Jon Knautz, Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer
At a time when horror films are getting ever more brutal, Jon Knautz brings a comfortingly old- fashioned feel to genre filmmaking. The Ottawa-born writer-director, who grew up on a diet of slasher films and 50s creature features, went to Vancouver Film School to pursue his dream of making movies. Knautz’s graduation project, Apt. 310 (2002), a stylish, tightly scripted noir, was the first in a series of shorts that harked back to classic modes of filmmaking. After making the blood-spattered comedy horror Teen Massacre (2004), Knautz won acclaim for the festival favorites Still Life (2005), a tribute to Twilight Zone-style storytelling, and the chilling The Other Celia (2005), adapted from a sci-fi story by Theodore Sturgeon. In 2007, Knautz directed Trevor Matthews and Patrick White – his two partners in the Brookstreet Pictures production company – in the short thriller Moment of Truth.
For his debut feature, Knautz also goes retro as he taps into the spirit of 80s horror films with Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer. The eponymous hero (Trevor Matthews) is a plumber with anger issues stemming from the childhood trauma of seeing his parents and sister killed by a monster during a family camping trip. He attends night school to learn science from Professor Crowley (a hearty turn by Robert Englund), but when Crowley unearths an evil spirit Jack is forced to take action and finally put his rage to good use. Knautz’s movie feels very out of sync with current horror trends, but only in a good way: he spends time developing story and character, brings a real sense of fun to proceedings, and delivers with both climactic action sequences and great monsters. Jack Brooks recalls lovingly crafted 80s fare such as the early films of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, and Knautz succeeds in creating an affectionate and highly enjoyable homage to those movies.
Filmmaker spoke to Knautz about films from the time before CGI, the impact of watching A Nightmare on Elm Street at age six, and his abandoned dream of becoming a ninja.
Filmmaker: How did you come to start your production company, Brookstreet Pictures, with producer Patrick White and actor-producer Trevor Matthews?
Knautz: Well, I was in film school in Vancouver in 2001 when I met Pat White, who was in my class. And then I came back from Vancouver in 2002, and that’s when I met Trevor Matthews back here in Ottowa. We worked on a short film together called Teen Massacre, and around the same time Pat and I had got a grant from the government to do a short film called The Other Celia, so I just said to Trevor, “Why don’t you come get involved with this Celia thing in Toronto?” So that’s how the three of us met originally, and then at that point Pat stayed in Toronto and Trev and I came back to Ottawa and decided to start Brookstreet. Our first project was going to be Still Life, and then we brought Pat on board to produce that, and then he stuck around and we’ve been running the company for the last four years together.
Filmmaker: So far the Brookstreet productions have been essentially horror, ranging from the Twilight Zone-esque Still Life to a creature feature like Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer. On your website you say that your aim to make “commercially viable yet artistically driven films,” so are you going to diversify your output?
Knautz: Well, we’re really not interested in making horror films at all. Initially, we delved into the genre films – sci-fi, horror, thriller, action – but Trever and I would love to one day make epics. Some of our favorite films are Braveheart, Gladiator. But to start out, we thought it would be a smart move for the feature film to do something with a real demographic, and these horror films definitely have a demographic. With the short films, we chose genre type stuff probably more just because the stories appealed to us – we didn’t set out to make a sci-fi movie, we just came across the script for Still Life. It just happened to be sci-fi, and it just happened to be a really great story so we decided to make it. So far, we’ve definitely done horrors and thrillers and sci-fi based stuff, but we’re definitely looking to move into dramas at some point once we establish ourselves a little bit more.
Filmmaker: What were you aiming to achieve with Jack Brooks?
Knautz: On a business level, we thought by targeting the horror demographic that we knew definitely existed we could hopefully get our money back. On a creative level, it was excellent for all of us because I think we wanted to establish ourselves as guys who could make a feature film, we didn’t just want to be making shorts, and our company’s gonna be around for a while. We’re already moving into another feature and we plan to move into another right after that. So we just wanted to get our feet wet, and doing a horror comedy was really fun because we could experiment and try some fun stuff out and I guess it felt a little safer than trying to do a heavy-handed drama, because if you don’t get that right… Being inexperienced, we wanted to start with something a little more lighthearted.
Filmmaker: What were your influences for the film?
Knautz: I grew up with the horror films of the 80s, so that’s a lot of the reason why I wanted to do a throwback to good old-fashioned, no CGI, all practical effects horror. We looked at all sorts of films, Gremlins, Peter Jackson’s early work like Bad Taste and Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles, and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China was a big influence. Lots of horror films. We just cruised through as many horror films as we could from the 80s to sort of draw from that time period.
Filmmaker: What aspects of 80s horror were you particularly keen to bring back?
Knautz: Number one, the fact that there were no computer graphics. From the mid-90s and early 2000s, films were starting to experiment with CGI – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but the bottom line is that the audience just reacts differently to CGI as opposed to practical effects, especially in a horror film. I grew up with A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Fly and Gremlins, so maybe there’s something to do with remembering experiencing those films at that age. They can have a profound effect on you, so maybe they’ve stuck with me. Now it’s more the “torture porn” stuff. I like that stuff, I think it’s great for what it is, but it seems like maybe that’s all people were getting right now and we wanted to kinda give ’em a more lighthearted, fun Gremlins experience. The way I usually explain it is if you think of a gremlin getting thrown in a microwave [laughs] and then they turn up the heat until it explodes, that was the kind of movie we wanted to make, where you’ve got monsters and creatures and they’re just getting their heads smashed in and they’re getting all messed up and killed by some heroic character throughout the film.
Filmmaker: The film almost feels like the first part of a franchise. Was that something you were thinking about when you were writing the film?
Knautz: I fully admit we were not thinking of sequels when we wrote this at all. But certainly with the way it ends, I think a lot of people take that as leading into sequels and more adventures. We just subconsciously were probably thinking of that when we were writing it, but we were more thinking it would be funny to see him become more this incredible monster slayer by the end and leave it on a cliffhanger. But if people are liking the first one and like the Jack character and want to see more then we’d definitely love to produce sequels. We actually have Part 2 in development right now as a script.
Filmmaker: Recently, it’s almost become a horror movie cliché to have Robert Englund in a supporting role, but you utilized him really well here, I thought.
Knautz: I totally appreciate that comment because it was very, very important to me to not use Robert as your typical “I used to be Freddy Krueger” cameo. I knew he had a really humorous side to him and he just seemed like a really great character actor and I thought he suited the role perfectly. So we sent him a copy of the script, his agent read it and really liked it, and passed it on to Robert. I guess he didn’t really get the comedic side to it at first, and then [his agent] said to read it again and think more on the lines of old school Evil Dead-type horror comedy. Then Robert read it a second time and really got it and really jumped on board and wanted to be a part of it. We also sent him as copy of our film Still Life, and I think that sorta helped secure the fact that we were legitimate and serious about making movies.
Filmmaker: I thought it was refreshing that Jack Brooks is a horror movie that takes its time to slowly build character and plot rather than the majority of the film just being action.
Knautz: We’ve definitely been getting grilled a little bit on how long it takes to get to the action and in retrospect I kinda feel like our title has hurt us a little bit, because when people see the title Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer I think they’re right away going, “OK, this guy’s going to slay monsters the whole movie,” but really it’s the origin story of how he becomes a monster slayer. I wanted you to feel this guy’s struggle and feel his anger and his frustration while you’re going through the film, so that when he does kick ass at the end of the film, you can feel that release of the anger and feel it being used properly. I wanted people to be right there with him, going, “Right on, This is what you should be doing!” [laughs]
Filmmaker: The monsters in the film look really great, especially with your relatively limited budget.
Knautz: David Scott (of Form & Dynamics) and his team went above and beyond to create all those monsters. Generally with a low budget horror you might have one monster that you maybe don’t see that much until the end; we had a cyclops, a troll, mutants running around the school, we had the prof monster that Robert turned into in the end, so Dave really had his plate full. He worked on a lot of really big projects working for other people, but we let him be the key special effects person on this film so he was really, really hungry for it. He’s got a great love and passion for the horror genre and definitely was inspired by the same movies as I was, so he was just rarin’ to go.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Knautz: The first film I saw that got me goin’ was The Neverending Story, and I must have been three. As far as I my brain will let me remember, I remember that movie having a profound effect on me. Emotionally, when Atreyu’s horse starts to sink into the mud, I couldn’t handle that. [laughs] It really upset me, but in the end I was ecstatic. A Nightmare on Elm Street came pretty close after that. I saw that when I was way too young – I must have been six. I don’t think I knew what I was in for; I was watching a lot of old movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon, Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Roger Corman-type stuff, and then all of a sudden I’m watching Elm Street that I got my mom to rent me. Obviously she didn’t realize how messed up it was and I didn’t sleep for weeks [laughs] – but I was hooked. I couldn’t stop watching horror after that.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you burst out laughing on set?
Knautz: When Robert Englund is going through the crate in the movie and he finds the skull and then he pulls out the bone and he finds the heart, I was directing him during the shot. I was saying “OK, Robert, show me the lid of the crate coming off… show me the dirt moving around… show me the skull…” And then I said, “Show me the bone,” and everybody burst out laughing because “Show me the bone” is somehow referencing “Show me your cock.” [laughs] That was pretty embarrassing and we had to cut because everybody was laughing.
Filmmaker: Finally, what was your dream job as a kid?
Knautz: I wanted to be a ninja, until I found out that that’s not a professional career here in North America – unless I just didn’t look hard enough. I wanted to be a ninja up until I was like five or six. I was big into the ninja movies as a kid. [laughs] All the bad stuff that Kill Bill was inspired by: some Sonny Chiba stuff – obviously that stuff was good, but then there was some of those really bad movies like American Ninja parts one, two, three, four. [laughs] I was pretty into those. The first one’s not bad – I saw it again recently, and I still kinda like it.