Indie Horror Month: Justin Russell Talks The Sleeper, Eighties Slashers and More

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For his second feature up-and-coming writer/director Justin Russell revisits the genre he loves the most, 80’s slasher flicks, and since the recent release of The Sleeper on DVD and VHS, we here at Dread Central have fallen head over heels with Russell’s work and all its cheesy goodness.

The Sleeper (review here) travels back to the year 1981 and follows the sorority girls of Alpha Gamma Theta, who are hosting a party for new pledges. As the new pledges arrive, so does an uninvited guest, and little do the sisters know that someone is watching their every move from the shadows. As the girls shower, study, eat and bump uglies with their boyfriends, the ‘Sleeper’ studies them and soon, one by one, finds the girls at their most vulnerable and murders them. Can the ‘Sleeper’ be stopped before there’s no sorority left to pledge?

In honor of Indie Horror Month, we recently caught up with Russell to hear more about the inspiration behind The Sleeper, his experiences working on the flick as well as more on the potential for a sequel to The Sleeper. Read on for our interview with Russell, and look for a special announcement regarding the slasher film coming soon to Dread Central.

Dread Central: I’d love to hear more about what got you into filmmaking and your career before The Sleeper.

Justin Russell: Well, when I was 12, I got a video camera and started making all sorts of movies with my friends. I went to school, and after that I got a job at a production studio where we worked on corporate type stuff. My boss was pretty cool because he’d let me use the studio’s equipment so I could make my own projects still. That’s how I made Death Stop Holocaust. It’s definitely got its own style, and so while I was waiting on getting distribution for that, I knew I needed to get something else going, which ended up being The Sleeper.

DC: Where did the inspiration come from for The Sleeper? It feels like so many movies we grew up watching in the 80’s.

Russell: That’s definitely the feel I was going for actually! The Sleeper was born from my strong love of the horror genre as well as my lifelong love for American slasher films of the 80’s. I grew up going to the video store on the weekends, looking at all the old boxes and artwork. I was too young to rent the movies I saw, but my older brother always collected these films, which gave me access to a few of the classics, and slashers were always my favorite.

I love the feeling and atmosphere that those early slashers had, so I tried to emulate that feeling for ‘The Sleeper.’ If you listen to my commentary on the DVD, you get an inside look at the films that really inspired me to make ‘The Sleeper.’ A short list of my favorites and the ones that I really paid attention to in my homage are: Prom Night, Girls Nite Out, Pieces, Slumber Party Massacre, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine and Tenebre. 

I knew I wanted to do it on my own so it had to be simple to produce and building it around my own hometown- which had a nice aged feel to it already-so I pretty much went into The Sleeper with the knowledge that this was a project I could definitely make and make it successfully.

Both of my movies are slasher movies, but their tones are completely different. The first is more of this dream state kind of slasher story that’s woven into nightmares, so to speak. You definitely always have to think of your budget and write towards that number. We definitely had more of a budget on The Sleeper, but because of the costs associated with making an 80’s style movie, the budgets sort of balanced out to be about the same on each project.

DC: Doing a period piece indie horror film is pretty ambitious. Was the cost of doing that a concern at all going into The Sleeper?

Russell: Yeah, that was definitely a huge consideration too – making a movie set in the 1980’s – because you had to do a lot of set dressing and wardrobe purchases that you wouldn’t necessarily have to make if you stick with modern times. But because I love 80’s slashers, I knew I couldn’t do a modern movie and that the nostalgia aspect of The Sleeper was going to be a huge part of making the story work, and so I shopped everywhere I could for vintage stuff and then found the rest on eBay. Had we not gotten the art direction right, it could have ruined everything on The Sleeper and it was definitely one of the biggest parts of our budget, but I really lucked out by all the clothes and stuff for not a lot of money. Or at least not as much as you’d think.

DC: You used a lot of different locations, too, in The Sleeper when a lot of indie films generally utilize just a handful because of budget concerns. How on earth did you pull this all off?

Russell: For me, the one thing I think that can sink an independent film is if you don’t keep things moving and keep characters moving, too; I can get bored when writing scripts if I haven’t kept the characters moving forward for a few pages so while we did have a lot of locations for The Sleeper – more than you probably should have on an indie budget – most of them I already knew when I was writing the story so having to shoot and plan for so many different places wasn’t a huge challenge really.

DC: So what would you say was the biggest challenge then making this movie? How did you go into The Sleeper prepared for those challenges?

Russell: The biggest struggle with The Sleeper actually was putting together an entire cast of local talent because that’s the way I felt like this needed to be made, with a lot of fresh faces who horror fans didn’t recognize, and it was also important to me to get local actors involved and working because I thought that would be great to showcase the acting talent in Ohio.

We shot for 13 days in Springfield, Ohio, and everyone would drive in to set every day from Cleveland and Columbus so right from the start, everyone was in it to make the best possible movie. Everyone pitched in to get The Sleeper made, and having such a quick production time was definitely a challenge but things always went smoothly.

The key to that was preparation- I had everything planned out way before we ever went into production, and that’s something that’s always been of high importance to me… planning ahead. If you take the time to plan, you can always ensure that you’re going to be professional on set, and there was never a time on the set of The Sleeper that wasn’t premeditated. So, when you plan, things go really great and that’s how people stay enthusiastic on an indie set; that enthusiasm always shows in the final product, too, so I always make sure my cast and crew come first.

DC: Let’s talk about the open ending of The Sleeper; any plans on resurrecting the sorority slasher anytime soon?

Russell: The Sleeper needed that open ending; that’s how they did it in the 80s after all. See, I always kind of envisioned The Sleeper to be the kind of movie a studio would have ‘rushed through’ back then as their way to cash in on the slasher craze that happened. I wanted some of the plot holes and editing errors to be in there intentionally because that’s how this kind of movie would have been released; a studio wouldn’t take the time to fix stuff and they certainly would never paint themselves into a corner on a slasher movie; they always want a sequel.

I don’t necessarily want to be a one-trick pony kind of director, even though both of my movies were very different kinds of slasher movies. But my next feature most likely won’t be another slasher. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t come back eventually to do The Sleeper 2; it’s just not what I want to do next as a director.

DC: So then what’s up next for you?

Russell: I just have two or three scripts in the works right now, and there’s one I’m especially excited about since it would be such a different project for me as a director. But I’m also toying with the idea of a web series anthology that would have a “Tales from the Crypt” and “Masters of Horrors” vibe to it if I decide to do it.

For more information on Justin Russell, check out the official Gamma Knife Films website.

Indie Horror Month: Justin Russell Talks The Sleeper, Eighties Slashers and More

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