"Saw," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Scream": What do all these movies have in common? Yes, they're horror films, but they're also part of franchises with major followings. That's what LMU alumni Kevin Stewart ('08) and Jordan Downey ('08) hope to achieve with "ThanksKilling," a campy horror flick about a "fowl"-mouthed turkey. They're prepping to shoot the sequel now with LMU as the primary location, following the 2009 DVD release of the first film.
Downey and Stewart, both alumni of the School of Film and Television (SFTV), shot "ThanksKilling" during the summer before their senior year in Licking County, Ohio. The cheesy B-movie blends horror and comedy to tell the story of five college students who go home for Thanksgiving break only to be tormented by the aforementioned turkey.
"It literally started as a joke," Downey told the Loyolan in 2009. "We were watching a cheesy horror film and started talking about what holidays hadn't been done in horror movies yet, and Thanksgiving was the most prominent one."
About 80 percent of "ThanksKilling 2" will be filmed on the SFTV stages during winter break. Stewart and Downey will wear many hats for the production as they did for the first film - both writing with the help of Downey's brother, Stewart filling the role of cinematographer again, Downey directing and voicing the turkey again - but this time around they're recruiting LMU students to work on the film in various crew positions.
"A big appeal was ... being able to go back to the school we graduated from where we had a great experience making movies and being able to share that experience with current students at LMU," Stewart said. "[It's about] bringing that back and keeping it within the family."
The filmmakers are marketing the sequel as "the humor of ‘South Park' meets the horror of ‘Evil Dead II' meets the fantasy of ‘Labyrinth.'" They are keeping story details under wraps but they did promise that it will be bigger in every possible way - the turkey included.
"The turkey will be bigger and meaner and nastier and funnier," Downey said.
They've improved the design of the turkey puppet, again employing the expertise of Troy Smith, a Pennsylvania-based special effects artist. The new turkey will be cable-operated with movable and closeable eyes, while the first one required a puppeteer to have his hand inside the turkey to operate it. And the turkey won't be the only puppet - "bigger" here means more creatures ready to attack unsuspecting Thanksgiving celebrants. Puppeteers are among the crew positions the filmmakers are still looking to fill.
With a $100,000 budget - a big leap from the $3,500 price tag of the first movie -Downey and Stewart are also working to improve upon the first installment with higher production value in all areas. Though current students working on the film will not be paid for their work on set, other crew members will be paid - something the small budget of "ThanksKilling" didn't allow.
"The reason the first one cost so little is because we didn't pay the cast, we didn't pay the crew, we didn't have permits. We just went out and pointed a camera and clicked record," Downey said. "Because Kevin and I have been working in the industry in different positions since graduation, you realize going through that that you can't not pay the people around you who are going to be working really hard," Downey continued.
Downey and Jordan raised the entire $100,000 budget over three months on Kickstarter, an online threshold pledge system that has found popularity among independent filmmakers. Stewart said they tried "literally a different strategy every single day" to raise awareness about the Kickstarter campaign. Among their do-it-yourself marketing tactics were updating an active Facebook page, offering perks like merchandise and props from the first movie to those who pledged money to the campaign and creating "Lost Turkey" fliers for fans across the country to post around their hometowns.
"We said [the turkey] abandoned the project, that he was pissed off that there was no money to make the sequel," Stewart said. "It was a good idea but it didn't really work out. I think it just kind of went over people's heads for the most part."
Other ideas were enough to earn the needed funds and then some with fans coming together in the final days of the campaign to pour in funds.
Many fans of the first film - which was released on DVD, on demand and is streaming on Netflix - were initially wary of the significantly increased budget, worrying that the "so bad it's good" quality of the first movie would be lost.
"We're still with the script maintaining the cheese and B-movie humor of the whole thing. No matter how nice of a lens you have, it is still going to keep that tone of the first movie," Downey said.
With the fundraising portion of their work done, the alums are ramping up their efforts to get a crew ready for the shoot. Of those already hired, 90 percent are part of the LMU community, Stewart said. Several other alumni are getting involved, as well as Pete Soto, SFTV production administrator, who has worked with Stewart on several shoots outside of LMU.
"It's unique to LMU - that camaraderie among the alums and current students," said Soto, who will be the gaffer for "ThanksKilling 2."
Downey and Stewart encouraged students take the opportunity to work on a film that's guaranteed distribution, that has some fun special effects and where "nobody isn't going to be laughing and smiling at some point throughout the day" on set, Stewart said.
The duo plans to release the film theatrically in November 2012 and has hopes it will screen at genre-related film festivals. Gravitas Ventures has guaranteed the film some type of distribution.
"ThanksKilling" won't stop there though - Stewart and Downey have hopes to turn it into a franchise with a film released every November, "the movie you think of when you think of Thanksgiving," Stewart said. They would give directing and screenwriting duties to other budding filmmakers in the future.
"That would be our goal - in a sense like a recent graduate-produced franchise. There's really nothing out there like that now," Downey said.
The alums still have plenty of story ideas they'd supply the filmmakers with, and there are no bounds to how delightfully ridiculous they're willing to go.
"If we wanted to set it underwater, we'll do it. If we wanted to set it in space, we'll go there. If we wanted to make it Pixar-animated [-style], we can do that too," Downey said. "Nothing is off limits."
How to get a crew position on "ThanksKilling 2"
On-campus shoot dates: Dec. 16-21, Jan. 2-8
Students of any major are welcome to work on set as few or as many days as they are able to participate.
2nd Assistant Camera
Grips and electrics