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Grimmfest 2021: An Interview With John Valley, Writer and Director of The Pizzagate Massacre

John Valley’s film The Pizzagate Massacre is a satire about the news media and conspiracy theories, inspired by the real Pizzagate conspiracy theory that spread through the USA in 2016. The film is very entertaining, and just as entertaining was my recent conversation with John himself about the film, a few days before the international premiere of The Pizzagate Massacre took place at Grimmfest.

“I’m excited to see what happens,” John said, “because I know that sometimes if you give European crowds a slice of Americana, they just eat it up. And this movie is very much Americana-laden, albeit somewhat an indictment of America.”

Most of John’s directing career until now was in the field of music videos. I asked him what that change in the medium was like as a director. “They’re two very different mediums, and it’s interesting to identify what those differences are and find the commonality in terms of technique, philosophy, and approach. This movie was very low budget, and music videos give you a place where you can learn to do almost anything with no budget. So going into this movie with that scrappy production background, my cinematographer and I were able to handle the weight of a feature film production pretty handily.” Sounds like a good training ground.

Movie poster for Pizzagate Massacre

Living outside of the USA, I’d not heard about Pizzagate until reading about John’s film, so I couldn’t begin to guess where the line was between real events and fiction. “A good deal of it is fictional,” said John, “and I would argue that a good deal of the real Pizzagate is fictional, as well. And so there is the kind of conceit there with the liberties I allowed myself to take from this source material because the movie is by no means a documentary, by no means meant to be taken as a historical reinterpretation of this shooting event that in many ways preceded what became Qanon. The inspiration for me really lives and dies with the person at the actual center of the story. The only thing that I tried to stay true to was the decision that person made and what goes into that kind of decision process. All the details surrounding it, the locations, the conclusion, the names have all been invented. Partly, I wanted to avoid any legal issues, but also, I wasn’t interested in simply retelling what happened.”

I asked John whether he had approached the real shooter, or whether he embellished what he knew of the story. “I made up a lot of his story,” said John, “and he was in prison by the time I had decided to make this movie. It’s not out of any disrespect, but I had no intention to make any kind of document, so I didn’t need to see him. The closest I got to talking to real people involved was the pizza shop owner here in Austin, Texas, who just by luck of the draw didn’t have a shooting at his pizza place but was targeted for the same. There’s a little bit of historical reality there in that the movie takes place in Austin, and that same weekend that the Pizzagate shooting happened in D.C., in Austin there was a gun threat for a similar reason. Fortunately, the police got to it, and they took the warning seriously. So there was no event here, but the pizza place in our film was based on the one that had the threat. Anybody who knows this local pizza joint will see the Easter eggs.”

I decided not to ask John whether he had interviewed any lizard people. “Well, I wouldn’t be able to tell you if I did,” he laughed.

The central character Duncan, played by Tinus Seaux, was fascinating, with lots of uncertainty about where to place his beliefs. I asked John how he found or selected his actor. “That’s a funny moment, really,” he said. “I had the structure of the story, the bones of it, the vibe for about a year before I met this actor. I didn’t know it was going to be about Pizzagate, didn’t know it was going to take place in Austin. It was a general structure, but I was stumped beyond that. To be honest, it was some kind of effort on my part to make my spiritual remake of Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, but that’s as far as it went.

“Then, I was cast in a feature film about a bank heist, where I’m, like, the main robber, and I hold all these people in a conference room; it was a single location thing like Twelve Angry Men meets Inside Man, called No Loss No Gain. And there was an actor in that movie, Tinus Seaux, and we would spend time around that conference table working out these scenes, so there’s a lot of downtime making that movie when we got a bit stir-crazy. I immediately saw how charismatic and funny he was, and we got along swimmingly, became fast friends, and found this mutual interest in conspiracy theories as entertainment and fun, alternative thinking.

So the big takeaway from the movie, or at least what I was playing with, is that sense of humility. If these right-wing people were just plain stupid, it would be a lot easier to deal with this issue, but the fact of the matter is they’re not stupid. They’re living, breathing people, some of whom are very intelligent, but they’ve fallen prey to a mass delusion.

“We got talking about how conspiracy theories had become this whole big thing Stateside and across the world, and we brought up how we both thought this Pizzagate thing was just insane. I remember when that came out, it wasn’t really that big of a deal—at best, it was a punchline on Stephen Colbert’s show that week. And for me, I remember thinking that could have been a lot worse: if the Pizzagate shooter had killed people and had followed through with his plan, it would have been called the Pizzagate Massacre, and it would have been a really big deal and everyone would have taken it seriously and perhaps prevented what happened with Qanon. So that’s where the genesis of the idea came from: what if it had turned out worse. My mind germinated on that idea for a while, and when I met Tinus and heard his voice, and heard his candour, immediately it was like a light switch: that’s the actor, this is going to be the story. I already had the bones of it ready to go, and after that, I was able to write the whole script in about thirty days.”

It was all based on the premise that what you hear on the radio or the TV news is taken as fact, whether it’s substantiated or not, which is quite fascinating. I asked John whether there was a particular message he wanted his audience to take away from the film. “There are quite a few things they could pick up, I guess. I like to steer clear of teaching lessons per se because I think the important thing to acknowledge, for everyone, is a certain degree of humility. We aren’t scientists; we aren’t experts. Something has happened in this country where everyone feels they have to be an expert on something, or they’re worthless. So the big takeaway from the movie, or at least what I was playing with, is that sense of humility. If these right-wing people were just plain stupid, it would be a lot easier to deal with this issue, but the fact of the matter is they’re not stupid. They’re living, breathing people, some of whom are very intelligent, but they’ve fallen prey to a mass delusion.

“I want people to see this character, fall in love with him, and then realise that he can become a monster, and he can also be capable of love and humanity. This isn’t a binary issue, but a mass delusion or sickness that we all ought to be cognisant of and not ostracise so much. This might sound kind of corny, but if someone falls down a rabbit hole, you don’t want to close that rabbit hole but extend your hand to pull them out. The movie takes an empathetic look at those conspiracy theorists. If I just made a movie lampooning conspiracy theorists and right-wing people, that would have been easy, but I don’t think it would have been important. Our media is saturated right now with that perspective on the issue that I wouldn’t have been adding to the issue. So it drew something deeper out of me to put myself in the shoes of that character. I also had to spend three and a half years with this character, so I needed to make sure this wasn’t someone who would be awful to spend that time with. I had to empathise with him and understand him.”

And then take off the mustache afterward! “Yes,” John agreed, laughing.

John Valley, writer and director of The Pizzagate Massacre
Photo by Dave Creaney courtesy of John Valley.

John had mentioned to me, in one of his emails arranging this interview, that Qanon had picked up on the trailer, so naturally, I asked for that story. “It’s wild,” he said. “We shot this movie in 2018, and we had every intention to start submitting it to festivals in 2019, which we did and to zero interest. We couldn’t get into a festival to save our lives, and nobody was interested. I think it was a combination of people not understanding what the film was talking about and also the reality of…it’s a weird movie with no stars, and it wasn’t a big-budget movie. People didn’t know what to do with it. I think a lot of them were worried about the content.

“After about a year of hard rejection and on top of that, the pandemic, I had kind of given up and decided that I needed to move on. I was ready to release the movie on my own, and I spent a few months learning about social media marketing and how to do this on your own—setting up a whole release plan, and the first thing I was going to do was drop the trailer to announce this movie was coming out. Within twenty-four hours of announcing it, it had gotten seen by—I’m not sure how to describe it—a Qanon hive leader is probably the best description. Someone who claimed to be a Qanon leader pulled the trailer from YouTube and posted it on their own channel, so I didn’t get those views, but I got to watch those views explode overnight. Basically, this guy—or gal, who knows?—put a highlight on the movie and said ‘Hollywood is trying to shut us down, trying to discredit our movement’.

“And so they took this little movie that was not from Hollywood and put a giant spotlight on it, and so all of these conspiracy theorists and Qanon followers started dogpiling on the video and caused it to go viral overnight. I woke up the next day to emails from Vice and from the Daily Beast and from Gizmodo, all wanting to talk to me about this movie. Then shortly after, it caught the attention of a production company here in Austin, Texas, called Paper Street Pictures, and especially Aaron B Koontz, the founder. He said, ‘This movie looks pretty interesting, can I see a screener?’ and I sent it to him, and off we went! He loved the movie, understood what it was about, and helped me to understand what direction to take it in. All of a sudden, we started to find our audience with horror film festivals because, although we didn’t set out to make a horror film, it was inspired by some horror film tropes, and by the time we got to the movie in hand, he felt that this moved and breathed like a horror film. So although it isn’t a horror, it does resonate with those audiences and people who understand that treatment of genre and character, so it’s been kind of on this meteoric rise, a complete 180 from where I was a year ago.”

Two men sit at a switchboard watching a broadcast in The Pizzagate Massacre

So The Pizzagate Massacre is about fake news and the wrong impression being made of a news story, and that’s what this Qanon person did, too! “Oh yeah, the irony is not lost on me,” said John, “and I’m waiting for the day to pop the cork on a champagne bottle when this thing is released. You can draw a direct line from that guy putting a highlight on the film to its eventual mass release.” And of course, that’s the last thing he would have wanted.

Considering the film is partly about what we call fake news, there were some pretty interesting choices about what was shown or not shown there on the screen. For example (please excuse the very mild spoiler), we don’t see what really happens in the pizza place. I asked John how he makes such choices as a writer. “It’s a twofold thing,” he said. “There’s a creative choice and there’s a budgetary choice being made. You can imagine going inside an actual functioning pizza place, or—even bigger—trying to build a pizza place is just not feasible at this budget level. So out of that comes some creative considerations. Without spoiling too much, you not seeing what happens and what happens at the pizza place being somewhat Rashomoned, as it were—being explained from three different directions—that then forces the viewer to grapple with that. What do you do with the lack of information about the very thing that movie is actually about? And we’re not going to explain everything to you either, so it forces you and the characters within the movie to kind of decide what they do with what little information they have and how to behave after that. They suffer the consequences for the choices they made after that happens because of operating from little to no information.”

It’s similar with the subjects that the anchorwoman Terri Lee (played by Lee Eddy) talks about: you don’t get to see anything, just listen to her views. John is essentially asking the audience to consider which reports to trust. “Exactly,” he agreed.

All that talk about pizza shops reminded me of a question my son likes to ask, a lighter one to bring the conversation to a close: what toppings does John like on his pizzas? “That’s a great question,” he said, musing. “You know I managed a pizza place when I was in college, and their specialty was sauerkraut and pineapple. It works brilliantly. It sounds gross, but once you try it, it breaks open the mind to possibilities of pizza. So I would go with that, otherwise, I’m pretty simple: beef and onion, or sausage and onion, or pepperoni. The most fun one I’ve had was that ‘happy Joe special.’”

Duncan, in the film, had mentioned pepperoni and sausage, so I had wondered whether that had come from the writer. “No, that was an [improvised] line on his part,” said John.

I asked John what is going to come next after The Pizzagate Massacre finishes with the festival circuits. “We have secured a domestic and international distribution, and both Archstone Entertainment and Raven Banner are releasing it at the same time, just to kind of make it a big grand party, on November 19 on VOD. Then hopefully we’ll go into production on the next movie. You never know if it’s going to get finished, but there is one that we’re all barrelling for. It’s a small, gritty sci-fi horror about technology.”

Sounds like one to look forward to. In the meantime, if you didn’t catch the international premiere at Grimmfest in Manchester, UK viewers can watch it from home in the Grimmfest virtual edition on 15 October (in a double bill with The Spore).

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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