The summer of 2016 was a weird time. It was pre-election, and the news stories were flooded with the absurdity of the presidential race, and clowns. Remember, the reports of spooky clown popping up all over, seemingly unprompted? These welcome distractions to our stressors were both actually started as a part of a short film, and the country’s reaction to those clown sightings has been turned into a feature film by the same filmmakers. Having its world premiere at last week’s Cinepocalypse Film Fest in Chicago, the filmmakers behind Gags chatted with me about how they kicked off the international clown craze and then made that a feature film.
When did you first hear about the viral clown sightings?
Adam Krause (director and co-writer): Not to sound all “I started that,” but I started that. I was making a short film in secret in Green Bay [Wisconsin] based on stories I had heard back in 2014. One was the Wasco clown, in California. He would just walk around at night and people would take pictures of him. He was a creepy clown. It turned out to be a photography assignment for a college student, but that didn’t stop that from going viral on social media. I came across these stories and thought they would be great for a short film. We filmed the short in secret and released photos of the “sightings” because I wanted to convince my town that there was a creepy clown wandering the streets late at night.
Why did you want to terrorize your hometown?
Adam: I didn’t want to terrorize them. I thought it would be a fun way to get the word out about my film. I thought, what better way to create some buzz? We released the pictures August 1st, 2016 and it blew up. From that point on it went viral very quickly. I announced that it was just a short film eight days later, but that didn’t stop the craze from kicking into high gear. It got crazy in the Carolinas pretty soon. Every major news network was covering the story. It all started when Gags [the clown] went viral. There was a point in October when reporters were asking Obama’s press secretary about the clown craze. It still blows my mind when I think about it.
What is it about clowns?
Adam: I’m personally not scared of them, but I understand why they can be unsettling to people. As a kid Stephen King’s It was on TV and I remember watching Clown House on VHS. My sister rented it for a party, I snuck in, and it terrified me. If I see a clown in public I don’t freak out, but I know a lot of people do. I have a friend who almost has a panic attack when they see a clown.
And they are still friends with you?
Adam: [Laughs] They are still friends with me.
At what point in the viral buzz around the clown craze did you decide that you wanted to turn it into a feature?
John Pata (producer and co-writer): I was in the know about Gags the whole time. It was probably that first day—August1st—I was texting Adam to tell him he should turn it into a feature. Look at all this attention! In the roughest sense I was pushing him to do it from day one, but that was just to jump on the situation presented. I remember telling him that the story of how this came to be is really the material for the feature. This is the big story, and one that should be told. Initially I was pitching kind of a documentary idea, but that was just us freaking out over the attention we were getting. In October, the short film had come out, and I was at the Green Bay premiere. There, the question came up if there would be a feature. Adam wasn’t sure because he didn’t have a story. He didn’t want to stretch those 15 minutes into 90 minutes. On the spot I pitched an idea. A little bit of it came from wanting to do an anthology film that takes place over the course of one night. There was a film called 11:14 that I loved and I wanted to do a story like that. I pitched taking four stories, mixing them together, and encapsulating what had occurred. We could pull from the Gags story, but we can also pull from the other sightings in the Carolinas and Fort Wayne, Indiana. We could point out the absurdity of what had occurred. On the spot Adam said, “That could maybe work.”
Did you know all four stories right then?
John: I did. After the Green Bay premiere, I was toying with the idea of the feature. When it came to what actually occurred, I started to thinking from a logistical standpoint. In Green Bay the cops were on the news. They were being asked all the time, “Why aren’t you doing anything?” Their answer was, “It’s not illegal to dress creepy in public.” So let’s incorporate the cops who are getting all these calls about the clown. Clearly the news played a big part too. They were such a big asset to the craze. So it made sense to have a news reporter who is trying to get to the bottom of the story. The teenagers were just a random idea, to have them terrorizing people and pranking everyone. The clown craze also had pictures of people posing in deer hunting garb, with their kill which was a clown. I thought that was absolutely ridiculous, so I wanted to include it. Overall we just took what happened and threaded some characters around it.
Adam: Early into our planning stages, John would always talk about Jaws. There is this shark, and it is terrifying and people are dying. But the greatest parts of Jaws are the parts where the town of Amity reacts to the shark and the hysteria that comes with it. When writing the film that was the angle we kept using for our approach. The clown is there, he definitely has something evil going on, but how people are reacting is the story. How the news stations are scrambling to get this ridiculous story. How the cops are trying to calm things down. How the high schoolers are using it as an excuse to goof around. And the podcast host who goes out hunting for the clown. I actually got a lot of death threats after the photos went viral, from people like him.
You shot locally in Green Bay. How did the town feel about further amplifying the clown craze there?
Adam: From them original leaked photos, I got a little nervous to announce that it was really only a short film. Am I going to get arrested? I had researched laws to make sure I wasn’t doing anything wrong. When I did come out and announce it, they weren’t angry at all. It was the complete opposite. They all admired it. The Green Bay police department was extremely instrumental in us making the feature film. They understood the absurdity of it all. It wasn’t a big deal. I was getting emails from the fire department telling me how much they loved it. They wanted me to bring the clown to the station. We never got any real backlash from the city. The only instance was a single location turned us down. In the end, it worked out better for us too. Other than that, the entire city was supportive from the get-go.
John: When Adam made the short, it was completely guerrilla style. Other than the permits, nobody knew what was going on. When we went to do the feature, we wanted to do the exact opposite. We were going to need the city on board with us. Early on in pre-production I met with the mayor and other heads of the city to tell them what our plan was in hopes that we could work together. We didn’t know if the name “Gags” carried a stigma. The idea was that I went in to pitch them the film, but kept the name of the film and clown vague. If they seemed favorable to the idea, I was going to tell them the title was “Gags,” but if they seemed hesitant I would say “Black Balloons” to slowly seduce them. But they were into it. The mayor actually thanked us for doing something that wasn’t related to football.
The whole clown craze was very silly, which fits well into the humor in the film. Did you always want to mix humor and horror in Gags?
Adam: I think the humor was always there. We churned out the script really quickly. I would write a chunk one night, and he would write another the next night. I don’t think we ever decided, officially, to make it funny. I think it came naturally from our writing styles and the fact that we both found what was going on to be absurd. As a found-footage, or assembled-footage film, cutting back and forth between four stories, with 85 minutes, there wouldn’t be a ton of time to develop characters. Certain characters like Dale (Wyatt Kuether), we wanted to make likable. Someone the audience could laugh with. A lot of the humor came from the actors we cast. Some of the funniest lines came from Lauren Ashley Carter and Wyatt. That was just them going off script, and it was hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing from behind the monitor, and we kept it in the film.
John: We came up with an outline before we started writing the script. Knowing what really did occur, and how people reacted, produced humor. Many real-life clowns were pissed that this craze had given clowns a bad name. Adam was approached by one at a screening of the short film. I think the situation itself has naturally presented this level of comedy, and we took it.
Now that you are getting out to screenings of the feature film with audiences outside of Green Bay, what is it like to see the greater response to Gags out in the world?
Adam: It is surreal. From the beginning, seeing how far it has stretched, I cannot fathom it. Even with making the feature and now talking to various distributors and festivals, it helps to know that Gags the clown was the catalyst for the clown craze of 2016. It cemented its place history in how far and long it went, and how seriously people took it. And Gags is forever going to be tied to that. I don’t want to be so extreme to say that Gags made history, but it is crazy to see that releasing those pictures was the catalyst. Clown horror films are enough to intrigue some people. But as soon as I bring up the fact that it is almost a docudrama about the 2016 clown craze it really interests people. I’m just excited to get the film out there to more people.
John: I remember in August of 2015, Adam and I had dinner together. That was the first time he mentioned to me this idea for the short. That was Gags. As independent filmmakers you need to remember that you don’t know where things are going to go. A casual dinner, just talking to a friend, about a film he was thinking of making. And here we are nearly three years later, and the world knows who Gags is. That’s insane. As an independent filmmaker you hope that people are aware of what you make. Now people are aware of what we have made and that is a surreal feeling after doing this for ten years.