Hello Everyone! And welcome to Day 3 of Trainwreck’d Society’s Week of Horror! Today we have a very special interview up with one a man who is not only one of the hottest writers and filmmakers in the modern horror world, but the world of film in general! FilmMakers Writing Competition winner Jake Helgren has been popping up in all different sorts of genres lately. While he has broken into the business with a vast collection of great scripts, he has recently released his directorial debut, which is indeed a horror film entitled Varsity Blood. Much in line with his previously acclaimed work on Bloody Homecoming, Jake takes us into the dark world and oh-so-terrifing world of high school with this excellent blood filled reincarnation of one of America’s favorite past times – watching beautiful teen kids get brutally murdered on screen.
While much of Helgren’s future as well as past works, are not exactly in the vein of the horror world (like the family-friendly-and-oh-yeah-there’s-a-dog film A Belle for Christmas which is fronted by Dean Cain and Haylie Duff), he is a man who has obviously mastered what it means to write, and now direct, a quality horror film in a day and age when it just doesn’t seem to happen that often. Stories like Bloody Homecoming and Varsity Blood tend to seem all too familiar. But (as you will read in the much better spoken words of Jake below), when a really great writer can get a hold of an age-old idea, something beautiful can be made.
So ladies and gentlemen, check out a few words with the wonderful writer/filmmaker Jake Helgren!
Your latest film, and your directorial debut, Varsity Blood was absolutely brilliant in its own right. How did you come up with the concept for this film?
Varsity Blood was an idea I came up with back when I was 18 and just started screenwriting (I’m 32 now). I was a cheerleader in high school myself — as were my sisters, who play the cheer coach and teacher at the dance in the film — and so I always thought a stunt-gone-wrong would be a great motivation for some slasher-style fun. I have been obsessed with slasher movies since I was 11 or 12 from seeing them late on USA’s former Up-All-Night programming, and obviously Varsity Blood pays homage to many of those films (the Friday the 13th franchise especially). And at the end of the day, what slasher fan wouldn’t love to see a high school mascot offing the school’s jocks and cheerleaders? I know Girls Nite Out did a similar schtick with the giant bear mascot, but I always thought an Indian warrior could make for a fun killer in a film.
The film has a setting that could be compared to the works of Kevin Williamson in the 90’s, or pretty much any horror film in the 70’s and 80’s that features teenagers…but, it still seems fresh and new! How did you manage to take an age-old concept and make it original? What were some things you were trying to avoid when writing and filming?
still from Varsity Blood.
Thanks for that. Tons of people (and some horror critics, even) go on and on and on about how slasher movies are completely unoriginal. I beg to differ — it’s just that the slasher subgenre has a VERY specific template and set of rules the filmmakers must abide by (Randy told us all about it in Scream). I decided to go the non-postmodern route with VB and make it straight-up 80’s slasher all the way (we did the same with another horror film I wrote and produced on called Bloody Homecoming). People can say all they want that there is nothing original in my film — but when have you seen a killer warrior with a fighting ax and bow/arrow? And having seen all these films, I know at least half of the motivation behind the killings (a double twist) hasn’t been done before, either (same with Bloody Homecoming and it’s fireman and motivation behind the killings).
I think what makes making a slasher movie so challenging is the ability to stick to the template, yet finding some fresh and new spins to add to what slasher fans want, which, at the end of the day, is the classic formula. I don’t expect the people who don’t get it to like it — just for the diehard fans of 80’s slasher to appreciate what we’re bringing to the table. When I’m writing, I try to avoid one-dimensional characters — if the characters are fun, the people watching the film will have a fun ride with them (at least as long as these characters are still alive). And if you can generate some modicum of sympathy for your cast of victims, I consider that a job well done at the end of the day.
You won the Elite Prize for Comedy in the FilmMakers Writing Competition a few years back for a screenplay you call Frivolity. What was the story about, and is there any chance we may get to see this award winning script brought to the big screen any time soon?
Frivolity is a teen comedy in the vein of a John Hughes 80’s film (I love me some John Hughes!). It’s about a closeted gay guy in high school and his best girlfriend stirring up some trouble with the popular kids in order to expose them for the jerks they are. He pretends to be straight to get close to most popular girl in school, only she turns out to be much nicer than all the people she hangs around. To top it off, the best girlfriend (a wacky Anna Faris-type) goes after the most popular guy in school because she thinks he’s also in the closet and she has a thing for gay dudes. Frivolity and hilarity ensues. I would still love to see that film made some day, and I’m proud it won Best Comedy of that festival back in the day, but there isn’t much of a demand for a big-budget teen film with a gay male lead these days — hopefully one day that will change. And maybe sooner than later — my buddy Darren Stein (who wrote/directed Jawbreaker from 1999 with Rose McGowan), just did an awesome John Hughes-esque teen comedy last year called GBF which features a gay lead — so if you’re into these kinds of films, you should definitely check that out. And maybe some day Frivolity will follow suit!
While you have mentioned that you are a huge fan of slasher films, and have actually released two horror films yourself, the world of horror doesn’t seem to be your primary means for expression, as you have written family friendly movies, romcoms, and more. How do you approach each individual project? Is the writing process for developing a blood gushing horror tale similar to a family friendly film about Christmas and/or dogs?
Well it’s tough because as a low-budget filmmaker you’re always working within the confines of a specific market — and these kinds of markets always have a demand for something specific (i.e. a Christmas movie with dogs!). I approach al my projects exactly the same — to write an entertaining film with characters you want to spend an hour and a half with, and to see succeed overcoming some cool obstacles. Romcoms, family friendly movies and horror movies I think all have a great deal in common, because as I mentioned before, you’re working within the confines of a very specific template in any of these genres — the audience simply EXPECTS certain things. As an example, in a romcom, you always have the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back scenario — my job as a writer is to find a way to tell that story, but with an all new set of themes, characters and situations. I think it’s a lot of fun and great challenge to do that, no matter the subgenre.
still from Bloody Homecoming.
The brilliant young actress Lexi Giovagnoli seems to appear in so many of the films you write and/or produce. Surely this isn’t a coincidence, so when you are writing these characters, is it Lexi you are visualizing in the role? And what is it that you personally makes her a choice actress to display your work?
Lexi is an amazingly talented actress and I just adore her (I always say if I could be John Hughes, she’d be my Molly Ringwald). I think she has a great deal of versatility, and I’m always happy to put her in a film. I didn’t already know Lexi when she was cast in Bloody Homecoming, so it’s just a relationship that has grown over time, and it’s been incredible to watch her grow from a teenager into a talented young woman. These days, I am usually writing roles with her in mind if I know I’m going to somehow be involved with the production, and since she’s always a total champ and pro onset, I know we can count on her to carry the film, which gives me much peace of mind. But I hate to be too selfish with her — so I really hope she gets the chance to work with lots of other amazing directors and producers in the very near future!
What sort of other projects are we going to see from you in the near future? Anything you’d like to pimp out right about now?
Well I have two films green lit for 2015 so far: one is called A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale (enough said), and the other is a thriller called The Suicide Note. I am excited about both projects as I will be co-producing them, and am hoping I may get the chance to direct at least one of them as well. I also have numerous other scripts in various stages of development on projects that I won’t be too involved in the productions of including a Pretty Little Liars-esque women’s thriller, an epic, low-budget disaster pic, a faith-based comedy drama, possible sequel in the works for my Dean Cain/Kristy Swanson/Haylie Duff film A Belle For Christmas, and even a biopic I am really crossing my fingers will happen! There’s not much I can reveal about the projects at this point in time, but hopefully they’ll come to fruition!
As the old saying/question goes…..What’s your favorite scary movie?
My fave scary movie is a toss-up between Scream and the original Black Christmas. The original slasher, and the revival of the slasher. Both films are superbly phenomenally written, produced, acted and directed films, and films I can watch over and over. But it’s hard to narrow it down — I have so many!
What are you plans for this coming Halloween?
I will be at a Halloween party of a friend of mine who is a big-time screenwriter in the biz who I shall refrain from name-dropping (I know, fancy ;). Yet I have NO clue what I’m going to wear this year!
What was the last thing that made you smile?
The last thing that made me smile — I’m going to Oktoberfest this weekend in Germany, actually, and I’m ALL SMILES!