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SXSW '07 Interview: "Murder Party" Director Jeremy Saulnier

by Scott Weinberg

The "Murder Party" Pitch: A random invitation to a Halloween party leads a man into the hands of a rogue collective intent on murdering him for the sake of their art, sparking a bloodbath of mishap, mayhem and hilarity.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
It’s The Breakfast Club ’- with chainsaws and hard drugs.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience?
This is my second time attending as a filmmaker. My short film Crabwalk had a pretty good run in 2004. It played at SXSW and about twenty other festivals- it even took home a few awards (Slamdance, Newport Int’l, USA). Murder Party just won the Audience Award at Slamdance.

If you're a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
I’m absolutely a film festival veteran -- as a short filmmaker. It’s a great ride. You get to travel, see the work of your peers, meet new talent and connect with audiences. It’s an invaluable experience, but after a few festivals you realize, “damn, I could’ve made three more films with the money I blew”. Our festival expenses greatly exceeded the budget of our short. With features, however, your film is an asset with real market value and the ride is much different. Much better swag.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be "When I grow up I want to be a…" what?

At various points in my life, I’ve wanted to be a worm, a Vietnam veteran, a professional skateboarder and a park ranger at an African wildlife reserve (I hate poachers). Since junior high, though, I knew I’d be a filmmaker.

Not including your backyard and your Dad's Handycam, how did you get your real "start" in filmmaking?
The camcorder was my Mother’s, for the record, and from my backyard roots I continued along a very traditional path. After attending NYU film school, I paid my dues as a production assistant, interned at a special effects shop and worked my way up the camera department at an advertising production company. January 1st, 2004 was the day I decided to refuse all production assistant work and declare myself a full time cameraman. That year I made $12,000- before taxes. It was well worth it though, because by 2005 I was a indeed a cameraman. My short film had premiered at Slamdance and won the grand jury prize so I was given small projects at the ad agency to direct and shoot. One of them was a presentational spec commercial for Maxwell House coffee. We shot on mini DV for a low budget, but the client went nuts for it and the project snowballed into a yearlong international campaign that I shot and directed. That was a huge break, and I made a relative fortune - I blew every penny of it on it on Murder Party.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it's on "the festival circuit?"
I won’t lie- it feels good to be part of the club. There’s always a measure of anxiety when submitting your film. You desperately want your work to be accepted, but you have to protect yourself emotionally in case of rejection. You may be at the mercy of highly qualified programmers who have impeccable taste, or booger picking knuckleheads that have no business judging your work. Who knows? We’re very lucky that Murder Party appeals to booger picking knuckleheads. I’d be proud of the film either way, but being on the circuit is certainly validating. Films are made for audiences, and without film festivals, it’s hard as hell for truly independent films to reach them.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
Animal.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
No. The idea behind this film was good fun and creative freedom. It was a chance for us to introduce ourselves to the film community on our terms, with our cast and no meddling from outsiders- for better or for worse. Plus, I delivered the script twelve hours before principal photography began and there simply wasn’t enough time to contemplate exhibition strategies or critical assessment.


How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.

It was August of 2005. Our first feature script was stalled. We were just beginning our fourth re-write and were a bit frustrated with the process. We loved the story but it required a hefty budget and, although we had interest from several investors, no money had come through and it looked like another year before we’d be shooting. I said to Chris Sharp and Macon Blair, my creative partners, “let’s make Murder Party a feature.” Everyone lit up. I had previously suggested the idea for Murder Party as a short film but it seemed like the perfect way to use the resources we had available – a talented group of filmmakers and performers, a loyal crew, and a few advertising dollars we had tucked away. We approached Murder Party as an assignment- we immediately gave ourselves the greenlight, picked a shoot date and started developing the project.

Macon Blair and Chris Sharp acted as Executive Producers and work-shopped the story with me. They’re both brilliant writers and performers and were vital to the process. I took off work for a month and wrote the script in my dining room. Every role was written specifically for each actor so the characterization and dialogue came with relative ease. I would interview the actors or give them assignments to develop back-story and dialogue exchanges. It was a very collaborative process.

We started prepping the film well before I had finished the script because of the previously mandated deadline. My wife, Skei Saulnier, and Chris Sharp stepped up to oversee production and our line producer, Kate Barry proved to be a valuable new recruit who also wore many hats to get the project off the ground.

For budgetary reasons, we broke up the shoot into two phases. In February of 2006 we shot the warehouse interiors that made up the bulk of the film. In May of 2006 we shot the Halloween exteriors that bookend the film. Both shoots were hectic but rewarding. In some ways we followed indie film guidelines to keep costs down by shooting ‘people in a room’- in our case, a warehouse. Then we added blood, guts, guns, dogs and cats, children and rooftop night exterior chase sequences. So we ended up pretty much throwing those indie guidelines out the window.

Post production was protracted, but our advertising connections kicked in and we were able to work with some of the best post facilities in New York for a reduced rate. Our Slamdance premiere featured a rough sound mix, so SXSW will mark the premiere of the finished version of the film!

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
Pull the trigger. It’s important to hone your skills, develop a compelling script and assemble a good production team, but that could take a lifetime. At some point you’ve got to set a deadline and go. There will always be regrets on any production, but none greater than that of never making the leap.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?
Every film I watch inspires me. A complete masterpiece will remind me why I’ve devoted my life to film and an epic piece of shit will remind me that there’s plenty of room for me in the industry. I revere films before filmmakers, because even the true masters have produced serious stinkers. I glean what I can, whether it’s from a bitchin’ action sequence, an amazing performance or lackluster coverage on what could’ve been a great scene.

Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell "This! I want something JUST like this ... only different."?
I watched Rope, River’s Edge, After Hours, Halloween and The Breakfast Club for inspiration. There’s a scene in Murder Party in which the characters inject themselves with Sodium Amytal – truth serum – and play a game of ‘Extreme Truth or Dare’. The night before we shot that scene I studied the confessional scene from The Breakfast Club and totally ripped off John Hughes’ shot list.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
Dan Castellaneta - the gentleman who does Homer’s voice. This would save a hell of a lot on ADR in postproduction. Plus, I’d deliberately sabotage any attempt to make The Simpons/i] a live-action production.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?

Remakes are tough. I’m 30 years old and it’s troubling to see classic films from my childhood being bastardized by the current trend of completely unnecessary remakes. I can appreciate the concept of recycling existing properties for new generations to enjoy- The Fugitive (1993) is swell, as is Dawn of the Dead (2004), and The Thing (1982) is among my all time favorite films. But Psycho (1998), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and The Hitcher (2007) are big mistakes. I’ll take the next Jason Bourne film.

Name an actor in your film that's absolutely destined for the big-time.
And why, of course.

I’m very proud to introduce the Murder Party cast to audiences and the industry. They’re funny as hell and can handle their own stunts. They spoiled me as a director. As far as singling one out that’s destined for the big time- it’s whoever doesn’t O.D. before they can get there.

Finish this sentence: If I weren't a filmmaker, I'd almost definitely be...
… miscast.

Who's an actor you'd kill a small dog to work with? (Don't worry; nobody would know.)
Although I’d love to kill a dog, I’m happy with the Murder Party cast.

Have you "made it" yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say "Yes, wow. I have totally made it!"
Hell yeah, I’ve made it. I’m nowhere near my ultimate goal, but it’s very important to stop and say ‘Yes. Wow” from the top of every plateau you’re able to reach. “I finished a screenplay!” “I made a short film!” “I paid off my credit card!” “I’m in SXSW!” etc…

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
They’re very important, except nowadays film savvy Internet nerds may be as influential as New York Times critics. And things are much more interesting as a result.

You're told that your next movie must have one "product placement" on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
Slurpees.

You're contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that's absolutely integral to the film or you're getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
I’d add violence.

What's your take on the whole "a film by DIRECTOR" issue? Do you feel it's tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film - or do you think it's cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?

No one can deny film is a collaborative effort. On Murder Party, the ‘film by’ credit is given to The Lab of Madness- the creative collective I work with. At our level, the gaffer and key grip volunteering their services are as important to the film as the lead actor. Perhaps later in my career I’ll change my philosophy, but for now I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking a ‘film by’ credit. Also, any director who takes a ‘film by’ credit better have written the screenplay too - or that’s a serious disrespect to the screenwriter.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
Never trust a filmmaker promoting their own work -- trust the audiences. Murder Party won the Audience Award at Slamdance this year and we couldn’t be happier with how it plays in front of a mob. So go ahead, ask around, pull our file, we know you’ll go apeshit for Murder Party/i]! (Did I mention it won the Audience Award at Slamdance?)

---

The Lab of Madness' Murder Party
will play (thrice) at the 2007 South by Southwest Film Festival. Click here for the official Murder Party website! And check out BSide.com for even more info!


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2091
originally posted: 02/21/07 09:17:26
last updated: 03/07/07 09:31:47
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