Saturday, May 3, 2014

Monsters, Gangsters And Holiday Cheer: My Interview With “Christmas At Dracula’s” Director Simon Mckeon

Simon MckeonSimon Mckeon is a young director from Ireland with a love for cult cinema and movie monsters, who is about debut his first feature film, “Christmas At Dracula’s”, a dark but humorous satire featuring the most iconic movie monsters of all time. Not only Dracula, but The Invisible Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, Dr. Jekyll and The Wicked Witch all make their presence known in this satirical yet dramatic feature.

I had the privilege of interviewing the indie director who names his influences for cult cinema on some of the modern, powerfully impressionable, indie films such as "Rocky Horror Picture Show", "The Big Labowski", and "Evil Dead". Films which serve as a well of inspiration for Mckeon as he sets forth in his film career both in his native Ireland and the rest of the world. Read my interview with Simon Mckeon below.

ASouthernLife: "Chrismas At Dracula's" reads a bit somber but there is some classic satire present, how did you come about the story for this film?
Simon Mckeon: I always had a love for Cult cinema when I was younger, the more crazy and out there the film was, the better! I had just finished school and instead of just lazing around and doing nothing, I decided to write a screenplay. I was about to start film school anyway, but I figured it’d be pretty cool if I had a completed script by the time I started. But then writers block kicked in. I had nothing! I knew I wanted to write a film that fans would label a "cult classic" in years to come. That’s really all I had. I toiled with a few ideas, but none of them really grabbed me. I went back and studied some of the classics of Cult cinema, "Rocky Horror Picture Show", "The Big Labowski", "Evil Dead". And I noticed that all these films had a connection, they all had outlandish plots. Their titles seemed a bit off the wall and they all had a sublime mix of humor and drama. I felt that in order to stand out from the others, especially in Irish cinema, I had to make my first film quite different from the films that other directors might make as a debut. With my studying of Cult Cinema done, I began brainstorming ideas. What if I wrote about a character people are familiar with - Santa Clause? Sherlock Holmes?...Count Dracula! And what if I threw a curve-ball into the equation and put this iconic character in a setting people aren’t normally used to seeing them in?

ASouthernLife: So how did Christmas come to play into the idea, seeing that Dracula is normally associated with Halloween horror”?
Simon Mckeon: I felt that this idea would be a lot of fun to play around with. Having Count Dracula as my main character and have the basis of the film about him throwing a party, I knew that it was going to be a rogue gallery of classic horror characters that would attend. I began researching these famous hammer horror icons, from Frankenstein’s monster to The Invisible Man, like what I did with Dracula, I gave them all little quirks (to make them that but different from what the audience perceive them to be), Dr Jekyll is a recovering alcoholic, The Wicked Witch is a cocaine addict and Frankenstein’s monster is a homosexual. I tried to give them all "real" problems that we ourselves have to deal with. Thus giving these horror characters a more real-feel (if you get me). While this does seem like a comedy, I had to respect the horror roots all these characters have so the film does stay loyal to the horror genre, as the plot progresses it gets gradually darker. Long story short - it’s very much an homage to my love of cult cinema.

ASouthernLife: The characters are icons of the monster movie genre and Christmas has become like a second Halloween in the horror community, have you always wanted to do a Christmas movie?
Simon Mckeon:  Funnily enough, I had no intention of making a Christmas movie! And there’s a story behind how it came to being set
at Christmas.

When I had completed the first draft of the script, Dracula was actually throwing a Halloween party! It wasn’t until I gave the script to another screen-writer I know, (Mike O’Dowd, who plays Dracula’s companion Igor in the film), that he suggested that I take it one step further and transport these characters we associate with Halloween into a Christmas setting. And I loved it! I knew instantly I could have so much fun with this! I quickly re-wrote the script. I just couldn’t get the bizarre image of Count Dracula untangling Christmas lights out of my head!

And plus, I figure it’s good that every director, some stage or another makes a Christmas movie! So, I kinda hit two birds with the one stone with this one.

ASouthernLife: This is your first feature film both as writer and director, did you always know you wanted to make movies?
2Simon Mckeon: I wanted to be a vet when I was growing up! It was mad. However, all the while I was constantly writing stories and trying to put on these ridiculous plays with my friends for our parents. I am proud to say that I come from a creative family, my Grand-mother was always drawing and doodling, so the arts were very much encouraged when I was younger. I never had a notion of having a career in it. I suppose it was because I always viewed it as more of a past-time.

ASouthernLife: When did you first realize you had a passion for cinema?
Simon Mckeon: The when I was in school, I remember in biology class, the teacher showed us a video from a Veterinarian clinic – an operation....all that blood! I am a bit squeamish so instantly I knew that being a vet just wasn’t for me. That was a strange time, because (as far as I remember), it was only a few days after being shown that video that we began a film making class in school. I wanted to be the actor in it, but my English teacher talked me into writing the script and directing it instead. And I did! Straight away I was hooked. Storyboarding the scenes, directing the actors what to do, creating the shots. I just loved the entire thing! I even got a buzz from the stress of it all.

ASouthernLife: How has filming gone for the film so far?
Simon Mckeon: Filming has been great. We have gotten a lot of help from the community, friends letting us shoot in their houses, people offering up their time for free to help us, we even had people make food to feed the cast and crew!

Of course, like with any production, we have had our problems. The weather has been our biggest battle though. In Ireland, it’s constantly raining and while that may look great on camera, it’s not great on crew members! But thankfully it’s been a good shoot.

ASouthernLife: How has the buzz around the film been both in the UK and North America?
Simon Mckeon: I have been surprised by the buzz the film has been getting in the UK and North America. I had never thought that it would get some recognition, not just outside of Cork City, but Ireland. So to have people talking about it in different countries is pretty overwhelming. We have had a lot of feed-back via our Facebook and our Youtube pages from people in the States telling us how they can’t wait to see it. We even had one guy tell us he had a similar idea a few years back and upon seeing the trailer, was so impressed that he gave us his blessing. I am relieved to say that the buzz from afar has been positive!

ASouthernLife: What can horror fans expect from "Christmas At Dracula's"?
Simon Mckeon: They can expect to see a lot of homages! A lot of films have influenced me in the making of "Christmas At Dracula’s", so I feel that it’s right to pay some sort of tribute to them. But not all are obvious, some are pretty subtle.

One thing I do hope is that the horror fans who see this will find themselves laughing a lot. While it may look like a horror, at it’s heart the film is a black-comedy. Which was a challenge in a way for us, as I didn’t want the fans to feel cheated - they went to a horror, but got a comedy instead. I feel that we have to balance the two equally in order for the fans to feel that they got what they wanted. And, if I am honest, I am pretty confident we have struck that balance.

Stylistically though I think the horror fans will get exactly what they are looking for. I based a lot of the shots on the techniques used in horror films. And there’s a pretty ominous feel running throughout which we ramp up slowly, notch by notch as the film progresses....which should satisfy all those horror fans out there!

ASouthernLife: What is your favorite holiday horror film?
Simon Mckeon: The Gremlins! Wins every time!

ASouthernLife: Which is your favorite of the classic monsters of literature that have become synonymous with the horror genre?
Simon Mckeon: It’s hard to pick one. I love Mary Shelly’s "Frankenstein", not just for the character, but because of the themes she addresses in the novel. I think the theme of how man can "play God" was a pretty bold statement to make, especially for the time it was written. I wouldn’t rate Frankenstein’s Monster as my favourite, however I do rate the book as my favourite in the horror genre.

3As for my favourite character - Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde would be up there, the internal struggle is pretty metaphorical. But I think my favourite would have to be "The Invisible Man" by H.G Wells. He’s a very tragic character. What has happened to him is all his doing. He dedicated his life to science research and now he has paid a very high price for it. I think we all have moments when we tell ourselves "I’d love to be Invisible, just for one day"....this character shows the negative side to this. In a way, he’s the personification of the age old question "Is the grass greener on the other side?". Oh and he looks the coolest out of the characters for sure. Dressed in the cloths and sunglasses, he’s dripping in surreal style!

ASouthernLife: Who do you think did it better, telling the stories, Universal or Hammer Studios?
Simon Mckeon: That’s a tough one! I think both studios handled the stories quite well. "Hammer" were a lot edgier though. They took risks, which, when making horror films is a very important thing. In "Dracula: Prince Of Darkness" there was a pretty controversial sacrifice scene.

While the Universal horror films have become dated in time, they are a mile stone in horror. They started the whole thing off in style. Say what you will, but the original Dracula film from ’31 still runs a shiver down my spine. I know it’s a very political answer I am giving, but it’s hard to pick one over the other for me. While "Universal" introduced us to the world of these characters, "Hammer" took the gamble and gave them a unique horror style of their own.

ASouthernLife: What can we expect from you as either director or writer in the future, or will that be "both" as writer and director?
Simon Mckeon: At "El Diablo Productions", we have a lot of things in the pipeline. We are currently in post-production for a short film I have produced called "Bad-Guy", which is a gritty tale about a drug deal gone wrong.....but with a twist.

As for myself, I am currently adding the finishing touches to the screen-plays for an upcoming TV series which we begin production over the Summer. The series is called "Exile On North Main Street" and tells the story of Hollywood screen-writer Dwayne Myers, who after burning all his
bridges in tinsel town moves to his parents home country of Ireland to make a name for himself. It’s a dark-comedy that deals with the decay of the American Dream. It’s told over seven hour long episodes which we hope to start showing early next year.

I think with a film like "Christmas At Dracula’s" being my debut, it can be very easy to be labeled as a "horror director". So for my next feature I want to re-invent myself in a way. What better way than to make a gangster film? The movie is called "Finnegan’s Wake" and is set in Ireland in 1994 during the economic boom. It’s centered around the illegal pornography industry. It’s very much based on the themes of fear, paranoia and surveillance. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can’t wait to start rolling on it.

ASouthernLife:  What is your favorite horror film of all time?
Simon Mckeon: Pretty hard to pick one! "The Shinning" has stood the test of time pretty well. It’s still very frightening to this day. That’s the thing with horror films, the more dated they get, the less frightening they seem to be.

If you put a gun to my head and forced me to pick one, it would have to be "An American Werewolf In London". While it does blur the lines between horror and comedy, when it does horror, it does it very well! It still manages to give frights, nearly two decades after it’s release! Its extremely minimal use of CGI has meant that it hasn’t really dated. The infamous transformation scene is still an uncomfortable watch, while also being a marvel in prosthetic effects! Add to this a kick-ass soundtrack and you have a horror classic that has stood the test of time and will do for years to come!

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