“Horror doesn’t have enough cinematic heroes. We have Ash from the “Evil Dead” series, but that’s about it.”
This was a comment made by Mike Mendez, Director of the impending action/horror/comedy movie Don’t Kill It, and he couldn’t have been more right. That is, of course, until Dolph Lundgren signed on for the lead role in Mendez’ latest film as Jebediah Woodley, a grizzled demon hunter who teams up with particularly reluctant FBI agent Evelyn Pierce (Kristina Klebe), to do battle with an ancient evil in a small Mississippi town.
Blending the best aspects of a myriad of genres, if you can picture Indiana Jones gate-crashing The Exorcist with hordes of Deadites on his tail then you’ve got yourself a pretty good idea of the kind of wild ride Don’t Kill It is going to be. With the film set to release this Friday, SCREAM’s Howard Gorman caught up with Mendez who, after years of wanting to shoot a horror movie with an Indiana Jones style action-adventure spin, got the chance to bring his dream to fruition when opportunity came knocking out of the blue…
SCREAM: Producer Robert Yocum brought you into the mix to direct Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s script as he thought what they had come up with shared a lot of the same sensibilities he had seen in one of your previous films, The Convent. Once you came on board, did you feel the need to modify much of the script to tailor it to your directing style?
Mike Mendez: The best way to put it is that I always like to put my fingerprints on things at some point. Even though I liked the script and saw the potential, it was more a case of, “Okay. I have a few notes here of how I think we might be able to make this a little better.” More importantly, though, I like having fun in the movies and I had some ideas of how we could make it all a little more demented and a little more wild. Dan and Bobby were great collaborating with me and doing the rewrites to move things in that direction. I think we went with maybe three rewrites and then I always do a very small pass at the end for various reasons like the logistics and to tailor certain set pieces so that they read the same way as I see things play out in my head. The final pass is just to make it really my own.
SCREAM: Some of those set pieces you mention involved some extensively choreographed, gruesome action scenes so it must have been quite the challenge, although you couldn’t have asked for a better crew: Effects wizard Robert Kurtzman and stunt coordinator Eddie J. Fernandez, to name just a couple.
The original script always had a body count but my demented ideas always had me asking, “Well, can’t we like kill some more people?” (laughs) For instance, if you look at one of the bigger set pieces of the movie in the middle, I wanted to see just how far we could take things. It’s a low budget movie so I didn’t even take it as far as I would have liked to but I wanted to look at taking the action outside and having it spill out onto the street. Going back to your previous question, these would be the kinds of touches I would add to the original script to make things a little more warped and a little more memorable.
The trick of it was that, because there was so little prep time – because it was only a seventeen day shoot, we really had to be in synch and on the same team as far as how we were going to pull it off. I’d love to say that I had a very specific thing but it was really more a case of me saying, “Okay, we’ve got three hours to shoot this scene. What is the most impactful way that we can do this?” But I did kind of give everybody marching orders and I think that that is one of the reasons why this movie is so special to me because it’s rare that I get to give these kinds of marching orders. It was very much a case of, “We have this much time. How many people do you think we can kill in this time?” And the effects and the stunt people all had to be on the same team and thinking on their feet to see what was the most efficient way (and preferably bloody and brutal way) to dispatch people quickly.
SCREAM: Various names had cropped up before Dolph Lundgren showed interest in the script and ultimately signed on. Had it always been your intention to find someone along those lines? Did you always have an ’80s/’90s action hero in mind for the role of Jebediah?
I’m not going to say that Dolph was the first person that came to mind necessarily, but once the possibility came in, it just made a lot of sense. I’m a big Dolph fan and I loved movies like I Come in Peace (Dark Angel) or the original Punisher, Showdown in Little Tokyo. And even in The Expendables he really stood out. He’s there amongst a bunch of legends but he still manages to command the screen so I was really very pro-Dolph. I really didn’t know what we were going get and didn’t know if he was going to be on board with the idea but he was wonderful and really had a lot of ideas. Most importantly, he had faith in me to move forward and go along for the ride. You never want to be working against anybody. If he had had a different idea, it would have been a much bigger conflict but he was really game and open to having fun with the character and doing something different. It was really a blessing to get Dolph and we were very lucky to have been able to work with him.
SCREAM: You say he had faith in you to move forward. At what point did you realise that you’d gained his trust and that you were both on the same page? I’m guessing he brought in some of his own ideas when it came to embodying the character of Jebediah.
Well, Dolph’s got a 160 IQ, he’s an MIT graduate and a chemical engineer. He’s no dummy by any means so you’re not going to pull one over on him. I feel that I do really make my movies from the heart and when you speak the truth and really believe in what you’re saying, it’s a lot easier to get people on board with you. I think the first part with Dolph was that he liked what I had to say. The second part was being there on set. At first, I think there was a little bit of, “I want to see if this guy knows what he’s doing.” I’d like to believe that I’m always on my game, especially when I’m on set, but I really felt that I had to put my best foot forward and really be sharp and really have a point of view of what I was doing. And then he felt it and sensed it and I don’t think he ever really questioned it after that. Ever since, he’s been nothing but a wonderful and creative partner.
For the role of Jebediah, it was definitely a combination. Actually, now that you ask me that, I can’t believe I haven’t asked the writers what their influences were. For me, I was going for a mix of Indiana Jones and The Exorcist and then for Dolph it was a little bit of Clint Eastwood and Elvis because I think those are two of his heroes. Obviously, the script is the most important thing and everyone really appreciated that and then Dolph appreciated my sensibility of having him not being your traditional hero. And then, of course, Dolph has to embody it and bring his own thing so it really was a collaboration of everybody working together on the character.
SCREAM: Kristina Klebe and Dolph play so well off of each other and that makes the film that much more fun. Did they spend a lot of time together prepping or is a lot of what we see on the screen a product of in the moment, natural chemistry?
We didn’t really have a lot of rehearsal time. A lot of it is just that luck of you picking the right people to play off of each other. I had worked with Kristina in the past and part of the reason I chose her for this role was that there was something very strong about her. When you’re playing against someone who’s six five and a mountain of muscles, a petite, soft girl is not going to cut it. Obviously, Dolph can overpower Kristina regardless but you still need to believe that someone can stand up to him and look him in the eye and back him down and Kristina had that quality but could also be vulnerable at the same time. They worked together however much they could but it was usually a case of getting on set and shooting it because there was not the time for rehearsal.
SCREAM: The score fits right in with the tone of the film, particularly when it came to the urgency of the action scenes. How specific were your instructions and pointers when it came to working with the composer, Sean Beavan?
I worked very closely with him. Usually when I’m picturing something, I kind of hear the general tone of it. What I felt was that it needed to be moody and atmospheric but also very primal.
I was referred to this musician called Sean Beavan by a friend. Sean had not been a composer for too long but what made him a really interesting choice for me was that I had been a fan of industrial music growing up and I loved Nine Inch Nails and things of that nature. Sean had actually produced the original Nine Inch Nails albums Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral and also Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar so he had really true experience in industrial music and that felt like a really interesting opportunity to be able to have someone with that kind of experience and bring it to the film score. I’m glad you say it stands out because I don’t think people talk about it enough as I really think it’s kind of unique and different and really fits the movie.
SCREAM: Once you’d wrapped the film, you talked about taking a bit of a breather from directing because you felt it had turned into an expensive hobby rather than a full-time career. Has your opinion changed since then and are you eager to get back in the director’s saddle?
I think I was probably very tired when I said that. The bottom line is that the state of independent films means it’s very hard to make a living. I had done Tales of Halloween, which was something I’d made and produced with my friends, but it didn’t pay. And then I did a very low budget movie that did not turn out well at all that I’m really (laughs) embarrassed about, and then came Don’t Kill It which was another independent movie that didn’t pay well. So I was just broke, you know? I think I just needed a few months to get out of it for a while and get out of that financial hole. But I’m certainly ready to go back to another movie. I don’t know what project that might be but I’m really actually dying to get back there.
SCREAM: Just like Ash in the “Evil Dead” series, Jebediah is a horror hero who I’d certainly love to see return to kick even more demon ass. It sounds like you had loads of fun bringing him to life so would you be up for directing a sequel or sequels?
I think a lot of us would like to see that happen. I know I would and I know Dolph is up for it as well so it really has to be about finding the right financial partner that wants to see it happen. But I would love that. It would be amazing.
We’d like to thank Mike for speaking to SCREAM about Don’t Kill It and we highly suggest you check it out when it releases this Friday, March 3rd in select theatres and on Digital VOD. In the meanwhile, we’ll leave you with the film’s trailer below…
Words: Howard Gorman – @HowardGorman