Splatter is a new three-part mini-series directed by Joe Dante and produced by Roger Corman, starting on the Horror Channel Friday 24 September at 22:55. Episode one will have its UK TV premiere on that date, after which the audience will vote on which character should be killed in the next episode (via the Horror Channel website). This means that the versions of episodes two and three broadcast in the UK may turn out to be completely different from those shown previously on American TV. To understand the mechanics of interactive storytelling, Alex Fitch spoke to director Joe Dante about the series.
Alex Fitch: Splatter is about to premiere in the UK, and it’s interesting that the last time we spoke it was at a screening of your first film, The Movie Orgy, at the Cine-Excess cult cinema festival. While Splatter is very new, it also harks back to your earliest projects…
Joe Dante: True! Home-made, I think is the phrase!
Was that something that attracted you to this project, working with Roger Corman again, doing something that was a tongue-in-cheek love letter to exploitation?
Yeah, it was kind of a goof, really… Roger proposed this idea to me in excited tones over dinner one night and he said: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could have a series where there’s a bunch of people in a house who are gonna be murdered and the audience gets to choose who dies in the next episode?’ and I said: ‘How would that work?’
He said: ‘The way it would work is that you shoot the first episode and you run it. Then you take the votes the night it runs, you write the next episode based on the votes, you shoot it and premiere it a week later. You do it again for the next episode.’ And I said, ‘Roger, there’s a problem with that!’, which is that you have to keep all these people on retainer for the whole period and you have to shoot, edit, score, transfer and put the thing up in a record amount of time. I think this went back to his days when he used to make movies in two and a half days; he used to make them in that time, but he didn’t edit them in two and a half days!
So I said: ‘Roger, I think what would be more prudent would be to shoot all the possibilities of murders and choose to air the one that the audience would vote for.’ That way you have a whole series that you can run in various places in various times and the audience would have the luxury of choosing different people to die and it would all be covered. He realised that would probably be a better idea, so that’s the way we did it, but it was still done in record time!
This series was first aired in America last year, which led to voting from an audience in one certain direction, but now it’s being shown in the UK.
We made a deal with a company called Netflix, which sends rental DVDs through the post, and they wanted to get into video streaming, to show people that they could show films directly via the internet, without having to post films in boxes back and forth. Ours was their test case to prove that they could stream material successfully to people’s computers, and so they were partners on the series, but when time came to pick up the entire series for redistribution beyond its first screening, they only wanted the three episodes that appeared on their site, the ones the audience voted for – we owned the rights to the rest of them. I think if you go to the Netflix site, you can still see the three episodes that were run, but of course the series is designed so that those three episodes wouldn’t always be the same three that were run if it was aired again.
The British audience may vote in an entirely different way to the American audience, so this new run on the Horror Channel may actually be the premiere of one or two of the episodes.
Totally! I think any new audience is probably going to vote differently because the idea was to fill the programme with unlikable people! It’s a rock star’s funeral and all the mourners are hangers-on and people who basically used him. He’s now come back from the dead and he’s going to get revenge on all of them. It’s based on the idea: ‘which characters do the audience want to see die?’, which I guess is a negative way to approach it if you’re an actor, but it’s sort of a triumph if you get picked, because it proves that you managed to be more odious than the person next to you!
Certainly in the current climate of Z-list celebrity culture and reality TV, it’s all very well that someone gets booted out of the Big Brother house or dumped into a tank full of snakes in the outback, but actually I think a lot of the audience would like to see these characters on TV meet a grisly demise!
(laughs) I’m sure!
How involved were you in the casting of the series? Corey Feldman, for example, who actually is a star of reality TV, plays the lead role of the zombie rock star and seems very much cast against type. I didn’t recognise him until I saw the credits.
I hadn’t worked with him since The ‘Burbs (1989), which was a while ago. He’s obviously gone through a lot of changes, he’s pretty much a completely different person, but he was very eager. He loves make-up, he loves horror and he’s got his own band, so it was great to get him! There wasn’t a lot of money involved, so most of the rest of the cast did it just for the fun of doing it.
Also, I imagine the opportunity to work with you and Roger Corman was very attractive.
I would guess that would put a slight stamp of legitimacy on it! (laughs) But these webisodes are a new thing – there are a lot of these going on right now and it’s an interesting new form of storytelling. I think the webisode idea in itself is going to survive, but the idea of interactive storytelling has its limits. If the audience gets to choose what happens, it becomes very difficult to have a point to the story. You can imagine that if Midnight Cowboy had been interactive, the audience would have voted for them to strike out earlier on and move to Beverly Hills!
Also, many webisode serials I’ve seen online have been very much tied in to TV shows. There was a Battlestar Galactica webisode, but the main series didn’t actually reflect its plotline, in which a major character was revealed to be bisexual, so that can delegitimise the new format.
There’s a new show coming out in the USA this fall called The Event, an NBC series that has some kind of apocalyptic content – it’s hard to tell exactly what it is – and they apparently decided to create a character who only exists on the internet for audiences to consult as to what is going on. It’s a fairly clever idea because I think the networks have now realised that the audience of people who don’t have internet connections is growing smaller and smaller as, frankly, their older audience dies off! Their new audience embraces every technological miracle that comes along…
What were your considerations shooting something that might be primarily seen online? Did it affect the way that you lit and shot it, or did you just treat it like any other filmic project?
You couldn’t shoot it just like any other film, as it has its own unique needs. For example, in the script, there are several different versions of each scene, depending on who is currently still alive! When you shoot the scenes, you have to set them up where you can move one actor out and move another actor in and have them say the lines in that version of the script. So it becomes a kind of assembly line of changing actors. You shoot a master shot and then you shoot all three or five versions of however many characters there are. When you do the close-ups, the cast always have to be on call because even if they’ve been killed off, they have to survive in at least one version.
It frankly can get a little wearying – you can get very easily confused as a director as to where you are in any given scene. When the writer, Richard C Matheson, wrote the original story, he didn’t account for every single possibility of transitions depending on where people were and whether they were existing or not… So it was quite a jigsaw puzzle to edit. It was a solvable problem, but it was not like any other film I’ve ever made, and I don’t think I’ve ever made a film as fast as this one! Even my first picture, which was made in 10 days, was a breeze compared to this, because it was so labour intensive.
I suppose to allow for all the possibilities in the interactive plot, you must have shot the equivalent of seven episodes in total?
Actually 10! There are 10 episodes in all… The first episode is always the same, and then the others vary depending on the audience vote. There are more versions again of the last episode than the middle. The exact details escape me, because I probably never quite understood them anyway!
As there are many episodes that might never be seen when the series is showed in different territories, could you eventually consider a DVD or Blu-ray release that would include every episode?
I think it would be an ideal party DVD. There was an incident supposedly 10 years ago in an interactive project where the audience had buttons on their seats and when they pressed the button, it would tilt the story one way or the other. Apparently there were fist fights because it wasn’t a very democratic audience and people who wanted their way would leap over someone else’s seat and push their button to get their way! So, that’s another reason why I don’t think interactive storytelling has such a terrific future…
Interview by Alex Fitch