Home Horror [Interview] Jordan Belfi

[Interview] Jordan Belfi

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[Interview] Jordan Belfi

“Touchdown!” I had such a blast viewing and reviewing the tale of football themed slasher killer Smashmouth in The Once And Future Smash and End Zone 2 I reached out to the filmmakers behind the gridiron gorehound. Talking with Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein gave further insight into such a high concept double feature and then some.

What are your backgrounds as filmmakers?

We both grew up loving film and making films with our friends on VHS camcorders, but then shifted our focus to music. We worked with other directors to make music videos for our bands, which ended up being pretty successful! Michael’s band, The Motion Sick, had the music video for their song “30 Lives” on the smaller MTV networks, and it ended up in several Dance Dance Revolution games. Sophia’s band, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling’s video for “Episode 1 – Arrival,” was featured in TIME as a best video of the year. 

We realized we wanted to make more videos, so we just bought some inexpensive digital cameras and jumped in. One thing led to another, and within about a year, we were making our first feature film. 

What was the inspiration for The Once And Future Smash and End Zone 2? Which came first?

We are fascinated by the explosion of horror fandom culture. We don’t particularly like going to conventions or collecting signatures, but we think there’s a wonderful and amazing community surrounding all of it. There are also all kinds of interesting politics about the relationships among actors. We had heard stories about disputes about who actually played masked roles that are hard to confirm in certain movies and thought that could be an interesting storytelling entry point into the convention world.

Michael was talking to our friend Neal Jones, who has been doing the Without Your Head Podcast for quite a long time and has interviewed just about everyone in horror. Neal mentioned that one of his former guests complained when he announced an upcoming guest because they had a public disagreement about who deserves credit for the masked role they both played. Michael mentioned to Neal that he had a script concept for a story like that but that he had no plans to write it because it would involve getting access to a convention and other costly production elements.

Neal checked in with his friends at the Mad Monster Party convention, who quickly agreed to allow Neal to film there. Neal and Michael thought about who they would want to cast in the movie, and the first two people that came to mind were Bill Weeden and Michael St. Michaels. Without a script, we asked them both if they would be interested in the concept and in shooting at Mad Monster. This was in late July 2019. We knew we would need to shoot at Mad Monster in February 2020, so Michael got down to writing the script as quickly as possible while Neal started thinking about which of his former guests might like to be part of it. 

We also knew we would have to shoot End Zone 2 before the convention so that we would have stills and other materials for production design, so we planned that for production in December 2019. We wrote an outline for End Zone 2 and then brought in our friend Brian W. Smith to write an initial draft of the actual script. We got that back in early October and shot End Zone 2 in a week in December 2019. 

How did you come up with Smash-Mouth and his design/background as a slasher character? Including his signature catchphrase of “Touchdown!”?

We knew we wanted to do the movie, but we had no idea what the film within the film would be. We wanted an iconic feeling character that could have been hypothetically influential on all of the primary slasher icons. We knew we wanted something really over-the-top in terms of look and personality. 

We brainstormed names with words like “slash” and “kill” in them, and Sophia said, “Smash-Mouth” jokingly. We laughed and then thought it was a funny name, and it also gives a visual characteristic of having a broken-faced look. So, we looked up the origin of the term and learned that it referred to rough, confrontational football playing – smash-mouth football! Everything kind of snowballed from there – broken jaw, football player, “touchdown!”

We honestly don’t like football or really know much about football, but we did a lot of research about the history of football gear and uniforms. We fell in love with the leatherhead look and kind of worked out the story around that. We wanted End Zone 2 to be a “contemporary” 1970 movie but thought End Zone 1 could have been set in a time period when leatherhead helmets were used. We learned they were abandoned professionally around 1950, but we thought maybe a small high school would use them beyond that, and decided we could set End Zone 1 in 1955 and make that 15 years before End Zone 2 chronologically. We pieced together a (fairly expensive) vintage uniform and helmet from eBay and Etsy!

This also allowed us to get out of casting high-school-age people in the film and focus on the kind of survival trauma a lot of slasher “final girls” have in sequels. It also gave Smash-Mouth a kind of ethereal, out-of-his-time quality. The past continues to haunt them all. 

For the mask, we were very lucky to be able to bring in FX artist Joe Castro. We worked with him to really think about what an iconic mask would look like if it were made in the late 60s. It needed to feel alive but also not really have motility. Joe made multiple concepts and tried a variety of materials before settling on the perfect mask, which really is what brought the character alive. 

Was anything inspired by your own experiences at horror conventions?

Michael definitely tried to capture as many awkward and funny convention experiences as he could in the script. We wanted the whole thing to feel satirically familiar to convention-goers. We also took advantage of opportunities at the convention that arose. For example, the costume competition was not in the script because we didn’t know about it. We found out that our friend, James Balsamo, was hosting, and we asked him if we could enter A.J. dressed as Smash-Mouth and just have him lose badly. That was really all we gave James.

As you can see in the movie, James REALLY went to town on poor A.J. The thing is, the giant crowd had no idea that it was for a movie, and they really thought James was bullying him. A lot of people went up to James after to yell at him and to A.J. after to comfort him. We had to explain that it was not real. 

What was the casting process like?

For The Once and Future Smash, we had cast Michael and Bill immediately, so the script was really written with them in mind. We had already made plans with our friend, A.J. Cutler, who has a prosthetic leg, to put him in a horror film someday and cut off his leg. Michael had the terrible idea of having A.J. play a role in End Zone 2, where he gets his leg cut off, and then play the son of the actor who also lost his leg in a suspicious way that maybe was related to his father’s iconic role. 

We knew A.J. was talented and funny, but he did not have a ton of acting experience. We talked with him and decided to take a risk and kind of rely on him for both films, which was especially risky because he’s kind of the audience proxy and heart of The Once and Future Smash. We thought maybe we would have to spend a lot of time and energy directing him to get the performances we wanted, but he was absolutely a natural in both roles, and he prepped and brought everything we wanted, so we really didn’t have to direct his performance much at all. Bill and Michael definitely felt a little like A.J. stole quite a few scenes!

For End Zone 2, we knew we were going to shoot the film in a very short time – it turned out to be six days plus one pickup day. We also knew we wanted there to be many very long takes to match the style at the time. In the 1970s low-budget world, they couldn’t have afforded the film stock to do all kinds of coverage. We planned the shoot around renting a house in Lake Arrowhead with everyone living on set. So, this all meant we needed accomplished actors who understood the project and were okay with a low-key, family-type atmosphere on set where everyone pitches in wherever they can with things like cooking and cleaning up. Everyone involved with the film (including us) is also credited under a pseudonym, so it required a full buy-in to the project to want to be part of it.  

We really cast from friends and friends of friends rather than using any kind of audition process. The cast members were all wonderful and knew their lines inside and out, so we could run these 6+ minute scenes without cuts. 

What was it like filming in a convention setting?

Very challenging! It was loud and chaotic, and we really couldn’t control anything. We had permission to shoot, but of course, it was an actual active convention, and we tried to minimize how disruptive we were to everyone around us and at the convention. The folks at Mad Monster Party and the hotel were absolute heroes to us! They really tried to give us anything we needed and to support the endeavor.

We also couldn’t afford to fly people to North Carolina for small roles, so we cast most of the smaller roles at the convention. This was interesting because sometimes it was people we kind of knew or people involved with running the show, and other times, especially with the kids, it was just kind of walking up to people and saying, “Hey, do you want to be in a movie?” 

When writing the script, Michael also tried to minimize the portion that took place on the floor and at the convention in general. We knew we would have access to Bill and Michael for a limited time, so anything that took us away to other characters we could film elsewhere meant more time to get things right with the scenes we needed at the convention. 

We rolled with the punches pretty much. Scenes that didn’t work got cut in the edit, and clowns played a much bigger role than anticipated!

When was each project filmed, and in what order? What went into making the retro style/vibe of End Zone 2?

End Zone 2 was filmed in December 2019, and the convention portion of The Once and Future Smash was filmed in February 2020. After the convention, there was a lot of delay and rethinking due to COVID. We finished The Once and Future Smash in the Summer of 2022.

In order to make End Zone 2 feel as authentic as possible, beyond the careful creation of Smash-Mouth, Sophia spent a lot of time buying vintage clothing and determining wardrobe, styling, and production design. We looked for just the right location to match the era and style as well.

We asked the cast to study a very specific style of acting from the early 70s because we really wanted to have honest, earnest performances, even if the circumstances in the film might feel silly. We didn’t want to take a tongue-in-cheek approach to any of End Zone 2. We sent horror acting references like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas, but we also asked the cast to take a look at the early 70s natural performances in Altman and Cassavetes movies. We referenced 3 Women, A Woman Under the Influence, The Long Goodbye, and Klute as examples of what we were looking for. 

For the technical elements, we did a lot of research about what kind of camera and film stock would have likely been used for a low-budget, regional film of this nature. We thought about actually buying the specific camera and closest stock to shoot the film, but after pricing it out, we realized we would need to shoot digitally. Sophia was the cinematographer for End Zone 2. She chose the BlackMagic Pocket 4K because it has a wide enough dynamic range to capture a filmic look and a small sensor that is closer to a 16mm frame than just about any digital cinema camera. We bought a lot of vintage 16mm lenses and did some test shooting, but ultimately chose to buy a DZO Parfocal Zoom. The lens wasn’t available for purchase until less than a week before the shoot. Thankfully, we happened to be in New York and were able to actually pick up the lens from the showroom. 

While shooting, Sophia was intentionally limited to hand zooming to capture the imperfections of low-budget camera work of the era. We didn’t want anything to be intentionally shot badly, but we wanted to create the same kinds of obstacles and limitations that filmmakers would have had at the time. To create a more filmic look, Sophia also used strong Black Promist filters to enhance the glow and bloom of lights and highlights in the image.

For post, we bought a wide variety of film grain scan packs and ultimately decided to blend our own grains using multiple layers of grain scans. There was no looping and no simple plugin solution that would work for us. While editing, Michael broke down the structure of the film and decided where reels ended and where elements might have been damaged. He put different grains on different reels and added damage to the ends of reels and other areas most likely to have gotten scratched. Michael built cue marks and placed them with the frame timing and spacing that was used in the era. For the audio, Michael also recorded the final sound mix to cassette and digitized it back, and blended it with the source to control the amount of noise, wow, and flutter. 

Michael also occasionally made intentionally imperfect edits and placed Foley that would have matched the era. There were also a couple of Foley cues that were intentionally muted in the final film, like they were missing. We thought these kinds of imperfections helped match the film to the era and budget.

How did you assemble the filmmaker/actor/talking heads portion of the mockumentary interviews?

When Michael wrote the script, he assigned lines with specific types of people in mind, but with the knowledge that some might not say yes to doing the film. So, we had “characters” like “Melanie Kinnaman type” or “Mark Patton type” in the original script. Our other producer, Neal Jones, was really integral to casting this portion. The three of us brainstormed a list of people who we thought might be a good fit. We focused on the pool of guests Neal had on his podcast and people he knew from hosting panels at conventions and other similar types of things. Neal started reaching out to people. He explained the concept to them and what we would be asking them to do. Some were nervous about how they might come off in a mockumentary, but many jumped right on board! Neal was very well-liked by these people, and they trusted that he was not trying to portray anyone in a bad light or anything like that. 

Once individuals were booked, we went through the script and determined which lines might be good fits for them. The three of us also brainstormed additional material referencing their specific work and personas. We shot these from 2019 straight through the last days before delivery to our festival premiere in Summer 2022. As we got closer to the end, our editor for The Once and Future Smash, Aaron Barrocas, also suggested material for the interviews that could fill gaps, add jokes, or enhance context. It was quite helpful to be able to look at rough cuts and then shoot additional talking-head bits to solve problems and fill gaps. 

We only had a short time with each of the talking heads, but they really all did a wonderful job committing to the concept and celebrating the project. We were very excited to get to share the film with many of them at the LA premiere. We were nervous about how they might react, but really happy that they all seemed to enjoy the film and feel good about how we portrayed them. That was always our goal – to celebrate these people, we grew up watching and admiring. 

There are a lot of horror franchise in-jokes and references in The Once And Future Smash. How did you thread that all together?

We are huge horror fans, and we really wanted this to be a celebration of horror history! When Michael was writing, he tried to find the balance between jokes that would work for a broad audience and deep-cut jokes that would reward viewers who are really knowledgeable about horror.  Someone asked us how many references there are in the two films, and we definitely lost count, but it’s a lot! 

When Aaron was editing, he also did a great job controlling the tone and cutting jokes that didn’t work or felt too obscure. Aaron also added some visual jokes – things like chyron timing as a punchline. 

Will there be an End Zone 3? Will we see more Smash-Mouth someday?

We’ve got so many ideas for films we would like to make, so we don’t tend to return to projects, but there is something special to us about the End Zone universe. We have thought about making the remake of End Zone 1 or doing End Zone 3D, but it will all depend on the financial success of the current films. In short, if there’s a demand for more that justifies the budget, we’ll make more!

Being a mockumentary, what was the level of improv vs scripted dialogue?

As we mentioned, the costume contest was completely spontaneous. Otherwise, there is actually very little improv in the movie. We did tell all of the talking heads that they were welcome to riff on the lines or rephrase them, so a little bit of that happened here and there. As some examples, Jared Rivet came up with a few of the football revenge film titles that made the cut, and James Branscome had fun adding Vietnam jokes to just about all of his lines.  

Is there a distributor/release date for TOAFS and End Zone 2?

We have been having distributor conversations for nearly a year now, and we’ve gotten many offers, but we’ve been looking for a guarantee upfront that covers the small budgets of the two films. The market is such now that most distributors are afraid to take on risk, especially for an unusual project like this. So, we will most likely work with an aggregator and do a self-release of the film this fall. This has been a successful path for us in the past, and we have no apprehension about taking this approach. It also means we will really be able to control the film and determine the best way to share it with the world. No date is set yet for the release.

What are you both working on now?

Sophia will be the cinematographer on multiple genre features shooting between now and the end of the year that have not yet been publicly announced, and Michael has been writing for the upcoming feature films, Manicorn (dir. Jim McDonough) and A Hard Place (dir. J. Horton). We have also both been working crew on Matt Stuertz’s new film, Wake Not the Dead, which is going to be a blast! 

We are also always juggling our own projects to see what resources surface to bring the next thing to life. With fingers crossed, we can say that we have been developing a murder mystery that we hope to make this winter with Sophia directing and Michael writing and producing.

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