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Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights: Interview With Black Friday Director Casey Tebo

Image courtesy of Casey Tebo

We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK, so the UK retail world has been a little slow in picking up on the trend of Black Friday promotions, but we do tend to follow most American fads at some point. Likewise American films…Casey Tebo’s film Black Friday (set in a toy store on the biggest shopping night of the year, just when an alien meteor arrives), which is released in the USA already, is about to have its UK premiere at Grimmfest’s Christmas Horror Nights 2021. Casey took some time recently to talk with me, though take note that because the film has already been released a little while in the USA, you may read a mild spoiler or two ahead.

I started by pointing out a certain theme I’d noticed in Casey’s IMDb credits: that of the band Aerosmith. I asked him what prompted the move from music to horror. “Well, it wasn’t so much music to horror, but music to movies and stuff. When I started working for the band, I looked at it almost like a leapfrog opportunity to go on elsewhere. I did direct some of their music videos and a lot of their live stuff, so I always saw it as an opportunity to stretch onto other things.”

So did you carry forward the skills you applied there into the world of movies? “Yeah. And what I’ll tell you about that is that dealing with famous rock stars like Steve Tyler or Joe Perry, you learn that they are just regular people, and the same goes for Bruce Campbell. When he came on set, everyone was star struck, obviously, but you have to realise that when you’re Bruce or Steven Tyler, you are in a constant state of people asking for things, people wanting to do things with you, people wanting you to do things for them, people wanting autographs…you have to treat them as human beings and not look up to them as if they’re on a different plane to you as a human. I think that’s the easiest way to get respect.”

A lot of fans on Rotten Tomatoes and Twitter are getting angry that there’s not more horror and angry that Bruce [Campbell] plays a bit of a loser […], mad that he didn’t play Ash. But I didn’t want to make just a horror movie. I wanted it to be like a combination between Chris Columbus and John Carpenter meeting in the middle.

While doing my IMDb homework, I had got a kind of sucked into a Seth Green rabbit hole—377 actor credits!—and asked Casey what it had been like working with him and others who had performed in key horror films from the last several decades. “Seth’s an old friend,” Casey said, “so that was me calling and just asking for a favour. I said, ‘We have this teddy bear with a mechanical voice, and I think you could bring so much more to it,’ and he was like, ‘Sure!’ We Zoomed, and he did it in like an hour.

“The others were a more traditional casting process. After Andy [Greskoviak] sent me the script, and we decided we wanted to make the film, the Ken role [played by Devon Sawa (Final Destination)] was one that I thought we could get someone to serve as an anchor. You have this list of available names, and I think the three names we looked at were Devon, Johnny Knoxville, and one other, and I thought Johnny Knoxville could be a bit too silly for this role. I wanted Ken to be a serious actor who was also very handsome; I wanted him to be a loser dad who the audience could relate to because he was doing all this for his children. And I know that a lot of women, at least in the States, who are in their thirties or forties, really love Devon because he was such a child star in things like Casper; and I thought he’d be a great anchor for the cast, so I sent him the script and he loved it. Then we wanted to populate actors surrounding him that we thought were great.

“Believe it or not, (this isn’t just lip service), Ivana [Baquero (Pan’s Labyrinth)] was always my first choice for Marnie. We had a list of actresses, but there’s just something about her that is just so magnetic when she’s on-screen, and the initial news we had about her living in Spain got squashed quickly when I was told now she’s living in LA. Michael Jai White—sorry, spoiler alert—we’ve had fans complaining that we killed Michael off too early: one was that there were other actors that I knew that were kind of legendary in the same way, but Michael was only available for five days. I had gone to the agency and said, ‘Who do we have that’s kind of cool and badass that we can get for this Archie character?’ because if he dies, the rest of the team will go, ‘Oh sh*t, now we’re really in trouble.’ And Devon and Michael had the same agent, so I asked, ‘Do you think Michael would do this?’ He said ‘Just for a week? Let me send it to him.’ I told Andy we had to make a better action scene then, so he wrote this one where Michael fights all these soccer moms, and he came out for the week and just did it. He was great. You’ll be surprised with some of these actors: if you don’t ask them, you’re never going to know.”

We Love Toys becomes a battleground in Black Friday
Image courtesy of Casey Tebo

Casey had mentioned writer Andy’s contribution a couple of times, so I asked how they had started working together. “I try to do my due diligence by reading at least a couple of scripts a week,” Casey said. “I just finished a documentary about Steve Tyler and his solo record, and I was looking for my next feature, and I had a project in the works and came across Andy’s script. I thought it was a lot of fun, and it reminded me of the kind of thing I would watch at twelve years old on a sleepover. So I contacted him, and it was literally two years to the day from when he contacted me to when the movie came out—quite a process.”

So they hadn’t worked together before? “No, I didn’t know Andy, he just sent me his script. Andy and I definitely have different sensibilities when it comes to filmmaking. His original script was much darker: a little girl got killed, Bruce’s character had this loser’s death, and at the beginning where you get to meet Ken and Chris’s families before they go to work after Thanksgiving wasn’t even in the script. I said to Andy, ‘Look, this movie can go one way or another way,’ and we talked about it. A lot of fans on Rotten Tomatoes and Twitter are getting angry that there’s not more horror and angry that Bruce plays a bit of a loser (that’s a tribute to what a fantastic actor he is, I think), mad that he didn’t play Ash. But I didn’t want to make just a horror movie. I wanted it to be like a combination between Chris Columbus and John Carpenter meeting in the middle. Someone emailed me and said, ‘I saw your movie and loved it—it reminded me of something from my childhood, like a fun ’80s Gremlins-type movie,’ and that was great! That’s exactly what I wanted to make, not just a straight horror movie. If anyone’s pissed off about that, I’m sorry.”

Personally, I had expected more humour. “Sure,” said Casey, “but you have to find some kind of middle ground. If you make it too much of a comedy, I feel like it’s a very dangerous place to be. I think a lot of the great comedic work that comes out is either a team of people or those genius types like Will Ferrell who have the ability to know what the audience is going to laugh at. This is Andy’s first movie and my second narrative movie, and I just didn’t want to lean into the comedy too much because I think comedy right now is in a dangerous place.”

I agree it can be tricky to get the balance just right when combining comedy with another genre. “Luckily, we had Bruce on set,” said Casey, “and he was really great with being a temperature gauge of what worked and what didn’t—not just with his character but with everybody. Even Michael—people forget he was Black Dynamite—and there are two lines in the movie that Michael wrote on set: when he gets attacked by the kid and then turns and says, ‘Is that the new guy?’ and another, when we were rehearsing his fight and we ended it with him saying, ‘We got your doorbusters right here, motherf*cker.’ He’s got some great comic sensibilities, even though he’s like an action hero.”

Casey had mentioned Bruce Campbell in passing there; I imagined him on set being some kind of mentor or big brother to the less experienced members of the cast. “The thing about Bruce is that he has a mentality of always living inside the head of an indie filmmaker and an indie film actor. If you have Devon Sawa and Ivana Baquero doing a scene and Bruce on the other side of the camera, it’s different from a hundred million dollar movie, where you have, say, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Adam Driver: Adam Driver is going to be in his trailer (I don’t know him really, maybe he wouldn’t) because he’s not needed. But any time Bruce was not being shot, but in a scene, he was there to do his lines with the other actors; so he’s incredibly giving, incredibly humble, and so I’m trying to find something else to work on with Bruce right now that’s even more of a departure because he’s just great to work with.”

Special effects that combined squishy with cuddly in Black Friday
Image courtesy of Casey Tebo

We discussed briefly the prospect of Bruce playing another Ash in a film like this. “Well, he called me when he got the script, and there were a couple of guys we were looking at (Michael Rooker and Bruce and a couple of others Bruce’s age), and I thought we’d try Bruce first. He called me: ‘Hey Mr. Tebo, how are you doing? I think this is good, could be fun, but I’m not playing another Ash.’ But I think you can see from the script that this guy is far from Ash. He was amazing.”

They were all pretty down to Earth characters. Casey mused, “Andy, behind the scenes, may have gone, ‘Man, I really wanted something gross and scary, and Casey turned it into like a character movie,’ but that’s what I do. I want to find great actors and make this about the people in the store rather than about the monsters or the mayhem.”

Having touched on monsters, I took the conversation in that direction and asked about the creature design: who comes up with that? Is it just down to the special effects team, or does the writer or director give them a steer? “In Andy’s original script, they were more like zombies but more dangerous,” Casey said. “When he sent it to me, I was like, ‘Andy, I think people are a little exhausted from The Walking Dead and everything like that, so let’s try to think outside the box.’ And here’s the thing about Andy as a writer, even though it’s his first movie: Andy is one of those guys that if you have an idea he doesn’t like, he’ll tell you; but if you have an idea that he thinks is better for the movie, he’s like, ‘I love it, let’s do it.’ And that’s why Andy was great to work with. I said ‘Andy, what do you think this: these Black Friday [shoppers] are kind of like vultures? What if we did, like, a pseudo-alien-bird-vulture-zombie?’ And so I drew up an initial sketch and sent it to him and he was like, ‘F*ck yeah, let’s do it.’ So when we started working with Bob Kurtzman and Norman Cabrera and all their teams, I said, ‘I don’t want to do traditional zombies. I’ve got this idea.’ Bob and I did a podcast together, and he was asked what he’d like to do next, and he said, ‘I’d rather do something original than Friday the 13th part 12 or whatever.’ He and I agree on this. Bob said when you work as an effects designer and filmmakers allow you to do original things and have fun with them, that makes your job so much more fun. So it was a combination of me and Andy and Bob agreeing to do things a certain way.”

Looking at the creatures myself, as a viewer, I saw some Xtro and some The Thing in there; I asked Casey where he felt the influences came from. “I think The Thing is a big part of it, for sure; that’s [one of] Andy and [my] favourite movies. Andy had written stages of these things: firstly they’re just infected, then they’re breaking out into this other thing, then they’re the full thing (which is what the Grandma becomes). I saw this video on YouTube called Worm’s Mouth Proboscis of Horror or something like that, and I asked, ‘Could we do that?’ and they said sure! So it was all great fun to play with.”

Going back to Casey’s comment that the Black Friday shoppers are like vultures, I asked him what the message is that he wants his audience to take away from the satire of the film. “Andy may have had a bigger broad stroke about consumerism, particularly American consumerism,” Casey said. “Ivana’s done a lot of interviews when she’s been asked, ‘Have you had a lot of bad Black Friday experiences?’ and she says, ‘We don’t do that in Spain.’ But I think for me, well, I love the USA. I love living here and that my kids are being raised here, but there are a lot of sh*tty things that come with being American, and Black Friday is an extension of that. I mean, if you’re pushing people over in line because someone’s tricked you into thinking you’re going to get a discount on a TV, well, that’s just ridiculous, you know? There’s more to life than discounts on TVs and blenders: it’s stupid. So I think the whole vulture thing was about let’s see how gross these people can become because that’s how gross they are to me.”

Casey Tebo, director of Black Friday
Image courtesy of Casey Tebo

By the time I got to the end of the film, I had wondered whether it might lead to a sequel, so I asked Casey whether we should expect Cyber Monday in a couple of years. “We have joked about that, actually,” said Casey. “An alien mama sends a bunch of mind-controlled humans down to Earth, and they possess all these people and turn them into robots: that is Cyber Monday. But you know, whether you get a sequel, that all depends on the finances and if the movie is profitable, and if the company that brought it out thinks that it’s going to make money, if the sequel is going to make more money, can we get Bruce Campbell again, or Devon Sawa again…there are so many pieces that come into play. Devon’s a big star now, got a hit TV show in the US, so I’m not sure if we can get him again.”

The international premiere of Black Friday is going to be available to UK ticketholders on 10 December, and I asked how Casey feels about his film taking this step out into the rest of the world. “I think it’s amazing. Here’s a thing: we’ve sort of ended up in this Zack Snyder world, where people really love the movie, and a lot of people really hate it. You have to take it with a pinch of salt. I wish Bruce could have broadcast to his fans, ‘Hey, I’m not playing Ash,’ you know. Horror comedy is a hard genre to do: Last Night in Soho came out to mixed reviews in the US, even though he’s a genius and made so many amazing films. Some people compared Black Friday to James Gunn’s Slither, and that had good critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and poor audience reviews; Black Friday, I think has the opposite. It’s impossible to please everybody. Some people want more comedy, some want more horror.”

I sometimes wonder if such mixed reception early on is an indicator of long-term endurance. “I honestly am not going to worry about it,” said Casey. “This is the first time in my life where we live in such a volatile time, between the internet and COVID and people just being angry about things, in general. So if someone wants to sh*t on a movie because there’s not enough horror or no Ash, that doesn’t really bother me.”

It sounds like Casey had fun making Black Friday. “Oh, it was an amazing experience,” he agreed. “I’m trying to do this big action movie next, and we’re looking for name cast, close to A list. Someone mentioned Richard Madden, and I said, ‘He was just in a Marvel movie, I don’t know if I could get him.’ They said ‘Black Friday’s doing well, maybe you could.’ My thing with Madden or any of these guys [is] if I hear that these are nice guys to work with, that they’re going to have a good time and not be a complete assh*le, I’ll work with anybody.”

So it’s an action movie next…? “Somebody sent me a script. It’s a very ’90s Tony Scott, Shane Black type of thing. Then another one that got sent to me was a hilarious action-comedy, more like a thriller actually, about a man doing bad business deals and his home gets invaded by these terrorists. His mother-in-law, who’s catatonic in a wheelchair, her daughter makes her this amulet which possesses her to become an ass-kicking John Wick grandma! I just thought we need Kathy Bates or Helen Mirren to play an ass-kicking grandma: you just can’t go wrong. That’s a movie I haven’t seen, so I like that idea.”

Great to close the interview with some entertaining images, and I’m sure we could have talked a lot more. Maybe next time.

Black Friday will be available in a double bill with Dark Cloud, plus four associated shorts, on 10 December. Tickets can be ordered here (for UK viewers only).

Looking for more on Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights 2021? We’ve got you:

“Festival Round-Up: Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights 2021”

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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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