Monster Party might be Chris von Hoffmann’s second feature, but he’s a seasoned director, having released his first short film in 2004. Von Hoffmann’s first feature, Drifter, established him as a horror / exploitation director that genre fans should keep a keen eye on. Monster Party delivers on his earlier promise, and then some.
The story of three teenagers whose attempted heist at a fancy Malibu dinner party goes horribly wrong, Monster Party is clever and dreamlike, with plenty of gore. The film explores the literal and symbolic violence between economic classes.
We are very excited to present this interview with von Hoffmann in which we discuss the art of casting, unconventional pacing, and subverting audience expectations.
Dread Central: Your article in Movie Maker about the shooting of your previous film, Drifter, made it sound kind of like a nightmare. Did shooting go a bit more smoothly for Monster Party?
Chris von Hoffmann: No, I mean — Monster Party was definitely a really tough shoot as well, for a lot of different reasons. I think your first movie — I mean, with my first movie Drifter, 75% of what I was having to do on that movie was not even creative, so it kind of makes your head explode at a certain point. With Monster Party, all I was doing was writing and directing it. But there are also a lot of other additional things, because it was like a 17-day schedule, and then you have, you know, my first time with a 45, 50 person crew and a lot of producers on set, an ensemble cast, kind of a complex structure. All these different things. I think every movie is always a mini little nightmare in a way, you know? I think it’s always good to just sort of go through that process because it just trains you so much for the future. But I think everyone kind of pushed themselves hardcore on Monster Party, so I think in a way it was sort of beneficial, but yeah, it was definitely a big thing to adapt to as my first professional movie.
DC: The cast was pretty close to perfect. Everybody was just really at home in their roles. Can you tell me a little bit about the casting process?
CH: Yeah. I always think like, I used to be an actor. I was an actor for six years in high school and after high school in New York City and did a lot of theater. So I definitely had a lot of respect for what actors do, and performance is always number one for me. I feel like a lot of filmmakers kind of neglect performance, kind of focus on everything around the performance. The technicalities of things. So I always think casting is like 85% of what makes a movie. I think that’s the biggest thing I get most psychotically stubborn about in pre-production, just really wanting to make sure, because this was an ensemble cast, and it’s so driven by the performances, so I want to make sure it was kind of like a puzzle and if one piece doesn’t quite organically fit, the whole film is going to feel lopsided. So I really needed to make sure that everyone was going to — even down to a small, small role, everybody had to fit on screen organically, and I knew what kind of tone I was going for, the kind of faces I felt were going to work on screen to match the tone I was going for. So I kind of knew within 10, 20 seconds of seeing someone’s audition or meeting someone if they were going to be right for the role, sort of like a gut thing. But it was definitely just an exciting experience meeting with all these different actors. Even actors that didn’t end up in the movie. There were no egos, just really wonderful people who went all the way with it.
DC: What was it like working with some of the veteran character actors like Lance Reddick and Robin Tunney?
CH: It’s wonderful. I mean, Lance Reddick was like — I’m friends with his manager and he’s at the same management that I’m at. I met him for the first time in February of last year. He was one of the first people who came on to the movie, and he was just such a delightful person. No ego. We talked for four hours about everything, about tons of stuff, and talked about what the story represented and all that. Then Robin was such an unbelievable blessing. I remember vividly when I first saw The Craft, and I always loved how, you know, End of Days and Vertical Limit, she’s always had such a unique presence on screen, and she really was an absolute blessing. She came on five or six days before the movie started to shoot, so she was really prepared to help the film and support me and support the story as best she could, and kind of just went all the way with it and knew exactly what I was going for. Julian McMahon was terrific and he was just such a humble, delightful person. He cared so much about the material and had such great ideas, and everyone was there to — I was really impressed and happy with all the veteran actors that were just there because they believed in the material because they knew this was my first “big movie.” It was not a huge movie, but it was a big movie for me. And they — I was really just happy that they were very, very supportive and encouraging and listened and really believed in what we were doing.
DC: The film’s trailer seems to give a lot away. But when you watch the movie, there are really a lot of surprises. Did you set out to subvert expectations or did that happen more or less organically when you were writing the script?
CH: Yeah, I really like movies that have sort of a rollercoaster hybrid feel where it’s just sort of a mash-up of everything you could possibly want inside of a movie experience. I kind of thought that was interesting with that trailer that they put together because it was a very sort of simple nuts and bolts portrayal of what the story is. I always like movies that when you see a trailer versus when you see the movie, there’s so much more to the movie that you weren’t expecting, and I always find that kind of exciting. They really left out a lot that’s in the movie from the trailer. And I just — yeah, I think just writing, I don’t know, we’re in such a televisual age with everybody being so obsessed with binging and short attention spans, when you’re making a feature film — my goal is to really try to get feature films to work like a televisual structure where it’s constantly escalating on top of itself, and it’s like you’re almost like binging three hours of TV, kind of just wanting to keep on escalating more and more and more. I hate films that aggressively move sideways. They have this power, but they’re not quite going all the way. They’re kind of still staying one note. I just like movies that keep on piling on top of each other, like a video game or something, because I think that’s sort of the — I just think in the age we’re living in, that’s sort of the way that I like to tell stories. I just kind of get bored easily. I want to keep on, you know, making a left turn, making a right turn, just keep on escalating.
DC: Even though there is a little bit of gore at the beginning, we’re pretty well into the film before stuff really hits the fan. But then it’s pretty relentless. What attracted you to structuring your film with a bit of a slow build?
CH: Yeah, I mean, that was probably the trickiest thing, because I remember, over Christmas in 2016, I was like, ripping my hair out trying to figure out what the opening was going to be because I knew, I was like — well should it be an opening kill? But I kept on thinking to myself, I mean, it’s not like a tradition, this is one of the few horror stories that can’t quite be faithful to that kind of opening kill setpiece because if you do that it completely contradicts everything that happens later on with the twist. The first kill has to be a plot point. So that was kind of a tricky structure to decipher, but I think a lot of films, I don’t know, so many horror films just give everything away immediately, and I don’t think they have much faith in the characters or the story or the performances or the writing of it. I feel like they just need to have all this violence happening immediately. I love horror movies, and I love violence in horror movies, but also I like exploring everything in one movie, and I don’t immediately get to death instantly. I just really like to explore other elements that build up to it.
DC: Were you afraid you might lose some people along the way?
CH: Yeah, certainly in the beginning. In the beginning of rough cutting, definitely. It was definitely a trick. But I don’t know, people seemed to go with it, especially now. I think they expect that it’s a slow burn build up, but they still, I don’t know, I think it’s because they have sort of a mysterious kind of feel where it keeps on, like, there’s so many things being set up that you don’t — you sort just want to see how it pays off. And I think that’s why people seem to be interested in where it’s going.
DC: What made you want to make a movie that’s so overtly about class and economic conflict? I thought that was a really interesting premise.
CH: I love making stories that have some sort of societal statement underneath it, really representing my viewpoint on the world and hopefully other people’s viewpoints on the world, and making bold statements about something without ham-fisting it. But I really, really want something underneath there to hit you in the face a little bit. And I think — I’ve always been fascinated by just juggling all these different statements about the world, and point of views on the world, and putting them in a blender and just machine-gunning it onto the screen and just seeing how it lays out for people. And also I kind of grew up between these two different worlds, and my father was slightly upper-class, and my mother’s side was much more blue collar. So I guess being in-between those two I have a way of seeing both sides, and I’ve always been curious about smashing them together under very bizarre circumstances and just seeing how that plays out. But yeah, I definitely feel like it was a perfect opportunity to be like a pig in shit about all the societal statements, and just reflecting our generation as much as possible on the screen.
DC: Which directors do you think have influenced your work the most?
CH: I mean, I sort of divide it into two different groups of people. I think the older directors, like Martin Scorsese, Paul Verhoeven, Abel Ferrara, Tony Scott, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, I’d say probably. Some of the new directors, definitely people like Adam Wingard, Steve McQueen, Nicolas Winding Refn to an extent. Some of them might be making different films, but I think the intention that all those different directors have is what I love. All those directors really try to make the most cinematic experience they could possibly make with their material and just turn everything up to 11. Those are the kind of directors that I really respond to. I mean, I love people like Nicole Holofcener and Joe Swanberg and much more subtle mumblecore films as well, but I think as far as the people who truly influence me stylistically is those directors.
DC: What’s next for you?
CH: We’re in post-production on this anthology feature film that I wrote and directed a segment of. Radio Silence executive produced it. They produced V/H/S and Southbound. It’s all about phobias. And I’m just in hardcore development of four different features. One of them has a producer attached and is moving forward pretty well. I’m sort of in the middle of a bunch of stuff.
Monster Party is now available nationally in theaters, VOD and Digital HD from RLJE Films.