Hey everyone. I’m really pissed off that I need to introduce independent horror filmmaker and writer Dan West. I’m pissed because this man shouldn’t need to BE introduced!! Dan West (along with writing & directing partner Rick Popko) have given the world Monsturd (2003) and RetarDEAD (2008). And yes; they’re exactly what you think they are. These are two hugely original, horror-comedy, over-the-top gross-fests that to me stand out in an ocean of limp remakes and embarrassingly lame sequels. I’m embarrassed that I haven’t yet written and posted my reviews of these two films, but its been a while since I‘ve seen them and I need to watch them again. The problem is I lent them to a buddy of mine (you know who you are) who then proceeded to lend them to HIS buddy. I WANT MY MOVIES BACK (I need some new friends). Anyway … Dan West and I have exchanged a few emails back and forth and he has so many great stories and insight into indie horror filmmaking that I asked him for an interview.
Here is Part One of the interview with Dan West. Among other things we talk about Monsturd and RetarDEAD, his views on practical vs. CGI f/x, and who some of his influences are. I will soon be posting my reviews of his two films, but don’t wait; go out and either buy these flicks of rent them (they’re available from Netflix). I’ve included a few links at the end this interview to make it easy for ya!! And as always, support filmmakers like West & Popko and the other indie horror filmmakers I’ve spotlighted on this website. They really are the future of the horror industry — unless of course you need to see more shitty remakes and sequels!! Enjoy.
Q: Tell us where the ideas came from for your films Monsturd and RetarDEAD. They seem to flow together; were they originally written as one film and then you divided them up into two?
Dan: Monsturd is truly the bastard child of the film Jack Frost (1997), the killer snowman movie. Monsturd came about out of pure frustration. Rick [Popko] and I had been trying to sell screenplays for years and got nowhere at all. At one point we were paid a few hundred dollars to write a screenplay called Halloween is Cancelled for Commercial Pictures, which was a small independent company that Francis Ford Coppola had started in the 80s to produce a few low-budget horror/exploitation movies. Well basically Halloween is Cancelled was indeed cancelled. It never saw the light of day and eventually fell apart. Rick and I never have mentioned that story because people might think we are bullshitting them. We had dinner with the Francis and his family a few times while trying to flesh out this screenplay. Sophia and Roman Coppola were to be credited for “story” as they had come up with the concept for this potential movie. You might say we started at the top and went downhill from there.
How Monsturd came about was really through Rick blowing his top after sitting through Jack Frost. He was really livid and it came about as a sort of a joke. Now, keep in mind, I like the film Jack Frost. I think it’s a decent horror comedy with some very nice shots. It’s ridiculous and the director never tried to make anything but a ridiculous movie, but at the time we were very bitter about not being able to get anything produced, yet here is this ridiculous movie about a killer snowman on video store shelves. Rick simply snapped, “They wanna make movies about killer snowmen?! I’ll give them a goddamn script! How about a movie about a shit man?! How would they like that?!” “They” meaning what we considered the Hollywood in-crowd, which was very naïve, but it was that “us against them” attitude that spawned the shit monster. Rick went home and started writing a screenplay in which a serial killer is executed for a series of brutal murders, but through witchcraft and a hearty last meal, craps his pants in the electric chair…his soiled underpants are sold as true crime memorabilia, but are somehow possessed by his soul…which spawns the shit man…or something to that effect. Eventually Rick cooled off and tossed his draft into a drawer and forgot about it. Years later we had finally decided to shoot our own feature film and had the right equipment to do it. I had been reading and Interview with Herschell Gordon Lewis in which he stated the purpose of his exploitation films was to offer an audience what the major studios “Wouldn’t or couldn’t produce”. Well who the hell was going to make a feature film about a shit monster? Universal? Fox? Basically I sold Rick on his own weird concept because I saw that no one else in their right mind would do something so incredibly stupid. Some of the Kevin Smith worshippers out their think we lifted the concept from “Dogma”, but we were already in production when that film was made… I will also tell you that if I was going to steal ideas from someone they would not be taken from Kevin Smith, as I am not a fan of his work, neither is Rick Popko. I’ve been called many things in my time but “Kevin Smith fan” will never be one of them.
RetarDEAD came about, oddly enough, when I pitched Rick a title…which was “Special Dead”…which of course was later made into a movie by some other filmmakers. Rick laughed and said “They’re retarDEAD”…which got a bigger laugh, due to the extreme bad taste of the title. On that concept alone we came up with that sequel to Monsturd. They were never written as one single project. You might say the sequel was a mistake of sorts. We just stumbled upon a silly title and ran with it.
The stories and f/x in your films are both hilarious and disgusting. Who are some of your influences? Your films look as though they primarily use practical f/x. Do you use any CGI? Which do you prefer?
Our influences are all over the map. I’m a HUGE horror nerd. Rick is a fan of horror but isn’t as much of a geek for it as I am. He loves George Romero, Peter Jackson, Dario Argento as well as John Waters…we are both big John Waters fans. My list of influences obviously includes the previously mentioned directors and John Carpenter and all of the classic horror directors. I’m a total nerd for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well Part 2. The Tobe Hooper films, not the remakes. I also love Woody Allen, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers and Monty Python. We both love movies. Rick loves over the top action stuff and James Bond and that sort of thing. I love Herschell Gordon Lewis movies and ridiculous stuff like “Shriek of the Mutilated” and “The Car”. I love horror films and watch and collect 100s of horror flicks.
As far as our special effects, we had a professional, Ed Martinez, on RetarDEAD. He did all of the really mind-blowing stuff like ripping the teacher in half and ripping the Herbert character’s arm off and the Dr. Stern kill. I did some of the Monty Python gore like ripping the bum’s head off with the spine attached. We had one CGI effect in RetarDEAD that was done for us by a guy named Glen Campbell in Los Angeles, he did the helicopter explosion for us. He and Mark Pirro also did the digital fly swarm effects in Monsturd. Our friend Ken Dashner did all of the gun shot blasts for the climax of RetarDEAD for the shootout in the morgue, so we did have some digital stuff. For Monsturd Rick came up with the idea of creating the shit monster suit out of spray foam insulation…and I was the lucky man who had to play the shit monster. Seeing as how it was made of insulation it was about two hundred degrees in that goddamn suit and I almost had a panic attack in that thing…it was just a nightmare. I couldn’t see and could hardly walk. Fucking horrible.
If I had my choice of CGI or practical effects I would always go with practical. I fucking HATE CGI blood splatters. That is a pet peeve of mine, CGI blood splatters. I grew up watching Tom Savini effects, so I like my blood messy.
How is it collaborating with Rick Popko on your films? How did you two meet? When did you guys decide that making genre films is what you wanted to do?
At this point in time Rick and I have become like The Rolling Stones or the Bradley Twins from Basket Case. It’s almost telepathic how we communicate now. We met in high school in 1984. And we met because of Tom Savini. I noticed Rick in an Art class reading Savini’s special effects book, Grand Illusions and approached him to talk to about the book, which I also owned. We bonded from that moment and have been like brothers ever since. Like brothers means that sometimes, like the Bradley twins, we don’t see eye to eye and want to kill each other…but it’s pretty smooth sailing these days. We fight a lot less than we used to. It’s funny but just last month we found Rick’s copy of the Savini book and had a bit of a crazy flashback, as it was the reason we met.
Our style (if you can define it as such) has always been pretty over the top. We haven’t changed much since we met in that sense. We like our movies to be over-the-top and wild. Working in genre films means we are allowed the luxury of being able to do anything we like and no can say “well that wouldn’t happen”…in a movie about a shit monster you pretty much throw all logic right out of the window if you are even going to watch something that ridiculous. Anything can happen in horror films or certain types of comedy films and it’s just a great area for our weird sensibilities.
In one of our email exchanges you mentioned that RetarDEAD took 5 years to complete. What were some of the challenges you came up against during that project? Did the headaches start with pre- or post-production?
Not to sound overly dramatic about it, but RetarDEAD become our Apocalypse Now disaster. It was just a never-ending nightmare that almost drove us crazy. The first mistake we made was starting the movie with an unfinished screenplay. We just thought, “Oh, well it ends with the whole zombie plague/George Romero type of thing.” Well, that was a pretty vague plan of attack it turns out. It took about a year to really figure out that ending, and along the way we had weird things happened like discovering the Living Dead Girlz. Rick read about them in the SF Bay Guardian and he got the idea to put them in the movie. We wanted to kill off Dr. Stern because Dan Burr, who played that character in both movies, was having very severe personal problems at the time and had become really unreliable. We had to write him out of the movie for the sake of making sure we finished what we’d started. So we were unlucky to have to cut Dan Burr loose, but lucky to get the Living Dead Girlz into the movie. Then we ran into Jello Biafra at a Monsturd screening, and started chatting with him about the next movie we were planning after RetarDEAD. He liked the idea of playing a character, so we thought “Waste not, want not” and wrote the mayor scene for him to play in RetarDEAD. That was just so strange. I’m a Dead Kennedys fan, as are a few of my close friends, so that was really exciting. He didn’t even question that jerry-rigged Ed Wood set he was standing in. It looked okay on camera, but in reality it was like the airplane set in Plan 9 from Outer Space. His podium was a coffee table turned sideways. The other big nightmare was that I was going through a divorce from Beth West, who played Agent Susan Hannigan in both movies. It was just one thing after another and it just really drained us.
How are you going to avoid some of those pitfalls in your new film? You mention that your new project is going to be “more low key”; in what way(s)? In general, and besides the obvious hurdle of money, what are the biggest challenges you face as an independent horror filmmaker?
Our next movie is going to be approached from a very professional standpoint. We have a solid script in the works that requires a small cast and existing locations that are at our disposal or that we won’t have trouble finding. We are shooting in high definition and widescreen with a new camera, and we have assembled a great new team of actors for this. We are putting some of our background players into the foreground in this one. These are people who are in Improv groups or act and perform regularly in some capacity. The last thing we wanted to do was make another sequel with this one. We wanted to approach it from a very different angle and not make the same damn thing we have done before. We wanted to mix up the cast and bring in some new faces. The first two movies really polarize the audience in that some people really love our first two movies and the other contingent thinks we should be lynched for making such horrible inept garbage and inflicting it on the public. We wanted to avoid the slings and arrows of exploitation this time around and make something a little more along the lines of a straight forward horror film with black comedy elements. We got a bit tired of spraying people with fake diarrhea and spitting vomit all over each other. I’m proud of those two movies and Rick is too. We stand behind our work and believe in these projects as ridiculous over-the-top entertainment in the exploitation vein. Who cares if we mainly appeal to the Troma crowd with those movies? I like certain Troma movies and think Lloyd Kaufman is a national treasure. In fact, we would have been a Troma movie if their distribution terms had been more acceptable to us. We certainly spoke to them about a possible deal.
We’d just like to do something different with this next project, something along the lines of an Italian giallo movie.
I think the biggest hurdle for the independent filmmakers these days is creating movies that will get any kind of an audience and be remembered in some way and not just be swept under the rug. We sort of took the William Castle/Herschell Gordon Lewis/John Waters/Lloyd Kaufman approach with the first two movies and that worked for us. It got us attention, both good and bad. But as Dave Friedman says, “Say something good, say something bad…just say something.”
[End Part One Interview with Dan West]
Man he’s a great interview!!! Not only are he and Popko out there making the films they want to as independent filmmakers, but they are keeping the spirit of Grindhouse Filmmaking alive and well!! They are giving their audiences something they know Hollywood would never make!!