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Simon Read [Celluloid 08.19.16]

Having recently returned from the Transylvania IFF, where his new short film Saint Frankenstein picked up the Best Film Award in the Shadows Shorts Competition, writer/director Scooter McCrae agreed to field a few questions for Quiet Earth.

Here we discuss the genesis and the process of creating Saint Frankenstein, while also taking a look back at McCrae's previous films, the underground zombie classic Shatter Dead and the erotic cyberpunk thriller Sixteen Tongues. We also chat a little about horror movies generally.

You can read my review of the wonderful Saint Frankenstein here and download the film here.

Quiet Earth: Saint Frankenstein was originally going to be part of a horror anthology, Betamax. How did you get involved with this project?

Scooter McCrae : Saint Frankenstein came about specifically because of Betamax. In fact, it was actually the third script that I wrote as a possible short for the project. The first one, The Initiation of Marianne, is something that I'm proud of but it elicited an oddly polarized reaction from the people who read it. The male technicians who read it said they liked it a lot and hoped that it got made, but they didn't want to work on it, which I thought was an odd response. All my female friends who read it thought it was pretty special and needed to be made. It's a horror movie about male desire and how a person can drive themselves crazy from not knowing the truth about a situation from their lover's past. It's the kind of story that is, sadly, always relevant and I'm hoping to return to it someday. Then I wrote an oddball zombie short called Just The Tip, which was just a bit of fun, although it also dealt with some of the more abusive aspects of young male sexuality. It's a nice piece in its way, but I didn't feel it was substantial enough to be what I wanted to do for this kind of project even though, in retrospect, it might actually have fit in perfectly.

These sound like some very interesting ideas. How did you decide to go with the Saint Frankenstein concept instead?

Alex [producer Alex Kuciw] and I were contacted about doing this project around Thanksgiving of 2013, with the provision that it needed to be completed and in the can no later than March of 2014. This is not a whole lot of time to write a script, cast the parts, take care of all the pre-production aspects that a special effects movie can entail, etc. And then there's all the post-production aspects like editing, music scoring, further effects work and whatnot. We really had to come up with a viable screenplay quickly so we could begin to break it down and get everything in motion as soon as possible with the holiday season fast approaching.

Which led to another drunken evening of Alex and I tossing around some ideas for a third possible script, which eventually became Saint Frankenstein. In fact, we finished drinking and I ran home to begin writing and ended typing out the first two-thirds of the script that evening (about 10 of what would eventually become a 15 page final draft). I've had a particular Frankenstein movie in my mind that I've been wanting to make for the past 20 years or so, which is what became the main monologue at the heart of the short. Everything else kind of just came together very quickly and I finished the first draft of the script the very next evening.

That's fast work. It sounds like a real brainwave.

This was an uncharacteristically productive period of work for me, as I ended up churning out three short movie scripts in about three weeks. And although this is the one I ended up working on, I still got a lot of comment that the first script was even better and that I really should go back to it again someday and bring it to fruition. And based on all the good reaction Saint Frankenstein is getting, including most recently winning the best short horror movie prize at the Transylvania International Film Festival (TIFF), I would like to try and get the funding happening for Marianne someday.

The long story condensed, we cast the movie, shot it, edited and had the good fortune of Maestro Fabio Frizzi contributing an incredibly beautiful original score that turned out to be the soul that gave our creation life. We handed in the final version after running ourselves ragged to complete it in mid-March, and only then did we find out that nobody else in the anthology had turned in their movies yet. Yes, it was nice being first, but I also wish we had been given even a little bit more time to try and make the movie even better than it already is. We had to rush into production so quickly and I wish I could have had a little more time to cook the final screenplay a bit.

You decided to present Saint Frankenstein as a standalone short in the end. How come?

Unfortunately, I guess there were some issues with people getting their work completed on time for the Betamax project, so after having it sit with them for nearly a year and a half, Alex and I decided it was time to just take it away and let it strike out on its own as there was still no foreseeable release date at that point and we felt obligated to everyone involved to finally get it out into the world so people could see all the fine work everyone had done.

Actress and model Melanie Gaydos plays your Frankenstein's monster, here named Shelley. I thought she was truly remarkable in the role, with her magnetic screen-presence and otherworldly acting style.

Melanie really is fabulous in the movie. She's done a ton of fantastic modeling work and one look at her otherworldly photos and she's impossible to forget. She's so smart about the people she works with and has a cabal of talented photographers who know how to best take photographic advantage of her unique beauty. It's hard to believe in retrospect that I didn't write the role with her in mind.

How did you find out about her?

My very close friend Dan Ouellette, who is also a writer/director as well as a fine artist and production designer, is the one who made me aware of Melanie in the first place. We're always sharing neat stuff with each other, and one day he just sent me a link to a bunch of her photos and I was totally gobsmacked. This was before I had even written the screenplay, so once again it's hard to believe that I didn't have her in mind when I was writing it, but once the words were on the page and I started sharing it with people, she just kind of jumped into my head again and I realized there was probably no other person who could play this part the way that she could.

Tell us about the process of casting her for the role.

It turned out that once we decided to contact her, she also lived in Brooklyn, so setting up a meeting was relatively easy. Alex and I fell in love the instant we met her. She is so warm, easy going and energetic that it was intoxicating to be in her presence. That 'magnetism' that you perceived is quite natural for her, and even though she is portraying a character who is far different in temperament than she is real life, that radiance shines through and you are compelled to watch her when she speaks on-screen.

She totally commands the screen. How did you approach directing her scenes?

To be honest, I didn't have to do very much at all in the way of directing her once the camera was rolling. She knew the entire script inside out and she had studied it so intently and created these very well observed physical mannerisms for the character of Shelley. I just kind of sat back and marveled at her choices. I found her performance absolutely hypnotic even while we were shooting, so I stayed out of her way and made sure we got the coverage we needed and gave only the most basic of directions to make sure she didn't wander off-screen in the middle of a highly charged dramatic moment. She's done enough modeling to know what kind of shot we were getting from where the camera was placed, so often we just worked together on getting the most drama out of these particular angles.

An absolute joy to work with as well was Tina [Tina Kraus, Bad Biology], of course, although she's had far more moviemaking experience and I've had the extreme pleasure of working with her a couple of times before. Between the two of them, I really had a dream cast for this project.

The design of Melanie's character is quite elaborate. Who designed the make-up and effects?

In terms of the character design, Dan did a wonderful production sketch of Shelley based on a photo of Melanie he printed out from the internet, which included the massive chest and middle of the head scars. From there, Brian Spears and Pete Gerner (who have been working on many highly regarded low-budget productions together for years) added their own macabre details and further scarification into the mix. It was a fruitful collaboration in that sense and was even better than what I had envisioned in my own mind's eye for our lovely Saint.

Personally, I just kept wishing it was a feature and we could follow Shelley around for another hour and see what happens - so, with that in mind, any plans for a follow up or feature adaptation?

Thanks for saying that. I've always felt that the Frankenstein legacy is rich enough to be revisited and reinvented for a modern generation every decade or two. In fact, I'm shocked at how many new versions have been popping up lately, yet they all seem very conservative in respect to how little they have strayed from the original idea when there is so much more to be explored. They almost seem nervous to take the raw materials and invest personal exploration into a story that I think has been a bit misunderstood by many of the filmmakers who have attempted to exploit the idea. I've been referring to the current version of Saint Frankenstein as the first scene of a much larger story, which I'm hoping I will get the chance to tell eventually.

Your version is certainly distinct from traditional interpretations of the story.

I'm concerned that the sexual explicitness of our version, coupled with some very delicate historical details, makes for a hard sell these days. It would be difficult to make the kind of movie I'd like from all the possible raw materials that could be spliced together and eventually generate a profit for some poor producer. At this point, I've begun the process of outlining a novel for the character and it's some of the most exciting stuff I've ever written. The story that is told in the short really is just the tip of the narrative iceberg and it gets far crazier and more involved from there, especially because of all the flashbacks that are integral to connect the past with the modern day story.

Despite an unconventional approach, I think it's fair to say you retain certain of the specific themes inherent to the original story.

This is the first time I've written something that borrows someone else's character, however many hundreds of times removed my Shelley might be from the created being of the original Frankenstein. I don't view either version as a 'monster' in the traditional sense, but as a misunderstood person who has to deal with the provincial, preconceived notions of the people around them and the times they were born into. Which is why a true modern day Frankenstein mythos remains such an exciting storytelling playground for me, as I believe this creation would be more akin to a "rockstar" media sensation now than ever before. There are so many historic situations for the character to be plugged into both directly and indirectly that make for all sorts of astounding possibilities.

So hopefully, someday, I'll be able to make that tiny wish you have of hanging out with Shelley for a longer time come true. I know I certainly want to spend a lot more time in that world myself.

I mentioned in my review that I've often considered your films to contain an urgent social message woven into the material. Your first feature, the zombie film Shatter Dead, feels like a comment on the shocking economic divide between the Haves and Have Nots, but also touches on issues concerning our cultural obsession with youth and beauty, and indeed, the herd mentality that can lead people into cults and bizarre religions during times of social change. Were any of these issues at the forefront of your mind when you made that film?

Yeah, all those issues were definitely on my mind at some point during the writing process of Shatter Dead, although I try not to get too caught up in what something is "about" during the conception as you can end up tripping yourself up by unnecessarily bending what is hopefully a compelling enough story if you worry about whether or not everything fits into the "meaning" at the center of it all. I'm always trying to be an entertainer first and not some didactic blow-hard.

In the end, all religions are bizarre, so I wouldn't say the religions people are compelled towards in times of change are any more bizarre or even different, but the drive to find more truth down that rabbit hole than in what they can see before them with their very own eyes is always disappointing to me. Calling for prayers when the shit hits the fan is a waste of everybody's time when trying to find practical solutions to solvable problems should be the goal.
Despite saying all that, I'm pleased to say that I have still maintained my sense of humor at this late date.

How do you feel about Shatter Dead now?

I still love Shatter Dead because it's just as crazy and sexy as it has ever been in my mind. In fact, I think it feels a bit more excessive now than when it was first made since there are not as many underground movies flooding the marketplace as there were back then. Explicit nudity and matter-of-fact sexuality seem more foreign to the current movie-going climate. What was shocking back then just seems unthinkable now, Shatter Dead feels like an artifact of a bygone era of moviemaking that I have a good deal of nostalgia for. I do wonder what modern viewers make of it – if they are able to see past the low-budget flaws or if they've been too conditioned by the slick allure of all modern product to think everything has to have a certain level of teal in the color scheme to be a watchable, professional presentation.

With Shatter Dead, you took the bold move of making your zombies essentially docile, passive and sad creatures - a move very much at odds with what audiences were used to. The only other films I can think of which had (kind of) done this before were Dead & Buried and Messiah of Evil (both also have zombies as quasi-cult members), the latter of which I would count as one of the best, and most overlooked zombie films ever made - were these films an inspiration for you, or was this just an idea you had that fit best for the material of the film?

I'm sure I had sat through Dead & Buried on HBO at some point as a kid, but I don't remember having thought very much of it at the time. I revisited it a few years ago and remember finding it a lot more interesting this time, but overall was still not enamored with it (despite my love for Dan O'Bannon's work). I didn't see Messiah of Evil until long after I had made Shatter Dead, but I love the film immensely; I think in many ways it's the closest thing we have to an American-made Dario Argento movie in terms of extreme stylization. So many beautiful shots of people wandering through rooms or standing next to paintings that they appear to become part of or disappear into.

I absolutely agree. It's a real shame more people aren't aware of that film, and it's astonishing to think that it came long before Suspiria and Inferno.

Funny thing that happened is that for a while I wanted Shatter Dead to be titled Dead People instead, but somewhere along the way I discovered that this was an alternative title for Messiah of Evil! Which is how I believe I first became aware of that movie and eventually sought it out. I'm glad I never saw it on VHS back in the day as I'm sure it must have looked atrocious with all the beautiful widescreen compositions brutally truncated. Thank goodness for the gorgeous DVD and blu-ray discs that are now out in the world for that title.

I remember watching 'Les Revenants' and wondering if the creators of that film had taken the idea from your movie.

I've never seen it, but I've had some friends tell me that they were shocked by how much it "ripped off" Shatter Dead, but I can't really tell until I've eventually seen it myself. I've had other friends tell me it's not a rip-off at all, so go figure. Either way, they certainly had a lot more money to make their movie than I did, and probably more access to "professional" actors and technicians than I had available considering my non-existent budget.

How is Stark Raven these days? She rocks in Shatter Dead!

I'm so glad you love her as much as I do. She is one of the main reasons Shatter Dead has found an appreciative audience, in my humble opinion. Besides being a rather odd looking beauty, she's the emotional backbone of the movie – it's her journey and she is singular in her pursuit to just get the hell home in a crazy, mixed-up world. I still find it hard to believe the level of commitment she brought to the project; I don't think there are many performers in the world who would be able to pull off what she did here!

I wish I could tell you more, but her and I have lost contact in the last couple of years as she retired from the movie industry some time back and has been busy raising a daughter. I wish she had kept at it as she has a great face and a fearlessness that is tough to find in most performers, especially nowadays. I'd love to work with her again in some capacity if I could lure her out of retirement. She has a memorable cameo in Sixteen Tongues, so having her in my movies is a good luck charm for me. If I could have found a part for her in Saint Frankenstein, I would have!

Do you watch new zombie films when they come along, or follow the new wave of (frequently forgettable) zombie flicks which seem to have exploded back into pop culture? I used to be a huge collector of all things zombie, but kind of gave up after the mid-2000s, when there seemed to be a new one out every week.

I've pretty much given up on most modern horror movies at this point. Not because they are all bad (although goodness knows many of them are), but mostly because they are usually not catering to my age range (ie: old man) anymore. I'm still revisiting the past 100 years of movies and checking out all genres, because before the 1990's there seemed to have been more adults than youngsters in the movies as main characters, so I can actually find people that I can relate to in my own life that way no matter if it's sci-fi, horror, film noir or even a good western.

The zombie genre has become rather played out at this point I suppose.

I can't remember the last time someone recommended a modern zombie movie to me, and I definitely cannot remember the last time I heard about one that had some kind of interesting twist to it. The poor zombie has become as played out as most of the other stock monsters have at this point, because filmmakers are just too damn lazy to find something new and worthwhile about them that updates them to the concerns of modern viewers. The new century needs new monsters to express our modern nightmares and to comment on social outrages that can't be addressed any other way.

My heart will always lie with Romero and Fulci.

Romero and Fulci understood all of this, and both had very different ways of approaching the material. Romero remains the horror king of social commentary for me, whilst Fulci is the surrealist who doesn't care about that kind of thing as much in his zombie flicks (although there is still some political thought mixed in with the visceral mayhem he wrought). Nowadays I think most of the genre filmmakers are too uninformed to have enough of an opinion to have anything but the most nascent political statement in their work, which I think is a shame. Too many horror movies are made by kids who have had their development stalled by staring at tiny handheld screens too much. Adults can, and should, be allowed to express what scares them as much as the youngsters.

Agreed. But let's move on to Sixteen Tongues now...

Where to start? It feels like something that fell out of a portal from another universe. After I watched it for the first time, I felt a strange sense of depersonalization, and I had to phone a friend and ask them to reassure me that 'everything is okay'. I mean that is one incredibly brutal little movie. The film has actually become a slightly ironic touchstone between myself and those friends that I've forced to watch it - so when someone is talking about something that's particularly intense or heavy, we might ask how it compares on a scale of 'one-to-Sixteen Tongues'.

What inspired this film?

For whatever reason, I've simply never been a very big fan of computer technology and the way that it dumbs-down communication between the people who interact through it. Hard to believe I was concerned by that before the internet had degraded into the electronic toilet that everyone is busy pressing their faces into these days.

"Depersonalization" is a good word to describe what I was feeling and wanted to get across. I was also curious about futuristic body modifications and to what level people would go to in that realm, not just in terms of tattoos or other aesthetic enhancements, but even down to the level of biological and technical combinations that would completely alter one's own perception of themselves. Drugs do this kind of thing temporarily, but what about something more long-term? The kind of commitment it takes can be quite punishing, and I wanted to explore the idea that there was only so much pain or pleasure your mind and body can take before everything blurs and comes crashing down around you.

What drove you to go ahead and make it?

I feel like this movie began as some kind of terrible party joke that went wrong and then grew into something else entirely on the power of its own steam and willingness to exist. I just remember at some point toying with the idea of these various characters; a guy who had a good amount of his skin replaced with tongues, a woman with clitorises under each eyelid so that each blink was a form of stimulation, another person turning their body into a living electrical fuse so they can roam the internet as their own interface without a technological surrogate, etc. What made it all eventually come together was one night when I was washing the dishes in the kitchen and from the stereo in the living room I misheard the Platters version of the song Sixteen Tons as Sixteen Tongues – suddenly there was some kind of fireworks in my head and all those ideas collided and melted into a single plot idea where everyone would interact in godawful ways.

While the film has the trappings of a Cyberpunk genre piece, it does feel as though it's the characters that drive the story, rather than the backdrop. So while they live in a hideous, dystopian technocracy, the film essentially concerns their lives, their stories – the relationship they have with technology, and its impact on their world, is simply one part of the whole. That said, as Cyberpunk goes, the film is frighteningly prescient.

I've always found it amusing that I made Tongues even though I've never had any real interest in the Cyberpunk movement. I'm told that it fits the parameters of that genre quite nicely. I tried to read Gibson’s "Neuromancer" once but ended up hating the writing style so much that I tossed the book into a public garbage can after struggling through nearly 75 pages of incomprehensible gibberish. Maybe somebody fished it out and enjoyed the book more than I did.

And how do you feel about Sixteen Tongues now?

It's a movie I'm glad I made even though nobody seemed to like it very much and it certainly has nowhere near the fan base that Shatter Dead accumulated. I'm always asked if I ever made another movie besides Shatter Dead by eager (and much appreciated!) fans of that one, and when I mention Tongues I get a bit of a blank stare in return. I guess I was supposed to continue making zombie movies after that, but I love science fiction too much and I think trying to satisfy genre fans instead of yourself almost always leads to substandard movies being made.

Sixteen Tongues cost considerably more than Shatter Dead and at this point it looks like it will never make its money back, which is a real pity as it wasn't THAT expensive either – we're still talking very low-budget movies here! I do hold out some hope that Tongues will eventually be discovered by an audience who can embrace the darkness of it and appreciate it for the dizzying mix of brutal violence, semi-pornographic sexual explicitness and existential questions it raises. I'm as proud of this movie as anything else I've ever created.

Sixteen Tongues seems to distill a lot of the themes and tropes first developed in Shatter Dead - frequently pushing the envelope even further - and which seem to characterize your films. How did the experience compare to your first film, at least in terms of developing your ideas?

Shatter Dead had no producer involved in the making of it, so I was the uncredited "producer" on that project by default as I was the guy cashing my paycheck every week and then going out to make sure all the props, equipment, actors and make-up efx were ready to go for the next shoot. Which, as you can imagine, meant that I had a lot on my mind when I was trying to direct and hold the microphone during the shoot (yes, I was director and boom guy for almost the entire shoot).

Despite the good write-ups and recognition Shatter Dead was receiving in some well-known publications like Fangoria and even Film Threat, I wasn't about to go through that whole financially, physically and emotionally draining process yet again for another project. So it wasn't until I was contacted out of nowhere by Alex Kuciw (who would eventually produce both Tongues and Saint Frankenstein) with the idea of him producing my next movie that I began to give the idea some more serious thought. I told him all the ideas I had and he was extremely encouraging and eventually he found the funds for us to move forward with Sixteen Tongues.

And in actually shooting it?

As you might imagine, having a producer on this project meant I had a bit more freedom to be creative and flamboyant with slightly less exhaustion, although it was still quite a fuckload of hard work!

We really got lucky on this one as we not only found a great cast of absolutely fearless performers, but we also ended up working with efx make-up maestro Glenn Hetrick [Hunger Games, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."], who has gone on to an incredible career and somehow even ended up being one of the judges on the Face-Off television competition. He designed and executed the extensive make-up on the lead actor, which is an incredible accomplishment (especially when you consider our poverty-level budget). And my poor performers! If they weren't covered in prosthetic make-up for 16 hours at a time, they were stark naked or wearing diaphanous outfits for days on end. Oh, and I did I mention we were shooting in an enclosed space without an air conditioner during the hottest part of the summer? Yikes!

With Sixteen Tongues, were you interested in making something that was completely bizarre, steadfastly underground and generally pretty damn outrageous, or did part of you hope it might find some kind of mainstream appeal?

I can't say I was going out of my way to make something that was bizarre or underground just for the sake of doing that. In fact, I'm such a lunatic that I thought the whole enterprise we were embarking upon was highly commercial! That should give you some indication as to why I'll never be given a proper budget or find myself working within the Hollywood system any time soon.

Incidentally, I do sometimes bring the film up during conversations at parties and weddings ("So, has anyone here seen Sixteen Tongues? No? It's really quite good."), so I'm still pushing for mainstream recognition.

Bless you for trying to get people to watch the damn thing – you are obviously just as crazy as I am!

Well, I take that as a compliment.


Many thanks to Scooter for his fascinating and insightful answers. Here's hoping we see more from this unique, uncompromising talent soon. Whether it be a feature adaptation of Saint Frankenstein, or another tale of the transgressive, the brutal, and the bizarre, we are rooting for you all the way sir.

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quietearth (2 years ago) Reply

Shatter Dead is one of my favorite films!


projectcyclops (2 years ago) Reply

It's a classic. It has the best tag-line of any film ever made: 'God Hates You'.


ChrisR (2 years ago) Reply


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