A No Filtered Interview With Isolation’s Nathan Crooker

Image courtesy of Nathan Crooker

With the release of his pandemic film Isolation and his latest short film #NOFILTER slaying it on the festival circuit, Nathan Crooker is absolutely killing it right now. He was able to take some time out of his day to sit down with me and talk about nearly his entire body of work. I’m so incredibly thankful that he took the time to chat, and if you haven’t seen his short films you can find them on his Vimeo page!

Headshot of Nathan Crooker
Image courtesy of Nathan Crooker

Brendan Jesus: Today I am sitting down with filmmaker Nathan Crooker who has made some absolute bangers, and don’t worry, we will cover all of them—even the ones that aren’t necessarily horror-related, mainly because I am so impressed with it all. Nathan, how are you doing? How are things going?

Nathan Crooker: I’m doing well. That’s quite the intro, man. Thanks for being so kind. It’s very nice to hear—I’m glad that you like the work. I’m doing well, it’s been a good day. We released Isolation today to the world after, I don’t know, about a year and a half. It feels really good. I’m excited for the whole team, and myself. And now I’m here talking to you, so it got even better!

BJ: Before we jump into it, has horror always been a passion of yours? I’m not trying to start off too heavy here, but I would venture to say if Mick Garris would make a new Masters of Horror series, I think that you would be one of the first people that he would have to go to. I think that your work that I’ve seen has been so visceral and just…you just put it all out there. You say this is scary—you know it’s scary, I know it’s scary, watch it and be scared.

Nathan Crooker: Yeah it has been. It’s funny, I’ve been talking to somebody about that last night. It’s a weird sort of thing. I grew up drawn to horror, the occult, and things like that. I remember stealing Gorezone magazines from Barnes and Noble, and my mom was like, “How did you even get these, these shouldn’t be in the house, and you don’t have any money.” I was always super fascinated with Tom Savini‘s work, and I kind of always wanted to be in the effects business. I used to have a PXL2000, and I would take dough, color it red, stick it on my little sister and then run around and try to, like, kill her in the house when we were really young…hope that didn’t do anything to her. It’s always been a thing for me. I love haunted houses. It’s just this idea of being scared or feeling alive. Also, it was the taboo thing when you were younger, like you shouldn’t watch it. After watching [horror films], I really started to really gravitate towards [horror]. I like the stories, the characters. I thought it was imaginative. It wasn’t hard to understand. There was this beauty in it all. I thought it was so creative and crazy; it was no holds barred. I was always into it. I started out not watching horror movies because I wasn’t allowed to watch them, which is strange right? My mom would buy me the books, so I was reading Cujo or Misery; I was reading Clive Barker’s Cabal, Dean R. Koontz. Which was probably worse because you make all the stuff up in your head. I think for [my mom] it was more along the lines of, well, he’s learning and will be a better writer, or maybe more cultured if I let him read it and not watch it. That’s the long answer. I’ve always just loved it.

BJ: Do you have a favorite horror novel?

Nathan Crooker: Misery was pretty awesome. I remember reading it when I was away and just being, like, super terrified of this woman. You never think you’re going to read about this woman who has this guy hostage, you know. The way the language and the metaphors Stephen King uses…I mean he’s written a thousand books and never repeats himself. Misery was probably one of the scariest things I’ve read. All the other stuff was spooky, but Misery hit me the hardest.

BJ: That kind of segues into one of the first things I wanted to talk about: Peace of Mind.

Nathan Crooker: Oh! Peace of Mind!

Stephen and Angelina grab a drink at a bar, neither knowing of the other's insidious pasts

BJ: I told you, I did a bit of a deep dive! This might be a bold question, but how do you feel knowing you made Promising Young Woman before Promising Young Woman?

Nathan Crooker: Yeah…I don’t know if it’s better! That was the first movie I ever made. It was the first one I got some money for and had some real actors. We had Matt Newton who was up and coming at the time, Mizou Peck from Night at the Museum. It was like working with real talent. I wrote the script and was super excited to do it. It was interesting because I think you learn a lot from everything you do. I look back on the film; I like the movie and think it’s cool and unique, it definitely has a voice. It’s almost really relevant now, with the idea of the woke culture and men taking advantage of women, but this was 2008. I learned a lot from that movie. I think I needed to do something and break ground. It was more psychological horror, and I found my voice. I realized what worked and what didn’t. More things didn’t work for me in that movie than worked. I appreciate that you liked it. It was definitely something that needed to be made. I’m super proud of it, I just think my voice and point of view have come a long way. I do think the film has a lot to say. It is visceral, and the actors are fantastic. It’s definitely something that is unexpected.

BJ: I would recommend readers to go watch Peace of Mind. It’s not super long, and not to spoil anything, but the whole time you’re expecting Stephen (Matt Newton) to be—well the dude looks shifty, something’s up with him. And then we find out that’s actually not the case. I thought it was a really nice twist. Peace of Mind and Like a Hurricane take place in the New York/Jersey area. Are you from there?

Nathan Crooker: I was born in Maine, grew up in Maine/Massachusetts. The funny thing is, I’ve met Stephen King a bunch of times in Maine, which I think also has helped sort of fuel my love for horror. I moved to New York right after college. I did a brief stint there before college and then came back to Massachusetts. But I was in New York for 19 years.

Nathan Crooker directing on the set of Midnight Delivery
Image courtesy of Nathan Crooker

BJ: Did you go to college for film?

Nathan Crooker: I went to SVA (School of Visual Arts) for a minute, then went back to state school. My mom really wanted somebody in the family to finish college. I really wanted to be back in New York. I credit a lot of my filmmaking and this idea to go and do whatever you want—and to find your passion and believe in yourself, not to worry about what others say and just learn and fail—to my professor Gunther Hoos, who was at Vickburg State, which wasn’t a film school but now is somewhat of a film school. He’s passed away since, but that man was sort of the champion for so many of us in that class. I think without him, I question…I don’t know, I wonder if I would have been as free and as open to sort of just explore and do what I wanted to do. He gave us so much free film and keys to the edit suites at midnight, and we weren’t supposed to be in the rooms. He was like, “Just make stuff, man.” So I did go to film school and state school. It was, for me, great. And I did learn a lot from that.

BJ: I feel like this is a tough question for a lot of people, would you recommend film school? Or do you recommend just grinding from the bottom up?

Nathan Crooker: It depends if you can get it. It’s kind of hard to sort of say, “I want to direct” and then direct something. It’s crazy to say, but I would imagine you could probably watch a bunch of YouTube videos and figure out what your role is and what you should do. Then you could at least know what you want to do. You also have the New York Film School and these places where you can just take a class, so if you want to learn how to produce or get your feet wet to see if you like it, I would recommend something like that. I don’t necessarily think you need to, everything is so expensive right now. Just going and buying a camera, if you love movies and you understand it, you sort of know how to set the shots. I think the hardest part is blocking and having a vision for what that’s going to be. I think that really is so pivotal, which is why that’s one of the reasons I don’t really love Peace of Mind ’cause of the blocking; I wasn’t really thinking about it. That’s something you learn with time. I don’t really think you need film school. What you need to do is save up money and go buy yourself a camera or a good phone and just start playing with it. Oh, and figure out how to edit.

Chip Stacks gets up on stage to do his best Guns 'n Roses karaoke, even though the emcee will do everything he can to stop him

BJ: Like a Hurricane is ridiculously hysterical. Where did you come up with the idea for that…are there people who ride the karaoke circuit?

Nathan Crooker: It is real. I dated a girl who used to work at Arlene’s Grocery, and I started this thing called Burn Hollywood Burn in New York, which was a bunch of filmmakers, writers, and actors. We’d come together and have drinks. What I wanted to do was have everyone come up with a separate idea, and we would pick one. Say we chose your idea. You would be the director, and you would pick your cast and the team based on whomever else was in the group. Even if you were an actor, maybe you were, like, gripping it or maybe you’d shoot it, or whatever. That was right before it all kind of imploded. We had picked that script to do. The girl I was seeing at the time that worked at Arlene’s, there was a rock and roll band that would play, as many do now, instead of a backing track. They had a band that would actually play the track, and you would sing! We based it all off of that. There are people that would get serious about it. They’d take it very serious, like you can make money doing it. I always thought it was kind of funny—that’s the only comedy script I’ve ever written. We wrote it together. That sort of died when Burn Hollywood Burn died. I ran into these guys, actually not to jump ahead but Corey [Scott Rutledge] who’s in Playback, he is the head of a comedy troupe called Brooklyn’s Worst. All of them are in Like a Hurricane. When I found them, Corey was like, “Oh we should do this together. It’s really funny, and we could give parts to everyone on the team.” That’s kind of where it came from. I haven’t done another comedy again because the world is a fickle place where all a sudden if you do something then you’re branded that. I don’t want to be branded as a comedy guy. I think having humor in horror is important, which I think you can see a little bit of in Midnight Delivery, and also in #NOFILTER. But yeah, Like a Hurricane was a one-off, but I’m glad you liked it.

BJ: There is one thing I’ve noticed of your auteur style. I mean, I can see as you’ve grown through your films, some things have changed, and it’s gotten more polished. There are certain aspects that I’ve seen carried throughout. One of them, in Like a Hurricane and #NOFILTER, there is a deep fourth wall break. I’ve appreciated seeing your directing style grow and change, and it shows that you have a very distinct style, and you know what you want—and it shows that you know how to get what you want from your actors.

Nathan Crooker: We had a little bit of that in Midnight Delivery. There’s a part where Danielle Guldin is looking in the mirror, kind of turned around, and we had her speak to the camera. I think that connection can be really strong, but if it’s used the wrong way, it can take you out. Especially in #NOFILTER you’re like, what? And then it’s, oh I get it. It helps you lean in closer. That’s kind of why I do it. It is something that I do think about. Sometimes it makes it in, sometimes it doesn’t. I usually always shoot it, which is funny that you brought it up.

BJ: We can jump back to some horror now, and specifically because we brought up editing, which is another thing. You’ve edited quite a few of your projects. Before we talk about Stuffer, do you think that part of your directing style comes from your editing?

Sgt. Rose Vasquez starts evacuating the drugs out of her system

Nathan Crooker: Yeah, I do. Probably a lot of people do this, but I have it in my head how I want to cut already. It helps me to be able to go from scene to scene and also helps me be able to work out of sequence, which is what most people do. There’s also, it’s a funny thing going back to—one of the coolest things I think about Peace of Mind is when he’s in the park, and he’s yelling at her. The camera is sort of spinning. I sort of did this figure-eight thing where we did one shot that was on him and it spun one way. Then I did one on her and spun it the other way. The producer and everyone are like, you can’t do this, it’s not going to edit well. I was like, guys we don’t have time, just believe me, it’s going to work. Don’t worry. I never walk away feeling like I didn’t get it or it’s not going to work or it won’t cut. I do think that it allows me to see the movie through. Whether or not I end up cutting it that way in the final edit, it allows me a bit of freedom. I know what I need and that I can get more. I’m not just grabbing shots thinking I’ll cobble it together. Especially that scene in #NOFILTER where it goes through the mirror. There are certain things that I 100% want to do, and I know it’s going to work. It’s a weird thing; I think Ti West cuts all his own stuff. You know what I really think it is? I think it’s a pacing thing. When I watch Ti’s films, it’s always the same sort of pacing, and that’s his thing. He’s the editor. He likes that pacing. If you watch my stuff it’s fast, like the way I write. People will read my stuff, and it’s even kind of the way I talk. It’s always go-go-go-go-go. #NOFILTER is 13 minutes and feels like nine. When people read my scripts, they’re like, man it should have taken me an hour and a half, and I read it in an hour. My pacing is what stands out the most because of my editing.

BJ: Stuffer is one of the wildest things I’ve seen in quite some time. There’s been a lot of crossover between you and one of the actors in it, Jake Silbermann. Where did that relationship stem from?

Nathan Crooker: I met Jake…well, I used to act. I came to New York and acted. I did a lot of commercials, a couple movies, like The Jimmy Show with Frank Whaley and Ethan Hawke. The biggest thing I think I did was This Revolution, which went to Sundance in 2006, where I was the lead with Rosario Dawson. Stephen Marshall directed it, which also had Amy Redford and Immortal Technique. Super fun movie. Because of that, I had a manager, and my manager was Jake’s manager. Jake had written Stuffer, and I had just done Peace of Mind. My manager goes, “Hey this guy wants to do something, it’s creepy and kind of f*cked up, you should read it.” I was wondering if I wanted to direct someone else’s thing. So I just didn’t read it and just left it there. Finally, I picked it up and thought it could be cool. I could see it. You were talking about the editing thing; I started reading it, and as I’m reading, I’m editing it in my head, thinking we could do some really cool stuff. I ended up calling Jake saying, “It’s your script, how much control do I have over this?” Then we just made the movie together. We work together so well. I love the guy. He’s super smart and talented. He’s a great writer, actor, producer, good friend. We did that together, and then moving forward, I think it’s hard to find people that you gel with that will give you 110%, that don’t care about money, that care about the art and want to do something. Jake was that guy. He helped on Midnight Delivery. We wrote Consciousnesses together, which was not a horror movie, but we did that for a film festival that happened in Brooklyn. They wanted to do a Sci-Fi thing. I had this old script and Jake was like, let’s turn that into something. I’ve worked on so many other scripts with him; he’s helped me with a lot of different things. He’s just a super talented and really great friend. Like I said, it’s hard to find people like that. For a hot minute, we worked on a lot of stuff together. It just felt right.

BJ: I don’t know if this is something you can answer, but his performance as Haken kind of gave me Drexel from True Romance vibes. Was he going for that?

Nathan Crooker: Jake was in character the whole time. It was intense. I’m yelling and swearing at him because he wouldn’t listen to me. So I was like, would you just f*cking sit down?! He’s like, yeah all right man. I figured he wants me to talk to him like that, so I guess I’m going to direct him like this, where I did not talk to Danielle [Camastra] like that. I think he pulled a little bit from a lot of different places. There was definitely a pinch of Drexel in there. I think that was the fun part of him. Then Jake started to layer on what Jake wanted to do with the character.

BJ: That scene where Danielle is “unstuffing” herself, I don’t know what the industry term for a packer cleansing their body of the materials is called, but your editing in that is visceral, grotesque, and almost made me gag. Your editing style is just so good.

Nathan Crooker: I love to edit. That was a tough thing to edit. I wanted to do it all in one shot. I do like the idea of the oner, which is definitely a big thing now, which you can see in Playback. There’s something to be said about it. I feel like everyone is aware of it a lot more, especially because of Goodfellas. I wanted to do that scene all in one shot. I wanted it to feel like, how is she getting all these things out of her mouth? My stepfather built this contraption for her mouth, which housed everything we needed to put in there. We did it 13 times, to the point where people left the set and were upset. If you’re going to do it in one shot and the actor trusts you, they’re going to watch it again and be like, ah yeah, I feel weird with that one. You want to get it right. I had that conversation, like it looks good, but it can be better. Do you want to do it again? And Danielle was like, yeah if it doesn’t look good, let’s do it again. We finally nailed it. There’s something about that scene, like the retching of it…it’s funny when I’m editing it, everything goes out the window all of a sudden. Like, 20 minutes is like three hours. The sounds have a lot to do with where I cut, not so much about the length. I feel like when you’re talking about the visceral-ness of it, it’s like I’m affected by how she’s acting.

BJ: I rewound the unstuffing multiple times on my last watch, and I could not for the life of me figure it out. I thought this is either really good CGI or she actually swallowed all of that.

Nathan Crooker: I mean, they were big items! She pulled out like five of them. We had the whole contraption in her mouth, and practically going down the back of her throat. It was all stuffed in her mouth. That’s why she had her lips pursed so much. If she pulled too hard, they would all fall out. She was incredible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Written by Brendan Jesus

I am an award-winning horror screenwriter, rotting away in New Jersey.

The Highgate Vampire: A 20th Century Vampire Tale

Animated card with Freddy Krueger holding up his glove in the intro for the series, "Behind the Monsters."

Never Sleep Again After Behind the Monsters (S1E4)