A lot of the Overlook creatures seem to have a long relationship with At the Clown and his creator Damien Leone. The pair's first feature length film, All Hallows' Eve, was among the first movie recommendations that Trash had for us, and her discovery that we had heard of, owned, watched, and loved the film kind of validated us in her eyes. During the heyday of print media, she had the opportunity to interview him about his debut feature, now Huntress gets to ask him a couple of questions about his upcoming one, Terrifier.
Huntress: As an indie film maker you wear a lot of hats, including special effects artist and director. What was the first role you had on a film set and what inspired you to expand?
Damien: When I was around 8 years old, I saw this Tom Savini VHS tape called Scream Greats. It was the first time I ever saw how monsters were created. This blew my mind. At 12 years old, my mother took me to a horror convention where I finally bought my first starter makeup kit, bottle of fake blood and a real machete...yes, a real machete! The machete was dulled down and had a semi circle cut out of the blade so that when you pressed it against your body, it looked like it was actually buried in your flesh. This was a classic Tom Savini gag.
As soon as I got home, I began practicing cuts on my friends and sending them home to their parents with gashes under their eyes and blood running down their cheeks. Seeing the parents freak out gave me such a thrill. Next phase, my friend would steal his dad's camcorder and we'd film the fx. After that, we began making short horror films. This eventually led to my love of directing in general. I basically walked around with a camcorder in my hand from then on like the kid in American Beauty.
Unfortunately, no one will hire you to direct unless you've made some incredible short film that's played in Cannes or Sundance. Special effects makeup allowed me to get my foot in the door because it's a very specific skill set. Everyone on a movie set wants to be a director; the sound guy wants to be a director. But back in the early 2000's, there were much fewer special effects artists floating around so my work stood out. Now with the show Face/Off and social media, practical effects are more popular than ever. You can find a very eager and talented makeup artist much easier these days.
Huntress: I read that Terrifier started off as a short film that was posted on YouTube, and lead to the 2013 anthology, All Hallows' Eve. Did the segment start off as a feature length film in your mind which you had to cut down? Or was it the reverse?
Damien: Terrifier was to be my calling card as a director and a showcase for Art the Clown. My hope was that some one would discover it and invest in a feature length version. I posted it on YouTube and it quickly got around 100k views without an advertisement or subscribers. That's pretty rare for a 20 minute short film that no one has ever heard of.
Eventually a producer did stumble upon the short who was developing a Halloween based anthology. He loved the clown and wanted that character to be the focal point of the piece. I asked him if we could just make a fresh, feature length Terrifier but there was no budget for that. The idea was to find shorts that had already been made in order to keep the costs as low as possible. This idea eventually became All Hallows' Eve. I have mixed feelings about that film. On one hand, I'm grateful that it exists because it introduced Art the Clown to a larger audience and some people genuinely love that movie. On the other hand, it's not where I wanted Art the Clown to go. You learn very quickly in this business that you have to make a lot of sacrifices.
Huntress: According to IMDB (which I know is not always the most reliable source), Terrifier is the first of your features where you are not part of the makeup or effects crew, but rather full on writer and director. How different of an experience has it been?
Damien: There must be a mistake on IMDB because I was still head of the special effects department. My producer Phil Falcone assisted me in creating all of the film's special effects for about three months prior to shooting. Doing effects and directing is definitely not something I'd recommend unless you found yourself in my situation. It really takes a toll on you and both areas wind up suffering a little because you can't fully dedicate your attention to one or the other. Art the Clown alone was required to shoot for approximately 19 days and that makeup takes around 3 hours to apply prior to a 12-14 hour day of shooting. By the end of the day you're absolutely fried and then you're back at it all over again 8 hours later.
Damien: There are a couple of reasons why he's silent. You'll notice that Art the Clown is almost the complete opposite of Stephen King's Pennywise. Pennywise is the king of the killer clowns so if you're going to walk onto that field, you better not step on his toes. Pennywise is colorful, wisecracking, red nose, wig, doesn't use weapons, etc. Art the clown is black and white, no red nose, bald, top hat, mute, uses any weapon he can find.
Art's personality is also a combination of my favorite slashers. He's the relentless silent stalker like Michael Myers and Jason but also has a sense of humor like Freddy Krueger. The difference between Art and Freddy is that Art gets his laughs through physical pantomime and Freddy gets his mainly through speech. I also find a mute character much more terrifying because verbal communication is a specifically human trait. If you take that away, you're lessening the characters humanity and making them more of an animal that can't be reasoned with.
Huntress: Did you get any backlash for making a scary clown movie during the whole "clown epidemic" fiasco?
Damien: Oh, sure. I already see a handful of people commenting that this film is another "clown epidemic" cash grab. If they only knew I invented this character a decade ago and it's taken me this long to bring him from a short film to his first legitimate feature. (Lol) I don't mind the backlash, though. It's actually a blessing that Terrifier came through to fruition at this time because, like you said, clowns are more popular than ever. Just last year I couldn't get Terrifier funded through the distribution company behind All Hallows' Eve because supposedly, "clowns weren't popular enough". Go figure. It's all about timing.
Huntress: Terrifier has been getting a great response from fans on social media, do you have plans to get a theatrical release?
Damien: I'm very relieved that people are responding so positively to the trailer and the official artwork. We're talking to various distributors at the moment but I honestly can't say if there's going to be a theatrical release or not. All I can say is that when this film played in a packed theater at the Telluride Horror Show, it was like a rock concert. People were cheering, screaming, shrieking and applauding. It's definitely a fun movie to watch with a crowd! Hopefully more people get to see it in a theater.
Huntress: Indie movies tend to shy away from gore and effects, I imagine due to budgetary constraints, but All Hallows' Eve and what I've seen of Terrifier have more practical blood and gore than most big budget movies in the past couple of years. How do you maintain such good quality on an indie level? Do you plan to continue using practical effects on your future films?
Damien: Passion, dedication and suffering. Lol I'm aware going into the film that one of our most valuable assets is going to be practical effects since I'm decent at it and I'll obviously do it for free. If I had to hire a makeup fx team to create the amount of effects we wound up achieving, the cost would've probably been equivalent to film's entire budget.
The goal is to just do the best you can with what you have in the amount of time you have. Time is your worst enemy on a film. There are plenty of effects that didn't come out the way I intended because of time constraints. An effect can take hours to prep and if something goes wrong, it could take another hour to reset. That's one of the main reasons CGI is used so frequently now. You have limited time on set and all the time in the world during post-production to do it digitally.
Huntress: Your name came up as a producer of All Hallows' Eve 2, although it wasn't related to the original. What was your involvement in that movie?
Huntress: What do you imagine Art's origin story is? Is he human or just dressed up as one?
Damien: I finally know exactly what Art the Clown is. It's taken me years to come up with a worthy backstory that hopefully won't diminish anything people like about him. Unfortunately, you will have to wait to find out what it is. 😏