Keeping the “creature feature” alive
If anyone can attest to the perks of owning your own production company it’s Matt Leutwyler, the unassuming, friendly-faced fella who conceived a sundry of ways to utterly destroy the human body in the zom-com Dead & Breakfast. Ambush Entertainment is his war room and his playground, but most of all, his comfort zone where he’s allowed to develop his films freely. It wasn’t until “Dead” that this San Francisco native got the genre bug and when that film found distribution through Anchor Bay (now Starz Home Entertainment) he decided to push himself further to see if he can truly make an audience scream…sans the laughter.
Unearthed is the writer-director’s latest, a straight-up otherworldly organism orgy involving a small town – made up of actors Emmanuelle Vaugier (Saw II), Luke Goss (Blade II), Beau Garrett (Turistas), M.C. Gainey, Russell Means, Miranda Bailey and Tommy Dewey – versus a swift alien entity who’s fixin’ to…well, we’re not exactly sure what this creature is up to.
Shock talked openly with Leutwyler a few days before his flight to New York City where Unearthed will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Shock: After “Dead & Breakfast” did you find more doors opening for you?
Matt Leutwyler: Oh, sure. It opened a lot more doors, people were more interested in seeing me and talking to me about stuff.
Shock: Yet you stuck with your company Ambush for your sophomore genre effort “Unearthed.”
Leutwyler: Well, since I own part of Ambush I want to do as much as I can here. The next movie that I’ll do is also with Ambush but we’re going to do it with another company called Sekretagent. They brought a script to us initially and that one is called “Below the Surface.” But we’re trying to build up the company. I’m not going to direct everything we’re doing – we have three or four movies in the pipeline over the year and I’m not doing any of those.
Shock: Was “Unearthed” something that’s been gestating for a while or did it come after “Dead & Breakfast”?
Leutwyler: Nah, I always wanted to do something like John Carpenter’s “The Thing” or “Alien” – something a little more horror-like. Because “Dead & Breakfast,” to me, is a comedy, it’s not really a horror movie. It’s a slapstick comedy with gore. So it’s funny because after that film I started to get all of these horror scripts, one right after the other, and I’m thinking, ‘Could you really tell that a.) I’m really interested in horror after watching that movie? and b.) That I could direct horror?’ ‘Cause I don’t think you could. I didn’t get one comedy script sent my way, but you see somebody’s head getting lopped off and they’re like, ‘Yeah, that guy does horror!’
Shock: So no laughs here?
Leutwyler: Well, I wanted to do more straight horror and I was taking to D.J. Marini who was one of the producers on the movie – he’s been at ILM for years – and [TyRuben] Ellingson, who designed the creature, they have a partnership up there. Ty came up with these crazy designs and we talked about what we wanted the creature to do and came up with a backstory and stuff. He just started to pound out these killer conceptual drawings and from there we started building the story around him.
Shock: Like the old days, “We’ve got the poster…now we just need a story!”
Leutwyler: [laughs] Exactly, we just wanted to see what tools this creature would have and then it all started to come to life. I knew I wanted it to take place out in the desert, I wanted the people to be out in this isolated place – that’s what was great about “Alien” or “The Thing.” We didn’t have a huge budget so the desert seemed like a likely place to put it. Then I wanted a horror movie where my lead character, Annie, has a real dilemma, she has this tragic past and is about two weeks away from losing her job. She’s basically the town drunk and they’re about to vote her out – creature comes up and starts killing everybody. Annie has to get it together and the townspeople have to put their trust in her and follow her. It’s kind of a redemption tale.
Shock: Something like this reminds me of the monster mash-ups coming out of the ’80s – for some strange reason “The Being” keeps coming to mind. Growing up were there any similar films you hold fondly? Even the worst kind of stuff…
Leutwyler: I love it all, that’s a hard question to answer because I don’t want to lead people to believe that “Unearthed” is something that it’s not. But I love the older stuff like “The Hills Have Eyes” – the original, just to be clear. Creature movies – like the way, way old films – I’d catch up to on late-night television, I love those. They all have similar stories like the one guy who plays with fire and unleashes havoc or brings something back to life. Or, in our case, something that’s been buried and is unearthed…
Shock: From the looks of the trailer, you’ve bumped the production level up a few notches. And “the look” is great.
Leutwyler: It’s a beautifully shot movie, this is Ross Richardson’s first feature. He shot a lot of music videos and commercials, he’s got a really cool, eerie sensibility. When I saw his reel we knew he was the guy for us. We shot this on super-35 widescreen and we had some time to shoot this – although we still had five weeks. It wasn’t “Dead & Breakfast”-style. I would’ve liked to have had fewer set pieces because it felt like we were just shooting action every day and I was shortchanging the actors. Some of the dramatic things got cut so we could have more time for the action scenes. I guess that’s the one deficiency for me, I would have liked to have seen more character stuff. But we had to blow this up and blow that up. It’s a fun ride, I wish it had a bit more meat on its bones in terms of character stuff.
Shock: It’s a slow character drama next for you, eh?
Leutwyler: I’ll tell you, “Below the Surface” is a creepy movie, it’s more like “Jacob’s Ladder” – but it’s really smart psychological sci-fi.
Shock: You’re one never to forget your friends when it comes to casting – did you know Luke Goss prior to “Unearthed”?
Leutwyler: No, he came in to audition and we really liked him. It’s so funny because he’s this ex-musician from England. He’s a perfect example of not judging a book by its cover because I looked at him and was like, ‘Is this guy gonna be a primadonna on the set?’ And he so wasn’t. He was the most genuine nice guy who worked his ass off. He didn’t care, as long as it was going to make the movie or scene look good. I was literally off-screen throwing cans at him because we didn’t have the money to make fake cans. I’m throwing hard objects at him in this garage. He’s like, “But they’re real!” And I tell him we don’t have any time and he says, “Oh f**k it, just do it.” He was a good sport.
Shock: Did you treat Emmanuelle in a similar fashion?
Leutwyler: I pushed her harder. She put so much effort into this movie. I mean, we dropped a 60-pound bail of hay on her head accidentally during a stunt that went wrong. She was on the ground and the hay was probably 16-feet up. She had her eyes closed for the sequence and this bail falls, hits the ground, bounces once and lands right on her head. I almost had a heart attack. She needed a little time to gather herself. The producers wanted to call it a night but we would’ve lost the barn we were shooting in. We still had it for four hours and she was told she could go home but she said no, took about 20-minutes and went through the rest of the rigors of that night. That chick was awesome. We also had a water tower scene where we dumped, I don’t know how many thousands of gallons of water we dumped on her, over the course of twelve hours. It was 35-degrees outside, she had on a tank-top and we had a hot tub off to the side. She was turning blue and we’d have her do the scene and then move her into the hot tub. I thought she was going to get pneumonia.
Shock: Who does Luke play in the film?
Leutwyler: He plays an archeologist who unearths this creature. He’s on this quest to discover what happened to this Native American tribe, the Anasazi. The history books say they left because of a drought and he has uncovered some clues to believe that’s not what happened. So, he’s lost all of his funding and he’s digging by himself now, his team is gone. He’s like a Kurtz character – a little crazy, immersed in the culture of the Anasazi. He’s tattooed himself, living up there trying to figure out what happened to them. And he does and it turns out to be this creature.
Shock: The creature appears to have a wide array of tricks up its sleeve. Care to talk about them a bit?
Leutwyler: He has these, we call them “snot balls,” but they’re gelatin balls that fly out of these glands beneath his throat and they have these worms that unravel and bore into your skin. They dissolve your bones and innards so he can digest you. That’s how he stays alive. But he’s got all of these cool tools that he may or may not be using to gather these DNA samples. These needles that come out. These claw hands that work like an organic chainsaw. He’s pretty vicious.
Shock: Sounds like a handy fella.
Leutwyler: Ty kept calling him a Swiss Army knife. He’s pretty messed up.
Shock: Who brought the creature to life?
Leutwyler: Steve Johnson’s Edge FX built the prosthetic version of him. Jason Hamer and his group did all of the puppeteering up in Utah when we shot it. And David Dezoretz did the digital version of him when he’s running and moving quickly. We had a lot of problems with the prosthetic. The guy who’s supposed to be wearing the suit – something happened and he had to back out a little bit before shooting. We brought somebody else in but he was fifty-pounds bigger and they had to re-fit the suit in record time. So there are some bits of the creature we couldn’t show because the seams were just terrible. We had to change our shot list to accommodate this. Then, of course, when he got wet the servos wouldn’t work, it was just becoming a nightmare. Difficult for us and the guy who wore the suit. The head on this thing weighed a ton. Forty-pounds or so. You wear this thing for a bit and you feel like your neck is going to snap. And this guy had to do it for six or seven hours. I probably would have done more of it digital had I known how hard it was going to be. Instead of going for the full creature prosthetic maybe have them build just the head, arms, tail and foot for the close-up inserts, but we tried to be super-ambitious with it.
Shock: This is another ensemble project for you – do you feel comfortable working with this many actors?
Leutwyler: It’s really Emmanuelle’s movie, she’s got the biggest arc. Everybody else is pretty much at the end the way they are when we first meet them. I guess Beau [Garrett]’s character has a bit of an arc, she’s a wimp at the beginning but kicks some ass in the end. No one has the real change that Emmanuelle has in her role. She’s the leader of the ensemble whereas “Dead & Breakfast” was a true ensemble. You never knew who was going to die at any moment. Everybody thought Jeremy Sisto was going to be the lead in that, but we killed him.
Shock: You had me in the editing room a few months back to check out a pretty impressive scene involving a rolled-over tanker truck – is this one of the more extravagant set-pieces you’ve done to date?
Leutwyler: Before that, I hadn’t, but we do bigger things in this film than just that. We’ve got a house and we blew that up, then the water tower sequence was super-complicated. But closing down the freeway and putting a tanker on its side…that’s really not an action scene. It’s sort of “post” action – we didn’t have the money to do a full crash, so you hear some stuff going on. You just see the aftermath which I think you saw. That scene, coincidentally, was our first day of shooting. We’ve got this tanker on its side, we’ve got the freeway just for us and there’s this big crane looming there – I was like, “Holy shit, this is bigger than ‘Dead & Breakfast’!”
Shock: With the popularity of the “Sci-Fi Original Picture” there’s this certain stigma that comes with the good old-fashioned monster movie. Does that worry you?
Leutwyler: I agree with you and, yes, that’s something we’ve been worried about since day one. All you can do is make the production value better with a better script, better actors…you just gotta make it better. A problem with those films is they get too caught up in showing the creature too much and giving the viewer a digital effect every minute, they don’t have the money to make those things look great. They just look cheaper and cheaper as the movie goes along. But you hope you’re directing a better movie and the look is better…all of that stuff. You’re right, they’re a dime a dozen right now. Even the studio ones are not doing that well.
Shock: Why do you think that is? Are audiences over the “monster movie”? Maybe they believe they are too hokey?
Leutwyler: I think they are. If you’ve got a giant budget maybe you could pull it off, but even some of the big ones… That’s why I’m excited about “Below the Surface” – it’s got horror elements but I don’t know if you could call it a horror movie. You’ll definitely be scared but it’s got a smart sci-fi element – you think you’re watching one movie but then it turns on its head and it’s not the movie you thought it was but all of the clues were there.
Shock: Looking back on the “Unearthed” experience – final thoughts?
Leutwyler: It was a great experience, I love it a lot but I definitely have some issues with the movie. It was super-ambitious, but it’s the first time I’ve done so many things. I’ve never worked in digital effects before, I had never worked with a giant prosthetic thing…I just wanted to blow that thing up half the time. Plus it’s the first time I worked with a stunt team – we had Go Stunts who did “The Bourne Supremacy.” It was the first time I got involved in so many things and I’m excited to use what I learned on “Below.” Physically, the whole thing was a trying experience.
Shock: How does it feel to know “Dead & Breakfast” has taken on a life of its own on DVD?
Leutwyler: It’s so weird. A movie that was made for $500 thousand – it was just this thing where me and my friends were like, “Want to do a movie?” I mean, I remember when I first sat down with Ever [Carradine] at a bar and told her I wanted to do this goofy horror thing. And she was said, “Great, as long as I can cut off [Erik] Palladino’s head off, and that’s sorta how the movie was written. It became so ridiculous…to think people just glommed onto this is just fun. I think they realize it’s just a bunch of people having a good time making a movie. It has gotten to a point where Anchor Bay has asked for a prequel or a sequel to it and hopefully it’ll come to fruition at some point in the next year or so.
Source: Ryan Rotten