Keeyes, Jon (American Nightmare)
The name Jon Keeyes may not inspire instant recognition in some people, but anyone who follows the independent horror scene closely enough should know of American Nightmare, his first foray into our beloved genre that got him a lot of attention because of its unique take on the slasher genre.
Now Jon is back with a new film born from that twisted mind of his about a couple who are having a terrible night in terms of their relationship and who also happen to be serial killers. The film was originally called Blood and Roses, but EI Cinema asked him to change the name to Suburban Nightmare, making it almost seem like a sequel to Jon’s first. Rest assured this strange, intelligent slice of horror cinema is worlds apart from American Nightmare.
Jon recently agreed to an ongoing e-mail interview with me to help get the word out and to make sure the world knows that some covers are misleading. The results follow:
Johnny Butane: What made you realize you wanted to be a director?
Jon Keeyes: My mom likes to say that I've always wanted to be a director. I grew up in Los Angeles surrounded by a family of movie fanatics. My grandfather was a bit actor during the 30's, so my family watched all the black and whites, and I was hooked from the moment I started watching movies. In the 70's there was this television station in LA that ran old movies all day long, and I would pretend to be sick so I could stay home from school and watch them. I can always remember wanting to write movies, but I think, especially as a kid, that I had writing and directing grouped together in my head. I always knew I wanted to tell stories through film.
JB: Did you go to college to learn how to, or did you decide to just do it and learn as you go?
JK: I was a later bloomer to making movies. At 27 I became an entertainment journalist and began learning the movie industry through covering productions. At 29 I decided to make my first movie and spent a year studying incessantly. I read every book I could get my hands on, talked with every actor or director I had become friends with, and reviewed every interview I had ever done with filmmakers. So I basically put myself through the “Guerilla School of Filmmaking” and have continued to learn as I go ever since.
JB: So how old were you when you made American Nightmare?
JK: I was thirty when we began production on American Nightmare.
JB: Where did the idea come from?
JK: The original idea for American Nightmare began as two entirely different scripts. I had always loved the movie Pump Up the Volume and was intrigued by pirate radio, so I was working on a script about a pirate radio DJ. At the same time I was working on a horror script about a woman who was delivering people's greatest fears upon them. It was, in part, an homage to my favorite slasher flicks of the 70's like Halloween and Friday the 13th. Ultimately, I didn't think either script was particularly unique or strong. One night I realized that if I merged the two scripts together, it could make a fairly original and refreshing movie while still working within what I believed genre fans liked. The final script went through a good half a dozen incarnations, but the foundation began from those two different screenplays.
JB: What would you say your major influences were for American Nightmare in terms of the look and pace of the film?
JK: I have been influenced in my life by Alfred Hitchcock, John Carpenter, Brian DePalma, and others, though I don't know how specifically I thought of them in turns of influencing the look and pace. I knew for myself that I was tired of MTV style horror movies. Current horror movies have gotten so far away from what I consider to be frightening that they have become spectacles. I wanted to take things back to basics, slow down, spend some time with the story. I believe audiences will get much more spooked by a horror movie when it lingers and takes its time to invite you in. Our world isn't made up of fast, musically driven edits, so how is an audience supposed to identify with that? When you create a world that the audience can identify with, they can then identify with the horror, and that scares them . . . and that's what I wanted for American Nightmare.
In terms of lighting, I have an aversion to flat lighting unless that's exactly what the story requires. My number one requirement when I was choosing a Director of Photography was that I wanted hard shadows, black corners, and I didn't want anyone to be afraid to let a character walk into the dark. Being afraid of the dark is what horror is about. Horror is about what you can't see. How are we supposed to scare an audience if they can see everything? I remember watching John Carpenter's The Fog, and there was a brilliant scene in the movie where you can't see a damn thing for five minutes, but you're on the edge of the seat waiting for the scare. That's horror, and that's what I wanted. I also wanted to stylize the two worlds of the protagonists and the killer just enough to give a little kick to the visual storytelling. We decided to make the killer's world a cold, dark, icy blue just like she was. Of course, the world of the friends is golden and alive. I love that the killer would literally pull the characters into her cold world and that the overall tone of the movie changed as Jane Toppan exerted more and more power and influence over the friends.
JB: I have to say it was a pretty impressive debut; were you happy with the way it turned out?
JK: American Nightmare was a roller coaster ride for me. Right off the bat, I was incredibly happy with the way it turned out. I mean, I went out to make a movie with no experience and I did it. For me, regardless of anything else, that makes me happy. But after I watched it a few hundred times during editing, I began to nitpick the movie. I could find every continuity error, flub, problem area, poor acting, etc. It drove me nuts and really bummed me out. Of course, the movie came out and was well received so the roller coaster ride went back up. It came out three years ago, and I still get e-mails from people seeing it for the first time and loving it. And that makes me very happy and very proud. I just watched it recently for the first time since we finished it, and it held up. It's been so long since I've watched it that I didn't notice all the little problems like before, so I was able to enjoy it and feel happy about the movie.
JB: How long did it take American Nightmare to get distro?
JK: Having read about or written about so many failed attempts to get distribution, I was prepared to go the long haul. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait. We finished postproduction in March of 2000, and I had two offers for distribution within four weeks. It became one of those really weird scenarios where I felt lucky to have gotten two offers but also wondered what else might come in since they happened so fast. I decided to gamble and hoped for other offers that might provide a greater distribution chain. I ultimately got ten offers over the eight weeks following completion. From the day we started production until the day we got distribution was nine months. We were also able to get a foreign sales agent within a few weeks of that so I'm pretty damn grateful about how it all turned out.
JB: Wow, that's great! Ultimately did the film do better or worse than you expected on DVD?
JK: Because I was approaching American Nightmare with little background in distribution, I really wasn't sure what to expect. For myself, doing well on DVD meant getting the movie out there and seen by people. American Nightmare didn't get into the corporate Blockbusters, which was disappointing, but it did find its fan base and got seen. We also had a significant run on pay-per-view that helped. So, in terms of getting seen and getting my name out there, it did very well. Financially, we have done well enough to be happy.
JB: You bring up a question I’ve always had for indie filmmakers; what do you do between films in terms of employment?
JK: When I made American Nightmare I was working as an entertainment journalist. I continued doing that in between movies up until the beginning of 2003. At that time I started working as a 1st AD on a movie and then went immediately to work directing Dangerous to Know. Once that was done filming, I was basically making a living off of returns from American Nightmare and Hallow’s End and then doing commercial work and line producing to supplement the income. So, basically, I do whatever movie work I can find in between directing movies.
JB: Well, that’s good. At least you weren’t stuck in a stuffy office job or anything.
So what came after American Nightmare?
JK: After American Nightmare things began to move pretty fast. Debbie Rochon contacted me and wanted to find out if I was interested in writing and producing a movie with her for El Cinema. So we started writing what would ultimately be called Suburban Nightmare. At the same time I also started working on Hallow's End, a movie for ThinkFilm and Horizon Motion Pictures from a script by Chris Burdick. Both movies were shot back-to-back between October 2002 and January 2003. We then posted both movies at the same time. Needless to say, I needed a good long nap at the end of January. Hallow's End was released in North American in October 2003, and Suburban Nightmare is just getting released.
JB: Before we move on to Suburban, what can you tell us about Hallow’s End?
JK: Hallow's End is about a group of college kids putting on a Halloween house for charity. On Halloween night someone reads from an old magic book, and the Halloween house comes to life and turns everyone into his or her costumes. It was a fun idea, and in some ways I think the movie is just that – fun. However, I think it was definitely an exploration of learning about audience likes and dislikes. There is a tremendous amount of time spent on the characters and the setup, and I think a lot of people had trouble with that.
It was also my first experience where a group of people had a say over the movie. A lot of my control as a director was taken away, and that was a hard lesson to learn. Ultimately, the person who gets judged the most on a film's outcome is the director, and I learned the hard way that I really have to be okay with certain decisions as I will be the one who gets the lashing from audiences. I have found that horror fans can be pretty harsh about what they like and don't like, and if I'm going to get blamed for something bad, I want it to truly be my blame. The nice side has been that a lot of people who tend to watch more mainstream movies thought Hallow's End was fun and they enjoyed it. So that's a cool reward in the end.
JB: A lesson learned -- I guess that’s what it’s all about, right?
So where did Suburban Nightmare come from?
JK: Suburban Nightmare happened because of a phone call from Debbie Rochon. She had been talking with El Cinema about her and me putting a movie together for them, and they agreed. They gave us the specifics of the budget, and we decided we needed to craft a script that we could shoot fast in limited locations but not harm the movie. In a sense we wanted to maximize a script to take advantage of not having much of a budget. And ultimately, Debbie mentioned The War of the Roses and wondered what it would have been like if the husband and wife had been serial killers. And the entire story spun itself out of that one idea.
Once the story was down, I drew a lot upon relationships I had experienced or that I was familiar with as well as polling lots of couples about problems in their relationships. It was important to me to treat the characters like real people with real problems. For example, Charles and Deborah are arguing at the dinner table about whose turn it is to do something. I think just about every person in a relationship has had that argument at one time or another -- "it's my turn" "no, it's my turn." The thing that sets them apart is that they are arguing over two dead bodies about whose turn it was to murder. I liked the idea of creating a movie about relationship problems that was exaggerated by the fact that they were killers.
JB: What kind of casting process did you go through? I can imagine it was pretty important to make sure you had some solid leads.
JK: Surprisingly, we really didn't go through any sort of casting process. Originally Debbie was going to star in the movie so I was trying to find the right Charles. I saw this short film in which Debbie and Trent Haaga did a cameo as this hilariously insane couple, and I thought Trent would be wonderful. I loved his comedic stuff, and I'm a firm believer that good comedy actors also make good dramatic actors. So we talked to Trent, and he came onboard. The rest of the original cast members were American Nightmare alumni. The daughter, Becky, in American Nightmare was played by Hayden Tweedie, one of the most talented young actors I have ever encountered, so I knew I had to bring her back for Suburban Nightmare. Kris, the Pet, is Kimberly Grant, Jessie's sister who dies at the beginning of American Nightmare. And the Simmons couple originally was Robert McCollum and Brandy Little. Even Candy, the Hooker, was the Fire Goddess that Robert McCollum hallucinates on during the party sequence of American Nightmare. So I pretty much cast from people I had already worked with. However, there was an eleventh hour conflict, and Debbie had to pull out of the movie. We agreed that Brandy had the talent to pull off Deborah, so she took over the role at the last minute, and we brought her friend Farah White in to take over as Mrs. Simmons.
JB: Did EI give you a time frame in which you had to make the movie?
JK: There was an open communication with them regarding the time frame for the movie. Because the budget was so tight, I wanted to create a movie that we could shoot out in about nine days. That's one of the primary reasons Debbie and I wrote the story to take place entirely in one house and in one night. It helped in keeping production moving fast and getting the most out of each day. I was originally supposed to deliver the completed movie to El during the spring of 2003, but there were apparently some delays in getting their revamped Shock-O-Rama label off the ground so they gave me additional time to tweak and play with it, including doing additional featurettes for the DVD. From there they decided to release Screaming Dead as their first movie under the Shock-O-Rama label, which then bumped our release date to June 2004. It can be a little frustrating waiting so long to see your movie get released, but once the day comes, it’s well worth it.
JB: With that short of a time frame I can imagine you had to assemble a pretty tight crew. Had you worked with most of them before?
JK: Yes, it was really like an American Nightmare reunion. It was pretty much that entire crew along with a few people we have met along the way. We had an average daily crew of thirty, and we were definitely tight and definitely there because we loved making movies. Surprisingly, the production went smooth. The days weren't excessively long, tensions were low, and we had a really good time. Our only hiccup was a neighbor down the street that decided she didn't want a movie being shot on her street regardless if we were there legally or not. She managed to cause more havoc and mayhem than any person I've ever seen. The local police had to do hourly patrols just to get her to stop calling. When that didn't work, she called the Mayor’s office, and we ended up being shut down for about half a day when we got hit by the Fire Marshall, City Code Enforcement, Vice Squad, and anyone else she could call. Ultimately the only thing that happened was she got a ticket for her illegally parked truck. But she did cause a lot of problems, and I think it was because our crew was so tight that even with the delays she created, we were able to stay on schedule and didn't have to compromise anything.
JB: Did anyone ever figure out what, exactly, her issue was with having a movie filmed on her block?
JK: No one could ever figure it out. She refused to talk to us and wouldn't tell the police anything beyond, "I don't want them in my neighborhood." Some of her neighbors told us she's one of those unhappy people that needs to make everyone else's life miserable.
JB: Takes all kinds. Any other strange/cool stories from the set?
JK: The nosey neighbor was the most interesting. Overall, the production went smooth, which usually makes for a lack of really interesting stories. I did get to do one thing that was special for me. As I mentioned, eleven-year-old Hayden Tweedie is a young actor that I find incredibly talented. I used her in American Nightmare, Suburban Nightmare, and a movie in postproduction called Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know. In some cases, I insist that Hayden can go toe-to-toe with any adult actor. One day at lunch Hayden shared with me that besides acting, she wants to write and direct one day. So later that day I gave Hayden her opportunity to direct. She handled one entire scene herself and did amazingly well. One of the featurettes on the DVD has some behind the scenes footage of this.
JB: Just out of curiosity, why did EI ask you to change the title from Blood & Roses to Suburban Nightmare?
JK: They just felt that Blood & Roses wasn't a marketable enough name. They wanted something that they felt their fan base and horror fans might resonate more to. For a while the movie's name changed to Slice of Life and eventually Suburban Nightmare.
JB: So you mentioned you already have another film in post. What's that one about?
JK: It's called Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know. It's about a young man who tries to rebuild his life when he gets out of prison. Unfortunately, in trying to help his sister out, he falls back into crime. It was my first foray into non-horror. I was originally hired onto the production as the line producer, but when their director had to step out during preproduction, the producers asked if I would step in. It was very interesting tackling my first dramatic film. I got to try a whole new style of filmmaking from what I had done before. We used a lot of steadicam, and I chose to do non-linear narrative. The movie has a feeling similar to Steven Soderbergh's The Limey. Lots of moments of silence, hearing dialogue but only seeing reactions on the speaker's face . . . it was a lot of fun. Because of the approach I took with it, it is definitely a more cinematic movie. I'll be curious to see how people respond to it. We are hoping postproduction will get wrapped this summer so the producers can start submitting it to festivals while shopping it to distributors.
JB: Now that you've made the transition, do you think you'll try more non-horror stuff down the road?
JK: I get asked that question a lot. I've never really considered myself a horror movie director. I've always thought of myself as a storyteller who just happens to have told a lot of horror stories. I could make an entire career out of doing horror and be completely satisfied; however, I would love the chance to make movies of all genres. I have eight screenplays circulating right now, and three of them are not horror. I've also had several companies approach me about directing movies for them, and about half of those aren't horror. So we'll see what happens. I'm attracted to stories that get me excited and make my imagination go wild, and horror seems to be what gets that more often than not.
JB: So is there anything that you know you're moving onto next, or are you just waiting to see what falls first? Any chance of working with EI again?
JK: I am juggling a variety of projects right now. Several of my scripts are in varying degrees of development, and I've also had offers from a few companies to direct movies that they are producing. Of course it always boils back down to financing. It's going to come down to which project becomes fully funded first. Hopefully I'll be in production again this summer.
As for EI Cinema, we have been bouncing e-mails back and forth and discussing different possibilities of doing another movie together. It's funny, at 8:00 in the morning I'm talking with a company in New York about a fifty thousand dollar movie, and at 3:00 in the afternoon I'm talking with a producer in Los Angeles about a five million dollar movie. Goes to show how crazy this business can be.
JB: Any dream projects that you would kill to direct?
JK: One of my problems is that I get so passionate and excited about a project, or the idea of a project, that this answer could change from day to day. One day I would say it would be one of my own scripts. Other days it could be a concept I heard about or the idea of remaking some old and obscure black and white movie. However, there is one movie that has always been with me that I would desperately love to make though it would require a rather large budget. It's the Irish tale of the Battle of Mag Tured. It is an epic tale in Irish mythology about a war between the Gods of Ireland. It's never been made and is the greatest of all the stories I have ever wanted to tell.
JB: That certainly sounds different!
Well, Jon, thanks for all of your time and for getting back to me so quickly. Any parting advice for kids wanting to get into indie filmmaking?
JK: I read an interview once with David Cronenberg about his early years, and he said something that I've never forgotten. He spent many years as a struggling filmmaker before making it big, and he said those were the roughest years of his life. Every morning he would wake up depressed and struggle . . . claw . . . his way through the day refusing to give up. And after years of doing this, he finally made it. I have never forgotten that, and when things get tough or overwhelming, I remember what Cronenberg said. So my advice would be that whenever things get tough, don't give up no matter what.
Big thanks to Jon for taking the time out to chat with us and for being so quick about his responses! Suburban Nightmare is out now, as are his first two flicks. I recommend giving them a look; it’s not the usual indie fare you might be used to.
And make sure you visit Highland Myst for all the latest news from Jon’s team!