Ah, The Asylum…
For about the past year The Asylum has been carving a niche producing quick, cheap knock-offs of big screen Hollywood features. The occasional fully original movie slips out of The Asylum but those have become fewer and far between. Hollywood releases a remake of The Omen and The Asylum counters the same day with 666: The Child. Hollywood releases a remake of When a Stranger Calls and The Asylum follows with When a Killer Calls. King Kong, The DaVinci Code, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest begot King of the Lost World, The DaVinci Treasure, and Pirates of Treasure Island. They’ve become so prolific at the successful business practice that The Asylum has actually begun garnering mainstream attention, including a story in the New York Post and an appearance on Good Morning America. Personally, I wish their “mockbusters” (as they’ve been dubbed by the media) were as entertaining as they are prolific.
Now surely The Asylum would not pass on the opportunity to capitalize on the Snakes on a Plane phenomenon? Of course not. And here comes Snakes on a Train!
A few days ago I was contacted by one of the inmates at The Asylum. He’d read an article I wrote about Snakes on a Train and loved it. That’s usually not the sort of thing I hear in emails from Asylum employees so I decided to follow up on it. Turns out it was from Eric Forsberg, screenwriter of Snakes on a Train. I figured, “what the hell” and went for an interview. Perhaps we’ll get some insight into the “mockbuster” mindset of The Asylum. And unlike my previous interviews with Uwe Boll, I didn’t have to worry about deciphering broken English…
The Foywonder: Let’s start with the obvious opener. Tell us a little about yourself.
Eric Forsberg: I always loved horror movies. When I was a kid I made a lot of short horror films on my super 8mm camera. Then I went to film school and made a lot of animations and dramas. After that I worked in Chicago as a writer and a director for live theater. I did epics like Beowulf and Macbeth and a lot of comedy at The Second City. My favorite job was working as a director at The Fright Fest at Six Flags/Great America. We had two haunted houses, a ghost train, 250 actors in the street; and I oversaw them all. It was great!
So when I came to Los Angeles in 1997 I thought, wow, this will be easy; with my experience I’m going to get a movie deal in no time. But it was not true. I had to start all over again, busting my ass as a PA for Christopher Coppola and other indie directors. Between jobs I kept writing spec scripts, mostly thrillers and horrors.
TF: So how did you get hooked up with The Asylum?
EF: It took me three years before I got a chance to pitch one to a production executive. It was Sherri Strain, one of the three partners over at The Asylum, and I pitched her a very fun creature feature titled Croak. She loved it and passed it on to David Latt, and he wanted to direct it. So they optioned Croak and I thought, wow, I did it. But a year went by and it didn’t go into production.
TF: I’ve seen Croak listed on The Asylum’s website for quite some time. It’s one that I’ve been wishing The Asylum would finally get around to making. We’re overdue for a good mutant frog flick!
EF: Croak was the first film that I wrote after coming to Los Angeles. My girlfriend had a cute and foul little Shitzu-Poodle that hated me, and while I was trying to write she would growl and splutter and snort and gurgle all day long, spinning and spluttering at my feet. So I wrote a movie about everybody turning into frogs. Spores from space contaminate the water supply of a town, turning the citizens of the town into a society of Frog-People. Gremlins meets Invansion of the Body Snatchers. It is a great movie and one day it will be made…
TF: And this led to more work at The Asylum?
EF: I kept stopping by their office and pitching them ideas for low budget horror movies, and one day I got a call from Latt saying that they had just scored a big direct to DVD deal with Blockbuster Video and that they wanted an alien horror movie. So I wrote the first of many drafts of a film called Alien Abduction, which was about a girl who woke up in a mental institution that was really a processing center for people who had been abducted by aliens.
A few drafts down the line and almost a year later I got a call from Latt again. I was visiting family in Sweden and still had a few weeks left on my trip but Latt said, “We want to go into production on Friday, can you be here?” So I was on a plane and back in LA and shooting before I knew it! It was my first really low budget film and I was rewriting my script on the set to match the locations and the cast and the effects that were available. I always wanted more blood so I brought my friend Charles Schneider on board as second unit director, and he helped out a lot with the gore. The film was released in 2005 to some great and some mixed reviews. Now knowing the limitations of the ultra low budget arena, I wrote another film for the Asylum to produce called Night of the Leben Tod (Leben means life and Tod death in German).
TF: What’s Night of the Leben Tod about?
EF: Here’s the log line:
“Night of the Leben Tod – Pregnant and frightened, Anais is not allowed to leave the specialized hospital where her husband, Peter, has a medical internship with his uncle, Dr. Gabriel Schreklich, a man with a serum that can resurrect the dead. But things go terribly wrong and the ghouls take over the hospital. Now, the only way for Anais to save her unborn baby is to get one of the ghouls to help her to escape.”
It is an absolute gorefest! A truly inspired and fun blood and guts mad scientist/ghoul movie. Ghouls: that’s the key. See, everybody uses zombies. They are mindless cannibals stumbling about tearing at people’s flesh. But ghouls are aware of themselves, of their condition. They are in agony in an undeath that burns their very soul and feeds them with fury and hunger. They are not powerful like vampires, but they want to be alive again and they are angry. Also, they must gobble living tissue to stay sane.
It was a single location, small cast gore fest. The Asylum asked me to make it and said that they would buy it afterwards. So I asked my wife, Karen, to produce it with me, and we sold our house to get the money. Luckily we owned another place, and we moved there three days before starting to shoot. Leben Tod went great, much smoother than Alien Abduction. The film is wall-to-wall gore in the spirit of Re-Animator, Argento, or a Warhol film. While I was in post on that, I got another call from David Latt at the Asylum. He wanted me to write another script.
TF: I’m guessing this was the call about doing Snakes on a Train?
EF: It was Thursday and David Latt was on the phone, “Eric, we need a haunted house script, fast. I’ll tell you more details tomorrow.” So that night I came up with a bunch of haunted house premises ready to pitch the next day. On Friday the call came. It was David. “Eric, things have changed a little. We met with our buyers and pitched them Snakes on a Train. They want it. The haunted house script is out.” “What’s it about?” I asked. “Snakes on a train,” answered David. “We want to shoot in two weeks”. So I was happy and excited to be writing again, but how was I going to write a movie about snakes on a train and have it be significantly different from Snakes on a Plane? It was a challenge. I researched the Samuel Jackson film, which seemed like a straight action crime thriller, and I crossed out every idea that was similar.
I had an old premise for a horror film called Worms that I drew upon as well as another film script that I had been working on about Aztec magic. Then it came together for me: Mayan snake magic, curses, worms oozing out, inner monstrous totems coming to life, and lovers trying to make their way over the Border before it is too late. I wrote the first ten pages that night and Latt loved them. It was a home run. I spent the next week working through the outline. I had a chart of an eight-car train from engine to caboose on my wall and Amtrak schedules from El Paso and Yuma to Los Angeles all over my desk. I ate Mexican food and pulled out my old Spanish books and really tried to get the feel of running over the Border and stowing away on a train. I even wrote a part in the film for my daughter, Lola, who has been in quite a few horror films and is really good at spitting blood and shrieking. After two weeks I had a script. The Asylum was already casting before it was done.
TF: So this whole film came together in little more than two weeks?
EF: Yeah, it did! The shooting schedule was around two weeks with a day or two off. The budget was not high, but you would have to contact The Asylum for that info. I can tell you though that every person, every minute, every scrap was used to make the movie happen. And nobody was eating crab cakes.
In the end, the toughest thing was keeping the plots and subplots separate enough in the first half of the film so that each one had its own train car, and then bringing them together so there was action and movement all along the line of one car to another. I had Brujo, one of the main characters, climb onto the roof of the train to get to the front without being noticed at one point. It is truly an action horror.
TF: And with a giant snake thrown in too. Was that originally part of the plot?
EF: About four days before shooting was finished I got another call. It was Latt. They had finished the poster for the film and it looked great. A giant snake opening its jaws over a runaway train. “The buyers loved it,” said Latt. “They want the snake to get that big. They want it to eat the train like it shows in the poster. Can you make that happen?” I was actually very calm. “I’ll have the changes to you by this afternoon,” I said. Luckily I had a few versions of the ending all set to go, and I just made one of them work and sent the changes in to the director. The rest was up to the boys and girls at special effects! And frankly, the ending with the giant snake was much more exciting and fun. I am glad they made that choice.
TF: You’ve mentioned that Snakes on a Train all came about because of the investors, which is also how the giant snake aspect of the film ended up being included. Any insight as to how they go about deciding which big Hollywood theatrical films they’re going to produce “mockbusters” of?
EF: I’m not part of that decision-making process, but I imagine that it’s all about the buyer. The Asylum is a small company in a world of huge companies that outbid everybody and crush the competition with their big wallets. The Asylum has found a way to get the buyer to pay for more DVDs so they can keep making indie features. If a big film is coming out and The Asylum can make a movie of similar genre and theme and the buyer likes the title, then they are in business. Then maybe they will call me!
TF: Are there any specific guidelines The Asylum gives you when assigning you to pen a knock-off of a film that hasn’t even been released yet?
EF: Like I said before, this one was just the title. But David Latt and I communicated almost everyday while I was writing it, and if I strayed too far from where he wanted it, he told me and I would rework the scene. The second day was my toughest day of writing because Latt loved what I gave him the first day and hated what I added the second. Originally I had a little more pre-train story to introduce plot and character, but Latt really wanted us to be on the train by scene two or three.
But after that first hiccup it was smooth sailing, and David liked what I handed in and gave me very constructive notes. He was really pushing for a love story and for Brujo to be sympathetic, which made me change my main characters during the outline process, but he was dead on right.
TF: I know the Asylum has a thing on their website where pretty much anyone can pitch them the idea for a film or even submit a finished screenplay. Do you think a lot of screenwriters out there should actually look ahead at what big genre films are being released by Hollywood in the near future and, essentially, beat The Asylum to the punch by submitting a “mockbuster” screenplay?
EF: Hey, this mockbuster thing is a new and growing niche. I am sure that their ears are open to any good script idea that comes along. And from my experience The Asylum is a company that gives new blood a real shot at being part of a feature film. More power to them!
TF: I think that about covers it!
EF: Thanks again for the interview!
Well, there you go. Thanks to Eric for taking the time to chat with us and give us a bit more insight into the madness that is The Asylum!
You can find out pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about Eric Forsberg by visiting his own webpage. Alien Abduction is on DVD shelves, and Snakes on a Train hits the market on August 15th. Night of the Leben Tod will reportedly be distributed by The Asylum later this year. God only knows if or when Croak will get produced.