After the hustle and bustle following the smash debut of Abominable (2006) this past May in theaters and early April on the Sci Fi channel, I got a chance to speak with writer and director Ryan Schifrin from his southern California home.
This up-and-coming writer/director is making waves in the horror scene with a new spin on the traditional monster flicks. Abominable tells the story of Matt McCoy (Preston Rogers), a crippled man with a tragic past. Living in the mountains, he witnesses a group of college girls get decimated by none other than Big Foot himself. When he’s met with ridicule by the local police McCoy takes responsibility to save the surviving members of the necessarily hot college group.
Rising above the financial restrictions of the low-budget horror ranks, Schifrin weaves an iconic thriller using some of the best genre actors out there. The product: an extremely entertaining film that has garnered wide support from the horror community and helped name the director the “Future of Horror.”
Now let’s get down to brass tacks and talk with the filmmaker himself.
Mania: For all of our readers who haven’t heard of you can you tell us a little bit about yourself; have you always been interested in filmmaking? What got you tuned into the horror genre?
Ryan Schifrin: Yea, well my dad’s a composer, Lalo Schifrin. So I grew up around the film industry and have been watching a lot of films from an early age. Since I was about 8 I was making films on Super 8 and then later I got a video camera. All through high school and even in elementary school I was making movies with my friends on the weekend. Just doing it for fun and not even thinking of it as a career. Then when I finally realized you could actually go to college and major in film as a career I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do. So I went to USC Film School and after USC I did a short film Evil Hill and then Abominable was my first feature.
RS: Yea it’s a spoof of Notting Hill showing the origins of Dr. Evil (laughs). I did it with a lot of friends of mine that I went to USC with. Tim Dowling was one of the guys who also wrote the story for George Lucas In Love (1999) and he’s now gone on to be a major screenwriter, I think he’s writing a Vince Vaughn movie now. A lot of the people that I worked on that film with have gone on to have successful careers which is cool to see. We were on this site called mediatrip.com with the film and then it also debuted on the Sci Fi channel on a show called Exposure and yeah we shot on 35mm and it was an epic little short (laughs).
M: I know you personally have written several screenplays, why choose Abominable to be your major directorial debut?
RS: Well I love horror movies. I sold the screenplay to Alcon for them to produce as a comedy and you know the short was a comedy I realize that just without even planning it everyone saw me as a guy who only does comedy. And I actually see myself as more of a genre guy. I saw Halloween when I was 8 and that’s one of my favorite all-time movies. I’ve always loved horror movies. Even in high school most of the stuff we were making was horror. So I wanted to kind of find time to direct and get out of writing and into directing. When you have a low budget horror is a great genre to break in with.
M: Speaking of Abominable, I know it’s really nothing new for a horror protagonist to have to try and convince a disbelieving supporting cast of a monster’s existence, but your take on combining the deep psychological undercurrents of Rear Window with a cut-em-up monster slasher is a very unique kind of synthesis. Aside from Hitchcock were there any other influences that inspired or shaped this idea?
RS: Yea there was, a Twilight Zone episode called “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” with William Shatner seeing a monster on the wing of the airplane and no one believes him. So that was a big influence and then you know things like Friday the 13th and ‘80s slasher movies and movies like Pumpkinhead. And also stuff like Signs and Close Encounters and those kind of movies about the unexplained phenomenon, we kind of blended all that stuff together.
M: In production was it a bit of a trip working with such horror pros as Lance Henriksen, Jeffrey Combs, and Dee Wallace Stone?
RS: Oh yea because you know I grew up loving their films. I think any actor whose films you’ve grown up watching over and over I think you’re going to be star struck when you meet them. It doesn’t matter who it is, it’s whoever you loved as a kid you know? I was nervous when I met them at first, me being a fanboy. But they were awesome. They were very excited to be there and really excited to collaborate and they had their own ideas about the characters and the wardrobe so we just immediately started talking about how to make this thing cool. We became friends and after a half hour you forget about being nervous and hey, you got a job to do.
RS: You know I’m really happy the movie even came out. We had such a limited amount of time and money to work with so I think we were very ambitious with what we were trying to pull off. I thought we really achieved pretty much most of the stuff we set out to do within those limitations. So I’m thrilled, I mean I saw all the bullets that we dodged (laughs). When you realize after the fact all the other things that could have gone wrong and jeez… it’s scary. But we actually got lucky. The things that could have shut down the movie, we managed to avoid that stuff.
M: I understand you guys were under a pretty damn tight shooting schedule. What was it, about 28 days?
RS: Yea it was under a month and a lot of it was outdoors, at night, when it was snowing on us. That slows you down (laughs).
M: Did the fact that you also wrote the screenplay for this film heavily influence how you ran the production? Was it hard incorporating new ideas or defending your own?
RS: You know my key collaborator on this was our DP Neal Fredericks who also did The Blair Witch Project so we basically got together and shot-listed the whole film together and had the whole thing storyboarded. He and I were completely on the same page, so then it was just a matter of communicating these ideas to everyone else and getting them on the same page. I recommend this to every filmmaker: the DP and the director have to really work well together and click. If you have that it makes it very easy to incorporate when someone has a good idea so you can still be flexible. But at the same time when you’re doing low-budget you have to have a solid plan.
M: Definitely. I bet it’s kind of rare in this industry to work on a project with an immediate family member, let alone your own dad. What was it like to do the scoring with Lalo (Mission Impossible, Enter the Dragon)? Did you two butt heads at all over creative control?
RS: (laughs) You know it was a trip. One of the cool things being the son of a composer I got to go to his scoring sessions, got to watch how he worked with other directors. So when it came time for us to work I kind of remembered what those other guys did but also because we’re family I could kind of cut around a lot of that stuff. It was actually very easy to work with him. We spotted the film together, we sat down and said where there’s going to be music and what emotions we need at certain sections. Over the years though I’ve learned how my dad likes to work and he likes to be trusted. He doesn’t need to be micromanaged and he’ll do a better job if you let him do his own thing. So we didn’t but heads at all. I gave him that creative latitude.
M: I take it you were both happy with the outcome?
RS: Yea I was ecstatic when I heard the score. He didn’t do any mock-ups for me I just wanted to hear it when he had the orchestra. And yeah he was happy with it. He had a 90 piece orchestra doing the music so he got all the tools and treated it like it was a big studio film.
M: I guess it pays to have a family member high up in that area of the industry.
RS: Yea it was really lucky for me that I could just call up dad and have him do this.
M: Well it seems like you played your cards right for Abominable. I understand both LA and New York premieres sold out and it was the #1 rated show on the Sci Fi channel the week it first aired.
RS: Yea the response has been amazing. The whole horror community has been very supportive of it. From fangoria.com to all the other horror websites they really helped us promote the film and got behind it. And the fans and everyone else has been great. We didn’t have a ton of money for publicity so it’s all just been based on word of mouth. And we had some really lucky things happen like we were on ABC “Nightline” and they covered our premiere in New York, which is something you know you could never plan for.
M: Yea how does that feel to go from someone who was relatively under the radar to what Nightline coined “the Future of Horror”?
RS: It’s completely surreal, you know. We just from our point of view wanted to make the best film we could and try to get it to the widest audience as possible. Our goal was to entertain people. We wanted everyone’s hard work to be out there and the whole film was such a team effort from everybody workin’ their asses off for very low money. We wanted to get their work out there and get it appreciated. This kind of thing has just been a dream come true. It’s better than we could have ever hoped for.
M: Looking in terms of your future career, I know there’s no argument that the horror genre itself is rapidly expanding. What will you do in the future to differentiate your work or to establish your own niche in this increasingly competitive horror market.
RS: That’s a great question. You know I think there’s trends that you see, on the one hand it’s great because there’s a lot of variety in horror like you have things like The Grudge which is PG-13 that you have the young teen girl audience going to and then you have things like Hostel which has a much harder edge to it. So I love that there’s a variety out there. But as you said there are certain trends that may get beat to death like the torture subgenre so I’ll definitely probably stay away from that. I just finished writing something that I would love to do as my second feature which is action bordered with dark comedy. I feel like if there’s anything missing its things that I grew up with like Raiders of the Lost Ark, that kind of tone.
M: Can you tell us anything about this second feature?
RS: It’s still under wraps but it’s something that I feel like… well what I will say is one of the new scenes that we shot for Abominable, the last thing we did was a 10-minute sequence with Lance Henriksen and if you watch that scene the tone of that is kind of what I want to expand, that kind of feel, for a full-length feature.
M: You mentioned in another interview that one of your influences growing up was the author R.A. Salvatore and that one of your spec screenplays you wrote, Wimpy, is an action-comedy with some elements of fantasy in it. Would you ever consider directing a fantasy piece or maybe combining the fantasy and horror genres in a future project?
RS: I would love to. I actually wrote my own fantasy trilogy and have all the screenplays completed. I love fantasy. That is my dream one day to direct an epic fantasy movie. If they don’t make Salvatore’s Dark Elf Trilogy and my career ever got to the point where I could do that with some horror elements to it, that’s what I would love to direct.
M: I’m sure we’re not the only ones that would love to see it.
RS: With the success of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and Narnia fantasy, well you know horror for a long time didn’t get any respect and now it’s getting the respect it deserves, but fantasy is the same as well. Thanks to the success of those films you know people see how profitable fantasy can be. For the longest time there barely was any fantasy. It’s a lot more expensive to do than horror but when you do it right you see worldwide there’s such a huge audience for it. I love fantasy, so it’s a great time to be a horror and a fantasy fan.
M: So for all those who missed Abominable airing on the Sci Fi channel how can they get their hands on it?
RS: It was just released a little bit ago through Anchor Bay so you should be able to pick it up now anywhere DVDs are sold.
M: Alright that about does it. On behalf of Mania.com I’d like to thank you again Ryan for being able to speak with us.
RS: No problem Pat.