Murder Party: A True Independent (Interview w/The Lab of Madness)

I am a sucker for a clever title and cover art, if you were to look at my Netflix queue you would see a bizarre collection of movies that I have no idea of what their plot or production quality is.   It is like reaching into some crazy grab bag, sometimes you find treasure, sometimes it is a plastic spider ring that barely fits on the tip of your finger.  One movie that caught my eye was a little independent film called “Murder Party”.  I could not pass up a movie that had a poster of a man in cardboard armor, wielding two chainsaws.

Part of the magic of this movie was not knowing what I was getting in to, so this review is not going to go much into the plot but into my experience watching it (and being so impressed and entertained by its dark humor). After my first viewing I was moved to contact the makers of the film for an interview (which will be included after this jump).
After a long day of saving the world from evil that lurks in the shadows, I opened up my mailbox, grabbed the Netflix shipping envelope, made my way into my study, turned out the lights, and popped the fucker into my dvd player.  The first fifteen minutes of the film were mundane and I became more interested in my aged Scotch than what was on my TV, then the plot kicked in full speed.

The quirky characters, dark humor, and over the top violence  made me feel like I was 15 again, watching films made by Troma Studios.  The clever writing, snappy editing and cinematography put “Murder Party” on a higher tier than “Toxic Avenger” or “Class of Nuke Em High” would ever be.  After completion of the dvd, I grabbed my phone and texted  just about everyone I knew to watch this movie.  I ended up screening it four times in one weekend with different sets of friends, and found the real magic of this film is screening it with beer and bong hits.

The production company of “Murder Party” is called The Lab of Madness, a group of people who have been making films together since they were in elementary school.  You really begin to notice the close ties after watching the extras of the dvd, where they interview the crew and cast (mostly the same people).  When listening to the commentary on the disc, they are simply popping open beer cans and hanging out, while offering an amazing view inside the making of an independent movie.

One of the joys of working for Monster Fresh is contacting people who do amazing things and having them talk back to you.  It is often assumed that if someone makes a movie that wins awards, they are set for life, and are sitting in a penthouse somewhere doing lines off a hooker’s tit.  In reality, most artists still have a day job, and are paying off the bills of project A, so they can start on projects B and C.  In this particular scenario, the Lab of Madness members, their day job employers, and family members funded the majority of the costs behind “Murder Party”.

I was lucky enough to get in contact with Macon Blair (Actor, Producer) and Jeremy Saulnier (Director, Writer, Producer) from the Lab of Madness to talk about their experiences in the wonderful world of Garage Film Making:

M.Hersted: I would just like to say how amazing it is to see a group get pissed off at the system, start their own damn project, and follow through. It had to have been pretty fucking amazing getting positive feedback from the independent community after the screening at Slamdance, not just once, but also for your short film, Crabwalk.

J. Saulnier: Thank you kindly, Milton! We had great festival runs in both 2004 with ‘Crabwalk’ and in ’07 with MURDER PARTY. Our embrace from the independent film community brought us great joy, but the bone-crushing bear hug we received from the cult/horror community was even better! We blew a shit-ton of money on film festivals (we roll deep) but it was worth every penny to witness genre fans laugh at our jokes and gasp at our gore.

Macon Blair: Slamdance has opened a shit-ton of doors for us. It felt right going back to them with our feature, after having such a blast there previously with the short. And all that business about not being able to party as hard there because of the thin high altitude air? That’s nonsense, we partied just fine, thank you. The response from the indie community has been really exciting, in that people either LOVE this movie or they absolutely HATE it…and I would much rather be part of this extremely polarizing kind of thing as opposed to some lukewarm “meh, it was just alright” kinda movie.

M.Hersted: The prize was a $2,000 credit at Alpha Cine, 1,000 dvds from Seraphic Studio (I assume are dvd’s of your film), and legal services at Dunkhouser, Vegosen Liebman and Dunn Ltd; did they also include some sort of trophy or certificate?  I could win ten million dollars in the lotto, but if it didn’t come with a certificate to hang on my home office wall, my mother would not be impressed.  I am just curious if anyone else needs a five dollar representation of their success on their wall to insure that one is not dreaming?

Macon Blair: My mom is very supportive but strange, violent movies are just not her thing. She takes our word for it that we did technically make a movie but unless it comes with health insurance and a fiancé, what’s the big deal?

J. Saulnier: Absolutely. The Slamdance prize was very generous, but the poster laurels and the bronze ‘Sparky’ statuette are by far the best part. Laurels put you on the radar and statuettes remind of your success when you’re paying off credit cards and pissing and moaning about ‘the industry’!

MURDER PARTY and ‘Crabwalk’ received a combined total of 7 awards from legitimate film festivals, but my absolute favorite prize is a bizarre homemade plaque with a glued-on ceramic monkey awarded to us by the DRG Film Festival (don’t bother to Google it- it’s a dude in his basement).

M.Hersted: What did you do with the winnings?

Macon Blair: Ummm…good question. Jeremy…?

J. Saulnier:The legal services for an out of state firm and the 1,000 DVDs weren’t used because we were lucky enough to get a distribution deal through Magnolia Home Entertainment. Needless to say, they print their own DVDs and our legal services far exceeded the value of the gift certificate. We preferred to use a local law firm that could give us a better overall deal. The film lab certificate was generous too, but we shot on video and again, didn’t want fly out of state to do a color correct (Alpha Cine is based in Seattle). If I had the time and resources, I would have used the prizes to crank out a new short film, but mopping up MURDER PARTY operations took every bit of my free time. So, to answer your question, we didn’t do shit with the winnings. Gift certificates from sponsors are kind, but they often prove useless to filmmakers because they end up limiting options. To be fair, in 2004, our Slamdance short film prize was a Kino-Flo lighting kit. We sold it to our employer for $2,500 and retained the right to use it whenever we please. That was a kick ass prize and we’re forever grateful.

M.Hersted: In the opening sequence you mentioned in the commentary of the film that you were starting to work on ‘Zombie vs. Unicorn Horn’.  How did that project work out (is it working out if it is still under production)?

Macon Blair: I think that was some dry sarcasm run amok on the commentary. ‘Zombie vs. Unicorn Horn’ was some kind of a running joke on set— I think we were brainstorming silly-ass movie ideas, like ‘Mummy vs. The Universe’, in which the mummy floats through space for two hours, slowly unraveling, and that’s it, that’s the whole movie. ‘Scarewolf’ was another one. The art department just took ‘em and put them in the movie.

J. Saulnier: I don’t remember saying that. We were drinking during the commentary and about 60%-85% of it is bullshit. My apologies. Although, ‘Zombie vs. The Unicorn’s Horn’ is a terrible title to waste!

M.Hersted: What was it like working with the same group of people you have worked with since childhood on such a large project with so much at stake?

J. Saulnier: It was wonderful. And, because we had been working together since childhood, the stakes really didn’t seem very high. There was a pre-existing comfort level and rapport that kept the energy on set focused on fulfilling our collective dream. Also, because we self financed the film, we had nobody to answer to. For better or for worse, total artistic freedom! It was a great way to introduce ourselves to the industry- on our own terms.

Macon Blair: A dream come true. Sounds corny but I mean that with total sincerity. One of the best times of my life and until I can do it again, my day-to-day life just doesn’t stack up. When I’m at my office job that pays the bills, the thought of getting to make another movie in that fashion is my light at the end of the tunnel.

M.Hersted: Speaking of past films that you worked on together, do you plan on releasing those movies onto the Internet at any point?

Macon Blair: I don’t know. Maybe as DVD special features on future movies?

J. Saulnier: MURDER PARTY is now available as a download on Our short films will be available just as soon as we launch our website- so within the next 20 years. Seriously, keep a look out for our shorts. Some are excruciatingly bad, but some are among our proudest achievements.

M.Hersted: You mentioned that you ended up spending more on getting the film into festivals than you actually spent on the movie itself.

J. Saulnier: Just about. We premiered the film at a total cost of about $160K. The film festival expenses exceeded $35K and delivering the film (legal clearances, foreign sound mixes, etc…) was another $40K, so the entire budget came in just under $250K. They say you can make your own ‘El Mariachi’ for $6K, but it will cost you at least $20K to properly hand it over to domestic and foreign distributors. We didn’t know that at the onset of the project, but we learned it along the way, as with many other painful lessons- and they proved absolutely invaluable.

Macon Blair: Shit’s expensive.

M.Hersted: The film was financed primarily through The Lab of Madness and your parents; have you come close to making your money back for the film?

Macon Blair: I defer to Jeremy on this. He’s got the bank book.

J. Saulnier: We’ve made about half of the total expenditures back. Which, compared to our film festival peers, it like hitting they lucky lotto! It’s a bizarre business. We made a dirt-cheap genre movie we thought would sell for at least a break-even price. It didn’t, but we get 20% of the gross proceeds from the DVD sales. If the film does well and becomes a Halloween favorite for cult film fans, we could see our money back in 10-20 years. Yikes! It’s important to note that we paid the entire crew up front and fed them well with two squares and a soup meal every day. If we deferred pay and cut certain costs, we could’ve made the film for much cheaper- but honestly, we’re too old for that shit.

M.Hersted:When working on such a large scale project, you can only use the resources that you and your friends have available to you; some of you may have had to keep your day job to help pay for the minor annoyances of food and rent. Did you have any conflicts with your production schedule when pesky things like paying rent posed a problem?

J. Saulnier: Indeed we did. We broke the production into two segments- one in February of ’06 and one in May of ’06. In between we went back to our day jobs (or freelance gigs) and saved up more cash. We lost an actor for half a day because he had to cover a bartending shift and we used stand-ins for actors when they had chores to run or gigs to attend. We weren’t paying very well, so we just had to work around it.

Macon Blair: Luckily, one of the investors was actually my boss. So he was really cool about taking a bunch of weeks off. Actually, I shouldn’t even complain about my day job. The work itself is mind-numbing but the people I work for could not be more supportive. They know this is what we really want to do, so I say “I know I just took three weeks off to shoot this movie but, um, next month I need a few more days for reshoots and then in a few months I’ll need to take off another week or two for various festivals” and they just go “Great. Good luck. Have fun.” So, in fact, yeah…my day job is awesome.

M.Hersted: I read in another interview that you ended up doing Murder Party due to another project being locked in development hell.  What was the breaking point to make you all decide to say “fuck it” and move on to another project and produce it independently?

Macon Blair: I don’t know the exact date. We were at the beach, summer of 2005, having some beers and talking semi-seriously about ‘Murder Party’ as just a goofy and fun idea. Then about three months later, Chris called me up and said ‘Hey, fuck it, Jeremy and I were talking and there’s no way we’ll have the cash to do a real movie this fall so do you wanna just make that Murder Party thing instead?” and I said yeah and like three months after that conversation we were shooting. I think because of our collective impatience it came together very very fast.

J. Saulnier: Another year had gone by and another re-write was in the works on the project in development and we wanted a break. The Lab of Madness team was at a beach house in Delaware, and I suggested expanding MURDER PARTY (a short film idea at the time) into a feature. The response was unanimous. Fuck talent: we’d cast ourselves. Fuck development: We’d greenlight it immediately. Fuck financiers: we’d pay for it ourselves. Fuck!

M.Hersted: When listening to the commentary on the DVD; I really enjoyed the fact that you guys were popping beer cans and were drunk dialing Sandy when his scene came up. It really made me feel like you guys were in the room talking about the movie, instead of a voice of someone half assing the last segment of their contract for the film. I got chills when Jeremy announced that you guys got a screening for Murder Party at a theater, and got to hear the reaction of Chris and Macon. Have things picked up on the midnight movie circuit for you since we are nearing Halloween?

J. Saulnier: Thanks! Yeah, we had a good second run at midnight shows and festivals even after the DVD release. The film plays very well with crowds. Especially drunks. We’re starting to get requests for Halloween showings this year as well. A dark theatre at the witching hour is the ideal environment for MURDER PARTY. And perverts.

Macon Blair: We’re setting up some screenings now. Gotta make your own juice, as they say. Wait–do they say that? No, they do not.

M.Hersted: Paul and Chris were the primary FX artists for the film.  Has the acclaim of your effects opened up any new opportunities for you on other projects?

Macon Blair: Paul’s an amazing makeup artist and still does some freelance work on indie films and some theater but he’s a teacher now!

J. Saulnier: Paul Goldblatt did a fantastic job on the makeup/ gore effects- especially given the extremely limited time frame he was given to put it all together (the majority of the cast was killed off in one 22hour shooting day). Chris Connolly, a good friend and fellow filmmaker, enhanced the 3rd Act chainsaw-through-the-face sequence in post production with some masterful digital After Effects work- transforming the scene into a proper gore-filled finale. Chris Sharp (the star of the film) fashioned his cardboard suit of armor from scratch, and that design became absolutely iconic (we’ve got fans who send us photos of them in ‘Brown Knight’ armor).

As far as new opportunities, a few scripts have come along but none have interested me enough to spend a year of my life making them. I’ve been busy raising a girl (11 months old and cute as hell) and buying a foreclosed property (didn’t see much money in filmmaking so I had to do something to secure a nest egg). Meanwhile, Lab of Madness cohorts Macon Blair and Chris Sharp have been busy writing scripts, novels and comics. We’ve certainly made inroads into the filmmaking industry with the success of MURDER PARTY, and we hope to take advantage of them in 2009. The film stuck in development hell is back on track and we hope to make it in the near future. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll set an arbitrary deadline, greenlight our own project again and see what happens!

After conducting this interview I went out and purchased a copy of the DVD to help show support for The Lab of Madness and await anxiously to see their follow up, until then, please enjoy some photos sent to us from Macon Blair from behind the scenes of Murder Party (click on the thumbnail to bring it to full glory).

M.Hersted out.