Under the Radar: Horror Comedy, ‘Destroy’

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Destroy Concept ArtChocolate and peanut butter, chips and salsa, tacos and pizza rolls; sometimes two great things are made exponentially greater upon unification. During the course of this column I have featured both the incredible documentary Best Worst Movie and the incalculably awesome reference book Destroy All Movies. Today it was announced that Best Worst Movie director Michael Stephenson and Destroy All Movies writers Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly would be teaming up for the upcoming film Destroy. Destroy is a horror comedy about an intrepid vampire hunter gallivanting around Bavaria and ridding the world of the undead. Trouble is, there are no such things as vampires so our “hero” is merely stabbing innocent old men to death. On top of being immeasurably excited about the project, I had the chance to sit down with Zack and Michael to get the lowdown on this unholy collaboration.

Hollywood: What was the genesis of the project? Zack, I know you were featured prominently in Best Worst Movie, but how did this particular idea come about?

Zack: Well, actually, my writing partner Bryan Connolly and I had the idea a long, long time ago. I’ve always thought vampire hunters were more fascinating than vampires themselves because vampires are more theatrical and sissy-like, for the most part, but the vampire hunter is more of a blue-collar, working man, and so I’ve always been more entertained by that character. So it’s kind of like a whole ode to the vampire hunter but then we just put it away for a long time. And then, many years later, I was on an adventure with Michael Stevenson, dot dot dot…

Michael: You know, it’s funny because Zack’s in BWM; he hooked up the first real 35mm screening of Troll 2 years ago, I had heard that the Drafthouse was doing it and I called Zack. The enthusiasm he showed right off the bat, I thought, “I like this guy!” And, that evolved. We ended up in Europe, shooting BWM and I had my shooters and I had about an eight-person crew. I had a feeling that I wanted to bring Zack along. I thought he’d be really helpful on this trip though I couldn’t really define how, or to what extent. And the trip was a disaster. It was such a nightmare. We were actually driving right after the big convention…we were driving through Austria. I’ll never forget because there were castles, huge houses, mansions on the hillsides, and Zack started telling me about one of the scripts he’d been working on with Bryan. It’s basically this movie about this wimpy vampire hunter killing these innocent old men. And I just remember smiling and laughing and thinking, “Wow! That’s hilarious!” A month after that and I finally got around to reading the script and I just fell in love with it.

Hollywood: So, were you nervous at all? I mean BWM was your first film. Were you nervous about taking on something more narrative? Or were you just sold from the script and that kind of assuaged all doubt?

Michael: I think both. I mean, even now it’s like, “Oh boy! What have I done?” But this movie needs to get made. Yeah, I’m terrified and frightened, but kind of in the same breath, I’m surrounded with a really fantastic team. And I know that throughout it all, throughout any of the ups and downs, Zack’s still gonna be smiling. So I guess that’s all I need.

Hollywood: Zack, beyond the obvious differences in the final products, how was the process of writing this script different from the process of writing Destroy All Movies? Did you have similar research involving garbage bags full of rented vampire films?

Zack: No, no. We didn’t do any research for this movie whatsoever, besides the thousands of comedy and horror films we watched in our lives. But it’s a dark comedy more than it is a horror movie, by far. Sort of in the same vein as Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, which was one of our muses. It’s more of a character film. But it’s got violence in it by nature of the fact that it’s about a vampire hunter. The only real concrete research is that my co-writer, Bryan, had gone to small town Bavaria for school years ago. He said that it was the most bizarre and entertainingly goofy and awkward place. He’s kind of a funny and awkward guy anyway, and he said that being a tourist there was ridiculous. And so this movie is about a guy who’s already not really socially well adjusted. On top of that, he’s accidentally a murderer. And then he’s in this place where he’s even more poorly suited to exist. So, that was the genesis for a lot of it. And we had our book come out before we ever could have sold a screenplay in any way. But we’d been writing scripts a lot longer than we worked on the book. That’s something we started doing forever ago. We just didn’t expect to have both of these things happen back-to-back. The book came out three months ago and now this is happening and it’s been like a big, happy shock. But there’s no similarity between the creation of our script and the book, to answer your question.

Hollywood: Is that what…I don’t even remember what my question was. That was a good answer. Michael, do you think your turbulent experiences as a child actor in Troll 2 will alter how you approach working with actors? I mean, not that you were directed by bad directors, but you were kind of directed by bad directors so I’m just curious how that might affect your process.

Michael: (laughing) Right. Well, I will certainly refrain from referring to any actors as dogs as Claudio did to us. That’s probably not good for morale.

Hollywood: Maybe not.

Michael: It’s funny, because before this interview, I just realized that my first movie, Troll 2 does not have a single troll in the film, and my first narrative feature is a vampire movie that does not have a vampire in the movie. My life is just funny. It’s weird because, even with Troll 2 and a lot of the sets—I’ve been on set most of my life, working as an actor—I almost forget that that’s played into a great deal of who I am now. But what I feel films are missing these days is just emotional truthfulness, emotional honesty. That’s really what I hope to add to the table. I don’t even like thinking of directing. Even thinking of saying the word action aloud rubs me wrong because I don’t want to create this artifice. I want it to be as natural as possible.

Hollywood: I know it’s really early in the process, but have you thought about casting at all? I mean, is there anybody you’d kill to work with? And, will George Hardy have a part?

Michael: I actually failed at talking Zack into writing a role specifically for George. Maybe we can put him in. We’ll have to think about it. It would be great. But right now there’s not a role for him. Zack and I have gone back and forth over some dream talent that we’d love to have associated, but it’s still early. Within the next month or two, we’re hoping to have a couple of names finalized and attached, but right now it’s still very developmental.

Destroy All Movies BookHollywood: Zack, I’m assuming there will be some pretty particularly nasty old man deaths in Destroy. As we all know, old people are humanity’s number one threat, if Alone in the Dark is any indication. As a writer, how do you make something like that funny? Because I’ve heard from people, conservatives, that maybe you’re not supposed to kill the elderly?

Zack: Well, there’s not just violence toward the elderly in this movie; there’s also a lot of bad moments for humanity in general. So, there’s kind of an equal opportunity to kill corpses, the elderly, and a couple of quasi-innocent people, so we’ve been able to spread it around. But as far as the nastiness of the killings, I think we tried to steer toward creativity more than just being gratuitous. I have every respect for graphic violence, but the movie is more geared toward the humor that might come out of the violence because it’s either unlikely or creative or just unexpected. And that’s what we’re gearing toward rather than squished eyeballs. No two people in this movie die exactly the same, and I think that’s important.

Hollywood: Both of your previous works, Best Worst Movie and Destroy All Movies, celebrate this unmitigated love of obscure cinema. Can you think of any opportunities that Destroy will offer you to bring more of that quality to the screen?

Zack: I think nobody aims for obscurity, but in obscure films, I think nobody would argue some of the most ambitious work is put into them. These are films that have the freedom, or the creators were allowed the freedom, to try new things because they weren’t operating under the studio. Stuff that we look upon fondly now completely flopped in its day because it just wasn’t accessible. And that includes even huge studio titles. It’s a Wonderful Life was a failure. People thought it was too weird, and it had the whole afterlife thing. And then with exploitation and horror from the 70’s and on, there was a whole new market to be as severe as you could and to do stuff that wouldn’t otherwise be allowed in more widely distributed movies. And with the advent of new filmmakers who pay respect to movies that weren’t formerly respected, I think everybody who’s doing good work is doing so because, as a person absorbing movies and absorbing creativity, they were open to all types of stuff and not just looking at the history of major studio, Hollywood, output. So, anything that Michael does, or that Bryan and I would write, is going to be informed by this broad appreciation of movies that weren’t necessarily nominated for Oscars. And I think that’s the only way that somebody can really get excited about doing anything creatively, is if they’ve already absorbed so much stuff that they’re full and now it’s time for them to put out more of their own. And if somebody just comes from making music videos or watching studio movies, they’re not going to have that same drive to do something fun or creative. They’re not already full of that excitement themselves. Does that make sense?

Hollywood: Absolutely. That’s a good answer to my borderline pretentious question. So, I appreciate that. Michael, did you have anything you wanted to add to that?

Michael: He basically said exactly what I was gonna say. No, I’m kidding. I’d only offer that with some of these obscure films, not being the studio films, are made with such heart and honesty and nothing but good intentions. There’s a sort of innocence to them. And I think that’s something that’s really special with this script. With Zack’s writing, it’s obvious that every page is full of him and Bryan. It’s very dark, but it’s also just overflowing with heart and with really smart comedy. It’s not comedy that’s cheap…it’s really subtle comedic timing. It’s very great.

Zack: Gosh, thanks.

Hollywood: The last question is probably the most obligatory one. Can you guys name just some of your favorite, maybe not even necessarily just vampire movies, but maybe the films that would have inspired you to make this film; classic, trashy or otherwise?

Michael: Zack introduced me to the Kaurismäki film The Man Without a Past, and I love the comedic timing in that movie. It’s got this innocence and great sense of humor. I also just saw The Apartment for the first time a couple weeks ago and I was just blown away by how well they were able to handle such dark comedy with a sense of brightness.

Zack: If I can interject: people look at The Apartment as a comedy, in hindsight, but that movie covers the tragedies brought on by infidelity. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s still a comedy. Sorry, go on.

Michael: Yeah, it’s really dark material and that way that it was handled was just so refreshing. How about you, Zack?

Zack: As far as what stuff in that same genre or even in just a vampire hunting realm would have informed it, I think vampire movies for the most part aren’t as exciting to me when they don’t focus on the humans that are affected by the vampires. It’s like a disaster movie. If you watch a movie about an earthquake or tidal wave, you don’t get to know the earthquake or tidal wave; you get to know the people that are affected by it. I always like vampire hunter movies like Captain Kronos, which is the old Hammer movie. I mean Peter Cushing is likeable too in the Hammer movies as Van Helsing. I just think this human being going up against ridiculous odds and really has no chance of surviving against this immortal, powerful force, that character is always more likeable. So we just took out the immortal, powerful force. So it’s this guy who’s just left alone. And being a vampire hunter in a world without vampires is a pretty tragic role. This guy puts everything he has into it, which is like the worst thing he could ever do, but he’s still dedicated to it. So, in that way he’s just kind of a tragic lead character, and it’s not about the horror aspects at all. What Michael said about it, comparing it to Billy Wilder’s The Apartment that would be the most flattering comparison anyone could ever make to it, if Billy Wilder directed a vampire hunter movie. Hopefully we can do something along those lines and make it totally funny and entertaining and unpretentious, but also smart and exciting. And hopefully it’ll appeal to someone who isn’t in the mood for vampires, because there aren’t any in this anyway.

Thanks guys, we’ll be on the lookout for Destroy. Feel free to read the Under the Radar features on Best Worst Movie and Destroy All Movies.