of inserts for a few films, and at night, we reshot my scene near my house. It looked so cool with the fog. We had the proper lighting, and the location was so much better. I was so excited. That was a very, very happy accident.
How much guerilla filmmaking were you able to get away with?
There was a lot of knocking on doors and asking to use yards to film in, and the neighborhood came together and it was really cool. We shot in November, when a lot of people still had Halloween decorations up and we asked them to keep them up a little longer. Those who agreed would usually also let us film in their yards.
With the high production values and the strong, positive audience reaction at Fantasia, I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't already have distribution or were already planning sequels.
We have U.S. distribution. It'll be in theaters on October 16th. Canada, I have no idea. I'm producing, but on the creative side. I can't say I have no interest in the business side, because I want to know how it works, but that's not my strength. I'll leave the sales and distribution to Patrick (Ewald) and Shaked (both with Epic Pictures). Doing a sequel would be amazing.
Would you bring back the same group of directors for a sequel or work with different people?
I don't know. I got a lot of shit for not having more women directors. ... But this project was about this specific group of friends. Unfortunately, there weren't any women I knew that had made features that hung out with us losers. Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) would be amazing, but why would she give us the time of day?
I know what you mean. Among friends, I would think in terms of films, not gender.
Exactly. It's a combination of "whose work do we get excited by and who would be excited to be with us?" That's why I joked about Jennifer Kent; it's not just "come and shoot something," but come and hang with us on a regular basis, twice a month to discuss the episodes. It was a really collaborative effort, not a work-for-hire for anybody. Since then, of course, there have been quite a few films directed by women I would love to hang out with and work with.
What advice do you have for someone just picking up a camera?
One thing I'd say is something people don't want to hear. Do this if this is the only thing you can possibly do, if there's an urge that can't be satisfied any other way. This is a really tough business. The highs are high and the lows are low. The premiere last night was very stressful but amazing and I'm very happy, but you also go through a lot of self doubt, a lot of punches in the teeth, and lot of people saying no to a lot of stuff. It's not the regular paycheck you might expect from life.
Practically and technically speaking, it's a cliche, but work with friends and surround yourself with people that you like and can trust. Especially on the production side. Working with producers you don't trust and who won't push your movie to make it the best it can be is an extremely disappointing experience.
We had the support of Patrick and Shaked, who were on set every day and were willing to adjust budgets as necessary, and really pushed the film to make it as good as possible. Now they're excited to push it to the festival scene and are distributing it themselves. It feels really good when someone has your back and that's a hard thing to find.
If you think that you're going to work with a producer, and you get a feeling that you wouldn't hang out or feel like they'd be a great match, just stay away --- even if they put money into the film. If they're involved, you might make your movie, but then nobody might see it. Don't. Work. With. Assholes. Work with people you know and like. That makes it sound like I've worked with assholes before, but that's not true.
This is why festivals like Fantasia are so important. You find your community here. You show your movie to people that get it and hang out with their friends and discuss horror movies. I think this is frigging awesome.
[Updated 8/5 for further editing.]