Ah, can you feel that in the air?

That crisp, autumn spook-tacular weather blowing in to replace the long, hot summer months is a nice reminder that Halloween season is nearly upon us. To kick off Halloween, as we usually do, we’re excited to be back at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas to check out some of the best shorts and features that the horror genre has to offer.

At this year’s fest we were excited to check out a supernatural dark comedy short called FISHMONGER. Directed and co-written by Neil Ferron, FISHMONGER was part of a new “Burnt Ends” section of Alamo Drafthouse’s signature film festival and a great representation of the next generation of up-and-coming horror filmmakers.

Sharing DNA with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and David Eggers’ The Lighthouse, Ferron’s ferocious seaside tale is jam packed full of old school cinematic techniques including miniatures, creature makeup, poor-man's process shots and practical stunts and effects.

Honing on his DIY production tricks in particular, we chatted with Ferron about his horror short, its feature film script version, and his advice for fellow horror filmmakers looking to dabble in body horror productions of their own.

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: What gave you the original idea for FISHMONGER? When did you decide to explore the more fantastical elements of creature and body horror?

Neil Ferron: I was wrestling with a bunch of story ideas when I stumbled across this vintage Nat Geo portrait of a fisherman in Nova Scotia—nervous face, rain-soaked, big looming ocean behind him. I just knew—as I looked at him—that he was about to row out to sea to have some kind of sex with a terrifying fish creature.

And I had to know why. From there, I basically tried to answer that question while grafting all of my own personal issues—shame, self-worth, inadequacy in love—onto that scenario. About a week later I had a detailed treatment for FISHMONGER.

NFS: There's elements of Eggars The Lighthouse mixed with Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, what films did you find yourself pulling from for inspiration?

Ferron: I just have to say: Paul Reubens’ passing is such a hole in my heart. Pee-wee was a hero in my family, quoted on a nearly daily basis, essentially our own Patron Saint of Weirdos.

In terms of films, I love to pull from opposite ends of the spectrum. I love wild and cartoonish films—early Burton (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure being the mountaintop), Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, George Miller’s Mad Max—I just love directors who create these worlds that bend space, time, and physics. And at the same time—this is probably my Catholic upbringing showing—I really love a heavy, elaborate period drama. The more costume-y the better. Ingmar Bergman, Tarkovsky, German’s Hard to Be a God.

I think I just love heightened films, whether they’re silly or stark, that feel epic, like someone’s soul is at risk.

'FISHMONGER'Courtesy of Fantastic Fest

NFS: Tell us a little bit about the process of turning the original feature film screenplay of FISHMONGER (which was selected as SLAMDANCE's 2021 Grand Prize Winner) into a workable short film script. Is this condensed version of the feature or more of an adjacent story?

Ferron: It was a very odd little process, totally informed by the pandemic. The first iteration was actually a detailed treatment—which clearly wanted to be a feature—but I decided to shoehorn it into a short screenplay, which we were going to shoot in April 2020. Then COVID-19 hit.

But, actually, that was for the best because it gave me the time to write the feature version (which was actually the first feature-length screenplay that I’d ever written), and then, in this odd twist of fate, once that feature script existed, I rewrote the short, because now I understood how to properly strip it down into an achievable (but still wild and ambitious) proof of concept.

'FISHMONGER'Courtesy of Fantastic Fest

NFS: What camera did you shoot on and what were you looking for with your black-and-white cinematography?

Ferron: The technical answer is an ARRI Alexa Mini. But the real answer is Jack McDonald, our cinematographer. Jack is one of the most talented cinematographers I’ve ever worked with or been in the presence of.

He has this stunningly elegant style–total command of framing, light & shadow, movement, and so many deep cut references I’d never heard of (Night of the Demon, I Am Cuba, Marketa Lazarová). But, also, Jack loves to cut loose and get freaky. And, like many AFI cinematographers, he has a deep sense of story and character. I will shoot with Jack anytime, anywhere.

'FISHMONGER'Courtesy of Fantastic Fest

NFS: From tentacle sex to exploding hell-blisters, can you tell us a bit about your practical effects and stunts?

Ferron: Oh man. I love practical filmmaking. For many reasons, but here are two big ones: First, it radically changes the tone on set. To actually be puppeting a giant latex vagina-tentacle between two actors. To actually be rigging someone to a tree for a hanging. I mean, when Donnla Hughes first stepped on set as Sinead the Fish Monster—full creature makeup, full wedding gown—it felt like we were being visited by Glinda the Good Witch. This energy just rippled through the whole cast and crew. Everyone was simultaneously very excited and very focused.

Second, it means we get to work with all these weirdo geniuses like Robert Beaucage and Eric Fox from Symbolic Arts, Van Ayasit our stunt coordinator and Ali Bayless our SFX makeup wizard. It’s a total joy to bring these freaky experts together and say: “OK, we need to stab this harpoon through Sinead’s chest, we need blood to spray, and we need our actor to be totally safe–how can we do this with no money?” Everyone comes alive, like we’re just saving the Apollo 13 with duct tape over and over.

Also, in a 21st-century world where computers can generate anything we can imagine, I feel like practical filmmaking does something really wonderful to the human brain. Somehow a handmade miniature is both more make-believe and more real, and I feel like our animal brains can sense that. Yes, this 19th-century Irish hovel is actually a real, physical object, which is actually sitting on a real cliff, over the real ocean, but this hovel is the size of a shoebox. We’re in Malibu not the Aran Islands, and it’s 2022. There’s magic in that cinematic sleight-of-hand.

'FISHMONGER'Courtesy of Fantastic Fest

NFS: Tell us a bit about why you chose to submit the film to Fantastic Fest, and perhaps how it ended up being one of first shorts to ever be programmed as a part of Burnt Ends?

Ferron: It’s a huge honor to be World Premiering at Fantastic Fest. Peter Kuplowsky and Ahbra Perry really scour the world for exciting new voices and visions and to be programmed in Burnt Ends is a real badge of honor. I’m still learning what, exactly, Burnt Ends means, but it feels like Fantastic Fest is trying to identify mutant strains of storytelling that may or may not save the planet.

'FISHMONGER'Courtesy of Fantastic Fest

NFS: If you could pass along any advice to any filmmakers looking to dabble their toes in their own DIY creature and body horror productions, what would it be?

Ferron: I have two thoughts that might be worthwhile:

First, go wild with your story. I think it’s best to dream up the story you want to tell at first without any concerns for how you’ll pull it off, and then–as a secondary step figure out how you might execute it. Best case: you find solutions. Worst case: you rewrite. We had so many consultants and collaborators join this project, people way above our pay-grade, like Robert Beacuage of Symbolic Arts, because they loved our wild story and they said they don’t see that often.

Second, “video storyboards.” Video storyboards are these things that they force us to do at AFI, and it basically means you grab your shot list, a DSLR, and a few friends, and, weeks before you set foot on set, you shoot a very rough version of your entire film. Every set up. Every shot. Wood spoons for knives. Bathrobes for costumes. Then you cut it all together. It’s a bit tedious, but you see what’s working and what’s not. So much is revealed by this practice and it saved our butts on set so many times.