With just two movies and one short, Scooter McCrae has made a major contribution to my love of film. Shatter Dead destroys all conventions of the zombie film and presents a world unlike any ever shown while Sixteen Tongues and Saint Frankenstein transform simple motel rooms into fantastic environments that challenge and inspire.
I can’t even put into words how excited I am to share this interview and want to thank Scooter for his time, energy and amazing answers. I’m going to watch his films again just to see them through new eyes after we spoke. I recommend you get the blu ray releases of Shatter Dead and Sixteen Tongues by clicking on each title above and ordering from Saturn’s Core.
B&S About Movies: Was it a question of economics or function that had you choose the video format?
Scooter McCrae: Everything about Shatter Dead was about economics, as I had no money at all to spend on it! I knew from my experience at film school just how expensive it was to purchase and process film stock, and then the added cost of editing, etc. There was simply no way I could afford to do any shot-on-film project at that point, even though working with professional video gear was no cheap matter at the time either. Keep in mind that this was before people were able to edit on their home computers, so editing had to be done with professional gear in a studio space, so there was no way to make something cheap that was legitimately cheap. There was always some kind of cost involved no matter what the chosen format.
At the time, shooting on video was seen as a compromise and I don’t think it was taken seriously by people who did have enough of a budget to shoot on film, so that was no fun. It’s amazing how time and technology have changed since then, and now everybody is shooting digital video instead of film. I’d like to say I was part of an innovative aesthetic movement, but really it was just the only way to get anything done affordably. Given the opportunity to shoot on film nowadays, I would probably choose digital video instead as it’s far easier to deal with and the image quality is excellent.
B&S: Shatter Dead feels ahead of zombie films even being made today. When you made it, there hadn’t been a new film in that genre for some time. What drew you to it?
Scooter: At the time that I was considering making a movie at all, one of the first points of conception was doing an ‘exquisite corpse’, so to speak – putting together something that a few friends would each handle writing and directing 10 or 15-minute segments of that could eventually be joined together into a larger, feature-length project. And a zombie movie seemed like an ideal way to formulate such a concoction. What happened was that when push came to shove, I ended up being the only one who took it seriously enough to produce some written pages, finally writing enough stuff to fill approximately 80 minutes of screen time. And so from there, the group of friends agreed to go forward with the project if I could find the money to pay for it.
“Paying for it” meant getting the gear together for a shoot – which I was thankfully able to do because at the time, I was working at a professional-video rental facility called CTL Electronics in New York City, and I was able to get discounted pricing. One of the reasons Shatter Dead looks as good as it does is that not only did Matt Howe do a great job of shooting it efficiently, but we were also shooting in Betacam SP, which was high-end production gear; the kind of stuff local TV news networks were shooting with. It made a big difference in the look of the footage, as many other moviemakers were shooting in the S-VHS and Hi-8mm formats, and neither of those was nearly as good as broadcast quality Betacam.
B&S: I’ve seen in past articles that you hadn’t seen Messiah of Evil before making Shatter Dead. I think it’s interesting that your film feels like it could be in the same world. What else influenced it?
Scooter: Thanks for saying that, as I love Messiah of Evil. I’m not sure if they inhabit the same world, but I never gave it much thought before and now I can see why you have suggested that. I wish I could give you a list of movies that influenced Shatter Dead, but really it was mostly the zombie genre itself that was the big influence more than any specific titles. Certainly, the Romero and Fulci films were at the top of my list, although neither of them had any real effect on my decision-making on the written page or in the visuals – especially as we were far too impoverished to have anything resembling the fantastic special effects make-up that was an integral part of what makes movies by either of them so enjoyable. Perhaps it was the social commentary of Dawn of the Dead and the audaciously stylized storytelling of The Beyond and The Gates of Hell that had some influence on how I approached certain aspects of the project, but only peripherally in the end.
B&S: When you started Sixteen Tongues, did you have a different process or did you approach the film the same way?
Sixteen Tongues was an unusual event for me as a director. This was the first time that someone else (producer Alex Kuciw) invested their own money into one of my projects, so that was immediately a very big difference between this one and Shatter Dead. Alex had seen and liked my first feature a lot and wanted to work together, but I didn’t have a screenplay ready to go for us to work on. So with his enthusiasm as an instigator, I started writing Tongues and Alex was thoroughly involved in that process as I was constantly showing him new pages as I was writing them and worked off of his feedback (which was never intrusive and always supportive). So technically it was my first-time reporting to someone else while deeply involved in the creative process, and it was a very satisfying experience.
Since I didn’t have a producer on Shatter Dead, it meant that I was in charge of every single aspect of the production; scheduling the shoot, finding the locations, making sure everybody got fed, traveling to and from locations, and so much more. All of this in addition to having to direct the movie! I did the best I could, and it went pretty smoothly overall, but there were a number of speedbumps along the way. Alex producing Tongues took care of all of that and so much more, including finding our wonderful make-up EFX people, casting, etc. He removed so many of the obstacles that prevented me from being able to concentrate more on ‘directing’ my first movie and not worrying about anything else.
All that being said, the one way I did hobble myself a little bit on Tongues was being the videographer, because I was lighting the sets (as minimally as possible) and was also my own cameraperson. While it was wonderful to have that kind of total control over the image, it would have been better working with Matt Howe again as we have an almost telepathic link when it comes to choosing and setting up shots and it would have been one less thing for me to be concerned with when I could have concentrated more on working with the performers (even though they did a great job). But Matt wasn’t available at the time and I didn’t want to work with anyone else, so I brought it on myself.
Otherwise, the on-set process was the same. The actors read their lines, we figured out the best and quickest way to block a scene (as we had a lot to shoot in a very short amount of time), and then we shot it as quickly as possible – which was never easy as we were always dealing with some kind of make-up or costume effect with our tiny crew.
B&S: Even though Sixteen Tongues is from 1999, it doesn’t feel like it. In fact, the hypersexualized world feels more real than ever. Do you think you were presaging the internet of today or was it just a reaction to the world as a whole?
Scooter: From its inception, the internet was a repository of pornographic images, so I wasn’t presaging anything but commenting on what always happens whenever a new technology becomes available. Basically, every corporation with investors gets nervous about it and dips a toe into the water, but the adult industry dives in head-first and clears the way for capitalism to jump in afterward, take over and then marginalize the real pioneers. It continues today with OnlyFans and other sites that are friendly to pornography until they feel the need to go ‘legit’, and then condemn and ostracize the people who helped build their brand in the first place. And it’s always under the umbrella of ‘standards’ of whatever term is in fashion to demonize sexuality and punish its practitioners and supporters.
So in that respect, nothing changes and you can count on the fact that whatever the next big leap in entertainment technology will be, pornography will be there to lead the way forward until they are kicked to the curb by the gatekeepers.
B&S: Both films can be said to be in the exploitation genre, I guess. But they both have female heroines and characters that don’t feel exploited, even if some of them have been operated on to feel that way. How do you approach your heroines or female protagonists?
Scooter: I’ve never really given it that much thought. I’ve always been around women as friends and co-workers and have never had a problem being around them, so I guess it’s always felt natural to make them lead characters. When I’m writing, I don’t consciously think to myself, “how would a woman react or handle this situation?,” which could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what the accepted sexual politics are at any given time. Overall, in the kind of extreme situations I tend to write, I don’t think of male or female reactions; just human ones.
I certainly have never written a wilting-flower or stupid woman; I know lazy writers need to resort to those kinds of cliches to keep their poor stories moving along at a crisp pace, but I like to think that whatever deficiencies I have a dramatist that I haven’t hit anywhere near that kind of rock-bottom yet. And certainly it’s nice to hand a performer a script that offers them some challenges, and I very much enjoy collaborating so we can figure out what the best way is to tell the story and make the character interesting and worth spending time with.
I’ve been very lucky so far in that I’ve gotten my first-choice actresses for roles and they’ve been very cool about reading the screenplays and understanding them; not being put off by the amount of nudity or sexual situations or character arc, etc. I’ve had discussions with many of them and most are more comfortable with an explicit (but simulated) sex scene than doing a meaninglessly shoehorned-in shower scene that has no purpose other than to provide some quick-and-easy nudity. They’ve told me how they have turned down projects like those in the past as they seemed much creepier than anything I’ve asked them to do.
B&S: How much collaboration occurred between the actors and you?
Scooter: As much as possible! A screenplay is an inexact blueprint to me, not a bible. I want to hear the voice of a performer as they inhabit the words, and I’m always happy to make additions, subtractions and whatever other changes are necessary to match the words to the music of their speaking voices. I’m not always 100% successful with making the things they say sound ‘realistic’ in the traditional sense, but I’m usually pretty happy with it by the time we’re shooting what they’re saying.
I’ve had one or two actresses ask me not to shoot them from a certain angle or we’ve had discussions about how much nakedness is needed for certain scenes, etc. In the original Sixteen Tongues script the lead actor was supposed to ejaculate blood on the face of one of the lead actresses during their simulated sex scene, but the actress wasn’t comfortable with it on-set. We reached a compromise, in which she suggested that the fake penis ejaculates on her bare breasts instead, and we even joked about how this compromise actually gave us even more nudity in the end, which we both found amusing. But she was more comfortable this way, and to me it’s very important to make performers comfortable on-camera so they can do their best work. Making people uncomfortable does not make the work better or more “real” or whatever stupid nonsense some asshole director might say to make themselves seem more important in the collaborative process. A director is a mediator, and the performers are trusting you to capture their best possible work if you’re doing your job correctly.
B&S: How did you decide you wanted to make movies?
Scooter: I was too short to be a drug dealer.
I really wish I had a specific answer to that question because it is just so much damned work to make a movie that I have no idea why anybody wants to go through all the hard work it takes to get a movie written, produced, edited, scored and finally released. It’s absolutely draining, and you can feel years of your life being sapped out of you during the process, yet somehow it’s an addictive and compelling experience that you want to do as often as possible. Kind of like sex that involves punching yourself in the face periodically.
I guess I decided to do it because there was a certain type of movie that I wanted to see that wasn’t available for me to see any other way, so in the end I had to make it for myself. I like my movies. I know a lot of moviemakers say they don’t like their own movies for whatever reason, and I feel sorry for them because, after all the work you put into a project, I would hate to think that it would be a lousy revisit for any of the artists involved. Maybe it’s because I’m not an artist at all, but just some deluded schmuck who’s making expensive home movies, and I like to revisit them to see the “family” of people I’ve worked with over the years. Visible flaws and all, it’s still a fun revisit even when I wince at some of the shortcuts that had to be taken because we just did not have the budget to pull something off in a conventionally proper manner.
B&S: How did working with Frank Henenlotter prep you for making films?
Working together was a fantastic and grueling experience, as Frank insists on getting everything about the project completely worked out at the script stage; if it doesn’t work on the page, it simply does not work. I don’t think his passionate fanbase realizes just how much blood, sweat and tears he puts into the scripting stage of all of his movies, but it is there. He introduced me to Billy Wilder’s body of work, and that was the high level of accomplishment we were trying to live up to. We wrote three screenplays together that never got produced, but it was a fertile creative period, and I had a total blast working together over the course of a couple of years and it was a great learning experience.
I’m paraphrasing, but one of Wilder’s best screenwriting comments was that if the story isn’t working in the third act, the problem is in the first act – and he was correct! If we ran into a problem late in the screenplay writing process, we’d take a look back at the beginning to try and find what the problem was that was tripping us up in the final third. The people who love Frank’s movies probably don’t realize just how much work he puts into the script, which is probably a good thing as he’s great at bringing a breezy excellence to the story construction that most other genre writers never come close to touching. So every time I sit down to write my own projects, I like to imagine Frank and Billy looking over my shoulder and slapping me across the back of my head whenever I make a storytelling mistake that needs to be fixed before going forward.
B&S: I know that you’ve gone into how difficult making a movie is, but do you plan on making another?
Scooter: Interesting question. As of the time I’m responding to this, I am – in fact – actively working to try and get a new feature-length project off the ground, but I’m loathe to go into any details until things are so concrete that we’re actually done shooting and the footage is in the can (or at least archived on a hard drive).
To your point, I will say that it is difficult and a total pain in the ass to make a movie, and it hasn’t gotten any easier with age or the current cultural climate (or is it a swamp?) that we’re being dragged through. My stuff has never exactly been ‘commercial’ or user-friendly to begin with and trying to get something off the ground now is more difficult than it has ever been. But if all goes well, hopefully we’ll be doing another interview together all about it in early 2023 and I’ll be happy to go into all the details.
B&S: How does it feel having boutique blu ray releases of your movies?
Scooter: It’s absolutely amazing. Restoring Shatter Dead for Blu-Ray took months of hard work, and thankfully Sixteen Tongues was a lot easier to deal with. It was also invigorating to revisit, reconstitute and fully restore a number of my student films (no really – they were shot on film!) in order to have them finally digitally archived so I could completely walk away from them for good. That was an important part of the whole process for me, and one of the main things that attracted me to want to get everything preserved on Blu-Ray. I’m not getting any younger and it’s nice to put a period at the end of the sentence when it comes to all the work I’ve done so far, as I’d like to move forward with some new stuff without worrying about what came before.
I treated these two Blu-Rays as restorations of old home movies and made sure that the content on both was first and foremost pleasing to me. Does anyone want to listen to the ridiculous number of commentaries or watch all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that are presented on these discs? Probably not (to say the least!). But I created them with me in mind, and figured that when I’m finally retired I might like to revisit these home movies with as many bells and whistles as would fit on the discs, as it would be like spending time with old friends. It’s one of the main reasons that the screenplay books for both movies also came out around the same time. It’s nice to reach a certain age and look back on old achievements with a certain sense of satisfaction before moving on.
I guess the worst-case scenario is that I drop dead tomorrow and never make anything ever again, but at least now if that is the situation, I don’t have to worry about making sure the stuff I’ve done is around for those select few who enjoy it and want to see it for at least a few more years. It’s a good feeling, and I’m really thankful and appreciative to Vinegar Syndrome and Saturn’s Core for giving me enough rope to hang myself.
I can’t thank Scooter enough for the time and energy he put into answering all of my questions. The best I way I know to repay his kindness is to suggest that you follow these links to buy your own blu ray copies of Shatter Dead and Sixteen Tongues from Saturn’s Core, a Vinegar Syndrome partner label.