We were about halfway through shooting SLiTHER. The current location was a quaint, two-story house in Langley, British Columbia, about an hour outside of Vancouver. An amiable Mormon family lived there.They were excited that the guy who had written the Scooby-Doo movies was using their house to make his directorial debut. When we arrived that day, their nine-year-old boy approached me, bouncing up and down, and asked for my autograph on a Scooby poster.
“Just DOO it!” I wrote, and signed my name. I looked down into his innocent eyes and knew that in a few hours I was going to break his little heart with the murdering, maiming and raping I would conduct in his home. SLiTHER is a return to the gory, over-the-top horror films of the 1980s and I was about to give the place what my first AD called “a James Gunn baptism,” in phlegm, blood and bile. I don’t think the Mormon family was aware that in addition to Scooby, I had also written Dawn of the Dead and Tromeo & Juliet, which featured a four-foot-long penis monster. I, conveniently, forgot to tell them.
Presently, the crew gathered around a closed door at the end of an upstairs hall. Tania Saulnier, the actress who plays teenage Kylie Strutemyer, was waiting in the bathroom on the other side of the door. We had previously filmed a foot-long red parasite attacking her in the bathtub. The slug-like creature slithered into poor Tania’s mouth, flapping its tail like a docked trout as it attempted to burrow through the back of her throat and into her brain. Fortunately, she was able to swat the parasite with a hot curling iron. As the metal burned through its skin and guts spilled onto the floor, I realized I likely had some deep-rooted sexual issues I was about to share with the whole world.
I stood, tense, beside a monitor at the opposite end of the hall. I was afraid of what was to come.
|Iris Quinn and Tania Saulnier make magic happen for James Gunn on the set of SLiTHER (2006).|
“Action!” I yelled—loudly, so Tania could hear.
Tania flung the door open and ran out. She was wailing, tears streaming down her face, understandably upset as an alien creature had just tried to brain-rape her. Our cameraman, on Steadicam, paced quickly backwards in front of her.
“Mom!” Tania cried. And at that moment, Iris Quinn, the actress playing Tania’s mother, stumbled out of a doorway to her side, grabbing onto her. She had blood running down her chin, a sure sign a parasite had already infected her.
Perfect, I thought. Perfect.
Tania turned toward Iris, hollering.
Yes. Please, God, let this go right.
Iris gurgled, and blood dribbled weakly out of her mouth. A small amount splashed on Tania’s chin, and the rest went down the front of Tania’s blouse.
“Cut,” I said.
Tania and Iris stopped. They turned toward me as I marched down the hall. I couldn’t hide my disappointment.
“Sorry, guys. I’m sorry, but no, that’s not it. Iris, the whole idea is that you come out and you just vomit that mouthful of blood right in her face.”
|Michael Rooker and Brenda James come across something not of this world in SLiTHER (2006)|
“That’s pretty gross.”
“I know. That’s what’s so awesome about it.”
“I got it on her chin. Look.”
“Her chin? That’s not shocking. I can imagine that, on, like, ‘According to Jim.’”
“According to what?” Iris asked.
“What I mean is, I want it all over Tania’s mouth, her eyes, her nose.”
I acted it out for them, grabbing Tania and pretending to puke all over her face. It’s a move I doubt Orson Welles ever used on Citizen Kane. (At least not on set.)
“Okay?” I asked.
I smiled at her as I headed back to the monitor, attempting to mask my terror. The costume department only had three blouses for Tania. Iris had just dribbled blood on one, which meant we only had two chances left to get the shot. If only we had more blouses…
I leaned over to Keith, the on-set costumer. “How long will it take to get the blood out of the blouses?” I asked.
“Why?” he asked.
“‘Why?’ Keith, would you ask David Lean ‘Why?’”
“No. But he didn’t have people vomit on other people’s faces.”
“And do you know why that is?”
“Because he never thought of it. If David Lean had thought of it, Alec Guinness would have vomited all over William Holden’s face in The Bridge on the River Kwai. But, whatever the case, Keith, I was wondering, if we started washing the first blouse now, could we get it cleaned in 45 minutes? Because that would give us another take.”
“It’d take a few hours at the very least,” Keith said. “We don’t have a washer here. We’d have to send it back to Vancouver.”
I couldn’t afford the time. This was one set-up out of the 27 I had planned for the day. As important as this shot was, I couldn’t afford to sacrifice the whole sequence for it. I glanced around to see the whole crew looking at me, waiting.
I cried: “Action!”
Tania ran out.
Our cameraman tracked back.
Iris darted out of the side doorway, grabbed onto Tania and spewed blood… but this time it was even weaker.It only hit Tania’s blouse, missing her face completely.
Iris turned toward me.
“I’m sorry, James. I’m sorry.” And she was. She was a classically-trained actress who normally played lawyers and kindly mothers in Lifetime movies-of-the-week. She wasn’t used to maniacs like me who wanted her to vomit on a teenager’s face.
I felt badly for her. But this was my first directing gig and this was a shot I knew could be extraordinary. My whole life seemed to lead to this moment: I remembered making my first Super8 zombie movie when I was 12, my brothers and I in white makeup with black raccoon eyes pretending to eat our brother Sean alive, his flesh a sickly-sweet concoction of Karo syrup, red food dye and toilet paper. I thought of my B-movie days at Troma in New York, where I wrote my first screenplay for $150, and where I’d work 60-hour weeks producing films and videos, then go home and write my own screenplays for another four or five hours each night. Then of 1998, when I risked everything, quitting Troma and moving to LA, living off cash advances from my Discover card and sleeping on a pile of blankets in a friend’s guest house. And when I finally did get work, it wasn’t necessarily what I was most interested in.
Sure, okay, Scooby-Doo was fine, despite having to repeatedly write out the phrase, “Rikes, Raggy.” But for years after that I was only offered live-action versions of kids’ TV shows, from “Jabberjaw” and “Hong Kong Phooey” to “Underdog” and “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.” I didn’t think anyone in the world really needed a freaking “Magilla Gorilla” movie, and my soul certainly didn’t cry out to write one.
|Elizabeth Banks, Nathan Fillion and Don Thompson approach a gruesome Michael Rooker in SLiTHER (2006).|
After years of trying to squirm away from being pigeonholed, I had the opportunity to write Dawn of the Dead—for half my quote—only to be sent death threats because I was remaking a classic. At science-fiction conventions I would be stopped and lectured by 300-pound fanatics wearing Bark at the Moon T-shirts on why zombies don’t run. Of course they don’t run! They aren’t real! But now I was doing SLiTHER, the movie I wanted to do, with a decent budget and near-complete freedom. If only Iris would vomit on Tania’s face in the appropriate manner, all this shit I went through would be worth it.
“Come on,” I said, and beckoned for Iris and Tania to follow.
“Where are we going?” Tania asked.
“Outside. To practice.”
The three of us stood on the front lawn of the Mormons’ home and Iris and I practiced throwing up blood. I discovered it was more difficult to projectile vomit a mouthful of fake blood while running than I had imagined. It wasn’t only because Iris was used to playing lawyers; it also had to do with the anatomical structure of the human mouth and throat.
“I could cough,” Iris said.
“Try it,” I said.
She ran over the grass, blood in her mouth, and coughed. The blood sprayed forward in a beautiful arc, flying everywhere.
“That’s perfect!” I cried. “Do it exactly like that. But just right onto her face.”
Iris looked doubtfully at Tania.
“Are you sure that’s okay?”
“Tania doesn’t care,” I said. “Right?”
Tania started to say something.
“See!” I said. “She doesn’t care! All Tania cares about is making a great movie!”
Back in the hallway, the crew gathered at the end of the hall. We were all nervous now. This was no longer my battle alone.
I again yelled: “Action!”
Again, Tania came running out of the bathroom. Once more, Iris stumbled out beside her, grabbing onto her shoulders. For a moment, everything moved in slow-motion.
Today, in my office, I have a framed photograph on the wall above my desk, given to me by Stephanie Rossel, my script supervisor on SLiTHER. It was a photograph she snapped of possibly the happiest moment of my life. In it, Tania and I have our arms around each other. We are both smiling hugely. Tania’s face is covered with blood, streaming down her forehead, in her eye sockets, over and around her mouth and lips. My face is also a bit bloody, as Tania saw fit to give me a big wet kiss mere moments before the photo was taken.
Making a movie is comprised of hundreds of thousands of moments. Most of them are forgetful. Some are pleasant. Others are painful. But the best of them make moviemaking worthwhile, much more so than box office receipts, accolades or financial rewards.
Such it was in that one perfect moment when Iris surprised us all with a horizontal fountain of crimson blood splattering wondrously onto Tania’s face.
It may not be “Rosebud,” but it’s good enough for me. MM