When I was at the genre film festival Fantasia a couple months ago, I decided to focus almost exclusively on seeing films and leave any interview possibilities for the next time I made it to this Montreal-based bit of paradise. But there were a couple of opportunities to sit down with filmmakers that I couldn't resist.
One of the films I felt certain would make its way into theaters at some point this year was director Mike Mendez's BIG ASS SPIDER, which I had sadly missed at SXSW in March, and was happy to make the first film I saw at Fantasia. Mendez has helmed such film as KILLERS, BIMBO MOVIE BASH, THE CONVENT and THE GRAVEDANCERS, which was part of the 2006 After Dark Horrorfest series.
BIG ASS SPIDER isn't Mendez first dip into the horror-sci-fi-comedy realm, but that certainly doesn't mean the the film doesn't have quite a few scary, creepy, gory and occasionally impressive moments scattered throughout. The movie would be right at home among the animal/acts of nature mash-ups that seem to have become popular on the SyFy Channel of late, were it not for the fact that SyFy doesn't air comedy-horror offerings; they only seem to like it when the audience is laughing at them, not with them.
I got a chance to sit down with Mendez at Fantasia to talk about BIG ASS SPIDER, which will start to see a limited theatrical release beginning this weekend. Please enjoy my chat with Mike Mendez…
Capone: How are you doing, Mike?
MM: I’m good, man. How are you?
Capone: Good. First of all, I know a lot has happened since SXSW in terms of distribution. What’s the plan in October?
MM: October 18 it’s going to come out in about 15 cities. I’m not exactly sure which cities those are yet. I have a feeling they're going to try to concentrate a little more west coast with a few east coast, like probably two or three. I hope it hit’s Chicago; we will see [it opens in Chicago on Nov. 15 at the Music Box Theatre]--and then VOD simultaneously.
Capone: I know at least one theater in Chicago that would love to get it at least as a midnight thing.
MM: That’s the thing, I prefer to do them as event things, because realistically in this day and age, it’s just so hard to get people to come to theaters, so I feel I’d rather just focus on one midnight showing as opposed to “It’s playing here all week.” So that’s the plan as of right now, not to neglect the movie-going experience, but I always felt that VOD is probably where most people are going to see it and probably television eventually. At least in my mind, I picture kids around Halloween going through their VOD list and going “BIG ASS SPIDER? What’s that?” That to me is hopefully what we are focused on, but obviously it’s fun to watch with a crowd, and I really hope to have a lot of fun, spirited midnight showings, because we’ve had a lot of really fun ones.
Capone: That was the point I made in the review I wrote last night--whether or not you think it’s a great movie is your opinion; but it’s a great movie event. It’s not going to play as well for someone sitting at home alone watching it as much as it will for an audience primed to see it.
MM: A group shared experience is always better, but you would be surprised, people seem to enjoy it just on its own. But I totally agree with you. The theater is the best place to see it. It’s certainly a lot more fun.
Capone: So how did you first get a hold of this script? Tell me what you liked about it, and what you wanted to change?
MM: Travis Stevens is a cool indie producer who made a movie called CHEAP THRILLS and the JODOROWSKY’S DUNE documentary and a lot of stuff like that. He was working with Epic Pictures, a foreign sales company and they were developing their own brand of creature feature. So this script called DINO-SPIDER showed up in my inbox, and I was like “What the fuck is that?” [Laughs] I was like “Jesus, has my career really come to this?” And I realized, “Yeah, I think it has.” So my first instinct was, “No, I’d rather not work than make really terrible movies on no budget with terrible effects, but shit, no one is asking me to do anything else, so I better go at least meet on it and have an open mind towards it.”
I’m thankful I did that, because I met the producers, I met Travis, and Patrick Ewald, and Shaked Berenson, and I’m like, “Look, I just don’t want to do a movie that’s like shot in 12 days, has really bad effects, and is just fodder for SyFy Channel,” and they were like “Great, neither do we. This is our first film that we're producing. We feel that we can sell this worldwide. People like creature features, and we just want to do what some of the competition is doing; we just want to do it better.” That was really like “Oh, okay.”
Everything was just slightly better. The budget was slightly better. The producers were supportive, and pretty soon I started to think about it, and the script was adequate. It was alright. It wasn’t out of this world, but ideas started flowing, and I started wanting to do a polish on it and so I did my own pass. The scenes of comedy were always there, and the basic story was always there, but I thought we could punch it up and make it funnier. Then once we started designing the spider, I was really starting to get into it. Suddenly, this movie where at one time I was going to go, “God, if I do it maybe I can use an alias or nobody will see it, just something to get behind the camera again,” pretty soon it was something I was really into and proud of.
Once [lead actors] Greg Grunberg and Lombardo Boyar got on board, everyone kept snowballing it forward into making something fun and different that I don’t think, at least I hope, is not your typical SyFy Channel fare. Certainly we got the validation when we got into SXSW and all of the festivals around the world, and then we could say, “Okay, this is a little different.”
Capone: What were some things that you added that weren’t in the original script?
MM: I always credit EVIL DEAD 2 as my favorite movie, so I wanted to have that roller-coaster ride to it. I’m also really big on pacing. I don’t like slow movies. I like movies to consistently be chugging along forward. So that was a lot of it. I’d say there were a lot of changes I did from an independent filmmaker’s standpoint, where I’m like, “I know this is going to be a low budget.” I know this is going to sound horrible, but I was like, “We probably can’t afford lights. Why don’t we do it in the day light?” Originally there were attacks at night, and I’ve been making indie movies my entire life, so you’ve got to have those exterior lights and the condors and the generators and all that stuff. This is really going to add up.
So I structured it at the beginning to begin in the morning and go until the evening of one day and also came up with that opening sequence where originally there was a whole desert attack sequence where the first big ass spider--or “mega-spider” as it was when we were shooting it--got loose, and they nuked it in the desert, and the baby survived and got into the body bag that ended up at the hospital, which starts our story. But I was like, “There's not really any pertinent information in that, so if we're going to have a big opening well it better be something that we're already set up for and already have a location and already have the actors there for.”
So I tried to flash forward to do something more operatic and more stylized and hopefully make a dynamic opening, but still financially it wouldn’t cost us an arm and leg to do. Then I just added as many jokes as I possibly could, largely with the Jose character and then try to make it as funny as I could. I’ll be honest, it scared the producers. They were like, “This is like a comedy.” I’m like “Well, not exactly. There are some scary moments.”
Capone: There are some who like these creature feature horror films that sometimes resent too much comedy, yet some of my favorites have that comedic presence.
Capone: Sure. You mentioned EVIL DEAD; that’s the king of them.
Capone: It’s a tough balance.
MM: It is a tough balance, and they were really frightened about it, like “Wow, he’s making it really goofy.” Part of the problem, and a reason why a lot of those movies like SHARKTOPUS and things like that are more serious than I feel they should be is because SyFy Channel--not that we were making it for SyFy Channel, but the producers would love to sell it to them--have a mandate that they don’t want comedy. "This stuff needs to be taken serious. This is a real sharktopus; you must take this seriously!”
Capone: They’d rather have people laugh at them than laugh with them.
MM: Right, and I never got that; it just doesn’t make sense to me. So I really took it from the view point of like, “Look, I want to love MEGASHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS” or whatever, I don’t want to pick on that movie in particular, but those movies with those outrageous titles, I want to like them. I want to watch those with my friends and have beer and bong hits or whatever and just have a good time, but those movies aren’t very good. So what I was trying to bring in with my pass of the script was to make the movie that I wanted to watch when I hear a title like that and something that’s just fun and silly and go for laughs, but still have a few creepy moments, a few gross-out moments and make a proper monster movie.
Again, I think TREMORS was a little more what we were trying to go for. So those are kind of the changes I did, but again, the producers were scared of it, so they wouldn’t quite accept the draft I wrote. They made me scale it back and take stuff out. But in my mind said “Look, this is the movie we are going to make. They will slowly come around to it.” (Laughs) By the time Greg Grunberg and Lambardo Boyar started improving and adding more to it, it totally went back into that direction. Again, that direction is just what felt right. It just felt right to everybody, and once the producers were seeing the dailies on set and laughing with it, no one wanted to stop it. Everyone just wanted to keep fueling it and keep going.
Capone: I noted in my review the daylight aspect. You’re not trying to hide this thing, so your creature design has to be better. I know a lot of people with smaller budgets cheap out by having everything dark, but you put it all out there. You know it’s a black widow spider, so you’re limited by that, so how do you get creative within that framework as opposed to creating a monster from scratch?
MM: I think the original artwork that came with the script was a giant tarantula, and that is so cliché to me, you know? It’s been done, and usually when you see giant spiders they tend to be tarantula. I'd never seen a black widow and I just think that’s a really badass-looking spider? It’s hard shelled.
Capone: It looks designed.
MM: Yeah, it does. Nature is sometimes the best creature designer there is, and that is just a really fantastic creature and really interesting. So I was attracted to the black widow and used that as a base. Again, this is just me being too much of a geek probably, in the script it was an alien spider, and I love ALIEN, but I love the Stan Winston ALIENS warriors and the alien queen , so I was literally like, “Well, let’s make it an alien spider. Let’s make it, not Giger-esque, but Winston-esque, and so it became a hybrid between the black widow and the alien queen.
Capone: You talked last night about the effects house that you picked to do this. I don’t know what they showed you that convinced you that they were the ones, but they did a great job. I think a lot of people fterwards were talking about how good the effects were and how they didn’t think it would look that good.
MM: Neither did I. [Laughs]
Capone: When you’re talking about this effects house in Pakistan, I’m like “Is this like another ARGO thing? What’s going on here?”
MM: I know! Like I said in my Q&A last night, my first reaction when they were like, “We're thinking of this effects house in Pakistan,” and I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding me? What?” Again, that was horribly small minded of me, because Pakistan has the fourth-largest population in the world; they might have a talented designer somewhere in there, believe it or not. But software and computers become more accessible and easier to do, and there’s no reason, as they prove, that they couldn’t do it for a far cheaper price.
More so really what made them very special is that they have to go against that attitude all the time: “Well, you’re in Pakistan. We can’t use you.” So they had something to prove, and they made this their flagship movie, like “No, we can work with American companies.” We had just shot a plate outsides a car window in downtown just going forward, and then they added--it was kind of like the opening of STAR WARS where the star destroyer comes over the camera--a giant spider walking. The shot is in the movie actually, but they did a giant spider walking over and destroying buildings and stepping on cars and turning the corner. It was like, “Wow, that was great.”
I would come up with ideas, and again I’m talking about the snowballing of how everyone wanted to push it forward to their credit, which I have never had any other CG company do. They kept pushing forward too, because they wanted to prove how they could compete with American companies and do it better quite honestly. So I think they regretted it eventually [laughs]. By year two of post production, I think they were going “Maybe we should have just capped it at a 150 effects.”
Capone: There were how many?
MM: Seven hundred. Now a lot of them were just images on monitors, but all of that stuff is production value that helps, because we couldn’t afford to have all of those monitors in there. We just had little blue screens in the command center, but with their help… There are a lot of shots in the movie that you’d be shocked are CG. There are entire vehicles at the command center that I wish were in the movie more. I didn’t have enough faith that they would pull it off, but there’s a giant black vehicle that appears throughout the film that is entirely CG. It was never there. That’s what really impressed me, their vehicle work. They would put cars and crash cars that totally feel like they were there, but are all digital.
Capone: I was impressed every time when the spider was on top of the building at the end, and any time it would move a leg part of the building would fall off. It looked real.
MM: Yeah, they really went to that attention to detail. The one that impressed me throughout the film, like in the opening sequence. In the opening, all we really had was Greg Grunberg and the extras running on an empty street and they added rubble, they added cracks on the walls, they added the smoke, vehicles on fire, and it was really amazing. When you really look at it as what was there as opposed to what was finished, I mean I would swear it was real. Some of the stuff is a giveaway that it’s CG, because CG fire always gives itself away. So you see a vehicle on fire and you’re like “Okay it’s CG,” but a lot of the other stuff, certainly all of the rubble on the ground and all the pieces of building, you wouldn’t know and that was really impressive.
Capone: In the early scenes when we see the smaller spiders, how much of that was practical.
MM: I wanted to build a practical spider, and we did and there’s a reality show on SyFy Channel called "Monster Man" that we were on, and you can see the agony of defeat when that practical spider did not work. No offense to anyone; I was pretty damn honest on the television show, so it’s on record. It was a fucking piece of shit. It was embarrassing. I couldn’t believe it, and on the show, they got the moment where they presented it to me on set and I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding me? What is this?” It was just a piece of crap.
I wanted to be a makeup artist when I was a kid, so I have a real love for practical effects, and I wanted to build a spider puppet that fingers could go into, and the legs could come out of vents or turn corners or come out of a blanket and jump on a guy’s face, but it was so terrible. They didn’t even build me that puppet. They build a rod puppet, which only had one rod. It was like a spider that had a stroke, like only the left hand would work. It was just dreadful.
I hate to say this, because I love practical effects so much, but bad practical vs. good CG: it kind of becomes an easy choice, so I had to let go my love of practical. The only practical effect in there is the melting face, which was also a bit of a CG hybrid, because back in the days of RAIDERS, it’s just a wax dummy that they melted. Now, you can actually put it on the actor and have the person moving while he melted. So it was cool to see one of my favorite effects of all time from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK could be updated a little bit.
Capone: So none of the spider effects are practical?
MM: No, none of them.
Capone: Wow, even coming out of the body bag, I thought that was the real deal.
MM: Nothing. Those were all intended to be practical, so the shots are kind of designed to be practical, because I was expecting to have a little puppet come out of the body bag and come back in, but no that’s all CG. Yeah, they did a great job.
Capone: So what’s the dream here, turning this into the BIG ASS franchise?
MM: The dream! Let’s hope people download it--pay to download it--rent it, and go see it. Look, the dream, which no one seems to be that excited about, is I would love to see this as a television series. I think this would make a great show for SyFy Channel or FX or something like that, where these guys are like GHOSTBUSTERS for giant monsters. When the government fucks up and giant ants take over Mexico, “Who you gonna call?”
And that was very much my idea while we were making the movie. Obviously, they were talking early on about MEGA SPIDER 2 or whatever, and I’m like “Who fucking cares about the spider?” Nothing against the spider, but that was the villain of the first movie. I want to follow these guys. This is the heart of the movie, and I want to follow our lead characters and want to see where they go to. So I’d love to see where the government recruits them and gives them real high-end tech equipment to fight different monster disasters around the world. I think that would be a really entertaining show. No one seems to care. I tell my agents. I tell my producers.
Capone: You might have to reduce your production time by two years.
MM: [laughs] Yeah, totally. But again, I still think it’s a show we could do on a low budget. I think it would be a lot of fun, and we'll see if it happens. Tier 2 of that is that we get to make at least two more BIG ASS movies, and the honest truth is, I really like working with Greg and Lombardo that much, I just enjoy their chemistry. I just want to see them do more stuff. I feel like we are limited with 17 days on what we were able to do, so I would love to see where else we could take it and how far we can go with it. So those are the BIG ASS dreams, if you will, and we'll see how that goes.
Capone: This is where the success of the SyFy movies might come into play, because we only get one of those a couple times a year, but with a series…
MM: I’ve been a little surprised, and it might not be until it airs on SyFy that maybe they will come around, but no one seems to jump on it or see it. To me it seems really obvious that that hat would be a really good way to go. But everyone’s like, “Let’s release the movie and see where it goes and we will figure it out later.” I’ve been trying to push it earlier, but we'll see. Greg’s been on so many TV shows, he’s a likable guy, I think it’s a good fit.
SyFy, funny enough, has been a little resistant because they’ve changed their model and gone into the reality show business for a while, and they don’t do as many creature features. But now in the shadow of SHARKNADO, maybe this might change. I don’t know, maybe they will go back to the creature stuff; I’m kind of hoping. But I know that they seem to be doing less of that stuff and they seem to only be doing it with Asylum, and they only seem to be doing it with shark movies. I know MEGA SHARK VS. MECHA SHARK is just around the corner, shooting this week and probably out next. [Laughs]
Capone: Talk about pulling the cast together, especially Greg. How did you guys find each other?
MM: Someone recommended Greg, and we did go through the proper process of going through his agent. But another director friend of mine, Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed SAW II, he knows Greg.
Capone: I saw Darren’s name in the thank-yous at the end. I was going to ask you about that.
MM: For that very reason. Actually, without having me to ask, Greg called Darren going “Hey, are you friends with Mike Mendez?” He was like “Yeah,” and Darren put a really good word in for me, and then we met with Greg. He knew what the budget was; it was not very high. It was not a payday for him by any means, but he just had a great attitude and thought it was fun. He saw the little clip of the spider coming over the city that greenlit the movie, and he was in.
Then we were looking at a few different Latino actors to play the sidekick, and he’s like “Look, I’ve got the guy. I’ve got a guy that I really like working with.” It was really a leap of faith going “Alright, if this is the guy you’re comfortable with and you think he’s good, let’s do it.” That was the best decision I ever made, because Lomardo just steals the movie. He kills it.
Capone: As much as you might want to say his performance might be bordering on stereotype, then he just says something funny that is clearly in on the joke.
MM: That’s the thing. I don’t know if it’s a stereotype, because he’s a lovable character and he’s funny. I like him. I’m Latino. I think in some ways to me he’s a real positive character, because he’s a hard-working, dedicated, brave and funny character that really puts himself out there and solves the “How are we going to stop it?” question. I really took a lot of influence from BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, the Jack Burton and his sidekick, where the sidekick is coming up with all of the ideas, and Jack Burton is just taking the credit and going along with it, but really is kind of an idiot. That was kind of the approach that I took with them.
Capone: Talk about getting Lin Shaye and Ray Wise to come in.
MM: Well, one of the funny things about this movie is that it’s so low budget, we didn’t have money for a casting director. You have money, but it’s like “Do you want a casting director, or do you want an extra day of shooting?” I don’t think it was quite that much, but it was $4,000 we didn’t want to spend, because the budget was that tight. So we didn’t have a casting director, and I chose to go through people that I knew, because I’ve been making movies awhile, and all my friends are filmmakers. So over time, you get to know people, and I really literally cast out of Facebook. I just kept tabs on all the actors that I like and that I’ve wanted to work with.
Lin Shaye is a dear, dear friend of mine, because I produced a shot for Xbox that James Wan directed called DOGGIE HEAVEN, and we had gotten Lin for that. I don’t know why, I just really hit it off with Lin, and she’s been the Jewish aunt I never had. Plus, I admire her for being in NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and all of these really memorable, cool roles. She’s just a really funny, cool lady and so it seemed logical. We actually wrote the part for her, like, “How can we get Lin in here?”
She’s friends with Ray, and I had worked with Ray in the past. I do these sizzle reels to try to get my movies financed, so I had this one called OVERKILL, which I hope to make at some point, and I had Ray Wise come out for a day and do that. Basically, it was just calling people and going “Would you do me a favor and do this?” So that’s how that all ended up happening.
Capone: Even during this festival run, has that opened a few doors for you and got people talking about working with you in the future?
MM: Yeah, it’s made a huge difference, because again sadly after my last film, GRAVEDANCEERS, which maybe it’s not the greatest film, but it did well. People seemed to like it enough that it was weird that the phone just died; it was not ringing at all. But the phone’s ringing again. Not that I’m crazy in demand, and Dreamworks wants to hire me for the next JURASSIC PARK movie or anything, but there’s hope again. I do feel I will be making another film hopefully sooner than later
What really means the most to me is that I consider this my fourth feature, and this has cemented my place that I’m a genre filmmaker that’s been consistently doing stuff over the last decade or so, and what I really feel super blessed and super happy about is that every time I make a movie that I premiere at a major festival, so I had two at Sundance, one at Tribeca, and one at SXSW. I’d like to think that’s building a body of work that I hope continues, and obviously I would like to make as many movies as I can before I keel over. So I think this has allowed me to continue down that path.
Capone: If you get to make film one in this series, what would you do with more money?
MM: For one thing, the sad thing is that no matter what it’s probably going to be more expensive, because everyone’s going to want more money to do it anyway. You can only do the favor price once. So that’s the sad thing, even if we got $1 million “Wow, we got $1 million! The budget doubled!”, sadly it would probably go in salaries. I would like to get paid on the next one too [laughs]. I would like to not eat Top Ramen for six months; that would be really swell. But the honest truth is I would just like to shoot for longer. The action scenes on it, I called them thumbnails of action scenes, because we have like half a day or a day to shoot them. There’s a scene at the end when they're in like the spider nest with all the eggs and the people there, we had a day to shoot that, to light it, set it up, dress it. We had a day! So really, how elaborate of an action scene can you do? We did the best we could, but it’s not really that elaborate. It’s not that exciting. I wish I could really create sequences that have their own rhythm and bumps and peaks and valleys, have a mood. So that’s what I would do, spend more time on some of the action scenes, if possible.
Capone: You said last night that technically some of the effects shots weren’t quite done. Is that true? Are they still working on some?
MM: Yeah, it's true. It’s crazy, because we had a world premiere in March. It’s almost August; it’s still not done.
Capone: Is this different than the one that played in March?
MM: The picture’s locked, so it’s the same movie. A lot of color-correction work had been done, which was totally gone being that we showed it on a BluRay with weird scan lines from the projector. I’m sure you heard me yesterday when I mentioned we had lot’s of technical issues, which is upsetting. So in some ways, SXSW was better from a sound point of view. This was technically better from a picture point of view, because the color correction at SXSW was just a mess. It was all sporadic where some of it was done, some of it wasn’t.
Now we are in this very annoying process of quality control--QC--where we finish the movie and then they kick it back going, “No, you failed. Not good enough,” and it’s all this really technical shit. “This is two decibels too loud. The black is too dark.” It’s really annoying shit that, thankfully, I’m out of the process at this point and I don’t have to deal with it any more. I was the post super on the film, because I edited the movie; I worked with the effects company and had to put all the effects into the movie myself. So at some point, I literally worked on it for two years straight. You’re kind of like, “Enough, I really don’t give a shit about the QC report. Okay you guys, good luck. The movie’s done. It’s not going to change, it’s nothing creative at this point that I can add to it,.” So I’m out, but technically it’s still not done. By the time it comes out in October, it will be done.
Capone: That’s what I figured. Well cool. Great to talk to you.