A few weeks back I was lucky enough to talk to Cameron MacGowan, the writer and director of Red Letter Day. We talked about his intro to filmmaking, David Cronenberg, and the current political culture in North America amongst other things.
Justin: So first is a basic question I always like to ask. What is the origin story of how you got into filmmaking?
Cameron: Probably being a child of divorce because my father would leave us alone with a stack of VHS tapes when he would go out on dates, so every weekend was just crushing movies since I was six years old. But from there it was just realizing what a director does that got me really excited. I started noticing certain names repeated on the back of some of my favorite movies, and I’d be like ‘wait the same person made this?’ Because this was before the Internet, and I was just a kid so I didn’t really have access books detailing the works to filmmakers, so I just put two and two together and would just look at the back of cases and rent a whole bunch of the same director and I realized what a filmmaker actually does and I was like ‘I wanna do that…it seems like the coolest job in the world!’ But then as I came of age I bought my first camcorder and made some skate videos with my friends, and from there the skate videos turned into skits, and the skits turned into short films, and then before I knew it I signed up for film school and was making shorts every weekend.
Justin: So Red Letter Day is a fairly straightforward movie. What motivated you to make that movie right now?
Cameron: Well, some financiers had approached me from Tanda Films in 2015 who were huge fans of our short films. My short films at the time kind of revolved around trolls and creatures, and so I first started writing a script for a monster movie. But then, realizing that a monster movie on a limited budget is a recipe for disaster I started looking elsewhere for inspiration. This was around the time of the Ferguson riots and the Trump election and Twitter was the most popular place in the world at the time, and I realized that there were lines being drawn in the sand and people were being pitted against each other without them really noticing it, and it was always by people in power saying ‘that person’s bad, this person’s good’ without acknowledging the gray in between and the fact that we’re all human beings and we all do have some work to do but there’s good in a lot of folks. So I was just getting really tired of this perpetual ‘us vs. them’ mentality that was being reflected in North America and really just wanted to satirize it in the guise of a ‘human hunting human’ movie. I’m a huge fan of Battle Royale, Hard Target, Turkey Shoot, and I really love that subgenre of films. It kind of felt like that was happening in the real world, so that was kind of the impetus for Red Letter Day, and mixed in with that was my love of 80s dark comedy like Beetlejuice and The Burbs.
Justin: Yeah I was gonna say it’s heavy handed but in a good way.
Cameron: well that’s the good thing about satire: you can be on the nose but in a fun way.
Justin: One of the things I took away from the film was the idea that social media is a phenomenon that can bring people together, but a lot of the time it can also leave people feeling incredibly isolated and alienated, and people don’t really share the “real” us. For example there’s a scene in the movie where someone is pitted against someone very close to them, and yet the algorithm that matched them up determined they were the exact opposite of one another. So do you think social media is something that is inherently bad?
Cameron: I don’t think it’s inherently bad, but I do believe it perpetuates a “keeping up with the Jones’” style mentality that doesn’t really leave a lot of room for nuance within human beings. There’s also parallels between (the characters) Mel and her friend Alice where the algorithm paired them together but they get along quite well in real life, until we realize that it’s just because they’re always just pleasant to each other, and now there’s an excuse to not be pleasant to each other. So the guise drops a little bit and we have to start dealing with darker questions and the more serious elements of life. But the thing with social media is that I feel a lot people feel a tie to a version of themselves that they create for the internet and that they want to be viewed as, but the fact is that humans are a culmination of all of their experiences and we don’t have a lot of control over who we really are. But social media gives you that control, so you can create a version of yourself that is the best version of yourself but you’re forever indebted into upholding what the person is.
Justin: So this movie was undeniably about morality, and about “morality under duress” and offers commentary on the plasticity of morality. But I wouldn’t call this movie a “morality tale”. Was there any point in the creation process where you thought or feared that it might come off as too preachy?
Cameron: I did have that in the back of my mind while writing the script but ultimately I really wanted to make a Canadian horror movie, and I felt what makes Canadian horror movies, especially the films of David Cronenberg, stand out from the pack, is that they’re often horrors of manners. So they’re often people behaving with manners in a situation where manners should be completely disregarded because it’s a chaotic situation. Take for instance the scene in Shivers where the parasite is vomited onto the old ladies with umbrellas and they respond as though it’s just a rainy day. I’ve always found that dark comedy appeals to my sensibilities and it was something I wanted to explore as a filmmaker. But I also did want to state in the film that we could do with some more empathy, so I intentionally based the film around a liberal left leaning family that think they’re cool and think they’re progressive but most confront their own prejudice against right wing lower class folks in this kind of circumstance. I just wanted to hammer home the idea that morality is a constantly changing discussion that you should be having with yourself and you really shouldn’t say ‘I’m a good person’ and you should constantly be re-assessing what that means and changing your behavior accordingly.
Justin: Red Letter Day is being marketed as “The Purge but with comedy”, and I definitely see the comparisons to that film being valid. But one of the shortcomings of The Purge is that the social phenomenon of an annual Purge has no real affect on the plot other than being the reason cops can’t come help the family in distress. In your film, however, the phenomenon of the Red Letters propels the entire plot of the film and nothing that happens in the movie could happen without them. Was that a choice on your part to tell just enough backstory of the Red Letters to not bog down the viewer in any unnecessary mythos?
Cameron: I’ve only actually seen the second installment of the Purge franchise. I thought it was quite good and it felt like a fun John Carpenter movie. With the mythos of the Red Letters I had to make a decision early on as to whether the film was going to be about the people sending the Letters or the people receiving the letters. I’m ultimately more interested in the people receiving the letters because I wanted to make a daytime horror film about real people doing horrible shit. So from the get go, I decided I would hint at the backstory of the Letters just enough to answer a few questions from the viewer but also just enough to leave a few questions in case they wanted to see a sequel (laughs). Or also in case they wanted to fill it in themselves, because there’s a lot of Internet anarchist organizations similar to The Unknown, the group in the film. Anonymous being one of them obviously, and a lot of groups on the Dark Web. Once you crack that open it’s like ‘that should be your movie. It should be about those folks.’ So I wanted to leave enough questions in case I did want to make another movie, but they could also fill in the blanks themselves.
Justin: As an American I immediately caught the reference to the Anonymous.
Cameron: Yeah I have a love/hate relationship with Anonymous as well. They do a lot of good, but since they’re an organization compiled of many, many different people some people can get the message mixed up and do bad. And that’s where The Unknown is situation as well. They want to draw attention to this us vs. them mentality and get the conversation going and light the fuse for the situation, but some of them are taking it too far and are idiots themselves. But they ultimately raise the point that they only sent the letters; the recipients themselves chose to commit these crimes based on their own prejudices.
Justin: You do a lot of work in the Canadian independent film scene. Who are some of your favorite Canadian filmmakers at the moment?
Cameron: well, Panos Cosmatos (director of Mandy) is from Canada, he lives in Vancouver and he’s one of the most exciting filmmakers right now. Robert Eggers (director of The Witch and The Lighthouse) is Canadian and makes his films here. Trevor Anderson is a filmmaker from Edmonton who has a short film making the circuit right now that’s played all the big festivals called Docking and he’s really ready to break. And I really love the work of fellow Albertan Rob Grant who made a film called Harpoon that’s making the circuit right now. It’s an incredible film.
Justin: I remember when one of the things that put Cronenberg on my radar when I was younger, aside from him making The Fly that is, was that back in the ‘80s there was this uproar from some of the conservative party of the Canadian government over the public funding of his films because many of them were considered obscene and are for a very small subset of people. Have you encountered anything like that?
Cameron: it’s funny that you mention that because when Cronenberg was making those films, as well as Ivan Reitman making his early films and Bob Clark making Black Christmas, it was an era known as the Tax Shelter Days. What happened was that doctors and dentists were able to write off their entire practices as investments in Canada, and what happened is people started making fake movies just so they could write off those funds. They said they were making films, but those films just never got released and were never even worked on. That funding got cut, but you’re right Canada has never really acknowledged the success of our horror movies as much as they should. For example there were four feature horror films from Alberta at Fright Fest in the UK this past year, and the Canadian government had funded none of them, and these were films that were travelling the world and playing festivals and representing Canada. Alberta itself has been doing quite a good job of celebrating the accomplishments of the horror films that come out of here but the Canadian government as a whole does not. Canada has this mentality that horror films are perverse and it doesn’t like to celebrate their success. I remember Hobo With A Shotgun was one of the biggest films to come out of Canada in a long time and Telefilm (the branch of the Canadian government responsible for financing Canadian productions) didn’t mention it once, and Turbo Kid was a huge Canadian film that opened Sundance Midnight; again, Telefilm doesn’t mention it once. Yet these tiny independent dramas that play one or two festivals are constantly on their radar and never get a return on their investments and don’t really travel the world. It’s a sad situation.
Justin: In the past couple years, ever since films like Get Out and The Babadook and The Witch there’s been this idea of this genre known as ‘post horror’. How do you feel about this recent argument that horror films are now a legitimate genre?
Cameron: The hypocrisy is a little hilarious to me, because since the beginning of filmmaking horror films have been made for audiences and a great vehicle for thematic that are important to the filmmakers. Since horror has been created it’s always been a socially important art form. But it’s always been an artform for outsiders and weirdoes, so it used to be just a pocket of horror fans who when you met them you were instant best friends. But now everybody is watching horror movies and I frankly think it’s great. The movies are getting so much better, especially the mainstream ones. There was a while there you could only ever see PG-13 ghost movies for mainstream horror, but this year alone there’s been so many different types of horror films with huge budgets and great performances. So I’m fine with people using the post horror label as long as it means there are budgets and resources for these great horror films. I remember when Silence Of The Lambs was up for an Academy Award and people were hesitant to call it a horror movie, but if a movie where someone cuts someone else face off and wears it, as a mask isn’t a horror film I don’t know what is. But if it’s brought up to make people think that horror is for sleazy individuals so they have to plaster another label on it to make it palatable, but the fact is that it’s always been a successful genre for audiences and there are a lot of talented filmmakers that have their heart in their genre. There always has been and there always will be, so I don’t care what they call it as long as they get made.
Justin: What’re some of your current favorite horror movies?
Cameron: I just had my first child but I’ve been making time when he goes to bed to watch horror movies, and recently I revisited Bava’s Black Sunday, which I didn’t really like when I first watched It but now I adore this movie. I’ve actually watched it twice this week, and it’s so beautiful and so jam packed with cool quirky ideas. I can’t wait to watch it again. As far as new horror I just checked out The Furies, and Australian slasher that’s on Shudder and I loved it. The concept was so great and the visual effects were amazing. They were all practical and there were like eight different creature designs, and all the cinematography and performances were great. And Ready Or Not I thought was amazing. I couldn’t believe I got to see that in a theater. It was so subversive in it’s idea, the humor is so dark, and it’s so gory. I had no idea how it got funded and I was so good I got to see it in a crowded theater. It was great. This year there’s been so much new horror.
Justin: Well all right thank you for taking the time to talk to me we really appreciate it.
Cameron: thank you for celebrating these under seen films! Keep fighting the good fight.