Interview: Netflix + Blumhouse = Dallas Jackson’s THRILLER!

Who would’ve thought that Netflix would celebrate two homecomings in April? One is Beyonce’s latest release Homecoming, and the other is Blumhouse’s latest slasher Thriller.

The film, also originally entitled Homecoming for the high school experience it turns into a nightmare, features new faces alongside veteran actors like RZA (The Man with the Iron Fists, American Gangster) and Vanessa Williams (CandymanThe Flash).

We chat with director and co-writer Dallas Jackson to discuss writing screenplays, watching classic horror, and never telling an actor to “break a leg”, especially after seeing it literally happen on set.

Check out our interview and exclusive clip below.

Dread Central: What inspired you to make Thriller?

Dallas Jackson: I’ve always wondered why there wasn’t a slasher, like a Friday the 13th or Halloween, but with color. For me, there were certain things I wanted to say with Thriller. I made the movie for an audience that just doesn’t get that, particularly a teen audience.

DC: The movie has such an 80s vibe.

DJ: My inspiration for it was Friday the 13th, Halloween, Carrie and Christine. There are those characters in those movies like the jock, the good girl, the mean girl, the nerd and so on that I wanted to see with us. I was also casting for my Jamie Lee Curtis from Prom Night. I needed my Scream Queen. Jessica Allain, who plays Lisa, is gorgeous. She came in and I said, “This is it.” But I had to be cool about it because I was like, “Let me see you audition.” She killed it!

Then Paige Hurd, who plays Gina, worked on a BET show with me two years back called Rebel. She was in one of the episodes, and I just really liked her. At first, she came in to play the lead for Thriller, and I said, “Nah. That ain’t gonna happen. I got another idea for you. I want you to be the villain.”

DC: This seems like a yearly movie, similar to how people watch Halloween the movie around Halloween. Also, it has messages but doesn’t lose sight of being a horror. Was that your intention?

DJ: Definitely. Anything I make, I want to say something with it. The goal was to create a Michael Myers or a Freddy Krueger, like make this an origin story. Also, I wanted layers, but with a twist.

I had the chance to watch Thriller three times with an audience in the theater. It’s just such a fun experience. They all jump together. They all laugh together. People come up to me and say, “I needed this. This is so different. It feels familiar, but in a good way.” I had a couple of Latino teenagers that came up to me and thanked me because they never saw themselves in a slasher movie like that. They were fun and weren’t dumbed down. A lot of girls of color also come up to me and say how cool it was to see themselves.

DC: What attracts you to horror?

DJ: I grew up a single child in Denver, Colorado. I used to go to work with my father in Westminster, Colorado, where he worked for the parks and recreation. When he went to the recreation center, there was a theater by his job called Cinema 70. They had two double features on both sides of the theater. I would get five bucks from him and go to the movies all day, for the whole summer.

A lot of them were genre movies like ScannersEscape from New York, Jaws 3, Robocop, Exorcist II: The Heretic and Highlander. I love action and sci-fi movies. I also love black movies that inspire to be more. That have something to say on top of being entertaining. I’m a huge Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, and Keenen Ivory Wayans fan.

What got me into horror was loving the idea of fantasy. I loved Jason Voorhees. No matter what you did, he’d come back. You could stab him in the throat, and he would pull the thing out and keep coming. That was Pre-Terminator. I love Michael Myers because it was kind of the same thing. He was the brother that came back because he was just trying to kill his sister. And I thought that that was interesting. The early Halloween andHalloween II was like, “This dude escaped from the nut house to try to kill his sister.” That was a really weird, twisted story.

At twelve, I could stay home by myself with movies I rented. Around that time, I started asking myself a question, but I also kind of already knew the answer. Why weren’t there any black people in those movies? Then, when I got into the business and was able to sell my first script, I heard things like “foreigners and people of color don’t travel internationally. Those audiences (meaning African-American audiences) don’t come to these movies anyway. That’s why we don’t put them in the lead.” I started hearing all these things and thinking how ridiculous it was.

So, Thriller, which was initially called Homecoming, was me first putting pen to paper and saying, “I’m going to do something that’s unconventional. People say it won’t work, but I bet you that it will work.”

Also, anything that I do, I want to see how to make music a big part of it. RZA and I definitely knew we wanted to have cool hip-hop music in the movie. But also, because the movie is contemporary, you want to have music that everyone can identify with. It felt like it was its own, but also that we were really borrowing from John Carpenter. I think that just adds another layer to what you want to do. I just wanted my character to have his own sort of theme song because that’s what John Carpenter did with Michael Myers.

DC: I was going to ask you about the music. It does have an eighties feel with a modern twist. The one that is by far the most memorable for me is Hoochie Love, which is a hilarious title by the way. What was inspired that song?

DJ: The thing with Hoochie Love and the character Unique is that I wrote the movie with the idea that someone famous would be in the role of Unique. When it was time to cast, I was talking to a lot of people, but there were schedule conflicts. I just decided to make the character an original character who in the movie was famous. That’s where the idea for Unique came from.

I felt that he should have his own song, that this girl loves. In my mind, I thought that this should be something ridiculous. I called a friend of mine, Rayshon Harris, who produced for the 90s R&B group Shai and Jermaine Dupri. I told him I needed this song called Hoochie Love, and that we were going to need this character to perform it. He produced the song, which I thought was really cool because he used autotune. Everybody is doing autotune now.

The song will be on the soundtrack, coming out on 420, RZA’s label. The soundtrack will also feature a couple of original songs by Ghostface Killa, which is crazy.

DC: You had some great, well-known actors in this film, but some say that RZA stole the show as the unwavering principal. What was it like working with him?

DJ: I’ll give you a little easter egg side note. Originally, Mykelti Williamson was supposed to play the principal, and RZA was going to be the detective. But because their schedules were both weird for the production, it worked out that the shooting schedule for the principal worked out for RZA, and the detective schedule worked better for Mykelti. So, I decided to have them swap roles. Now that they have done it, I believe that’s who they were supposed to each play. RZA actually had fun with it. For example, the scene where he locks the door, he came up with that. They each brought really fun things.

Tequan Richmond, Pepi Sonuga, Jessica Allain, Michael Ocampo, Chelsea Rendon, Luke Tennie, and everyone did a great job. For some, it was their first big role, with many of them having gone on to do more in the industry. Also, having actors like Vanessa Bell Calloway, Vanessa Williams, Mykelti, and RZA, just give you street cred with actors.

Valery Ortiz is another one. She is amazing. I used to write on a show on Teen Nick called South of Nowhere. We used to see each other on that show.

DC: What advice would you give to people who would like to do what you are doing?

DJ: I would say write. Writing has afforded me the opportunity to produce and direct. It is the key to this business. There are just not enough people of color who are creating their own original stuff. But I think now is a good time for that. You had your novelties like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and then Tyler Perry. But all of those people came up through writing their own stuff. A good friend of mine, Phil Beauman, who wrote Scary Movie and Don’t be a Menace, said that if you want to get in the business, you have to write.

So, I would recommend anyone coming up to take a screenwriting class if they can. Get this book The Writer’s Journey, which is about writing screenplays and how to write a Hollywood screenplay.

Also, if you have someone that you are like-minded with, write with her or him. I had a writing partner, Ken Rance. We went to college together. When I moved out to LA, he was already out here and we started writing together.

Now, you can write tv and film. It used to be that you had to choose. Look at people like Lena Waithe.

DC: That’s really great advice. What was the writing process like with Ken Rance?

DJ: We would sit down for four or five days and watch movies that we were trying to create. Our first movie that we sold was a romantic comedy. So, we would watch a bunch of romantic comedies. And we did that for our next movie, which was a buddy action comedy.

We’d sit down with yellow pads and laptops and bounce ideas back and forth of what the story could be about. In movies, there is a three-act structure. This is what The Writer’s Journey book states. The First act is the call to adventure. The second act is the adventure. And the third act is the conclusion to that adventure. We would come up with the three acts after we figure out what the story was. Then he would take the first act and the third act. I would take the second act. Or, he would take the second act, and I would take the first and third acts. Typically, the second act was longer than the first and the third. That’s why we would split it up like that.

Afterwards, we would merge it together. Each of us would sort of have our pass at it, and that was a formula that worked for us, for the first four scripts we sold. Then we got hired to write a movie together.

Individually, I do the same thing now. I watch a couple of movies, I come up with the story, I split the three acts, then I try to do three pages a day from each act. If you take an hour or two a day and write, that keeps adding up. In a week, you’ll have a third of your screenplay done.

DC: That breakdown is incredible. I know many people thought every writer just sat down for hours upon hours straight writing.

DJ: For me, I’ve created a 9 to 5 of getting up, going to the gym, coming back, making some phone calls if I don’t have any meetings, then going to write from like noon to three. Then, I’ll eat some lunch and make a grilled cheese or whatever.

I treat writing like a job. I think if you do that, meaning that I need to chip away and make it a responsibility every day, you’ll become an effective writer. You’ll knock out one script, and then you’ll be motivated to do another one.

DC: I love your work ethic. Allow me to step away from work and ask a survival question. This is a horror site, so there is at least one that should be in every interview. Now, if the zombie apocalypse happened tomorrow, and you had to leave your home with only five movies, which movies would you take with you?

DJ: I would take Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Escape from New York, Flash Gordon, the 1981 version, Scarface, and Aliens. That list is so 80s. But hey, I can be secluded during the zombie apocalypse forever with those.

DC: What was the most memorable moment on set?

DJ: There’s two, but I guess sliding up to number one would be the scene where we kill a character with a baseball bat. The killer comes out of a wall in the house, pops up behind the guy, and snaps the bat away from him. When we shot that, it was around three in the morning. We were battling against the idea that the sun might be coming up soon. We also had the house party that night, which is why that shot went so late. But the killer coming up from behind him like that was strictly an accident, because we saw that the character left the window open. The killer was supposed to creep in behind him and snatch the bat. Well, it was so late and we were trying to figure out the scariest way. The guy, who was the stunt double playing the killer, literally leaned up against the wall to take a break. We were looking through the camera and said, “Oh crap, we can’t see him. That’s dope. He just blends in with the background.” So, we kept that because it was so great.

Another thing on another late night was when Tiffany was getting chased. She jumps over the wall and falls and breaks her ankle. Well, the guy chasing her, the killer, also jumps over the wall. We had a slight trampoline there so he could jump over the wall, making it look like he could do a super jump. When he landed, he literally broke his leg. The stunt guy was such a trooper that he stood up on his broken leg and finished the scene.

DC: I heard about another upcoming project, The Last Dragon. What made you want to pursue this project?

DJ: I just loved the movie. It was one of those movies that I saw at the theater over and over again. It just reminded me of the black martial arts super hero, which had never been done. I just thought that a rebooted and updated version with today’s technology and storytelling was something we could do. I don’t know if that version will ever get told, but it is a script that I wrote.

Now, I am remaking Sudden Death, which was a Van Damme movie in the 80s. I’m writing and directing that this summer. But that’s me kind of pouring out my own personal desire of a black martial artist, who is also a father and a hero. In my version of it, he is a war hero who couldn’t get a job before he finally lands one as a security guard at this place like Staples Center. The arena gets taken over by these terrorists, which is unfortunately the same day he decided to bring his kids to work.

DC: Not only was Thriller your directorial debut, but it was also your first time working with Blumhouse. How was that experience?

DJ: Blumhouse totally showed a lot of faith, not only in developing the script with me, but also in allowing me to direct the movie because there was another director involved at one point. They gave me complete creative control. They had input, but anything they offered was purely suggestive. I listened to them because they know what they are doing.

It was also a great challenge for me because it was like, well, let me go make this movie. Let me make it on time and put my heart and soul into it, which they supported. They’re the ones who suggested premiering it at the Los Angeles Film Festival, which was a fantastic experience. My parents got to come, and it was a huge crowd. Also, it was their idea to take the movie to Netflix.

When you look at Get Out, Thriller, and even Us, Blumhouse is really doing something special. I think they are the Pixar of horror movies.

DC: Thank you so much for speaking with me about Thriller. I’m excited to see where your career is headed.

DJ: Thank you!

Take a look at this exclusive clip of high school student Lisa Walker (Jessica Allain) experiencing night terrors in Dallas Jackson’s Thriller.



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