Staci Layne Wilson/Horror.com: The red carpet premiere for HellBent is almost here.
Paul Etheridge-Ouzts: I know. Push this baby out. I’ve been living with it for a long time now. But it’ll probably be more like a red bathmat premiere! [laughs]
I noticed it’s been playing at film festivals and such. So you’ve already gotten some audience reaction?
Oh, yeah. I’ve seen probably 10 screenings with audiences.
So are you sick of it yet?
Um, you know, in some ways, yes. But there are still parts that I enjoy to watch. And it’s so much fun to watch the movie with an audience who hasn’t seen it before. There’s that electric energy in the audience.
Do you find that most audiences do laugh in all the same places, or have you had some surprises?
They’ve been very consistent. Every audience I’ve seen it with has behaved pretty enthusiastically. There were some laughs in places I hadn’t anticipated. Not bad laughs, but you know, people, I guess since I know the film so well I’m not affected by anything. The moment when Eddie is in the kitchen and he pulls out the little oyster knife, that always gets a big laugh. I didn’t intend for it to be funny, but I thought it was kind of absurd. Maybe at that point, people are just ready to release.
And they’re probably identifying with him too, like, ‘Oh, god. That’s exactly what I would have done.’
To me, HellBent has classic horror movie themes, and it just happens to have gay characters. You’ve got the young hotties who, usually when pursuing pleasures such as sex and alcohol, get killed. That is no different than your classic horror movie — if you do it, you die. However, I was wondering if you’ve gotten any negative reaction about the gay characters being ‘loose’. Let’s face it: that is an unfortunate stereotype.
No, I haven’t gotten that yet. The only character who’s that way is Chaz, the cowboy. He’s very hedonistic and he’s loose. He does leap from one to the other. But Joey, the little guy who gets killed in the bathroom, is looking for a date. Eddie is obviously uncomfortable with going home with Jake. It’s obviously something he’s not used to doing, but it’s still exciting. You know, behaving badly is kind of thrilling to him. I don’t that they’re particularly loose. But yes, if you want to make that argument, then yes, absolutely, kids in horror films are all having sex, doing drugs, getting drunk.
Yeah. In fact, I love that opening scene where you’ve got the couple making out in a parked car and then they get killed — classic old-school horror.
Well, thank you. I intended that. When I was approaching the film one thing that I wanted to do was revisit some classic slasher moments and see those parts recast with men to see how the dynamic would change.
And hey, as a woman, it’s nice for me not to see bare female breasts in a horror movie for a change! I’m like, ‘Oh good. Some naked guys for a change!’
You’ve got some great casting choices here. I had never seen Dylan Fergus before, because I don’t watch soap operas — those are like crosses to vampire for me. But he was great. And I understand he didn’t have much rehearsal time at all.
No, we didn’t have any rehearsal time. The cast was locked two days before we started filming. It was actually like a day and a half. We had just enough time to get costumes for them. Everyone we cast had had some professional experience. Dylan wasn’t in Passions yet at the time. He was, I think, in All My Children though. He had just graduated from Carnegie, and had been in Los Angeles for two weeks when we cast him. He was probably the greenest of the bunch but still, working in a soap opera where you’re given pages 30 minutes before you have to perform, I think primed him.
And Hank Harris was adorable. I’d seen him before in Pumpkin and I thought he was awesome in that. How did you come to cast him as Joey, and what was it like to work with him?
It was interesting. It was good. Every actor approached performance and preparation for their role in a different way. It was a little tricky with Hank, because he preferred to remain in character and be spoken to as if he were Joey. It was kind of strange because some of the other actors were totally different and didn’t want to be identified as that character at all when they weren’t shooting. They were very much themselves when the camera wasn’t on them. But, uh, Hank really immersed himself to point where it was, ‘Don’t call me Hank.’
Each of the main characters winds up in a Halloween costume. So I’m wondering how each actor in real life fits their reel alter-ego.
Hm. Well, when I was writing the script I knew that everyone would have to be in a Halloween costume. And I thought it would be fun to play with the Tom of Finland stereotypes. He’s an artist who pretty much, through his illustrations, defined gay masculine ideals for the 70s — you know, the cop, the sailor. The kind of hyper-masculine, hyper-sexual characters. All the subjects in his drawings were in uniform and masculinity was pushed to the nth degree. So I thought it would be fun to do that for HellBent with a cop, a cowboy, and… um, well, the drag queen not so much! [laughs]
And I wanted the costumes to either reflect the character or to be the antithesis of the character. Chaz is kind of the freeballin’ cowboy, so his costume reflects his character. Whereas Joey is you know, the ingénue, so the leather outfit is not at all something that he would consider for himself.
In real life, I’d have to say that the two leads [are most like their Halloween costumes]. Brian Kirkwood has that kind of bad-boy / actor persona in real life. He’s very sweet, but that was probably not too much of a stretch for him to play Jake. And Dylan is kind of reserved, orderly and by the book, so he could be a cop. But there is kind of a dark streak in there, I think! He’s young, so who knows?
I thought your villain looked wonderful. His costume was so cool. Was that look something you had a hand in, or did you leave it to a costume design person?
I had a hand in everything! [laughs] It was a stipulation from the producers that the killer wear a mask. So I knew that he would have to have his face concealed and be in some sort of a Halloween costume. But I wanted the killer to also be alluring and sort of a sexual presence so that the main characters would not immediately identify him as evil, or bad. So often in slasher films the killer is something horrific that you’d run from immediately. I really wanted to play with the idea that the killer could be enticing and could lure young men in.
I like the Mephisto-style devil. You had a lot of choices there; what made you settle on that particular look?
Once again, I wanted to play with the sexuality of it. I think that devil imagery is pretty loaded — you have the evil-incarnate aspect of it, but also at Halloween I’ve always been kind of attracted to the guys who play a sexual devil who will tempt you over to experience something forbidden. There’s something kind of exciting about that.
How did you cast the actor for that? I mean, with a mask and no dialogue it’s got to be tricky.
That was a little tricky. We couldn’t approach his casting in the traditional way, where you put two actors together and have them do a scene. I had a mask, just a simple Lone Ranger style mask, that we had each of our auditioners wear. We needed a certain physical type. I wanted him to be imposing, and much more muscular than I anticipated that the kids would be. And we sort of just kind of got them in a scene with another character; I think we read Tobey’s scene in the alley. We just kind of felt the energy. But yeah, it was a little strange. It was new territory for all of us. We ended up with Luke Weaver, who is a former Abercrombie and Fitch model.
Uh, yeah — I could definitely see the model physique. [laughs] But I was wondering if you were maybe looking at dancers for their certain way of moving, or…?
Well, yes. Initially, I said let’s look at dancers because they will know how to move and communicate through movement alone. But I think all we got in the auditions was exotic dancers! [laughs]
This is your first feature as a director…
You know, I have done every job there is to do except for run the camera. The process of filmmaking is fascinating to me — I mean, the parties afterward? You have to drag me to those. I’m really someone who enjoys the process of filmmaking. Not the celebrity of it, but just taking something off the page and creating something different when you’re shooting it, and then creating something altogether different when you edit it. It’s strange because if you read the script of HellBent, it feels different from the film.
It’s like the old adage of, in one movie you make three films: There’s the film that you write, the film that you shoot, and finally the film that you put together in the editing room. There are plenty of scenes in the final film that were put together using other scenes. Moments that we never shot, or moments that were never meant to be put in the film. But I needed another scare here, or I needed another moment or beat here. I love that. I love the puzzle aspect.
There’s a creepy eye-ball theme running through the movie. What make you think of that?
My best friend in high school was sitting across the table from me, in one of our classes, scratching under his eye with a metal ruler. And I said, ‘Quit scratching like that. You’re going to put an eye out.’ And then he stuck the metal ruler in his eye and flipped his eyeball out onto my book. I had never even known he had a glass eye! So it completely freaked me out and it’s stayed with me.
While there are a lot of light moments in HellBent, there really are a lot of moments of suspense and terror. How did you manage that from script to screen?
Well, I’m pleased to hear you say that. It’s not at all frightening to me, but I know every beat. Sometimes I wish I could see it with fresh eyes, just so I could see where I succeed and where I don’t.
Um, you know… I don’t really know how to answer that question because I don’t think that horror films are often frightening to fans. To horror fans. I think that we go for a certain pleasure, but I don’t know about frightening. Do you? Do you find yourself getting frightened?
Quite honestly, no. I am pretty jaded when it comes to horror movies. But I do think your movie has some great moments of suspense. And I think what sells that is that there was character development in the beginning. When the killer is coming after these four guys, you actually care what’s happening to them.
Well, that was my secret weapon. I couldn’t think of anything that was really going to frighten me. I knew I had the eyeball gag running through it, and that felt fresh to me. So I did have something new and fresh that I was going to bring to it. But I figured no horror fan was going to feel the rush unless I engaged them with the characters. I knew that if people were involved with them, it was going to make my job so much easier. And I don’t know why [directors and writers] don’t do that more often. I mean, it’s not that hard to write characters.
Another thing I liked about the movie was that unlike a lot of horror flicks today, it didn’t rely on CGI. Did you do a lot of in-camera effects, or what?
It was mixed. A lot of it is digital. A lot of it is composite and you wouldn’t even know. Stuff like the dragon mural on the wall where Eddie’s playing basketball, that’s digital. There’s a crane shot over the boulevard, and a lot of that is CG-extension, like the roofs of the tents.
Do you like delving into all the technical aspects of a film?
Oh, absolutely. My partner actually works for the Stan Winston Studio so I love going to work with him!
Oh, Stan Winston. I can’t think of him without thinking of Interview With the Vampire, one of my all-time favorite movies. And it has some homoerotic aspects, too. Which brings me to another question: Oftentimes gay characters in horror movies are either the comic relief (like Ray in Scary Movie) or the crazed killer (like Marie in High Tension) — how did you find a balance in HellBent, where everyone, almost, is gay?
It really wasn’t difficult to me, because I’ve been out since I was 14. I was really just writing people I know, or knew when I was growing up. Just regular guys who are not defined by their sexuality but who are gay. I never considered that monstrous while growing up, or ‘different’, and I think that a lot of writers who have used gay characters before really write from a place where gays are strange and different. So they are ripe for ridicule or being the scary monster. That’s just not the case in my life.
I think the movie will also appeal to straight people, because it rings true. There’s a certain organic reality to it, even though it is a balls-out horror movie — so to speak. So how have straight audience members reacted, in general, to the film?
I haven’t gotten a negative reaction from straight audience members. I have heard some people say, ‘Well, the gay theme isn’t my style but it still works as a horror movie.’ I have heard that. But with gay audience members there have been a few who have obviously gone to see the wrong film — they seem to have a political agenda, like, ‘Why are we seeing gay people being murdered? Don’t we see enough of that already in real life?’ and so on.
I wrote it as a horror movie first. When I first sat down to write a gay horror film, I had to ask myself, and wrestle with, ‘What is gay horror?’ but there wasn’t anything that felt specifically gay. We all, universally, are afraid of the same things. Being killed, being stalked, being in the dark, and all of that. Even, you know, AIDS hasn’t been solely a gay fear for a long time now.
What do you want to do next? More gay-themed films, or just movies?
I am definitely a filmmaker. I would not be opposed to making more gay-themed films in the future. My next project, which I really can’t talk about yet, will be a horror film.
Do you know how many times I’ve had that carrot dangled in front of me? ‘Can’t really talk about it…’ [laughs]
I know, I know. But really, I can’t. There’s the whole fear of jinxing the project, and things fall through so often.
HellBent is only coming out in limited release, which is kind of a bummer… but DVDs can often give a movie a whole different life. Have you already started thinking about what you’re going to put on the disc?
I haven’t been thinking about that yet. But when I was cutting the film I was definitely putting stuff aside for extras and gags reels. I would love [to do a commentary] but usually when I rent a film, I like to just watch the movie without it and see it as an audience member. [But if I do one, it would be a combination of technical and anecdotal] because I’m fascinated by the way the film goes together with the digital effects and the anecdotes.
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Interview by Staci Layne Wilson
Be sure and read Horror.com’s review of HellBent by clicking here.