A Chat with director Craig Singer (“Dark Ride,” “Perkins’ 14”)

You can’t look at the New Releases rack of your local video store these days without happening upon four or five dozen flicks (at least) that have bypassed theatrical release and gone straight to video. This is a particular annoyance for horror aficionados, who’ve seen their genre of choice end up as a sad collection of remakes, quick-turnaround franchises, or sometimes both. Thank goodness, then, for Lionsgate and their After Dark Horrorfest series, which provides brief theatrical releases and high-profile DVD releases for both up-and-coming and established filmmakers. Director Craig Singer found sufficient success with his first After Dark venture, “Dark Ride,” to find his way back into the fold for the latest round of Horrorfest films. But Singer’s “Perkins’ 13” is a bit more adventurous than the usual motion picture, as he explained to Premium Hollywood in a discussion which also tackled some of his other works, including “Animal Room,” with Neil Patrick Harris, and “A Good Night To Die,” with Michael Rapaport.

Stay tuned for…

Premium Hollywood: Hey, Craig, how’s it going?

Craig Singer: Hey, Will, how are you?

PH: I’m good. You know, I actually realized the other day that you and I have traded comments in the past. When I reviewed your last film, “Dark Ride,” on Premium Hollywood, you left a comment to thank me for the kind words.

CS: Oh, that’s so funny! Well, thank you very much! (Laughs)

PH: No problem. Well, I checked out “Perkins’ 14” earlier today…

CS: Very cool.

PH: …and I understand that a lot of specifics about the film were chosen and decided upon by online fans.

CS: It was! It was kind of a unique process, something that was – at least at one time – very experimental, and it became more inevitable.

PH: So how did it come about? Whose idea was it to go that direction?

CS: My partner, Chris Williams, and I had been working for many, many years on collaborative platforms, and we had a company called FanLib, and we were developing different interactive platforms to let fans kind of involve themselves in the creative process in a deeper way. So we were working on that with two of the major studios about doing a film…a horror film…that was going to involve the fans. And, at the same time, I’d completed “Dark Ride” for Lionsgate and After Dark, and Courtney Solomon had asked me to do another feature for them. So we basically put them in touch with a company called Massify, in New York, who we were partners with us to kind of create the first fan-crafted horror film, and the timing seemed to be right. And, again, at one time, this was all very experimental, where the internet was just moving in that direction in terms of growing and galvanizing audiences by letting them feel more a part of the process. So we came up with the concept, and originally we were going to let the fans write the whole screenplay, one scene at a time, but we decided to do it this way, with Massify and After Dark and Lionsgate, and let the fans come up with the basic premise and idea for the film. And what happened was hundreds of submissions came in, with every conceivable sub-genre of the horror category: ghost films, vampire films, slasher films, zombie films. And they were whittled down to finalists, and ultimately “Perkins” was chosen. And then they decided to open four of the roles up in the feature to the fans as well, and we had an online audition process and open casting calls at some of the horror conventions and trade shows around the country. And that was whittled down, too, to about 20 finalists, who were flown to Los Angeles and did screen tests. And then the four winners who were cast in the film were flown out to Romania. Then the marketing department came up with the fan poster contest. And we had, like, 500 submissions. We were really fortunate. Talk about the creative juices that are out there, but the poster that won is just, in my opinion, one of the best posters to come down the pike in a long time. It’s a true retro-Grindhouse poster.

PH: Oh, absolutely. It’s awesome.

CS: It was the one poster…like, I didn’t have a hand in choosing the winner, I had nothing to do with it, but it was the one poster where I felt so strongly about it that I went behind the scenes and sent the guy kudos. Y’know, just telling him that I was really proud of his work and that I wanted to congratulate him whether he won or he lost. But he happened to win, and I was really fortunate that we were able to end up with that poster.

PH: Now, on the Wikipedia page, the poster they show is a bit different from the one on the DVD.

CS: Yeah, it’s funny: the MPAA disallowed the winning poster for…I think they said it was for three reasons. The blood on the girl’s face, the bars, and just generally the woman-in-peril theme. So the same artist had to go ahead and kind of clean it up a little. But we had some mini-posters made up, and… (Laughs) …obviously, they liked the original better.

PH: Oh, yeah, like you said, it’s got a very retro ‘70s feel to it.

The original “Perkins’ 14” poster.

CS: Isn’t it cool?

PH: Definitely. And speaking of retro, when I did my write-up of “Dark Ride” a couple of years ago, I noted how, in this post-“Saw” world, you actually tried to get away with capturing the feel of the ‘70s and ‘80s horror films. Is that your favorite era of horror films?

CS: Well, you know, I was really a student of that period of filmmaking and filmmakers, specifically. I think that it was just a lot more original, a lot more visionary in some respects, and a lot of the low-budget horror films that came out in the ‘70s just had a really unique feeling and quality. I think there’s kind of a gloss and a shine to today’s films, specifically the remakes, which feel more formulaic and less enjoyable. That was something I wanted to be mindful of. Taking a contrarian approach and being a little bit experimental with the film in respect to the composition and even the structure, the characters, and the story. I think it makes it a more enjoyable experience for the audience.

PH: In the case of “Dark Ride,” it also felt like it was specifically geared to the people who enjoyed the films of that era. I mean, it’s not like you really find that many dilapidated and abandoned amusement parks these days.

CS: (Laughs) That’s true. It’s funny, because I get so much love for that film from the fans. At the trade shows and conventions, they come up to me. It really kind of struck a chord with a lot of people, and it makes me really happy, because there was a lot of love that went into that film.

PH: I made a comparison to Tobe Hooper’s “Fun House” in the review.

CS: I get that a lot, but strangely enough, it really wasn’t an influence. To be perfectly honest, it came more from my own personal experience of actually going on these types of rides when I was a kid, where I’d always find myself thinking, “What would happen if there was some crazy person on here with me?” Because your imagination just kicks into high gear, and once you’re in the dark, all bets are off.

PH: Jumping back to “Perkins,” it almost feels like two movies in one: a psychological thriller and a zombie flick. I don’t know if that’s the result of the fans voting on the specifics, or…

CS: Well, it really was designed that way. Actually, the idea was that so many films nowadays don’t really give you a chance to get to know the characters or to have any empathy. It’s more like they’re just setting up imaginary bowling pins and try to think of imaginative ways to knock ‘em down and slaughter the characters. But I always felt like, once you get inside Dwayne Hopper’s head…and he’s beautifully played by Patrick O’Kane, who we cast out of London. He’s a very well-respected Shakespearean stage actor. I felt like he had the kind of empathy and tortured quality, that kind of inner struggle of a father who’s been through this terrible event, and once you really had that feeling for him, you have a lot more liberty and license to kind of let the fur fly in the third act, so to speak. You’re developing the characters and making it kind of a psychological thriller during the first two-thirds, lulling the audience into that false sense of security, and then you hopefully emotionally pull the rug out from under them by letting the vino pour, so to speak.

PH: Do you try to pay tribute to past films when you’re making your movies, insofar as including homages to your favorites?

CS: Well, I don’t think you can help it. As filmmakers, we all kind of borrow and steal. I don’t think it’s an intentional tribute, but you’re influenced by things that you’ve seen, and a lot of times it’s about where you wish films had taken you. So you’re using your imagination to say, “Wouldn’t it be great if…” Or, you know, “I’ve never really kind of seen this executed quite in this way before.” So you try to keep it fresh, and if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best… (Laughs) …so you look at the greatest films that have influenced you, and hopefully you can either put a fresh spin on it, or you offer a variation on a theme that was effective as you viewed a film and then hopefully you can re-create the same kind of emotion. But, ultimately, you want to try and keep it fresh, and you want to try to have your own distinctive DNA in the type of work you present to an audience. People now are savvy and sophisticated, and they’re very harsh critics! (Laughs) They’re very vocal, and they’re not shy with their feelings or their opinions at all. So, hopefully, the entertainment value trumps everything else.

PH: By being involved with the whole Horrorfest concept, are you finding that you’re getting a greater amount of acknowledgement and appreciation of your work?

CS: It’s a blessing, because at this level, to get your film theatrically released is almost unprecedented. It’s almost unheard of in today’s economics. It’s very challenging for a filmmaker to get exhibition and distribution on any level, let alone theatrical and the type of DVD push that these folks do. They market the hell out of the films, and it’s a blessing. I feel very fortunate to have been asked to direct two of them, and they actually want me to do a third. We’ll see if that happens. But, clearly, if you’re not doing tentpole $100 million Hollywood fare…I mean, it’s a rare thing to be able to make kind of more experimental films in nature, to not be micromanaged, and to get a significant amount of creative control and have them be very respectful of my work in that way. You don’t see too much of that. Larger Hollywood films are pretty much by the numbers, and there’s a formula that they follow because they need to protect these franchises and they need to kind of keep the marketing engines turning and keep the lights on. And that really wasn’t the case with “Perkins’ 14.” We had final cut, and I’m really blessed in that respect.

PH: So how long have you been a Misfits fan?

CS: That’s a good question. The Misfits were in my first feature film, “Animal Room,” and I didn’t know who they were. (Laughs) It’s funny, because when I met with them at a diner out in West Jersey, they were not in makeup. They were just normal guys. And then when they showed up on the day of filming, they were in their Halloween outfits, and I thought somebody was playing a practical joke on me! So after that small cameo, I ran into Michale Graves at one of the horror conventions, and he was gushing with how much he enjoyed that experience and how he wanted to become an actor, and if there was anything I might have for him. So that kind of stuck with me for about a year and a half, and when Eric’s role came up in “Perkins’ 14,” I said, “Would you mind auditioning?” And he said, “Absolutely not. Anything you need.” And he was right for the role, so we flew him out to Romania. (Laughs)

PH: Speaking of “Animal Room,” you had Neil Patrick Harris starring in that, who was, I guess you’d say, between fame.

CS: Well said. (Laughs) Yes, absolutely, he was the lead.

PH: How was it working with him on a project like that?

CS: Neil was great. We went out to lunch after he read the script, and he really liked the material. I think he was kinda trying to distance himself from “Doogie,” and I think that role helped him achieve that. So we developed a friendship, and then the rest of the cast really fell into place. Matthew Lillard hadn’t really done anything at that point, and as you know, it was Amanda Peet’s first film, and Catherine Hicks was in it as well. I was really blessed with a great cast for my first film. I didn’t really know much about filmmaking at the time, so it was kind of a trial by fire, but it was great.

PH: And then it was about six years before you did your next film, “Dead Dogs Lie.”

CS: Um…I think I did “Pieces of Ronnie” first, a short, then “Dead Dogs Lie,” and then “A Good Night to Die.” Actually, Mickey Rourke was attached to play the lead in “A Good Night to Die” for many years. Mickey and I became friends, we wrote a script together called “Penance.” Actually, Mickey wrote it, and I kind of re-wrote it with him and Robert (Dean) Klein, my writing partner. And then Mickey was replaced by Michael Rapaport literally at the last minute.

PH: Both “A Good Night to Die” and “Dead Dogs Lie” were hitman-themed films. Were you just kind of in the hitman-mindset at the time?

CS: Actually, they were written by Robert Klein, and they were scripts that he was just really passionate about getting made. And they were fun scripts, so I just decided to give them a whirl. Looking back, people always ask why I didn’t make a horror film earlier, and I don’t really have any easy answer for that. The timing was just right. After we premiered “A Good Night to Die” at the Cannes Film Festival, a Lionsgate executive came up to us and asked what we wanted to do next, and I said, “A horror film.” And Lionsgate said, “Okay, we’re your partners.” So that’s how it came about. I had always been a huge fan and have nothing but admiration and respect for the horror genre, so it’s no surprise that I’ve done a few horror films in a row now.

PH: So do you plan to continue working in the genre, or are you going to move back out to do other things?

CS: Well, we’re going to do another fan-participatory horror, which will probably give fans a level of involvement that exceeds “Perkins” and will really let the fans have a robust role in the creation of the film. There’s a project I’ve been working on for a number of years now, and my partner Chris Williams and I will probably do that next. And, actually, there’s a comedy, a diamond heist, a love story, a drama…I’m pretty eclectic when it comes to what I like aesthetically, but I’d say there are still a few more horror films in my future.

PH: And just to stick on “A Good Night to Die” for a moment longer, you had a lot of great people in that film as well: Seymour Cassell, Debbie Harry, Ralph Macchio…

CS: Sure. Lainie Kazan, Robin Givens…

PH: Yeah. It’s loaded with a lot of familiar faces, to be sure.

CS: That was fun, because a lot of the actors, like Frank Whaley, would just come in for a day or so, so I didn’t have much of a chance to really develop much of a relationship with them. But there certainly was no shortage of characters in the film. With “Dark Ride,” there was a lot of debate with respect to Jamie-Lynn Sigler’s involvement, because a lot of times a “name” actor can bring an audience or a film out of a horror film, because you don’t have that voyeuristic docu-drama feel. And sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a subjective kind of question, and I think the proof is in the pudding. The right actor can enhance a character regardless of their fame, but sometimes it does kind of take you out of the film.

PH: I thought she did a good job, though I think part of that was because I’d only really seen her in “The Sopranos,” so it was nice to see her doing something else.

CS: It’s like the case with “Doogie Howser.” I hadn’t really watched “The Sopranos,” and I never really watched “Doogie Howser,” either… (Laughs) …so I think that was a blessing for me when working with both Jamie-Lynn and Neil Patrick Harris.

PH: Honestly, if anything, I think I was more distracted by Patrick Renna, because seeing him just kept making me think of “The Sandlot.”

CS: I know, right? That’s so funny. I get a lot of really interesting fan mail from people who love Patrick because he’s such a character. He’s a really nice guy, and I thought he did a great job.

PH: Oh, yeah, he’s very memorable, spouting trivia as he does. Oh, I wanted to ask you about the gore in your films. When it comes to that, do you have somewhere in the back of your mind a level of how far you’ll go? I tend to think not…

CS: Well, you know, again, the audiences are very sophisticated and they’ve kind of seen it, done it, and been there, so you really have to be imaginative and come up with things that are…I don’t want to say over the top, but steeped within the reality of your film and the flavor of your film. But, also, you want to kind of push the envelope, so you can hopefully exceed expectations for the audience. “Perkins’ 14” has a wonderful balance of gore. I think tonally the film is exactly what I wanted to achieve. It doesn’t have the laughs or the humor that “Dark Ride” did. It’s more dire and serious in nature, and that’s what I was after. But, you know, we were so excited when “Dark Ride” got the Clip of the Week on “The Soup” for the head scene…

PH: Yes!

CS: Yeah, so most people who’ve seen the film know what I mean will understand what I’m talking about. It was really outrageous, and it was something I’d never seen in any film before and I don’t think since. And it’s hard to think gags like that up, because everything’s been done to death! (Laughs) There are a couple of moments in “Dark Ride” that were really imaginative. But with “Perkins,” I wanted it to be more somber and more psychological and more of a relationship film, but it did also deliver the gore and the scares when called for. I think we achieved that.

PH: Is it hard to walk the tightrope between “dark” and “disturbing”?

CS: Good question! Um…you know, there are certain films that I call “an emotional root canal,” that are just kind of numb. They make you numb after you watch them, and it’s kind of an unsettling feeling. I don’t really go for that personally. Some people do, and that’s fine for them, but for me, if something just becomes an endurance test of keeping your dinner down, that’s not an enjoyable experience. It can be extreme and over the top, but sometimes there’s just a shock value that people are after. It’s one way to get a reaction, but for me, it’s always more powerful when you’re dealing with human behavior and the transformation of behavior from normal to abnormal, and you create drama within that sense. That’s really what I was after with “Perkins.”

PH: And, lastly, what are your favorite horror films? Either gore or just straightforward horror, since they’re really two separate genres.

CS: I really like Romero’s work, obviously. And Danny Boyle…I loved “28 Days Later.” I think it’s one of the best films I’ve seen, period, in a lot time. I like some of the earlier Argento stuff, like “Bird with the Crystal Plumage” and “Deep Red,” or “The Hatchet Murders.” I thought that was really good. And, obviously, “Evil Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead,” I’m fans of those films. Again, the psychological films are good. “Suspiria” I thought was an interesting film, and some of Polanski’s earlier stuff as well. But generally speaking, I’m not married completely to the horror films or the horror filmmakers. I like Kazan’s work very, very much. He’s probably my favorite filmmaker. Elia Kazan, Stanley Kubrick, and guys like that. Then sprinkle in a couple of horror films, and you’ve got yourself a well-balanced meal!

  

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