Director and writer Steve Kopera catches up with The Horror Hothouse‘s Emma Knock about the inspirations behind his upcoming horror comedy The Cabining.
The Cabining focuses on hapless screenwriting duo Todd and Bruce who have been given one last shot at ‘making it big’ by Todd’s wealthy stepfather Serge who promises to fund the entire project if they can write a worthy horror script in two weeks. Fresh out of ideas and with their deadline looming, they head to the tranquil artist’s retreat Shangri-La for inspiration. Proving to be anything but serene, the resident artists start to die off one by one and Bruce attempts to convince Todd that they should be using their current circumstances as inspiration, but things soon turn sour when Todd begins to suspect that Bruce may be behind the ‘accidental’ deaths.
Hi Steve, welcome to The Horror Hothouse! To get started, can you give us a little background on your career to date and how The Cabining came about?
Hi, Em. I’d say my background in film-making is both typical and atypical. Like a lot of kids growing up in the 80s, I fell in love with camcorders and making movies with my friends. We’d recreate our favourite popcorn flicks, forcing the least fortunate among us to dress as Princess Leia. Yet, instead of going the traditional route of film school, I opted instead to pursue a degree in Environmental Science. Why? I’m not sure. It must’ve made sense at the time.
So after graduation (yes, I did graduate with that degree and can tell you all about the different types of clouds and weather patterns), I headed out to Los Angeles. It was a pretty blind move – I didn’t have any connections or job leads or any mentors waiting to hold my hand. Nor did I know many people in that city. Still, it was an adventure, and I was determined to learn the film craft. I befriended a few people in Loyola Marymount’s graduate film program, and they allowed me to assistant direct some short films. I have also PAed on a handful of professional indies. My Loyola friends were supportive of me trying my hand at directing and writing, so I quickly segued into that. My first few projects were small, as they should be with a novice. And, over the years, I’ve gradually increased the scope of each project.
In the first few years, the goal was to get into festivals. Yet, festival success eluded me. It seemed like everybody and his brother/sister was getting in. It was a pretty harrowing time. Rejection after rejection. Finally, I broke through with a short film written by and starring my brother, Mike. It’s called My Friend Peter – a quirky comedy about a man and his monkey puppet (that might sound crude, but I swear it’s a family film). That little movie opened up a ton of doors. It brought us to the DC Shorts Film Festival where the idea for The Cabining was born. Mike and I befriended another filmmaker, David Silverman, and we riffed on an idea for a low-budget-buddy-horror-comedy. After that festival, I whipped together a script, and, within a few months, we were shooting.
Most of your works to date have been comedy films/shorts, how is your first foray into horror going?
I’m loving it. My previous feature (Starlight & Superfish) would be classified as art-house. It’s a bizarre musical dramedy about a guy who wakes up dead in his own apartment. It’s a truly unique experience but incredibly difficult to sell. The folks that watched the movie generally really liked it, but it was hard to get past that initial road block. It took the better part of a year to find a buyer. With The Cabining, it’s the exact opposite. We’ve had agents contact us, even before the movie is complete. That blows my mind. I’d like to think that it’s because they really believe in us and the project, but I know that’s not true. They’re interested because it’s horror.
From the trailer it looks like a fun spin on a 70/80s slasher (Friday the 13thstyle), is that fair to say?
Absolutely. The original concept was a comic send-up of Friday the 13th. I call the movie “horror” but it’s not entirely accurate. It’s mostly a comedy. In fact, I’d say it’s 85% comedy, 15% horror. As you mentioned, my background isn’t in horror. It’s more in comedy. To write this script, I started with the Friday the 13th plot structure and then focused on elements that worked in the past — colourful characters, snappy dialogue, jabs at pretentiousness. The horror elements surprisingly fit in easily.
Horredy can be notoriously tricky to get right. Have you taken any inspiration from any well-respected horror comedies or any other classic films?
I’m from Detroit, and we’re all sort of disciples of Sam Raimi. His Evil Dead was such a game-changer. I read If Chins Could Kill by Bruce Campbell, which details the genesis of that movie, and it was like a mini-film school. That crew of guys — the Raimi brothers, Bruce Campbell, Rob Tapert — they were all so clever. They used their low-budget to their advantage by making the gore funny. And, yet, they had genuinely brilliant camera moves that kept the audience on the edge of the seat. It may not be well-known, but their background was comedy too.
I should also mention that Shaun of the Dead was also a major influence, especially in tone. As Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are fending off zombies, they’re debating over which Stone Roses album to throw at them. Obviously, they chose Second Coming. I just love that. It was the brilliant marriage of comedy and horror.
What can horror fans expect from The Cabining, given that the tagline is ‘inspiration by decapitation’ can we expect some blood?
Yes, there will be blood. And a severed head. And a tree stump through a skull. Plus a pen into an eye. I tried to create some non-standard ways for folks to die. Some real family friendly stuff. My goal was to write a script that my parents would hate.
The plot is two horror screenwriters head to an artist’s retreat for inspiration. People start mysteriously dying around them, but they stick around thinking the death and gore will inspire a great script.
You couldn’t have had a massive budget, yet the quality of the film looks great from the trailer and you have some fairly established actors on the cast, including French actress-come-singer Melissa Mars. How did you swing that?
We definitely did not have a big budget. It was a real struggle to raise the funds, and we were able to squeeze by on the talents of my incredible producer-actor brother, Mike. He was relentless in making the most with the money we had. One major key was the Director of Photography, Jeffery T. Schultz. He has such an artist’s eye for clever shots and creating the appropriate mood with lighting. He’s a director too, so he understands the entire process. With Jeff and his crew on board, I knew the movie would look pro.
As for the cast, I was told many years ago by Kuang Lee — one of my Loyola Marymount mentors — that actors are the production value for indie films. So cast is always the number one concern. An audience may forgive a grainy film, but they won’t forgive a crap actor. Mike and fellow producer, Ian Michaels, sifted through thousands of submissions for the “Mindy” and “Celeste” roles.
Angela Relucio won the Mindy role as she perfectly captured the mix of Mindy’s sarcasm and sweetness. Angela was wonderful to work with too. The character “Mindy” has to run around the final act mostly in her underwear and Michigan in October is not terribly warm, yet not a single complaint. She was a total professional.
Melissa Mars submitted for Celeste via a video audition. She didn’t even know that the Celeste character was French. It was a stroke of pure luck. Because we were low-budget and had to shoot an entire feature in 17 days, I needed actors who were talented but also extremely hungry. Melissa was willing to drop everything and fly to the middle of Michigan to shoot a comedy-horror with a bunch of strangers. I could tell Melissa had that hunger.
As for Bo Keister, he initially read for one of the cop roles. He asked if he could also read for “Bruce,” who is lead opposite my brother, Mike. Bo nailed his audition and proved to be an incredible asset on set. He’s a genius at improve and was always throwing out suggestions for extra jokes. I’ve heard of writer-directors who forbid actors to stray from the script. That’s not me. I’ve never actually understood that mentality. Maybe it’s because I’m also an editor, but I never fall in love with any one line or scene. So I was always willing to hear Bo’s input. It was like he was doing script punch-ups on the fly.
The venerable Richard Riehle (Office Space) and Luce Rains (No Country for Old Men) were brought in by Ian Michaels. Mark Rademarcher, who plays “Monroe” was a last-minute score when our original “Monroe,” JP Manoux, was forced to stay in Florida shoot Scary MoVie. We signed up Mark literally two days before shooting. No matter how much you plan, stuff like that happens. In this case, it turned out great, as Mark brought so much to the set and character.
Even though Richard, Luce, and Mark all worked on big budget movies, they were great on our small set. Not just professional but truly great people.
Your brother stars as one half of The Cabining’s ‘bromance’. What was it like to work with him?
It was easy. I was nervous that his producing responsibilities might interfere with his focus on performance. Somehow he transitioned from producer to actor without missing a beat. Jeffery Schultz and I were in awe as we’d watch him handle the catering or some parking snafu and then switch into “Todd” mode in a heartbeat. Like all the people on this project, Mike is hungry, maybe even the hungriest. His motivation to succeed was high, and he was a breeze to direct.
If he makes it big and starts demanding Cristal and gluten-free sushi in his trailer, we might have a problem. But for now, we get along well. Mike also had great chemistry with Bo. Mike does the downtrodden, submissive type quite well, and Bo has no trouble downtrodding people.
Did you have any unorthodox tricks up your sleeve to get some more genuine scare reactions/screams from your cast?
I wish I could say I did, but no. Perhaps it’s because I’m a first-time horror director, but the screams and reactions were pretty scripted. The only legitimate scream was when Bo snuck into the shot to get a closer look during Angela and Mike’s make-out scene.
In addition to directing the film you are also the producer and you wrote the screenplay as well. Which aspect have you enjoyed the most?
The directing. The writing phase has its benefits too. When a story is in its infancy the plot can go anywhere, so it’s a chance to really flex the creative muscles. [However], I got into this business because I love the creative collaboration. Nothing is more collaborative than a movie set. Despite the long, demanding hours directing is incredibly invigorating. I love working with the actors and bringing a scene to life.
Currently the film is in post-production, when do you think it will be ready for screening?
I anticipate the movie to be ready for screening later this summer. Right now, we’re writing the score, adding some sound FX and colour-grading. So we’re close.
What are your aspirations for The Cabining going forward ?
We may submit to a few festivals, but [we are focusing] mainly on distribution.
Are you working on any other projects at the time being?
Right now I’m writing. I had an idea for an action movie with a female lead. Apparently, female leads are tough to sell overseas, but I don’t care at this point. I want to take sell-ability into account, but not to the point where it restricts ideas. So, if everything goes well, the next script will have a bad-ass female action heroine. [Editor: Amazing!]
Bo also wants me to write a sequel to The Cabining. I found that idea pretty hilarious because aren’t sequels usually restricted to successful Hollywood flicks with big name stars? We are 0 for 3 on that front. Still, we had so much fun on set that I’d love to bring the band back together for another go. Hopefully, this movie will garner enough interest to warrant that.
Finally…what’s your favourite scary movie?
Great question. Jaws. As I mentioned, I’m a kid of the ’80s, and Jaws was like our Citizen Kane. It’s got everything I look for in a movie – great characters, interesting plot, unexpected thrills, and classic dialog. Does it get any better than Robert Shaw’s monologue about the ill-fated USS Indianapolis? More recently, I’d also mention El Orfanato. I know it didn’t do too well, but that movie really freaked me out.
This was a blast. Thanks so much for supporting independent film! We independent filmmakers make about as much money as pan-handlers…and maybe the similarities don’t stop there, so we really appreciate the help in increasing awareness.
Watch the trailer and read our preview here.
For more information check out The Cabining’s Facebook page and follow them on Twitter at @TheCabining