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Exclusive Interview: Mischief Night director Travis Baker. “It sets itself apart from the pack.”

Behind-the-scenes: Travis Baker with Brooke Anne Smith

*Mischief Night… The most dastardly and destructive night of the year where young people vandalize homes, play pranks on each other, and…find love?! Maybe! In Travis Baker’s Mischief Night one unlucky woman finds herself pitted against a masked, knife wielding man and ends up with a heart beating for much more than survival! Obviously, with such an interesting and original take on a slasher flick, I just had to interview the creator, Travis Baker. The first time director shared his fears, hopes, and strategies in a very candid interview and one thing’s for sure: he definitely has the heart of a lion. You can read my interview with him below!

H: To start things off, can you introduce yourself to readers for me?
T: My name is Travis Baker. I wrote and directed the film Mischief Night,which is being released on May 20th by Lionsgate and After Dark Films. It’smy first film, and I’m really pleased to have the opportunity to get it outinto the world where hopefully it can be stumbled upon by a curious vieweror two.

H: Did you have a lot of access to films while growing up and how did your favorite films shape you as a director?
T: I grew up in a household where there were at least a thousand VHS tapesat any given time. I’m talking walls of movies. My father was in salesfor a company called Goodtimes, which licensed and distributed a lot ofclassics; things like Taxi Driver and Close Encounters, but also a lotof totally bizarre and obscure movies that, as a kid, I couldn’t get enoughof. Alice Sweet Alice, Kingdom of the Spiders, Empire of the Ants, andthen a host of what, for me, are classic horror flicks and thrillers: TheFunhouse, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Rolling Thunder. If you were a kid inthe 80s and 90s, you remember how amazing it was to go to Blockbuster and grab a movie or two for the weekend. I was just lucky enough to have a Blockbuster in my living room.

The movies that inspired me most growing up were stuff by Carpenter, namely The Thing, They Live, and Escape from New York. In high school I discovered Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, and Alfred Hitchcock, and I would say their influence definitely colored my artistic sensibilities.

H: When did you decide it was time to take the steps and create your very own movie?
T: After a year of college, I dropped out and moved to L.A. with my friend and writing partner Rich Tanne. We had gotten a job writing a screenplay for Eli Roth, Boaz Yakin, and Scott Spiegel, who were then in the process of making the first Hostel film. We were living in a tiny studio apartment and got to talking about how we could make a little indie movie for no money. An idea popped into my head about a young guy home alone one night getting attacked by a masked serial killer. They both fall down the stairs, break their legs, and spend the rest of the movie stuck there. Eventually the thrill of the kill would wear off and the killer would take off his mask and the two would just start talking.

I found that premise to be intriguing and unexpected, which for me is the hallmark of a worthwhile project. It then occurred to me that if I made it a teenage girl talking with the masked serial killer, I could suddenly subvert the whole slasher genre in lots of fun and interesting ways; and the story grew from there. I wrote much of the script in 2005, but it took me five years to summon the courage to actually go out and make it. Part of taking that final step was the realization that if I didn’t make this script…no one ever would.

Behind-the-scenes: Travis Baker with Malcolm McDowell

H: So after many years on the backburner, how did you decide that now was your time?
T: Even though I had always toyed with the notion of just going out and making a movie, a big part of me felt it was just totally impractical and never going to happen. Even for a “no budget” movie, you need an incredible amount of equipment, you need tons of people willing to do tons of jobs for little-to-no money, you need all kinds of technical know-how. If you can think of an excuse not to make a movie, I promise you, I had already thought about it a hundred times.

Then, a funny thing happened. My friend Rich was in a really bad car accident, which isn’t the funny part. The funny part was that he had to spend a couple months recovering back home in New Jersey, and during that time he rallied some old film school friends of his and they wrote, planned, and shot a movie all in the course of two or three months. It was insane. They just dove right in and did it. I was visiting back east while they were shooting and swung by set.

It was nothing short of remarkable to me to see what they were able to pull together for practically no money in such a short period of time; and the footage was breathtaking. They shot on a Red, but it looked like film, and I didn’t know that was possible to achieve when you have so little to work with. I went home later that night, dusted off the unfinished script of Mischief Night, and finished it that week.

H: How did you go about picking the cast? Brooke Anne Smith, Nikki Limo, Malcolm McDowell, Matt Angel, Marc Valera… The whole cast is just so incredibly talented.
T: We saw a ton of people for each of the lead roles – about 200, actually, if you add them all up. We didn’t use a casting director, and I had never cast a project in my life, so it was all about going with the gut. Brooke Anne Smith, who plays Kaylie, our lead, was literally the first person we saw. We weren’t even casting for the Kaylie character that day, but it was the only day she could come in. She set the bar so high, no one else could even come close. It’s a demanding role, lots of dialogue, monologue, shifts in character, sugar and spice, and Brooke was Kaylie. It was a good sign of things to come because I’m incredibly pleased with the cast we ended up assembling.

Nikki Limo was hilarious in her audition. Everyone out there who doesn’t know her should Youtube her name. You’ll become an instant fan. She’s a major talent. Matt Angel had starred in the MTV My Psycho Sweet 16 movies, and his father is a big horror screenwriter who wrote John Carpenter’s Body Bags, so Matt totally understood the genre. He also reminded us of a young Johnny Depp circa Nightmare on Elm Street. He was another great get. Casting the role of our masked killer was pretty interesting because one of the twists of Mischief Night is that at some point the mask comes off and we actually get to hear what’s on his mind. To audition for the role, we had actors read a ten minute monologue, which is an insane thing to ask actors to do for an audition, but I felt it was essential that we cast someone who could truly hold the audience’s attention for that long span of time. And Marc Valera just nailed it.

Finally, believe it or not, we didn’t have Malcolm McDowell come in with the cattle call and read for us. We said, “Do this part! Please! We’ll shoot you out in five hours, tops!” And much to our pleasant surprise he said, “Alright, I’ll do it if you can shoot me out in two.” In the end, he was kind enough to stick around for three!

H: Going back to courage for a second… Principal photography begins. You’re in a room with a tremendous cast and great crew. And on the flip side, this was your first big directing experience. Where was your courage then?
T: It was maybe eight weeks between the time we gave ourselves the “green light” to make the movie, and the time we were shooting, and every minute of those eight weeks was filled with frenzied preparations. And I’m not talking about storyboarding or extensive rehearsals or production meetings, I’m talking about all things we needed to do just to make sure the movie was happening like getting the props, and crew, and permits, and money! Anything else was a luxury. So when the time finally came to shoot, and all that frenzy went away, and suddenly there were 30 or 40 people waiting around for me to say “Action” and “Cut,” well, truth be told, during those first few takes my courage was nowhere to be found! I was terrified.

Suddenly my life’s dream and ambition was before my very eyes, and I was convinced I was going to find some way to fuck it up royally, so internally I freaked out a little bit. That said, I’d like to think I kept it cool externally and that no one even noticed. If they did, they never said so. Honestly, by the time we were on our second camera set up, I felt pretty at ease in the role, and was jazzed to be moving forward. The fact is, I had done a pretty good job of surrounding myself with some amazingly talented people, and I found courage in knowing they would be there with me every step of the way.

Behind-the-scenes: Travis Baker with Nikki Limo

H: How as the chemistry on set? How were the relationships between cast and crew?
T: We were scheduled to shoot the whole film in 10 days, and on day 6 or 7 we realized we would need an 11th day. At that point we had to scramble a bit to make it work. It was a brutal and taxing shoot for everyone involved, and it was primarily a night shoot. You’re having these days that start maybe at 4pm and don’t end until 7am the next morning. There’s barely any time to sleep because you’re trying to spend all the time you’re not shooting planning what’s going to be shot the next day. Every day was a series of recalibrations, problem solving how to make things work. All that said, there was no interpersonal conflict on set, at least none that I was aware of. I would say there was a strong chemistry between cast and crew. Everyone pulled together to make it work.

H: Did you learn anything new while directing the movie?
T: There are many things you can’t anticipate by shot-listing a scene, or rehearsing with actors; things that don’t happen until it’s all live, in the moment, and you’re seeing it play out on set. Every scene, every set-up, to a certain extent, involves discovery. I’ll tell you one thing I hadn’t expected: the difficulty of dealing with special effects. They truly require a great deal of time. We have a scene where a character gets her fingers hacked off, and even though the moment in the movie lasts about two seconds, it probably took us four or five hours to shoot that. As hard as we tried, we couldn’t get the special effect to work right. But thanks to some crafty editing, it plays.

H: What were your favorite moments from set?
T: I enjoyed the moments of calm before and after each day of shooting. While you’re shooting, it’s all run and gun. It’s about staying focused on the work, and I don’t know if I would describe any of that as “fun” or “good times.” However, I loved working with my producer, and cinematographer, and AD, to figure out a battle plan for how we would tackle the upcoming day’s work, or an attack plan for the following day. It felt like being in the trenches, but with friends united in a common purpose: getting the damn thing done! It was also a lot of fun working with Malcolm McDowell. We had him for three hours and never stopped the camera rolling. As an Easter egg in the end credits, we include a series of his outtakes. The guy would just riff and improv endlessly, often to hilarious effect.

H: Besides your concept of the victim falling in love with her attacker, what sets your Mischief Night apart from titles by the same name?
T: Unfortunately, another slasher called Mischief Night was released before ours, and at a glance, they seem pretty similar. Technically, I just want to point out that our film was completed and our trailer was on the web before the other film had even been written. Due to the fact that we were operating completely independently, and without any financial backing, it took us some time to cross the finish line, hence we’re being released in May of 2014, whereas the other film was released in late 2013.

But even with all that being said, the two movies couldn’t be more different, and I think the Mischief Night that we made also completely stands apart from other slashers in general. Whether it’s successful or not, or considered a good movie, will completely be up to the individual viewer, however, I feel it’s safe to say it is a very different kind of horror movie than any others out there. I’ve always found that the best horror movies were the ones that were willing to go out on a narrative limb and really catch audiences off-guard. I may not kill off my protagonist halfway through the film, like Hitchcock did in Psycho, but I do shift gears and steer the film into some unusual territory. Some people will hate it on principle, others will appreciate it, but I’m sure all will agree, at very least, that it sets itself apart from the pack.

Behind-the-scenes: Travis Baker with Richard Tanne

H: Are you surprised by the positive response from anticipating viewers and critics?
T: So far the reaction to the film has been awesome particularly among adventurous horror fans seeking something off the beaten path. I’m sure we’ll be savaged in plenty of reviews, and that’s not even me being modest, or self-deprecating, I think we’ve made a very unique horror film here, and that’s something I’m proud of, and some people really don’t like it when they sit down to watch some mindless entertainment and they find themselves challenged, or when they’re expecting a slasher with lots of gore and T&A and instead they’re presented with something more thoughtful, and different than what they expected. I made this movie for people like me…lovers of horror who crave not just blood and guts, but also a little soul.

H: Going forward, do you plan on staying with the horror genre?
T: Horror is the genre that’s nearest and dearest to my heart. If I only made horror movies for the rest of my life, I think I’d die a happy man. More than anything, someday I’d love to make something intense and brooding and utterly terrifying, like Carpenter’s The Thing. That said, however, I feel I’ve got lots of stories to tell, lots of genres to subvert, and they don’t all fall under that umbrella. I’m thinking the next one might be a murder mystery. Hopefully the movie gods will be kind enough to give me another crack at the bat.

*I want to thank Mr. Travis Baker for taking the time to interview with me and for being so candid with his answers. It’s always such a pleasure when a director lets me inside their mind. Also, thank you for the exclusive behind-the-scenes photos and I can’t wait to see the movie! To end things, you can click here to pre-order your copy of Mischief Night, which will be released on May 20, 2014. If you’re on the fence, then you can watch the trailer below…and then pre-order!

Written by Michael Therkelsen

(Senior Editor)