The Signal director on his MTV movie
While a somewhat familiar premise, this contemporary homage to the early ’80s slashers comes courtesy of director Jacob Gentry who helmed the middle portion of The Signal. And believe it or not, much like the movies it was inspired by, this slasher happens to be a lot of fun!
Shock Till You Drop got a chance to talk to the director about everything from the making of the project, sticking to the classic ’80s formula, orchestrating the kills and creating a cool, new masked killer.
Robg.: My Super Psycho Sweet 16 is a lot of fun, it’s a great homage to the 80’s slasher era of horror. Were these things that appealed to you when you read the script? How’d this all come together?
Jacob Gentry: Originally, MTV came to us with the idea of doing a horror movie based on this reality show. I was resistant and thought it was a terrible idea, but then I saw the show, My Super Sweet 16 and realized it was perfect for a horror movie. There’s not anyone that would watch that show and simultaneously be envious of those girls and want them to die. [Laughs] Even young girls that watch the show, they want to be those girls but they also hate them. And I think any good horror movie has good social satire and some central metaphor that relates to its audience. The fun factor came into it when we were developing it and I worked with the writers, Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas. Scott Thomas is a huge horror fan. It’s his favorite genre. I got really interested in the idea of following the formula of the slasher film. We didn’t want to re-invent the wheel. I’ve read enough reviews about horror movies that essentially you want to add your own sort of flavor to it, but you don’t want to veer too much, because I think that’s what makes the ones that work work is when they celebrate the formula. The best ones that I’ve seen are from the 80’s. I’d dug a little deeper for this. I really wanted to make sure I understood the form of what we were doing. So you go back to the original Prom Night and Terror Train and Happy Birthday To Me and those sort of films, and I looked at the ties that bound those films. These movies are fun, but they don’t make fun of the genre. The goal was to not do anything that spoofed or parodied or camped up the slasher movie, but to be true to it and take it seriously. There was a lot of comedy in the script and some over the top fun stuff in there, but we decided to play it for real and let that humor come through on its own. We tried to strike that balance.
Robg.: You took the killer seriously, and the characters were fun because that’s how they would treat each other. The killer and the kills were dead serious though and that’s the formula that’s always worked for the 80’s slasher moviesâ¦
Jacob: What I liked about this movie is it’s not just an 80’s homage to slasher movies, but it’s also an homage to John Hughes movies and Cameron Crowe movies. Essentially if you watch the movie, it’s almost like you’re watching this John Hughes movie that gets invaded or attacked by a John Carpenter movie! [Laughs] At a certain point, you can take the killer completely out of the movie and still have and interesting, engaging story. It’s just the killer comes in and becomes an additional threat on top of the basic teenage stuff. It’s also really fun when you go back to the idea of this spoiled girl having a sweet 16 at a roller rink. OK, this dad is enabling his daughter to get whatever the hell she wants and turning her into a monster. And then you have this other dad who’s the killer and trying to turn his daughter into a monster as a psycho killer. And then you make the audience decide which one is worse! You know what I mean? 9 times out of 10, people will say âwell the spoiled daughter is way worse then the daughter of the psycho!â [Laughs] The bad guy of the movie is probably the spoiled girl and her father as opposed to the psycho killer.
Robg.: I wanted to talk a bit about the music, because obviously this is an MTV production. You had a lot of music in this movie! How much freedom did you have in terms of using things that you wanted to? Did you have a library to choose from that MTV had access to?
Jacob: The suggestions from MTV came in the form that they gave us 7000 choices, songs that they had the rights to. I culled through those and a lot of it was stuff I’d already known. I went through them all and found the sound of the movie, a good bulk of it. That was about a third of it. The other third was finding artists that I already had relationships with that were in that same vein. Once we finished the movie, the last third was us temping in some âhitâ songs that we didn’t think we’d be able to get the rights to, but MTV liked the movie so much they went out and got those songs. I’m driven storytelling wise a lot by music. When it came to the score, I worked with Ben Lovett whom I did The Signal with. Ben and I went on a completely different direction then on The Signal. He knew a lot of the moments would be filled with these songs and he’d have to come in to supply the parts with the tension, horror and suspense. He was there to create this entire other sound, which is why he used strings and horns and things like that. I used a little of Pino Donaggio’s Carrie score as temp, and he found his own voice that was similar to that. We listened to a lot of Brian De Palma stuff and he did a great job doing homage to that.
Robg.: While this is debuting on MTV, you went into this knowing there’d be a unrated director’s cut on DVD eventually, right?
Jacob: Yeah, that was on the table and it’s surprising how much we got in there. The director’s cut will have a few key scenes we cut that were too intense, but it’s not that dramatically different. I think it’s because for me the kills for this kind of slasher film â look, it’s not Martyrs or a Saw movie. You’re not making an extremely gory movie. I get really excited about new and exciting ways to scare people and that doesn’t necessarily mean gore as a pay off. Sometimes it does, so with each kill you try to do a different scare. The audience will get desensitized to it half way through the movie if every time it’s the same way. For me, the build up to the kill is just as important. The mistake in a lot of these recent slasher movies is they focus more on how the people actually get offed as opposed to the build up to it. The foreplay is just as important if not more important then the orgasm. That was a fun challenge. It wasn’t any more or less gory then The Signal.
Robg.: There were nasty kills though!
Jacob: I think people are going to be surprised with some of the stuff they see on television, just by the inference of what it is. Sometimes I think the impact of something can be more gruesome the less you see.
Robg.: There’s one kill in the bathroom where the girl is getting hit by the fire hydrant and you see the door open a crack and the killer swinging away and the blood underneath the door, it came across really brutal! That’s an effective kill the way you show it.
Jacob: Yep, and that scene is staying completely in tact.
Jacob: Yeah. And to me, that one you mentioned is a pretty brutal one. It’s funny, it’s kind of a self reflecting homage to The Signal, but I swear I didn’t actually write that! When the writers came to me with that idea, I thought oh man, everyone’s going to think I did that on purpose! [Laughs]
Robg.: Besides Ben Lovett reprising his role as composer, it was great to see both Justin Welborn and Chad McKnight from The Signal in the movie!
Jacob: Chad McKnight has now been in all three of my feature films and every time I always have him play a small yet important role where he’s in a sexually awkward or compromising position. [Laughs] It’s always a sexually dysfunctional character. In our first movie Last Goodbye, he had a small penis. In The Signal, he was essentially a virgin who was sex obsessed. In this one he’s a pederast. I told Chad I’m going to continue to put him in small, yet memorable roles in my movies where he always has some kind of sexual dysfunction. As far as Justin (Welborn) goes, he’s actually part of the stunt team I use. So it’s really funny to have him because just like any actor, he’s self obsessed and confident, yet he’ll come out and be an extra with his face covered. He actually is in the movie in 4 or 5 different parts. For someone who’s the handsome lead of The Signal, it was fun to have him be an angry cop. He was in the killer’s costume at one point. There is a scene where he plays the killer and did a stunt that way. He was one of the roller skating kids at the party and did a stunt there. He’s really got a lot of humility and he’s a work horse in that way and I respect him for that. For someone who’s as talented as he is and is a staple of these horror movies, it was really nice to get him come out and have fun for a couple of days.
Robg.: How difficult was it casting your spoiled Madison (Julianna Guill) and the outcast Skye (Lauren McKnight)?
Jacob: As far as the two leads, we cast them in LA. I saw over 100 girls and both Lauren and Julianna, I just knew when they walked in the door. Lauren was like the fifth girl to audition for Skye and Julianna was the 80th girl to audition for Madison. In both cases, it wasn’t a question of seeing everyone to find the right person, I really didn’t have a second choice. They both came in and were perfect. It was such a wonderful working experience because both those girls are really smart and really talented. They’re really good at taking intellectual direction and turning it into an original moment. They always knew where they were in the story and they never messed up. It was half way through the shoot when I realized that neither one of them had flubbed a line or messed up once. If anything, they always brought a little something extra.
Robg.: Lastly, I just wanted to talk about getting the right look for the killer?
Jacob: Well, the writers came up with the idea of the âLord of the Rinkâ and that led me to push them to develop the idea that the roller skating rink was a mid-evil times roller skating rink. I thought if it was a mid-evil times rink, it would justify him having all these weapons. I worked with this artist named John Tyler Christopher who is a graphic illustrator and we labored over the mask and researched masks from all of slasher movie history, just to find the right thing. We wanted to create it from scratch. I knew that I wanted it to start out as a normal plastic mask, something you could buy in a chain roller skating rink. And after he wears it for 10 years, it begins to look run-down. There’s something about seeing someone in a translucent mask that’s really terrifying to me. Alice Sweet Alice is the mask that probably struck me the hardest. For ours, we took the mouth off the plastic mask. I love the idea of having a smiley face (on the mask) while having a frowning mouth. It came out of the name of the character, the idea of it being a mid-evil themed place and then it made all the weapons justifiable. We didn’t want him to have a toolbox full of weapons, because we’d seen that a million times before, so we thought let him have a ball & chain or a jousting stick or a sword. That became a fun way to justify his choice of weapons because he’s lost in this character that he had to play for children’s birthday parties and he just sort of stayed in it after becoming a killer. There’s something very Fisher King about that. [Laughs]
Robg.: Would you consider doing a sequel to this, should there be the interest?
Jacob: I’d be interested if the material was good and if the story was really cool. As long as the story paid off fans of the first movie. I feel like it’s a very satisfying ending but it also leaves a lot open for sequel potential. It goes really dark. If we could go really dark with it, while still retaining the fun aspect of the first one, I’d think about it. If it’s just a whole different set of people in the same circumstances, then I’m not interested in that, but if it was continuing the storyline, that’d be cool.
My Super Psycho Sweet 16premieres October 23rd at 10pm ET/PT on MTV.