Ryan Schifrin: Exclusive Interview

Ryan Schifrin: Exclusive Interview
The director of Abominable talks about making his monster movie.
Updated: 10-03-2006

Staci Layne Wilson / Horror.com: I'm by no means an expert on this sort of thing, but isn't the Abominable snowman different from a yeti, Bigfoot, or a sasquatch?

Ryan Schifrin: I can sense the Bigfoot experts sharpening their knives….But here goes! Technically, yes, they are different. The Abominable Snowman (aka Yeti) lives in the Himalayas. Bigfoot (aka Sasquatch) lives in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. But what is interesting, is if you look globally at every culture throughout history, and realize that they all have their version of a missing link, half-man half-ape Wildman. In Australia it’s called the Yowie. These things have been sighted on every continent. I wanted a one word catchy title. Bigfoot was taken. Sasquatch was taken. Since this is a horror movie, I thought Abominable sounds cool (and sets us up for cheap shots from critics) – not only does it mean “awful”, it also means something evil and sinister. We justified calling it this by having a cryptozoologist character say our hairy beast is meaner than Bigfoot, and is “more like” the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.

How did the idea come to you – was it something you wanted to do for a long time, or did you get a chance to make a movie and then come up with the plot?

I had been wanting to direct for a long time, and I was approached by a company looking to do low-budget horror movies. They wanted a script I had written that was a serial killer movie, but I felt it couldn’t be done properly for their budget range, so I decided to come up with something new. The brainstorm, or inspiration, came to me on my honeymoon while taking a walk on the beach. It suddenly popped into my head – Rear Window as a creature feature. I felt it would be smart to do a one-location movie – and Rear Window is the best one location movie ever made, in my opinion.

What's your favorite part of movie-making – writing, working with actors, the technical aspects, editing, or what?

You know, it’s really hard to pick one, because I love all of it. Writing is hard because you are sometimes at the mercy of inspiration, and it’s solitary. However, you also have control of things and work at your own pace. And when those lightning bolt ideas come out of the blue, it’s a creative high. Production is so much fun, but also terrifying, because of the chaos and time and money pressure. It’s like being chased by a train and laying down tracks as you run away from it, hoping you lay down enough track before it catches up to you. But that is also exciting and rewarding. There’s a great satisfaction to capturing the images you saw in your head, and that only exist as storyboards (if that), but an even deeper satisfaction in working with actors and seeing them bring things to life in a way that is better than you could ever have imagined. Now, post-production is a ton of fun – editing the shots together and also coming up with new creative solutions, it’s a lot like writing in a way. The sound is tremendously fun to do – I had a blast working on the sound design on ABOMINABLE. Just adding in all the layers and seeing how they change the feel and mood of a scene. So, I’m gonna cop-out and say that I love directing, because it lets me play in all of those sandboxes.

What are some of your favorite monster movies?

King Kong was the first monster movie I ever saw. I loved dinosaurs, like a lot of little kids do, and this movie had King Kong fighting them! I was captured immediately. The Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Pumpkinhead, The Thing, The Fly, Jeepers Creepers… those are just some of my favorites. I’m a sucker for monster movies. It taps into the fear of the unknown, wanting to understand the darkness – you could probably write a whole dissertation on that subject! I also love Godzilla movies. What can I say? Monsters are cool!

If you were just a fan watching Abominable, which part would tell your friends about?

The face biting scene or the shower death scene. That’s a toss up.

Tiffany Shepis mentioned she was pregnant while making the movie – you'd never know it! What was your reaction when you found out, after she did that stunt?

She had just found out she was pregnant, so she wasn’t really showing yet. I was very concerned for her after I found out! She didn’t want anyone to know, so she kept it a secret until after we were finished shooting. I was much more worried about her getting scraped going through that window – I wanted the death scene to look really cool, but not if it meant inflicting any real pain! That was very difficult to pull off, let me tell you!

Can you talk about some of the other casting in the movie, like how you found your leads and what they bring to the table?

I knew Matt McCoy beforehand, from meeting him at the local tennis courts and developing a friendly rivalry. I actually wrote the part for him, not knowing that Jimmy Stewart is his favorite actor and that they share the same birthday. Matt had been friends with Junie Lowry Johnson, for over twenty years, who is one of the top casting directors. He introduced me to her, and she came on board to do our casting. I also knew Christian Tinsley, as we met on my short film Evil Hill and he did our make-up FX for that as well. Christian asked me if he could audition for the part of Otis. I said sure, and after I saw him read for the part, I couldn’t picture anyone else doing it. He totally knew what I was looking for, and even though he was a first timer, I had faith in him. I gave Junie a wish-list of actors, such as Dee Wallace, Jeffrey Combs, Paul Gleason. Everyone else I met through the auditioning process. I do have one cool story: We went back to shoot this new scene I came up with, and I really wanted Lance Henriksen to be in it. My friend called me up, and said “Guess who I met tonight?” I said, “Who?” And he told me that he ran into Lance at a movie theater, and finally went up to him and told him about me and ABOMINABLE and that I had written a scene for him. Lance gave my friend his phone number, and told him to have me call him the next day. So, I did, and we talked (which was surreal to say the least), and I FAX’d him the scene and he read it, and called me back and said let’s do it. Two weeks later, we were on location shooting his scene.

On the featurette and in the commentary on the DVD, all the actors genuinely seemed to have a good time – clearly, no one was walking through the frame on their way to pick up a paycheck. To what do you attribute that? (Because let's face it, these guys have done a lot of cameo roles in a lot of low-budget horror movies…)

I can only speak of my experience with them – I was of course very passionate and enthusiastic about making the film, and about having the opportunity to work with them, having loved their films growing up. Not only were they true professionals – showing up on time, knowing their lines, being eager to collaborate and easy to talk to – but we had a lot of fun together. They brought a lot of creativity, and passion to the project themselves. Jeff Combs came up with that entire look for his character. And Lance’s jacket – well, that’s his jacket! They really seemed to be into it. And Matt, who was there for most of the shoot – his work ethic was amazing! I think it all starts with the material – if the script is good, and if the people in charge have integrity and passion, then I think everyone involved, from the actors to the crew, will bring their best to the table.

What was it like working with your dad on the score? How much collaboration was there, and how did it work? [Lalo Shrifrin is a very well-known, celebrated Hollywood composer]

After our conversation about how we didn’t want this to strain our relationship, and me assuring him that such a thing would never happen (he was actually worried I might not like his score!), we pretty much treated it like a working relationship. We sat down and spotted the film together (selecting where music would be, and what emotions were called for). He then went off and wrote the score, and played me a couple of themes on the piano, but basically, I didn’t hear a thing until it was performed with a 90 piece orchestra. That is how he used to work with directors such as Don Siegel. They trusted him, and that inspired him. I wanted to do the same thing. And boy, did he come through for me!

What's been your favorite fan reaction to the movie?

Oh, it’s a blast seeing the movie with an audience. The new scene with Lance Henriksen has a lot more humor than the rest of the movie, so it’s a kick to see people reacting to it. Not only is Jeff Combs a riot, but I wrote dialogue for Lance that is more like the kind of stuff Bruce Campbell might say, and I love seeing Lance get laughs and show his humorous side. When he sees Ashley Hartman lying on the cave floor, with her guts hanging out, and he says “Oh wow! That is gross!”, that always gets a huge response. And of course, the Bigfoot biting off the guy’s face – to hear people gasp, scream, shout and applaud is very gratifying!

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Special thanks to Ryan for granting us this interview at basically the last minute (Abominable is out on DVD today!), because this movie is one of those pleasant surprises and I was really curious to find out more about the making of it. Be sure and check out horror.com's review of the movie.

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