During his career, writer-director Scott Swan has been the co-author of John Carpenter’s “Cigarette Burns” and “Pro-Life,” the co-author of Larry Fessendon’s “Skin & Bones,” and, most recently, the writer and co-director (along with Fred Vogel) of “MASKHEAD.”
Looking back at his experience putting “MASKHEAD” together, Swan said his fondest memories are of working with the cast and crew.
“Without a doubt, the best part was the people I made it with,” he said. “All the Toe Tag crew and cast were amazing to work with. The term ‘dedication’ does them a disservice. Our crew was never more than about five people on any given night, but those five people were among the most extraordinary folks I’ve ever met, and we never could have pulled it off without them.”
The most difficult part of creating the film, Swan said, was working within a very limited budget.
“They say you can’t solve all your problems with money, and I’m sure this is true, but you can solve some of them,” he said. “Because we didn’t have a luxurious budget, though, we had to rely on our imaginations to come up with clever fixes and alternate ways of doing the things we wanted to pull off. There’s so much we came up with as alternatives, products of necessity or last-minute inspiration.”
According to Swan, that ingenuity helped the movie come “alive.”
“It’s like a wild beast we jumped on, only we didn’t realize just how wild it was until we were strapped into the saddle,” he said. “So I suppose I’ll say a lack of time was the most difficult part. On ‘Pro-Life,’ John Carpenter said to me, ‘If you have enough time, you can make anything.’ And he’s right.”
Although this was Swan’s first time in a directorial capacity, he said there wasn’t much that surprised about the job.
“I was on set for ‘Cigarette Burns’ and ‘Pro-Life’ and had the true privilege to study John Carpenter at work,” he said. “I made numerous observations during those shoots, with the intention that I would eventually put them to good use. I showed up each night, kept my cool, reserved my energy, smoked cigarettes, said ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ and tried to get rest.”
Swan said there are a few things that set ‘MASKHEAD’ apart from most other movies, such as “the fact that it’s not set in a real, recognizable world — it’s set in ‘MASKHEAD’ world.”
“It’s a heightened reality we establish in the first few minutes and stay true to throughout the entire film,” he said. “When people ask me to describe the film, I almost always say, ‘You’ve never seen a movie quite like “MASKHEAD.”‘ Sure, there are obvious cinematic inspirations: John Waters, Tobe Hooper, F.W. Murnau and even Stanley Kubrick — I reference ‘A Clockwork Orange’ in a line of dialogue. But it’s one of the most original things I’ve ever done. I love making something totally original, because at the very least, people will say, ‘Well, it’s original.'”
According to Swan, the reactions to the movie at the cast and crew screening were extremely gratifying.
“I don’t think they knew what to expect going into it. Very few people who worked on the film were actually at a vantage point to see all of the pieces during all phases of production,” he said. “A few of them approached me afterwards and told me that during production, they were trying to figure out how all the pieces were going to fit together and how they were mainly puzzled while we were shooting. The screening was fantastic, though. They screamed, shouted, laughed, gasped and generally freaked out all the way through. When it was over and the lights came up, it was like we had all just survived a peyote trip or something. One person — not a member of the cast or crew — described it as ‘a roller coaster ride. It’s scary and fun and when it’s over all you want to do is get back on again.’ Which is a hell of a compliment.”
With so many horror movies available, audiences can feel like they have “seen it all.” Therefore, film makers can often feel the need to go really far out to scare the audiences. I asked Swan whether a horror movie can go too far?
“Great question. I’ve never been asked that,” Swan replied. “I can go too far as an artist, definitely, and my impulse usually is to push it as hard as I can. I’m always second guessing myself as a result, questioning my impulse to take things way beyond the line. I’ve been told I don’t even know there is a line I probably shouldn’t cross. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that not everybody is entertained by my special brand of insanity. But can a movie go too far? My gut answer is no. Hell no. There are moments in ‘MASKHEAD’ that will make some people say we went too far, and I won’t argue that the movie is really dark in a few places.”
Swan said the film makers tried to balance those moments with humor.
“One minute, you’re cringing it’s so nasty, and the next you’re laughing your ass off,” he said. “A few days into the shoot, Fred and I looked at each other in amazement and agreed, ‘Wow, this movie is actually really funny.’ Neither of us expected this, but it was something we embraced immediately. We knew it was working. And without the black comedy, I don’t think ‘MASKHEAD’ would be watchable, or at least it would be a much tougher view. The humor gives us permission to go jet black dark. And trust me, we go.”
As for what happens next with the movie, Swan said he doesn’t carry any expectations.
“All I have are hopes,” he said. “I hope lots of people see it and appreciate the work. I hope it does well in the marketplace. I hope it has a life of its own. But I shouldn’t impose expectations.”
Swan also said he sincerely hopes the gay material doesn’t cause any controversy.
“The two central characters, Syl and Maddie, are kind of like a modern-day lesbian version of Leopold and Loeb,” he said. “Sexuality is a constant theme in the film. All of the core characters are gay, lesbian or transgendered. I’m not sure what Fred thought the first time he read my script, but he was bold enough to say, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ You have to give Fred Vogel major props for bravery.”
THE TWITTER EFFECT
While many people had a hand in creating “MASKHEAD,” there are more than 500 names set to appear in the credits who never spent a single minute on the set.
Earlier this year, Swan had approximately 50 followers for his Twitter account. In an effort to gain more followers, he stated that his first 500 followers would get their names in the credits of the movie he was making.
I read the message he sent and asked him if he would be interested in doing a quick story about the concept. The story made its way around and in fairly quick order, Swan got up and over the 500-follower mark before his self-imposed deadline (he now sits at 565 followers).
According to Swan, the Twitter effect played a part in the movie’s development.
“It was like having 500 bosses breathing down my neck all at once,” he said. “Nothing like a little pressure. ‘Don’t suck.’ Which is why I’m going to bump it up to 1,000 followers for my next film. But Fred Vogel made it clear the other day that we won’t be doing that again, unless it’s a film I solo direct. He’s not a fan of special thanks lists, and then here I come with 500-plus names. He was nice enough not to complain too much, though.”
The idea of putting the names of his followers in the credits, Swan said, came from “The Lord of The Rings,” where all the fan club members got thanked in the DVD credits.
“At the time, I thought, that sure is a neat idea,” he said. “It really engages the fans on a deep, intimate level. I wanted to give ‘fans’ a sense of a stake in the film. They’re part of it.”
Swan said he has enjoyed having a direct line of communication with fans through Twitter.
“Absolutely. The fans are everything. They are our blood. That’s who movies are made for, ultimately,” he said. “I made this movie for myself during production and post, but now that it’s done, it’s really not for me anymore. On the ‘Masters Of Horror’ movies, it ended after the scripting process, when John [Carpenter] took over and I had to let go. This time, since I’m directing, I had my hooks in it all the way to the very end. And now it’s being ripped out of my hands. But it feels good to let go.”
“MASKHEAD” currently is available for pre-order at www.toetagpictures.com. The first 150 people to purchase the DVD will receive an 11×17 poster signed by the cast and crew. The DVD will ship at the beginning of this month or can be picked up at the Cinema Wasteland Convention.
Now that the movie is done and ready to be seen, Swan said he is ready for his next adventure.
“[I’m] ready to move forward and jump into whatever is next,” he said. “When I watch ‘MASKHEAD’ now, I can’t help but see little things I’d like to change or improve upon, but rather than dwell on that stuff, I’d rather put my attention on something new.”
Swan said he is the kind of filmmaker who could watch his movies “to death” if he isn’t careful.
“I love ‘MASKHEAD,’ had a great time making it, but it’s time to put my focus on new material,” he said.
Swan said he is eager to write and direct more movies.
“That’s all I want to do,” he said. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It’s what I don’t do enough of. It’s where my thoughts are when my wife is talking and I’m not listening.”
And while the horror genre holds a dear place in his heart, Swan certainly isn’t adverse to working in other genres.
“I want to make a comedy, one of those sleazy ’80s tittie movies,” he said. “I’d also like to make an intense thriller with no gore or nudity. I asked Rob Zombie once if we can ever expect to see ‘Rob Zombie’s Terms of Endearment,’ and he said, ‘Sure, if I have the right script. Why not? I like all sorts of movies.’ And I feel pretty much exactly the same way. I like a lot of different kinds of movies, so I want to make different kinds of movies.”
In fact, Swan said, he already has some things brewing in a few different genres.
“As a writer I’ve got a couple possibilities hovering — not all horror,” he said. “I actually just wrote a family drama, which was an interesting process. As writer/director, I’m not sure. I’ve thought about a few ideas. Whatever I make next, I’d like it to be a little more subtle than ‘MASKHEAD,’ which isn’t a difficult goal. I like to zag after I zig. Keeps me interested. Or who knows, maybe I’ll zig even harder. I tend not to find my creative choices, they find me.”
Follow Sean Gerski on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DoubleDown44.