Opening this weekend, Stay Alive mixes horror films, video games and Frankie Muniz into the kind of movie they don’t screen for critics. I haven’t seen it yet, but I can tell you that the minds behind it – co-writers William Bell and Matt Petersen (Bell also directed) – are real home team guys, the kinds of geeks you might find reading this very site and our message boards. They made a movie on their own and now are seeing it released on a couple of thousand screens – how cool is that?
Be sure to check out my Samaire Armstrong interview for this film, which you can read by clicking here.
Q: The concept behind Stay Alive sounds like it could be a remake of a Japanese film, but it’s not, right? It’s a completely original film.
Q: Are you guys inspired by Japanese horror films?
Peterman: On some level, sure. We like the tone of those movies a lot. When we first came up with this concept, it was about a year or two before The Ring first came out. It was about five years ago that we first wrote the outline. We just thought, because we come from a background of writing movies that incorporate a video game into the story, we wanted to try to blur the line between reality and video games in the horror genre. What better genre to do it in?
Like I said, that was about a year before The Ring, and we didn’t really write the script until three years ago, in which case we did try to approach this as an American gothic similar to the Japanese movies but bringing in a young ensemble cast, and amping up the action and the violence a little bit.
Bell: A lot of the Japanese horror films come across as more sophisticated and more adult, and we tried to model this film – even thought it’s about a video game and that can skew to a younger audience – we tried to up the sophistication of this movie and the pacing of it, and to make it feel maybe more like those kinds of movies and less like just another teen slasher flick.
Q: I assume you guys are big video game fans. What were the games that inspired Stay Alive?
Bell: Games that certainly inspired this film are games like Silent Hill, Doom, Fatal Frame. If you look at Fatal Frame versus those other Resident Evil kinds of games, you see that we combined those two genres – we wanted to make something creepy like Fatal Frame, but with more high action like Resident Evil.
Q: Are there plans for tie in video games?
Peterman: We wish, man. We tried, when setting this movie up, to get a game going. At the time when we were putting the movie together, because when Brent and I wrote the script, we didn’t go the normal studio route with the film – we raised the money independently. At the time we didn’t have distribution, so our financiers were a little hesitant to pony up the extra money to make a video game –
Bell: Which now everybody is kicking themselves because the movie is coming out wide in less than a month, and wouldn’t it be great if we had a video game coming out at the same time. But that didn’t happen.
Peterman: Hopefully with the DVD or possibly a sequel, maybe we can get something out there.
Q: Buena Vista sent me a DVD last week, and it’s about two minutes or so of what looks like game footage from the game in the movie, and it looks great. How hard was it to create that world of the game, especially coming from an independentally financed angle?
Peterman: Extremely difficult. We considered it one of the biggest assets of the movie, and it still is one of the best parts of the film. But it’s extremely difficult both financially – it’s really pricey to make video game footage that translates to the big screen – and also it’s hard for the people in Hollywood who were financing this movie to understand who gamers are and would the audience want to spend any time watching a video game in a movie. We kind of think we’ve proven in making the movie that it’s true.
Bell: We really tried to interlace the narrative of the game with the film so it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a bunch of people playing a video game, it feels like you’re experiencing the action.
Peterman: Also we thought it was really important to bring in a ringer, and that was Cliff Bleszinski of Epic games, whose latest game is Gears of War. We brought him on to keep us honest and to make sure that the game in the movie, if it was its own game and the movie was secondary, it would be a kick-ass game as any next generation horror survival game you could buy. And we think we accomplished that.
Bell: The thing is that making this movie for around 9 million bucks and shooting it in less than 25 days, there was really no margin for error. We always considered this movie to be a big movie in a little movie’s body. It’s not a movie where five kids get stranded in a van and get tortured and molested by some guys in a weird house. There’s action, there’s suspense, there’s a ton of locations – they’re moving all over the place. It’s a big movie in a little movie’s body. With the video game stuff, not having a lot of money or time, we had to be very specific in to what we were creating for the film. We didn’t create an entire game, we created those specific sequences that are in the movie, and we had to make sure they were perfect.
Q: With such a low budget where do you get the balls to make such a big movie? Was there a point where you wondered what the hell you had been thinking?
Bell: You know, first of all, we wanted to make the movie for a lot less, and we felt that we could. It’s to us more money than we expected. It’s something we wanted to prove to ourselves and to Hollywood that you can make a really good product for not that much money.
Shooting the movie was so fast and furious, it was a lot of first time filmmakers down there, with myself as the director and Matt as the producer, this is our first movie. 25 days later it’s like a whirlwind and you’re done, and you’re back in post-production trying to put together the movie and the video game and the visual effects, and it was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe we just did this.’ And then you’ve got Buena Vista and Hollywood Pictures coming to distribute it. It turned out as good as we could have hoped, but we couldn’t have known it would be as difficult as it was. We had a great blind optimism and naiveté.
Peterman: It worked out great because if you give an experienced filmmaker 25 days to shoot this movie, they’re going to tell you one simple thing – it can’t be done. But we’re guys who were just so passionate about making this movie we were going to do it no matter how much money you give us and no matter how much time, we’re going to finish this film. Now being done with it, it would have been a little bit better if we had a few more days just to make the movie better. But we didn’t and we worked with what we had.
Bell: And believe us, man, we see most of the films out there – When A Stranger Calls we don’t care for at all. To see that movie be a 30 million dollar movie and basically you’ve got fifteen minutes of story in there – it’s a waste of money for fans and filmmakers, all of us. Let’s go make three movies with that amount of money.
Q: I have to agree with that because When a Stranger Calls really sucked.
Bell: You can’t even classify it in the same category as our movie. That movie straddles PG and PG-13 barely. Ours we can’t believe they’ve given it a PG-13 rating because of the content of the film.
Q: Are there plans for an R-rated or unrated DVD?
Bell: Absolutely. It’s going to be so great, too, because you don’t just have more violence, you have more game footage and you have more story and you have a lot of the interactions between the characters. In the rated R version they said ‘fuck’ a lot, they spoke like regular people speak when you’re having fun in a room playing a video game.
Peterman: The interesting thing is, and this is one of the pitfalls of not having distribution when you shoot a film and getting it later, is this movie was written and shot to be rated R. We’re not guys who are like, ‘Oh no, it can’t be PG-13!’, but this particular movie was written and shot to be rated R. It was dictated to us after the fact that it had to be PG-13, which makes it a little more difficult. That being said, when you have an R-rated film and you make it PG-13, we really pushed the envelope. Like, bringing up When a Stranger Calls again, that’s like a PG movie, not even PG-13. We watched that and wondered how in the world we got PG-13.
Bell: We felt really good about our film. And the game is definitely a mature rated game and we had to trim very little out. We were surprised, we thought we were going to have to lose a lot of game footage. The guys are running around with sawed off shotguns blowing away ten year old little girls.