Writer-director Lucky McKee burst onto the genre scene back in 2002 with his superb, affecting debut May. Afterwards, he had the misfortune of finding his boarding school horror The Woods left on the studio shelf for years, and was replaced by another director while shooting his Jack Ketchum adaptation Red.
He came back with a vengeance with the brutally powerful The Woman, which he co-wrote with Ketchum, and reminded us all that he was a filmmaker to be reckoned with. His most recent film was a surprising but hugely entertaining change of gears; reteaming with Chris Sivertson (The Lost, I Know Who Killed Me) to co-write and co-direct a feature length version of their student short film: All Cheerleaders Die. The film tells the story of a group of cheerleaders who are killed by a bunch of jocks, only to be magically resurrected to exact their revenge.
We spoke to McKee about the desire to make something different, the process of collaboration and why this is the strangest Amblin tribute you’ve ever seen.
All Cheerleaders Die feels like a big change of pace for you. Were you looking for something different?
Well, Chris and I had both been making some pretty dark, serious heavy movies for about 10 years since we made the original, and we just decided we wanted to go to a lighter place. See if we could learn from what each other had learned over the last 10 years making films on our own. We wanted to have fun, we wanted to do something just with a lot of energy and a lot of kinetic movement.
What was it like co-directing this movie with Chris?
It was tricky at first just because we’re both so set in our ways, the way we make our solo films, but it just seemed like after a couple of months of working on the script and prepping the thing together, it just became this thing where we realised that the movie was our mutual sense of humour, mutual sensibility and we just kind of fed into that.
What was the budget like? I’m assuming you guys didn’t have a huge amount of money to throw around?
We shot in a real high school near downtown Los Angeles and we shot the whole film in and around Los Angeles, the desert outside Los Angeles. It was tough, you always push your resources to the limit so we had really long days and nights but of course it’s better than working at Taco Bell, you know? It was a blast and to still be friends with Chris and still collaborating with him 20 years after we met, I mean, he’s like a brother to me.
The cast is great; how was it finding young actors who would get the tone?
We fished around for some more known people as we were just going through auditions, we just saw as many kids as possible, we had an awesome casting director in Lindsay Chag and she just brought us great talent from the smallest angencies to the biggest agencies and we just looked at a couple hundred kids, I’d say.
The casting process was interesting because you’re seeing a lot of really good looking kids, a lot of really confident actors and after a while you start to feel like you’re seeing the same person over and over again. And then all of a sudden someone like Sianoa [Smit-McPhee, who plays budding witch Leena] will walk in the room and make it completely new and fresh even though you’ve heard it 50 times the same way. You’re always looking for an actor who brings their own thing to it. And the thing that we loved about Sianoa is that she made us believe in the magic, she made us believe that she believed in the magic! Yeah, she brought so much more energy to it than even we were picturing when we wrote the script. She just brought this vibrance to it.
Caitlin’s going to be a big star, when we auditioned her it felt like we were seeing Julia Roberts for the first time.You just felt that there was a star there, like we were so fortunate to find this girl at that specific time, you know? And I think that every time I watch the film again. She’s just cool.
What is it about high school that makes it the perfect setting for a story that’s as energetic and crazy as this?
The original took place with high school characters and we wanted to see how we’d changed as filmmakers approaching the same initial creative impulse in a high school setting. What we were really fascinated with this time was thinking back on ourselves at that age and how much unfocused energy there is and how many different emotions you’ll go through during a day, like a week can seem like a year to a teenager so much stuff can happen, so many highs and lows, and we wanted the film to represent all those tone shifts and all those mood swings that a teenager goes through during a day. And the film takes place during a very short period of time. Pretty much the majority of the film takes place in the course of 24 hours so there’s a lot of emotions kind of swirling around within. Like that’s such a long period of time, you know?
Were you concerned about the tonal shifts that the story takes?
Not really, our big thing with the story is that we just wanted constant forward trajectory, we wanted it to keep moving. I think you get a natural sense for what’ll work when you change tones going through. Because we’ve got the most comedic sequence in the film which is when the girls wake up at Leena’s house comes right after the darkest sequence in the film which is what happens in the woods with all the teenagers which causes the girls to die. And that’s like some of the darkest, most harrowing stuff and then right after that you have ten minutes of pretty zany stuff, so it was just fun.
That was the exciting thing about the project. And some people don’t dig on the tone changing so wildly, from scene to scene but we were really enjoying that contrast of just like how that plays on an audience emotionally. I think that this movie is designed for teenagers, so hopefully they’ll respond to it in an emotional way that maybe older fans of ours just aren’t getting yet.
That scene with Michael Bowen is a really good example of that. It feels like it kind of could go anywhere.
Yeah,and that was something that Chris brought up while we were writing it; we’re going to bring this one adult character in the story, this girl walks into his house in her underwear, uninvited and we didn’t want him to be the pervert guy. We just wanted him to be a normal guy that gets thrust into this situation and doesn’t know how to handle it. A lot of humour came from that. Bowen is so good at just kind of painting on top of the script and he brought so much to that sequence, so much humour to it.
One of the things I really liked about the film is that it looks like it could go into revenge movie territory but it does something very different.
Yeah, both Chris and I just wanted it to be like a rockin’ good time at the movies, you know? Something that just keeps you munching popcorn and wondering what’s going to happen next. Like that was our big thing, we didn’t want the story to unfold in a formulaic way, we wanted you to keep guessing and I feel like we pulled it off. It’s fun to watch it with an audience because they have no idea. It seems like it’s going to turn into a simple revenge tale but it gets more complicated than that.
The original All Cheerleaders Die was much more straightforward in that way, it was like what you’d expect from a title like All Cheerleaders Die. And with this we kind of tried to subvert where we could expectations.
I thought there was an ET influence and there’s a lot of 80s stuff floating around in the film. Were you looking at anything specific?
Yeah, I mean I think there’s a Spielberg-Lucas sort of influence, like when those guys were at their hot time when they were making like their very best stuff in the early/mid-80s. Even the stone glow effects, they’re obviously done with a computer nowadays but we were taking inspiration from a lot of those old optical animation effects that were real prevalent at that time so yeah there’s definitely that influence. Carrie’s a big influence obviously because Carrie’s the best high school film that will probably ever be made. DePalma’s Carrie I’m talking about. But yeah, there’s those influences. And whatever other influences there were are probably whatever’s been built into our DNA at this point.
It’s funny because I love all of that stuff. A lot of the personal stuff that I’ve written has been much more just kind of grounded and emotional stuff, logical sort of horror, but I love. Fairytales are my life, you know, and it’s fun to play in that mad realm, so I could see myself doing a lot more. It just really opened me up creatively making this. I think that’ s what Chris and I both needed making this, was “OK, let’s just do something totally outside our own normal little boxes.” Especially in terms of just making a straight popcorn movie as opposed to a movie that makes you want to go to therapy after you watch it, you know?
I had just made The Woman and that was just draining emotionally. Like, not only to conceive the film with Ketchum but to shoot it was very rough emotionally and then to put it together and then to have to do press on it for a year and just talk about all this dark shit, I was like “Man, I just need to go in a completely different direction with the next thing, you know?” There’s a big contrast between The Woman and All Cheerleaders Die, you know!
You mentioned during press for The Woman that it was kind of a response to your experiences in Hollywood, that you wanted to do something dark and personal and intense. Did this feel like the natural next film following that?
Yeah, the first All Cheerleaders Die was the beginning of my feature film career and it was awesome to start that off with Chris and then we both went our separate ways and we just got beat up along he way trying to make the stuff we wanted to make. And like you said The Woman was kind of like me just at the end of my rope, I just treated it like “OK, this is the last chance I’ll ever get to make a movie.” I had a lot of anger and a lot of that came out in the film, I kind of exorcised those demons for myself, so when I finished it I just had nothing left in the tank, so I was just like “OK, maybe we’ll just reboot and we’ll go back to that initial impulse, that made us want to make movies.”
It kind of came back to that energy we had when we started out. It actually succeeded in doing that, so when now when it comes to my personal stuff, it’s opened me up to more fantastic stories and different tones and emotional approaches. I just felt like I was in danger of getting myself into a rut of making these dark psychological films and now I feel maybe the next thing I do personally will have a balance between those two things.
You collaborated with Jack Ketchum on the novel of The Woman and the screenplay, and now with Chris. Is it a process you enjoy?
Yeah, absolutely. With Ketchum, that’s a guy who’s my dad’s age, so I get to learn from a guy who’s been doing it for 30, 40 years and I get to absorb a lot of technique from him and make my own , what works with me and it’s the same with Chris. We grew up making films together and made a few films apart and coming back together you learn from each others’ discoveries and mistakes, you learn what your personal strengths are and what muscles you want to work on. But yeah, now that I’ve gone through this heavy collaborative period, I mean film is always going to be a collaborative medium, but just as a writer I’m really excited about the next couple of things I write. I just want to tap back into my own personal stuff after having those intense collaborations with great artists. And just seeing how it’s changed my work.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a romantic comedy right now, I’m not going to direct it but I’m writing a romantic comedy for a friend. A completely original script and that’s going to be a fun change of pace for me. A lot of the stuff I’ve made has elements of romantic comedy, I think May does, The Woman definitely does, Sick Girl definitely has a romantic comedy edge to it but just pulling the horror out of it completely and making this little love story. So that’s the next thing I’m going to do to get myself back in writing mode and then I’m going to tackle a personal baby that I’ve been holding in my pocket for about 15, 20 years waiting for the right opportunity to make it with the right control and I finally feel like I’m in the right position to do that, so it should be pretty fun.
You mentioned May; we’re huge fans of that movie and it’s still got a very loyal fanbase. Why do you think people connect with it so strongly?
Loneliness. I mean, it was definitely heavily influenced by at that time in my life I was a lonely person so that’s sort of where that came from. I think everybody can relate to being alone. I just think, I don’t know, she’s just like a little fairytale character. Which was kind of my intention. And I’m glad it stuck, I’m amazed that people still talk about it but I think it’s just that theme of loneliness and feeling like an outsider which I think everybody can relate to, especially when you’re a teenager or you know in your formative years.
May, The Woods, Sick Girl, The Woman and All Cheerleaders Die all have these complex female leads. Is that something you’re drawn to, is it an unconscious thing?
I think it’s organically happened, I was raised by a strong woman, I had an older sister, and a lot of my early years growing up were just me, my mom and my sister. My dad worked so much that it was just me and these intense women and all my cousins and all of my mom’s family that I ever hung out with were all girls!
So I just relate to girls in a specific way and I communicate with girls in a specific way and I think any person that does creative stuff should always play to their strengths and I’ve always seemed to work really well with actresses so I just naturally write parts for women. It’s just kind of I’ve just kind of been playing to that strength all this time. But this next personal project that I’m going to write, the main character is a young boy, is a 15 year old boy with a major chip on his shoulder so that’s going to be interesting new creative ground for me, it might even become more personal because it comes directly from experiences I had growing up in the country in the middle of nowhere.
All Cheerleaders Die is available on DVD from 27 October and you can pre-order it here. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow. Stay tuned for our interview with Chris Sivertson!