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Interview with Jon Keeyes


Q&A with the Director of American Nightmare

Interview conducted via e-mail by Michael Scrutchin

American Nightmare, the debut film from writer-director Jon Keeyes and Highland Myst Films, arrives on video and DVD from Monarch Home Video on January 29, 2002. The movie features Debbie Rochon as a serial killer preying upon a group of friends on Halloween night, knocking them off by way of their worst fears, which she overhears them disclosing on a pirate radio show. Jon Keeyes has crafted a smart, potent psychological-thriller-cum-slasher-film on a shoestring budget, proving himself a gifted new talent. If there's any justice in the world, Hollywood execs will be clamoring over him to direct the next Urban Legend sequel.

1. Did growing up in Hollywood play a part in why you got into the movie business, first as a journalist and now as a filmmaker?

Absolutely. It actually begins with my grandfather who did a lot of extra work in the '30s and '40s. So my mom was raised by a family of film nuts. Likewise, it carried on to me. My entire childhood was spent in movie theaters or watching movies. Being in Hollywood definitely added to all of this. I can always remember being awed by the sites throughout the area -- the studios, the elaborate theaters, the walk of fame, etc. I was completely drawn into Hollywood's arms in all of her movie splendor. It's not to say that I wouldn't have followed this path raised elsewhere, but the whole mystique of Hollywood definitely added a lot to my young, impressionable mind.

2. What films and filmmakers inspired you to start making movies?

Primarily the horrors and thrillers. I remember as a kid that horror films were always the ones that got the biggest emotional reaction from me. So I was drawn to them because of the multiple ways they affected me. I am, and always have been, a tremendous fan of Hitchcock's work. I would devour the TV Guide every week looking for any Hitchcock movies coming on television and I've seen them all. So Hitchcock really inspired me. I was also drawn to all of the stuff by John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and George Romero. I was first in line to see anything they do -- good or bad. Of all the movies growing up, the ones that seem to stand out most in my head include Halloween, Psycho, The Birds, The Exorcist, Friday the 13th, and American Werewolf in London. I knew very early on that I wanted to drive myself to become a filmmaker and make films as perfect or influential as these.

3. How'd American Nightmare come about? What inspired you to write it?

I was working on two different screenplays at the time. One was a standard fare slasher film and the other was about a pirate radio show -- inspired by watching Pump Up the Volume one too many times. Somewhere along the way, I got bored with both of them. I wasn't finding anything original in either script to be able to hold my interest. Then I stumbled onto the idea of merging the two. I'm a huge fan of the movie Cabaret and always loved the way that Joel Gray's character of The Master of Ceremonies was used as a dark reflection of the storyline and a way of keeping everything together. I decided I would do that with the pirate radio show. American Nightmare barely resembles either of those two originals scripts, but they were the proud parents regardless.

4. How did the cast and crew come together? Give a short breakdown on how everything came together after the script was finished.

Having very little film experience, I knew I wanted a long pre-production schedule to make as many mistakes as possible before we actually started production. So my co-producer Richard Carey and I settled on nine months of pre-production. During this time we were doing everything from finding finishing funds to hiring crew to locations -- you name it. We got a core crew of friends together right from the start and once a month would have meetings to determine where everyone was with their duties. Most had some minor film experience so it was essentially monthly department meetings. During the spring we began holding auditions. We ended up seeing about 300 people, brought that down to our callbacks, and eventually our cast. I wanted to cast it at the beginning of the summer to give us time for rehearsals -- but more so, I urged the cast of friends to really spend time together over the summer, getting to know each other. I think the creation of those friendships over the summer aided a lot to the underlying feel of the friend's relationships. As for Jane and Caligari, I had actually cast Debbie Rochon and Chris Ryan right from the beginning. Debbie was actually on board from the moment I decided to make the movie. We had been friends for a few years and I really felt that she had some untapped talent that would be perfect for the role of the killer. Now on this side, I really believe she gave her best performance yet. Over the course of the summer we held rehearsals and got everything rolling. We actually lost our original director of photography, camera crew, package and lighting just two weeks before shooting. Fortunately, our preparatory time gave us the ability to put this all back together in two weeks. In the long run, I'm glad this happened because of the crew I ended up working with. We clicked immediately and have worked together now on a variety of other projects.

5. Debbie Rochon gives a tremendous performance in the film. How was she to work with? Did anything surprise you about what she did with the role?

I have liked and disliked a variety of Debbie's performances. But I knew her and really believe that as a director I would be able to help her find Jane. She took it and ran. Debbie is one of the most incredible people I have ever worked with. Her level of dedication to this role went far beyond anything I could ever have imagined. She took her mind to some very dark places for the sake of this role -- places I wouldn't have asked of anyone. Likewise, she was willing to do anything it took to make the role stronger, better and more believable. I remember her asking me once if I thought shaving her eyebrows off would make the character scarier. She was willing to do whatever it took and crafted Jane into the character I really needed her to be. As Joe Bob Briggs said about her role in American Nightmare, Debbie may be the first convincing female psycho. And I couldn't agree more.

6. In American Nightmare, we know from the start exactly who the killer is, unlike most slasher films post-Scream that have the whodunit aspect. What were your goals in developing the villain as much as (if not more than) the group of friends she's preying upon?

I never set out to develop the villain or the friends more than the other. I wrote the story I wanted to see. One of the things that has always bothered me about whodunits is that they are essentially mysteries, and I wasn't interested in making a mystery. Movies like Halloween and Psycho were always exceptional to me because you knew who the killer was. You never had to second-guess it. The suspense came from either watching them interact with the unsuspecting victims or wondering what they would do next. In many ways a whodunit horror film leaves the villain being one-dimensional because they are a face behind a mask. To me, the horror comes from meeting the killer and seeing how they are. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Silence of the Lambs were two brilliant examples of that. I wanted to make a memorable killer that was more than a stalking figure, so I spent time with Jane really getting to know her. I intentionally left parts of her life and psyche out of the picture because I think our own minds can create some very horrifying events to fill in these gaps. Those events are usually personal and can make the character that much scarier.

7. Why do you think there are few female serial killers in movies? Do you think it's hard for audiences to take a female killer seriously?

Yes. I was studying psychology, and American society as a whole has trouble believing in the violence of women to this degree. Be it real or not, society still wants to see women as nurturing caretakers or sexual objects. Thus, most female killers in cinema end up being femme fatales using sex as their weapon. But I discovered in my research that there are an incredible amount of female psychopaths that the media always just brushes over. It's easier to accept a man being brutal than a woman, so we don't look at it. In shaping Jane, I wanted to stay away from the femme fatale and really get into the head of a truly sick woman who has the same capacity for violence as any man. She only uses sexuality once in the whole movie and I think Debbie did an incredible job of making the character as uncomfortable as possible with it. What could have been a very sexual and arousing scene became a very uncomfortable scene, and it continues displaying the utter dis-ease that is Jane.

8. Is there anything about the film you're not happy with or that you would change if you could remake it with a bigger budget?

Because of the amount of post-production worked involved in a movie, I've seen American Nightmare over 300 times. I've become completely void to the emotional impact of the movie. I also can point out every single error in the whole movie. So I guess you could say I'm not happy with those errors and would love to fix them, but I've met very few people that can pick them out in a number significant enough to worry me. With a lower budget you are also working on a much faster schedule and will sometimes have to cut things to fit. I cut a few scenes, and cut a few elements from scenes that I would love to have in the movie. I don't think having them missing hurts the film, but it would be nice to have them there.

9. If a Hollywood exec is impressed with American Nightmare and taps you to make Urban Legend 3, would you do it (without total creative control)?

In a heartbeat. My personal investment in American Nightmare -- after fulfilling my dream of making a movie -- was to begin building a career. If something like Urban Legend 3 was to come along, I would use that as another rung on the ladder getting established as a full-time filmmaker. Obviously, I would want to be on the same page as the producer over the creative feel of the movie, but not having total creative control would be fine. I don't want to be a low-budget filmmaker my whole life so I'm willing to do what it takes to move up. I've always admired John Sayles and his attitude about his career. He says that he will work for three or four years as a "cookie-cutter" writer for the Hollywood system then step back and make something that is completely his own. In this, he achieves two things. He has a stable, healthy career, and he also gets to feed his own selfish storytelling needs. I can completely accept something like that. I have no problems with the idea of doing some movies for other people (as long as I feel I can do something good with it) and then doing something entirely my own every few years.

10. And, finally, what's next for Highland Myst Films and Jon Keeyes?

We're working on a few things. At the forefront is a new film called In the Heart of Darkness about a schizophrenic. It's a psychological thriller I cowrote with a forensic psychiatrist from the state psychiatric hospital here in Texas. We have the script done and we're working on the funding for it. I want to move up in my career, not linear, so the budget on this one is about five times that of American Nightmare. I've got a second script done that is being shopped around to some production companies because the budget would be much higher on that one. We're also working on the script for American Nightmare 2 in the eventuality that it would make sense or be feasible to do a quality sequel. My approach to it is trying not to make a "sequel" but instead a continuation of a myth. That's what I'm challenging myself with on American Nightmare 2.

Article published 01.09.2002.

Read our Interview with Debbie Rochon.

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