Exclusive Interview: Gregory Plotkin Talks HELL FEST

Slasher nerd BC picks a slasher filmmaker's brain about... well, slasher movies.

CBS Films and Gale Anne Hurd both follow me on Twitter, so I am happy to take full credit for the existence of Hell Fest, as it's the sort of slasher that I'm always demanding with my 280 characters (even going back to when we only had 140!). Filmmaker Gregory Plotkin (who has an impressive editing resume, having cut Get Out and last year's awesome comi-slasher Happy Death Day) seemingly shares my belief that as long as you get the basics right, you don't need a clever gimmick to make your body count flick work - just some likable characters, a memorable location, and a killer that would make for a cool action figure.

Hell Fest delivers on all fronts, with a group of six friends (who genuinely like each other for a change) trying to have fun at a seasonal theme park, and ultimately getting picked off one by one by The Other, a masked madman who is easily able to blend in with all the other masked madmen being paid to scare our heroes. It gets much more right than wrong and dishes up the sort of slasher spree we used to be able to see in theaters all the time in the '80s, so I was fully in my element for 85 minutes. 

Now, normally I hate doing interviews, but when offered a chance to talk to Plotkin* I took it, because...well, it meant a trip to Six Flags, where I quickly learned that I am no longer able to enjoy high speed roller coasters. But also because I could tell from the film that he knew what he was doing, and I could take a break from talking to one of my fellow slasher fans about these movies and spend 15 minutes with someone who actually made one (and a good one at that!). There are a couple of very light spoilers ahead - they are clearly marked, but just a heads up in case you want to wait until you've seen the film. Everyone else, enjoy our chat! Hell Fest is in theaters now.

Before our press screening last night we saw an old-school trailer for the movie, with the deep-voiced trailer guy and film scratches and everything, really aping the look/tone of the trailers for the early '80s slashers. I know you're a slasher fan, so was this something you cooked up, or the marketing guys?

It was marketing, they've been really interactive with us in terms of what more they can do. The whole film is a bit of a love letter to the films I grew up loving: the Halloweens, the Friday the 13ths, the Nightmare on Elm Streets...so it was that whole throwback vibe. I grew up up in the '80s and I love those films, and I brought up that I wanted to get an old poster made [see below], and from that we then we started talking about an old trailer and it turned into this great conversation. It was fun, glad you enjoyed it!

The press notes said that you took your friends to see the original Halloween II for your 11th birthday that year. Being that the movie has a lot of sentimental value for you, what do you think of the new one kind of erasing that?

I keep an open mind. On paper I don't love it - it's hard for me as an audience member to ignore that that movie happened, but I'm super excited for the new one. Halloween is one of my top 5 all-time favorite films. But Carpenter's involved, and obviously I know the Blumhouse people so well and I know Jason, so I put my faith in them.

Speaking of Blumhouse, their brand of horror with the Insidious and Paranormal Activity films, which has been aped by the other studios... audiences are kind of used to getting a lot of jump scares in their horror these days, and that's something you can't really do with a slasher normally. You can't have the killer appearing that often, so the only way to get scares in between his appearances is to do annoying fake things like people walking backwards into coat racks or whatever. But here, because of the setting, you have license to get those kind of "boo" moments in there as the kids go through the haunts. So I'm curious, as director and co-editor, how you found that balance between keeping audiences engaged but not going overboard so that they're exhausted.

This is a hard one because I was actually very cognizant of that. I tried to balance it; I know that I don't love it when there's a ton of jump-scares with no substance to them. With the films that I've cut I know I've tried to build tension at least, so that it's not just a jump scare because you have nothing else to lean on. What I really wanted to do with this film was make people experience a "Horror Night" on film, so you have to have the jump scares. I tried to make them organic as I could to the park itself, and then just try to subvert expectations. When I was cutting we actually took some jump scares out just to try to keep that balance, and not go overboard. But luckily I do have that conceit of "these are mazes, these are haunts", so I felt I had carte blanche to do certain ones, for good reasons.

Yeah, I mean, you got a pretty good jolt out of me with a fuzzy spider dropping onto one of the kids!

[Laughs] Well that's where my editing background paid off - I knew what I needed. We shot the movie in 23 days so between everything I had to do, it was really difficult - I only had three weeks of prep. But I know post so well that I knew I could create certain things just with sound. So that was one of those throwaway ones where I knew I had a great sound effects library and could use that to make that one work. It was fun!

Let's talk about the mask. It's great because it's not so simple that you don't remember it - I don't want to blast any older ones in particular *cough* Prom Night *cough* - but it's also not so overblown that it couldn't be easily recreated [ed. note with minor spoiler - one key moment involves more than one person appearing to be the killer. Think the bit in Halloween 4 where they see multiple Michael Myers approaching]. How did you go about designing it with Tony Gardner? 

Tony is awesome. We had a very short prep, but I've been on the film and writing the film for about a year. When I first came on board I had this huge book with images, for the look of the park and so forth. But I had a whole section just for masks; I found all these turn of the 20th century paper mache death masks, and all the photos were sepia or black and white -  and they were really haunting because they were all on kids! So... I edited Happy Death Day, and Tony did the mask for that, so I called [HDD director] Chris Landon and got Tony's number, and said "Look here's what I have, it's really important to me we kind of stick to this model." He said "Awesome", and in like a day he had all these renderings of the mask, and he does 360 videos of the masks. And he didn't do one, he did six of them. So then we started playing with the eyes, and started playing with the nose, and the mouth, and the ears and what not. It was important that the face be off center, because there's something about when you're looking at someone and it's off center, it's just not right and it drives you nuts when you look at it. We just worked on it and it came really easily; the studio was a little nervous about it, they gave us ideas of some other masks, but I kind of fought the battle. I really loved it, Tony was super on board with it, he was great and really collaborative, and we literally decided on it the Sunday before we started shooting. I love it; like you said, it's not overblown, I didn't want to have this elaborate mask for mask's sake.

You mentioned that you were working on this for a while, and I know this has been in development for a few years. Without giving too much away, was there ever more of a whodunit angle to the script, since that's more traditional with modern slashers as opposed to a named boogeyman like Jason or Michael? 

There was; this has been in development for about eight years prior to me getting on board. When I came on I actually turned down the movie at first; I really wanted to do it, I love slashers, I love Gale, but the script they had at that time I didn't think was right. So I gave them some notes, and there was a little bit of a remnant of that whodunit element, but I think there was a lot more prior to the versions I read. But they were cool with it, they said they liked my notes, they liked my ideas, and let's jettison all that and change direction. For me it was, let's embrace the fact that it's a slasher, let's be more careful with our characters and so forth. In a way the whodunit feels a little like Scooby-Doo to me, and that's not the film I wanted to make. So it worked out. 

And now in Hell Fest II we can find out that they're really brother and sister, and he's a Druid...

That's right!

Do you think we're finally having the slasher renaissance? We had Happy Death Day, we have this, Halloween is coming out...

I hope so! I think we are; I've been saying for years... I worked on the Paranormal Activity franchise for six years and there seem to be so many ghost stories, paranormal stories, and I found myself toward the end of that run, just being like "I want to get into more grounded kind of horror, the stuff I grew up on." That's what I was pushing for when I found this project, and I was so excited for it. There's so much good horror right now, I think we can have the big fun over-the-top slashers, but we're gonna have smarter slashers as well. Part of my inspiration for The Other, the killer... in today's world people sit behind a keyboard and go online, and on Twitter and say the most awful things to a person that they wouldn't say in real life. If you're sitting next to them they're like "Hey how are you, you look great." but then on the internet they can just be awful, say terrible things. I felt like that's who this killer is, this is somebody who once a year can put on the mask and be the man they are on Twitter, out in real world behind the mask. It was just something I really wanted to explore... there's some anger in the world right now, some weirdness going on, and I want to channel that through this guy.

I remember, post-Scream, there was this talk of how you can never go back and do a straightforward slasher again, and I think you've proven them wrong twice now if you count Happy Death Day, you can bring other things to the table, and do it without winking, but also without necessarily just going backwards.

Chris was so smart on Happy Death Day; he had that Groundhog Day conceit, but had a lot of character, a lot of humor. He turned it totally on its ear from what you were expecting, so that was a great starting point for me, it gave a lot of inspiration for me when I started making my film. 

Another thing that some were surprised by was that this was an R-rated film; some people just assumed it'd be PG-13. Did you have to fight for that?

Oh yeah. I intended to make an R-rated film, although for some of the kills I had shot them without so much blood to make sure we had them. Happy Death Day worked so well as a PG-13 film because ultimately it wasn't a true slasher, it had more heart to it. I wanted to make a slasher! And you can't make a slasher PG-13 - if you can't show any blood it's not really a slasher. Bad language doesn't count! And there's the whole marketing scheme of "If it's PG-13 we get more bodies in seats", but ultimately the studio was so supportive, they understood. They saw the movie and liked it, and said "Let's make an R-rated movie."

SPOILERS AHEAD! Skip next Q&A if you don't want a kill given away!

It'd be devastating not to have the mallet kill as presented; it's the first big kill of the group, and it's almost a shock to see something like that in a modern slasher, at least one that plays in wide release. Especially considering who it happens to, because I liked that kid! I was kind of sad!

Yeah, it's a character you don't expect.

That's another thing that I really appreciated, I LIKED these kids. You didn't have the love triangle, cheating crap that you see in so many others. Here, the only conflict is like, our main girl's best friend has a new best friend and is trying to hold on to both - that's a normal, relatable concern that doesn't make you instantly dislike or distrust one of the people you're supposed to root for.

Right, right. Ripley has always been my model character. I'm huge Aliens fan, working with Gale has been a dream come true, and she and I had a lot of talks about making strong female characters. It was very important to me that these girls have strong, likeable personalities and you could root for them, and that they did good things. It wasn't a guy going to save the girl; some of the earlier stuff I read was about them needing the guys to help them, and to me I thought "that's boring". I want them to save themselves.

So at a key moment we see that the killer has some other masks - are these hints for a sequel, or a prequel?

Both! One of the masks you see is the one from the first kill in the movie, which was a few years in the past. If, knock on wood, we're lucky enough to have sequels, then I have prequels and sequels in mind. You know, there was a lot of talk about "We have to know more about the killer", but for me I don't think we have to know that much. I just want to set it up, and then explore him later. 


*I also talked to Tony Todd and Gale Anne Hurd after the above chat, but I could barely hear Mr. Plotkin at times and the venue just got noisier, making the recordings dangerously close to unintelligible. I'll pick out what I can and hopefully post soon!