It’s late at night in North Hollywood – which is scary enough in the light of day – and I’m at the California Institute of Abnormalarts (affectionately known as “CIA” to locals and visiting horror hounds) where a new movie, Fear, Inc., is being shot.
Every labyrinthine room inside the bar (which is open for business Tuesday through Sunday) is dementedly decorated with an eclectic assortment of dead dollies, Halloween wall-hangings, creepy curios, skeletons, eyeballs, and enough clowns to give Captain Spaulding himself the willies. There’s a courtyard outside, which is no less decked with decorations (even without an art department and prop people), and that’s where tonight’s scene is being shot.
Between takes, I caught a few moments with writer-producer Luke Barnett – his face freaked up with greasepaint makeup, after his cameo – and he was kind enough to spill a few secrets about what we can expect when Fear, Inc., is released next Halloween. Photos are by Trisha Harrison and Micah Wesley.
Dread Central: You wrote the short film of the same name and the screenplay for this feature so, for those who have seen the short film, could you talk a little bit about what aspects of it you’ve expanded on?
Luke Barnett: Well, I had this friend who was obsessed with going to all the haunted house attractions in LA. – Blumhouse of Horrors, Knott’s Scary Farm, ones that put a LOT of production value into their stuff; yet, he was never satisfied. Then he found out about Blackout. Blackout costs $100, you have to sign a waiver, and you go through by yourself. They can touch you and do all kinds of crazy stuff. I think one year they locked people in a coffin. He asked if I wanted to go, to which I respectfully said, “Uh… no?” When I saw him a week later, he said it was better than the others, but he wanted more. I realized this guy wanted to feel like he was going to die and then, you know, not die.
Vince [Masciale, the director] and I are both fans of The Game and Scream, and we thought, “What if there was a company you could pay to take your fears to the next level?” The short is five minutes and pretty straightforward. The feature is quite a bit different. It starts off like The Game, in the same world as the short, but quickly takes a drastic twist and explores a completely different kind of fear. If we had stuck to the world of the short, it would essentially just be a home invasion movie or a copy of The Game. I think people will appreciate the fact that we openly pay homage to Fincher’s classic (and a dozen or so other horror films), yet have created something new and different. Our background is mainly comedy, working with companies like Funny or Die, so we put a lot of that in the script as well.
DC: People say the timing is similarly important in both horror and comedy so if you get one, you typically get the other.
LB: Yeah, for sure. I think being able to find the timing of a joke is very similar to finding the timing of a scare.
DC: I know what you mean because I just saw Cooties; that’s a good one for both comedy and horror finding a balance.
LB: I can’t wait for Cooties! [I see what you’re saying], but while we love Tucker and Dale, campy is definitely not what we’re going for with this. I think it’s been called a horror comedy because our background is comedy and we intentionally cast a lot of comedic actors in the film to bring some of that out. I would consider it to almost be a self-referential black comedy thriller that pays homage to the horror industry (can I coin that?). One thing that I think will be interesting is that it definitely starts off as more of a comedy, but by the end it’s very, very dark. It’s a ride.
DC: Tell me a little bit about your cast; who are the leads?
LB: Lucas Neff plays the lead, Joe, who ends up going on this whole roller coaster of a journey. Lucas starred on the FOX show “Raising Hope” and has a role in AMC’s upcoming “Preacher” pilot that Seth Rogen is behind. We knew within five minutes of talking to Lucas that he was our Joe. He just immediately “got it.” It’s also been amazing to see his range. We knew he could nail the comedy, but I think his dramatic performance in this movie is what people are going to be talking about. Caitlin Stasey plays his girlfriend, Lindsey, and is also his real life partner. We didn’t know that until a couple days before our meeting. We knew her from her CW show, “Reign,” and last year’s All Cheerleaders Die. When she came into our meeting and we asked if she’d had a chance to read it, she said, “Well, I live with Joe so…” It was kind of art imitating life.
Chris Marquette and Stephanie Drake play the other couple who end up getting roped into this whole thing. It’s funny; Chris and I are around the same age, but I grew up watching him in movies like The Girl Next Door and Just Friends. Vince and I and our wives had also just finished “Mad Men” the week before Stephanie came in to meet. She played Don Draper’s secretary on the show and stole every scene she was in. So we were fans of both of them and were really excited to hear the script resonated so much with them.
Mark Moses plays Abe, who runs the company behind all of this. Mark played Duck Phillips on “Mad Men” so it was a fun little reunion for he and Stephanie. Between his current roles on “Homeland,” “The Last Ship,” and “Manhattan,” Mark is one of the hardest working guys in town so we were really elated when he signed on. He’s amazing in this and brings something to the role I don’t think anyone has seen from him yet.
DC: Did you get this through being in the industry and reaching out, or did you have a Casting Director?
LB: Our executive producers, John Suits and Gabriel Cowan, have a great reputation for doing smart, well-produced films. They did Cheap Thrills, Bad Milo, and Courteney Cox’s directorial debut, Just Before I Go, with Seann William Scott. They were very helpful in getting the initial cast. Jaime Gallagher is a casting director who was also a big help. Once we got a few people to sign on, it was much easier to get the rest. I’m blown away by the cast we were able to get. Emmy winner Leslie Jordan (“Will & Grace,” “American Horror Story”) came out for a day and is one of the funniest parts of the movie. Naomi Grossman (Pepper from “American Horror Story”), Eric Lange (“Lost”), Ronnie Gene Blevins (The Dark Knight Rises), David Ury (“Breaking Bad”), Patrick Renna (The Sandlot), Richard Riehle (Office Space), and Ashlynn Yennie (The Human Centipede) are just a few of the actors in the cast that absolutely kill every second they are on screen.
DC: So, can we talk a little bit about some of the horror aspects of it, since we are a horror website… who is your make-up effects person and what are some of the creepy things we should expect to see?
LB: Laurie Hallak is our key makeup artist and is amazing. Everyone should hire her and her team. Hill Vinot came out for a lot of the heavier SFX days. Since the movie references a lot of horror films, expect to see some great creepy make-up moments. There is a Saw reference that you probably shouldn’t eat before watching.
DC: How much gore is in this film?
LB: We honestly aren’t big fans of the torture porn genre. So it’s not over the top. That being said, we reference Saw so… definitely “R.”
DC: Can we talk about what we’re shooting here tonight at CIA? I love this place!
LB: Oh, man, this place is crazy. How have I never been here? Today we’re shooting the haunted house scene where Joe and Lindsey are given the business card for Fear, Inc. Joe is disappointed in how scary the place is, and a creepy character comes up and offers him something that promises to bring his fears to life.
DC: I laughed a few minutes ago, when Joe said that line, “I want to cry, like in The Notebook.”
LB: Oh, don’t act like you didn’t weep. C’mon, HE WROTE HER EVERY DAY FOR A YEAR!
DC: Awwww. My heart is breaking. Okay, so how much do you allow your actors to ad lib? Because you’re the writer, and you’re here on set. I’m sure every word is precious, but…
LB: Well, our background is comedy so we’re very open to improv, and we have a cast that’s amazing at it. That being said, they have mainly stayed on book, just adding a joke or a line at the beginning or end of a scene to make it flow a little more naturally.
DC: You have a cameo in this? Or this just your everyday look?
LB: Oh, [I have a cameo] if you wanna call it that. I’m just making an appearance as one of the clowns in the haunted house. It’s a reference to the original short film (makeup and all).
DC: How do you describe your lead characters? Are they likable, like they’re going to be sympathetic, or not…?
LB: I think you’re going to want to see Joe change, but you’re also going to understand why someone like Lindsey is with him.
DC: Sometimes it seems like girls are always with jerks in these movies, and you wonder why she sticks with him.
LB: I wouldn’t say Joe is a jerk. Joe just needs to grow up. But there is something about his youthfulness that I think we all envy. “I wish I didn’t have the responsibilities that I do.” Lindsey is someone who works hard in her career and puts in long hours, and it takes someone like Joe to make her put her briefcase down and enjoy life. It was really important with casting Joe to find someone who got it and could be so likable that you want to see him change. Lucas totally nailed that. In a way, Lucas pitched me on Joe. I left like, “Yeah, that’s what I meant!”
DC: So, is this your first feature?
LB: It is. I executive produced a comedy called Loitering with Intent last year that stars Marisa Tomei and Sam Rockwell. Vince and I have been working together for the past three years or so, but the last six months to a year we’ve been pretty much focused on Fear, Inc.
DC: Looks like you’re putting a lot on the screen in this movie… is it what you envisioned so far?
LB: When you write something, you imagine at the highest level. As if it was being made for a hundred million dollars. This is one of the few times I can say what I’m seeing on screen is better than what I’d imagined. The cast is incredible, and I think when people see it, Vince is going to be crazy in demand. I’m excited to see what comes out of it for everyone who has put in so much work. I feel incredibly honored that so many amazing people came on board to make this.
The story follows a company of degenerates who can be hired to bring your greatest fears to life. But when horror junkie Joe Foster’s customized scare seemingly begins, he and his friends must decide if this company is there to scare them or make them pawns in their own sick game.