Following his review of the sickest film shown at this year’s Film4 FrightFest, Truth or Dare, Mike Shawcross got chatting with its director, co-writer and star, Jessica Cameron, and lead actor Ryan Kiser.
Mike Shawcross: Truth or Dare sounds like an inventive twist on a traditional but much loved formula, what is it that inspired you to tell this very dark story or make this movie?
Jessica Cameron: Well originally when I was a child and played a game of ‘truth or dare’ with my friends, I always envisioned that they would ask me to do something horrible like stab myself in the leg with a pencil. And at the time before the internet I would have to like research in books and ask librarians; who were very concerned really. If I was to stab myself in the leg with a pencil, where should I stab myself to cause the least amount of damage? So I always had this in my mind that the truth or dare games as a child never went that dark, it was always very much “call up this boy and say you like him”. You know, trivial things like that. But in my mind, I just always went to this really dark place even when I was 6 or 7. And when I grew up, I would see many a truth or dare film, or films which would try a similar concept, and none of them really went as dark as I went when I was a child, so they always felt lacklustre. And then upon moving to Hollywood I came across this like stereotypical sort of male unemployed actor and I was like, “here’s a guy I fear more than anything because he’s walking on this ledge and he’s so easily tipped off this ledge of insanity”. Then I was talking with my producer and co-writer Jonathon Higgins and the idea emerged; that concept of the truth or dare scheme happened, and I happened to know a gentleman by the name of Ryan Kiser who I felt was perfect.
Ryan Kiser: Yes indeed I am.
JC: And I was like, and now not only do we have the perfect role and the perfect character but I know the perfect guy to bring it to life. And then we kind of just let the story organically go where it was supposed to be. We knew the characters we wanted in it and then we sort of – as we wrote the script – we sort of went to where it organically felt right to go. We didn’t have any reservations, nothing was off the table, nothing was “you can’t go here”. We sort of wanted it to go where it went.
MS: So basically you left it open and as each scene played out you took it somewhere else?
MS: Ryan, as an actor, did you feel comfortable doing that?
RK: Yeah, totally. It was very organic, on-the-day type of stuff. A lot of it was in the script but, yeah, I felt really.. I mean [starts laughing] as comfortable as you could feel doing some of the stuff I was doing. But no, it was a great experience for me shooting it for sure. Something I will never forget.
MS: It seems like you have a genuine affection for the b-movie horror genre and it comes across strongly in your performance in previous films. What is it exactly that you love about the genre?
JC: You know what, well the horror genre and b-movies in specific, I really loved the fact that nothing is off the table – or at least shouldn’t be. When you are making a movie that’s outside the studio system, it really does give you a free sensibility. If you are smart, in my opinion. Where you can kind of do whatever you want because you don’t have a studio head, or multiple studio heads, telling you what you cannot do. And I really like the freedom as an actor; I’ve enjoyed the freedom for many years. As a director, I like the freedom to be able to do what is right for the character, what’s right for the story and what’s right for the role. As a horror fan, that’s what I want to see. I’ve been really let down in the last, really, ten years by studio horror films because I feel like they are all playing it safe. They’re not doing what they should, they’re not going where they naturally should progress to, but they are playing it safe by doing something that will be not-rejected by the mainstream community and as a horror fan that hurts my heart because I feel like I’m being ignored and the mainstream community who doesn’t embrace the horror genre is being catered to. I don’t think that’s fair. You know, I really want as a filmmaker– the reason why I wanted to make films, is because I feel there is a horror community that’s incredibly loyal, brilliant and beautiful and wonderful and they are not getting what they want; and I’m part of it. So I want to make movies that I want to watch, that I want to see, that will become like that movie I watched 30 years from now. So much of the films you go and see in the cinema today, I forget about right after I see them. I certainly won’t remember them five years from now. I definitely won’t remember them ten years from now. They’re generic, they’re watered down and they are safe. That’s not what I care about as a horror fan and it’s not what I stand for as a horror filmmaker.
MS: Do you think that it’s so monetary driven now, Hollywood, that that is the problem; that they need to be able to make the money?
JC: I think that they are focussing on the wrong things. Don’t get me wrong, I could care less about money.
MS: But they big studios do though, don’t they?
JC: They do.
RK: Yeah, they really do.
JC: Yes but bless them, I feel it’s hurting them. You look at the actual gross revenue that they are generating, I feel like they would be doing larger numbers if they would just fucking say “fuck It” and throw caution to the wind. They’re not. They’re playing it safe because it’s what they’ve always done. I feel they are wrong. I feel the horror fans will come out for something that’s not safe, that’s not perfect, that might be flawed but is at least trying to go where the film should be and where films haven’t gone before. And that is what I think is so brilliant about the independent community right now, is that you are seeing more and more people step up and standout and say “fuck it, this is right for the storyline, and this is where we are going”. And I, as a horror filmmaker, that’s the reason why I want to make movies. Don’t get me wrong, here’s the situation; honestly, if the studios or anybody started saying “fuck it we are going to do this right and we are going to fulfil the fans, the horror fans, as they want to be fulfilled and give them what they want”, I would be out of work. There’s nothing left for me to do. You know I’m an actor first and foremost. I’m a filmmaker honestly by force, simply because people are not doing what I want to see. And I’m the type of girl that if you don’t give me what I want, I will do it myself. I don’t fucking need you. I will make it work.
MS: As for the directional skills you need, did you just go for it, decide ‘this is what I need’, and see how you got on and learn from the experience of Truth or Dare?
JC: You know, as an actress, I’ve spent many years on sets. And sets that have been really wonderful experiences as well as sets that have not, where things have gone horribly awry. And I always like to sit back and watch and take an objective opinion on ‘did this work or not work’. So that’s really how I learnt. I would just watch and saw what was working and what wasn’t. As far as directing my own movie now that’s my approach and how I approach them anyways. I also try to hire the most talented people I can with the budget that I have. You know the DP has done X amount of films and he’s brilliant and so he’s going to make me look better. I intentionally cast Truth or Dare as I did with people who I know are phenomenal and that wasn’t a fluke. I knew they would rock the role, I knew they would be amazing, I knew they wouldn’t need as much guidance as someone who had never done this before, I knew they could handle the material. And who knew that I could be sitting here, a year and a half after filming the movie and raving about them. So I kind of stacked the deck in my favour, which I think is really smart, and that’s what they do at the studio levels. You know they hire people who are known entities, I just did it in the independent genre community.
MS: And festivals like this are crucial to the independent b-movie industry?
JC: Oh, absolutely. For a lot of amazing horror fans, this is the only chance they will get to see the film with an audience in a theatre, which is tragic in some ways but also makes them so crucial. And I think it’s wonderful coming out to London and seeing the community that has really encouraged this. It’s phenomenal to actually witness it in person. They’ve come out from all over the UK just to attend this festival, because they know that a lot of these movies that they are seeing, they’ll only get to see in this environment one time and they want to cherish that experience. It’s fantastic. And the really other great thing is that the film festival circuit does cater to us and they do an excellent job of making sure we are getting everything we could want or need. They are really an assist to us filmmakers and to the independent film community. How kind the festivals have been to me and my movie will never be forgotten. Especially FrightFest. FrightFest has gone out of their way to make me feel at home, at ease and worthy of playing my movie at such a prestigious festival, which is phenomenal.
MS: And the fans who you have met this weekend?
JC: They are [laughs], the fans here at FrightFest are in my opinion the best in the world.
MS: And you’ve been to a lot of festivals!
JC: Yes, I’ve been to a lot of festivals. They are phenomenal. Here’s the thing, they are just so pure, they are so genuine. I feel like everybody wants my movie to be amazing and they just want to watch it. The amount of fans will have printed off their own promotional materials for me to sign, it blows my mind. In America they usually wait for you to give them something to sign. Here they are printing them off on their own and a lot of times better than the stuff that I have.
RK: Oh yeah.
JC: Could you print me off 10 of those that would be great, they’re so impressive. And they are genuine horror fans. They are not just here to see my movie, they have been here all weekend and we can talk on the same level about this film that we saw that we loved. I’ve been talking a lot about The Guest which I really enjoyed, the opening night movie at FrightFest. I’ve been able to carry on conversations about the movie with people who are coming to see my movie because they are in that theatre with me while I enjoyed these films that I have nothing to do with. You know that’s what you get here, which is just so phenomenal, to actually get to speak to these people and see them face to face. I feel like they’re the people that are tweeting at me and facebooking me online, and I get to meet them, which is really enjoyable.
MS: Talking of online, you embrace social media to promote your films, do you think it’s a massive promotional tool now?
JC: I think social media is the way of the future. I think it’s the way of the future for every industry and I think the film making world is slower to the uptake than most. I think that it is just now a minimum requirement for every actor, actress as well as film to have active social media pages and to be really engaged in their audience. As an independent film maker, to me, that’s what I have as an asset. To me, I can actually have the same reach that larger films that have much bigger budgets do. Simply because I can reach them directly. I don’t need to hire a PR firm and get some mainstream press. So it’s really levelled the playing fields for those of us that don’t have millions of dollars for PR. If I am making the content that the fans are wanting to see then they will find it.
MS: Ryan, are you a big fan of social media?
RK: Yeah, definitely. I’m super active. Not quite as active as Jessica is.
JC: Yeah you should try working on that.
RK: [Laughs] No, I’m actually on top of it. I’m pretty comfortable whoring myself out.
MS: The thing is, is it actually whoring yourself out?
RK: No, it’s not really.
JC: I think it was whoring yourself out 3 years ago when you were ahead of the curve. Now it’s become an expectation. Furthermore in L.A. there is now a project that will cast you based on your social media following.
RK: Yes, I do say that in jest because it is fun and I like to interact with people who are doing and watching the same things I am. Watching my stuff, watching Jess’s stuff. And definitely social media is a great way to build any business including in the film industry.
JC: But also it’s the only way we can interact with the fans directly when we can’t physically be here.
MS: And this is it. I mean, and obviously, if you interact with the fans, the fans then think ‘yes Jessica is doing this’, ‘Ryan is doing this’, and ‘I’m going to go and see your films’. When you get people that just ignore you, you think ‘what is the point of being on Twitter if that’s their attitude?’
JC: But also, furthermore they guide my filmmaking choices. I don’t want to make a movie unless the fans are going to be behind it. That’s where I am at in my career, I need the fans and I really want to give back to the horror community that’s been so great to me. So should I make a movie that was a miss, I want to know. And the fans, not the people paying me the cheques, are the ones who will be honest with me and tell me if something is great or something is not.
MS: You need negative and positive, you just can’t feed off the positive. You need the negative to improve yourself as a filmmaker and an actress.
JC: I just realised I’ll probably get a billion negative tweets now! [Laughs] Please don’t harass me with negative tweets, I’m sorry!
MS: Do you see yourself as a modern day scream queen?
JC: I absolutely fucking do! We are now in the age of the new scream queen and I believe we haven’t seen a resurgence of the scream queen since the 80’s when she kind of died a mysterious, random, very fast death. In my opinion, from what I know about the women who were working then, they went off and got married and popped their babies and left the genre, which is tragic to me. I’m like, you can still do that and still work within the genre, it’s not an either/or situation. But I think this is a first time in my time as a horror film fan over the last fifteen years who’s really seen a resurgence of the scream queen. And I think it’s really fantastic, you know. We are able to see these wonderful amazing women kicking ass on screen. And furthermore I think we are getting these filmmakers; Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, the Soska sisters, Ricky Bates, that are writing amazing roles for women. Let’s put women who fucking love the genre in those roles that are written perfectly for them and really rock it.
MS: Talking of the Soska Twins, American Mary was a massive hit at FrightFest when it played. Do you think women directing horror films is the way to go? Do women have less morals than men?
JC: Here’s the thing, do we have less morals? That’s debatable. I have a lot of morals, I just don’t give a fuck what people think. It’s a film. Just because I feel strongly, doesn’t mean my characters in the film feel the same way. There’s a character in my movie that’s a paedophile and I do not support paedophilia, obviously. But it’s right for the character, so we fucking made him a really hardcore paedophile. By doing that I’m not encouraging it, or that ‘it’s awesome go do it’. I am simply saying that’s right for the character and was right for the story. For me, I don’t even know if it’s a male versus a female thing. I grew up in an environment where I was told always be me and that in being me people are going to love me or people are going to hate me, and that’s not my problem. The only thing I have to worry about is to be me. So every day when I wake up, that’s kind of my process. And I do! You can google it. You can buy an “I Am Jessica Cameron” tee shirt. My favourite is you can also buy a “Who is Jessica Cameron” tee shirt which is ironic because why are you wearing a tee shirt which says that if you don’t know who I am?
RK: I want one!
JC: I just try to be me. If you love me, that’s great. If you hate me, then you are entitled to your own opinion, good luck, God bless. All of the above. As far as if women can go places men can’t? I don’t know. We have the Soska Sisters who are kind of being held as the echelon of what a female film maker should be, with very good reason. They are brilliant, they are beautiful, they love what they do and they are probably the most passionate people I’ve ever met in my life. Should they be held up with regard to ‘this is what a female film maker should be’, I don’t know. I think that’s what all film makers should be; male, female, I don’t care. If you are not as impassioned as the Soska’s are about your movie then what the fuck are you doing. It’s great that we have them in the genre, I think it’s wonderful they are paving the way. I would really like to see the men step up to the plate that they’re setting and say we can be as impassioned and make as interesting films as they are. I’ve yet to see it, but I am hopeful. I think there are more women who are not getting what they want to see and that is why they are stepping up to the plate. I really can’t wait to see what the Soska’s do next. They always surprise me. I’m actually friends with them and they always surprise me. Every single time I spend time with them they blow my mind and that’s just who they are. I want to see more of that, whether you have breasts or a penis I don’t care. That brilliance, that passion, that drive. That to me is what really rises the bar of film making.
MS: Truth or Dare, which plays tomorrow at Frightfest….
JC: Oh, yes! I’m so excited!
MS: Written, Directed and starring yourself….
JC: Co-written, to be fair.
MS: Co-written, sorry. What was the overall experience like? I mean, you are dealing with the whole package there.
JC: It was the right project to do ‘all of the above’ on because when you direct a movie, you live with it a lot longer than you do as an actor. So I was really glad I didn’t do it prior to this movie. It was a lot more stressful and more time consuming than I ever could have hoped or I could ever have dreamed. It was really worth it, I could not imagine it any other way. I wouldn’t change it for the world. It was definitely very stressful. I slept one or three hours a night at most, we shot nine days over eleven, so that in another way is stressful and I cast my crew who were very talented and very much into it which was fantastic. I always said I would never do it again but I’m getting ready for my next one.
MS: Ryan, how was it working on Truth or Dare?
RK: It was great, it was really intense and I didn’t know what was going to happen until I turned up. It was funny, I was driving down there, we shot out in the desert, and I rode down with one of my co-stars Brandon Van Vliet, and one of our PA’s. And Brandon’s like “so what are you going to do?” and I’m like “I don’t know” [starts laughing] – which is scary, or not, but a lot of it just was–
JC: I’m just hearing this!
RK: [laughs] I had a good idea from what Jess and I had talked about and what we want the character to do, but I didn’t really know what was going to happen until it happened.
JC: We realised on or after the fact, that most days while filming we had to shoot ten or twelve pages, it would be like 80% of Ryan monologuing with various specific actions. We’re like “he has to turn on the camera, take out the voice recorder, turn on the camera, take out the gun”. You feel like the actions, and the dialogue.. and obviously I co-wrote the script, I should have been more aware of how much monologuing I had Ryan do.
RK: It was great though.
JC: It wasn’t until we got the lines every day, I would have seventeen lines and Ryan was like page after page after page…
RK: But it was good because I wasn’t really acting, I was just doing exactly what was right in front of me at that moment. Because I couldn’t think about the whole element; I couldn’t think about the whole of it because it was overwhelming actually. But that’s the way I like to work. I like a lot of pressure.
MS: And Jessica, what’s in the future for you?
JC: Let’s see, in my immediate future we are getting ready to make my next directorial effort which is Mania, a fucked up lesbian love story. Because I don’t like actors and I’m not really a fan of casting, I cast Heather Dorff and Devanny Pinn in the lead roles [laughs]. They are also perfect for the roles. I could take auditions from anyone, but nobody is going to nail it like these girls are. There has been a little bit of a backlash and people are like ‘why are you casting the same girls’? And I’m like ‘because they are fucking phenomenal’. If you saw my movie, you would not question why I would want to work with them again. They can do amazing performances in a blink of an eye. I don’t have to spend time trying to get a performance out of them. So we are going to shoot that and we are going to shoot it cross-country and really try to involve the fans as much as possible. I’m trying to think of more things to do to involve the fans because I feel like right now that’s the only thing that is missing. We have social media and such so they can interact with us but how do we get them more involved in the film? So if you can think of a solution to that, let me know, I’m open to hear it. I just wrapped shooting Save Yourself in Canada, which is a wonderful film in which I starred with Tristan Risk from American Mary, directed by Ryan M. Andrews, so that’s in post-production. Utero is in post-production. I shot another Christmas slasher film, which of course I love, that’s in post-production. And then we are getting ready to figure out what we are going to do for 2015 and then also settling distribution for Truth or Dare. So it’s been a busy year.
MS: Can I ask you about the distribution and funding? Do you get the film made, then worry about the funding, or do you need the funding first?
JC: You have to think about the funding to get the film made, right, because you have to pay people. I get people to work for not much, but I still have to pay them something more often than not. And I still have to feed them. And no matter, try as I might, I can’t get grocery stores to give me groceries for free. So you have to think about the funding first, and it’s a trick in and of itself and that itself alone is a skill. Luckily for us we are at the point now where we have so many people who are in our corner, but the trick is how do we balance the funding versus the fan attraction. So for Mania, you can go to www.killtheproductionassistant.com and see our interesting crowd funding, where they will put a pin your state, so we can travel to the states with the most amount of pins in them. The reason why we are doing it that way – while we do have interest from people that would give us money, however, the important thing about taking the money from someone else is they don’t want us to shoot it cross-country, involving the fans. They want to shoot it in the state of California because it’s easier and cheaper. So the hardest part is balancing the fan attraction with the movie we want to make and bringing everybody on board.
MS: And distribution, getting your films out there, is that another hurdle?
JC: It’s definitely a hurdle. I’m really trying to specifically work only with companies that see the value in what we do and people who are very heavily into social media. That’s the direction we are going for. I’m much more focused on building relationships between people. I don’t want a distribution company, no matter how great it is, to take Truth and Dare and then devalue it. Ideally I want to get a relationship with a company that will do something amazing with Truth or Dare and support everything I do. I would love to have a company that I felt strongly about that would take on Truth or Dare and then continue with as well.
MS: And Ryan, the future for you?
RK: I just want to keep on working on these films. Recently I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of complex and really dark roles. I don’t play the boyfriend – rarely. I get the roles actors like to get, so I hope to continue doing that. I’ve got a couple of things on deck that I’ll be working on late this year and early next year, that are kind of in the same vein. So I feel lucky for that.
MS: And House of Manson?
RK: House of Manson, yes. We’re super excited – the cast and crew – we are all really excited to see our own movie, because it felt really good when we actually shot it and from the clips that I’ve been seeing here and there, that my Director Brandon [Slagle] is so excited about that he has been sharing them with me on occasions. It looks good. It should be coming out towards the end of 2014 here, maybe early 2015. Maybe hitting a short festival run and some sort of distribution after that.
MS: Brilliant. Well, that’s it. Thank you very much.
JC: Thank you darling so very much.
RK: Thank you.
JC: I can’t wait to see you at the screening.
MS: Truth or Dare should play exceptionally well at FrightFest.
JC: I hope so. I’m hoping someone will vomit in the vomit bag. We’ve had people pass out, we’ve had people run out, we’ve had people vomit but they always made it to the toilet. Nobody vomited in the actual bag! That’s what I made them for!
RK: I’d love to see that. Use the bag if you are going to vomit! Don’t hurt yourself, use the bag!
MS: People just want them as souvenirs.
JC: If you vomit in the vomit bag, I will send you another one. We will mail you a fresh one. No, actually, I’ll mail you 5 so you have extra, so when you watch it on DVD, you don’t ever destroy your final one.
Truth or Dare played to UK audiences at the Film4 FrightFest 2014 in Discovery screen one. Check out the red band trailer above or read what Failed Critics thought of the film here, including our full review.
Check out the House of Manson trailer here.