Horror has always been a genre where resourcefulness and ingenuity are valued, both in the storytelling and in the special-effects realms. Rhode Island-born director Joe Begos is a reflection of these values, starting with his first, micro-budget feature, Almost Human. For his new movie, The Mind’s Eye, Begos drew on his DIY experience to get the very most out of a thrillingly gory tale of a telekinetic couple fighting the evil doctor who wants to steal their powers. The A.V. Club talked to Begos on the eve of The Mind’s Eye’s theatrical release, and we discussed the challenges of location shooting, the effects artists that got him into horror, his dream Satanic summer-camp movie, and why, if you’re going to blow a head up right, you’re going to need a shotgun.
The A.V. Club: You’re from the Northeast, right?
Joe Begos: I did live in the Northeast, I live in Los Angeles now. I went back to my hometown to shoot both this and Almost Human. Which is interesting, because I wanted to leave my hometown so much, because I was so sick of shooting my neighborhood and the woods, and I fucking go back and shoot two feature films there.
AVC: Why did you go back?
JB: Well initially on Almost Human, I was out in L.A. for four years, and I was seeing all these tiny little low-budget horror movies being made, and they all looked the same. The things that I loved—I love Stephen King, I love the setting [of his work], and I just love the atmosphere of horror movies, and I realized the setting was so important. Being away from Rhode Island for four or five years, it’s like, “Oh wow, that small town that I absolutely hated, there was actually a really awesome quality to that.” If I go back there and shoot a movie, I can do it real cheaply, and just crash at my friends’ houses and my parents’ houses.
So I shot [Almost Human] there, and it looks like a Stephen King movie. And everybody’s like, “Oh my God, where did you shoot this movie?” It’s like, “In my shithole hometown.” But New England actually has a really good look, so I wrote Mind’s Eye not for my hometown, but kind of for the surrounding 60 miles. I wanted to make a very early Cronenberg-esque Canadian-style movie, and we’re like five hours from Canada [there]. So it’s just like, I’m going to do it again. I’m back there, nobody’s bothering me, I don’t have people coming in from all kinds of places. When you’re in L.A., actors are trying to make plans for the night. Guess what, motherfucker, now you’re in Connecticut in the middle of a snowstorm. You don’t get any cell phone service. You’re not getting a car out here, either. So the only thing you can do is focus on the goddamn movie.
AVC: You do get a Stephen King/Cronenberg vibe from the town. When you go back to shoot, is it a big deal? I can’t imagine there a lot of movies shot there.
JB: Yeah, there’s not. It’s sort of a big deal. We try to keep it low key. But then we do things like go into a location, and we’re trying to get to shoot there, and you either have the response of, “Oh my God, a movie! Yeah, whatever you guys need!” or, “Oh, a movie from Hollywood. Well, we need $20,000 a day.” And it’s such a juxtaposition. People think, “Oh you’re Hollywood, you’re super rich,” or it’s like, “Oh my god, Hollywood, what can I do to help you?” So, you know, you’re going to have to lean on the people [who are] so eager to be around. As long as you go the right places, it’s totally cool.
And that’s the cool thing, when everybody’s willing to help you out. Because when you’re just back there shooting a movie, it’s cool to go back to my family and my friends and they’re like, “Oh, we’ve got the day off, we’ll totally make everybody food.” That sounds ridiculous, but it saves you a thousand dollars. You’re paying $800, $1,000 a day, so it may sound funny that my parents want to cook everybody food, but you know.
AVC: Do you spend a lot of money on effects? Would you want to blow up more heads, if you have more money?
JB: Yeah, I wish that I had more money for this. With this, I wrote it knowing I could do it low-budget. It was kind of like, all right, let’s do this in the style of Almost Human, I’ll use the same crew, except I’ll pay them this time. But I want the effects to be so huge. I want to put everything into the effects. So we doubled our shooting schedule so [the effects people] had time to do everything and then—I mean, I’ll tell you right off the bat, I think we put $90,000 into just effects, pyro, and wire work, which is more than a quarter of our budget. So that went all into that push.
People are making half-million dollar movies—which is more than ours—and they’re putting $10,000 into effects. It’s like, no, that’s not how. We had $10,000 of effects for Almost Human, that was a $50,000 movie. So I just wanted to put it all on that. It was like, all right, if we kept everything the same [as Almost Human] behind the camera, we can do so much shit in front of the camera. And that was the thing about showing up with a script, and everyone being like, “Oh, this is way too big, we can’t do it, you can’t do it for a few hundred thousand dollars, it’s never going to happen.” It’s like, well, sure you can. This is how we’re going to do it.
And nobody thought that we could do it, but you know, we fucking went out there and my crew of 20 people, we knocked it out. That’s a testament to how awesome all of them are. Also, when you do a tiny movie, it’s like, “Oh, we’re actually going to try to blow up this body with dynamite? Oh, we’re flipping a car this day? Oh, we’re dropping a guy 50 feet?” That’s much more exciting than, like, some handheld, out-of-focus camera work on a relationship drama. People get more excited in the middle of a blizzard when you’ve got 30 feet of flames roaring and you’ve got a big body [rigged] with dynamite. That gets people excited, you know what I mean? It takes all the shiftiness of the set and the coldness and the low budget and lack of high pay and makes it worth it.
AVC: It really shows up on screen. The big confrontation in the snow—all that wire work and stuff—it looked awesome. Were you into this kind of stuff as a kid? Were you a big Gorezone, Fangoria kind of horror kid that was really into effects?
JB: Oh yeah, huge. Definitely. That’s the stuff that first drew me to horror, like, “Oh God, this stuff looks so cool.” It blew my mind so much that I became almost obsessed with it. Me and [producer] Josh [Ethier] started when we were 13, and I’ve picked up crew members along the way that still work with me to this day.
And the thing is, when you’re 13 and 14, you’re like, “Oh, we’re so influenced by Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson.” And these guys were making stuff when they were 15. They were building effects and models, and that’s what I wanted to do. It’s like, “Cool, let’s make a movie where our limbs get knocked off and then you get abducted by aliens and there’s this weird surgery and then we’re going to blow this up.” We’re 15, so we don’t give a fuck how we do it, so we’re breaking all kinds of laws.
We also broke the law during The Mind’s Eye trying to figure out how to do effects. But that also helps, because, my effects guys will be like, “Well, we don’t know how to do this,” and I’ll be like, “Oh, well, how about we just build three feet of a fake wall that replicates that hallway, and we’re going to go out into the middle of the woods and we’ll fucking put a shotgun up to the [fake] head and blow it away.” And they’re like, “Whoa, we can’t do that!” And it’s like, “Why not? Who’s going to stop us? I’m going to go up there with a camera and my dad’s going to shoot a shotgun, and you’re going to fill up the head with blood.” And then we did, and [the effects guy] is like, “Oh my god, that was so awesome! We’d never get away with that in a big budget movie!” That sucks, because that’s the coolest way to do it. Brainiac, Dawn Of The Dead, and Scanners have the best head explosions of all time, hands down. How do they do them all? Every single one is with a shotgun. So why would we do anything except blow it up with a shotgun? You know?
AVC: It was your dad’s shotgun?
JB: Yeah. Josh’s dad used the shotgun, my dad blew up something in the last movie. Everybody out there has a hunting license, so Josh’s dad has a license to use it. We fucking cut a hole in the door, stuck a guy right behind [the fake head], right to the base of the skull, and fucking fired. We shot that in the middle of the woods, it’s just a fake door zoomed in with the body up against the door. And it works. And the guys were like “holy shit!” And I’m like, “See, now aren’t you glad we fired that shotgun instead of following the rules?” I don’t know how directly you should print that story.
AVC: I think it’s fine. It’s done.
JB: Yeah, no one’s going to arrest me now.
AVC: You talked about Cronenberg and Scanners—that’s obviously an inspiration point for this movie, and that’s very ’80s. So how come it’s set in the ’90s?
JB: I just felt like there was something about the early ’90s, especially [something] like Pet Sematary, where it was just on this crux of the very last vestiges of [that aesthetic]. I set my last movie in ’87, so I was like, “Maybe I’ll bump it up a couple of years.” And ultimately, I want to make a Satanic summer camp movie that takes place in 1994, and it’s just loaded with the greasiest grunge music ever. That’s my dream movie. To make a movie that’s period where I can actually have the money to use music. I’m really into the ’90s, and it’s just going to be aerobic videos and music videos and fucking Seattle grunge and flannel and it’s going to be awesome.
AVC: I love Satanist movies. Anything that has a Satanic cult in it, I’ll watch it.
JB: Luckily, they’re also kind of making a comeback.
AVC: Yeah, I’m into it.
Is there a certain effects artist that’s your favorite of all time? That’s a real inspiration to you?
JB: Of all time? I’d have to say Rob Bottin [effects creator on John Carpenter’s The Thing, among others—ed.]. Tom Savini was my favorite as a kid, just because he was so present, but as much of an impact as [Savini] had, the stuff that Bottin was doing still can’t even be matched now. And he was like 23 when he peaked with some of his stuff.
Obviously, now I’m a big fan of Brian Spears and Pete Gerner, who did my movie. I hired them because I was a fan of theirs. They’re out of New York. They did Stake Land, so I was a big fan, and I went to them, and everything I threw at them, as much as they complained that they couldn’t do it, they pulled everything off. On the day [of shooting], I would even be adding effects, which they would bitch and complain about but then they would pull off. And I understand why it would be a pain, being that it’s only two guys and I’m down here going, “All right, now we’re going to add this, we got 20 minutes!” I was definitely a pain in the ass, but they pulled through, and they did everything. And we didn’t have to cut one effect from the movie. Every single effect is pulled off, every single cut is there, and more.
So now, I wrote a new movie, I wrote this really brutal slasher. And I just went so extreme with it—it’s 23 High Tension-level kills, because I want to challenge them. I know they can do it. And then they read it, and they’re like, “Oh, how are we going to do this?” And I’m like, “That’s exactly what you guys were saying before The Mind’s Eye. We’ll figure it out. It’s up to you now.” I’m really interesting to see, because I know how good they can be. I just want to push them even more, and they’ll push me back, and that’s how we make cool stuff.