Director Interview: Steven Kostanski

First of all Steven, how’s the pandemic been treating you?

It’s crazy, because the last year went from being this panic of ‘oh what am I going to do, the film industry is gonna die because of this!’ to like suddenly I’m shooting four episodes of a tv show and I’m the busiest I’ve ever been in my life!

The film industry has not slowed down at all, much to my bewilderment! I shouldn’t complain, it’s what pays the bills.

And there’s this extra layer now of safety with COVID which makes it feel more hectic than maybe it is. I mean, I’m getting tested twice a day on two different productions and there’s just so many extra steps and things to do if you work in the industry.

It feels more exhausting than it should!

I can totally imagine. I saw Psycho Goreman at the weekend and it totally blew me away, very much caught me off guard with what it was doing. You must be delighted with the outpouring of love for the film, people seem to be talking about it everywhere?

It’s totally crazy, I was not expecting this at all because it’s a movie very much just made for me; I made the movie that I wanted to watch. So, finding out that it’s a film other people also wanted to watch is kinda shocking, because it’s such a weird, quirky movie. The circumstances of making it allowed me to make it exactly how I wanted, there were no mandates to be like ‘you gotta hit these beats because that’s what audiences wanted to see’. It was more, ‘here are the beats I wanna see because these are the movies that I like’.

And that people have latched onto it the way they have makes me feel really good! It’s satisfying to just make a thing and have people like it, I can’t hope for a better scenario.

 

It feels like a film very personal to you, just loaded with your own influences. How did you find writing the film, trying to get the tone of it correct?

It’s weird, because I hate writing! I want to put that out there: ‘I don’t enjoy writing’. It’s a necessity for me, I’m not like ‘oooo I can’t wait to sit down and write this script’. I’m a creature effects artist and a film maker, I like taking a camera out and shooting monsters, getting my hands busy. So sitting down and writing for me is like torture. But for some reason, writing this movie was actually kind of fun.

I won’t completely commit to it being fun, it was still work, but it all lined up because it was all this stuff that I had pent up that I wanted to put on the screen. Especially after making The Void, which was such a hard commitment to making a gritty dark horror movie, and all the fun I like having, all the fun about movies to me kinda got sucked out of it.

So this for me was like all the floodgates opened and all the pent up fun that I wanted to have just came out in this movie. It’s crazy just how well it all lined up. The treatment that I wrote, like the first pass of the script I sent is basically what’s on screen. There wasn’t a tonne of like ‘we need to rethink the third act’; I knew it was gonna be bookended by a Crazyball scene; I knew that PG’s minions were gonna show up and betray him, and that was gonna be my big set-piece in the movie. I knew that there was gonna be this dynamic between the kids and PG, kind of a counter to what a typical ET ‘alien-meets-kids’ dynamic. There were so many things that just came out immediately that I didn’t have to think too hard on. It was pure instinct, it wasn’t like ‘I need to have a deep intellectual discussion with myself about what this scene means’.  It was ‘No. This is the part of the movie where PG opens his mouth and eats Darkscream and the kids are horrified’.

It just seemed obvious to me, every single step of this story.

It was more pleasant to write than writing usually is for me…..

 

You mentioned the kids in the film, and both of the central kids are terrific. But Nita-Josee Hannah is a force of nature in the film, how did you find her? And how was the casting for the film generally?

That was the big concern when I submitted the treatment. Everybody was like ‘this is great, but this movie lives or dies on the kids that you cast’. If you cast the wrong kids, then the whole thing sinks.

So there was a lot of anxiety there. There were a lot of debates, kinda going at it with the producers to see who the right fits for the film would be, but Nita and Owen were both found very early in the audition process.

We saw a lot of people but we kept bringing them back, and I think Nita was in the first round of auditions. Even though it wasn’t quite what I wanted, I could see a spark of something there. And more importantly, I could see her professionalism. That was one of the things that worried me with kids; you see these tapes that they submit where they are in a controlled environment and it’s the parents feeding them the other lines for the scene. And it’s easy for them to do that, but I worried that we’re gonna have a kid that’s like eleven or twelve whose on set with like fifty grown-ups and teamsters who are like smoking outside (laughs), just an environment that wasn’t very inviting.

And I worried about that spark going away when they were in that. But Nita I could tell would be fine, she already had theatre, dance and music experience, she had done stuff and performed in front of audiences. I could tell that she would be ready for this.

And the same with Owen, he had experience on productions and was very skilled and versed in the process and knowing what you’re getting into was important to me. And with each subsequent audition they just kept getting better and better and it was more and more obvious that they were the right fit for the movie.

 

From the moment they appear it feels like such a natural fit, which is amazing because it can be tough with child actors sometimes.

Yeah, absolutely.

You mentioned that Nita has musical experience, which comes in handy for the film. From the mid-film power chord anthem that appears and then the rap that plays over the end credits, there’s a lot going on. Was that always a part of the script?

I’ve always wanted my movies in general to have that anthemic, concert quality to them. It’s the thing that I miss, that I don’t feel a lot of films are doing. Highlander is good example! When you’ve got Queen on your soundtrack it just rocks! It rocks from start to finish. So I wanted that vibe.

I gave a very daunting task to the composers, to Blitz // Berlin, this movie needs to rock in the way that Highlander rocked. And they just started assembling these tunes, and what I love is that it runs a variety of types of films scores.

‘Two Hands One Heart’, the song that’s featured in the trailer and a little bit in the credits, that to me feels very much like Highlander type song. The montage song, ‘Frig Off’, makes it feel a bit more like a kids movie’s fun, peppy montage song, and then the rap song is way more like the end of Ninja Turtles or Waxwork 2 or Maniac Cop 2 where the rap just sums up the movie you’ve just watched.  I felt like they hit all the beats perfectly, and it is such a broad range that I can’t imagine how it would have worked out if I hadn’t got Blitz//Berlin to do it, and they were just so on board for making a fun and exciting score. I remember them telling me early on that they were glad that the movie actually has a score, as it’s a problem with so many film projects nowadays that they just want a wash of music.

Especially horror movies, where they don’t want to really feel the music. And I understand that for some stories that you’re telling, but with this movie the music really has to have personality and really be a character. They definitely delivered.

Score has always been important to me, and very early in my film watching life I always noticed the score if it wasn’t landing and it would take me out of the movie.

I don’t want to dunk on one composer specifically, but I remember watching Jason X for the first time, and that movie feels like they couldn’t afford an orchestra and sounds like it was all made on a computer. And it just feels so small and underwhelming. And I try to think that if a film like that had a big score, would it affect my enjoyment? I really think music is a huge component and a lot of people don’t give it the attention it needs. A lot of the personality of your film comes from that, and you should really put the time and effort into making it match what you need it to be.

 

You’ve got a really varied background Steve. You’ve done lots of make-up and effects work, writing, directing and acting; you said earlier that you don’t enjoy being stuck behind a computer, do you have a preference for a particular avenue of work?

What I love is coming up with a crazy concept for a creature and then immediately being like ‘I’m gonna go build that thing!’ (laughs). But making it the way I wanna make it. Even working on The Void we did that a bit, but especially on Psycho Goreman. I’m not a fan of traditional design processes, where you get a photo-shop done and then a design, and then you debate and say ‘lets tweak this and change that’, and working in prosthetics I’ve watched this play out.

A lot of modern creature designs all get diluted to the same thing because everybody is putting their two cents in and everything has the same vibe to it.

I love being like ‘You need to make a monster. Here’s a budget and here’s a box full of junk, can you make the monster out of that junk?’ and then just trying to figure it out. And I think that comes from my background of making super low budget films in my parents garage, stuff like Manborg where its literally model kits being glued onto hockey pads and its like ‘there’s your costume!’.

I love that so much, it’s such a pure way of making a movie and telling a story. And I never wanna lose that, I always want a little bit of that vibe of like this is home made and you see the artistry of that. I want it to be like we raided somebody’s dumpster and found a bunch of pipes and tubes and glued them onto a suit. It’s the kind of movie I loved watching growing up and it’s the kind of movie I wanna keep making.

That’s definitely a side of it I want to maintain.

Having said that, I do want to be able to make a living and pay my bills, so being paid to do these things would be nice. I don’t wanna get to that point where there are just endless meetings around a boardroom table analysing designs. There is a sweet-spot I can hit where I’m still kinda operating in the Empire Pictures / Full Moon zone where it costs a little bit of money but not a lot, where I’m making fun and ambitious things with the resources that we have.

 

The creature design of the minions that show up halfway through the film is one of my favourite things in the movie. Do you have a favourite among that cabal of misfits?

I mean, I love all of the weird monsters in this movie. I mean Deathtrapper is pretty impressive for what he is. He’s literally just a bunch of interconnected foam mats, the ones that usually get put down in industrial spaces or for a kids play area? I bought a bunch of those at the hardware store, glued them together and then bent them into a sort of container shape. Then Jesse, one of our producers, found out this process of adding rust to it to make it look metallic, and it just became a real hodge-podge of random stuff. I had foam arms and heads just lying around, discarded from other shows and projects that I just glues into the top. It was a real arts and crafts adventure making that guy, but I think that the final result is something memorable.

It’s one of those designs that you have to see two or three times to really understand what you’re looking at its just so bizarre looking. But you really do remember it after the film.

I had never seen that before!

I mean there is a little bit of a spirit of familiarity, with every character kinda being pulled form somewhere a little bit, but I also wanted to commit to an overall weird concept as impractical as it was. Kinda like ‘yeah, he’s a big trash-can full of discarded body-parts who sprays blood on people’. Let’s just see where that goes (laughs).

People can throw whatever criticisms they want at this movie, but they can argue that the creatures in this movie aren’t distinct from one another!

 

It’s one of the great joys of repeat viewings of the film. On one watch you are so taken by the look and feel of one or two of the creatures, that you miss another three or four that you’ll really see on the rewatch.

And that’s pulling from watching movies as a kid. Films like Empire Strikes Back, well really any Star Wars film when you think about the cantina scene in A New Hope or the Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi, they have periods where you are just overwhelmed with stuff, and you wanna go back and watch it and live in that world for a bit to be like ‘I wanna figure out what THAT guy’s deal is’ and just pick a different thing each time.

I wanted to make a film that had that feel, that had that overwhelming energy of there just being too much stuff on screen that you’re gonna have to watch it again to process all of it.

 

That they are most built from practical effects is what really helps to stand it apart. There are so many films that rely a lot on CGI, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as when done well it can still look really good. Do you have a preference of one over the other?

To me the marriage between the two is the best. And there are a lot of VFX in this movie, like tonnes. But a lot you don’t really know it’s there, which to me is the best use of CGI. Stuff like wire removal and rig-removal, clean up and that sort of stuff. I mean, I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have that stuff at my disposal.

But yeah, some people don’t want to deal with the thing in the moment on set and just want to deal with it later, and sometimes you feel that when watching that project. Watching something pasted in after the fact doesn’t feel organic to the scene, but that’s like one of the bad scenarios.

There are good scenario’s where it’s done properly and planned for. There are good and bad CG effects the same way there are good and bad practical effects. To me, having them both work together to execute your vision is the best scenario possible.

 

You’re absolutely right in that you can tell when the director has no interest in CGI and just leaves it for the second unit to pick up later, it’s really noticeable. It’s nice that in a film like Psycho Goreman you can really feel your hand on every frame.

Yeah, exactly.

I hate that feeling where you’re watching a movie and then suddenly you’re in this big swirling CGI mess where the camera is doing stuff that none of the other scenes in the movie are doing, and it feels like a VFX  artist is like ‘well I guess I’ll direct this now’ (laughs). I want to feel a director’s fingers in every department, that the film is being directed and not just someone going off of storyboards where half of them go straight to VFX and the director doesn’t ever look at them.

It’s important for me to oversee everything to have a consistent vision and tone.

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In terms of other directors working at the moment, is there anyone that you’re impressed with whose films you enjoy?

I love the films that Ari Aster is doing.

I love Hereditary and I enjoyed Midsommer. They’re both difficult movies to watch, which I appreciate. I don’t know if I would have the stomach to make them myself, so I really appreciate them. And I had great theatre experiences watching them too. There were people in the audience who were not on board what was happening, and that just made me like it even more. He’s a filmmaker committing to a vision, and there is no concern for making people comfortable.

 

Ari Aster is one of those directors for whom there is no compromise to what he’s doing. Much like yourself, I watched both of those films in the cinema and watching it with an audience is tremendous. There are certain moments where everyone is watching the same image but reacting completely differently to what they’re seeing.

Yeah, there was stuff where I was laughing and other people were just screaming at it and vice-versa there were things horrifying me that others were chuckling at. I dunno, it just makes for an interesting experience. And yeah, I wanna watch movies that are a thrill-ride where everybody’s on board and it has this rollercoaster energy, which is the kinda film I wanna be making. But I appreciate filmmakers that give challenging experiences. I mean, here I am still talking about them, and that I find is a really hard thing right now; making a thing that isn’t disposable or forgotten about right away.

So many movies come out and we talk about them the weekend they come out or premiere on Netflix, but then they disappear and we never talk about them again. Right now, there is a fight for longevity and a fight to be remembered, and I think his movies are doing that really well.

I think that’s right. And for what it’s worth, I think in five or ten years we will still be talking about Psycho Goreman. Though possibly not in the same vein..

(laughs) I’m all for that!

 

Do you mind if we chat briefly about one of the films you mentioned earlier, The Void?

Yeah, go for it.

 

The Void slipped past me when it was released. I caught up with it about six months ago late one night when a twitter friend flagged it up to me. It was one of the most fantastic horror films I’d ever seen, so unusual, dark and gory. I understand it was a difficult production at times, what are your memories of making it?

I made the film with Jeremy Gillespie, we partnered up to make that movie. Every step of the way was a nightmare in its own terrible way.

We set out with a goal to make a scary horror movie, and we thought that we were doing something relatively simple and achievable, but we hit every possible speed bump and roadblock along the way.

Having said that, I’m very happy with how the movie actually turned out. For everything that went wrong, so much went right. Our cast was fantastic, and the shooting of the movie went really well, and there is a lot about it that I’m really proud of and the work that people put it. The creature effects are really awesome, and I think we made something that really speaks to a type of movie that both of us miss and aren’t seeing enough of.

Which is kinda like every move that we make, we’re trying to fill a spot on the video-store shelf that nobody else is trying to fill. It felt like there were a lot of creature features that were leaning more in an Evil Dead direction with some slapstick, and there was no real tension to them because of that.

So we committed to trying to make a scary one, and it was really challenging. After doing that I realised that I didn’t know if this was totally for me, and I’m still trying to decide if it was the content or the process of making the film that made me feel that way.

I’m proud of the work we did on it and I’m glad that it found its audience. When it first came out it definitely got a vibe that people weren’t on board with what we were doing. I think people were expecting a fun midnight movie and instead they got this really dark and dreary dread filled legit horror film. It feels like time has been kind to it, and people have revisited it and appreciate what we were trying to do.

It’s in some ways the polar opposite of Psycho Goreman. It is pitch black at times, the creature effects are memorable not for being fun but for being genuinely disturbing and unnerving. Is that sort of Lovecraftian horror something you would like to explore again in the future?

I would love to go back to that. I like ping-ponging between tones, I like that I’ve made absurd fun things like Psycho Goreman and also have something like The Void in my catalogue. I feel like my next thing, I would like it to be a little more in the direction of The Void but maybe a tiny bit more fun. I want to explore all the different types of genre movies, I don’t wanna keep making the same thing over and over again.

I don’t know if another PG is what I should be doing right now, but we’ll see. I like having an eclectic filmography, I feel like I have a lot of weird movies on my directors IMDB right now and I wanna keep that going.

But I’ll definitely dip into the horror genre in a more serious fashion at some point again, we’ll just kinda see what comes next.

 

Just one very quick question before we wrap up. I ask everyone I speak to for their favourite horror film; what gets under Steve Kostanksi’s skin?

As far as a horror film that just completely scares me, I’m still a huge fan of The Blair Witch Project. I think that’s like one of the scariest movies ever made, and every time I watch it I tell myself ‘oh its not gonna work on me this time, its not gonna creep me out’, but I’m still totally terrified with each viewing.

It proves that to make a really scary movie you don’t need to show anything, and the imagination is the most horrifying thing of all. In terms of scariest horror film its Blair Witch. In terms of favourite, creature feature? I still think The Thing is my favourite. I love the effects in it, I love the tone of it, it’s the movie with each rewatch I find new things that I love about it, and I’m continually unpacking what works about it and why I love it as much as I do. It’s a really fascinating watch.

As far as favourite slasher, I still think Halloween is my favourite. It’s such a tight, perfect little horror movie. Such perfectly executed simplicity, and everything in that movie is iconic. It’s ingrained into my brain in a way that no other slasher movie is.

 

The Blair Witch Project and The Thing come up time and time again when I speak to other directors and writers. Blair Witch is my favourite too, and exactly what you said is true. I must’ve seen that film twenty time, but every time Heather goes down to the basement the hairs on my arm stand on end and I shiver. It just works.

Yep, its really kind of insane how well it works. And I think that’s what is so impressive about it, because it’s kind of insane and it shouldn’t work; that applies to all the films I’ve mentioned. On paper it shouldn’t be as horrifying as it is, but it is. It just lands, and that’s the magic of movies for me. It’s lightning in a bottle where everything just lines up perfectly, and you can watch them over and over again.

 

Steve, thank you so much your time. It was great chatting to you!

You too Hugh!

 

Hopefully we can speak again when you release your next modern classic.

Absolutely man, thanks again.

 

By: Hugh McStay

Psycho Goreman is streaming now on Shudder and available to purchase on Blu-ray