ABCs of Death has twenty six directors, one for each letter of the alphabet. The project is the brainchild of Anthony “Ant” Timpson, a luminary of the international film festival scene (a native of New Zealand, Timpson owns the largest private 35mm print archive in the Southern Hemisphere), and Tim League, the founder of the Alamo Drafthouse, Fantastic Fest and Drafthouse Films. The film is a fitting production for the duo, using filmmakers they have come to know through their festivals — in a way it is really Fantastic Fest: The Movie. My review of the film shall be coming shortly, but its spirit lies less in classic anthology horror and more in the irreverence of a film festival, where experimentation for its own sake is a welcome and needed attitude.
I don’t like to brag, but, ahem — I single-handedly saved the premiere of ABCs of Death at Fantastic Fest. At least, that’s how I’m choosing the view it. When I was handed the much-needed press roster cataloging all twenty six segments matched with their respective twenty six directors, I noticed that many of the segments’ titles didn’t match the ones I had just seen at the press screening. As I sat down for my interview with Timpson and directors Marcel Sarmiento (Deadgirl), Ti West (The Innkeepers), Adrián García Bogliano (Penumbra), Jon Schnepp (Metalocaplyse), and Thomas Cappelen Malling (Norwegian Ninja), I asked Timpson for some clarification before we got the ball rolling. I had presumed that the PR department had simply been given old info from an earlier cut of the film. To my surprise Timpson’s face went wan, and he quickly asked me for some clarification. Turned out that the breakdown the PR team had given me was correct — it was the print that was wrong. Timpson then grabbed his phone and bolted out of the room to find out what had gone wrong. With no time to get a new print for the premiere mere hours later that same evening, digital technology worked in Timpson’s favor as the film was re-edited on-site to best match the finished product. Sure, some other journalist would have pointed out the error eventually. But whatever. I got there first! ABCs of Death now owes me its first born!
Bogliano, Sarmiento, Schnepp, West, Malling
As the dust settles from Timpson’s unusual exit…
Josh: Well, that was exciting. Unfortunately my opening question was for Ant. Maybe one of you can answer the question for me, which is how the idea for this project came together. There is nothing new about an anthology horror movie, but this film really epitomizes the idea of a “high-concept.”
Marcel Sarmiento (letter D): I could tell you what I’ve heard him tell other people.
Josh: I will accept that.
Sarmiento: He said he was sitting around with his kids, and he had a kid’s book – one of those A is for Apple books – when he had the idea and he emailed Tim and said, “What if we made a horror movie like one of those books?” And Tim said, “Yeah, try it. Do something.” So Ant said he’d ask a bunch of people that he knew from Fantastic Fest and start getting people together. And that’s how they started it.
Josh: And you guys were just presented with your letter?
Ti West (letter M): We got to pick three letters. Then they decided.
Adrián García Bogliano (letter B): B wasn’t one of [my picks]!
Jon Schnepp (letter W): I was a later addition so I was just given the letter W.
Josh: Okay. So your letter is finally nailed down. But you aren’t communicating with the other directors. How did you decide on the attitude and creative tone you’d approach your segment with? For example, Ti, your segment is by far the shortest in the film. Was that just how your idea came out, or did you specifically want it to be the shortest?
West: The reason mine is so short is because I think at one point early in the process a lot of people – and really Ant would be the one to ask about this – but a lot of people were having trouble with the four minute minimum. A lot of people were like, “Oh, how am I going to make this short enough?” They were supposed to be two to four minutes, and I got an email that was like, “If you want to make it even shorter, it wouldn’t hurt.” And I thought, well I have this one idea that would work. So it was because I thought they could use a break. And the original version of mine had a lot more [gore and repetition], but it wasn’t really selling the joke. So I thought, if I could make this short enough to the point where you were like, “What is going? What is this fucking thing?”, then it might work. That’s why I made it so stylistically nothing, so you’re thinking, “What is she even doing?” So the whole gag was to be when the letter came up at the end [it would all make sense]. I told Ant, “If you decide to change it, and the letters aren’t coming up at the end, let me know, cause this won’t work.” The M is the punchline.
Thomas Cappelen Malling enters the room. We pause and he introduces himself to the other directors, and finds himself a seat.
West: So, I didn’t think I could outdo anyone in the wildness they would be doing, but I thought maybe I could out do them in the “uck”ness.
Josh: Is it weird to have two anthology movies in the same year?
West: I did them both back-to-back, so last summer was the summer of anthologies for me. So it was weird. And both are coming out from Magnolia, makes it weirder.
Marcel Sarmiento’s segment involves a man fighting a dog.
Josh: “Dogfight.” How did you create the shots where the dog was being punched in the face? Cause clearly it was really happening, to some extent.
Sarmiento: Yeah, yeah. I knew a trainer, and I went and talked to him and said, hey here’s what I want to do. He said I was crazy, because animals touching actors is the hardest thing you can do, and it takes weeks and weeks of training and it is still dangerous. So I started looking at him and I said, “You’ve got a great face! Why don’t you be the guy in the movie?” And he’s like, “Me?”
Josh: That’s genius. And the dog was one of his dogs, obviously.
Sarmiento: Yes. So it was all done practically. And he said, here’s the dog you can use, it is a White Lab. And I thought, I think I can make that work.
Josh: If you were watching Dogfight at regular speed, how hard was the dog getting slapped around?
Sarmiento: Oh there was no real contact. Just like shooting any fight scene in a movie. You position the camera the right way, and they train the dog to do it.
Schnepp: Spoilers man!
The group laughs.
Josh: Okay, Thomas, this is a movie full of batshit and gonzo segments, yet yours somehow still manages to feel the most absurd. What inspired you to create you segment? [“Hydro-Electric Diffusion” — a zany, WWII-set story involving anthropomorphic animals.]
Thomas Cappelen Malling (letter H): It is a tradition in Norway that we watch old Tom & Jerry movies on Christmas.
Josh: Wait. It was a tradition for your family or all of Norway?
Malling: All of Norway.
Malling: That’s when we used to get American entertainment.
Bogliano: And still now it is?
Malling: Yes. Now it is a tradition that we get Donald Duck cartoons and Tom & Jerry on Christmas.
Sarmiento: The Tom & Jerry from before the 60s?
Malling: Yeah, from the 40s and stuff. And I was in love with my stuffed panda as a child, and I always wanted to see what it would be like to do those kinds of cartoons with live action performers instead of drawings. And add some sex to it as well, because kids are in love with their stuffed toys. That’s where my idea came from.
Josh: Well, now we all know a little more about Norway. Jon, why did you decide to make your segment about yourself, or rather about your whole production company?
Schnepp: I had a bunch of different ideas, and I was writing a bunch of them – originally I wanted to do a very serious one. But then that idea hit me. And Ant said, “I like this one.” Because I had sent him one about war [and other ideas.] I thought this one would be a lot of fun. And he made me do it! My original treatment was really weird. And then I made it a little not as weird. And Ant said, “No dude, make it weirder.”
Josh: And Adrián, your story is about the Abominable Snowman. In Mexico. That seems so random. Was it an idea you already had kicking around in your head before you got your letter?
Bogliano: No, no, I had no idea. But what I wanted to make was something with a lot of dialogue. I figured [the other filmmakers] would do a lot of visual stuff. And I wanted to make something different with just characters talking. And one of the funny things of just getting these emails [about the production] without having any kind of meetings with anyone, was that I got the information kind of wrong. Because to me it was five minutes that it should run. Then they said, no, it is four minutes at longest. But I said I couldn’t pull mine in at four minutes. So I think mine is the longest one.
Josh: What kind of feedback were you all getting from the producers? Were most of you just getting, “Hey, here’s some money, turn your segment in when it is done.”
Sarmiento: It was more like, “Here’s no money, turn it in.”
West: Yeah, that’s about how mine went.
Schnepp: I turned in a rough cut, and I got some feedback.
Josh: Did you have to turn in scripts?
Bogliano: We all had to turn in scripts, didn’t we?
Sarmiento: I didn’t turn in a script.
West: I think I just said, “This is what I’m going to do.” And they said, “Ugh, okay.”
Josh: I bet you guys wish you could make all your movies that way. Just turn them in when they’re done.
Sarmiento: What’s funny is I thought more people were going to do films with a lot of dialogue. So I thought mine would be a breather, more of a music video.
Josh: Here’s a question for the group. Do you think you’d do it again? Was it a fun process?
Dead awkward silence. Then everyone erupts in laughter.
Schnepp: I’d do it again. A lot of fun for me.
West: Yeah, it was fun.
Malling: Yes, it was a lot of fun. But I used a lot of favors. So if I was going to do it again, I will need all new favors.
West: You mean as far as cash?
Malling: Yeah. A lot of people worked for free, and they can’t do that again and again and again.
Josh: Ti, how did this compare to V/H/S? Was it a similar experience?
West: Yes. But I realize when I say “yes,” it is just for personal reasons. When I did V/H/S we did it in like a weekend. And it was just with friends. And this I did in one day, with friends. So it wasn’t tremendously different. What was weird for me was that I did them right together, all in the same month. That was my month of anthologies.
Josh: Okay, before I go, cause now I’m just dying of curiosity. Thomas, is there anything else interesting you can tell us about Norway?
Malling: We sell more guns than any other country in the world.
Josh: To yourselves, or elsewhere?
Malling: To everybody. And we sell ourselves as the most peace-loving country in the world. I don’t think people are aware of that.
Schnepp: I’m thinking of going to Oslo next year.
Malling: Yeah? You should go. You should all go. I know a lot of bars there.
Schnepp: I’m going to try and make it around the Tom & Jerry time. Tom & Jerry and guns!