In the spring of 1993, as a new wave of independent moviemaking was rising in America, some film students in the mountains of Colorado were busy shooting Cannibal! The Musical, a low-budget feature film based on the story of Alfred Packer, a Civil War veteran and gold prospector who was accused of cannibalism in the 1870s. Cannibal has since become a cult classic and has spawned several off-broadway productions. It’s also notable for being the first big collaboration between Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the co-creators of Orgazmo, Team America: World Police, the Tony-nominated The Book of Mormon and, of course, “South Park.” For this week’s Directing on a Dime I interviewed Jason McHugh, co-producer and co-star of Cannibal, to talk about his experiences in making the film, crashing Sundance and getting a deal with Troma.
Andy Young (MM): How did you meet Matt Stone & Trey Parker?
Jason McHugh (JM): I met those guys at film school. We were all film majors at [the University of Colorado at] Boulder, and there was a policy that everybody had to work on everyone else’s film. So we would crew for each other and act in each other’s projects. It was definitely the least-funded department in the entire University, but it was a great film school.
MM: Why make a movie about Alfred Packer?
JM: Trey had grown up with the Alfred Packer legend, and he had this concept that he wanted to do a musical about him. He said, “Lets do a feature in my backyard, we’ll do it for $10,000 over Christmas break, and it’ll be awesome!” So we were all on-board with that, but then Christmas came and Trey didn’t have a lot of it together. He was actually gearing up to get married, but a couple of months before the wedding he walked in on his bride-to-be with another man. Heartbreak set in, but he came out of his depression wanting to do the trailer for the movie. By then it was June, and the whole point of the trailer ([in which] the love interest was a horse named Liane] was to get back at his ex-fiancée. So Trey came up with this story based on his shattered love life and the legend of Alfred Packer. We shot different scenes over a weekend in the mountains. Trey cut it over the summer, and people really responded to it.
MM: Was Cannibal technically a thesis film, or did you do it outside of school?
JM: It was both. It was a student film on a lot of levels because I had just graduated, Trey was in the process of getting kicked out and our DP was actually getting school credit for it. But then, on the other hand, we were an independent film because we had a real lawyer and a bank account and we were taking investments. So when it was time to rent equipment we were definitely a student film, but when it was time to apply to festivals we were an independent feature. We used that to our benefit.
Trey Parker on the set of Cannibal! The Musical.
MM: How did you go about raising the money? What was the budget of Cannibal, and did you go over or under?
JM: We originally had the chairman of the film school, Virgil Grillo, come to us and say “This is awesome, and I can raise $100,000 for you guys.” Trey got me, Matt Stone and Ian Hardin together, and we formed the production company Avenging Conscience. We knew that everyone on the cast and crew would work for free, so we were just paying for food, locations, costumes and special effects. At that point we knew how to make a movie, but we didn’t know about the business behind making movies. So we just picked up every making-of book we could find about movies like Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the Evil Dead trilogy and movies by Spike Lee. We would all do research and come back to trade knowledge. That’s when we figured out we’d need a lawyer and an LLC, so we made a business plan and opened a bank account. Basically, we took a crash course in filmmaking. Unfortunately, in the meantime Virgil had taken a crash course on film financing. He realized that most indie movies don’t make money, so when we came to him in September with our proposal, he proceeded to give us ice cream and tell us he wouldn’t finance our film. The lesson there is that if someone gives you cookies or ice cream, they’re probably not going to invest.
We now had this business plan, and we’d been getting everyone else in our department involved. The great thing about CU was that we had this built-in team of filmmakers. It was everyone’s first feature, and they were excited to see this movie get made, because it meant they could be a script supervisor or whatever. We ended up networking through their friends and family, with the trailer leading the charge. People would laugh, they’d get what we were doing and they’d want to be a part of it. So that was how we raised the money: From friends and family. If it wasn’t for the trailer, we wouldn’t have been able to raise a dime, but we had something that convinced not only ourselves, but also everyone else, that we could pull this thing off. The budget was about $125,000, and we actually hit that on the nose.
MM: Talk about the process of shooting the movie. What were some problems you ran into?
JM: We shot on 16mm, which was great because we had access to cheap, and sometimes free, equipment through the school and by using our student discounts. At the same time, we had a lot of problems with low-budget, crappy equipment. And we were shooting in some extreme locations; our cameras would freeze up, and we had to deal with snow and other elements. We had a lot of trouble with that Indian scene, which we ended up shooting it over five different locations. Then we kept having problems with reshoots, so we had to keep getting pickup shots while we were editing.
MM: When did you start editing?
JM: We jumped into that right as the summer ended. Our first cut was about two and a half hours long. There were fights about that from the get-go, but I give credit to Trey for being the toughest critic. He had the maturity to know that a musical comedy about cannibals can’t be two and a half hours long. We had to go through the process of killing our babies, and we got the movie down to 93 minutes.
Jason McHugh, Trey Parker, Jon Hegel, Ian Hardin and Dian Bachar on the set of Cannibal! The Musical.
MM: Did you guys have any luck at festivals?
JM: American History [a short film co-directed by Parker that won a Student Academy Award in 1993] had done great, and Trey figured Cannibal would play in all the same festivals. So we applied to Aspen and got rejected. We applied to Telluride and got rejected. We were sure we’d get in somewhere, since we had shot all around Colorado. We finally cracked in when Trey’s aunt happened to be on the board of the Denver Film Festival. They gave us five screenings, one in Boulder and four in Denver. The screenings sold out, we got standing ovations and once we got Cannibal into other festivals, it was finally a hit. That was September, so for us the next big step was Sundance. Months went by. We hadn’t gotten a rejection letter, but we weren’t in the announcements either, so we assumed we hadn’t gotten in. I decided to call a hotel near the festival to see if they had a conference room we could use to screen our movie. I thought I’d get laughed at, but amazingly enough in one phone call we set up five screenings. We were able to get a projection crew by cold calling, so we crashed the festival. We did another cold call to MTV saying we were the “MTV Generation,” and they should do a story on us. And they did! So crashing worked beautifully, and we did everything we would have done there had Cannibal been accepted. That paved the way for us to couch surf through Hollywood.
MM: How did the deal with Troma come along?
JM: Troma was knocking at our door before anyone else. They made us a horrible offer. We decided not to take it, so we just kept pounding the pavement. We had a few good screenings with distributors in L.A. None of them worked out, but we kept making contacts, because people were interested in new talent and what our next project would be. After a year and a half of looking for distributors we got a TV deal with Fox, so we decided to call Troma back and accept their crappy deal. We had an entertainment lawyer whose famous quote was “I’d rather poke needles in my eyes then take that Troma deal,” but they’ve actually been great distributors. They stood by the product and were cool enough to let us renegotiate a co-deal so I could market the stageplay rights.
MM: Now that almost everyone has access to DV and editing software and can put their video on sites like YouTube, would you say that, in the last 20 years, the game has changed much for young moviemakers?
JM: I think it’s gotten both easier and harder. It’s easier to make a trailer and get a following. We were copying VHS tapes and shoving them into our friends’ VHS players. And we were shooting on film. But at the same time we had way less competition. Now, with sites like Withoutabox, you can apply to tons of film festivals. It’s the festivals that really win, because their submission numbers are shooting through the roof. Moviemakers have a much more competitive playing field now, so it’s harder to rise above the crowd.
MM: Do you think film school is worth it?
JM: For me it helped because it pushed me into a setting with like-minded individuals interested in filmmaking. Most of my friends were deadheads, and I was this 20-year-old trying to figure out what my major was going to be. I took some acting classes and the more I did that was film-related, the more it felt right to me. If you’re a person who knows you want to be a fimmaker then A) you’re that much ahead of the game, and B) there are so many filmmaking resources on the web that let you teach yourself. You don’t need school, but it gives you a community of other filmmakers. I remember one of my teachers once said “Look around the room. Some of the guys in this class may be the most important people in your career.” And you look around the room and see a bunch of dorks. But one of those dorks was Matt Stone, so there is some truth to that.
MM: Any advice for young aspiring moviemakers?
JM: Practice on shorts. Learn how to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Once you get that down, go from there. With YouTube, there’s a market for short films again. It’s a challenge that you have to keep your films short or you’re going to lose your audience. If you can keep someone’s attention for one to three minutes, you can start building and take it from there.
Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer living in Austin, Texas. At the age of twenty he has produced over 100 short films and one feature film, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of $200. He now lives in Austin, where he continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.