Tips and Motivation From an Indie Literary Author Turned Pulp Horror Film Director
When I first met Owen Egerton, something like 15 years ago, he was a creative-writing instructor, or maybe even a graduate student, at Texas State University, and also an Austin comedian who performed in a funny local Mystery Science Theater 3000 style troupe called Mr. Sinus. That troupe had to change its name to Master Pancake, for what I assume are legal reasons. But now, this is his bio:
Owen Egerton is an award winning author and filmmaker. He has written and directed three films, Mercy Black, Blood Fest and Follow. His books include the PEN Southwest Book Award for Fiction Hollow, How Best to Avoid Dying and Everyone Says That at the End of the World. He also co-authored the creative writing guide This Word Now with his wife poet Jodi Egerton. He also hosts The Write Up on KUT-FM and the One Page Salon reading series.
He’s come a long way, baby. But most surprising, to me, is the fact that Owen evolved from being a hopeful indie literary-fiction author to being a pulp horror director. Netflix recently dropped his latest movie, Mercy Black, produced by Blumhouse, in the middle of the night, putting an exclamation point on one of the strangest and most interesting career transitions I’ve ever witnessed. I emailed Owen a few questions, and he responded. Here’s our interview.
NP: I’ll admit that, when you started directing independently-funded low-budget horror films, I thought we were veering into Ed Wood territory. Thankfully, I was wrong! What prompted your decision to start making your own movies?
Owen Egerton: I’m actually a fan of Ed Wood. He loved what he did. Worked his ass off. And he never let anything stop him, including lack of talent. That’s admirable.
I jumped into making horror movies because I love movies! That sounds a bit too easy, but there’s something mythical about films. And I love the process of filmmaking–the collaboration, the mad rush, the finding answers to problems both on the page and on set. All these elements slamming together to make this one thing, this film.
Years ago, played in a band called the On Going Wow headed by Timothy “Speed” Levitch and Jerm Pollet. We were playing at Richard Linklater’s The Waking Life premier party. Speed was in the film with lots of Austin folks. I remember sitting in the theater being amazed that these folks we’re part of a film! An actual film! Part of a neo-myth! How cool is that?
NP: You’ve spent years trying to sell scripts to Hollywood. Did you become frustrated with the existing system? How did you fund your first movies?
Owen Egerton: Actually, some aspects of system are great. It paid some bills and kept me insured. I worked for a quite a while for different studios selling scripts, doing rewrites, pitching ideas. I was working with two others and we focused on big studio comedies. But my heart was in horror.
What was most frustrating was seeing things not get made. You can have a decent career in Hollywood and never see a script make it to screen. That irks me. I knew no one was going to reach out and ask me to make a film myself. No one was going to give me permission. So I gave myself permission. I wrote a script I knew could be filmed for a low budget. I teamed up with producer Seth Caplan (who has been a producer on the three films I’ve directed). An Austin indie film hero–Neil Wilson–was our very first investor and Chris Colbert came on with more investors and we made the film FOLLOW. We did a lot with a little. So much work and so much fun.
Blood Fest was produced by the Austin-based Rooster Teeth, a wild-ass company of creatives crafting massive amounts of content. Blumhouse and Divide/Conquer helped Mercy Black happen. Those folks are constantly making films. I love working with people who are eager to create, to get the cameras rolling.
NP: Your fiction, while it certainly contains some elements of fantasy and the supernatural, is more literary than genre-based. So what attracted you to making horror movies?
Owen Egerton: I’m not sure why my novels are more literary and my films are more blood-soaked genre. I’m a little confused and not particularly focused. I like salt in my ice cream. I like butter in my instant Nescafe. My friend and manager Allard Cantor recently told me that my novel-writing-self and film-making-self needed to go out for a beer and talk things out. I’d like my next screenplays to have a bit more novelistic sensibilities–to go a little deeper with a little more character. And I’d like my next novel to pop and thrill with some genre flash.
NP: Book writing, and I know this from experience, can be lonely, thankless, unprofitable, and disappointing, almost by definition. Given that you’re having success making movies, do you plan to continue writing books?
Owen Egerton: I do plan to keep writing books. I’m working (ever so slowly) on one now. I love writing prose, that flow that comes when the words moves faster than the thought, when the images surprise me as I type them. Every moment on a screenplay is accounted for. Every page equals money and time in production. But a book can sprawl, can divert, can lead you (writer and reader) into lost places. I’ve never been paid much for books, but I think I’m a happier person for writing them. My last novel HOLLOW cut me deep. It was hard as hell to write and taught things. Feels like it’s the method in which I’ll work out my salvation–if at all possible.
NP: You have a strong comedy background, yet your movies aren’t comedies. We’re definitely in a golden age of horror movies, and definitely not in a golden age of comedy movies. Do you have interest in writing and directing a comedy, even a horror comedy?
Owen Egerton: Well, Blood Fest was supposed to be a horror comedy, but if I have to explain that, it’s probably a bad sign. I do love how comedy and horror both deal with expectation and surprise, tension and release, rhythm and snaps, set up and punchline. Comedy and horror are the only genres that ask for an involuntary audible reaction from the audience, a scream or a laugh.
NP: While you didn’t exactly break into movies “late in life,” you were still in your 40s when you did your first feature. Do you think you would have been able to do this at age 25 or 30, if you’d had the connections or opportunity? Or was this just the right time?
Owen Egerton: I had friends making films decades ago. I thought that was so cool. But I didn’t think I had the chops. I was trying to figure how to write novels and effectively fall around on stage. It would have been fun to jump into filmmaking earlier.
But I did learn a lot while writing screenplays and also watching movie after movie at the Alamo Drafthouse with the Sinus Show and Master Pancake Theater. We riff jokes over movies, so we end up watching one film dozens of times. That’s an education! Watching a single film-any film–four to five times a weekend and you’ll learn stuff. Then I’d stick around and listen the Alamo programmers like Kier-la Janisse, Lars Nelson, and Zack Carlson wax poetic about bizarre films I’d never heard of. That and many a trip to Vulcan Video was my film school. So perhaps it was just the right time.
NP: Mercy Black had an unusual distribution model. How did that come about? Whose idea was it? Were you happy at how it played out?
Owen Egerton: I’m thrilled to have Mercy Black on Netflix. The surprise drop was the idea of Blumhouse and Netflix together. They held back all press, all teasers, and all publicity until the film was on the platform. I was little nervous, but it turned out great. They’ve been doing cool stuff via social media, clips, Tweets, behind-the-scenes tidbits. Reviews had been held back till the film dropped. The first one I read was the LA Times at 3 AM on the day the film came out. The headline read “Don’t Watch Mercy Black…” I gulped, devastated for a horrible moment before I noticed the rest of the headline. “…Right Before Bed” It was a great review, thank goodness. It’s been fun to see my film out in the world!
NP: And what advice do you have for those of us who, after decades of frustration, have still never seen a camera roll? Is there hope?
Owen Egerton: This may be the saddest interview I’ve ever done! It’s like second act of Les Miserables sad! And yes there is hope. But it’s true. The entertainment world can suck the life out of a writer. It’s tough to keep your head, and even tougher to keep your hope.
It’s a weird time in film. But it’s also a wild time. More and more things are being made. We have better cameras in our pockets than the one I used to make my first film. Amazing editing equipment on our laptops. And so many cinematographers, gaffers, actors, directors hungry to be a part of something.
Way back in the early 2000 my buddies Mike Akel and Chris Mass started making movies. They made CHALK, which did pretty well. They made it here in Austin with friends, and other creative film-junkies. While crowds of writers, directors, etc. huddled against the gates of Hollywood, they built a pole-vault pole and flew over the gate and smack into the theaters. No one got rich, but they made movies!