Family is the Real ‘Monster’: A Conversation with SECRET SANTA Filmmaker Adam Marcus
The Pope family’s Christmas Eve dinner goes horribly and hilariously wrong when someone puts something in the party punch causing everyone to tell the unvarnished truth at the already dysfunctional holiday reunion. When the head of the household psychopathically freaks-out, the scene is set for murderous mayhem and splatterific revenge as the deviant relatives reveal their long-buried hatreds and festering loathings.
Ahead of the UK premiere of SECRET SANTA at Horror Channel FrightFest Glasgow 2018, director Adam Marcus tells us about his obsession with Christmas Eve, being inspired by Orson Wells and why family is the real ‘monster’.
Over the past few years we’ve seen a lot more seasonal based shockers than ever before. Why is the Christmas Holiday period so ripe for horror?
I’m not sure. Maybe, because it’s the “Happiest Time of the Year”, it’s ripe for the picking when it comes to our genre’s ironic sense of humour. I think there is a cynicism that’s kind of permeating everything. Nothing is as it seems. No one can be trusted. So, perhaps these films are playing into people’s cynical fear, and that’s the cause for the trend. If you can’t trust your government, or your neighbours who might vote for that government, why trust the “Happy” Holidays?
You take a typical fraught family get-together and take it to limit. Was that the basic idea, the beginning of the project?
I can tell you that I’ve been obsessed with Christmas my whole life. Truly. My parents were married on Christmas Eve and always had a big holiday party every year to celebrate. The feeling and look of Christmas is so romantic. But as I got older and my parents divorced, Christmas Eve had a stranger feel to it. It was still beautiful but it almost became a way of my parents celebrating their divorce. And that juxtaposition fascinated me. People all seem really happy and kind but just under the surface they’re hoping the other one chokes on the Christmas Turkey. That’s why Secret Santa isn’t about a Killer Santa or a Krampus or an evil Snowman come to life. It’s about the real monster, Family.
You wrote the script with your wife Debra Sullivan. Can you give an insight to how that relationship worked?
Debra and I have written over fifty scripts together, all the while maintaining a very happy marriage. If you want to keep that happy marriage, you have to find ways to compromise while still challenging each other to do better every day. It’s a bit of a high wire act but we make it work. And with each script it changes. Some I’ll take the lead, others she will. I will say that on Santa, Deb let me do a lot of the heavy lifting because she knew this one lived inside my head. We wrote the script in twenty days. That’s from first day of concept to finished draft. We’re fast but we’re rarely that fast. It poured out of me and Deb let that happen. She was busy re-writing and generating notes to challenge my logic and character relationships. The give and take was amazing. That’s why it went so fast. And it had to. We had picked a shoot date that was only two months from the first week of writing so we had no choice.
Everyone in the movie is so horrible, you can’t wait to see them die, was that the idea?
It sure was! I wanted the audience to love it when these people got their comeuppance. And the funny thing is that the initial conversations about that came from Orson Welles’ masterpiece “The Magnificent Ambersons”. And I’m not being some pretentious film-school jackhole right now. That film is one of the most influential on my filmmaking. My first Cinematographer, Bill Dill, showed it to me when we were prepping “Jason Goes to Hell”. I even used it in “Jason”. The eye-light that Welles used, we used it to indicate when someone was possessed by Jason. That eye-light would go out. So now, many years later, I used “Ambersons” again in that idea of comeuppance. That the whole story of “Ambersons” is waiting for this one spoiled, arrogant, bastard to get his comeuppance. You wait the whole movie to see it happen. My feeling was, I want to do that with an entire cast. Now, there is one person in the film who is truly an innocent and you should be heart broken when that person dies but the rest of them, it should feel like, YAHOO!!!
Comedy horror is a very difficult balancing act. Give us your basic rules for such an endeavour to be successful?
First, you have to respect the audience. That’s never gonna work if you’re constantly winking at them or making fun of the genre. Comedy has to come from playing it straight. An audience wants complete characters, honestly portrayed. Then you let those character foibles lead the way. You can call attention to the tropes of the genre just don’t make fun of it. An audience isn’t going to laugh if you’re calling them stupid for loving the kind of film you’re making.
And let’s be honest, comedy is so much like horror, in that you set up an expectation and then you turn that expectation on it’s ear. A scare and a laugh come from the same place. Look at our genre’s classics, “Rosemary’s Baby”, Ruth Gordon is freaking hilarious in that film. The constant jabs at New York life. I grew up in that city and Polanski nailed it. “The Exorcist”, which wins most people’s top prize for horror, was written by the guy who wrote “A Shot in the Dark”, the first Pink Panther movie for goodness sake. There is so much comedy in ‘The Exorcist”. “The Shining”, “The Thing”… Without the light of comedy, the darkness of horror just becomes mud. Hitchcock was a hilarious sadist. He made you laugh then scared the crap out of you. That takes real skill.
It’s great the way you make the gore a part of the joke, that way nothing the audience sees is considered too violent and always generates a fun vibe?
Thank you. We’ve had the coolest thing happen with ‘Secret Santa’ in that the number of people who tell me how they “hate horror movies” or “they’re just not into horror, it gives them nightmares”. Then I tell them, “trust me, you’ll dig this movie”. I can’t tell you how many people have told me they love the movie because it was “really funny, so I didn’t mind the horror stuff”. That’s the trick. No one hates horror. They hate the constant JUMP SCARES or the sense that what’s the point, we’re all just meat in the end, kind of storytelling. Look, I love some movies like that. Don’t get me started on ‘Inside’ or ‘Frontiers’ but most audiences will join in for our genre if you ease them in.
Skeleton Crew Productions is your new company geared around the old Roger Corman model, creativity trumping budget. What do you hope to achieve in the long run?
A whole lot! Look, a few years ago, I looked around and asked, “Where did all the Roger Corman’s go? Why the hell have all the indy Gods forsaken us”? I mean, I know that the new norm is cast a mega-star and go to festivals with a movie that cost millions of dollars and they call that an indy. But that’s not indy?! Indy used to mean, we have no money and can only get someone who starred in films a decade ago but we made a story that is unafraid to kick you in the nuts and laugh while doing it. Indy was supposed to be about making something so audacious that there was no way that a studio would make it. When Carpenter made “Halloween” or “Assault on Precinct 13” he wasn’t thinking about how do I squeeze a dozen sequels and remakes out of these puppies. He was telling stories that excited him. We look back on those films now and think, “Well, those weren’t that radical”. But they were for their time. As was “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Night of the Living Dead” and “Evil Dead”.
Skeleton Crew came about a few years ago when Debra and I teamed up with our absolutely brilliant producing partner, Bryan Sexton. We felt as though movies seemed to be bloated and sluggish. And with the rise of television and a million ways to binge, we wanted to create entertainment that was in many ways unsafe but still well-made.
I’ve been teaching screen acting, writing and direction for over two decades in LA, and I’ve got over 60 acting students that I work with every week. They’re some of the best actors in Los Angeles. They’re unbelievably talented. A lot of them you would know the minute you saw their faces. But they’re people who do a lot of guest spots on television, or do small parts in movies. They don’t get to break into those huge roles that their talent is deserving of. So one of the things that we do, is when we bring a director into the micro budget side of Skeleton Crew, we say, “you’ve got 65 actors at your disposal. Take a look, this is the troupe.” This company is about giving people their shot at what they really want to do.
Some very familiar faces in the exceptional cast and it looks like they were all having fun. Were they?
Well, as I said before, we have a cast that comes from careers that are stocked with film and television roles. But there are a couple of exceptions. Even though they are both part of the Skeleton Crew troupe, Michael Rady has been a top of show lead for shows like ‘Unreal’ and ‘Melrose Place’, and Drew Lynch is a world renowned stand up comedian who captured the hearts of America with his Golden Buzzer Performance on Season 10 of ‘America’s Got Talent’. My wife Debra, gives a performance that is among the best pieces of character work I’ve ever seen. But my whole cast give remarkable performances in this film.
The amazing thing about the cast experience on Secret Santa is that we only had 12 days to shoot the entire film. And as we drove up the mountain to Big Bear, where we were shooting, there was a blizzard that heaped a record-breaking snowfall on our cast and crew. We ended up being snowbound for most of the shoot! We all lived and shot together in three neighbouring houses that sit at the frozen edge of Big Bear Lake. It forced us to live and work as a family. So when it came time to portray one on screen the task was much easier. It was the single best experience of my career and I think for the rest of the team it was, if not the best, the most unique film shoot of theirs.
My favourite story from the set was on day six, we had just finished shooting a twelve hour day and the sun was just coming up. Everyone was heading off to bed and Bob Kurtzman stopped me on the way to my bedroom, “Hey, Adam”. “Yeah, Bob”. He looked at me with serious eyes and said, “I just wanted to say thank you”. I said, “Dude, I should be thanking you”. He replied, “Naw, man. I mean, thank you for asking me to do this. It’s the best experience I’ve had in like, ten years. It’s making me remember what real filmmaking is”. Then Bob hugged me. Even telling the story it’s getting me to punk up. This genius maddog, one of my closest friends for the last twenty-five years, was thanking me for the experience. These are the moments you live for. This is why filmmaking can be the best thing you can do with your life.
Must mention JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY. When you look back on that now what are your feelings?
Wow! That’s a big question. I am very grateful that I got to co-author and direct that film. I know it’s one of the most divisive of the franchise. And I guess I’m a little bit proud of that fact. Shoot, it’s been twenty-five years and people are still arguing over it. That’s a hell of a lot better than being discarded and forgotten.
I was 23 when I made JGTH and I was so cock-sure of myself. Again, kind of a blessing and a curse. I just kicked in the door and did it. I can tell you I am very proud of the acting, the effects and the look of the movie. I could have made another wrestler in a hockey mask movie. There were six of those movies already so I dared to do something different. The fans that get it, cool. The ones who don’t, cool. Do I wish I could go back and fix the cut of the movie? You bet! Do I wish I could go back and make improvements using today’s technology. Hell, yeah! Am I proud of the film? Damn skippy, I am!
What’s the one big Lesson you learned from directing SECRET SANTA?
To make films on my own terms. It’s the single best experience of my professional life. And it’s because we wrote our own rules. We worked with people we love. We worked with a small team and got it done in record time. I learned to trust my instincts regarding not only the kind of stories I want to tell but also how to execute that vision. I learned there are a lot of much easier ways to make money but filmmaking is a passion and if you’re not passionate about what you’re making then go get a different job. I love what I do, now more than ever.
What scares you the most?
As I said before, I’m from New York, and there is a certain little creature that lives there that I won’t even call by name but they are a type of bug and… AH! I’m not kidding. I pride myself on being a bit of a badass but those little fuckers. If I’m walking down the street and I see one I will cross the street. Just talking about it is making my skin crawl. And BTW, true story, when I was a teenager I made my first trip to London with my theatre troupe and one of my buddies played a trick on me and put a rubber one of those fuckers in my bed. I hung the guy out of a seventh floor window of the Hyde Park Hotel over that one.
Finally, what’s next?
I’m going to be directing a film called ‘Dread’. It’s inspired by movies like ‘The Raid: Redemption’ and is a high power thriller about three women trapped in a hotel run by a human trafficking ring. I’m also doing ‘The Harvest’, which is another thriller about a young woman trying to go to college only to find her mother, who left her as a child, has stolen her identity and destroyed her chances of a better life. We are also a producing a film called ‘Fat Camp Massacre’. It brings me back to my ‘Friday the 13th’ days. It tackles the issues of body shaming and body dysmorphia. And then there’s a web-series we’re producing called ‘NerdGirls’ which is about a group of comic book creators who happen to be women. But they are never taken seriously so decide to take matters into their own hands and create the careers they deserve.
We also have several projects with Drew Lynch from ‘Secret Santa’. He’s a great comedian but an incredible actor. We’ve just produced his first comedy special ‘Drew Lynch: Did I Stutter’, and we have a television show we’re developing with him as well.
SECRET SANTA is showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Sat 3 March, 6.30pm, as part of Horror Channel FrightFest Glasgow 2018. Adam Marcus will be attending.