The Monster Project is a new horror film written and directed by Victor Mathieu. In it, aspiring filmmakers cast three people who claim to be real monsters. Filming in an abandoned mansion, the production soon becomes a nightmare as the stars reveal their true forms: a skinwalker, a demon and a vampire. We sat down with Mathieu to discuss how the film came about, and what inspires him as a horror filmmaker.
Dread Central: For lots of horror fans, the “found footage / cam” movies are a past trend – so, why was this the best visual format in which to tell your story?
Victor Mathieu: I came up with the idea for The Monster Project about 5 years ago, right about the time that found-footage plunged into a coma. The reason why the genre’s popularity faded to the point where most people now seem to gag upon hearing the words ‘found-footage’ is due to the lack of originality within the genre. I love Paranormal Activity, matter of fact, I think it holds a spot in my list of top 5 scariest films of all time. However, the franchise repeated the same formula again, and again, and other filmmakers made films that copied Paranormal’s formula as well. People grew tired of the lack of originality behind those types of films because a lot of them were mirroring one another, and people felt the need to create a category for those types of films in order to easily discard them for those who grew sick of that sub-horror genre.
People forget that there are many other ways to use the realism of ‘handheld’ cameras to create storytelling in creative and entertaining ways, like for example V/H/S did (one of my personal favorites). The found-footage connotation is an unprecedented generalization and lazy effort to categorize a style of filmmaking that has a tremendous amount of potential.
The first-person point of view (POV) style of filmmaking is entirely different from found-footage. Let’s take Hardcore Henry for example, a film that I have a lot of respect for. That film is not a found-footage film, it is a first person POV film. No one is holding a camera during that film, and the footage that is shot and stored within Henry’s eyes is never found. The movie is just meant for us to experience through his perspective, and the filmmakers behind that film just want us to have fun.
Now, onto The Monster Project! At the time when I came up with the concept for the film, I was tired of seeing the fun and action-like parts of those ‘found-footage’ films play out during the films’ final minute or two. I was tired of seeing doors open and close, shadows cross frame, plants rustle, and hearing loud abrupt noises. And like I mentioned above, other people grew tired of seeing the same formula repeated throughout each found-footage film that was being released at the time. So, I decided to do the very opposite and to make a film that reveals the monsters early on and that dives right into the action. Sure, I was trying to find ways to make my first film without having to spend lots of money at the time, but I was not actively trying to make a found-footage film. I’ve always been fond of playing video games, particularly Call of Duty, and so I came up with the idea of blending the found-footage style of filmmaking with the 1st person POV by placing a headstrap camera on my main character for the main portion of the story, which felt like a really unique idea and hadn’t been done yet at the time.
DC: How did you come up with the story, and when you wrote it was it your intention from the start to direct it?
VM: I came up with the idea for The Monster Project while sitting in my car at a Ralphs parking lot while I was waiting for my good friend Phil (producer, DP and editor on The Monster Project) to come back (true story!). I remember thinking of a vampire film that I quite liked called The Hamiltons, directed by The Butcher Brothers, and thinking what if I made a film about a team of filmmakers that go into a house inhabited by vampires to interview them? Then, I realized how much more fun the film would be if I combined different types of monsters into the mix. Not only would it make for a fun film, but I right then and there banked on the idea that people would want to see monsters. I remember telling Phil about the idea when he got into the car, and we drove immediately to the store and started buying additional camera equipment and filmed our initial teaser for The Monster Project the very next day, which you can find below.
At the time, Phil was sharing an apartment with two roommates: Shariya Lynn, a writer, and Bryan Jansyn, an actor. Phil suggested we collaborate with Shariya and Bryan on the project, so I started brainstorming and mapping out the story for the film with Shariya, and after 3 weeks of putting up notecards, planning and remapping, Shariya and I wrote the film.
I’d wanted to direct since I was in high school, hence why I attended USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, to study film production with a focus on directing. I began assistant directing after college and directed short films and commercials over the years until I met the right partner in crime, Phil, to make a film with and had an idea that seemed affordable enough to turn into reality.
DC: What was one of the most fun or/and challenging things about making The Monster Project?
VM: Making The Monster Project was a hell of a roller-coaster ride. I could write a thick book about the making of the film, my team and I went through a lot in order to make this movie a reality. Sometimes it was a lot of fun, and sometimes it was just downright brutal and tough. The biggest challenge on The Monster Project was having to shoot the film in only 15 days whilst often working with heavy special effects and stunts. It was no easy task. Our wireless monitors only functioned about 10% of the time during filming, and we rarely had the time to actually sit down and properly review the footage, so I was often directing blindly, hence why I often chose to operate camera alongside Phil (especially during the action sequences), because I knew exactly what I wanted to capture on camera and it saved us a lot of time due to the nature of the circumstances we were facing during filming.
In terms of challenging stories, there’s a scene in the film that takes place in the mansion’s basement, and the basement was always scheduled at the end of the day, and we would always rush down for the last thirty minutes of our night and try to capture a few shots of that basement scene, and it kept being pushed to the next day, and the next, again and again. There was something about that basement that made our lives very, very complicated. It’s as if it was haunted. It was hard to breathe down there because of all of the dirt that would get kicked around by the cast and crew during the scenes. I remember Toby Hemingway having to crawl through the crawlspace of that basement again and again, and Phil and I kept reviewing the footage realizing it wasn’t working, the camera was just shaking too much. I felt so bad for Toby, he would crawl out and hand the GoPro back off to us and hoped it worked, and he’d go back in and crawl and do it all over again. We ended up doing a quick reshoot for the film during which we re-shot that sequence and for which Phil had added a chin strap on top of the headstrap for the GoPro, which balanced it not only horizontally but vertically and allowed for that scene to work. I refused to put Toby through hell in the crawlspace again so I just went in there myself and acted out the scene a few times until I felt I got what I needed.
As for the fun parts of the film, there are so many moments that I could list. After all, directing The Monster Project was equivalent to me playing in a playground as a kid. It was the most fun I had in a long time. I’ll mention two moments that really stand out to me. The first one occurred during the last day of our reshoots. Phil, Jim, Corbin, Steven Flores (Skinwalker) and I drove up to Jim’s place over in Lake Arrowhead to film one of the film’s climactic scenes that happens in the woods. I believe we started filming at 2:00am. I put the GoPro on my forehead, drenched my arms and legs in fake blood, waved goodbye to Phil and Jim and ran off into the woods on my own…without a phone (out of fear of breaking it). I imagined that I was being chased by the Skinwalker and ran and climbed until my body was so sore it couldn’t move, at which point I felt I had what I needed. I then realized I had sprinted uphill deep into the woods for fifteen minutes and was now surrounded by darkness. I walked back close to where our car was parked where Jim and Phil were shining their flashlights around, at which point I let out a big sigh of relief! It was a crazy night, I came home scratched and bleeding from my arms and legs, but it was all so worth it. Also, did I mention landing into a giant pit of stinging nettles?
The other moment I’ll never forget was a scene during which Jim Beinke (special effects designer) and I were hiding in a tiny closet together. Jim was operating the animatronics for the skinwalker’s face, and I was operating Bryan’s GoPro. This is the scene where you get to see the skinwalker at its best, in my personal opinion. Jim and I were so excited and in love with the way the skinwalker looked in that scene that we were behaving like kids, and we were having the best time doing it. When Phil and I were editing that scene, we laughed out loud on repeat just listening to Jim and I geek out over the skinwalker as we were filming that scene. I’ll never forget that moment.
DC: How did you settle on the three different ‘villains’ for The Monster Project?
VM: The reason why I am such a big fan of horror is due to the amount of art involved in the process of making a horror film. The designing of the monsters, creating the molds, painting them, and all of the other parts of the process that I am not mentioning here, it’s such a meticulous and passion-driven process that really makes me admire all of those who work in that field. I can’t even begin to describe the excitement I get from seeing special effects artists bring to life that which ‘does not exist’. But before I even dreamt of making movies, when I was younger, I used to read all of R.L. Stine’s books, and the ones that got to me most were always the stories that featured werewolves, ghosts, ventriloquists, and other monsters. One of my absolute favorite experiences as a child was playing Dreamworks Interactive’s Escape From Horrorland PC game which featured countless amounts of monsters. Not only did they do a mind-blowing job portraying those monsters which frankly were terrifying to me at the time, but the sound design of the monsters inspired me at a very young age. Ultimately, the way I like to describe The Monster Project is that it’s a Goosebumps film for grown-ups!
In The Monster Project, we have three monsters; a Skinwalker, a Vampire, and a Demon. A Skinwalker is a Native American shape-shifter, in our film, closer to the lines of a werewolf. It is played by Steven Flores, an amazing actor and stuntman that I met on a stunt-heavy show I assistant directed called Delusion. When I found out he was of Native American descent, the idea of having the Skinwalker as one of the monsters clicked, especially since I wanted to include a werewolf-like creature in the film. Him and I talked for a while about some ideas regarding the creature, and he quickly came on board. It wasn’t until three years later that we began filming… Frankly, there would have been no one else to play his part. He had the most physical role of all as he was constantly acting while wearing a heavy special effects suit, had limited vision, would often perform complicated stunts while in the suit, and had to walk on elevated blocks of wood in order to make the leg extensions we had created for the Skinwalker work. Steven is a trooper and a dedicated actor, and I can’t wait for people to see what he has done with the Skinwalker in The Monster Project.
Shiori is a girl who claims to be possessed by a demon she calls the Smiling Man. Shiori is played by the terrifying and talented Shiori Ideta, who is probably the only actor so far in my career who really knows how to make my skin crawl. I also met her while working on Delusion, as she was also a part of its cast. I think it’s an understatement, but I put Shiori through a lot in the making of the movie. She was often on a wire getting pulled or levitating, left alone in rooms for long period of times, pinned down by other actors, crawling with me across the mansion’s crawlspace.. She had it rough. She was also with us from the very beginning of the idea’s inception, and also waited for 3 years before filming began. But, in the end, Shiori managed to create a character that is easily the most terrifying in the film and that might just keep you up at night. As for the demon that haunts her, the Smiling Man, which appears in The Monster Project on frequent occasions, he was a character that we decided to physically include in the film during post-production. Don’t worry, there’s no CGI there…the Smiling Man was done fully in practical effects! We wanted to reveal his true form during some of the scenes, so Jim Beinke brought on Chase Olswang, a creature actor he had worked with before, and the rest is history! You can see the Smiling Man in the episodes of our viral marketing campaign for the film below, if you dare.
Our third monster is the Vampire, played by Yvonne Zima. She was brought on board by our casting agency, Bass Casting. I remember going to the audition, and my mind was already set on someone else, but Yvonne walked in and completely stole the show. She brought a type of hypnotizing energy to the character that surpassed what any other actor had done throughout the audition process. Her interview with Bryan in the film is one of my favorite scenes.
DC: Who did your special effects and makeup? How you feel about practical effects and CGI?
VM: The special effects were designed and created by Jim Beinke (Planet of the Apes, The Craft), who also serves as executive producer on the film. Had it not been for Jim, The Monster Project would never have happened. He jumped on board about six months after we launched our Kickstarter campaign. Not only did Jim bring his expertise and talent to the project, but he legitimized our project and allowed it to evolve from a fantasy to a reality that people such as the investors we were pitching to at the time could finally buy into. The special effects he designed and created with the help of his team are simply phenomenal, and I hope that horror enthusiasts out there will appreciate and enjoy the passion and hard work he put into creating those monsters.
I have a very deep love and admiration for special effects. I also think that visual effects are a great tool when used properly. But I will always push for the use of special effects over visual effects.
DC: Who are some of your influences as a writer and a director?
VM: As I mentioned above, I was heavily influenced by R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps growing up. I think the biggest homage in The Monster Project is made to R.L. Stine’s Escape From Horrorland; there’s a chase scene in the woods that involves the main character and the skinwalker, and if you’ve played Escape From Horrorland, you might notice where my inspiration for this scene stemmed from! I’d also read some of Stephen King’s work, my favorite being Pet Semetery which shook me to my core. As for directors, I am a big fan of Sam Raimi, Tim Burton, and James Cameron.
Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II is the reason why I decided to pursue the horror genre in the first place. And if you are a fan of the Evil Dead films, you’ll easily spot a few camera POV tricks that are a direct homage and throwback to his films. I love Evil Dead II so much that I used to put it on to go to sleep!
Tim Burton is a visual genius that I often tend to creatively inspire myself from. There aren’t any similarities to Tim Burton’s work in The Monster Project, but I do have a few projects I am currently writing and a VR series of mine coming out around Halloween this year that do have a slight Tim Burton touch to them.
There are many other directors that I heavily admire, but James Cameron is my main motivator and inspiration for a lot of the work I do. I love the adrenaline I feel when watching his films, his heavy use of practical effects, and I’m always amazed at the complicated nature of his projects. I think I watched the three hour making of video of James Cameron’s Aliens ten times over the week leading up to filming The Monster Project. I would keep it playing in the background while prepping the shoot. Noticing James Cameron’s persistence despite the endless obstacles that he kept facing while making his films, The Abyss and Aliens (my two personal favorites of his), will always serve as a major motivator to me.
DC: Epic is coming out with some of the best, most fun horror films these days; tell us how you connected with them, and what the experience was like.
VM: I couldn’t agree with you more! A very large amount of the films that Epic Pictures releases are immediately recognized as classics in the horror genre. From V/H/S, Tales of Halloween, Turbo Kid and many more, they make and distribute great films that I am a fan of!
We approached Epic Pictures with The Monster Project while the film was concluding its post-production late 2016. I had of course heard of Epic having been a super-fan of the V/H/S franchise, so it was quite exciting to hear that they were interested in taking on The Monster Project! We brought up to them the fact that we wanted to create a viral marketing campaign for the film, and not only did they eventually finance the campaign, but they were actively supportive from the get go which was a big relief to us. We have been working closely with Epic since, and my team and I couldn’t be happier with the relationship and the results!
The film was directed by Victor Mathieu and written by Victor Mathieu, Shariya Lynn, and Corbin Billings. Toby Hemingway (Black Swan, In Time), Justin Bruening (“Good Behavior,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Ringer”), and Yvonne Zima (Iron Man 3, Nice Guys) provide strong performances with Jamal Quezaire and Murielle Zuker rounding out the cast. Look for it August 18th release.
In a chilling and inventive take on the classic monster movie genre, The Monster Project follows a group of aspiring horror filmmakers, eager to raise their YouTube subscriber count, who post an online casting call for “real life” monsters to interview for their documentary. They find three participants and choose to film them sharing their haunted experiences in a mansion in the woods on the night of a lunar eclipse. The production suddenly turns into a nightmare when the participants transform into a real vampire, demon, and skinwalker (a type of harmful witch, according to Navajo legends, that can transform into any animal with the intent of harming people), forcing the unsuspecting crew to fight for their lives.
Disclaimer: Epic Pictures Group and Dread Central are affiliated. As a result, this post will not feature any opinions or personal commentary. We’re sticking to the facts here, folks!