Sweetback (SB): 2012 is a bit of a landmark year for you. Not only does it mark your return to film-making, but it also marks the 20th anniversary of your first widely released film EVIL NIGHT. How does it feel to be back in the film-making saddle after all this time?
Todd Jason Cook (TC): It was like a dream to come back after a hiatus from 1998-2008. It’s hard to believe my first released film just hit its 20th anniversary. I am extremely happy to be doing what I always did once again.
SB: I’ve read interviews where you’ve spoken at length about some of your initial childhood influences, but can you talk about your childhood in more general terms? Did your family support your various creative endeavours? Were music and films something that you were surrounded by as a kid?
TC: I was raised in the entertainment industry from birth. My father was heavily involved in the music industry and I was always surrounded by music celebs, industry people, etc. and wound up meeting some amazing people as a very young child. I met Paul Stanley from KISS with NO make-up in 1977 which was a bizarre and amazing experience and to this day I still have the autographed picture he signed for me. I got to see a lot of great bands like Van Halen, Rush, KISS and many more before I was even 10 years old. It was an amazing time and I became a drummer at 5 years old.
In 1980, after watching the original FRIDAY THE 13TH, I grabbed my dad’s Super 8 film camera and started filming and making my own FRIDAY THE 13TH style home movies by myself and with my friends. My idea of playing after school was always movie-related. In addition to filming Super 8 movies I was making what I called “audio movies” by recording my voice with a cassette tape recorder in the room as I acted out scenes and I would also play the FRIDAY THE 13TH Parts 1-3 vinyl record album out loud to capture score music.
I’ve wanted to direct FRIDAY THE 13TH films since I was 8, and it was that series that turned me into a director, period. My parents were supportive to some extent. They thought I was just being a creative kid and I don’t think they knew to what I extent I was really becoming a film-maker til later, but they supported me by letting me make all these movies and never telling me no. Occasionally my dad helped me with filming a few shots here and there when I was on camera. I was shooting movies every chance I could get and I am very thankful for the support my parents gave me as a child. I was able to direct feature length movies beginning when I was 17 years old and I had already directed 3 full length SOV flicks by the time I was 19, just before I directed EVIL NIGHT in 1992.
SB: Here at NO-BUDGET NIGHTMARES we love the work of Todd Sheets, who in many ways was the godfather of low-budget genre film-making. We, of course, wish him a speedy recovery from his recent health issues. Can you talk about your relationship with Todd, and how his work influenced your own early films?
TC: I first heard about Todd in 1993 after seeing his movie Goblin and I called him up on the phone and introduced myself as the Todd from Texas who was doing the same thing he was. It was really cool talking to another Todd who had been following a similar path with myself. It turns out we had a lot of similar influences and favorites and we talked for quite a while, and eventually I took a trip to KS, MO to stay with him for a few weeks and hang out in 1994. We had a BLAST and it was so much fun! He and I had talked about how fun it would be to work together back in those days but we both got so busy with our own production companies that to this day we have not yet connected on that, but are still hoping to.
I have been talking with him here and there and he was working on a film which he wants me to work on with him but now his health comes first and he seems to be really recovering nicely which I am thankful for. Hopefully we will one day get together!
SB: You started your production company HORRORSCOPE FILM PRODUCTIONS back in 1992. Can you talk about the low-budget film landscape back then? Certainly the tools were fairly primative compared to shooting and editing on digital, but what were some of your biggest initial hurdles?
TC: In the beginning things were still relatively easy considering I had the equipment I needed, it was just done differently. I had already directed 3 feature fan films and endless horror shorts by 1992 so I had the process down. I was shooting on 8mm video and using 8mm editing decks etc. to do movies. The hurdles were never technology hurdles. I remember having a few actor hurdles on EVIL NIGHT but the movie was completed without anything being affected. I handled so many tasks on my own back then and I think it was an asset in that I knew I could count on myself to make sure everything turned out and got completed so I took on a lot of responsibilities, but I am glad I did.
SB: Now, it’s no surprise that we love DEATH METAL ZOMBIES around these parts. Moe and myself even recorded a lengthy podcast devoted to it. Why do you think that film initially struck a chord (no pun intended), and why do you think it’s still being watched nearly twenty years later?
TC: When I made DMZ, it was my first zombie film and I wanted to incorporate a slasher film aspect as well, which I did, in a minimal way that didn’t really pertain to the story. It was like the movie had 2 different stories going on and the slasher one was not explained on purpose. I really wanted to make a campy, schlocky, fun and bizarre zombie film that had some strange elements to it. I always made films for myself, not for a mass audience and I believe that DMZ is the one film I did in the early years that developed the largest cult following as a result of its wackiness. The movie was never supposed to be more than it was.
I intentionally made my films campy, fun, goofy, odd etc. and back in those days, that was an accepted style. I loved movies like HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS, SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-A-RAMA, etc. so I wanted to make camp films. DMZ probably gained its popularity because of its weirdness, which is what I set out for.
SB: You had a lengthy break from directing that lasted over a decade. What were you doing during that time, and what prompted your return?
TC: I had to focus on my pro skateboarding career from about 2000-2007. I was in Tony Hawk dvds, was involved in the Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4/Underground games, did tours, magazine interviews, demos, appearances and also wrote, produced and directed 5 full length skateboarding films during this time. After being unable to direct horror for those years, I was far more than ready to get back to normal and return to what I truly wanted to do.
SB: ZOMBIEFIED is a direct sequel to DEATH METAL ZOMBIES, and brings back some of the cast of that earlier film. Had you maintained a relationship with much of these cast members over that 15 year gap, or did you actively have to track them down?
TC: ZOMBIEFIED is actually not a sequel, it’s a re-envisioning of DMZ with a modern day setting that is its own story. I simply took the concept of DMZ and wanted to make it as intense, creepy and wicked as possible with a brutal approach to the serial killer aspect, etc. I wanted to take the slasher/zombie cross-over I had already done and make it a true and cohesive slasher film with a zombie film mixed in. I decided to bring in a few cast members of DMZ simply because I had always kept in touch with them and I wanted to see if they could return and portray their old characters in a new setting and situation.
I also felt it would make the movie more special in doing that, by allowing a few seconds of flashback clips from DMZ just to show the characters’ prior situation and actually see the characters 15 years back briefly. It was something I wanted so I decided to write in their same character names instead of choosing new ones. We all played our roles entirely opposite of what we did in DMZ.
SB: While DEATH METAL ZOMBIES had a lot of comedic elements – even down to the title – ZOMBIEFIED is played a bit straighter, with more focus on building tension. Was that an intentional decision when you were originally putting together the script?
TC: DMZ was always supposed to be what it was…campy, wacky, odd, funny and weird. When I first started writing ZOMBIEFIED, I was going to make it DMZ 2 with the same style and approach but I quickly abandoned that thought process and realized that I wanted to go into a much darker world of film-making and deliver as intense a story as possible. This is the direction I truly always wanted to do and ironically never did, until now. Every film I directed before ZOMBIEFIED was a campy style film and that was what I did during those times because it was fun and easy to do. ZOMBIEFIED needed to take me to that next level of direction and story-telling that I wanted. I am planning to go far darker, uglier and more brutal and intense in the next film.
SB: ZOMBIEFIED is also billed as the world’s first Slasher Zombie film, which is actually something the original DEATH METAL ZOMBIES toyed with as well. You obviously have a deep love for the two genres. What gave you the idea of melding them together?
TC: Yes, I indeed ripped myself off in a way. The concept actually was the reverse of EVIL NIGHT, which is a slasher film with a zombie ending. I decided after EVIL NIGHT that I would reverse that concept and have it be more involved.
I felt that I had an original cross-over way back in 1995 with DMZ but that I did not execute it that way I truly wanted and I knew DMZ had a cult following so I figured I would re-design the cross-over to work in a cohesive story this time and really make it a true slasher/zombie film instead of a zombie film with a killer thrown in for an unexplained reason.
SB: Like many low-budget directors, you’ve been taking advantage of social media to both promote yourself and your work. For readers interested in following your future projects, what’s the best way to keep track of what you’re working on? And where can they purchase copies of your films – I think a double feature of DEATH METAL ZOMBIES and ZOMBIEFIED would make for wonderful viewing.
TC: Anyone can add me on Facebook at toddjasonfalconcook and also Todd Cook’s Zombiefied. The official company websites are screamtimefilms.com and the official site for ZOMBIEFIED is zombiefiedmovie.com. The films are available on the Screamtime Films site as well as Amazon and other online stores. Zombiefied was signed by Celebrity Entertainment so they released the film to many more markets, stores etc.
SB: You mention on your Facebook page that you recently had an acting gig for the film JACOB where you had the opportunity to work with the legendary Michael Biehn. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?
TC: JACOB was written and directed by one of my best friends Larry Carrell. I was contacted by Larry, who wrote me into the film as “Tommy” (a reference to my favorite film of all time, FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER). After completing the Tommy role, Larry called me back to be Michael Biehn’s double in JACOB for a major bar fight sequence. I basically dressed like Michael’s character and went into the bar and did all of the action scenes and then they replaced me with close-ups and cutaways of Michael to complete the sequence.
Working with and doing choreography with Michael was very fun and very easy. It was like working with all the other actors I have always worked with. Michael was down to earth and easy to work with so we all had a great time on that shoot. Michael and Jennifer-Blanc Biehn are two great people who have become highly involved in the indie film world and it is great that they are so supportive of our film scene here in Houston, TX.
SB: Also, while you’ve always appeared in your own projects, are you looking to branch out a bit with your acting?
TC: I have always been an actor and to this day I still act in other independent films shooting around the city. I have been in several recent films like JACOB, LARS: THE EMO KID, DEAD OF KNIGHT etc. and am looking forward to doing as many acting roles as possible in between directing and acting in my own films. When I first started doing films at 8 years old, I really just wanted to be an actor and over the last 30 years I have been acting so I am happy I stayed on my path. I actually became a director as a result of just doing it and making my own films as a kid. Acting is something I am extremely passionate about so I am looking forward to more.
SB: You’re a guy who has seen some rather massive changes in the tools available to young and inexperienced low-budget directors. What advice would you have for someone just starting out in trying to get their feature off the ground?
TC: I will always say to learn by watching and by doing and learn from the ground up. If there are independent projects happening in town, get involved as a production assistant or on a crew position to observe and learn what goes on during a film shoot. There is so much more available technology-wise for today’s young film-makers that was not available in my early days so it is easier in a lot of ways for film-makers to get and learn how to use the editing softwares, etc. Start off trying to shoot and edit short films before jumping into a feature. It is always best to learn how to manage smaller projects and work your way up to features, which are a completely different beast.
- [NO-BUDGET NIGHTMARES] PODCAST #80: PLAGA ZOMBIE (1997) - July 25, 2016