Friday, June 2, 2017

Mike Mendez: Horror Comedy Independent Filmmaker Hoot-and-a-Half!

I’ve been a fan of filmmaker Mike Mendez’ horror films for some time. Every film he churns out is a mini-masterpiece of B-movie fun and mayhem (um, maybe excluding one, of course. But we’ll get to that soon enough), very funny and stylishly made. Graciously, Mike has volunteered to be tossed on the Tornado Alley grill. I did my homework and watched a Mendez-ival. Hold on folks…
SRW: Hey, Mike! Thanks much for visiting. Let’s start by talking about your awesome 1996 debut, Killers. This little flick’s a sleeper, has a way of sneaking up on the viewer. Usually film debuts are a learning ground. But I sense you were very much in control, knowing where it was going and, as always, the editing’s very impressive. Am I right? Or was it a lucky accident?

MM: I think every movie is a bit of experiment and the end result will differ from what you had in mind, some for the better, sometimes for the worse. With Killers the experimental side of it was that you had two creative voices, you had the writer/lead actor Dave Larsen & you had me. So any lucky accident would be the melding of these two voices & the lack of a budget. Everything else though was very controlled. I'd been making films since I was 10 years old. So by the time I got to my first feature I'd had a fair amount of experience, and I had story boarded that film (as I do all my films), but on that one I may have over storyboarded. The edits were very planned out because there was a lot of transitions from one scene to the other. I haven't done that since. Not sure why. 

SRW: The movie’s got a lot going on. There’s a strange “cult of killer” theme, a very strong female cop and references to Once Upon a Time in the West AND Free Willy. Toss in the spaghetti western styled stand-off, I’m detecting a strong Sergio Leone influence.

MM: Well, sure, I've always loved Sergio Leone, he was always the best at stylized gun fights, but as far as the cult of killer thing, that was a reflection of the times. We made it in the late 90's which was the hey day of the OJ Simpson & Menendez cases. So the idea of the celebrity killer was really prevalent back then. "Natural Born Killers" touched on the same idea. It was just in the zeitgeist back then.

SRW: I mentioned your editing which I think is stellar through-out all of your films. Are you your own editor or do you share the chores?

MM: Lately I've been my own editor. It's usually a way for producers to save money, but over time I've grown to enjoy the control. I don't enjoy the amount of work it takes, but I do enjoy having total autonomy over the edit. In fact that's the best way to know if my film has been tampered with. In the last 10 years if I have sole editing credit, it's my film & I'm happy with it. If you see another editor listed with me, then something funny went in behind the scenes. We'll see if the pattern of me editing continues. I have equally strong arguments for both sides of it . 

SRW: Mike, you know how to build good dread (maybe not such a good thing in real life, but in movies, it’s a bonus!). The opening sequence is cut to The Doors’ “The End” and, I think, is a much more effective use of the song than in Apocalypse Now. Okay, level with me, Mike…did you actually get the rights to use the song? (If not, we’ll just mosey along, pretend like I didn’t ask the question).

MM: We did not get the rights to it, but in the official release,  the song was replaced with Iron Butterfly's "in a gadda Davida". My directors cut has the song that we used in festivals & in a release in Germany on DVD I believe.

SRW: I consider myself a jaded, seen-it-all genre movie buff. But by cracky if you didn’t pull the rug out from under me 2/3 through the film! Never saw that twist coming! (Stupid! I’m so stupid!). 

MM:  That's Dave Larsen, the writer/ star who came up with that.  Sadly Dave isn't with us anymore. That movie is as much his baby as it is mine.
SRW: Okay! Mike, you came “roaring” back in 1997 with, um…Bimbo Movie Bash. (Yeah, I know, right?) It’s a patchwork job made up of clips from various ‘80’s z-movies (sadly, I was able to identify most of them). While you did your best to attempt to put a story around it, it’s kinda a mess. A mess Roger Corman would be proud of. Defend yourself, Mike.

MM: Sure. Well, first off I made this before Killers. I'd say it's my first film, but I don't consider it mine & I don't consider it much of a film. It was an editing job really, something I did with my friend Dave Parker. At the time he was working with Full Moon productions. They had a cd rom game called "Bimbo Movie Bash" and they wanted to make a movie of it using clips of their existing movies in their library. I've always been a fan of Woody Allen & I loved his first film "What's up Tiger Lilly?" Which was a Hong Kong film that was re-dubbed, changing the plot line & turning it into a comedy. So I thought this would be a fun approach to do with these movies, so we sold it as a parody of "Independence Day" with a cheesy plot line of a bunch of bimbos trying to take over the world.  Sadly, it did not go our way, and producer Charlie Band, decided against redubbing the movie, and wanted us to use the original audio. So really, my whole plan went up in smoke and ultimately it just became a bunch of clips of bad movies.  The movie is pretty unwatchable I feel, except for a few moments that turned out funny.  Not worth it to sort through the movie to find those tiny gems.  I really wish it didn't have my name on it as a director, cause we really didn't direct anything, really just edited.

SRW: Were the “Joe” clips with Joe Estevez your original creation? I couldn’t place those and they were probably the highlight of the movie, very amusing.

MM: Ha, yes there were certain clips we had fun with despite everything. One of those were the Joe Estevez clips from a gem called "Beach Babes From Beyond Infinity".  That was more the weird style of humor the movie was intended to have. As tough as I am on the film, there’re some funny bits and again, I almost felt it was a colossal exercise in creative editing. It could have been so much more.
SRW: Three years later, you came back swinging with The Convent. Here I really think you hit your stride. It’s a great horror comedy. As I write horror comedy myself, Mike, I’d like to pick your brain over the subject…I never really sit down and say, “Hey, I think I’ll write a horror comedy!” More often than not, I have a straight-up horror tale in mind, but it just sort of naturally evolves into the quirky side. Do you definitely plan to make comedies?

MM: Well, "Evil Dead 2" is my favorite movie, so I tend to always be trying to hit that tone, but it is where I feel my natural voice as a filmmaker lives.  I like funny characters in horrible situations.

SRW: The opening sequence is fantastic. Economic, stylish as all get out, very cool. Hard to go wrong with a bad-ass school-girl taking a bat and shotgun to nuns in a convent. The film never slows down from there, running from one great sequence to another. The movie’s gloriously over-the-top and hyper violent, but the comedy you instill makes it palatable. I think without the humor, it’d be a bit much. Did you ever consider making it a straight horror film?

MM: Honestly, no not really. I felt someone was giving me the opportunity to make a movie about demonic nuns. I had to have some fun with it.

SRW: I gotta ask, Mike…what with all the satanic nuns running around, did you have a bad Catholic upbringing?

MM: 12 years of Catholic School. I don't know if I'd say I had a bad run, but it will definitely leave an impression. We're talking about a religion whose main symbol is a bloody dead guy who's been crucified. There's a lot of dark shit in the bible.

SRW: All of the genre stereotyped characters are here: bitchy cheerleader, pompous idiotic frat boy, dweeby eager to please pledge. It was a pleasure to watch them die at your hands! (Although I sorta wish “Mo” woulda survived; very cool character). Mike, when I say this, it’s meant as a compliment: this is the best movie a 14 year old boy (and me!) could ever wish for.

MM: Yeah, I kind of wish Mo lived too, but these films are a collaboration with the writer, in this case the very talented Chaton Anderson.  I think she related more to the lead, Clarissa. I related more to the Goth kids.

SRW: Adrienne Barbeau puts in a late hour appearance as a take no mercy heroine. Are you a fan of her work with John Carpenter?

MM: Of course. Plus Creep Show & Swamp Thing. She's a legend!

SRW: The dialogue is very funny and natural. Do you strictly adhere to the script or is there improvisation going on?

MM: Good question, I think in those days I was a little more faithful to the script, so we stuck to our already zany script. But I would say that Saul the Prince of Evil character, definitely improv'd a lot.
SRW: It wasn’t until 2006 when you released your next flick, The Gravedancers. This time you opted for a straight horror flick. And it’s by far your scariest film with lots of creepy imagery. I’m thinking I saw some Mario Bava inspired goings-on. Am I off base?

MM: Nope you are correct. There were a lot of influences like The Haunted Mansion at Disney Land, but Bava's "Drop of Water" segment from "Black Sabbath" was definitely in there.

SRW: Black Sabbath's one of my all-time fave flicks. In The Gravedancers, there’s a very nice usage of ambient sound to ramp up the chills. How important is sound and music to your films?

MM: Extremely. Back then I was lucky enough to be working with composer Joseph Bishara, he's gone on to be the man behind the soundtracks for films like "Insidious" & "The Conjuring."

SRW: A recurring theme in your movies, Mike, is the past always plays a part of the present. Past sins are never forgotten. Am I giving this more thought than you do?

MM: I mean you're right, but I can't say I'm consciously trying to say this. But I agree, we're all responsible for our own actions, and sometimes those actions have repercussions.

SRW: You know, this movie came out in 2006 and you had paranormal investigators, the whole lot. One year later, Paranormal Activity hit and made it a “Thing.” You were ahead of the pack, Mike!

MM: Yes, a lot of good it did me ;) (sarcasm)

SRW: There was quite a layover until your next film in 2013! Is financing that tough? Or did you take some time off to take paying gigs?

MM: A combo of both.  "Gravedancers" left me absolutely nowhere in my career. Plus the world was changing. The economy crashed, the DVD market went away. It was a tough time. I really thought it was over for me. So I made a real attempt to make a living editing, which I still do from time to time.  It was a long while before someone would give me an opportunity, but sometimes opportunity comes in unexpected ways.

SRW: The next movie? Big-Ass SpiderPossibly my favorite of the bunch. What a great, evocative title! It tells you exactly what you’re gonna get. However, I’m worried…IMDB (not the most reliable of sources) now has it entitled “Mega Spider.” What happened? Red Box and Red States?

MM: Some of the foreign territories preferred to call it Mega-Spider, so the IMDB started to reflect this.  It's been corrected since ;) It was originally entitled "Dino-Spider" when I first got the script. From reading it, I felt the movie could be more than that, so began a 2 year argument to call the movie, "Big Ass Spider!" Thankfully I finally won.

SRW: My wife’s a huge arachnaphobe. So when she walked in on me watching the movie, I quickly scrambled for the remote, shutting it off. Like I’d been caught watching porn. Only far worse.

MM: Sorry?

SRW: Anyway, this movie’s tons of fun. Again, you hone your editing and directing skills into a stylish and effective narrative device. The opening is great; a tease of things to come and very compelling. As ylu mentioned earlier, I imagine you meticulously story-board your films before shooting?

MM: Yes, storyboarding was a habit I got into from a very young age.  When you have limited amount of film, I always thought it was best to plan it out as meticulously as possible. It helps in all sorts of ways. So it's a habit I've kept up

SRW: Greg Grunberg is so effortlessly charming as the everyman hero, the bug exterminator who just wants to score a date with the leading woman. Who can’t help but root for the schlubby guy? Great casting. Tell me Greg’s like his persona and not a diva.

MM: Greg is a wonderful, wonderful human being. He brought so much to the character. The movie wouldn't be what it is without him & Lombardo Boyar.

SRW: These days a lot of fan-boys hate on CGI effects. You use a lot of them in Big Ass Spider. If I’m not mistaken, the most you’ve used to date. But they work here, I think, adding to the rowdy b-movie fun. Do you enjoy working with CGI? Or would you rather kick it old school?

MM: I have always been an old school practical fx guy. I was very nervous about the leap to cgi. I previously had had only fairly negative experiences using it. But, I did feel that I was being close minded and should be more open to new technologies.  The big difference was that we had a very eager company out of Pakistan that was very eager to show off what they could do. They were very talented and blew us away with what they could do. They kept pushing us to go further, at first. Then we all got in the spirit and I'm sure, drove them close to insanity. But it really changed my approach to filmmaking. CGI was always a bad word for me, but then I realized how far it had come and what a great tool it was.  I still think over reliance on CGI is a bad thing, but there are some things you just can't do practically. A 50 foot tall spider is one of them.
SRW: Last year you directed a segment for the anthology, Tales of Halloween. Like all anthologies, some of the tales are better than others. But we’re here to talk about you, Mike, not these other guys! So…Friday the 31st. Short, super violent, gory. Very, very silly spoof about a Michael Meyers type serial killer running afoul of a cute lil’ alien. Limbs are chopped and dropped. How long did it take you to come up with this idea, Mike? 

MM: I'll explain how it came to be in the next question. As far as my segment. It was the opening scene of a screenplay I've always wanted to make.  But, I knew that the opening itself would be able to stand alone if I wanted to do it as a short.  So I felt this is a rare opportunity to do anything I wanted, and this is what I wanted to do. 
SRW: What—or who--is “The October Society?”

MM: The October Society is a group of filmmakers that currently live in Los Angeles, except for one. They are all friends and support each others work. They came together for a movie called "Tales of Halloween" in the spirit that we would all go further together than if we did it individually. Think of it as The Avengers of horror.  It all came about because we were all friends in real life and decided to make a movie together.

SRW: Another John Carpenter reference (several, actually)! Adrienne Barbeau again as the radio DJ/narrator, practically lifted from The Fog. Someone’s a big Carpenter fan (um, not “The Carpenters” but you know what I mean…).

MM: I'm a fan of The Carpenters too ;) But I think any self respecting genre fan considers himself a Carpenter fan. On "Tales of Halloween" you had some pretty massive ones.  I would say certainly Neil Marshall, Dave Parker and myself  really kind of pushed the theme through the movie.  We were really enamored with the idea of Adrienne Barbeau recreating her character from "The Fog" to narrate the piece.
SRW: Okay, moving on! Lavantula finds you still working out your giant spider phase. (Not sure I ever did understand the title; unless it’s a reference to L.A.). Am I correct in assuming this was a Sy-Fy TV movie?

MM: Yes this was a total, work for hire for Syfy channel. My first tv movie. The title came from the idea of Lava + avalanche + tarantula = "Lavalantula".

SRW: As much flack as the Sy-Fy flicks get, there’s no denying their popularity. Plus, it’s the best place for b-genre movie directors to show off their wares these days, I think. There’s a surprising cameo/in-joke to Sharknado! How’d that come about?

MM: Yeah, I figured if there was ever a time it was acceptable to do one of those movies, it would be during the height of the "Sharknado" craze.  Syfy wanted to link these movies so badly, they got Ian Zeiring to make a cameo. People think it's a shared universe and technically I guess it is, because Steve Guttenberg returns the favor and makes a cameo in "Sharknado: The Fourth Awakens". So the question comes up, when will there be a "Sharknado vs. Lavalantula"? The truth is probably never, because the movies are owned by two competing companies. So I don't ever see it happening. Hopefully the world will find the strength to go on without it. ;)

SRW: You had the unenviable task of repackaging Steve Guttenberg as an action hero! Not an easy job, I wouldn’t think. But he plays with the character and the script wisely laughs at him as a washed up action movie star. (“No bug movies!” Lol.).Was it your intent to create a cult of celebrity satire disguised as a giant spider movie?

MM: I always liked the idea of a story about an actor that was kind of a wuss in real life, but then had to rise to the occasion and adopt the persona that people perceive him to be.  That was what sort of hooked me about "Lavalantula." I felt there was an opportunity to make a movie about a character that had to be the hero he always pretended to be.  I don't think anyone really cares or picks up on that in a movie named "Lavalantula" but that's what I was going for at least.

SRW: Guttenberg’s final rallying speech is a riot, playing on the self-importance of Hollywood “insiders.” Do you like being on the outskirts of Hollywood, Mike? So you can continue your vision? Or would you rather sell out and cash in? (Loaded questions, I know.)

MM: I would love to sell out, lol. No one is offering. The truth is that's half true. I like making my strange little movies, but it would be great to be able to make them for someone else with a budget. Being an indie filmmaker sucks from a financial point of view. There's hardly any money to direct these things now that budgets are so low.

SRW: The most stunning thing about Lavantula (besides Nia Peeple’s distracting cleavage, of course) was when I discovered “Marty” was played by Michael Winslow! The sound effects guy from the Police Academy films, for God’s sake! Haven’t seen him since then. Did you seek him out, Mike?

MM: Absolutely! Steve Guttenberg thought it would be cool to get him in a cameo, but then I thought it would be funny to keep going with it and try to get as many members of the Police Academy cast as possible.  We got four of them, but that was enough to go into that out of the box area that I'm so fond of.  Now it was the cast of "Police Academy" vs. Lava Spiders, and that strikes me as funny.
SRW: Okay! You’ve just completed two very interesting sounding films with Dolph Lundgren and Henry Rollins (two, um, very warm and cuddly leading men). Can’t wait to see them! Tell the Tornado Alley readers what they’re about and when and where they can expect to see them.

MM: I did a terrible film with Henry Rollins, I won't even mention it's name. It was the smallest budgeted movie I had ever done and I was quite excited about it. For reasons that I don't fully understand the producers of the film decided to not involve me in the final stages of post production. They recut the movie, took out much of the gore and violence, and didn't involve me at all with the music, visual fx, sound and color correction.  The end result is a festering pile of shit I'm embarrassed to have my name on.

The other film I did is called "Don't Kill It" starring Dolph Lundgren. We had a blast on this movie. It was a bit of a return to my roots with movies like "The Convent". It's a bloody blast of a movie. It premiered at Fantastic Fest and will be hitting VOD and limited theaters on March 3rd. I'm really excited for people to see it!

SRW: There you have it, folks. Mike Mendez, one of my favorite low-budget filmmakers working. Do yourself a favor and check out his fun flicks.

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