Interview: DIRECTOR DOUG MCKEOWN on THE DEADLY SPAWN at Chicago's MASSACRE Horror Marathon

In The Deadly Spawn, writer-director Doug McKeown succeeded in creating an excellent alien invasion film as well as a sharp subversion of the genre. The film's combination of tightly paced story, memorable characters and impressive practical creature effects set a high bar for independent horror film making that few projects have rivaled.

McKeown will be appearing in person to screen The Deadly Spawn at the Portage Theater for Chicago's 24 Hour Massacre Horror Marathon on Saturday, October 18, 2014. Massacre tickets are available online now and all the latest info on the event can be found at the official Massacre Facebook page. Midnite Ticket spoke with McKeown about his path to becoming a filmmaker and the production of The Deadly Spawn:

Midnite Ticket: What films made a big impact on you during your childhood?

Douglas McKeown: Three movies had an especially big impact on me as a boy: Invaders from Mars (1953), Frankenstein (1931), and King Kong (1933). Also a whole bunch of others, among them: Flash Gordon serials with Buster Crabbe, Tarantula, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), The Mole People (oddly enough), The Invisible Man (1933), and the early Harryhausen pictures: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth.

MT: What ideas or images first inspired you to become a filmmaker?

DM: I think the idea of outer space and rocket travel to alien planets, etc. One image especially haunted me, from a sci-fi TV show, I think it was either “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger” or “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.” Don’t ask me how a spaceship was involved, but the plot had a Neanderthal man discovered preserved in ice who then thawed out and came to terrifying life. I also connect this storyline in memory to the great Dave Fleischer Superman cartoon series because one episode had a prehistoric monster — a not very accurate depiction of a Tyrannosaurus — thaw out and go on a rampage. (I absolutely loved that cartoon and gave a lecture to my fifth grade class on the anatomy of Tyrannosaurus Rex in part because of it.) So, those were all early interests of mine: space and time travel and ancient species, pre-humans, apes, and dinosaurs; jungles, caves, pits in the earth, and the real-life or mythical monsters dwelling therein.

I was always visually oriented. I drew pictures a lot in grade school, cartoons, faces, monsters. I made animation booklets when I was supposed to be doing arithmetic. I started young learning to do horror make-ups on myself, copying all the classics. From about the age of 9 I was recreating movie scenes as plays, both on a basement stage and also outside, on the larger neighborhood stage. I used to dress up and “direct” and “star” in monster attacks, usually after dark, involving unsuspecting kids. If I had owned a movie camera, I would have been making films instead.

I was always excited by the idea that locations I already had access to could stand in for exotic places. An open field or nearby woods could be a prehistoric lost world. Interiors like our attic or the vacant old house a ways up Route 1 could be an Edgar Allan Poe castle, a haunted mansion, etc. I could tell that’s what they did in the old “B” pictures I watched on television, like “Jungle Jim” (even a child I could tell it wasn’t really filmed in Africa). I think I still tend to visualize a setting almost before thinking of a story.

MT: The Deadly Spawn was accomplished with a very low budget and shot mostly on weekends. Many months of your time were dedicated to the film during principle photography. What changes did you make in your life to be able to commit yourself to the project? What was an average week like for you during the shoot?

DM: Well, for one thing, I had to quit my part-time job. I needed weekdays free to write, since my evenings were already taken up with other projects. Since none of the cast or crew was to be paid, I had to borrow a lot of money to live. And I was already very busy that year working for low or no pay, directing and designing sets for Off-Off-Broadway productions, co-writing and directing a nightclub comedy act, and taking small acting parts on TV soap operas. So, there really wasn’t an average week, except that I pounded away on my Smith Corona until all hours, working on story outlines, character descriptions, and editing plans. Whatever scenes I finalized had to be ready to shoot on Saturday and Sunday out in New Jersey, so as soon as I had dialogue ready, I typed it up with carbon copies — anybody remember carbon paper? — then tried my best to get it to the actors in advance. I remember sometimes the actors and I would meet at my corner coffee shop on 45th Street as soon as it opened on Saturday morning and go over scenes before a car came from Jersey to drive us out to the set. I knew once we got to there, I would be way too busy and distracted to give full attention to each actor’s performance. Whatever improvising we had to do later, whatever came up, the actors and I had at least already established a basic understanding of character intentions and movements. I hoped so, anyway.

Also, once I knew for sure a completed scene was on the schedule, I had to function as my own assistant and production designer/manager. I had to figure out well enough in advance exactly what special props or costuming were going to be needed at a location. For instance, all that vegetarian luncheon food had to be created, and the baby spawn and its innards with a dissecting tray, cork, pins and razor blade, and a pup tent and campfire, an alarm clock, eggs to scramble, posters to go up on Charles’ bedroom walls, cereal boxes, a copy of Famous Monsters magazine, and on and on. You couldn’t wait until the last minute to get that stuff ready — it all had to be found, made, prepared in advance, so as not to waste time on the day of the shoot. I know I was always worried that any practical special effect required for a scene might not be ready in time and tried to have something else to shoot just in case. Oh, and don’t forget, in breaking down the scenes for shooting, I also had think about things like matching rooms in different towns that were supposed to be in the same house. I seem to recall, for example, that we had to paint the door to a bedroom in one house the proper color red in order to match the doors in another house in a different town. (The basement was in yet another town!) So, I was working during the week almost as much on the logistics of where and when and how to shoot, as I was on what to shoot.

MT: New York Times film critic Vincent Canby felt that The Deadly Spawn may be a "metaphor for suburban life in New Jersey." The film cleverly succeeds at being subversive and frightening at the same time. What motivated you to work this subtext into the project?

DM: Thanks, I’m glad you think we succeeded at being subversive, but subversion wasn’t “worked into the project.” For me, subversion was the project. Frankly, it wouldn’t have been very interesting to me to write a bunch of the same old Hollywood clichés. You know, boy meets girl, monster attacks girl, boy saves girl — the tried and true, and boring, formula. So, I set out to foil expectations and unfold a deliberately un-sensational, un-theatrical 24-hour day in the life of an ordinary family in New Jersey — the state where I not so incidentally happened to have spent my own childhood — and then throw in the sci-fi horror and see what happens. When the mindless, voracious spawn creatures arrive and cause this bloody mayhem, it is random bloody mayhem because they certainly couldn’t care less about obeying the tropes of a movie genre! The freedom to do this was only possible because we were making an ultra low-budget film far from any studio. Aiming for New Jersey real as opposed to Hollywood real is subversive itself. This approach also had the advantage of addressing those budget considerations, which were considerable. This way, no sets had to be built, no slick California actors had to pretend to be New Jerseyites, no fashion designer had to come up with Aunt Millie’s frumpy bathrobe or Grandma’s pink curlers, and if the basement was dingy and dank for real, well, that was just fine. Not to mention I had a lot of fun with the comic elements implicit in this set up, especially those ladies who lunch. For me, the satirical subtext you refer to was the electric current that actually powered The Deadly Spawn. But I wanted to keep it as an under-current only — subtext, not text. On the surface, the really horrible, grossly violent things that keep happening, I wanted to treat absolutely straightforwardly, for real; I wanted the actors to play them for real. I don’t like tongue-in-cheek, campy movies very much, you know, where the filmmakers make fun of everything, and everybody is in on the joke and the monsters are ridiculous, ha ha ha. Spoils the fun, I think, for the audience, if we don’t take our story seriously.

MT: The Deadly Spawn played on 42nd street during the heyday of the grindhouse era. Did you see the film in this setting? If so, what was it like to experience your work in that environment?

DM: I did. I saw it for the second time when it played on 42nd Street on a double bill. I used to go to that strip in Times Square sometimes to catch cut-rate, second-run double and triple features. Very vocal audiences — they really got into the spirit of things! But if a movie was pedestrian or no good, people would ignore the screen and talk, or make out with their girlfriends or whatever. I brought a writer friend with me who had avoided the movie when it first opened because of the nature of the genre. Most people I knew pretty much looked down on ultra-violent horror movies. The theater was very dark and the floor was suspiciously slippery. My friend had never visited one of these rather sleazy places and was none too happy to be there. I also think he worried about having to sit through a tedious, gross-out flick even for the sake of friendship. I’ll never forget after a few minutes he turned to me and exclaimed in surprise, “This has entertainment value!”

MT: The vegetarian party scene is simply great. What sparked this idea?

DM: First, the fact that I needed some kind of subplot, basically to show the spawn proliferating but without having scenes where characters “call in the authorities.” (I said up front, no sending for the Army and the Marines with tanks and bazookas. Too typical. Also — budget, budget, budget.) So, to stay with the family story, I decided Aunt Millie could visit her mother’s house for a gathering of ladies, like my own mother’s groups when I was a kid. It gave me the opportunity to draw from some of the amusing types I grew up around, as well as provide another setting for a juicy mass attack. I made the mother a vegetarian because our effects director was a health food proponent and always talked about that, so I had research right there on the set. He could answer any questions I had about soy protein or brewer’s yeast or whatever. Casting was easy, too. I knew some of the comic actors from working with them in New York on other productions. And I loved the perverse idea of wacky (but endearing), chatty ladies suddenly embattled and bloodied. As one writer observed, “disturbing.” Yeah!

MT: In the audio commentary track you mention that the editor did not use your shooting script to assemble the film. How does the film as we know it differ from your shooting script?

DM: Well, “shooting script” may be a bit of a misnomer. I did type most scenes out with dialogue and number them in sequence, including instructions for camera placement and movement, as well as for eventual editing and cross-cutting between sequences. But all of that was mostly just for myself. Especially towards the end of the shoot, I was just jotting down notes and quick sketches, since there was less dialogue and more action. No actor or creative team member ever got a complete script because I was turning out pages as we went, and there was no need in any case, since we all talked about the storyline all along. And the plan always was for me to assemble the entire rough cut myself. We were even going to rent an editing console and install it in my apartment. But that changed when they decided to go on shooting effects inserts without me. A couple of years later, the editor they brought on board had to figure out a lot just from looking at the footage — without the knowledge that there had been any script at all, because nobody put him in touch with me. (The only scene in The Deadly Spawn that is assembled exactly as I wanted it to be is the one where the mother is attacked in the basement. This I myself cut together right after we shot it, and it remains as it was in the finished film. We showed that sequence at a sci-fi convention, as I recall, before we had shot much else on the film.) I had all the pages at home, and since nobody ever called for them, I always assumed the movie would remain unfinished. The editor, Mark Harwood, later told me he wished he had had my pages to work from. I told him he did an amazing job, considering (apart, that is, from making a dissolve at one point; I don’t like dissolves). The final edit really does match in broad strokes my initial plan. Not entirely surprising, since I shot very little coverage. For Harwood, of course it was too little. I knew what angles I wanted and how I wanted the shots to cut together.

The main difference between what I intended and what is in the finished film is the overly long basement sequence. A large number of creature inserts were added that were not in the script. I’d have used fewer of them — wonderfully clever and well done as they are, I hasten to add — and of those used, I’d have trimmed each severely. I believe overexposure drains away the fear factor. (I think that’s what Vincent Canby meant when he also wrote in his review that the movie was “resolutely unscary.”) So, I would have cut the boy-in-basement-with-Spawn scene almost in half and restored to the film the eliminated first “love scene” between Pete and Ellen. Hated to see that cut, it was so well played. Also, nowhere in my script are there any cutesy insert shots of spawn behaving all wrong: munching parsley and celery, for example, humorous as they are in and of themselves. The whole irony of the vegetarian luncheon scene is that the spawn are meat eaters, for heavens’ sake. Basically, there was a lot of tunnel vision and fuzzy thinking on display in the film that is not in the script. Amusing moments, mind you, but inappropriate. I still watch the movie with some dismay because of these missteps. There are many other little nonsensical bits and pieces, like is it raining that first morning, or not? And if so, why are there stars in a clear, night sky and crickets chirping? And why are all the lights in the house on? Stuff like that. I probably should add I’m also often dismayed by some of the stuff in the film that I put there myself!

MT: At Midnite Ticket we are dedicated to celebrating repertory theaters and the movie going experience. Were there any specific theaters that had a big impact on you growing up?

DM: Oh gosh. I was a small town kid. For me, it was the local theater and the Saturday kids’ matinees. It’s where I saw all the newer giant monster and adventure movies, like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Mysterious Island. It was, and still is, a modest little house called The Forum Theatre, but it is so saturated with memories, it might as well be Graummann’s Chinese. You know, sometimes I say I envy kids today because they can stream a favorite movie or watch it on DVD/Blu-ray over and over again. But maybe it’s they who should envy me a little. For us kids in those mid-20th century days, a movie was an event. We went into the theatre like it was a sacred space, almost trembling with anticipation. We had been talking about a certain title excitedly every day since the “preview” the week before. We rushed in, scrambled to get the best seat and then sat still, immersed, all eyes and ears, eager to memorize everything unspooling on 35mm film, projected on a huge screen. We might not get another chance!

More Info on The Massacre Horror Marathon