Adam Marcus is perhaps best known to horror hounds as the director of Jason Goes to Hell, but he’s certainly kept himself busy in the intervening years. Along with his wife Debra Sullivan, he’s had great success selling scripts to Hollywood, and now has fingers in a rich variety of filmmaking pies. His latest project, Secret Santa, sees him taking up the mantle of director once more, to tell a festive tale of mince pies, mulled wine and murder. We caught up with Adam to find out more.
Tom: You’ve had a long hiatus from horror directing. How did it feel to be back in the director’s chair?
Adam: Amazing! Making Secret Santa was like going home to an old friend but finding out that they’ve become something even more exciting and special than you remembered. I mean, I started directing features when I was 23 but from the time I was in grade school, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to direct. I created two theatre companies while I was a teenager. And those companies were financially successful! They helped pave my way through NYU where I won best film the year I graduated. Making Jason Goes To Hell was as exhilarating as it was terrifying, but after I finished it, I was offered every horror sequel to come done the pike, Pumpkinhead 2, Amityville Part God Knows What, Leprechaun “Back to the Hood”, etc., but I wanted to tell my own stories.
My partner and wife, Debra Sullivan and I were lucky enough to sell a lot of scripts to major studios, including Texas Chainsaw 3D, but I still wanted to wait to get back in the director’s chair. Wait for the story that I wanted to tell, my vision without someone saying I had to stick to a certain budget, or “Oh no, you can’t do that!” I wanted control over the stories that I told. Two years ago, Debra and I stepped away from the Studio system and partnered with an amazing friend and exceptionally talented producer, Bryan Sexton, to form Skeleton Crew Productions. Now the three of us could tell exactly the stories we wanted to tell. Sink or swim, it was all on us.
And the first movie out of the gate for our new company was Secret Santa. This was the one I’d waited to direct. A balls-to- the wall “horroremdy” that is as biting and gory and as funny as I wanted it to be. And we’ve been pretty blessed. It has been getting a lot of love at some pretty incredible festivals (Sitges, Glasgow FrightFest, Portland International just to name a few), and at each we’ve received amazing reviews. I could not be more proud of the work my partners and team have done. Sometimes, to do what you truly want, you have to wait for the right time and the right project. I know I made the right decision waiting for this one.
Director Adam Marcus
Tom: How do you feel that the horror landscape has changed in that time? Do you think that Secret Santa would be a different movie if you’d made it straight after Jason Goes To Hell?
Adam: I don’t think so. Horror is one of those genres that will always go through style changes over the years, but at its core, the only thing that really matters is “are you telling a good story that frightens people”? A good horror movie is one that takes you on the roller coaster ride and doesn’t let you off until the credits roll. At the time I made Jason, horror was still more of the ugly step-child that no one wanted to admit made a shit ton of money for the studios but was rarely deemed “acceptable” for said studios. But the fans knew different and over the years they’ve have kept it alive and viable. I think with the new wave of horror that’s come out in recent years, there’s been a renaissance in the genre and it’s finally getting the respect it deserves.
As for Secret Santa being different if I’d made it right after JGTH, well, I was 23 when I made JGTH, and I’m not 23 anymore, so as with anything, as you grow, you change and hopefully learn more along with way. So, yes, Secret Santa would probably be a little different, but at it’s core would I have been biting and edgy? Would I have pushed the political incorrectness as hard as I have? I think I would have. I’m a romantic, but a cynical romantic. My sense of humor has always been a bit outrageous and that’s who I’ve always been.
All of my films have a healthy sense of humor. To me, horror is at its best when it make you laugh and then scare you! And maybe more importantly have more to say than just what’s on the surface. My heroes are people like George Romero, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper. Night of the Living Dead is not so much about zombies as it is about Vietnam. It’s about people at odds. It’s about something deeper. They Live was about Reganomics but wow was that film prescient. I mean, he could not have made a film more relevant for what’s going on right now! So while it might have been a touch different, it would still be me.
Secret Santa (2018)
Tom: For a film built around the conflict in a small group of characters, getting the right mix of characters for an explosive group dynamic is key. How did you go about choosing the personalities for maximum clash?
Adam: Well, let’s just say that Debra and I had a lot to draw on. We both grew up in pretty crazy families and we’ve both known some form (albeit not lethal) of all of these characters throughout our lives. So, you take those people and then you exaggerate their flaws, make them as vicious as you possibly can, mix in some “secret sauce”, and then let them loose.
Debra and I have written over fifty scripts together. Some I’ll take the lead, others she will. I will say that on Santa, Deb let me do a lot of the heavy lifting because she knew this one lived inside my head. We wrote the script in twenty days. That’s from first day of concept to finished draft. We’re fast but we’re rarely that fast. It poured out of me and Deb let that happen. She was busy re-writing and generating notes to challenge my logic and character relationships. The give and take was amazing. That’s why it went so fast. And it had to. We had picked a shoot date that was only two months from the first week of writing so we had no choice.
Behind-the-scenes on Secret Santa
Tom: I understand that Bob Kurtzman was able to provide the effects sequences in the film on a very small budget. Were there any scenes that were particularly challenging?
Adam: Everything is particularly challenging when you’re working on a budget, but I have to say, working with one of my best friends, and someone who truly loved the script, Bob made it easy. And he was flexible. We’d talk about what I wanted and he’d come back with “Yeah, and then I could add puss-filled boils”! That’s our relationship. We challenge each other. We push each other to make it better and grosser.
We did have some funny challenges, however. My favorite one involved one character being impaled in the back of the head with the Star from the top of the Christmas tree. Bob and his assistant Marcia Mattern had it all rigged up. One half of the star was on the back of the actress’s head and a long point of it was sticking out of her mouth. She had to hold her mouth open and then a hose alongside her mouth would pump out a huge spray of blood. But for some reason, the altitude of where we were shooting or the cold, the blood just didn’t want to cooperate and when Bob set it off, instead of spraying out in the direction we wanted it to go, it took a hard left turn and Bob ended up spraying himself. All you heard was him swearing and saying “Damnit, I love these pants!” Eventually he got it all worked out and that shot is one of my favorite in the whole film. I still laugh thinking about Bob and his pants.
Secret Santa (2018)
Tom: Can you tell us about Skeleton crew? How did your distinctive work ethic and structure impact the project?
Adam: As far as my work ethic, I am a workaholic, I never stop. When I’m not writing or directing, I’m editing (I taught myself Avid to cut Secret Santa) or teaching acting/writing/directing two nights a week here in L.A. And I want to work with people who have that same ethic. That excitement of “do whatever it takes” to make the best movie possible, that’s what inspires me.
Now, like I said before, Debra, Bryan and I had all worked in the studio system, and while we were very lucky to sell as many scripts as we did and have some of them even make it to the screen, when someone else is paying the bill, in the end, they make the decisions, not you. And that’s fair. But it wasn’t want we wanted.
So I asked myself, “Where did all the Roger Corman’s go? Why the hell have all the indy Gods forsaken us?” I mean, I know that the new norm is cast a mega-star and go to festivals with a movie that cost millions of dollars and call that an indy, but that’s not indy! Indy used to mean, we have no money but we’re going to make a kick-ass movie anyway!
Enter Skeleton Crew. We felt as though movies seemed to be bloated and sluggish. And with the rise of television and a million ways to binge, we wanted to create entertainment that was in many ways unsafe but still well-made. Just because a movie is low budget and the people behind the camera are maniacs, it should still look professional and be acted as well as any studio film. We also wanted to create an environment where filmmakers could tell stories with less baggage. Skeleton Crew is about lean and mean and about discovering new talent and telling new stories.
Behind-the-scenes on Secret Santa
When it comes to casting, alongside of making movies all these years, as I mentioned, I’ve been teaching screen acting, writing and direction for over two decades in LA, and I’ve got over 60 acting students that I work with every week. They are some of the best actors in Los Angeles. A lot of them you would know the minute you saw their faces. But they’re people who do a lot of guest spots on television, or do small parts in movies. They don’t get to break into those huge roles that their talent is deserving of. So one of the things that we do, is when we bring a director into the micro budget side of Skeleton Crew, we say, “you’ve got 65 actors at your disposal. Take a look, this is the troupe.” Not unlike Christopher Guest. I’ve got this amazing group of people who range from fourteen to seventy-five. You’ve got this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural group of brilliant performers who can do pretty much anything. The entire cast of Secret Santa is made up of people from this troupe of talents. To see these amazing actors get a chance like this has been totally gratifying.
We’re also about giving artists their shot at their dream job. One of my closest friends is a guy named Timothy Eilers. He’s a brilliant sculptor. He sculpts and creates HUGE props for movies like Guardians of the Galaxy II, and Jurassic World II, but he’s always wanted to be a composer. So I asked him to score Secret Santa, and he killed it. It’s one of the best scores I’ve ever heard. Now Tim is our company composer. Freddy John James has been working with me for fifteen years as an actor and stunt man, but he’s been training to be a stunt coordinator all that time. Well, this is his first feature as coordinator and not only did he teach the cast to do their own stunts but there was not one scrape, bump or injury during production or rehearsals! Robert Kurtzman is an amazing Make-Up artist and FX Creature creator. He’s also directed a bunch of movies. But on this movie, he not only created the insane Make-Up and extreme gore but he shot 2nd camera! Bob will also be directing one of our upcoming projects. My best friend for the last twenty-five years is John Esposito, the writer of Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift, producer of the original From Dusk Till Dawn and the winner of the Writer’s Guild award for two years in a row. He’s wanted to direct his whole career but no one will let him do it. Until now! John’s directing a film for us in 2019. This company is about giving people their shot at what they really want to do.
Behind-the-scenes on Secret Santa
Tom: I understand that you co-wrote the script with your wife Debra Sullivan. Can you describe your writing partnership?
Adam: When Debra and I met, she was writing plays and I was writing movies. One day we decided to collaborate and that was the first screenplay we ever sold. We haven’t looked back since. I love having a writing partner and I really believe that having a partner of the opposite sex is optimal. You get both masculine and feminine voices, but the funny thing is sometimes she writes the male character’s voices better and sometimes I write the female voices better. But you always have a yin and yang.
Like all writing partnerships, we had to work out how to constructively criticize each other without it leading to divorce! But seriously, we enjoy working together and I can’t imagine not working with her. We really are each other’s other halves.
Tom: Is there a key to balancing horror and comedy or do the two complement each other easily?
Adam: Darkness of horror just becomes mud. Hitchcock was a hilarious sadist. He made you laugh then scared the crap out of you. That takes real skill. Every movie I make is in it’s own way a comedy. Even Jason Goes to Hell is a comedy. For god’s sake, I blew the lead character up eight minutes into the movie. That is a sharp left turn for the audience. The left turn is where comedy and horror both live.
Behind-the-scenes on Secret Santa
Tom: The uncomfortable family Christmas is a universal, recognisable setting, and you’ve taken it to extremes. Was there a specific event that inspired you?
Adam: I can tell you that I’ve been obsessed with Christmas my whole life. Truly. My parents were married on Christmas Eve and always had a big holiday party every year to celebrate. The feeling and look of Christmas is so romantic. But as I got older and my parents divorced, Christmas Eve had a stranger feel to it. It was still beautiful but it almost became a way of my parents celebrating their divorce. And that juxtaposition fascinated me. People all seem really happy and kind but just under the surface they’re hoping the other one chokes on the Christmas Turkey. That’s why Secret Santa isn’t about a Killer Santa or a Krampus or an evil Snowman come to life. It’s about the real monster, Family.
I mean, don’t we all secretly, even if just for a moment, want to murder someone in our own family. Come on, just a little.
I have an uncle who once came to my Mother’s holiday table and started ripping pieces of the exquisite turkey my mom had prepared straight off the bird. He then tilted his head back and gobbled the meat. And he did not think he was being outrageous at all! I mean, that’s a person who you want to murder right at the table.
Behind-the-scenes on Secret Santa
Tom: Lastly, are there any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
Adam: Plenty! Up next, I’m directing a thriller called Dread. It’s inspired by a true story and my love for movies like The Raid: Redemption. It’s a high power thriller about three women trapped in a hotel run by a human trafficking ring. They have to survive the night and get the hell out of the building alive. Another film I’m directing is The Harvest, which is another thriller about a young woman trying to go to college only to find her mother, who left her family when she was just a child, has stolen her identity and destroyed her chances at a better life. She goes on a journey to find her mother and falls down a rabbit hole of evil she never expected to find.
We are also a producing a film called Fat Camp Massacre. It brings me back to my Friday the 13th days. It tackles the issues of body shaming and body dysmorphia. It’s very empowering. We love telling stories about strong women. I’m committed to making those kinds of movies. To that end, we have a web-series we’re producing called NerdGirls which is about a group of comic book creators who happen to be women. But they are never taken seriously so they decide to take matters into their own hands and create the careers they deserve.
We also have several projects with Drew Lynch from Secret Santa. He’s a great comedian but an incredible actor. We’ve just produced his first comedy special Drew Lynch: Did I Stutter, and we have a television show we’re developing with him as well.
There is so much coming down the road from Skeleton Crew. Can’t wait to share it all with the world!