SHADOW CITY -- Jack-o’-Lantern Press recently sat down with monster movie maker Jack Perez (creative by day, gremlin by night) during a recent film festival celebrating his work at Shadow City Studios on the Studio Strip to discuss his monster movies, his life and working with The Curse from Syfy Channel’s “Blast Vegas” (2013), who he said was a major prima donna.
Perez, who directed such monster movies as MTV’s “Monster Island” (2004), The Asylum’s “Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus” (2009) and the John Landis-produced “Some Guy Who Kills People” (2011), started his career with what monsters call “fuzzier, crime and noir pics” like “America’s Deadliest Home Video” (1993), “The Big Empty” (1997), “La Cucaracha” (1998) and “Wild Things 2” (2004).
The filmmaker’s enthusiasm for cinema is contagious, and his body of work (along with the bodies he puts in the ground during the making of his movies) can only be described as follows: REALLY cool. Perez has made a living taking small budgets and creating mega results, garnering awards (“La Cucaracha” won Best Narrative Feature at the 1998 Austin Film Festival) and high online honors (the “Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus” trailer, upon its release, was a mega viral hit, according to People.com, scoring over a million hits on MTV.com and a million more on YouTube).
We picked Perez’s brain. And he let us keep the pieces we got.
Jack-o’-Lantern Press: So, Jack -- love the name, by the way -- tell us a little about yourself and the type of movies you make.
Jack Perez: I typically work in the giant-monster genre, though I’ve had dealings with demonic children and the occasional more-serious “human-monster.” But generally, big-ass atomic mutations are my bag. I got into it as a kid, inhaling movies on Saturday afternoon TV. Second: I saw “King Kong” (1933) and “Them!” (1954) and “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953) and “The Amazing Colossal Man” (1957) and all the original “Godzilla” pics. Didn’t matter how silly or low budget, or complex and real -- I loved ‘em all. It was a world I wanted to be in! Soon after, I grabbed my dad’s super-8 camera and drafted my sister into making my own mini-monster epics, which usually required throwing my sis’ into rubber masks and capes, and pouring blood all over her.
JLP: Where did you get your training? And how’d you get into “the business”?
Perez: Went to NYU Film School. But there was a special underground division of the film department that operated out of the boiler room in the bowels of 721 Broadway. They kept us chained to the radiators most of the day, fed us cold gruel, and made us watch early Polanski, Romero and Jodorowsky on a loop. It toughened us up for the real world. The “keeper” down there carried a whip (but used it sparingly). He tugged on my chains one day, knelt down and whispered in my ear, “If you don’t have anything to say as a filmmaker, better to find that out now. You’ll be happier later.” Sent chills down my spine. Fortunately, I busted out (some of my fellow students are still chained down there -- skeletons by now, of course), and I made my way to Horrorwood, which is aptly named, because never will you find (as Ben Kenobi once said) a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Still, I managed to survive. Made a low-budget feature, the thriller “America’s Deadliest Home Video” with Danny Bonaduce (now considered one of the first found-footage movies), and got “in” directing behind-the-scenes documentaries for the studios. Funny enough, my first gig was covering the Universal horror pic, “Dr. Giggles” (1992), about a psychotic surgeon (still have some scars from that one). Several jobs later, I was eventually hired to direct the pilot of “Xena: Warrior Princess” (1995-2001).
JLP: What’s your personal favorite film of yours (to make and the final result)?
Perez: I have two: “The Big Empty,” which has more psychological horror than anything else, and “Some Guy Who Kills People,” which has both pathos and decapitated heads ricocheting off car hoods. Both were joys to make because of the creative freedom and the cast and crews.
JLP: Now, you started your career with crime movies (“America’s Deadliest Home Video” and “Wild Things 2”), noir pics (“The Big Empty” and “La Cucaracha”) and sword-and-sandal TV series (“Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “Xena: Warrior Princess”). Did those projects prepare you in any way to work with a mega shark and a giant octopus? If so, how so?
Perez: Only in ways to work fast. And on “Mega Shark,” that was accelerated to criminal levels -- had to shoot it in 12 days! In terms of content, my study of giant monsters from the time I was 9 was the best prep. Though the shark was moody, and getting him to take direction was like pulling teeth. Giant Octopus was cooperative enough, but aloof. Debbie Gibson couldn’t have been nicer.
JLP: It seems like you have a natural gift with monsters. All of them in your films seem to be locked into character, especially that big-ass, mutated flesh-eating pirate . . . with a shark that lunges out of his eye in Cinefix’s 2014 web series “Fear Force Five” (by the way, he really ate Miss Evelyn’s fourth-grade field trip, right?). Is it in the rehearsal? Do you use “the method”? Do you play theater games with them before the shoot? If so, what kinds of games did you play with the ancient curse in “Blast Vegas”? I’ve always wanted to work with an ancient curse. How was it?
JLP: Every actor is different. Directing Lucy Davis or Barry Bostwick is different from directing a mutated ant or an enlarged zombie pirate with a shark living in his brain. They’ve often had different training. Zombie Pirate started at the Actor’s Studio, then inexplicably dropped the method and became more technique-based. Barry sometimes required a black-magic potion be brewed at catering and served to him by a witch at least two centuries old. One time, our producer could only get hold of a 70-year-old warlock and Barry flipped, wouldn’t come out of his trailer all day. And yes, Zombie Pirate did consume the entire fourth-grade class, but we of course had to do that in one take. Regarding The Curse in “Blast Vegas!” -- what a prima donna that guy was! Spent half the day in the make-up chair getting his hair “just so,” and the turkey’s invisible for the whole picture!
JLP: What was it like working with aliens from another planet in 2016’s “Drone Wars”? Were they as demanding as it would seem? Did they find in you what they needed, or were they always asking to be taken to your leader? They sound really difficult? I bet they demanded their own Star Waggons and the “star treatment,” right? Special meals? No looking in their eye lines? As a director, how do you deal with that on set?
Perez: I was dreading the drones ‘cause I’d heard stories. My friend, John Schultz, had a lot of difficulties on “Aliens in the Attic” (2009) -- special meal demands, tantrums -- that sort of thing. As it turned out, my drones on “Drone Wars” were very pleasant. Kept to themselves, played a lot of chess between takes. They invited me over to their apartment after the first week and we spent a quiet evening cooking pasta and watching “War of the Worlds and “Invaders from Mars” (the originals, of course).
JLP: Who was your favorite monster to work with on “Monster Island”? Giant insects? The sea monster? And why?
Perez: Oh, I have so many, but if I had to choose, I’d say Giant Praying Mantis. He was just so appreciative at being hired. Wrote me a lovely letter after we wrapped, thanking me for being such an attentive director, catering to his insecurities, which I really didn’t even notice. Just the sweetest guy.
JLP: What can you tell us about working in the Bermuda Triangle for that film?
Perez: Oh, well, that was pickle. Just getting the insurance to shoot there. The premium was insane -- a third of the budget!
JLP: The people in your films seem very realistic and excellent villains for the monsters, and you’ve had some really cool, frightening people in your films, like Carmen Electra, Adam West, Karen Black, Eric Roberts, Frankie Muniz, Barry Bostwick, Kevin Corrigan, Danny Bonaduce, Melora Walters, Joe Dante and John Landis, to name only a few. How involved are you in the people FX? How do you go about creating them and manipulating them in your movies? Or do they have lives of their own?
Perez: Well, for those who know me, I always prefer practical people effects over CGI, which I feel lacks dimension and tangibility. So I hire a guy over at UCLA to grow ‘em in a jar. He uses the Professor Pretorius method (you know, from “Bride of Frankenstein”), which is pretty common practice now. Though a healthy dose of radiation is necessary at the final stage to speed up the growth process.
JLP: What’s the difference between making a “family film” like “666: The Child” (2006), about adoption, and making a feel-good, coming-of-age picture like “Some Guy Who Kills People,” about a guy who wants to be a monster? What were the different approaches you took to make these films?
Perez: It’s really a matter of research during pre-production. I spent a good deal of time with devil worshippers on “666” (they have a big beach house over in Malibu), going on raids, participating in sacrificial rituals -- great fun. On “Some Guy,” I hung around with an active serial killer (I won’t name names) just to get the smell of his world. I’d heard Michael Mann rode with homicide detectives in preparation for “Heat” (1995), and this was basically the same process. With this particular maniac (he favored sledgehammers), we spent an inordinate amount of time in hardware stores.
JLP: What makes a particular low budget B-movie really fun and really great, and a particular over-budgeted summer blockbuster a sucky piece of crap? What are the differences between the two?
Perez: In general, low budget pics are more personal and less messed-with by producers or studio executives. On a small movie, there’s a greater chance that that writer or director’s vision and personality, no matter how idiosyncratic, will make it to the screen. The big budget world is always striving for mass-consumption tastes, and handles creativity via committee -- a sure recipe for disaster, or just plain audience boredom.
JLP: I’m sure all of your cast and crew were frightened during the making of your movies, but have you ever had any accidents on set where no one got scared at all? Or are you unable to talk about it? We understand that some monsters might report you for lack of set terrorizing. In other words, how do you set the mood on set?
Perez: It’s true that the director is responsible for setting the mood on the set, but I rarely ask for terror. I find it comes about naturally. Though there have been occasions where I find either monsters or actors playing patty-cake or watching “My Little Pony” between takes, which I put a stop to immediately.
JLP: What do you look for in a good monster movie you want to make? Are there monster movies you love that you hold your projects up to before you make them? What are some of those movies you love? Who are some of your favorite monster stars?
Perez: Heart, wit, atmosphere and most importantly, character. Otherwise it’s just mayhem, and that gets old pretty fast. “King Kong,” “Frankenstein” (1931), “Shaun of the Dead” (2004), “An American Werewolf in London” (1981) are the kinds of inspirations (and there are dozens and dozens of ‘em) that possess these qualities.
JLP: How do you create a look with your films using story, camera, performance, production design, costume design, make-up, special and effects, music, editing, etc.? How do you find a style?
Perez: It depends. All aspects are important to creating proper and effective atmosphere. I usually create a “look book” of inspiring images (from related films or fine art) that guides the cinematographer, production designer, make-up FX team and everyone else on the overall design. Then I hunker down and do specific storyboards for all the key sequences. But what inspires all this imagery is usually the script itself. It’s a feeling -- a world -- that’s baked into the text. It speaks to you. Then, it’s the director’s job to translate those feelings into images. It’s one of the coolest things about the job.
JLP: What’s your dream monster movie project?
Perez: Not sure. I’ve been very lucky to have done my valentine to stop-motion animated monsters and Ray Harryhausen (“Monster Island”), as well as my giant rubber-suit tribute (a la 1954’s “Godzilla” and Toho Studios) with “Fear Force Five.” I’m not sure. Looking for something new and exciting. Maybe something with flying brains.
JLP: How do you get ideas?
Perez: I actually don’t have that many. Never been one of those guys with filing cabinets full of un-produced stories. Jealous of those guys! Ideas for me seem to come when they come. And the best ones connect with your deepest loves and what’s relevant in your own life at the time. I once read that Sam Peckinpah (one of my favorite directors and sort’ve a monster in his own right) made films to find out, or work out the stuff that was bothering him. That appeals to me.
JLP: What’s it like working with low budgets? Do you feel you make too many compromises, or do low budgets force you to be more creative, coming to better ideas you may not have found had you had the budget you desired? Any examples?
Perez: Having not enough days, not enough time to finesse, and the general feeling of being rushed is definitely the low-budget curse. Never fun. But yes, the old maxim of “necessity being the mother of invention” totally holds true in this world. And I’m usually proud and sometimes even tickled by the nutty solutions I come up with based on the obstacles and limitations I’m dealing with. Throwing dollars at a problem, which is the big budget way, generally doesn’t result in anything genuinely inspired.
JLP: Do you take your work home with you? I mean -- do you have Mega Shark over for dinner? Do you rehearse with 666 demons in your house? If so, how do your wife and neighbors feel about that?
Perez: I used to. In the beginning, it was very hard to separate my work life from my personal world. And truthfully, you haven’t lived till you’ve witnessed Mega Shark, Karen Black and the child of the devil jumping around in a pool playing Marco Polo. But as I get older, my wife and I have become more insular. We’re homebodies. Though Zombie Pirate occasionally turns up unannounced, requesting tea and cake, and that always throws us. But whadya gonna do? You have to be civil.
JLP: Do you have any general rules with monster moviemaking? Is there such a thing as too evil?
Perez: I think so. Evil is a touchy thing. Like seasoning. Too little and you don’t even recognize it. Too much and it ruins the stew. I find one has to be very delicate and patient with evil. Or you wind up possessed. And then nothin’ ever gets done.
JLP: You teach directing at the Academy of Art in San Francisco in the human world. What is your biggest focus when you set out to instruct a class? Any tips for those struggling to break into the business? How do you get past the whole “struggle” part?
Perez: I try to inspire, to be the kind of teacher I always wanted to have. And I try to help students understand that the choices one makes as a filmmaker should be based on principles and philosophies rather than random expression or simply upon rules of “coverage.” I try to teach how to personally express oneself on film. Otherwise what’s the point?
JLP: Have you ever harnessed energy from lightning to create any of your work?
Perez I’d rather not discuss that.
JLP: Have you ever tried to take over the world?
Perez: Next question.
JLP: What do you do for evil in your spare time?
Perez: Whine to my wife.
JLP: Any skeletons in your closet?
Perez: Are you kidding? There aren’t enough closets.
JLP: So how can people find out more about you? How can they reach you?
Perez: Facebook me if you want to reach me. Oh, and check out my animated show, “Trailer Hitch,” with Allan Havey (from AMC’s “Mad Men”). Playlist can be found on the Cinefix YouTube channel right HERE.
JLP: What’s next for you?
Perez: Maybe a feature version of “Fear Force Five.” More big monsters. Maybe “Shotgun Wedding,” a female-driven crime thriller I wrote. Or maybe something completely unexpected!
JLP: OK, so I’m gonna fire off some questions like James Lipton from “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” Here we go: What’s your favorite shade of blood and guts?
Perez: Bright orange-red. Prefer the Hammer Film Productions/more cartoony quality. Plus, it reads better on film.
JLP: What’s your favorite type of victim?
Perez: Someone who deserves it.
JLP: If you could be any other monster, what would it be?
Perez: King Kong. But I don’t wanna get bit by a T-Rex or shot off the Empire State Building.
JLP: What kind of scream or cry of terror do you love most?
Perez: The piercing kind. See “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” -- the original. But not too many times -- can do damage.
JLP: What kind of scream or cry of terror do you love least?
Perez: Sucky, insincere kind. See opening of “Blow Out” (1981). Why does Travolta get caught up in all that nasty business in the first place?!
JLP: What’s your favorite torture device?
Perez: The Rack.
JLP: If The Elevator that goes down to The Fire Caves exists (and it does), what would you want the Red Devil to say to you when you arrive?
Perez: Think you’re on the wrong floor.