One of the greatest things about Fantastic Fest (as if you need more than the current list of highlights) is that you not only get to meet filmmakers, actors, writers, etc., but occasionally, in the cases of the great documentaries that are shown there, you get to meet the subjects. And in the case of director Michael Paul Stephenson's (star of TROLL 2; director of BEST WORST MOVIE) last effort, THE AMERICAN SCREAM, the filmmaker was accompanied by two of the three Massachusetts families profiled in this exceptional documentary about folks that spend months turning their homes into haunted houses every Halloween.
The movie will premiere on the Chiller cable channel on October 28, but some theaters around the country are showing it in the weeks leading up to the television premiere. I know in Chicago, it's playing most weekend midnights in October, and it should not be missed. The day after the film premiered, I sat down with Stephenson and home haunter Victor Bariteau (unfortunately his neighbor and fellow haunter Manny Souza had to catch a plane just before my interview slot came up).
Although the Bariteau family is one of three profiled, his work, obsession level, family commitment, and story are perhaps the heart and soul of THE AMERICAN SCREAM, and I was especially honored to chat with him and get an update on his life's dream to open up a professional haunted house (the kind that's open for several weeks leading up to Halloween). Please enjoy my chat with Michael Paul Stephenson and Victor Bariteau, along with one of the producers of the film, Meyer Shwarzstein…
Capone: Hi, it’s nice to meet you.
Michael Paul Stephenson: It’s nice to meet you.
Capone: I think we were supposed to meet in Chicago a while back when BEST WORST MOVIE opened in Chicago, and then your wife had a baby or something crazy like that?
MPS: Whatever! She was faking it. [Laughs] That’s right, for BEST WORST MOVIE, right?
Capone: Right, at the Music Box. I think George came by himself, but he apologized for…
MPS: My wife having a baby? [Laughs]
Capone: “There’s no excuse, but if there were, here it is.” Such a fun night last night watching AMERICAN SCREAM. Let me ask you first, Victor, the one thing that was hinted at, but wasn’t expressly talked about. When Halloween is all over, and you wake up the morning after, does a post-mortem depression set in?
Victor Bartiteau: It takes about a week to set in, but yes. You drag your feet around the house. That night, immediately after we close down, in the house, my friends are still there, my family is still there and they're talking about the whole experience and how they scared this one was. So the adrenaline is still going at that point, and we're talking about what we are going to do next year. Then about a week later, yeah, there’s definitely a depression that sets in.
Capone: Which is easier for your family deal with, the manic Victor of the week leading up to Halloween or the depressed Victor a week later?
VB: There’s sort of a relief as we're getting into normal mode. We have Thanksgiving coming up and then Christmas and we don’t include Halloween in any of those. Thanksgiving is Thanksgiving and Christmas is Christmas. I want my kids to have the Christmas experience too, and so once the holidays get here, it’s more about family. So you snap out of the depression pretty quick.
Capone: I’ve been to home haunts like what you do, but it’s more that people just set it up, not so much the haunted house experience, but more just really go all out with decorations, and you walk into their backyard, but they leave it open for weeks leading up to Halloween, but you seem to devote it to just that one night. Is there a reason for that?
VB: The reason is the neighborhood that we live in was filled with trick or treaters before we even moved into it, and so the audience is there. I know it seems like a tremendous amount of work for one night, but it’s certainly worth it. I can’t explain why I do it for one night. It’s certainly insane. But with the pro haunt, one I’ll get to do it throughout the month.
Capone: That’s a great thing. Michael, looking back on this search that was described last night that you and everyone went on from town to town through the country, did it suddenly seem like a really obviously thing that this is set in Massachusetts, which kind of lends itself all things gothic?
MPS: Oh absolutely. When we were doing the casting trip, we had a certain imagine and a feeling that we wanted to find, and it wasn’t until we came to Massachusetts and Fairhaven where it was like, “This is it,” The weather was a little chilly; it was perfect.
Capone: And like you said in the movie, the neighborhood is exactly the right configuration too.
MPS: Right. Everything about the setting was perfect, and up until that point I was getting increasingly anxious because we were checking off lists like, “Okay, these are great haunters doing great things, but where’s the setting? Where’s the story? Where is what I was hoping to find?” I grew up in small town Utah and in fall in the neighborhood, all the houses were close together, and there was lots of trick or treating. It was a community, and Halloween was a rich tradition within that community. Fairhaven was the closest thing that felt representative of my childhood. As soon as we pulled into the town, before even meeting Victor, we were like, “Okay, this is looking really great.” The houses, the feeling, the setting, the trees, everything felt like Halloween.
Capone: Did you set out to find families that did this? Or were you just looking for the best haunts you could find or the best setting? I love that your movie is about families that do that; it’s not about college kids or 20-somethings.
MPS: It wasn’t finding the best haunter--I was never interested in finding the best home haunter--even thought through Victor, arguably, I found him. It was more about family; it was about finding this tradition that was created within a family and examining how that strengthens and stretches the family. So I was always more interested about family identity and small town America and tradition and community, than I was props or haunts or any of that.
Capone: That being said, the family dynamic also gives us, at least in a couple of the cases, possibility for friction and tension.
MPS: What family doesn’t have that? That’s the thing, it’s has that, because it means so much, and I can get behind anybody that is doing something that means so much to them, and it causes this. Arguably, you look at some of the stress and the tension that it causes the family, but I envied them in many ways, because it was the one thing they did as a family every single year, whether or not they were always on board, everyone was like, “Let’s do it together.” And it is part of their family legacy now. I guarantee you his daughters--10, 20, 30 years down the road--will look back on some of this time they spent with their dad doing these things and it, will be some of the most memorable experiences they have in life.
Capone: Obviously for BEST WORST MOVIE, you were uniquely qualified to make that film and to tell that story. Was AMERICAN SCREAM a little scarier in a way since you were tackling something you weren’t necessarily an expert in, or that you were uniquely qualified to tell the story?
MPS: It was terrifying. I was scared. Even with BEST WORST MOVIE, I’m not a B movie expert at all. I was uniquely qualified having been in TROLL 2, but I was more afraid of finding a subject matter that could possibly mean as much to me, because BEST WORST MOVIE was so personal. Not only did BEST WORST MOVIE mean a lot to me personally, and I connected to it, but it was received well and so you’re at this point where you’re like, “How am I going to find something that’s going to mean as much?”
Family is important to me and community is important to me, and I’m at a point in my life where I have two daughters I’m raising and trying to balance my passion. I work with my wife who is a producer, and I'm trying to balance all of these things and not losing sight of those things that mean the most to you. So it was instantly identifiable, and I’m the risk that Victor is taking in going pro. It’s a risk right off the bat that's like, “Look, there’s no guarantee, this is a big risk that we do in making films.” It’s a huge risk, and I want to be that person when I’m older that looks back and says, “I tried.” Even if it doesn’t work out or life takes you in a different direction, I don’t want to be the type of person that says, “I wish I would have done something different with my life.”
VB: No regrets.
Capone: Victor, was it any different that particular year having the camera around? And was it weird last night watching it and seeing yourself from an outside perspective. Were you tearing your hair out going, “What is wrong with me?”
Capone: Well first, tell me about having the cameras.
VB: The cameras, we got used to very quickly, because we love the guys. My daughters took to hem immediately. It wasn’t like a working environment at all; it was like having friends over. So that wasn’t an issue. It really wasn’t an issue. The cameras took a little while to get used to. We’re just a small town family.
Capone: Were you more aware of your own behavior having them there?
VB: At first, but you’ll see towards the end of the movie when…
VB: …I’m oblivious to it.
Capone: Did you try to recruit the crew to help you in the 11th hour?
VB: Actually yeah. We had Zack Carson [of the Alamo Drafthouse, who is a producer on THE AMERICAN SCREAM] helping us.
MPS: There were a few times where Zack would be in the frame moving something, and we were like, “Get out of there!”
VB: Anybody we could suck in, yeah absolutely.
Capone: And then last night. I can’t even imagine what that would be like seeing it with people watching you.
VB: That was kind of eye opening. The whole sergeant thing where I’m ordering people around. I’m like, “What an asshole. How can I have any friends after that?” I’ve got really great friends. I’ve got really great friends, and they put up with a lot of crap. So I’m only like that during the haunt setup, the rest of the year I’m really close to these people.
VB: You know, we go out for beers. I took a lot of them to go see the play A CHRISTMAS CARROL, and we took their wives out. I got a little bonus from work for a project I was working on, and that’s what I spent it on, to show them how much I appreciated their help. For them to put up with me for that short time where I’m so intense, I really didn’t realize how hard I was, and on my family too.
Capone: I was about to say, it’s funny how you’re talking more about your friends then how you are with your family.
VB: My family is stuck with me, you know? My friends can just go, “See ya.” So that was a bit shocking to me to see that up on there, like “What a jerk.”
Capone: Can you explain what is happening with this film now? Where is it going to play first? Is it ever going to be in a theater again? I hope people get to see this that might not be able to catch it on Chiller.
MPS: Basically, we have a television premiere at the end of October, and throughout October we’ve started to have theaters that have contacted us that want to do special engagements and short runs, that type of thing. So we're looking at that now and really trying to compact as much of that in October as possible, not only because it’s obviously the perfect month, but because the movie celebrates community and watching movies together, that celebrates community. So the more we can have it play in theaters, that’s our aim. We do have Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, L.A., those are the first ones that have kind of popped up. Chicago is on my list.
We actually do have theaters, after the television premiere, in November that are like, “Hey, let’s run this in November.” So it’s all kind of taking shape quickly right now, but it looks like we’re going to have more opportunities, not only in the festival scene, because we have other festivals we are playing in October, but more opportunities to see it in a theater with a live audience.
Capone: Who came to you with this idea first?
MPS: This guy right here.
Capone: So how did you think of him to do this?
Meyer Shwarzstein: It was actually the other way around. I worked on BEST WORST MOVIE, selling the movie and brought it to Chiller, and the guys at Chiller were like, “So, what’s Michael’s next project?” I said, “I don’t know.” So I’m in their office vamping, “How about doing a movie about Halloween haunted houses?” They said, “That’s really cool.” “Okay, great!” and then I called Michael and was like, “So how do you feel about the idea of a movie on Halloween haunted houses?” He said, “That’s a really cool idea,” and I was like “Yes!” Because I’ve always been fascinated by the phenomenon and it’s been one of those laden thoughts I’ve had every year and I just find it really interesting, and it’s also very good natured. I love that and it felt to me, and I love working with Michael and Lindsay [Stephenson]. They're amazing, and to me if I can find any more excuses in the world to do anything with them, in a heartbeat, so it’s just a sheer complete and total pleasure, and Chiller as well. They're great.
So it’s been an idyllic experience, if you can have something like that. They've been unbelievably supportive and any sort of twist in direction, they had some ideas early on that they wanted to impose upon it and when they saw what was happening sort of let go and supported all the way through. It’s really been a completely supported environment by the people who were behind the camera, in front of the camera. It’s just very unusual, and I think you see it on screen. It comes through all the way. The whole thing has got this good-natured feel about it, so I thought it was a perfect match.
Capone: Well it was really wonderful to meet you. And I'll see if I can find a place for this in Chicago.
MPS: Some places are also doing like a haunt afterwards.