Gratuitous Nudity: Spencer Parsons on Saturday Morning Massacre

They had a scary house and just told him to make a movie. The director talks about combining 'Scooby Doo and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


I love going to Austin for SXSW, Fantastic Fest or Butt Numbathon to see crazy midnight movies. This week a crazy Austin midnight movie came to my neighborhood. Saturday Morning Massacre premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The horror comedy stars a group of newcomers as paranormal investigators who trip on acid and encounter real ghosts in a haunted mansion. We spoke with director Spencer Parsons after his festival screenings to catch up on Massacre’s prospects.


CraveOnline: What did it take to get Saturday Morning Massacre made?

Spencer Parsons:  Like any film, a lot of crazy perspiration and willingness to do just about anything.


Those are the stories we want to hear.

[Laughs] Yeah, it did come together in kind of a remarkable and strange way. It’s sort of a classic making of an exploitation film sort of story. Clark and Jesse Lyda bought a mansion that was in some disrepair, to flip and turn into I believe a bed and breakfast and wedding venue. So they bought it, it was in disrepair, it looks terrible. They were touring around, they started talking about the possibility of making a horror film there because it seemed kind of creepy and weird. So then they called producer Jason Wehling and they showed him the house. He was impressed and wanted to take them up on the opportunity. So then he took it to Jonny Mars who also produced and is in the film. He got excited and wanted to take them up on the opportunity but the only thing missing here was there was no preexisting story to do in this mansion. At this point in the process, they were about six weeks out from beginning major renovations that would obviously be in the way of a shoot. So we had six weeks then to come up with a story and go in and do it. When they had to make that kind of decision, that’s when they called me, I guess because I seem to be a very flexible and yet hard working sort. So we all got together and from the word go had about six weeks to get a movie written, cast and shot out and into the world. It was a little bit like Corman looking around and finding there were some sets left over from another movie and saying, “Let’s take a couple of days and we’ll make The Little Shop of Horrors.”


Are they still flipping the house?

They are, yeah. It’s actually in much better shape. We were able then to shoot some nice little flashback sequences after they fixed some things up so that it would look like the house in its more glorious past. So that added a little bit of production value.


Where is the house if fans want to go find it?

It’s in Austin. It’s actually remarkably central. We had to do some work to make it feel isolated. We had some trouble when we were doing sound with cars passing by so it’s right near this shopping center with a big grocery store that’s right near Hancock Center. Right near I-35. Really easy to find.


What was the process of writing a script to a location? What inspiration did the house give you?

Well, I think when Jonny and Jason first got together and they were hashing out what to do having this big rambling mansion, it just kind of came back to a traditional haunted house story. When you’re trying to figure out what you do with a traditional haunted house, they kept going towards paranormal investigators kind of stuff. They realized part of the way through that everything that they were cooking up was very “Scooby-Doo.” I guess some folks would run in the opposite direction from that but they had the good sense to embrace it. Then they brought me the idea and I said, “Oh man, ‘Scooby-Doo,’ I want to run in exactly the opposite direction from that.” So it created a good tension where they brought “Scooby-Doo” to me and I was like, “But I want to do Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” So we were hopefully able to create something a little bit more interesting than I think any of us would have done purely on our own.


You hadn’t done a horror movie before, so was this always in you?

Oh, absolutely. A movie is a movie and a story is a story. I’m a big fan of Greek tragedy and when you read Greek tragedy, they’re horror stories. I think Euripedes’ The Bacchae is maybe the first zombie movie ever. So to me it was that kind of territory and what I watch normally, I just watch lots and lots of crazy horror movies and fill up my time with Maniac and Brain Damage and all kinds of grotty, crazy stuff. So I watch a lot of that material and I had been developing some horror scripts and ideas already. That was something they knew about with me, even though maybe the rest of the world didn’t. That was part of why they brought me the script. But no, I hadn’t actually made a horror film before but I gotta say, my previous work is really influenced by horror films. My first feature may not seem to be some kind of body horror thing, but a lot of my thinking on it was really more influenced by David Cronenberg films than maybe by anything else. But hopefully it was influenced in that right way where you take the artistic influence and you make something of your own. Yeah, horror was always there and I’m happy to go in and indulge and discover how to really make one of these.


Thank you for the gratuitous nudity in the sex scene. Was that a given you had to have one of those?

Well, you know, it’s one of those things with the genre. It is one of the things with the genre that you throw in some gratuitous nudity. Also personally I like that in films and if it seems like it’s going to work, and if we can approach it in the right spirit and not just be creepy and pervy about it, it is a basic human pleasure. People wanna see each other naked and I got no problem with that. Luckily my actors had no problem with that. If you see my heartfelt first feature drama, there’s some skin in that movie too. Maybe a little less gratuitous but to me I’m always game. Probably one of my bigger problems is coming up with ideas where there’s not going to be some intense sex and nudity in it.


When horror went mainstream in the ‘90s and A-list stars started doing them, we lost the nudity from the genre.

Yeah, that’s true. I do feel like in a certain way, too many ‘80s horror films played the booby card a little too gratuitously and maybe ruined it for several years. There was the inevitable backlash from actresses and agents about it. I hope it’s maybe coming back around, again because I think it’s just a really basic human pleasure and that’s what we’re doing. That’s what we’re making and it doesn’t have to be terrible, it doesn’t have to be career killing. I do, on the other hand, have to feel for all those actresses in the ‘80s that would have to grit their teeth through a scene where it’s like, “Oh my God, it’s so hot in here” and take off their sweater just before somebody comes and hacks off their head.


What sort of framing issues did you have with petite Ashley Rae Spillers and all the tall guys?

[Laughs] Honestly, if we had more time, we might have really thought about the framing issues. It was pretty much we had to keep moving so quickly that for the most part it was like, “Do we have everybody in frame? Can we make this happen?” And stuff worked out. It was funny because Josephine [Decker], the other lead woman in the film, is significantly taller than Ashley so she’s really surrounded by a lot of taller people, but ultimately when she is the leader of this group, I think it makes for a pretty nice picture that she’s the shortest but she’s also in charge.


Were the effects all practical?

Yes, we did everything practically and with some basic green screening stuff. We tried to build even those effects where we were doing some compositing around old silent movie style gags, stuff that goes way, way back where it’s about the negative space of the frame. In the old days it would’ve been passes through the optical printer. We wanted to keep it really simple. That’s better on a really low budget anyway because if you want to compete in the CG realm, you’ve got to spend a lot of money before it looks any good.


Well, the ugly truth is the best Hollywood studio CG still does not look good.

You said it, not me, but I totally 100% agree. Whatever budget, I would want to be doing as much practically as possible, and that’s for a lot of reasons. One, because I genuinely think it looks better and I love the old stage magic kind of traditions. The way that Savini for instance did a lot of his gore effects came from really old fashioned things that magicians had been doing on stage for years and years, when he created a lot of gore craze in the ‘80s. Same with Rob Bottin creating those effects for The Thing. When he was asked about it, he said, “Well, it was really more about the prep time that we had and the way that we could plan out all our angles well in advance that made those effects so good.” I’m a big believer in that kind of tradition. CG can have its place. It can have its place but I’m with you, I like the practical stuff.


Screening at the LA Film Festival, did you get to see any audiences get freaked out?

Yeah, it’s been really neat. We got applause for some of our kills, which as much a horror fan as I am, that’s not necessarily why I get into it. I’m not like, “Oh, I want to get applause when we do this terrible thing to somebody.” But it was kind of neat and gratifying and I hope in a way that this is a little bit of maybe a crossover film for people who didn’t know that they could enjoy gore. I hope that we’re making something where folks that would say that they don’t like gory films can go into it and enjoy some of the stuff in the sick and gleeful way that I do.


Have you sold the film yet?

This is our first festival so we’ve gotten a lot of good responses from distributors and from other festivals, so this is the beginning of our run. Hopefully we’ll get a really good deal that’ll help us to get it in front of as many potential people in the audience as possible.


Did you submit to Fantastic Fest?

Oh yeah. Really, really crossing our fingers for Fantastic Fest. It’s a fantastic festival and it would also be a tremendous homecoming.


What was your filmmaking community in Austin like?

Fantastic. I’ve been now living in Chicago for a couple years but the filmmaking community in Austin is why I keep returning there to make films. Since I moved, I made three projects in Austin so I keep coming back. It’s a great community. Everybody kind of throws themselves into it. People are really doing it for love there. It’s really a tremendous filmmaking scene. I think sometimes people get a little disappointed that it’s not a bit more of an industry town and that makes things difficult in terms of sustainability and being able to earn a living doing what we do, but just on the level of a fantastic almost kind of punk rock scene where everybody just goes in for the fun of it, gives it their all, Austin’s second to none.


Is it just as hard to break into the industry in Austin as in L.A.?

It is. It is very difficult. It’s because there really isn’t an industrial center there. I teach and when my students are asking me where to go after school, I ask them about their priorities. If they really need to get work in the industry then Austin is not necessarily the place to go. But if they’re looking to make films, which is a little bit different thing, Austin can be just about the best place to go.


We know about the famous ones like Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater. Is it very different for the really scrappy indies?

It is, it is. Linklater and Rodriguez are of course fantastic filmmakers. They were also lucky enough to come along at a time when there could be a pretty significant kind of institutional support for the sort of work that they were doing. That really doesn’t exist anywhere anymore. It’s not just Austin, so Austin itself has become a good bit scrappier over the years, but there are a lot of really great filmmakers who live there, have been based there at one time or another and are making films that play widely on the festival circuit. There’s Bryan Poyser, Alex Karpovsky has moved back to I think New York but he’s always around all over the place. Andrew Bujalski is based there now. I live in Chicago but I keep returning, so it’s definitely a really serious hub, though a lot of the efforts having to be a good bit scrappier and rougher around the edges than maybe a Linklater and Rodriguez project.