“For me, I have a line. There are certain things that I won’t put in a movie.”
I’m talking with film-maker Richard MacQueen (Roaming, 2013, Anonymous Zombie, 2018), who is calling via Skype from his home in New Brunswick. It’s a face-to-face interview made possible by technology and, in a way, prompted by technology. It was while scrolling through the seemingly endless lists of movies on a films-on-demand streaming site that a question began to grow in my mind. Nestled, incongruously among the ‘triple-A’ features were such unlikely titles as Ferrante’s Sharknado (2013), Shell’s 2020 Killer Cheerleadera, and Hartl’s 2016 film, Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies.
Who makes these films, how, and why? Is there a moral element to be addressed? In search of answers, I sought out four filmmakers who generously gave me their time.
B-movies, of course, have existed since the Golden Age of Hollywood, a label for the lesser half of a double-bill, similar in principle to the flip-side of a record. As the 1950s ran out, the practice of double-packaging movies largely ceased, and the term became a catch-all, broadly denoting anything made on a reduced budget with lesser-known actors. Nowadays, pinning down its definition can be more problematic.
For producer Shawn Burkett (Don’t Fuck in the Woods, 2016, the forthcoming Stranded), content is key. “Personally,” he observes, “I think the general masses consider anything that didn’t have a theatrical run a B-movie, but B-movies are needed because we can do things that those blockbusters can’t. We can get away with more gore, more sex, without the restrictions of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America – the trade organization which represents the big five film studios). Plus in my opinion, there are so many better stories out there in B-movie-land.”
Director M. J. Dixon (Cleaver: Rise of the Killer Clown, 2015), Slasher House 2, 2016) echoes that sentiment: “B-movies,” he says, “offer a viewer an experience outside the large committee, studio filmmaking of Hollywood. Larger budget films have targets to hit and a wide audience to cater for; Meanwhile, B-movies really fill that gap, giving people ‘untethered’ creativity, a lot of the time because there’s less money at stake.”
Less money at stake and, presumably, lesser returns. So how do such features get off the ground? “Funding seems like a constant struggle,” says Director and producer B. J. McDonnell (2013’s Hatchet III). “With independent films, you are always trying to do epic things with no money. I’ve worked on huge budget movies where you get to spend a week shooting a fight in a bathroom. With an independent, you would have to shoot the same fight in six hours. On the flip side doing independent films makes you have to be quick on your feet and be very very prepared.”
“Funding is the hardest part of film-making,” says Burkett, “but once you get three-five films distributed and you constantly promote and build a social media presence, it’s not that difficult to make a living.” Dixon underlines the necessity for hard work and dedication:
“In the early days, everything came out of my own pocket. Our first couple of features were funded partially by private investment, but we realised early on that it was difficult to make that investment back, even on low-budget films. We eventually turned to crowdfunding,” he goes on, “We’re in a position now where we’re working to secure larger budgets direct from programme suppliers. But it’s been a journey to get there. It took us until our ninth feature until we really started to see any financial return.”
MacQueen’s path has been slightly different. “I did a film before Anonymous Zombie, which was totally different, called Roaming,” he says, “which was about a young artistic guy finding his way. I ended up doing a theatre release and that put me in a category where I’m now eligible for development financing.”
Government initiatives also play a part. “In my province (New Brunswick),” explains MacQueen, “30 percent of the money I spend in my province, I get back. Those were the two ways I funded Anonymous Zombie. I also pulled in a lot of favours.”
However one defines a B-movie, it seems inarguable that an astonishingly high percentage are genre films, horror movies in particular. Why is that, and why did these filmmakers choose to make movies that fall into that bracket? “Roaming is heartwarming and touching,” says MacQueen, “my next film, Mindfield (forthcoming) is a sci-fi about AI.
“The cool thing about horror movies is that they’re more accessible to people picking up a camera and trying something out. You don’t have a big star. The star of the movie becomes the monster. So, if I make a zombie movie, my star is this wild-looking zombie ready to eat someone’s face. It kinda gives the guy that isn’t known a little bit of a leg up, to grab a hold of that monster. My thinking with the B-movie,” he adds, “is, okay I’ll make one, but I won’t make a career of it. You don’t want to be the B-movie guy.”
Dixon is less ambivalent. “The reality of it is,” he says, “that the kind of films I’ve always loved are genre films, and as a result, that’s what I’ve always wanted to write and make. I also think that working in horror allows for transcendence to other genres more easily than if I were to work in the realms of art-house or drama. Using horror and its tropes and clichés as a foundation has allowed me to tell stories in almost every other genre over the years.”
McDonnell shares that passion. “Horror and action films excite me,” he says, “with horror you can bend the rules and really get creative. I enjoy all types of films but would I want to do a romantic comedy?”
There is also a practical element to consider. “Genre films are the easier way to break into the film business”, affirms McDonnell, “people always love horror.” Dixon expands on this: “In the end it comes down to the instant saleability of your product and the shorthand for that is genre. It’s easy for a customer to decide if they are going to like or buy a movie or not by looking at the cover or digital thumbnail, and quite often you only have a few seconds to connect before they carry on scrolling. This means that, for the most part, distributors are looking for genre packages to put out there, because they understand that the audience has so much choice that you have to appeal to them in the shortest time possible.”
Burkett agrees, making the point that, with a film such as 2020’s Miss Juneteenth, for example, you need a lot of promotion to communicate the substance of what the movie is about. “It’s easier to sell a horror film than a drama,” he explains, “only because more marketing and funds have to be pumped into those kinds of movies.”
How much stock do these interviewees put in ratings and reviews? “More than I should,” says Dixon, “but not enough to change. What I want to take from it (criticism) is something constructive, something I can apply next time to improve my workflow and my overall output. But I do find that a lot of criticism these days is just another form of stand-up–using films, indie or otherwise, as the butt of the joke, regardless of how good they are.”
“It really depends on the critic,” adds Burkett, “there are a few critics/reviewers whose opinions I value, good or bad. But then some people will just want to either tear the film apart, or just be completely negative. You just have to realize that you can’t please everyone and move on.”
MacQueen, too, is philosophical: “even if you make a good movie you’re gonna get bad reviews. I kind of ignore it. Some of the people that watch it don’t understand that it is a B movie.”
“I used to look at reviews,” says McDonnell, “I realized that a lot of critics don’t understand what happens in a shooting schedule. They only see the finished product. For example, say rain fell and took away half of your big finalé because production went to a halt. Well in independent films you don’t have the money to come back and finish it the next day. Unless you’ve been a crew member, director, or producer, I don’t think a lot of critics understand how difficult film-making is.”
Given the gore and nudity (sometimes literally) splattered across many B-movies, do these directors ever consider the question of what their projects are adding to the world and what impact they might have? This is the point at which MacQueen tells me, “there are certain things that I won’t put in a movie. I do think that you don’t want to…” he pauses in thought, “…I don’t want to be the B-movie guy. I’m not into exploitation and excessive violence, but I like them. They’re entertaining, they’re funny, they’re fun. It allows almost anybody to get out and make a movie like that, if they have a little bit of money and a lot of time.”
“I feel my responsibility is to make a film that people can hopefully get lost in,” says Burkett. “I want people to be able to forget about the bills or what’s going on in the world for an hour or two. That can be achieved even with excessive gore and nudity. But most people are desensitized to that stuff anyhow, so I don’t really see it having a huge effect.”
This, of course, is a complex subject. “Look at the Columbine guys Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold attacked Columbine High School in April 1999],” says McDonnell, “who were (allegedly) influenced by the violence in The Matrix (the Wachowskis, 1999). I took the Matrix as a positive message of freeing your mind. The Columbine killers saw trench coats and guns and did a horrific act. That’s an example of how people can perceive things differently.
“Gore, I think is vital for a horror film. I love the craftsmanship of practical FX. Nudity I don’t think always needs to be necessary. If your story needs nudity then do it tastefully. Don’t do nudity just because you think it will give you a better audience. I think that’s lazy filmmaking.”
“Film, like books and newspapers, affect people and there’s a responsibility to be mindful of how you approach any given subject,” says Dixon. “That said, it’s important to expect a viewer to take responsibility for their own actions.”
Concerning violence and nudity, Dixon is unequivocal. “It’s when it starts to become gratuitous that it becomes a problem. When it just becomes a way to deliver only that, it stops being film and becomes more akin to pornography.
“All film affects people in some way,” he goes on, “that’s kind of its intention. But in the case of extreme gore and horror, the people who it has a negative effect on would maybe have found a similar trigger if it hadn’t been the film.
“My entire life films, books, and video games have been blamed for outrageous acts. But it’s important that we, ourselves know the difference between right and wrong and between fantasy and reality.”
Is there, then, such a thing as a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ film? “It’s a strange thing,” says Burkett, “but, until I became a father, certain things in films didn’t bother me. Now, even with Pet Cemetery, (Lambert, 1989) when Gage dies, I tear up a bit, because I can’t imagine losing one of my kids. So generally, I don’t make films where children are involved.
“But there are films out there that aren’t positive. I can’t think of anything positive that came from A Serbian Film (Spasojevic, 2010)”
“If we’re talking about films that promote a negative outlook,” adds Dixon, “or have a negative effect on society, then we start moving back toward censorship and that becomes dangerous ground to walk on. Art needs the ability to speak for itself and it’s up to the viewer, ultimately, to decide how they feel about it.”
As a viewer, says McDonnell, “there are plenty of films I’ve simply turned off because I found them awful and negative.” As, a filmmaker, he says, by way of example, “I refuse to do rape scenes in anything I direct.”
Are B-movies and B-movie-makers here to stay? “Amazing things can happen with independent films,” says Burkett, “my film Don’t Fuck In the Woods at one point was ranked more popular than Spider-Man: Homecoming (on IMDB). In this day and age more people would rather rent something digitally, which gives the indie filmmaker a chance to compete with major motion pictures.
“Honestly, I just want to be able to keep doing what I’m doing. Making films is by far my favourite thing. But more secured funding wouldn’t hurt.”
“I think the days of B-movies becoming more mainstream are more or less, at an end,” observes Dixon. “20/30 years ago titles like Terminator, Halloween, and Friday the 13th started as B-movies and transcended their status to become juggernauts. Today it seems more about bringing those B-movie creatives into larger, established franchises.
“I’ve always said,” he adds, “that we’re about five years behind the music industry. So using that as an example, the films themselves will eventually become free, ready to view on streaming services and there will be little money left in the actual film itself. Merchandise, etc., will be where filmmakers make their money, along with delivering directly to audiences through things like Patreon.
“Ultimately, I’d just like to be good at what I do. Deep down, that’s what all ‘good’ true filmmakers want. Sustainability would also be great, but it comes quite a ways down the road from its artistry. It’s nice to be paid to do what you love, but the art of making films is more important overall.”
“I want to achieve people enjoying the ride as they watch whatever I made,” says McDonnell, “I like seeing people jump and then smile when scared. I also look back at the things I’ve done and say ‘I’m proud I made that.’ The work you do as a filmmaker will always be there for all to enjoy. Your hard work will last through history.”