One of my favorite Midnighters from this year’s SXSW Film Festival lineup is co-writer/director Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls, a horror comedy/slasher send-up that filled my genre-loving soul with thousands of heart emojis. The story follows two girls from a small town (Deadpool’s Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp from X-Men Apocalypse and Straight Outta Compton), who are so obsessed with serial killers that they’ve created their own online show called Tragedy Girls. When their community is rocked by a series of brutal murders, the girls seize the opportunity to make a name for themselves.
At SXSW, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with MacIntyre, as well as Tragedy Girls co-stars Jack Quaid (The Hunger Games) and Craig Robinson (who also co-produced the project), and the trio discussed their experiences working together on the film, finding the balance of horror and humor, and more.
Look for more on Tragedy Girls soon, and be sure to check back here all week for our extensive coverage from SXSW 2017.
Tyler, I’d love to hear what inspired your story and how you put together your stellar cast for Tragedy Girls.
Tyler MacIntyre: It was a bit unusual, because I'd just finished my first movie [Patchwork] and the guys who were developing this saw it and were like, "Oh, well, he just did a female ensemble in a horror space, maybe he could take a crack at this." They wanted to develop certain things out of this existing script they had called Tragedy Girls, and they were like, "We at least want to keep the title, but we like the idea as a slasher." And I was like, "A slasher in 2016? What are we going to do?"
And because it's probably the most well-trodden sub-genre, I wanted to make sure we had an interesting, fresh angle before we took on writing it. So then, we started pitching each other ideas and we were like, "Well we haven't really seen this, we haven't seen this." And then, we eventually just came up with the opening scene, and that set us off in this whole other direction, and we were behind the scenes, and not in a behind-the-mask sort of way, but we were along on this journey and then it became all sorts of different discussions about "how do we build tension?" If you're with somebody on the journey of trying to murder somebody, how do you make that scary? But it gave us all sorts of different opportunities dramatically, because the morality of the film is inversed.
So, even though our main characters are despicable, how do you make them likable? What can you get behind about them? Well, if they have a really great friendship, people can identify with that, and they're entertaining. And then we can pull people in, essentially just hitting enough of these tropes from a high school movie, or a whodunit slasher from the ’90s. Pulling these ideas, and if you mix them around the right way, we can find an interesting tone and build to an interesting place where we can get away with some pretty crazy things.
Jack and Craig, what was the big appeal coming into this? Was it the humor of the project, or was it the ability to come in and play around in the horror sandbox?
Craig Robinson: It was a great opportunity to produce and have those girls be the stars, when you just can't take your eyes off of them. I loved the script, and then I got to play Big Al, too, so it was a no-brainer for me. All the cylinders were going.
Jack Quaid: My draw initially was Tyler, because I've known Tyler for a while now. I have a sketch comedy group that he has directed most of our sketches for, and edited most of our sketches, too, so I've known him for a while. And when he approached me with this, I was like, "Okay, I really want to work with Tyler, so I really hope the script is good."
And then I read it and that sold me. I love the idea of my character in a more, dare I say, basic horror movie hero, but we just subvert that, so that was a really fun idea. It's like I was the typical horror movie hero, but we're not following me in this at all. We're following these girls and we know everything they know.
Tyler MacIntyre: Yeah, that's actually a really funny point. I think of Jack’s character, Jordan, as being in Can't Hardly Wait or something.
Jack Quaid: Yeah, he's in his movie. But we're not watching his movie.
I grew up loving horror comedies, so this fit perfectly in my wheelhouse, but it's a really hard thing to get right, because if you go too far to one side it comes off too much like a farce, and if you go another way you miss those comedic beats. Was it hard to keep that balance and make sure that you were hitting the comedy but still keeping the horror sensibilities of the script front and center?
Tyler MacIntyre: Yeah, I've worked as an editor a lot, so I'm very conscious of tone moment to moment, and I know that you can have a lot of control over that, but if you don't have the pieces, you don't have the pieces. Horror and comedy go together so well. Intellectually, people have a hard time wrapping their minds around it, but since they're both grounded in misdirection, you can use them to temper each other very well.
So, if things get too scary, you can give them a joke and you have a little bit of levity, and if it gets too funny you can—boom—hit them with something gooey, and you can mix it up, and it makes things a lot more dynamic.
Once I was comfortable with the groundwork, it was really just these guys trying to do what they do best. Craig obviously has a tremendous comedy background, so I knew there were certain amounts we could play and fight with on the day, and as long as everyone was on the same page of, "Well, on paper this works. We agree."
Jack Quaid: I approached it almost like a sketch. I knew the girls were playing their roles very grounded and real, but also kind of crazy, so I approached it from basically, "Oh, I'm the straight man here," and so I tried to have it all come from a very real place. I just tried to keep it real, find moments where I could have a little more fun with it, but I knew it was the girls' movie, so I wanted to just let them fly in those scenes.
Most movies don’t put in nearly as much as you did into your supporting characters, and I thought there were some really funny and lovely moments for everyone in this cast along the way. Was that all in the script or did you guys workshop a little bit of that when you were on set?
Tyler MacIntyre: Well, you can put some things in the script, and you try and have opportunities, but the people who play the parts really make [them], especially with a movie. It's not like a play, where the part in the play gets played by different people, like Craig's going to be Big Al forever. There's no [other] person [who's] ever going to play that part.
So, once you have that element in place, it creates opportunities, and when we knew we had these girls, they created their own world. But then, once you cast someone like Nicky Whelan as Mrs. Kent, I initially thought that part would be more of a throwaway, goofy teacher part, but instead she brings this grounded approach that added a lot, and I like that.
Once you have somebody who understands those things and is playing those levels, you look for opportunities to create for them. It's like, "Oh, well, let's put her in a montage, and let's do this, and why don't we shoot some coverage of her during this memorial scene. Then we'll set up this and we'll set up that." And, as long as you have that padding in the schedule and people who are willing to roll with you, you can find interesting things.
Did you guys get a lot of time to hang out on set? Or was that chemistry instantaneous?
Jack Quaid: The cast bonded almost immediately. Because even if you weren't on set, we were all in Kentucky together, so whenever we all had free time, we went on day trips together and got to know each other. Both Brianna and Alexandra are just top-notch people. I never thought that they would be difficult to work with or anything, but I was like, "All right, I'm going to go to Kentucky, a place I've never been, for three months. I really hope I enjoy working with these people I'm basically stuck with." And they were exceptional, and it was just such a joy to work with them.
Before every scene, we would go over lines together, do little rehearsals, but there was always one classroom in the school that we worked at where we would just find time to go over stuff, play around, and it was just absolutely incredible to work with them.
Craig, for you coming on as a producer, beyond just being able to play Big Al, what did you see in this that made you want to be involved behind the scenes, too?
Craig Robinson: It was a no-brainer. When my team explained it to me, then I saw the script, and I saw who was involved, it was, as far as widening out my career and making choices like this, it was like, "Yes, yes, and yes." I believed in Tyler's vision. We all had a big sit-down once we were on set, and I just saw all this potential there. I knew it was going to be something cool and different and funny, and I hope horror fans like what we’ve done here.