Episode Four: Behind the Screams of James Gunn’s “Scream Queens”


HELLS YEAH!
This was perhaps my favorite episode of all to make I really felt like I was directing for the first time In the other directing challenges, I was giving the girls notes on their acting, but in shooting the trailer for Reform School Zombie Squad I felt like we were creating something fun and funny and stupid and cool. The girls and the whole “Scream Queens” crew were my creative partners in fulfilling this ludicrous vision, and I think all of us had a fantastic time.

One of the reasons I love directing more than writing is that it’s truly a collaborative medium. This was the episode where I felt like I got to know the girls a little more. Here’s the whole trailer for your enjoyment:

The day we shot that trailer was also my birthday—the producers got me a cake and sang “Happy Birthday” and everything. And, to top it off, I got to hang out with my brother Sean all day. Sean was awesome in the trailer; almost all of the funny stuff he says—”Hells yeah”, “Zombie jump!,” “You were brought here against your will” and so on—was his improv.

Sean Gunn/Scream Queens

TRIVIA FACT about this week’s episode: We actually shot a one-episode pilot for “Scream Queens” with a different set of girls than who ended up on the show. John Homa and I were in the pilot, but we had a different host. The names of the girls in the pilot were the names Caleb Emerson used for the characters in the Reform School Zombie Squad script.

THE DISEMBODIED HEAD CHALLENGE

disembodied head/Scream Queens

As I’ve said before, one of the fun things about watching the “Scream Queens” episodes as they come out is that I’m seeing other parts of the show for the first time—such as the disembodied head challenge. I had heard from the producers and from the VH1 execs that this was one of the most problematic sequences in the whole show, as none of the girls really did that well I’m only privy to the same snippets of performances as you are—the ones in the show—but from seeing those, I’d have to agree Michelle and Lina in particular came off poorly. Michelle was doing her Don-Knotts-from-Ghost-and-Mr.-Chicken-only-not-so-subtle thing again, and Lina was off in her Lower East Side bad performance art mode.

Honestly, from what I saw, I actually liked Jessica the BEST in the disembodied head challenge. Hear me out. Her choice may have been ridiculous, and was definitely shocking, but it was bold, and I believed her more than the others. And Jessica just seemed more in the moment than the others. Lindsay won—and she was definitely in the top two—but in the short clip we saw of her, I saw her working in her eyes.

Again, though, I’m only seeing the small clips we’re seeing It’s very possible, even likely, that Lindsay’s performance overall was much better than Jessica’s. But not in what I saw on TV.

james gunn judge/scream queens

Anyway, here’s a little rundown of the girls and their performances…

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LINDSAY
Lindsay was the first to audition in front of me, Sean and Caleb I asked her who she was most excited about playing, and she mentioned Lowena, the “tough girl from the streets.” Lindsay read the role and, at first, she really rocked. She was very funny, but as the audition went on, Lindsay became more and more nervous. Her hand was trembling. And because of it, her audition grew worse—this despite that Caleb, Sean and I were responding very positively to her. Lindsay had talent, but it seemed like something psychologically was getting in the way.

However, this didn’t hurt her performance on set—she was hilarious. She also showed good improvisational skills when she was beating up the zombie—something that’s important to me as a director, because I often throw new lines at actors while we’re shooting. I laughed out loud every time she made her tough girl face and threatened the camera with her switchblade.

I had been underwhelmed by Lindsay in the past, but I started seeing her as a real contender (even though her nervousness in the audition still worried me).

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MICHELLE
I made every girl who auditioned read Channon the prostitute, simply because I thought her vagina line was the funniest in the script and I wanted somebody who could pull it off. At first, it was a bit depressing. None of the girls made Sean, Caleb and me laugh—and I was afraid the joke was going to be lost. Then Michelle came in and nailed it.

There was a whole competition within the competition this week that was cut out of the final episode. As we shot the trailer, I had to pick one girl who performed the best, and that girl would win a role in “Humanzee,” “Sparky and Mikaela” or another one of my new media projects. Michelle was the standout—she won the role and will be seen in a future James Gunn production. Sorry to you Michelle-haters out there, but I think you can see in this episode, even her confessional footage mellowed out a bit after the beating we gave her in the Grand Ballroom the week before.

A few other things about Michelle in this episode:
1) She took beating the zombie with the stick a little too far, and actually hurt the dude. The guy got pissed.

2) When Michelle says, “And did you see the connection in the eyes?”, she’s not just saying that out of nowhere, bragging about her performance. I actually told her immediately before that I didn’t see her connecting with Sean—she seemed vacant in the eyes, saying her line comedically, but without any reality behind it I asked her to change it and she was just making sure that she did (and she did).

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3) One of my personal favorite lines came out of me this week—”Really hit that vagina harder!” I absolutely didn’t realize what I was saying as I said it—I just meant “put more emphasis on the word “vagina.” But as soon as it came out of my mouth I realized what I had just said and started laughing.

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TANEDRA
I think Tanedra was at a bit of a disadvantage this week. She was probably the best in the auditions. The role of Carrie was the lead, and she was the most believable. However, because the role wasn’t really that funny—Carrie was the straight woman—it didn’t get as much attention as a showcase role like Sarah’s, Lindsay’s or Michelle’s However, she served the needs of the script, and that’s the most important thing an actor can do.

If you look at Tanedra’s face at the end of the episode, she looks a bit frustrated and pissed off. As I later discovered, that was at least in part because I was focusing my directorial attentions a lot more on the other girls. I think I was trying to find the jokes there, and bring them out. Sometimes my lack of attention to Tanedra just meant she was doing a good job and she didn’t need any help.

At this point, Tanedra was a bit confusing to me. She came off as a very strong and confident woman, not needing of my attention, but I started to hear that she would get upset or hurt by my lack of notes or praise. I have no problem with actors who need lots of positive feedback and personal attention. But I do think that it’s their responsibility to let me know they need this, whether it be in subtle ways or directly asking. I think Tanedra projected one image of herself when, in fact, she was a very sensitive soul. I understand—I am as well. But I wished she took more personal risks with me and shared that I think it would have been a lot easier for both of us.

My biggest critique of Tanedra was that she holds too much tension in her mouth. Her mouth curls up when she gets nervous (you can see this in the trailer.) There is nothing more important to an actor than the ability to relax, and Tanedra didn’t have it.

Whatever the case, she was one of the best of the week.

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SARAH
Sarah was awesome, and it was really a toss-up between her and Michelle for Leading Lady. The most coveted role by the girls was the role of Dana. I have no idea why, because all the character did was scream. In truth, none of their auditions were really great, but I thought Sarah had a possibility of going somewhere with it. Her performance in the trailer was at first somewhat underwhelming—she was just screaming and that was it—but when I gave her the note that this was a sad, feral girl who had no way of communicating, Sarah got it instantly. Her performance—as ridiculous as it may sound—was somewhat sweet and touching to me. She really took this silly, one-dimensional character to another emotional level. Also, the delivery of her last line in the trailer—”Good luck, everybody”—was hilarious. When we showed the edited trailer to the members of the crew, it was that line and Michelle’s “vagina” line that got the biggest laughs.

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JESSICA
Jessica also got a little screwed this week. In reading for the role of Carrie, the lead, she was our second choice after Tanedra. Unfortunately, she didn’t do great at auditioning for the other roles—her Dana was too frantic, her Channon wasn’t that funny and so on. So she got stuck with whatever-the-role-she-was-playing-whose-name-I-can’t-remember-now

Overall, Jessica did a terrific job in the trailer. She was extremely funny and built a character out of next to nothing on the page.

She faltered a bit in one scene, where she had to beat up the zombie tied to a tree (the “poodle” scene in the trailer). She wasn’t believable and she wasn’t really taking my notes.

But she came through in the hot tub with Angela, where she was quite funny. And, of course, she got extra points for stepping in when Lina decided against doing the scene herself.

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ANGELA
Let me start off by saying a couple of good things about Angela

1) In my estimation, only two actresses were able to actually scream at all—Angela and Lindsay. Both their screams were blood-curdling and realistic. But the rest, without exception, sucked. Sucky screaming ain’t a real good quality for a horror movie.

2) As sexy as Angela’s cat burglar outfit was, it was murder to wear. The day we shot the trailer it was extremely hot. Angela would break out in a rash, and, at times, seemed to be close to fainting. Still, she carried on like a trooper without complaining. A couple of times I sent her away to rest because I was afraid she was going to ignore her needs and faint.

3) Angela was really good in the make out scene with Jessica. Caleb and I were tossing improv lines at them—such as “Oh God, this feels so wrong!” When she was performing improv off the cuff, she was fresh and real and believable, however… (the bad part)…

The same couldn’t be said for her memorized lines of dialogue. Her one line about kicking the zombies “mothereffing asses back into the ground,” seemed to be a line reading she had practiced phonetically without any real emotion behind it I tried to get her to say it in different ways, to make it more natural, but she seemed incapable of doing so.

Truthfully, I had been impressed with few of Angela’s performances up to that point. She seemed to be an intelligent girl, but everything seemed planned out without any passion or risks involved None of her performances had been a train wreck, such as Michelle’s Jonathan-Winters-glass-crawl the week before or Jessica’s junkie-in-a-bathtub But her highs were never even close to those of those other girls In the judges’ discussions, she was usually right above whomever we put into the bottom two.

Angela was slipping through the cracks. I had never given her my full focus and, because of that, she had never had a real chance to improve, as Jessica had done in weeks earlier, and Michelle had done this week. So we slammed her hard in the Grand Ballroom—and the emotions that came out of her seemed rawer and more real than anyone yet (I think this is pretty apparent on TV—this is definitely not a girl making herself cry for the sake of the cameras). Her pleas for a second chance were sincere, and I thought she deserved what was likely going to be one more week.

So she didn’t go.

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LINA
Ah, Lina I have a real fondness for Lina, which has grown in all her comments of shit-causing defensiveness in this very blog I think she’s an entertainer to the core.

But Lina really fucked up this week. I asked her straight up, as I asked all the girls, if there were any roles they didn’t want to play. She lied to me and said no. This happens time and time again on movie sets, where actors are cast in a role that requires nudity or a sex scene of some type, and then the actors back out of it when they get to set. By that time, we’ve usually shot days or weeks with that particular actor; it’s a way of hijacking an entire set. That’s why I learned an early lesson from my mentor, Lloyd Kaufman—”Always shoot the sex scenes on the first day of shooting. Then, if they decide not to do it, you don’t lose much money by firing them and hiring someone else.”

But let me make it clear again: I had no problems if Lina didn’t want to make out with a girl. Actors need to know their limitations. How much nudity are you comfortable with?Nothing? Butt? How far are you willing to go with a sex scene? Tongues? Hand on breasts? Everyone has their personal limits (mine is double anal), and those limits should be respected at all times. But a performer needs to know his or her own limits before agreeing to take a role. The truth is, if I was acting in a “Scream Kings” competition I would have to think twice before I agreed to make out with a dude, as hot and sexy as all you “Scream Kings” fans out there would find it. So I can’t blame Michelle or Lina for not wanting to make out with a girl (though I can take issue with some of the slightly homophobic remarks last night on the show labeling two girls making out as “not normal”—Lina, are you truly trying to offend every minority group in the entire country? Look for Lina’s new book, Why Handicapped People Are Pieces of Shit and the follow up, Fuck the Mormons.)

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If Lina had performed better in the week’s challenges, I might have given her a pass on the lie. But her acting was poor. Sean thought she was the worst in the audition (I thought it was between her and Angela), and he also thought that her ghetto portrayal of the Lowena character was “borderline racist” While shooting the trailer, she definitely wasn’t taking my note to try out some facial expressions besides her Kabuki/Samoan-ritual tongue flicking I got a pretty big kick out of the tongue thing at first, but it kept going on and on and on and on… I asked her to be submissive to Sean’s character, but instead she just got into his face and did the tongue flicking instead. And talked over him. A lot. It was a little weird. Because we focused so much on the lie in the Grand Ballroom, we didn’t talk much about the tongue. Maybe Lina will explain her thinking behind the endless tongue flicking either in her own blog or here.

So, in the end, Lina went home. I think she was the first person to go who I thought had a possibility of winning. It wasn’t a perfect decision, nor as clear cut as it had been in previous weeks, but it was the best the judges were able to do. From here on it was only going to get harder.

NEXT WEEK ON SCREAM QUEENS
Nowhere near as fun as this week—in fact, it was my least pleasurable week yet. Sure, pouring 15,000 live cockroaches on the girls in the Director’s Challenge was a blast, but I ended up having to make the most difficult choice of the entire series. Ugh. Still, I think my pain is going to be your folks’ pleasure. In fact, I think it’s the beginning of a streak of all the best “Scream Queens” episodes. So tune in next Monday night for the show, and come back here Tuesday morning for my Behind-the-Screams blog!

But before you go, here’s a special video interview of my brother Sean, after we watched last night’s episode together:

For MORE of this blog, please go to MY MYSPACE BLOG.

MOVIEMAKER TIP OF THE WEEK
AVOID ANIMALS AT ALL COSTS. Next week “Scream Queens” features a unique challenge—pouring 15,000 cockroaches onto the girls as they attempt to act out a scene. As with any time I’ve ever worked with animals on set, they didn’t do exactly what they were meant to do.

I’ve worked with quite a few animals—everything from inchworms to cats to cows to deer and dogs and ravens and squirrels. The only animals that ever do what you want are dogs, and even canines kind of suck as actors. If possible, substitute a Muppet for whatever animal you’re putting in your film. Sure, that googly-eyed cat Muppet may look kind of strange curling up on Meryl Streep’s lap in your serious period drama… but it will be a lot less of a pain in the ass than an actual cat. (I only suggested Muppet, as a midget-in-a-cat-mask might be too David-Lynchian.)

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