Interview: Brian Patrick O’Toole
Brian Patrick O’Toole is a screenwriter and an independent horror movie producer in Hollywood whose last two films, Evilution and Basement Jack, I really enjoyed and reviewed on the Underground Film Journal. (Click the titles there for the reviews.)
Two things in particular, though, really intrigued me about these films. One, is that both of them felt like good ol’ fashioned throwbacks to the horror classics of the ’70s and the ’80s, exactly the types of films I’m a huge fan of myself. And two, I would learn through email conversations with Brian that these films were the first two parts in a proposed trilogy, along with the upcoming The Necropolitan. I found that to be wildly ambitious for a low-budget producer.
So, I thought to ask him some questions about this trilogy, his writing and producing background and his passion for horror:
Underground Film Journal: You use a bunch of the same actors in Evilution and Basement Jack. Is that just to serve your trilogy? Or are you consciously trying to build a reliable horror repertory company?
Brian Patrick O’Toole: In the first outline of “The Necropolitan Trilogy,” I thought it would be interesting to use the same actors in all three films, in different roles of course, and the reason behind that decision would be revealed in The Necropolitan. As Evilution began production, it became obvious that because of time and schedule restraints, we might not get everyone back each time. It was also decided that it might be confusing to audiences to see the same people in different roles in the same series. I didn’t want to fall into the same dilemma that befell the ’70s soap opera Dark Shadows in its last days so the idea was nixed.
The reason that Billy Morrison and Noel G re-appear in Basement Jack was purely because my producing partner Eric Peter-Kaiser and I really wanted to see the two actors in roles that they usually didn’t play. I really want to develop a horror repertory company like the ones we saw before the agents and lawyers took down the studio system in the 1970s. I remember watching the old Universal monster movies and seeing the same actors in different roles. I wanted to recreate that — get a good team going. It’s a different world now. That’s why we don’t see comedy teams anymore. Too much legal red tape, I guess.
Nathan Bexton is, of course, our evil little thread that connects the three films so he was gracious enough to agree to appear in all of them. Eric played the role of Darren Hall in Evilution and plays Jack in Basement Jack. Eric first and foremost is an actor, and a damn fine one. When I was writing Evilution, I used Eric as a model for the character. I watched him closely — which I’m sure was uncomfortable for him– and developed the character with him in mind. When he asked me what I thought about him playing Darren, I squealed in my head with excitement, but said, “um, okay.”
Eric recently won the Best Actor Award for his role in Evilution at the 2008 Chicago Horror Film Festival. The role of Basement Jack required an actor to age eleven years and have eyes like that of a demon dreaming in order to effectively bring the monster Jack Riley to life. Eric came up with a strong concept for the character, but the thing that sold me was his eyes — those piercing blue eyes that could shatter the darkness with their inner light. Jack’s director, Michael Shelton, and I agreed that Eric’s boyish looks and intensity captured the soul of our madman. We weren’t the only ones because Eric would go on to win the Best Actor Award for his portrayal of the silent killer at the 2008 Terror Film Festival in Philadelphia.
BPO: When I first joined Eric at Island Gateway Films, one of the ideas he had was to do a series of films with a B storyline that ran through all of them. We also decided that we should do different horror subgenres so that the films would stand on their own.
We chose to do a zombie movie, a slasher film and a creature feature. Creating an element that would link the three films was harder than I thought. At first, I thought it should be a location and remembered an abandoned hospital that I used in a previous film. Eric took a tour of the hospital and agreed that it was the perfect place. However, we decided that the location wasn’t enough, so we came up with the idea of a puppet master, someone who guided the stories. The Manager character was born. I still worried if this was going to work, until I saw actor Nathan Bexton literally become The Manager. His “sassy evil” attitude was exactly what makes the character work. Now I can’t wait to do The Necropolitan and give The Manager his own movie.
UFJ: Are you a lifelong horror movie fan?
BPO: I have been a horror fan all my life, ever since I first watched The Bride of Frankenstein on Creature Features on WGN-TV Chicago when I was very young. The original (God, how I hate that I have to say that!) Night of the Living Dead, Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, The Omen, Jaws and The Poseidon Adventure were the films that made the most impact on me as a child. In the summer of 1979, Dawn of the Dead, Alien and Phantasm were the three films that sealed my fate: I wanted to make horror films. I wanted to make audiences feel the way I felt watching all these films.
UFJ: What’s your favorite horror movie? The one you can watch 1,000 times and still feel scared and/or creeped out by it?
I know this is silly to everyone but me, but the one film that I cannot watch alone, to this day, is Night of the Living Dead. You see, when I was five years old my parents took me to the Harlem-Irving Drive-in to see the triple feature of The Oblong Box, Scream Bloody Murder, and Night of the Living Dead. When Night started, my parents put me up on top of the station wagon alone with a blanket and the speaker. At five, I had a real problem separating what was happening on screen and the people lurking about between the cars. I don’t remember much except not moving at all so the “real” zombies couldn’t see me. At one point, a couple in the car ahead of us started making love, but my five year old mind saw it as a woman being attacked and eaten. My parents told me afterward that they had to pry my hands off the bike rack and that I didn’t talk, or sleep, for almost three days. Today, I can watch the film fine with an audience, but I can only make it halfway alone before becoming overcome with a numbing fear.
My favorite horror film of all time is the original (ugh!) Dawn of the Dead. I did my college thesis on it. This film has so much subtext, so much to say about the human condition. Dawn of the Dead arrived just as we were experiencing the first wave of AIDS deaths. Who could not see the zombie situation in the film as an allegory for those afflicted with this horrible disease, this disease that the masses wouldn’t deal with because it didn’t affect them … immediately? Out of ignorance and disbelief the HIV virus spread, mirroring the zombie infection in the film. While the pseudo-religious worried about The Omen‘s Anti-Christ’s predicted arrival, they ignored the very real warnings in Romero’s living dead. That’s the thing about great horror, it scares us while it makes us think.
UFJ: You produced a bunch of other writer’s scripts before writing your own screenplays. Was writing always a goal for you or did you think one day, “Hey, I can write something as good as these guys”?
BPO: I actually came to Hollywood to be a screenwriter. I had written over 20 screenplays for different production companies in my first fifteen years in Hollywood. None of them were made into films, but the checks all cleared.
My writing became a conflict of interest for a while when I was a literary agent so I stopped writing my own material and pushed other people’s work. While I was an agent with a boutique agency, I received a screenplay from two first-time screenwriters from Rhode Island called The Cemetery Gates. I really liked the script’s creature, a mutated Tasmanian Devil. After two years of pushing the script through the “Hollywood System,” I couldn’t make a sale. So, I made the writers a deal: if they trusted me and allowed me to re-write the script to make it more Hollywood-friendly, I would continue to try to sell it.
Flash forward twelve years and twelve drafts later, Cemetery Gates was made. I try to never make promises I do not intend to keep, even if it takes twelve years. As an agent, I loved working with new writers, getting their scripts ready for the Hollywood machine. Unfortunately, times have changed and desperation and lawyers have made it difficult to give any creative input to writers. We are tied to our form letters. And that saddens me greatly.
UFJ: How did you move from writing to producing?
BPO: As I said earlier, I came to Hollywood in 1990 from Chicago in hopes of making it as a screenwriter. I had a holiday comedy-adventure script called The Day Before The Night Before Christmas that was getting some heat and like so many before me I thought it might be time to move to Los Angeles. Well, the heat died and I found myself as another looking-for-work screenwriter. I would eventually move up the Hollywood ladder by doing some script reading, then working in an agent’s office and eventually becoming a literary agent with two agencies.
While working at the last agency, I met a producer named Luigi Cingolani, a brilliant guy. Luigi was part of Smart Egg Pictures during their Critters and Nightmare on Elm Street days. We became great friends and joined forces to create Intrazone, a film production company. Luigi taught me the hard and fast rules of film producing. Luigi was always a step ahead of everyone else in town. He was a pioneer using CGI in low budget films. In his film, Adventures in Dinosaur City, a day shot was transformed into night with a computer – a marvelous event in 1989.
In our film SleepStalker, we were one of the first films to have a computer created character in a low budget film. We also made two computer games based on Speed Racer and a cult comic book character called Radical Rick for LIVE Entertainment. Unfortunately, after the murder of their chief executive, Jose Menendez, by his two sons, the new regime at LIVE decided not to publish the games, which is a shame because we have an awesome re-mix of the Speed Racer theme done by Wes Arkeen, Duff McKagen and Slash from Guns ‘n’ Roses that will never be heard. The main advice I received from Luigi was to be adaptable and always try new things. In this digital revolution of film making, his advice could not be truer still.
UFJ: Who are your filmmaking influences? Do you think you have different influences for your producing than you do for your writing, e.g. you want to write like Charlie Kaufman, but produce like Robert Evans?
BPO: In my writing, I am influenced by the classics: Poe, Lovecraft, Richard Matheson (I Am Legend is my favorite book), and the Bible. I wish I could write dialogue like Susan Harris (Soap, The Golden Girls) and Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous, Clatterford).
As far as filmmaking influences, I could list a bunch of award winning directors, but the truth of the matter is that I love all films. I enjoy The Shining as much as Motel Hell. I appreciate all films as their own separate entity. In fact, the greatest thing that ever happened to me occurred in 1997 — the advent of DVD. DVDs were like mini-film schools to me and I watched and listened to all of them. I currently own over 6,000 DVD/HD DVD/Blu-Ray discs. So my greatest filmmaking influence would be the DVD.
As far as producer influences, I would say I really respect the drive-in kings of yore, like William Castle and Roger Corman. They did a lot with very little. I have always worked in independent low budget features and I love it. I love the creative freedom. I love the adversity that comes with little money. I love the people that I work with because they want to be there, not just doing the job because the money is good. I love working with “first-timers,” giving creative people a chance that the studios wouldn’t give them. Sure, eventually, I would love to try my hand at a studio film — maybe give one of their “remakes” the O’Toole take. But right now, I’m happy being Independent and working with Eric.
UFJ: For the first two films you hired two different special effects guys making their directorial debuts. Was hiring guys from that background intentional or a coincidence? And, if intentional, why?
BPO: The director of Evilution was an editor I worked with on a previous film. My original vision for Evilution was a fast paced Poseidon Adventure with zombies and I thought the two were a perfect fit. Michael Shelton I also met on that other film as the visual effects artist. Both men were extremely talented in their fields, but I could tell that they would excel outside their current positions. I talked to Eric. They met, hit it off and the rest is history.
UFJ Basement Jack seems to use a lot of CGI effects instead of the old-fashioned practical effects in slasher movies. Is that a money-saving technique? Or do you just prefer the looks of the CGI? Is that where the industry is going?
BPO: When it comes to CGI characters, I am against them as a rule. We tried creating “The Sandman” character for SleepStalker on the computer, but, honestly, I’m still bothered that he moved rubbery not sandy. CGI is fine for backgrounds, but not as a character. There’s nothing about CGI that is organic. Turn off the sound on Jurassic Park or The Phantom Menace and watch the CGI characters. They seem to float. There’s nothing natural about them. Take Godzilla. (And not the American Wimpzilla.) Sure, it’s a man in a rubber suit. We acknowledge that fact and yet we marvel at the artistry of the suit and miniature model work. We see real hands interacting with real miniature buildings. CGI is killing the art of suit-building and miniatures. I like my movie monsters organic.
Now, having said that, we did use a fair amount of CGI effects in Basement Jack. And that’s because we had one of the masters of that field directing our film. Visual Effects artist Michael Shelton has worked on such CGI wonders as The Passion of the Christ, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Babel, Mirrors, Terminator 4 and the upcoming Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine remakes. If I were to trust anyone with the digital pen it would be Michael.
Michael actually creates a story for every one of his effects. He puts his whole heart and mind into his work and that’s what makes him one of the best in the business. CGI allowed us to show the reaction of the victim as the blade penetrates their body. With make-up effects, you would usually cut away to the weapon going through plastic skin and cut back to the scream. CGI allows us a better shot. CGI is only time-saving on a film set. You still have to spend hours to create the effect on the computer, which can take even more time. Right now, as a producer, I’m still a fan of practical effects versus digital ones.
UFJ: You write and produce. Any plans to ever direct one of your own scripts?
BPO: Truth be told, I have no real interest in directing. I would rather someone who really wants to, who really has the passion, have that opportunity. However, there is one project, which I don’t own, that I would love to direct because I really think I’m the only one who could do it justice. Yet, should the opportunity arise to direct this pet-project, I would still probably hand it over to Michael Shelton. We’ll see, tho’.