While in Austin at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, I had the opportunity to catch up with a variety of folks responsible for the modern cult classic Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, which celebrated its 10th anniversary with several screenings as part of the fest’s midnight lineup. Those on hand for the interview included co-writer/director Scott Glosserman, co-writer/producer David J. Stieve, star Nathan Baesel, and co-star Ben Pace.
As it turns out, when you get a group of filmmakers who also happen to be great friends together in one room for an interview, things can get a little nutty. That being said, we have some great highlights from Daily Dead’s in-depth chat with the gang behind one of the more boundary-pushing genre films of the last several decades, including the risk involved with making Behind the Mask, the legacy of Leslie Vernon, how they’re taking their plans for a sequel in an unconventional direction, and a brief mention of a potential spinoff involving Angela Goethals’ character, Taylor Gentry.
There were a lot of horror films that came out in 2007, and I’m sure many have their fans, but Leslie Vernon has this great cult following, and it’s also impacted the genre in a lot of ways, which, considering the time when it was released, it seemed like it was a huge gamble. Did you have any inkling as to how fans would come to embrace Behind the Mask the way they have over the last decade?
David J. Stieve: It feels like it was right in between a visceral push that the industry took with the super, hyper-gore elements that we were getting for years. This movie happened just before that push, so it feels like this film was one of the last movies that was more story-based instead of primarily just visceral stimulus—at least for a few years.
Nathan Baesel: To me, the answer is yes. We at least hoped it would.
David J. Stieve: If I’m addressing the issue of why Leslie Vernon has endured—and I was thinking about this the last couple of days—it comes down to the fact that this is about the least Hollywood group of people you could ever imagine would have come together to make a movie.
Ben Pace: Except for me.
David J. Stieve: But in all seriousness, I think that Leslie's appeal is just that through whatever circumstances, the right group of people came together ten years ago. Obviously, it was mostly shepherded by Scott, the fact that he brought everything together on the same page and it was just this weird, odd collection of, as Nathan jokingly calls us, knuckleheads. That's the core of this movie, the core of Leslie Vernon. He's this accessible guy.
We weren't sitting around with focus groups. We were just a bunch of people that wanted to tell a story and we had a great time doing it. Leslie Vernon is a character who is just trying to do the best he can. So I think the resonance there is that when people watch this movie, you're not feeling like you're being served up the usual Hollywood bullshit. You're being served up a character who's relatable. I'm trying to do something difficult with my life, maybe this isn't what I'm supposed to be doing, but I'm going to try this.
Nathan Baesel: I feel like that's what it is, because the character's trying to do something in his life.
Scott Glosserman: They relate to the aspirational aspects of Leslie’s story, and that's what we are. Nobody in the film has ever arrived and everybody involved in the making of the film hadn't arrived. We were all looking for the opportunity to have arisen, and we were hoping that the movie would be the vehicle for that. But nothing about the movie was, "Oh, we're here. This is sweet."
It's like, "Oh, we're getting there. We're working on it." When we talk about the sequel, we don't really talk about it instinctively from a place of, this is a guy on top because that doesn't feel like it relates. It feels like what relates is this is a guy who's having a really hard time breaking through. How do you break through?
David J. Stieve: Spoiler alert: that may or may not be what the sequel's about. But let's be honest for a moment. If you want to break it all down, 50% of why that movie was awesome is Nathan Baesel's performance.
Scott Glosserman: One hundred percent of what I was feeling while I was working on the movie was this feeling of becoming something, where I'm so close to this, I'm so close I can taste it. I remember being on set and that's where Leslie is. Leslie's like, “I've done so much work, I've done so much practice. And now I'm ready.”
David J. Stieve: It was our Christmas Eve, much like Leslie has his Christmas Eve. I remember on set, we shot that scene where Leslie's supposed to happy because his plan is about to start. And Scott came back and was like, "Nathan cried. He was supposed to be happy, but he was sad."
Nathan Baesel: I was happy sad.
David J. Stieve: Yeah, Nathan, you acted the shit out of that film.
I would agree about that scene, it’s still one of my favorite moments in the whole movie.
David J. Stieve: Nathan killed it, because he went against type, and we were all amazed. Part of it is Scott was a film major, a horror movie freak, too, and within this movie there are a lot of little nods, like the “stay awake” pills from A Nightmare on Elm Street or the Red Rabbit Inn from Halloween. There are all these little details peppered in there that you may or may not notice, but if you're a horror fan, the texture of it really speaks to you. On top of that, the performance was unexpected, and fans enjoyed that. They liked Leslie, even at the end.
Ben Pace: Yeah, you want to have a beer with Leslie.
Scott Glosserman: You talk about tone in the 2000s, but 2007 in particular was this tipping point year for so many different reasons. It was a tipping point year in tech, Airbnb launched in 2007, and we saw a rise of the “sharing economy,” so there was a different vibe that kicked off in 2007. It's just totally coincidental that our movie came out in 2007, but you had all the torture porn as an indirect or subconscious result of the wars and 9/11 in that dower, dark time. So maybe audiences, and people in the zeitgeist, were ready for something totally different by the mid 2000s.
David J. Stieve: But that's all we were capable of producing anyway—something totally different, because you had a willingness, a real, incredible ballsiness, as a first-time director to be deferential to character developments in acting.
Scott Glosserman: What I wanted to see in Nathan was, you can take a scene like the Christmas scene and put it in a Dennis Lehane movie, and it works. As long as you're truthful to the drama, it's the absurdity of the context that's creating the comedy. It's not over-acting, because this isn't a spoof.
And it’s that earnestness at the core of Leslie Vernon that makes it so special, and a reason fans are still looking for more after nearly a decade now.
David J. Stieve: It’s the fans that have been so dogged in that that they're actually the ones who've kept this alive and brought it back around to now, where we're here ten years later. We crafted a character who transcended what we were trying to do and reached the fanbase, to the point where the fans were the ones who've kept Leslie Vernon alive for so long that we're back to full circle. It's the fan invigoration that's wanting us to do this again and keep the story going.
Scott Glosserman: In that sense, it's a quintessential indie film. What has been so vexing these last ten years, or especially these last seven years, where we've tried to make the sequel, is that the mainstream studio system doesn’t understand the world of horror comedy. Studios either make horror movies or they make comedies, but rarely do they take a risk on making a horror comedy.
Most studio marketing departments don’t know how to package the concept, because it’s not such a cookie-cutter thing. And I've never been able to convince a New Line or a Dimension or a Screen Gems that a sequel could be really big. Therefore, you'd have to stay on the indie financing side, and to stay on the indie financing side, you don't have a distribution deal, so you have to put up incredibly risky money.
We're hoping that the SXSW screenings create this rediscovery, not just for the fans, but really for the buyers out there, so we can go set something up for Leslie in the future. And it's interesting that the sequel was what we have all been talking about for so long, but it's really just the tip of an iceberg, of a whole world in which all of the horror characters co-exist. So yeah, I want to create the horror universe where all the horror characters go.
Ben Pace: It just makes sense.
David J. Stieve: And then that ties it through to Taylor, because she's creating this school for survivor girls. She's got this X-Men-type of school that she runs. I guess we don't need to make this secret anymore because it hasn't worked for us for the last ten years, so we may as well discuss some of this now. So yes, the Taylor Gentry School for Survivor Girls is a different intellectual property than the sequel.
And that's breaking news for you, by the way, Heather. I don't think anyone's ever talked about the Taylor Gentry School before.
Scott Glosserman: Yeah, one of the things that we realized was maybe we were being too precious and secretive about what we’re trying to do. If The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones can all print their stuff years before it comes out, why are we keeping this a secret?
So what we want to do is to turn the sequel that David wrote six years ago into a comic, where we're going to do eight to ten issues. We're going to do a pre-sale campaign through Indiegogo, and if pre-sell enough to make it economically sustainable, then that will create some derivative underlying material that we can use to continue to leverage getting the sequel made. The sequel obviously will then reveal itself in due time, and the first issue will probably be out by May or June.
So I want to ask this in a way that is respectful, because you know how much I enjoy this film, and everyone’s work on it. But, right now we’re living in an age where we can’t even get a Friday the 13th off the ground after seven or eight years. So how does a character like Leslie, and a movie like Behind the Mask, fit into that context now as you’re trying to get a sequel made? Does it make you guys nervous at all?
Nathan Baesel: Well, of course there’s the whole thing about the new Ring movie failing, so I think that was a big hit on the studio for wanting to make Friday the 13th. Then you look at how badly people hated Freddy. People can't deal with the switch. When they make a new one of these franchise films, there’s always going to be this feeling of, "It's not as good as the original." And of course, it is probably not going to be, but there’s a level of fan expectation that can be hard to contend with. That's my only fear of this film doing a sequel is that there has got to be something in it that makes it still Leslie Vernon, where fans aren’t going to be, “Oh, but it's not as good as the original one.”
Another risk you guys took with the first Behind the Mask was that you embraced this self-referential humor, and also took all those tropes and ideas that us fans love, and you made them central to the story. Because that approach was ahead of its time, do you feel like audiences are caught up to those ideas, so they can appreciate them more now than maybe a decade ago?
Scott Glosserman: I will say that since Behind the Mask, there has been a super saturation of self-referential movies, from Tropic Thunder to Cabin in the Woods to even that Cinderella movie. Everything's become so self-referential over the years, where it's almost like there's this whole meta genre now.
David J. Stieve: Yeah, and there is something to be said for the fact that we just really believed in what we had, and the stuff that we were deconstructing, we hadn't seen it done before. It was really cool and it was fun. We had this inherent belief that people were going to respond to it. I don't know that we had the foresight to be able to say, “This is a movement that's coming,” or that this was going to be at the front of the shift in the paradigm of how people watch horror.
Scott Glosserman: You also asked if we felt like we were taking a risk when we were doing it? I'd go a little further. I would say that we were very, very confident about knowing the academic—the true conventions of horror and the true tropes of horror and the true archetypes of horror, if we were able to execute effectively, which fortunately, I think we did for the most part.
David J. Stieve: You also have to add to that the component that we also loved it. It wasn't just academic. We loved it. We were genuinely having fun.
Nathan Baesel: Most of that is really Scott. He's given the rest of us too much credit whenever he talks about Behind the Mask. He and David Stieve were both operating on all these intellectual levels, and everyone else was just having the time of our lives, having a blast doing our best, and thankfully these gentlemen at the very top added all these tropes and insights and context. The rest of us just had a blast. I think why people like it is because they see that intellectual connectedness, but they also see the fun and the joy that went into creating it.