Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, shotgun shells on the floor, a piercing scream raised in glorious harmony with a group of carolers? It must be Christmas.
One of my favourite experiences at Fantasia Fest this year was attending the screening of Better Watch Out, the extraordinarily fun and slyly subversive holiday horror-comedy co-written and directed by Chris Peckover (Undocumented). You can check out my glowing review of it here. I’d been kicking myself for missing the Rue Morgue CineMacabre advance screening months before, so seeing its inclusion in the Fantasia Fest program was hugely exciting. I had some pretty high expectations when I finally sat down to watch it.
It was even better than I’d anticipated.
If you like your horror whip-smart and generously infused with pitch-black comedy, then I heartily recommend seeing Better Watch Out on its opening weekend. The film’s infectious and wry sense of humour (and lack of over-the-top gore) will undoubtedly translate to wider audience appeal – this is a film that you can confidently invite your non-horror friends to see.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Chris about the making of the film, his biggest influences, and so much more.
Valeska: It’s hard to tell, as the cast members are all extremely proficient with American accents, but Better Watch Out has an almost entirely Australian cast despite being written and directed by Americans and set in an American suburb. How did that happen?
Chris: A longtime Aussie buddy of mine Shane Abbess and his producer Brett Thornquest approached us as we were preparing to shoot Better Watch Out in South Carolina. They offered to make it in Sydney instead for six times the budget. Truth is – I’m not a US citizen, even though I’ve lived here since I was eight. I was born in Canada, and my mom is Australian, so I share those dual citizenships. Australia has incredible tax incentives for native filmmakers, so after looking at the numbers, it seemed crazy not to take Brett and Shane up on their offer.
There were a lot of challenges shooting an American Christmas story on a budget in the dead of summer in Sydney, but thankfully casting wasn’t one of them. I don’t know what they put in the water there, but Oz consistently churns out one incredible actor after another. Between Liv, Levi, and Ed, Better Watch Out collected the three most talented teenage actors in Australia today. All three of them are blowing up right now. Hell, even our supporting cast is blowing up. Who am I kidding – I really lucked out with casting. My casting directors really worked their buns off to get the script out to everybody.
Valeska: The film takes place during the holidays (and I’ll definitely be adding it to my annual viewing alongside Black Christmas). Was the holiday aspect always a part of the script? Is there something about the holiday season that cries out for a bloodbath?
Chris: There’s just something inherently funny about things going wrong during Christmas. It’s already so idealized and heightened – warm fireplaces, decorated houses, everybody on their best behavior, sleeping safe and sound in their warm homes with family. A time when everything is supposed to go right. So it’s endlessly satisfying when it doesn’t! The setting was there from the beginning. Once you dream up images of blood hitting the snow, it’s hard to let go of them.
Valeska: There were a few other films that came to mind for me when watching Better Watch Out, including The Loved Ones and Funny Games. Which films would you say inspired you while making it?
Chris: It all started with our deep love for John Hughes, our love for how honest he was about the awkwardness of teenage life, and our desire to find out how this generation of teens compares. How Home Alone might look today. Sprinkle in pendulum swings between fun character development and shocking brutality a la Craven and Tarantino, and voila! You’ve got the pitch-black comedic concoction that inspired Better Watch Out.
Valeska: The scenes with Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton are absolutely hysterical. How much of their dialogue was scripted?
Chris: I mean … let’s out and say what you’re really talking about here: the gay Christmas ornament scene. Patrick and Virginia improvised the whole thing. It was magic. When I first spoke with Patrick, he got so excited that this took place during Christmas. He flew to Sydney with a giant personal collection of kitsch figurines he’s collected over the years. Dorothy and her slippers, Scarlett O’Hara, Marilyn Monroe – if it’s gay and Christmas-y, he owns it. Patrick’s the kind of comedian who finds a seed and just runs with it, without fear. When he described the idea to Virginia, she just lit up and said “I am so down for this.” It was their first scene together and they instantly connected in a way that you can really feel for the whole movie.
Valeska: Yes, that is totally the scene I was thinking about! So amazing. It seems like must have been very fun set to work on – any favourite stories from the period in which you were filming?
Chris: As I mentioned earlier, we shot in the dead of summer in Sydney. The whole house, the backyard, everything was a set built on a sound stage. The snow was gelatin and paper. Our shoes were constantly tracking wet shredded paper into the set. Keeping the floor clean was a nightmare. Plus, because we were a rather low budget film, we could only afford about 2 hours of air conditioning a day from Fox, even as temperatures outside were creeping well into the 30s Celsius. Under the hot lights, in the dead of summer, no air conditioning, and on top of that the poor actors wearing winter coats and having to pretend it was cold. Funny now, but that was grueling.
Valeska: Speaking of grueling … As a recovering arachnophobe, I have to say that your eight-legged cast members were the least sympathetic characters, even in a film about murder. Rumour has it that they weren’t CGI – how did the filming of the spider scenes go?
Chris: Well, they were supposed to be CGI, but, like I said, sound stages are expensive and we were a quarter of a million dollars behind budget before we even started production. I remember sitting with my head in my hands in frustration when Liv sat beside me and asked what’s up. I’d just heard how much the spider scene was going to cost, and I couldn’t think of a way to cut it without seriously impacting the story. She turned to me and said “Let’s just do it for real.” I remember staring at her, not believing I’d just heard her right, because Liv also has arachnophobia. “If I can save the movie that much money, let’s just do it.” She went through five takes hanging upside down with Huntsman spiders on her face and body. I’m sending you a picture just so you see what level of horror Liv offered to go through [Editor’s note: Take my word for it – they are HORRIFIC]. But that’s just how she is. Generous, ready for anything, and ballsy. Not to mention a world class talented actress. I’m a lucky director.
Valeska: She’s far braver than I would be. Okay, I know that you’re the type of filmmaker who likes to leave the audience to discover things on their own, but the rich subtext was one of my favourite aspects of the film and I just have to ask: was the commentary on, for example, toxic masculinity a part of your master plan from the very beginning?
Chris: A hard lesson I learned from my first film Undocumented is that audiences rarely like being told a message while watching entertainment. I had some things to say about how Americans deal with illegal immigration (7 years too early – I know, I know), but that had a polarizing effect on viewers. Many either attacked it for being liberal or felt it was preaching to the choir. Audiences don’t want to be fed their vegetables in movies, they want to be entertained. So I learned. Studied movies like American Beauty, which had all these things to say about homosexuality and yet never felt like it was hitting you over the head. Recently, Get Out did it brilliantly. The trick is this: audiences don’t want messages in the text, but they totally don’t mind messages in the subtext.
So that’s a longwinded way of saying this: if I talk about everything I layered into the subtext, I essentially turn it into text. Then everybody feels like they’re eating vegetables again. So I will say this – Better Watch Out is a rollercoaster train wreck of the horror and comedy that I never tire of watching with audiences because I’m a 35-year-old man child who loves to make people laugh and gasp and scream and squirm. And if you ever want to buy me a drink, I’ll tell you all about the subtext.
Valeska: I’ll take you up on that one day. I don’t want to mention any spoilers, but the ending of Better Watch Out leaves at least a potential opening for a sequel – will fans be able to look forward to continuing the story at some point?
Chris: Perhaps. But if we do, in true form, it won’t be in the way you’re expecting.
Valeska: If you had to pair Better Watch Out with another movie, what would be your ideal double-bill?
Chris: Gremlins. That’s about as close a cousin in tone as I can think of. Fun and imaginative, but when the chainsaw hits the baseball bat your nails are in the armrests.
Valeska: Good answer. Which genre directors do you find most interesting or pioneering right now?
Chris: Denis Villeneuve is pulling genre into the mainstream right now in a way I haven’t seen since Peter Jackson. Why it takes a titan every decade to remind the gatekeepers of taste that genre can say just as much as drama does, I can’t answer. But I’m glad for it.
Valeska: If you could direct a remake of any horror film, which would it be?
Chris: Hands down, The Blob. Remember the leap David Cronenberg took in his version of The Fly? I think The Blob is waiting for something similar. There’s something so essential about a force that keeps expanding the more it consumes. Something so small, that starts out like a single seed, and grows.
Valeska: Are you currently working on any upcoming projects?
Chris: My first supernatural horror. I can’t even right now. It’s so good. And the team that’s forming around it is unreal. I can’t wait to share more about it later this year.
Valeska: I’m so intrigued! Last question: What’s one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring filmmakers?
Chris: It depends, because everybody’s so different. Let me end with a quick story. I almost quit Hollywood four years ago. I was massively depressed after years of chasing terrible advice from these managers that had no idea what they were doing with me. They kept sending me scripts that had just sold, saying “write this, write something like this.” So I did, but before they sent my script out they’d send it to their in-house producer, who thought it felt too familiar, so my managers said “Y’know, we don’t think this is the right project to introduce you to Hollywood with, why don’t you take a couple weeks to come up with fifteen ideas and we’ll look through them.” I wanted to kill them, my 60-hour-a-week job left very little time and energy to write, it had taken me a year to finish and polish that script and some 25-year-old comedy producer had shrugged his shoulders and suddenly my managers lost faith in the project and asked me to start over.
So you know my advice? It’s the New Years resolution I made after months of being depressed. I agreed to one more year of trying, but with the stipulation that I would ignore my managers and that I wasn’t allowed to work on anything unless I was 100% passionate about it. You know what happened? I started developing Better Watch Out, the supernatural project I’m setting up now, and three other projects that I have full outlines for. My advice if you’ve ever felt like I did is: don’t chase trends. Work from the heart. Writing is so difficult, and your time is so precious, why waste those on projects that don’t feed your soul? Because that’s our job. Audiences go in wanting to be entertained, but what they really want is to walk out holding on to a feeling. How can you expect to give them something emotional if you don’t feel it yourself?
Valeska: I’m so glad that you kept at it. Can’t wait to see Better Watch Out again and looking forward to hearing more about your future projects! Thanks again!
Better Watch Out opens October 6th, 2017.