Why the Director of Cult Favorite 'ThanksKilling' Argues There's Virtue in Making 'Bad Movies'
"There was no reason to make it other than to have fun and I do think that shines through."
As filmmakers, we try to make the best movies we possibly can. We try to get the best gear, best crew, and best talent in hopes that these things might help us create something that looks as good as what's inside our heads, but, as we all know, it doesn't always pan out that way. However, according to director Jordan Downey, that may not be such a bad thing.
Known for his super-low-budget horror films, including Critters: Bounty Hunter and The Head, Downey chatted with us over the Thanksgiving holiday about his 2008 horror comedy ThanksKilling, a self-described "bad movie" that has achieved indie cult status despite, or perhaps due to, its demonic turkey puppet, low production value, and a script that doesn't pull any punches.
NFS: First of all, I just have to say this. ThanksKilling is one of my favorite horror comedies of all time!
Downey: Well, thank you. Glad to hear that! We never thought it would be where it is today, so it continues to blow us away that it really caught on with a lot of people.
NFS: Why do you think that is? I mean, this movie has a pretty big cult following.
Downey: Well, first and foremost it's because there's a lot of fun that comes from ripping on bad movies. I do it myself all the time. But once you get past the "so bad it's good" thing, I do think there's some odd charm about ThanksKilling. Maybe it comes from the fact that it was made by a group of people who weren't taking themselves seriously. It wasn't for profit. There was no reason to make it other than to have fun and I do think that shines through.
"These kinds of movies are very group oriented. I don't find myself watching them alone."
NFS: Definitely. I mean, films like The Room and Troll 2 get a lot of shit for being "bad movies," but people are still talking about them almost 30 years later. That kind of longevity comes from somewhere.
Downey: Yeah, true. There also seems to be a wave going as of late between the two you mentioned and the "Sharknados" of the world. These kinds of movies also are very group oriented. I don't find myself watching them alone, only with friends. They're like an event in a way.
NFS: That's kind of what seems to set these kinds of movies apart. For example, when I see a great Oscar-worthy film, I may recommend it to a couple of people, but that's really it. After seeing ThanksKilling back in 2008 or 2009, I literally gathered my entire family together so we could all watch it. It has basically become a Thanksgiving Day tradition for us.
Downey: Awesome! I agree there's something much more share-worthy about things on either end of the spectrum— the best movie you've seen in awhile or the worst. I imagine you had some family members really into it and others scratching their heads. It's hit or miss.
NFS: I mean, there were some WTFs going on, I can't lie! But did you go into production with its cult potential in mind or did it just kind of happen?
Downey: Yeah, we knew there was a chance. Especially because there were no other Thanksgiving-themed horror films. And we obviously didn't hold back on any crazy ideas, hoping that people would appreciate the stupidity of it all. It took a while for it to find its audience though, so it wasn't an overnight thing.
"It was a $3500 movie—we just wanted people to see it. We didn't care how."
NFS: What did those brainstorming sessions look like?
Downey: Kevin Steward and I would walk to a Blockbuster near our apartment just to look at bad movie covers and just start throwing out ideas for what we could do. We came up with the line "Gobble, gobble, motherfucker," even before the title. We shared the script with some friends of ours and got their input. They added some great jokes. The process involved a lot of laughter! We just made fun of any horror movie cliché we could think of and tried to come up with stuff for the turkey to do that you'd never expect.
NFS: What do you think led to the film's success?
Downey: It's hard to say, but I do think Netflix was key. Our distributor got it up on Netflix before their streaming service was as popular as it is now. That's really where it found its audience.
NFS: Yeah, VOD was just beginning to be a viable distribution option for indie filmmakers back then. What was your experience with going that route?
Downey: At the time, we didn't know what to expect. ThanksKilling was almost a Troma movie, but we pulled the plug on that and decided to self-distribute. We sold DVDs ourselves through Amazon for a year before a friend of ours put us in touch with Gravitas Ventures, who agreed to release it on VOD. So yeah, we had no idea what to expect, but we loved the short contract they offered and the fact that it would get exposure. It was a $3500 movie—we just wanted people to see it. We didn't care how.
NFS: That's really the sentiment a lot of indie filmmakers share. I worked on a handful of no-budget horror flicks at the beginning of my career and every director would wax poetic about the future of their film, hoping they would find an audience. Very few actually do! ThanksKilling is definitely a Cinderella Story.
Downey: It's tough, but the first step is finishing the movie. So many people start something and never finish it. You really have to be a jack of all trades. Indies are so much more efficient if you don't have to rely on many people. We taught ourselves Photoshop, I learned how to sculpt and build the turkey, we edited the trailers, created the deliverables, designed all of the posters and DVD jackets. It's nice knowing that if the shit hits the fan, you can always fall back on two or three people to see it through.
"Finish [your film]—really see it through to the end. You'll be terrified, but it will be fun—and you'll learn a lot."
NFS: Agreed. That's probably the most important thing all filmmakers need to learn: how to finish their films. What kept you and your crew motivated to see ThanksKilling through all the way to the end?
Downey: Crazy thing is we made it during Summer Break between our junior and senior years of college. We had to edit it while finishing school, including making our thesis films. There were many times where I remember thinking, "Should we release this? Should I put my name on this?" In the end, though, I just get sick to my stomach if I let a project linger on too long. And I don't really like hiding or running away from something, so we sucked it up and made it happen! You kind of just have to take one little step at a time—editing, sound, music, color. Just break it down and go week by week until it's done.
NFS: What did you learn about filmmaking while making this movie?
Downey: Man...overall I think the biggest lesson was just seeing a feature film through from start to finish. It's a huge task and takes so much time and energy. Let's be honest, ThanksKilling is what it is, so most of my learning came more from the overall process than it did from the choices of where to put the camera, blocking, performance, casting, or any of those decisions that affect the story. Now ThanksKlling was a monster of a learning experience, but again, for reasons that have to do with the process and fan expectations for a sequel.
NFS: Can we just talk about the sequel for a second? Why is the sequel called ThanksKilling 3 !? I think you might be the first filmmaker ever to go straight from 1 to 3.
Downey: I'm pretty sure we were the first and only movie to do it! We just wanted to do something different and unexpected. The last thing we wanted to do was repeat ourselves and just have Turkie killing more college kids. We didn't expect that so many fans felt that TK3 was too far of a leap from TK1, but that was also kind of the joke—that there's this missing movie that bridges the style and tone between TK1 and TK3, but you never get to see it!
NFS: Do you plan on ever makingThanksKilling 2?
Downey: No, not anytime soon at least. We do have an idea for it and debated it many times, but I think the ship has sailed for the time being. I'm just more interested in other projects and ideas, so without 100% dedication, it's too hard to "fake it" and make a movie. Maybe when the next wave of nostalgia hits in 20 years we'll bring it back!
NFS: What advice would you give indie filmmakers who are about to make their first feature?
Downey: My biggest advice is to write something small, make it yourself, and don't do something we've seen before. Be bold and take risks. Make a movie that you yourself really want to see. But most importantly, finish it—really see it through to the end. You'll be terrified, but it will be fun—and you'll learn a lot.