Elijah Wood on the Horror-Comedy Cooties

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Shock Q n A: Elijah Wood on the Horror-Comedy Cooties.

Elijah Wood on the horror-comedy Cooties

While Elijah Wood may forever be thought of as Frodo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” he clearly picked up the director’s love for indie horror having co-founded the production company Spectrevision with directors Daniel Noah and Josh C. Waller. So far, they’ve been responsible for a number of interesting thrillers, including Ana Lily Amirpour’s acclaimed A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Wood’s Open Windows.

This year, Spectrevision has released two movies following festival runs, including the creepy thriller The Boy and now Cooties, which is easily one of the funniest and goriest horror-comedies to come around in years.

Written by Leigh Whannell (Insidious) and Ian Brennan (FOX’s upcoming “Scream Queens”), Cooties shows how a virus hits a small town elementary school and how the dynamics of the teaching staff is affected when the kids start turning into flesh-eating zombies. Wood plays the Clint, who has given up on his dream of being a writer in New York to take on the role of substitute teacher at his hometown elementary school where he has to adjust to the odd teaching staff, including his high school crush Lucy (Alison Pill) and her boyfriend, the gym teacher Wade (Rainn Wilson). Whannell plays the odd biology teacher Doug, while there’s also Jack McBrayer, Nasim Pedrad, Jorge Garcia and Peter Kwong as the others who must band together to escape from the school without being eaten by the kids.

ShockTillYouDrop.com got on the phone with Wood a few weeks back mostly to talk about Cooties.

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ShockTillYouDrop.com: “Cooties” is a really creative and inventive idea. It’s one of those very simple, high concept things, but what they did with it was just amazing. At what point did you get involved with it as a producer?

Elijah Wood: Well, it was actually an internal idea. I run this company SpectreVision with my producing partners, Josh and Daniel, and it was an idea that Josh had actually. He was like, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a movie called ‘Cooties’ about a zombies-like virus that affects children, but only pre-puberty, like cooties?” We went. “That’s awesome.” We looked it up and thought there had to have been a ‘70s or ‘80s exploitation movie called “Cooties” and there wasn’t. So we were sort of shocked that no one had ever exploited it. Somehow, the idea got communicated to Leigh Whannell through a mutual friend, and Leigh’s work, we love and we heard that he was obsessed with this idea. So we had this meeting with Leigh. Our initial thing was that we wanted to make a very serious killer kid movie. Leigh was like, “Wait, it’s a comedy. It’s called ‘Cooties.’” We were like, “Oh yeah, this is a comedy.” So it was really that simple. We spoke to him and he was so keen to write it for us and his idea was to write it with his friend Ian Brennan, who was the co-creator of “Glee.” So the two of them worked on it and I think we saw a first draft within four or five months. We worked on it for the better part of two to three years, developing it and trying to get it made, as it sometimes does. It takes time to get a film off the ground. But yeah, that was essentially my relationship to it.

Initially, I didn’t want to have anything to do with playing the character of Clint either, and mainly because in starting the company, it was really important to me that the lines be really clear between my work as an actor and what we were doing with the company. Initially, I sort of felt strongly about not working as an actor in any of our films, so as not to sort of blur those lines or to make what we were trying to do with the company seem like a vanity project. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t deny it because I loved the script so much and the cast that we got was so extraordinary, so it was a joy to get a chance to work with all those people.

Shock: That’s a very different mindset from the norm, because usually when actors are involved as a producer, it’s because they really want a role and they want to be more involved. It’s very rare. “The Boy” is a good example of a movie you produced without actually appearing in it.

Elijah Wood: Well, the endeavor was really just started purely out of wanting to be a part of the filmmaking process from the standpoint of facilitating filmmakers that we love and the kind of films that we want to populate the genre and horror space, so a totally pure endeavor. I just love filmmaking and I love the process. The three of us at the company happen to have this shared mutual love of genre and horror and these are the kinds of films that we love and we want to see the kinds of horror films and genre films that we love get made more regularly, and it’s so gratifying honestly. I’d spent a lot of my time, these days, is spent working with the company and for the company, so it’s an incredibly gratifying endeavor.

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Shock: How did you guys find Jonathan and Cary to direct it? Obviously, there’s been a lot of movies about infected or “zombies,” but it’s a really funny movie with great writers and a great cast, but it really seems like a great convergence that you found directors who could pull it together, whom I don’t think have ever done anything that I know of.

Elijah Wood: Yeah, they’ve never done a feature. They come from the commercial and short film world. I mean, our process really was to sort of cast a net and initially what we did was we just asked people that we were interested in to sort of submit their pitch of the movie that they wanted to make. John and Cary were two dudes that submitted a really great pitch. Their take on the film was really great. We’d seen a short of theirs called “Boob,” which is about a disembodied breast. It is a horror comedy. It’s quite funny, actually. You should check it out. But it was between that and the way that they saw the movie that we were really excited about. 

Shock: There’s some obvious and some not so obvious homages in this. “Dawn of the Dead” is one of the most notable because there’s a correlation to that movie, but was that something in the script or was that something the filmmakers decided to do post?

Elijah Wood: There’s quite a few. I mean, Leigh and Ian I think can speak to that more from the writing standpoint, but yeah, there’s a ton of references and just tonal kind of reference points, I think, for them, too, while writing it. But there’s also our DP Lyle Vincent, who’s brilliant–he also shot “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” which is another film that we produced. When we were getting into the sort of horror – because the movie tonally takes a shift halfway through the film and kind of skews more horror as the teachers are trying to escape. The lighting changes as it goes from day to night. I remember being on set and he was like, “Dude, this is ‘Suspiria.’ This is my Giallo lighting,” with all the reds and blues, so yeah I remember that being a reference point.

Shock: It’s really interesting that you find all these people including the crew who know the classic horror films enough to bring that to the movie.

Elijah Wood: Totally. It’s really interesting, too, because Leigh comes from horror, obviously. He’s most famous for “Insidious” and “Saw.” What was so interesting about Leigh’s perspective on this was that he really wanted the comedy to work. He spent so much time in the horror genre that he was less concerned about the horror elements of the film and more concerned about the comedy. So we had a great conversation a couple of days into it. He’s like, “Mate, I’ll make sure that the comedy is working and you make sure that the horror is working.” I was like, “Okay. Fair enough.” It was just interesting. I think he loved putting a slightly different hat on and working outside, not out of his comfort zone, because he’s naturally very funny, but I think he’d spent so much time in the horror space that it was far more interesting to him to kind of make sure that the comedy was working as well. Plus, he’s so funny in the film. I mean, I think his performance is kind of a revelation. He’s so funny.

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Shock: I can’t imagine this not being funny with the cast you guys pulled together. If you look through the list, it’s like, “Wow, how did they get all these people to do an independent horror movie?” I know with Rainn, you had him in “The Boy” was well.

Elijah Wood: Yeah, I think honestly, it has everything to do with that script. Leigh and Ian wrote an incredible script. That helps so much when you’re trying to cast a really great group of actors for a relatively small-budgeted horror film. But yeah, we were so lucky, and between Rainn and Alison and even Jack, Nasim, it’s just such an incredibly eclectic and very funny group of people, who were all equally excited about it. I’ll never forget, we didn’t fully meet up with the cast until the Friday before the Monday we started working. We did a table read at Leigh’s house. The whole thing just came alive in front of us and everyone, comedically and sort of spiritually, really just connected to the material and we all got along so well. There was this incredible kinetic energy and enthusiasm for what we were about to embark on Monday. So we were incredibly lucky. Everybody really got on very well and shared the same enthusiasm for what we were about to do, which was awesome. It made the biggest difference.

Shock: Had you tried to pitch this movie to studios and gotten a lot of pushback? Or did you always know you had to produce it independently? I can understand that people would be a little nervous about having kids killing people.

Elijah Wood: Sure, it’s the ultimate sort of taboo of having to kill a few kids.

Shock: There’s that, too, yeah. Did you try that route and then said, “We can do it ourselves?” I don’t know if you can do half the stuff you did in the movie with a studio. You’d have a lot of pushback, I’d assume.

Elijah Wood: It never felt like we were going to be able to get it set up at the studio. I think we didn’t try. It’s been so long since that process, but I think it became very clear quite quickly that it was going to be something on an independent level. If anything else just so that we knew we had creative control, so that we didn’t jump into a process of making that would be micromanaged. It always felt to us I think that we wanted to make this movie on our own.

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Shock: How was having Leigh on set as a writer and acting as well? If he had any problems with the scenes, he could throw out ideas?

Elijah Wood: Yeah, I think a little, but that didn’t happen often. Honestly, he really kind of gave over to the character, so it felt like having Leigh on set, certainly as a producer and as a writer was valuable. It felt like he really, I think the hat that he was wearing more often than not was that of as an actor playing the character. So he was very much a part of the cast. It was such a joy to make, man. We were at the same school for four weeks, and it felt like summer camp in a way. We would all drive to the same school every day and see each other and hang out and make each other laugh and it was a total joy. It was fun.

Shock: Whenever there’s a movie like that where people actually get along, that seems to come across on the screen as well. I don’t know how that works.

Elijah Wood: I think you’re right.

Shock: I think sometimes you can get away with a movie and make it work in post-production, but it’s just not the same as a movie where everyone gets along and it’s fun.

Elijah Wood: I think you can see it. You can feel it on the screen. I agree, yeah.

Shock: Two things I really loved about this movie–especially because there are so many movies about infected zombies–is that you guys actually show how the pandemic started during the titles.

Elijah Wood: [Laughs] Yeah, right. 

Shock: Which we don’t see often. The other thing is, you actually found a way to get rid of cell phones in a really clever way.

Elijah Wood: That was really challenging, man. It’s funny. If anything, it’s technology and the modern times we live in that are hurting horror movies more than anything because horror movies often rely on the sense of isolation, whether you’re in a cabin in the woods or you’re a teacher stuck in a school. Trying to isolate characters these days, if you’re setting something in a modern context is more and more difficult as we’re increasingly sort of tuned in and turned on. So yeah, that was a clever device that they came up with, of having to check your cell phones at the desk of the vice principal.

Shock: Just as I was thinking how clever that was, your character makes a comment about it. That kind of put me over the top.

Elijah Wood: It’s funny, because there was a version of the script before that where the kids took down a cell phone tower. [Laughs] I feel like this version of it maybe makes a lot more sense.

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Shock: Do you guys have any thoughts about doing more? I feel like you left a lot of things open-ended. That infected baby hasn’t been resolved and it’s still out there somewhere.

Elijah Wood: Sure. Yeah, we often talked about it. Look, I think if it finds an audience and people love the characters and the concept enough, we would love to make another one. We often would like, extrapolate on different ideas while we were making the movie, about what a sequel would look like. So I feel like there’s a backlog of concepts and ideas that we all talked about. I would just love to work with that group of people again because we just had a lot of fun, so if we could jump back into that world and explore the characters again and make another movie, it’d be a blast.

Shock: I feel like you kept enough of the characters alive, too, which was nice. A lot of times, there’s only one person left in one of these movies, if that.

Elijah Wood: That’s very true. The core group is still there, and that was important. Yeah, I feel like even the script iterations, a couple of different people died along the way, but it was kind of nice to have it so that they’re all alive at the end. Maybe they carry on. We’ll see.

Shock: I know Leigh is kind of a good luck charm because he makes these small independent movies as one-offs, and then they end up becoming these crazy franchises. So I don’t know. I’m knocking wood that it’ll be the same case here.

Elijah Wood: That would be awesome. It’d be cool.

Shock: Anything else you’re excited about that you’ve been working on, as far as what we might see coming up in the next couple of months, like on the festival circuit?

Elijah Wood: “The Boy” is coming out in theaters this weekend, which is another film that we produced. I’ve got a movie called “The Last Witch Hunter,” which is also Lionsgate, and that comes out in October. That’s pretty much it. There’s a film I did earlier this year called “The Trust” with Nic Cage, and that movie’s in post now, so I’m not sure if it’s going to go to festivals before the end of the year or probably sometime next year.

Shock: Are you looking for new challenges as a producer and for your company? Do you always have an eye out for that kind of stuff, to try to work with new people?

Elijah Wood: We’re constantly watching movies, yeah. We’re all going to be at Fantastic Fest, which is something I never miss or try to never miss because it’s my favorite week of the year. But it’s really where I think some of the best examples of genre and horror end up getting shown. So we’ll be there in September to see a lot of great movies that we’ve been hearing about for a while that were super fun films with some great new filmmakers as well.

Cooties opens in select cities and on VOD on Friday, September 18.