Quantcast James Felix McKenney interview

Filmmaker
James Felix
McKenney!!!

One has to give innovative director James Felix McKenney credit, you can’t say his films look or seem like anyone else’s. A Sci-Fi/horror buff with a nuts-and-bolts backyard aesthetic and a bizarre yet welcome sense of humor, James’ debut film CANNIBALISTIC! melds deadpan satire with the tender story of a flesh-eating vegetarian (you’ll see) who just wants to be left alone so he can get back to nature.

His follow-up film, a one-room ghost story THE OFF SEASON brought a welcome character change to screen villain Angus Scrimm and was the debut film of director/producer Larry Fessenden’s SCAREFLIX (a line of low-budget unique indie horror films in the vein of Roger Corman) line.


For his third film, director McKenney changed gears for his black and white Super-8 sci-fi parable AUTOMATONS, depicting warring robots in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, which isn’t too far from our own world. Much darker and more grim than his two first films combined, and yet a child of such cardboard 1960’s sci-fi shows like Space:1999 and Doctor Who, AUTOMATONS has drawn raves from publications such as The New York Times , New York Post and the Village Voice. James granted us an interview as he preps his fourth film, one that sounds worth it from just the title alone…SATAN HATES YOU! - by Adam Barnick 2/07


What are your earliest memories of the horror and sci-fi genres?

Does The Wizard of Oz count? I saw that on TV when I was about three and it totally warped my view of the world. I thought that nuns and people in graduation gowns were witches. One of my earliest memories was of a waking dream / hallucination of a giant head floating on the wall in the room yelling at me. I screamed to may parents, "Mommy, Daddy! There's a head on the wall". It wasn't the Wizard's head, but that’s obviously where my subconscious got the image from. Every church I saw, I thought was a castle and I was terrified to go inside. There had to be something in there that scared the cowardly lion so badly. The first time my family dropped my off at Sunday school, I started screaming and pounding on that giant wooden door, screaming for them to let me out. I was about three.

A year or so later, my parents took me to an outdoor screening of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. That blew me away! Years later, my father had to explain to me who Abbott and Costello were. I didn’t remember them from the film. They were just people. I was obsessed with The Monster.

As a result, Frankenstein was the first Halloween costume that I picked out for my self. I've been infatuated with monsters ever since.

As I got older, and realized that the world was a lot duller than I had thought it was. There weren't any witches or magic. Day to day life wasn't all that exciting. That's when I got more interested in what was going on in comic books or on the Planet of the Apes than I was with real life.

Where did “Monsterpants” come from? The term and the company?

It's a better name than it is a story, someone once told me. My ex- girlfriend and I were super-exhausted one day after a long day’s work. It was Halloween time and I bought some kind of Hostess snack food called Monster Cakes. Later, we were joking around in the car, and someone called the other "smarty pants", then "stupid pants", and eventually, thanks to the empty wrapper on the dashboard,  "monster pants". Like I said, we were really tired.

But the name sort of stuck, as sort of a running joke. When we decided to start publishing comic books, we decided to call the company MonsterPants. Seemed like a good idea at the time...

Anyway, I moved into movies, she became less involved in the business and eventually we broke up. Thus, I am now known as MonsterPants.

Can you tell me about your start in theater and comics and what finally led you back to the New York area?

Well, I always wanted to make films, but that's a pretty expensive endeavor. Staging plays and printing comics seemed a little more in my range, but still allowed one to tell a story.

I started doing theatre, mainly because that's what my friends were doing. Don Wood & David Hale who have worked on all of my films, as well as the entire rest of the cast from CanniBallistic! were all putting on plays in Boston and I just joined in. We got some good press and were fairly successful -- as successful as a little underground theatre in and small city like Boston could be.

The comic book thing also happened in Boston. That's when I realized that there were too many cooks in the kitchen in the low-rent theatre world and with comics I could control it all. We published 3 anthology comics called "COW" and took over a title from Fantagraphics by Serbian artist Aleksandar Zograf called  "Psychonaut". I did the editing and publishing chores and contributed stories to all of them. That was fun, but wasn't what I really wanted to do, which was make movies, so I moved to L.A. and stayed there for four years. I hated it. That's why I live in New York now.

Cannibalistic! Can you tell us the general story and what led to its conception- and it being your first feature?

CanniBallistic!
is the story of a guy who found himself trapped in the middle of nowhere and was forced to eat his traveling companion in order to survive. He lives on this guy's meat for so long, that when he's rescued and returns to city, he has cravings for human flesh. So, he moves into the country to get away from the temptation of humans and becomes a vegetarian. Unfortunately, the locals just won’t leave him alone...
I had been living in Los Angeles at the time, trying to make it as a screenwriter. I had spent a year on this one particular project that had been optioned and just when everything was about to happen -- the project fell through, as these things usually do. Frustrated, I decided to save up some money and make a movie on my own.

I looked at the people who had had some success in the industry and figured to break in, my first film had to be a zombie movie or a cannibal picture. It was 1999; it made sense at the time. I was afraid that on such a meager budget ($8,000), zombies would end up looking too silly, so I decided to go with a cannibal. I called up my old theater friends, had them all come up to my parent’s house in  Maine, and that was that.
It’s the deadpan/tongue-in-cheek tone to Cannibalistic! that really worked for me. The neighbor who always carries eggs, Peg being ecstatic to hear of a neighbor’s misfortune, and really Don’s reactions to things made it for me. I think if anyone played the lead role in a different manner than Don Wood did, it wouldn’t work.  

Well Don was originally a comedian, so he's great with the funny stuff. All of those guys were theater people, so they could have been over-the-top, but we all smart enough to tone it way down. Don kept asking me if he was being to dull or too flat. I kept telling him, "No, you're perfect. You're doing it exactly like I'd imagined you would." It was true.
What kind of resources did you have for this? Did it take a long time to complete?

I saved up $8,000 working for the U.S. Census Bureau. Most of that went toward travel, food and stock. David Hale, the DP, had access to the cameras and a lot of equipment, some of which were our old theatre lights, so most of the really expensive stuff, we got for free.

We shot it in nine days straight. Then it took me about a year to edit the thing.

John Levene makes a cameo as Bernie Shanks, a smarmy self-improvement guru- how did you come to meet him and get him involved in your films? He’s credited as John Anthony Blake. Is that his real name?

I worked in a copy shop in L.A. in the late 1990's. One day, I was in there by myself, and Sergeant Benton (john) from Doctor Who runs in, makes a quick copy and runs out, saying he'll pay me later! I hadn’t thought of Doctor Who in years, which is weird because it was my childhood OBSESSION from about age ten on. Turns out, he was a regular customer and I got to know him after a while.

I wrote the part of Bernie Shanks for a friend of mine back in Boston, but realized that I should shoot & edit the TV stuff the L.A., so we'd be all ready to go when I got to Maine. So, we had to recast. I knew in low-budget filmmaking it was good for sales to have some sort of genre name actor. Someone from Doctor Who seemed pretty good, so I asked and he obviously accepted.
Of course the name I got was John Anthony Blake and not John Levene.  His real name is John Woods, but when he got his first Equity gig in  England, they told him that they already had an actor called John Woods and that he'd have to pick a new name on the spot. He took the name "Levene" from an ad poster that he glanced at and has hated the name ever since. After Doctor Who, he stopped acting for a while and had a successful Audio/Video company. When he decided to return to acting, he figured it was a fresh start, so he chose a new name that he really likes; John Anthony Blake.

H is pretend walk-away at the end of the tape is one of the funniest things in the movie to me.

That was Rich Kapenas' doing. He shot the "diet video" and then edited it. I laughed pretty hard when he showed me that. He knew I wanted the movie to be funny. I love John Waters just as much as I love George Romero.


CANNIBALLISTIC! trailer


I noticed Larry Fessenden’s rave review on the box, how did you happen to get it to him? Did this result in your working with Glass Eye Pix on your next project?

I began working for Glass Eye Pix and wouldn't let him see Cannibalistic! for about the first six months that I worked there.  Finally, I showed it to him and he said that he was really impressed. He even gave me a raise! Then he told me that I had to make another movie.

The Off Season; How did this film come about? Were you working on this before Larry’s new slate of intimate genre films (SCAREFLIX) began?

I wanted to make a different movie at the time, called Satan Hates You. But I didn't have a script ready, and what I had in mind would require a fairly large budget, compared to CanniBallistic!.

But Larry had made the mistake of encouraging me to make another low- budget film and I had this script called "The Rainy Season" that I had written in early 1997. Was set in L.A., but I knew I could change the location to Maine and make it for very little.  Larry and I made a deal and the ScareFlix series was born.
Did you grow up in the area it was shot in? Are those off-season secluded areas in Maine personal to you?

Yeah. That's the town next to where I grew up. I worked in that Amusement Park all through high school. Also, my dad sells and installs furnishings to hotels, so we pretty much know everyone on that strip. It was my father who secured the location for us. They still get people who come there and ask to see Kathryn's room.

What I thought was interesting, apart from the tone (which made me think of taking The Shining and setting it in one room) was – the spirits are intruding through temperature fluctuations, electronics, etc. They weren’t after vengeance; I got the impression that they were only looking for the right medium. After that author died, and Don’s character walked out (or was forced to leave), it seemed they narrowed their selection. And Kathryn was the proper messenger here.  

Exactly. They were going with a "divide and conquer" tactic, by preying on what so many couple's have, which is a failure to communicate. Rick was the weaker of the two, so they started on him.  Unfortunately for the ghosts, he was too weak. So they left with Kathryn.
"The Shining in one room" was how I always described the script to people. Initially Kathryn was supposed to be reading the Stephen King book in one of the scenes (and we were going to spell the title correctly, not like the folks at the distribution company who designed the DVD box cover "art"). We eventually took the name of the book out so we wouldn't have to deal with copyright clearances.  We figured the setting ( Maine!) and situation was an obvious enough tribute.


Anyway, ghost stories always take place in some place enormous; a castle, a mansion, a hospital, so I wanted to turn it around and set it in a tiny place where people would be stuck in close quarters with the things that are terrifying them.

The way you staged some of the scenes, and the fact that the characters are so solitary and rarely leave the motel, suggested to me that they, apart from the main couple, were ALL ghosts. Am I reading too much into that?

Yeah, you are. I was just trying to explore that part of human nature where people never take advantage of their surroundings. All of these people live yards away from the beach, but they never go there to look at the ocean. Their content to stay put in their depressing little rooms, gazing out at the ugly old road. When they do go out, do they go walk in the sand? No, they sit on the concrete surrounding the pool.

Being there at the seaside, I was constantly tempted to shoot some stuff on the beach, just because there were some really beautiful days. But I had to stick to what I had in mind for the film and keep things contained and ugly.

If Rick is so scared of criminals, why would he start immediately hanging out with Larry’s character? Was the place wearing him down or influencing him?

Absolutely. The Rick who started hanging out with Phil wasn't the guy who showed up on that first day. In only a few weeks, he had become a haunted drunk who lost his fear of the outside world. Kathryn comments on this at one point.

What format did you shoot on?

24p HD Cam. It was the same camera that they used to shoot The Believer.

Was Angus Scrimm’s role written for him? It’s interesting to finally see him play something that’s a bit closer to his real persona instead of certain lofty supernatural villains.

I wrote it with him in mind, not thinking that we'd ever be able to get him. Little did I know that he was such a sweet and gentle man in real life. Even more so than his character in The Off Season.


THE OFF SEASON trailer


How did Automatons come about, were you still planning Satan Hates You to be you next film?

I've wanted to make Automatons for over ten years. That and Satan Hates You were always the dream projects, I was just waiting for the right time and circumstances. The budget and script for Satan Hates You still weren't in place and it was time to make another movie, so I pitched Larry Automatons, which I had been telling him about for years.

We got an old ice cream factory in Brooklyn that we would shoot all of Automatons on except for Angus' part. The original plan was to tear down the Automatons sets and then redress the place for Satan Hates You and go right into that film, but I ran out of steam. Making a movie is a lot of work at this level, when just a handful of people are doing dozens of jobs.

Anyway, Laree Love, Don Wood, Mike Vincent and myself cobbled together some sets while a local artist named Jeanine Gerding built the robot suits based on some drawings that I had done. We shot the thing in the middle of a heat wave in August with no A/C and those poor guys with plastic domes over their heads.


Did the idea of making it a modern political/world-stage allegory come up right away?  Or was that secondary to wanting to see your ‘childhood dream’ film on screen?

It came up later. I just wanted to film this robot war, but obviously there has to be a story. I've known for a long time that it would be about two sides living in bunkers with no contact with the outside world and that that lack of perspective and communication is what kept the war going. Now that we're actually living through wartime, it became easier for me to flesh out that situation using some real-world details.


Tell me about your casting process for this film- it’s a mix of cameos by your ‘regulars’ and newcomers like Christine - which is funny to say, because the film really is a one-human show until the last act.

We had to cast someone new in the lead because all of the actors that I know have become too old to play "the Girl"!  I wanted the big America-type country of the future to be multi-cultural and since Angus is white, I didn't want to cast a Caucasian woman in the lead.  We auditioned a bunch of actresses of different ethnicities and there were two that were really good. But I also read Christine, mainly because I liked her headshot and was thinking that we could use her in Satan Hates You. She read The Girl's part in the audition and blew us away. There was no contest. She was our Girl.

Angus' part was written for him, of course. John Levene's cameo came about because I was shooting a sequence with him for Satan Hates You and I suddenly realized that here I was, making a robot movie that was in part inspired by Doctor Who and one of the actors from the original series was standing in front of me and I wasn't using him in Automatons. I quickly wrote a couple of lines for him. We shot it and now he's in the film. An opportunity almost missed. What was I thinking?

The remainders of the cast were either people I had worked with before, friends who are actors or crewmembers that I could force into putting themselves on screen.

Did you film Angus Scrimm’s video messages in LA and simply play them back on set?

Exactly. All of that stuff was shot in a storage trailer in a parking lot in Hollywood. Oh so glamorous.

The empty-patriot sound bites he spouts are too familiar, but I liked the parallel to present day of someone who gets ALL their facts and data from a talking head on TV. The Girl never goes out, never grows, just stays in and watches TV in a sense.  Same with the repeated images of robot blips on a radar screen.  War is socially acceptable when it’s just numbers and graphics on TV instead of live from the trenches.

I always say that we've become a nation of "armchair generals." We always talk about movies and video game violence desensitizing the youth the real thing, but I think that the same has happened with adults and their attitude toward war. In both the Iraq wars, we saw people yelling and cheering when it was decided to invade the other country. Does war really make one happy? It shouldn't. People are going to die. Children are going to die. In the current war alone, there have been at least 60,000 CIVILIAN deaths.

Women and children who died just because they were born in the wrong country. That's 20 times the innocent lives than were lost in the attack on the World  Trade Center. That's probably why you see so many veterans, and I mean those who actually saw combat, speak out against war. They’ve seen it. The rest of us seem to think it's just an alternative to the Super Bowl.

Why Super 8 instead of 16mm?  A cost reason, or aesthetic?

I love black & white super-8. That was always the plan. I love the super-grainy look and its unstable nature. You never know what you’re going to get, but it's usually beautiful. I wish I could shoot every film in black & white super-8.


AUTOMATONS trailer


Tell me about the sound design Graham Reznick created for you.


Usually I do all of this with Noah DeFilippis. But he and his wife had a baby right after we finished the film, so he sort of had his hands full. He did create some sound effects for me that I laid into the edit along with some stock sounds. Graham came on board to do the sound mix and added a lot of enhancements and new sounds that he created as well as the music for the end credits. He does good work.

Were the robots always intended to be men in suits mixed with puppets for the battle scenes?

Absolutely. The old fashioned way. A little bit of Thunderbirds, a little Godzilla, a dash of Doctor Who.
Why do people just love to kill Larry Fessenden on film?  He’s carrying on the torch laid down by Lance Henricksen.

He usually starts out with a much bigger role, but Larry is such a pain on the set -- whining, complaining, demanding constant foot rubs and pitting cats and crewmembers against each other. I think most directors just say, "Forget this! Get me a re-write! We're going to kill this troublemaker."

Glass Eye Pix - tell me of your other responsibilities- working with Larry on different levels. Stuff you did for The Roost, or the production office, that kind of thing.

I've always just done what needs to get done -- reading scripts, updating the website, fixing equipment, writing copy, editing, creating new projects with Larry, cleaning toilets... Up until recently, I pretty much ran the office and made sure that everyone that’s working on a film gets what they need. I've moved out of that part of the business and there are other folks who do that nowadays.  On The Roost, I kept the office going during production and helped out where I could. Then I spent two years getting the film onto DVD.
What can you tell me of you next film, Satan Hates You?  It’s a much bigger scope than your other films isn’t it?

Satan Hates You
is my tribute to the Christian scare films of the 1950’s, 60's & 70's. It's not an attempt to re-create those films because there's no point to that - those films already exist.  Instead, I've taken the standard formula of these films and done my own version. I've taken a lot of inspiration from the comics of Jack Chick as well.

It's bigger in that it is an ensemble piece with several different locations. Most of our usual cast members are there along with several genre names that I'm trying to get. I have already shot a few sequences for the film featuring John Levene, Pauley Perrette and DW  Ferrrante. I'm hoping to go into full time production in a few months.


Visit: www.DeathToTheAutomatons.com
and MySpace.com/Automatons_Movie
and GlassEyePix.com

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