With Their New Horror Comedy, Chris W. Freeman and Spain Willingham Shift Into BEAST MODE
Imagine an exotic beauty cream smeared among Hollywood’s vain semi-elite, promising miracles but bringing disaster. But hey, you don’t have to imagine it, as filmmakers Chris W. Freeman and Spain Willingham explore this ripe context for you in their new monster mash-up, Beast Mode, which is available digitally on multiple platforms including Fandango, Google Play, iTunes, MovieSpree, PrimeVideo, Redbox TVOD, and Vudu. Other press outlets not unreasonably cite other influences, but from this perspective, Beast Mode feels like the Farrelly brothers paying homage to Robert Altman’s The Player, Frank Oz’ Bowfinger, and the poster for Philippe Mora’s The Beast Within. That’s praise, but beware: Beast Mode is far from tame.
Featuring an earnestly wacky (or wackily earnest) lead from sturdy Gen-X workhorse C. Thomas Howell (his credits list is long; fellow was in Tank), and a tour-de-farce co-lead — co-leads, really — from busy indie actor James Duval (Mad Cowgirl, Sushi Girl), Beast Mode also boasts saucy support from Allana Matheis (a.k.a. Mathias), Ray Wise (Twin Peaks), and the legendary James Hong (who’s in pretty much everything made since the Eisenhower administration). Speaking with Beast Mode co-directors Messrs. Freeman & Willingham, it’s already clear that we could tangent in many directions, but first I want to unravel a mystery that’s been gently and infrequently perplexing me since the ‘80s:
How does one personally address C. Thomas Howell?
(guffaws all round)
“He’s a man of many names!” reveals Mr. Freeman. “C.T. is his nickname. His real name is Chris, like mine, that’s his first name. Christopher Thomas Howell. I probably know way too much about our friend, Tommy Howell. C.T., a lot of his friends call him Tommy, obviously ‘Mr. Howell’ when things are going wrong. That’s pretty much it.”
Finally having put paid to that crucial concern, we move on to Beast Mode’s merging of at least three grand traditions of cinema: the Hollywood satire, the monster movie, and the gross-out comedy.
“I think those were my favorite movies growing up,” reflects Mr. Willingham. “I’m a product of ’80s VHS store’ — that was my babysitter. Those were definitely the ones that I always went for first, and getting that out of my system is going to take a while, but I’m almost there — so I can try some other genres out. But it’s just so fun to me, and to a lot of actors, to go into a really bizarre world. A lot of movies [posit]: ‘We gotta maintain this realism!’ Not us. We are absolutely trying to take you on a 90-minute ride that makes you forget about the real world.
“So watching Stuart Gordon, and Frank Henenlotter, and of course David Lynch, David Cronenberg, growing up, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do something really weird, but a little more Naked Gun, if you will.”
Chris chimes in: “Along with what Spain said, I’ve always had a minor obsession with old Hollywood. I’m a giant fan of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, physical comedy, the tropes of the elite versus the wannabes. I really like that you pointed out the Hollywood satire, because maybe if we had not injected monsters and a bunch of humor into it, then it just would’ve been: filmmakers making another movie about Hollywood, blah-blah-blah, who cares.
“We felt that the supernatural element — bringing what’s inside people out — especially in this climate, where everyone is so obsessed with words someone wrote in the past, or when they thought no one was looking, or something that was recorded that wasn’t said, it was like: ‘Let’s see people’s true nature, their true selves. And how do we do that?’ The cream was a nice device to draw three of those subgenres together. That was essentially the glue, to having beasts in the Hollywood world, and also a kind of gross-out, nuts comedy.”
And what about “the rules” of the horror movie, and viewers becoming sticklers theretoward?
“That’s true,” opines Spain.
“That’s really in my wheelhouse,” confirms Chris. “I actually love ‘the rules’ of a horror movie. But really, small ’80s movies, like The Stuff, and remakes like The Thing, The Blob — I was obsessed with those in the ’80s, and The Fly, as Spain was mentioning.”
A bit later in our talk (yet part of this thread), Chris goes for the gold, from the glory days when John Landis was on fire:
“Spain and I are both huge fans of gore, and An American Werewolf in London was one of those films, when I was growing up, that literally changed my entire opinion of what movies could do, with physical effects.
“You can see the influence in our movie, of American Werewolf in London, of course!”
Hm. Should I mention that time in 2006 when I was seated beside David Naughton at the Saturn Awards, and on my other side was a millennial aspiring horror makeup artist who had never heard of him or American Werewolf?! And didn’t care?! Face-to-the-palm. Back to Chris, re: reinterpreting the monster movie:
“Spain and I, we can’t help but make jokes and laugh when we’re together, and the other writer, Drew Fortune, is another really creative, funny guy, loves horror films — we’re all in that same mold.”
And back to their particular rules:
“We just thought, what was the best way to bridge these things, and what also plays up to the vanity of Hollywood, and to the vanity of a person, and hey, if it can get rid of scars, and make your skin look amazing, make you look ten years younger, then I think there are people that would want to attain that, no matter what the consequences were at the end. Once we started doing that, I started building the device with: midnight’s the rule, and Spain started adding more to it, and it just kind of evolved into what it is in the film.”
“Yeah, exactly,” concurs Spain. “I think my obsession with fame, the whole thing is just really funny to me. I had been in San Francisco for a while, and moving to L.A. was so different: it was like a whole different state! I thought it was all just TV and movies, well nah: it’s really like that. Making the cream the base of our new franchise was really fun to me, because what better medium than something that goes on your face? It’s just something that I thought would be a fun way to poke fun at Hollywood and Los Angeles.”
Beast Mode cracks wise at the entertainment industry, in one instance noting the expendable nature of “below-the-line” people.
“If you get that joke, you really get it,” chuckles Spain.
“That part of the hierarchy, that was just amazing to me when I started working on studio movies,” recalls Chris. “I worked on New York Minute, and when the Olsen twins came in, I was just an assistant working at a desk. We were told before they came in, by their manager, or whoever their rep was: Make sure no one makes eye contact with them, or speaks to them when they come in, because they’re constantly harassed by everybody. I just thought it was the most absurd thing in the world for the room to avert their eyes. All of that kind of played into us spoofing and lampooning it.”
I mention having heard of a similar policy regarding George Lucas (who, if you just tuned in, isn’t one of the Olsen twins, probably). Relatable, Spain finds this.
“He used to be my boss, at LucasArts, when I was a video-game guy. Oh, yeah. He would walk through the halls, and it was kind of like, ‘Hey, say hello. But do not talk to George.’”
Such policies vary. Chris recalls working for Tim Burton, and frequently seeing Mel Brooks tooling around the Culver City lot in his golf cart, happy to stop and talk to people. This I try to parlay into a segue re: “me and my Aero” — Santa Monica’s Aero Theatre, where Mel himself blessed me, upon hearing that High Anxiety is my fave of his films. Then our tales continue, with Chris describing his visit to Steven Spielberg’s office on official business for Michael Mann (take-away: huge E.T. door handles where you grab E.T. by the neck!) — and briefly I dither about whether to mention Mr. Spielberg’s secret (or not) private screening of his 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia at the Aero for just himself, Shia LaBeouf, and security, but that’s a Bridge on the River Kwai — er, a bridge too far.
The thing is: you had to be there; and, respectively, we were.
Eventually my Aero segue connects, as I once interviewed Beast Mode’s James Duval there following a screening of Donnie Darko — which itself was partly filmed within that very theatre. Whew. Speaks Mr. Willingham of Mr. Duval:
“I don’t really know who else we would’ve come up with if he couldn’t have done it, because watching him in all these weird, weird, weird roles he’s done, his acting’s so fun. It just so happened that he was a big fan of Piano Bar [in Hollywood], where some of our mutual friends hung out, and he got word that this was looking like we were moving from pre- to production, so he said that he wanted to be involved, and I’m just so happy the stars aligned.”
“We were still scripting a lot of the dialogue,” adds Mr. Freeman, “and just really making sense of the subplots, and deciding what was going to stay, and what was going to go, and we immediately started writing the character for Jimmy. We had already started, because I’d worked with C. Thomas Howell — I’d directed Tommy twice already, prior to this, and I’d produced a Christmas movie he was in, and he was hysterical in it, and we had so much fun on set, and it wasn’t a comedy! (laughs) So I knew he could do this. Getting to know Jimmy a little bit, we were like, ‘We can go out there, because Jimmy’s really out there, as an actor, meaning he’s willing to go and take a risk.”
How did the guys direct Duval? Spain elaborates:
“I think that you kind of have to tell Jimmy, ‘Hey, this is almost four characters: There’s Huckle Saxton, which is this outrageous bad-boy movie star; there’s Michael, which is this kind of timid fell-off-the-turnip-truck dude; there’s Michael portraying Huckle, which he’s trying to figure out; and then there’s this beast takeover,’ so you have to tell Jimmy: ‘You have to save this energy for this proportion of who you’re playing,’ and it was a lot.”
Chris praises Spain’s elaboration, further elaborating:
“I think, to add to that, Jimmy doesn’t carry himself with the same level of ego that weighs down other actors sometimes, and so, because of that, he’s more vulnerable, more open to suggestions. He’ll go with it. And I think his attitude really helped his Michael character become likeable. To me, it was one of the most important parts of anything that Jimmy accomplished in the film, playing the multiple characters, that we really liked Michael, wanted him to win, and we believed that, okay, Hollywood was turning him a little bad. That’s a difficult arc, to play all of those, but Jimmy nailed it.”
And what of having a legend on the set, in the form of Mr. Hong? (Obviously Blade Runner forever. But Hong neophytes please refer to his masterful cameo in Wayne’s World 2; his appearance in Beast Mode ditches the “violence,” but proves equally energetic.)
“It was quite a treat,” enthuses Spain. “He took a little convincing with the attire, the costume, but then he got into it, and he was like, ‘This is just a romp! This is really weird!’ We got to chat about some of his old movies, which it was impossible for me not to do, but he was very cool about it.”
Chris lauds the talent in that scene (stay tuned for a sweet Hong riff as a bonus in the closing credits), adding of the venerable thesp’s innate grace, “The cool thing is, it’s hard to believe sometimes, but James Hong was like, ‘Was that a good take? What do you want me to do? Anything different?’ It’s almost like, ‘Wow, how dare you ask us? You’re James Hong!’
“Sometimes we’ll do the degrees of separation, when you’ve worked with people that you really respect, and James Hong gets us to everybody.”
Indeed. And, in closing, with all their considerable and combined experience, what did they find was absolutely necessary to include in Beast Mode?
“I actually have made a lot of films,” Mr. Freeman laughs good-naturedly, “and I’ve written and directed quite a few. Each one has its own unique journey. But this was the only film I’ve ever worked on where I had a partner like Spain, and the executive producers, our business partners, Sudhir Dubey, Michael Yopko, Robert Lutz, just awesome support, that we refused to settle for certain things. I think, in the past, I just didn’t have it in me anymore to fight — either the finances, or to fight an actor in a certain situation, or there just wasn’t enough time to get another take.
“The thing that I was unwilling, personally, to let go of — I think it’s the linchpin of the film — is Breen, C. Thomas Howell, his character, at the core, he states it like ten minutes in: ‘I just want to make a movie that people like.’ He’s not in this for the money, he’s not in this for the fame and the vanity — the protagonist is humiliated throughout the film. That kind of self-deprecation that we heap on ourselves when we’re making stuff — I have to say there’s a lot of me, personally, in Breen. I wanted to really hold on to that humanity, and the whole idea of: You either help people or hurt people in this world, as a theme for the film.
“The decision’s up to you. No one puts the cream on your face. No one makes you act like a jerk to people just because you can. That’s your decision, and that reveals your character, and who you are as a person. I just felt that anything that helped support those themes, and that type of idea in the film, had to stay in the film. I fought really hard to get it there.”
“It wasn’t from the get-go, but it was always in the back of my mind: ‘Where are all the franchises?’ I know they’re rebooting Halloween, and they did the one ‘Freddy’ reboot that didn’t really go over well, and ‘Chucky’ still pops up, I think he’s got a TV thing coming up in 2021, Don Mancini is doing that, so that’s cool — but a lot of the favorite franchises have fizzled away, and it’s time for some new franchises to pop up. I thought: ‘If people react to this, maybe we could lampoon other industries, and if we do make a sequel, I think we would love to go over to D.C. [By this, Mr. Willingham does not mean the comic-book label, which is delightful but occasionally lampoons itself.]
“Can you imagine the cream let loose on Capitol Hill? Everyone’s lying, and lobbying, borrowing, stealing — I think it could be a lot of fun.”
Mr. Freeman sharpens the focus: “It’s just a backdrop, like Hollywood, and an opportunity for us to make a lot of fun of a lot of people who take themselves way too seriously, and make the rest of us miserable.”
“Exactly,” concludes Mr. Willingham, adding something vital: the title: “I think it’s been maybe 30 years since a movie has had a ‘Too,’ so we’re thinking Beast Mode Too. It’s been too long, and America needs the ‘Too’ back.”
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Images courtesy of Devilworks Pictures.