Scream Horror Magazine

BRENDAN STEERE TALKS THE VELOCIPASTOR

Posted on: August 13th, 2019

What do you get when you’re a dinosaur-loving filmmaker and your phone autocorrects “velociraptor” to “veloci pastor?” For Brendan Steere, writer and director of The VelociPastor, you get the idea for a hilarious creature feature that has been delighting and baffling audiences in equal measure.

It’s a classic boy-meets-girl-defeats-ninjas story. After a devastating tragedy leaves him questioning his faith, Father Doug Jones (Gregory James Cohan) travels to China, where he accidentally acquires the power to turn into a dinosaur. Returning home, he encounters Carol (Alyssa Kempinski), a local prostitute trying to pay her way through pre-med law school. When Doug helps her deal with abusive pimp Frankie Mermaid (Fernando De Castro), Carol suggests he use his powers to clean up the streets. But Wei Chan (Jiechang Yang), the leader of a gang of drug-dealing ninjas, isn’t about to let the VelociPastor get in the way of his own holy mission…

From autocorrect mistake to faux-grindhouse trailer to full-length film, The VelociPastor had a strange and surprisingly heartwarming journey to the big screen. To celebrate the film’s release on DVD, we caught up with Steere to discuss dinosaur suits, mannequin heads, and the possibility of a second—or third—film.

SCREAM: Let’s talk about dinosaurs.

BRENDAN STEERE: Yeah!

VelociPastor is such a huge departure from your first film, Animosity (2013). Now that you’ve done both, would you say that you have a particular preference for one style of film over another?

It’s an interesting question. I would say no, I don’t. Between these two specific films, I think VelociPastor is weirdly superior. That’s a strange thing to say, but I’ve seen both the films quite a bit, and there’s something about VelociPastor that just seems a little more assured and a little more tight, and between the two specific films I like VelociPastor better. But between the two styles? Not particularly. I’d like to return to more serious stuff at some point. Whether that’s what’s next or not is anyone’s guess. We’ll see!

It’s hard to imagine how you’re going to follow up VelociPastor.

Right? [Laughs]

When you released the original short film back in 2011, it shot to unexpected YouTube success with around 45,000 views. The feature film has basically gone viral—it’s even been in Forbes, which is kind of crazy.

It’s insane. Every once in a while I still remember that, and it’s become my new favourite punchline around my friends to be like, “I was in Forbes!” to lord it over them because it’s still just fucking wild.

Is it surreal to see something that was originally based on an autocorrect mistake gaining such a huge following so fast?

Probably more surreal than anybody totally realises to be honest with you. It’s the strangest mix of validation—of finally being like, yeah, I was right—and also kind of… To say “imposter syndrome” is to maybe oversell it, but there’s a part of me that’s also like, “This is the one?” And not in a bad way. It’s a very complex series of emotions I’ve been going through the past couple of months, the overwhelming majority of which are positive. Any negativity just comes from the inherent stress of it.

Surreal is truly the word. I went to GameStop the other day and I was wearing a shirt that the distributor had given us, because it was laundry day. And the cashier at GameStop was like, “Bro, I saw this shit online, it’s hilarious.” I was like, “I’m just returning a game, but awesome dude, I made it!” It’s been shit like that. The shortest answer is yes, it’s surreal.

The title alone is obviously going to draw comparisons with movies like Sharknado, and I think that there’s a really fine line in movies like this between intentionally hilarious and cringeworthy. Was that something that you were worried about when you were writing VelociPastor?

Constantly. Less so during the writing actually, but every day during production. I lived in constant fear. I don’t love films like Sharknado—I think they’re okay, but they seem almost cynical in how they’re portraying these movies. There’s an edge of sort of like, “fuck these movies.” I didn’t want that. I wanted the opposite. I wanted to celebrate these weird idiot films that I loved growing up.

It’s funny because the production of the movie itself was probably the smoothest production I’ve ever been on, believe it or not. I have very few set stories because it all just went well. But I will say that the only thing I was constantly worried about was the tone of it. And I think that’s why I ended up deciding to edit it myself, because I knew the tone more intimately I think than I could ever communicate to an editor. When it was time to move into post-production, I was like, I can’t afford an editor first and foremost—not to pay them fairly, anyway. And unless the person was on set, I would have to sit with them everyday anyway. So I decided to do it myself.

But yeah, the worry about appearing to be more in the Sharknado vein was a constant one for me—constant until I was test screening it with people. That was when I started relaxing and thinking oh, I may actually have done it and not hit that tone I didn’t want to. Not that there’s anything wrong with people taking that tone, it was just not what I wanted to achieve.

For sure. You mentioned the editing and that was something I wanted to ask about because there are such distinct editing and stylistic choices, like the sudden, random zooms into people’s faces, which are so funny. Those were very reminiscent to me of the old midnight movies that maybe didn’t have the biggest budgets but that I used to love growing up. Were there any particular films that really influenced those stylistic choices?

Yes, absolutely. In fact, I made my cinematographer and the leads watch a couple of films. In terms of modern ones, anything by Edgar Wright, like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Shaun of the Dead, all of his films. He’s one of my all-time favourite filmmakers; I think he’s incredibly talented. He’s the filmmaker that will be most deserving of an Oscar and never get it. And also the American film Black Dynamite, which I think is astonishingly good. They made an Adult Swim TV series of Black Dynamite and I don’t love it, but the original film was like a bible for me for this movie.

In terms of more “legit” midnight movies, there’s a Japanese film called Hausu, which is one of my all-time favourite movies. Whenever I start dating somebody, a litmus test is to show them Hausu, because it’s in my top five movies, I unironically love it. So Hausu for sure. Especially in how there’s something kinetic and constantly restless in that movie, and I wanted to capture that—the idea that something new could be around every edit. It’s something that, if we ever make a sequel to VelociPastor, I want to push even further, because I adore that about Hausu, and also about this other Japanese film, Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, which I think is just so fucking good. That one was a direct influence. It’s a Japanese film but they have an American woman in it and all of her dialogue is in English subtitled in Japanese, and I wanted to flip that metric with some of the characters in VelociPastor. And finally, there’s a film called Equinox that I totally love.

I feel like there’s a big one that I’m missing. But that’s a pretty good shortlist of the kind of films I was sending to people and being like, “This is what we need to achieve. This insanity.”

I can definitely see some of those influences in the film. Another great retro aspect is the use of practical effects, but especially the ones that are blatantly a lot cheaper, like the obvious mannequin head.

That mannequin head has a history! My cinematographer Jesse [Gouldsbury], he’s also a producer on the film and one of my closest collaborators, we were living together in New York in college and he found that mannequin head on the street. And he took it because it had the exact shade of hair I did. It happened to be styled in the same way that I had my hair then. And so we kept talking to each other about how we had to cast me in a movie and use this mannequin head because it’s perfect—we’ve just got to shoot it with an arrow or something, because if you frame it correctly, no one will tell the difference. And it never ended up happening. But we just had it. He moved it back to his house in Long Island and we had that mannequin head for probably about 10 years before we just shaved its head because it had to look like Jiechang [Yang]. I love that fucking thing, and I’m happy that it finally fulfilled its destiny.

The dinosaur itself is such a fantastic effect—it has that papier-mâché feel to it, which is especially charming. Was that purely dictated by the budget or did you always want to give it that kind of look?

A bit of both. The suit existed before the movie, in a very weird way. The suit is even older than the mannequin head—the suit’s existed in my basement since high school. What happened was, being the precocious American teen I was, I was the head of my Pennsylvania high school’s film club, and we had a teacher advisor and everything, but bizarrely one year they decided to give us a budget. So we decided we were going to remake this movie called The Last Dinosaur, and we got the school—and, by extension, Pennsylvania’s taxpayers—to buy us a dinosaur costume. No godly idea of how much they spent on it, but I want to say it’s more expensive than it looked. By my memory, it was something like $12,000.

So they bought me this suit and they put it in my basement. I was all stoked to film. The day before we were going to begin filming, my principal comes in and tells us the script is too violent and we can’t shoot it—but they don’t ask for the costume back. So it was just in my basement. And when the fateful autocorrect rolled through in 2010 or 2011, that was why we used the costume, because I was like, “Oh shit, we can finally use this thing!”

So when it came time for the feature, I think there was an element of nostalgia for me personally with the suit, and of course there was a budget thing with it as well. But there’s also something so lovably non-threatening about the suit. It is the least scary, least “oh fuck” dinosaur costume you could possibly imagine. It has cute little arms. And there was something about that that I felt was just very funny. I knew I wanted to make it practical, and there was some discussion of whether we get a new suit and invest in making the costume more convincing. And after a while I was like, no, I think kind of the heart of the film is that it looks like shit. [Laughs]

But I will also say, the man who designed the suit—I think his name is Jason Milani—also lived near me in Pennsylvania and has subsequently won Emmys. He’s like legit now. And this dinosaur costume I think was his version of like a film school project. It’s very funny because if you backtrack his IMDb—a man I have never met—it’s sort of like, wait, what is he doing on VelociPastor? But it’s true. He designed that suit back in 2007 or 2008. It has a strange history and it’s now back in my basement.

I feel like you now have to reach out to him and send him a copy of the film to show him what happened to the suit.

Absolutely I will. There’s a couple of people I want to get copies to. One of them is Doug Jones, the actor, because I named the main character after him. I met Doug briefly—he was in a thesis film I was in—and he’s just the sweetest fucking guy in the world. I had already made the initial trailer, and they always say don’t meet your heroes, but everybody should meet Doug Jones, because he’s like genuinely the nicest guy to ever live. And I want to get him a copy of this film because I have no idea if he’s even aware of it.

When I first watched it, I did wonder if it was a reference to the Doug Jones.

Low-key, one of my favourite low-flying jokes in the film—and I want to continue it if we make a sequel—is that both of the priests are named after actors. For no reason. He’s Doug Jones, and the older priest is Jimmy Stuart—his name is James Stuart. I really want there to be a throwaway gag in the third one where somebody looks offscreen and goes, “Ah, Father Downey Jr.” and that’s the end of it. Just never address the fact. The villain will be like Father Clooney, and at some point some person calls him George. That kind of stuff is just very funny to me.

But it had to be Doug Jones, because the only thing I knew with the dinosaur costume was that it had to be a suit. It had to be practical. There was never any discussion of doing it as CGI or faking it. At the end of the day, it’s a werewolf monster movie—if you don’t deliver on showing people either actual, physical makeup or a costume, then I think your film has failed. It was never discussed to do it digitally.

The build up in the film to seeing the full costume is great. You see bits of it, you see the hand, but it’s not until that wonderful, brightly lit scene in the middle of a field that you see the full glory of the tiny little hands.

[Laughs] Yup! It’s one of my favourite parts to watch with people because everybody just starts cracking up in the weirdest mix of like, “That’s it?” and also like, “This is fucking perfect—this is what I wanted it to be.”

You mentioned Father Jimmy Stewart who is played by your own father. I noticed that he also had a cameo in the original short film as one of the victims. What was his reaction when you described this project to him?

You know what’s funny? It’s actually kind of odd in a way that this is the first time I’ve cast my family, because they’ve always participated in the films I’ve made. Maybe not all of the short films, but definitely both of the features. They were integral. They would help with transportation, with lodging, with food, and all that stuff. We’re just a family that loves movies.

I think he was a little nervous because he’d never acted before, not really. And I don’t think that he would have really seriously considered saying no, because I think that everybody in my family just loves participating in this shit so much—there’s a small part of him that never would have turned down the opportunity. But he was a little nervous, even for something like VelociPastor, to be shown up by everybody else in the film.

For me, one of the comedic highlights of the film is his random Vietnam flashback that doesn’t connect back to the plot in any way.

[Laughs] In no way.

What was the thought process behind that?

There’s a couple of reasons. First of all, thank you so much for realising that it has nothing to do with anything. Father Stewart goes like, “I haven’t seen Altair since the war,” and he never appears in the flashback. It’s one of my favourite other jokes just for myself.

When I was young, like early high school and middle school, all the time with my friends I would make war films in my backyard. No idea why. It’s not even a genre I particularly love in real life. But it was just real fun to make these zero budget films—13-year-old kids running around with fake rifles. And I wanted to capture a bit of how fun those were, both to make and subsequently to watch.

More importantly, one of the big influences on writing this film was this anime called FLCL—Fooly Cooly, some people call it. It’s just this insane, very, very good six-episode show—it’s a coming-of-age tale, but crazy. All the music is done by one alt-rock band and characters use fender guitars as machine guns. It’s nuts, but it’s all cohesive. And I read this interview with the director and they were asking him about all these weird disparate elements that come out of nowhere, and he was like, “Honestly, I was just kind of stuck with my writing and so I decided to write something that I just crammed a lot of shit I loved into.” And that was sort of my ethic with the Vietnam sequence—like, I don’t know why, but I think it would be funny.

I just sort of followed my gut, and I remembered making all those films as a kid, and I was like, “What if we did a Vietnam flashback?” That’s what I wanted—the idea that this movie could go fucking anywhere. Like that it could pan over after that and suddenly cut to ancient Greece, and there’d be something about it that you’d go, ‘yeah okay, that’s Velocipastor.” I wanted to capture a bit of that as well.

I think one of the reasons that this film succeeds compared to films that have similarly fun concepts but ultimately fall flat is the fact that it has these characters that are fleshed out in really weird ways—people like Frankie Mermaid, and the hooker-doctor-lawyer. Where did these characters come from?

I will say that one of the first signs that VelociPastor was working was when friends of mine—even people that were just on the crew—would quote Frankie Mermaid to me. Because there’s something about his dialogue in particular that really sticks in your head. I don’t know what it is. He is legitimately and bizarrely quotable.

Frankie I can’t take much credit for. A lot of that was actually the actor, Fernando De Castro. I allowed everyone to improvise and encouraged it, and some of our best stuff came from that—we did rehearsals where they would improvise and we’d write it in. But Frankie was different, where most of his shit was improvised. Almost everybody else was on the page. Frankie is very much Fernando’s invention. Fernando is also a filmmaker and he’s also a super fucking smart guy and a very funny guy. It was his decision to shave his head. In his own words, he and our makeup artist Jen [Suarez] wanted to create the grottiest, grossest dude imaginable. That one, I really just pointed two talented people in the right direction and stood back.

There was a shocking amount of thought put into Doug and Carol. My thought was that we really needed, in a weird way, that central romance and their relationship to work as an actual movie. Because there are a lot of comedies kind of like this where I would get to the end and I would have had fun, but I wouldn’t really care what happened to everybody, and I wouldn’t care about seeing these characters again. I didn’t want that. I wanted you at the end to want more of this world and this relationship and everybody in it. So those two in particular I thought a lot about, and I approached them quite frankly as I would a character in Animosity, where I was like this is their worldview, this is what they care about, this is what’s important to them.

And the rest of the characters kind of fell into place with whatever archetype they had to be. Wei Chan, our villain, was always written to be this quasi-racist, yellow-peril villain—he’s like a Fu Manchu villain, and he’s very much intended to be. And Ali, your wartime buddy, was always meant to be like that character that’s just like, “Hey man, when we get out of here, I’m finally going to start that business,” moments before he’s killed. These are stock characters that I thought it would be fun to toss our real characters up against.

I think it succeeds mostly. I’m very proud of how most of it works together in tandem. There’s also a shockingly small cast when you think about it. There’s Doug and Carol and maybe Father Stewart—if you really take time to develop those three, then the rest of the cast is actually not very important, because that’s what most of the movie hinges around, that trio.

And speaking of Doug and Father Stewart, the film obviously has religious themes and there are some traces of commentary behind all the blood and the dinosaurs. Do you have personal experience with the Catholic church that made you want to tackle those themes?

None whatsoever. I was raised without a religion; I never went to church or anything.

Because I was coming from film school and I was a “serious” filmmaker after Animosity, I really thought for a long time about like, “But what am I saying about the Catholic church?” After a while, except for the jokes that I thought were funny, I didn’t really want to make much of a commentary on it, because I don’t really have much to say. I’ve always been someone who’s very, “You believe what you want to believe. As long as you’re not hurting anybody or hurting yourself or getting in my grill about it, you do you, whatever makes you happy, and I’ll do the same.”

It just so happened that with this project in particular, the pun was too good to deny, and the jokes were too good to deny. So it just sort of spiralled into being a very light-handed criticism. I’ve got no beef with the church. I’m just like, I thought it would be funny if a dinosaur was there, and I think that comes across.

Our screening in Texas, we hung out with this awesome pastor afterwards. He loved the movie, and he was talking about how all his clergy friends were jealous he got to see it. Honestly, I think because we’re taking it in good fun, we have a weird periphery audience in cool priests. It’s proven true—there have been people that have reached out to me online that have been like, “Hi, I’m a pastor in Glasgow and I want to show this film to my congregation.” And I’m like awesome dude, you absolutely can once it’s available.

I love that. Now we’ve touched upon the possibility of a sequel several times so I have to ask—is there any chance that these characters might be getting back in the habit anytime soon?

I’ll go ahead and say I hope so. I would love to return to this world—I have a million ideas for a sequel. The other thing is, I think a lot of people have to remember that we shot the original short in 2011, and we shot this feature version in 2016. It’s not new for us really. So I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I would do with the sequel, and I’ve got ideas. I would love to do it. And maybe it’ll be what we do next. Right now I’m just keeping my options open and exploring a couple of different avenues we might want to go down.

But I would love to do a VelociPastor 2. Or even skip the sequel and go to VelociPastor 3, so you can have a lot of fun moments being like, ten years passed, what the fuck happened? I don’t know if it will be too esoteric and the joke won’t land and it’ll actually confuse people, but there’s something very funny to me of doing VelociPastor 1, VelociPastor 3, and maybe the third entry is you go back and do number two—but it’s even weirder than anything anybody suspected. [Laughs] I don’t know, we’ll see.

That kind of reminds me of all the Italian Zombi movies that were so confusingly numbered but have a special place in our hearts.

Exactly. I will also say, Zombi 2 is one of my favourite movies. Fulci in general, but that’s my favourite Fulci film. I love that kind of shit. Give me puppet-y, dusty zombies any day. That’s the shit I want.

So hopefully we’ll do another one. The only thing I know for sure is, we have to make good on the promise of it going worldwide. I think I want to have it take place more in the eighties and in East Germany. I think there is a preciously underexplored genre of Stasisploitation, and I’m just sort of like, “Yo, what if it’s like weirdly historically accurate but it’s also VelociPastor?” I lived in Germany for a while and I speak German so I’d love an excuse to go back and throw some German into my films finally.

That would be great—especially if it was still very obviously shot in a forest in Pennsylvania.

Exactly! [Laughs] We import a German or two and they’re like, “Ja, Berlin is right over there, and if we cross the wall…” And it’s obviously like New Jersey. I think it would be very funny. I am weirdly a languages geek—I just love linguistics and learning other languages—so I’d love to just keep shoving more languages into VelociPastor until it hits a point where it’s like, yup, we’ve got Hindi and Urdu, what do we do now? We’ve got Russian Cossacks speaking Hindi.

I’d love to make the next one what a sequel should be—more of what you loved, a deepening of all the ideas and crazy concepts, and also just bigger, better, and hopefully more money. I would love to finally pay myself to make a movie. I don’t even need to be rich and famous or anything like that. But if it’s going to take two months to shoot, I want to make rent for two months. [Laughs]

I know that you tried to get the original film crowdfunded and that didn’t work out. Now it’s become this thing that people are talking about, would you consider doing crowdfunding again?

Quite honestly, probably not. I’m personally very cynical about crowdfunding. I don’t know why. But yeah with VelociPastor, we tried twice and it failed both times. I think it would be more successful now and we might even hit the budget, but it’s stuff I’m not good at, crowdfunding. It’s almost like you have to open up a business for that month or two. And then of course you have to honour all the rewards and promises you made. It’s so stressful for me on top of trying to make the film. If I really thought the conditions were right, I think there’s a lot of cool things about crowdfunding. But I don’t like it. I don’t want to say no to it, but I’ll say unlikely.

Barring an immediate sequel, what do you think is next for you?

I just realised recently that The Killer Shrews is in the public domain. And I kind of want to make The Killer Shrews, I gotta be honest with you. It’s one of my favourite movies from growing up, and one of my dad’s favourite movies. I think if we did it, it would be like a spiritual sequel to VelociPastor anyway.

Barring that or a VelociPastor sequel, there are a couple of scripts I have that I’d like to tackle. What I’d love to do in an ideal world is almost split the difference between Animosity and VelociPastor tonally, so it ended up hitting a tone maybe closer to something like You’re Next—a fun but intense horror movie. We’ll see. But honestly, I’ve gotten this far by just sort of trusting my gut and going with what feels right, and I think something more in the vein of The VelociPastor feels right right now. It will probably be more of a comedic script.

As a final note, I think one of the reasons why I’d like to pursue something like VelociPastor again is there’s a lot of darkness in the world. It’s given me so much legitimate happiness to know that I’ve made something that exists to spark joy. It’s a movie that you watch to have a good time, and for a long time I existentially struggled with that, being like, “But what does it mean?” That is what it means. It’s here to be a thing that makes people happy. In moments where I have personally been in a depressive phase, I will be happy that I’ve made something that makes people happy—that people legitimately enjoy and engage with. That feels right for what I might want to do more of in film.

Thanks so much for your time.

I had a blast doing this interview, it was a lot of fun.

The VelociPastor is available now on DVD.

Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)

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