Scott Glosserman is a pretty smart guy, but you’d probably expect that from the filmmaker behind Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a movie that’s as clever as it is funny in the way it deconstructs the horror-slasher genre.
Having debuted almost exactly a year ago at the South by Southwest Film Festival, the mockumentary-like film shows the preparations by Leslie Vernon, a Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees-like serial killer, for a night of terror in which he’ll murder a group of teens staying at his old family home. Leslie, as played by Nathan Baesal (“Invasion”), really makes the most of the attention he gets from a documentary filmmaker played by Angela Goethals.
Whether you’re a fan of horror-slasher flicks like Halloween and Friday the 13th, or just want to see a very funny movie that’s based on the cliches inherent with the genre (and done in a smarter way than the “Scary Movie” films) then Behind the Mask is certainly something worth seeking out, even if it’s only for the fun appearances by the likes of Robert Englund, Zelda Rubinstein and Scott Wilson.
Regardless of whether you’ve seen the film yet, the following exclusive interview with Scott Glosserman offers some great insight into how a young, first-time filmmaker was able to make such a professional film despite working on a limited budget and with very little standing in the movie business at the time.
ComingSoon.net: I think I remember reading that the origins of this film lie in some paper you wrote in school.
Scott Glosserman: I happened to write my senior writing requirement in a Conventions of Horror Film class, and I did a whole explication of “The Shining,” but the initial conception of the movie wasn’t mine. There was an original writer, a guy named David Stieve, who wrote the first iteration of “Behind the Mask.” It just so happened that I received a copy of the script from my manager who knew of my interest in horror, and it was just a very serendipitous confluence of events, because David had already laid out this world that the film takes place in. I guess I was able to infuse some of the academia of horror into it.
CS: Can we assume that you were a pretty big fan of horror beforehand and wanted to make this movie an exercise in exploring the genre?
Glosserman: I was, but I guess no more or less so than I am of cinema in general. As a student of film, I really loved to deconstruct all the genres and horror was one that I didn’t necessarily think had its fair shake yet. It was interesting how classic horror films not only reflected a social consciousness, and parallel what’s going in the world during that time. They do a great job of that, but also the consistent conventions and the archetypes of the slasher genre led me to believe that there was some sort of throughline and there’s something more that was going on beneath a superficial level that most people considered the genre to simply be.
CS: Was doing the film as a documentary part of David’s original script?
Glosserman: The original idea was only a mockumentary, more along the lines of a parody. In the development process, we decided to pay everything off by taking it to a horror film and basically resolving everything and adding a twist. The movie is basically a nostalgic celebration of horror films. The way I see a parody is with parody, you’re laughing at the film and you’re sort of making fun of the genre. This movie attempts to celebrate the genre, and you want to laugh with the film. The initial iterations of the script were very silly in the way that we had poker games with Jason and Freddy and Leatherface comes over for a barbecue. We wanted to create more of a cerebral satire than that, so we toned a lot of that down and created more of the explication that you see today.
CS: You mentioned this tonal switch in the movie where you’re laughing at this comedy and then it becomes this straight horror-thriller. Was that hard to do and how do audiences react to it?
Glosserman: The horror component of the film was really intended to compliment the mockumentary aspect, to be a pay-off for everything that they’ve already planned and discussed. It’s not necessarily supposed to be really scary, and it’s all very self-aware in the horror. Some people have said that it goes into a horror film and they liked the mockumentary better, and some people liked the horror better. The fact is they’re supposed to be a tandem, where the horror is a very self-aware pay-off to the mockumentary. I find that an equal amount of people are laughing with the horror segments as there are people who are actually scared of those segments. It’s by no means supposed to compete with the “Texas Chainsaw” remake and be the pyrotechnics and the scares. All the shot choices and the scenes are supposed to evoke Sean Cunningham and John Carpenter of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Those films I used as templates. Even the horror part is supposed to be nostalgic and fun.
CS: When you were doing the documentary portion, did you set-up shots very carefully or did you try to film it like a documentary, just letting the cameramen shoot the interviews as if they were real TV cameramen?
Glosserman: Actually, when we went into production as a naïve first-time filmmaker, we tried to stick to a set of rules. I had this sort of lofty ideal of being able to develop the two cameramen characters, not through watching them, but through what they chose to watch. I had this very naïve and idealistic notion that for the first time in cinema, I was developing characters through their own points of view, ’cause we never see these characters. I wanted to have Todd, the archetypal jock cameraman, shoot everything very centered and get as much in the frame as he could with no care for the esthetic or the composition of the shot. Whereas the second cameraman Doug, who is the archetypal stoner, artsy hippy guy do more of the “dutched” angled shots and he would choose very interesting compositions. I figured we only have two points of view, and we’ll cut between the two, and of course, when you get to the editing room, all that goes out the window because you’re editing so quickly that nobody’s ever really able to ascertain through whose point of view we’re shooting. We did have very clear rules for how we wanted to shoot those, but we didn’t want people coming back saying that we had omniscient shots in there so we shot the scenes with two takes, one in Doug’s point of view and one in Todd’s point of view, and then we cut between the two for the documentary. This goes into the whole juxtaposition between the docu-world and the set of rules we gave it and the horror world, which we gave an entirely different set of rules. In the docu-world, there was no omniscient music or camera angles or establishing shots. The dialogue was intended to be more realistic and less melodramatic and everybody played their rules very truthfully, although the context created the comedy and the humor, but the acting was very dry and truthful. Then when we got to horror, all of a sudden the camera angles become omniscient and the esthetic becomes rich and the film looks like a horror film. There’s music and the dialogue and acting are very stilted and melodramatic. That was a lot of fun creating the contrast.
CS: Wow, that’s already WAY more cerebral than I could ever have imagined. I was just curious whether either of the actors playing cameramen actually shot anything.
Glosserman: I was very comforted because I read a Woody Allen interview later on where he still says that 90% of the stuff he tries to do sort of flies out the window, but when you start out with such a specific set of rules and a very clear vision, you can articulate that to all the cast and the crew, at the end of the day, if you’re not able to execute on it all, but what you will get, the end product hopefully will reflect that passion and the vision you set out with, even if it wasn’t specifically what you got. I think when you’re watching the movie, what really shines through is the fact that we all truly loved and enjoyed what we were doing and not whether or not we were successful at executing on any one particularly thing extraordinarily well.
CS: I’m sure a lot of people might disagree. You were talking about the nostalgic aspect of the film and you can’t get more nostalgic than casting the likes of Robert Englund and Zelma Rubinstein in your movie. How did you get them on board?
Glosserman: We were thinking about Robert Englund from the get-go. Again, to tone down the silliness and the parody and really create the type of tone we wanted to, to have Robert Englund play the retired psycho-slasher is not very clever and to me, it wasn’t interesting. I found out later on, Robert told me that he responded to the fact that we asked him to go against type. You can tell right away that this wasn’t necessarily an exploitation of him, these were some smart kids that were trying to celebrate the genre and do something for the horror fans. It was getting the script to Robert Englund that was the trick. I’ve now after the fact learned that once he read the script, he responded to it very favorably and we were negotiating within days to get him up there. What I did was that I wanted to put my best foot forward and get hit to him in a very professional way at the highest level I could, so I brought on some executive producers, a family friend mentor director/producer who I asked to come on board and grandfather the project in a way. I paid him a small fee and gave him a piece of the movie, but in turn, I now had someone with street cred and enough cachet to deliver the script to Robert Englund’s agency at a much higher level than I could have, and that really paid off in retrospect.
As far as Zelda Rubinstein, that was my casting director just tracked her down and we got her the script. It was a very small cameo, just a couple lines, but when she accepted the role, we went back to the drawing board and wrote pages and pages of long-winded expositional dialogue, which in itself is sort of a joke that you got the harbinger of doom just droning on and on in expository dialogue. That kind of itself was funny, I thought, so that’s why we kept that scene so long.
Scott Wilson, we had a mutual friend and I called him from Portland and I begged him to come up for a couple days. He was skeptical but he read the script and really responded to what we were doing, so that was very fortunate to get him, too.
CS: Ironically, Scott also has a cameo in the Korean monster film “The Host” so this might be his year as a genre actor.
Glosserman: I know. He’s a renaissance horror character actor. He told me that he was the first American to be cast in a Korean film.
CS: Will there be a lot more with them on the DVD that maybe got cut out to keep the movie going?
Glosserman: We kept all but one horror scene in and we didn’t have these actors very long. We had Robert for a week and we had Zelda for one night and Scott Wilson for two days. I used basically every single thing we shot, but that’s not to say that we don’t have tons and tons of stuff for the DVD, which I’m really excited about.
CS: Even more amazing than them is Nathan Baesal, who plays Leslie, who’s really an amazing find. Was he already doing TV stuff when you cast him?
Glosserman: No, that is the greatest fortune we had, was finding Nathan. My casting directors brought Nathan in. They had cast him in a couple of five line and under guest star spots on “Cold Case.” He had just come out of Julliard and he was doing an extensive amount of theatre in Southern California, specifically at the South Coast Rep Theatre in Orange County. He came in and he just ripped it. He was unbelievable. A lot of great actors came in and had really strong takes on the role, but then as I started working with them and presenting them different choices for them and taking them into different directions, Nathan was so adept at being able to turn on a dime and really taking any direction I dished at him. In addition to that, he brought his own sensibility to the role. He really caused me to think about the role in such different ways. Not only is he an unbelievably gifted actor, he’s also really really smart. I’ve had many conversations with directors and producers and actors in the past and people tend to think you want an unintelligent drone actor, because if the actor’s thinking too much, he’s not directable, because they have their opinions. I just couldn’t disagree more. A guy like Nathan is so smart that he’s really able to make great, great choices and he’s really able to challenge me as a director and I’m able to challenge him as an actor. That’s something I really appreciate. I guess you have to have intelligence but humility as well and that’s what he’s got.
CS: He’s not really built like a normal Jason or Michael Myers either, and I wondered if that was ever an issue.
Glosserman: That’s the whole irony. The difference between a parody, where you’re really providing characterizations of everything that we know about a particular genre, and satire is that [in the latter] you want to be subtle and dry with your humor. Nathan, who comes out of Julliard, who can kill the dramatic fare that you can present him, he’s not treating the aspiring psycho-slasher role with any less reverence than anyone who’s playing a real estate icon in some blockbuster movie. When he gets to a scene where he has to cry or be very serious, he’s probably transferring some emotion onto that role that he would do in any other movie or play. The humor just comes out of the ridiculous context in which it takes place. But finding an actor who understands my aim, which was not to ham up the humor, not to sitcom out, just to be really dry and let the humor on the page really resonate, that’s what I got with Nathan. Of course, when all the actors went to the horror world, they were able to really step it up and act very melodramatically and that was completely fine.
One little button that I’ll put on Nathan is that this movie is chock-full of both really obvious and really subtle homages to all these great horror films we all know and love, one of which is the “Introducing Nathan Baesal” credit at the beginning of the film. Wes Craven gave Johnny Depp the “Introducing Johnny Depp” credit on “Nightmare on Elm Street” so I figured I could shoot two birds with one stone by paying homage to that but also taking the credit for discovering Nathan.
CS: There you go. Now I don’t want to spoil the movie’s surprises but can you talk about the relationship between Leslie and the documentary producer Taylor? There’s obviously the whole filmmaker-subject relationship but it sort of mirrors the relationship Leslie has with his victims in some way.
Glosserman: Initially, during the development of the script and going into production, we wanted to focus our social commentary angle on that relationship, between journalist as objective bystander versus a real concerned citizen with humanity. Where is the threshold that you put the camera down and actually do something. The original iterations even when we went into production, there was a much different ending, but what was really special about this film wasn’t necessarily to take it into that serious of a direction. It was really just to celebrate the genre and to have a lot of fun with it, which ultimately, through editorial, I decided to do. Yes, that was there and we intended to present that question, but a lot of that was left on the editing floor.
CS: There’s also somewhat of a set-up for a sequel. Is that something you’d be interested in doing or does that become too much of self-satire? (Note: This next response may be a bit of a spoiler.)
Glosserman: There were many of things I wanted to do with that ending. I just wanted to bookmark the movie in the docu-world, to give you a taste of the video again as opposed to ending it in film, and to also adhere to the conventions of horror. The psycho-slasher’s never really dead, is he? Whether or not there’s a sequel, you have to have certain requirements in a horror film and one is to make sure the audience knows that the psycho-slasher didn’t die. There are myriad ways to go with sequels. One is Leslie Vernon’s very own horror franchise, but another is to do a deconstruction of a horror sequel. Another is to just really come up with something fresh and interesting for another, I wouldn’t call it a sequel, but iteration of this type of film. I’m also working with a writer and we’re exploring ways in which we can adapt the script to stage it as a theatrical stageplay. So much of the film is dialogue, and virtually every single scene we had to cut down. Individually the scenes were strong but in context of the whole movie and for pacing reasons, virtually had to be significantly cut. But on stage, where dialogue is king, it can really deliver all that there was in the script. You don’t see much horror on stage.
CS: Well, if they can do “Evil Dead” as a musical, they can do anything.
Glosserman: Did you see that?
CS: No. Nothing scares me much, but that really scares me. To wrap this up, do you have any aspirations to do a straight horror film if someone sees this and wants you to direct one?
Glosserman: Sure, I’m interested in all genres of cinema. They all appeal to me. I want to make movies in every genre at every budget level, and I’ll be thrilled to have an opportunity to make another one regardless of what genre. But I’m actually writing with my writing partner a horror-thriller which I can’t really say anything about it, except that it’s a convergence of “Straw Dogs,” “The Shining” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” With a little bit of “Badlands” toosed in. I think horror fans will be excited about it.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon opens in select cities on Friday, March 16.