Last night at the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival, the wildly fun horror comedy caper Crush the Skull made its world premiere. Co-written and directed by Viet Nguyen, the film follows a group of thieves who end up trapped inside what they thought was an idyllic summer home they planned to rob, but is in fact the lair of a psychotic serial killer. They are then forced to find a way to outsmart their ingenious captor who would like nothing more than to add some more victims to his collection.

Daily Dead had the opportunity to sit down and speak with both Nguyen and Christopher Dinh, Crush the Skull’s co-writer and star, in advance of their big night about how this project had evolved over the years from their 2010 short (by the same name) to the feature film version, the challenges of blending genres and staying a step ahead of savvy genre fans, as well as whether or not we can expect future antics based in the Crush the Skull universe.

I really like when movies take me by surprise and Crush the Skull does just that—it takes both the heist and slasher genres and mashes them up in some really unique ways that I enjoyed. Can you discuss your approach to the material and how it’s evolved over time since the original short film version?

Viet Nguyen: First of all, when we made the original short, it was literally this idea we had at the spur of the moment and then three weeks later we were shooting with our friends. And then we ended up submitting it to the NBC Short Cuts Festival and we ended up winning—it all happened within a matter of a few months, so it was all very fast.

But when we were coming up with this idea, it was because we were trying to write a horror movie. Chris and I got together and started watching horror movies to try and get some ideas for what we wanted to do next. And you know from watching horror movies that characters more often than not do something incredibly dumb which can be fun from time to time. But Chris, who isn’t as big of a fan as I am, was just getting so frustrated watching characters do these things and he said he wished he could really put himself into a position like that just so he could see how he really would act.

So we sort of ran with that idea. But back when we did the original short, that wasn’t necessarily the intention, but we did decide that everything we were doing at that time had to have an authentic sense of realism to it or it wasn’t going to work. Before that short, though, we had done another one which was our take on a heist story but we had to figure out how we could put our own spin on it and thought we’d try and add some comedy in, too.

And it wasn’t until years after we released the Crush the Skull short that we ever released that heist short and then it ended up winning a few awards, too. That’s when we knew it was time for us to make a feature; initially, it wasn’t even necessarily a Crush the Skull feature film—we were just writing a horror movie at first, but in that same tone. It was kind of a mess, but then we realized, why don’t we take what has worked for us before with the shorts and put them together into this longer version.

Do you feel like being involved and invested in these stories for so long helped you find your vision and confidence as a filmmaker and pushed you as a storyteller too?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, in some ways I do, but I also feel like you get the same thing, too, just from being a horror fan. You see a lot of ideas and concepts recycled over the years throughout the genre, so you recognize those things and challenge yourself to find new ways to do them.

But I would definitely say because we had been working within these universes for so long and had the opportunity to let them grow over time and evolve, it has been pretty cool to watch and be a part of.

I thought you guys handled these characters really well and gave them that space so that we can get to know them, without it ever feeling like the story lags at all. Being a horror fan, was keeping the viewers invested in these guys hugely important to you?

Viet Nguyen: You know, if I were smart, I would say "yes" [laughs]. But honestly, we shot the movie really quickly and originally the movie had a different beginning and once we had the rough cut done, we were watching it and we realized something was wrong. And it’s exactly what you were saying—we weren’t getting to meet everyone and take the time which we should have. So we went back and did a couple of pick-up scenes that put you inside the world and set the tone for what we were trying to do.

I always thought that once we get to the house, that’s when it gets really fun and the movie then establishes this very rapid pace, so we had to find a way to make sure everything that came before helped establish those characters so that when things get bad, you do want to see them find a way out. In retrospect, we figured it out but initially, we kind of fucked it up [laughs].

Chris, you’ve been involved with these stories for a long time as well and also keep busy both in front of and behind the camera. How has this whole experience been for you as a writer and as an actor?

Christopher Dinh: We just had so much fun when we started working on the first short where we’d sit down and talk these scenarios out—what we’d do if we broke down somewhere and this crazy, scary dude came up to us, things like that. And those conversations would sometimes even turn into arguments, but in a ridiculous way where you can’t even believe the stupid things we would be talking about, but it was all part of the process because we had to make sure we knew what we were doing.

And to be honest, I worked in development for a long time and so the writing process has always been a bit challenging for me and I couldn’t find the type of creative chemistry I needed to collaborate with before Viet and I did the Crush the Skull short together. We have a great time and shorthand with each other and so we knew if there was something that we both would laugh at in the script or whatever, it was our gauge for what was really working and what wasn’t. It felt really natural to work with Viet and that doesn’t happen often.

Because we are in a day and age where horror audiences tend to be very savvy to tropes and all that stuff, does it make it harder on you to then find ways to surprise people?

Viet Nguyen: I definitely think we challenge ourselves to do that, but at the same time, I don’t think we necessarily set out to say that we’re any more clever than anyone else out there, either. And I will say that it is really a big pain in the ass to take the time to sit and break down human logic, as strange as that may sound, but you have to do that work in order to make sure your story can hold up in the end.

Christopher Dinh: I think the audience being savvy to the horror genre is a good thing, because I think so much of the work has already been done for us from the generations of previous filmmakers who paved the way and established the ground rules for us to bend and play around with. I definitely think it’s a fun thing.

One last question—I know that this is a universe you have already spent a great deal of time with, but have you thought about whether or not there’s more story here? Or have you decided that the feature has pretty much ended the journey?

Viet Nguyen: Oh no, I don’t think we’ve necessarily ended anything here. We haven’t really thought about anything in particular and we did leave things with the ending open on purpose because we love it so much.

Poster via Icons of Fright:

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.