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Popcorn Frights: Interview With The Filmmaker: Ramone Menon on The Pey

…and so much more!

When working with a short film, it is necessary to find new ways to get your story across. Some people find the right amount of information to shove into a perfect amount of time, others put either too much or too little, and it falls apart. Ramone Menon found the right amount of excitement and terror, mixing it into a unique take on social media, fame, and the ultimate loneliness that comes with all of it. On the whole, it may seem like a fairly straightforward story, which it can be taken as, but if look under the surface reveals the gooey, slimy underbelly of what comes hand in hand with social media fame.

The Pey is a nine-minute, yet perfectly paced, short film about a social media-obsessed Ophelia (Katie Leszynski) who shares a GIF with her followers. As her follower count grows bigger and bigger, so does the threat of the creature lurking in the GIF…and also in her house. Initially, I had planned on writing a bigger review of this, but Ramone took time out of his weekend to talk to me about being on the festival circuit, filming during COVID, and so much more valuable information for filmmakers. What he said over our hour together provided me with insight on filmmaking, being an artist, and so much more; hearing directly from the horse’s mouth is more edutainment than I could provide over a few thousand words. So without further ado, and with a huge thank you, here is my interview with filmmaker Ramone Menon!

Brendan Jesus: So to start, to get a basis for what you like, do you have a main horror inspiration? Or what inspires you the most, film-wise?

Ramone Menon: Growing up, I was a big Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah fan. I knew I wanted to make movies like these guys. What really got me into it in regards to the whole craft…it would have to be Alfred Hitchcock. I love that guy. I saw the remake of Psycho, and was like, what the hell is this? Then I saw the original and I thought, well this is one of the most inventive horror movies I’ve seen. I also really liked The Omen. Oh, and I saw Amityville Horror when I was way too young. My dad was watching it, and I was like, what the hell is with all these flies and bees attacking this guy? My dad said I could watch it or leave—of course, my mother was like, get him out of here!

BJ: Controversial question here, what do you think of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho? It’s shot for shot and pisses a lot of people off.

Ramone Menon: To be honest because I saw that one first, I didn’t really get annoyed. I could see why it pissed people off. It didn’t upset me though. There were a few things, like cutting to the girl in the blindfold, or the clouds. Those things took me out for a little. Other than that I really thought it was a fascinating exercise! I don’t think he totally pulled it off, but it’s interesting to see modern actors playing that part. I feel like it’s more of an art piece than anything.

BJ: I would have to agree on the majority of that! Onto your work now. With The Pey, where did the idea come from?

An image of an open doorway, outside the doorway is a winged bat creature with glowing red eyes. At the bottom of the image is bottom text that says: "Do you believe in The Pey?"

Ramone Menon: I’ve always wanted to do a monster movie. I love Alien and The Thing. What I particularly like about those two is the monster isn’t just one shape: it grows, changes, evolves. The Alien comes in small through John Hurt’s chest, then becomes bigger. With the Thing in The Thing, it’s like a dog, and then someone else. I wanted to do a shapeshifting monster. I had to come up with a reason as to why this creature would grow. I knew I had to put it all in a modern context. So that’s sort of where the idea came from, like what grows in this day and age? Nothing grows and spreads faster, other than COVID and lawsuits, than social media. I thought it would be interesting to do a social media monster movie. Also, I’m a huge fan of The Ring…I love a good curse movie. I knew this would be my curse movie with a monster in it. It’s about a GIF that spreads through sharing. It’s that old be careful of what you wish for idea because as your followers grow, so does the monster.

BJ: First off, I am glad you all pronounce GIF correctly, that’s a hot topic in the film world. The whole growing aspect, the way you’re talking about is a roundabout way to get to a topic I had. You said it concisely, where it would have taken me a lot longer to get to that point. The Pey feels like a commentary on social media. The way I was initially looking at it was more of social media and fame are the monster(s).

Ramone Menon: Totally. In terms of it thematically that’s what I wanted to dive into. It’s almost like you spend your whole time not really existing in the real world. You’re using the world to help portray a curated image of yourself online. It’s editing your life for views or clicks. It’s all-encompassing and feels like it’s going to engulf you. I thought I needed a physical representation of that; social media is a monster that will slowly eat you or come after you. The more you think you’re growing the deeper you’re getting. I’m sure social media influencers and celebrities could attest to that. You’re having a meal with somebody who’s an influencer and half the time they’re taking photos or videos, and it’s like your interaction with your phone and audience is more important than a real-life conversation. I’m not saying it’s a good thing or bad thing, to each their own, but it’s my take on it. So thematically that was my whole idea. In a weird way, I wanted to make a COVID movie. This was made around the time of the second or third big COVID spike. I knew everyone was going to be making one, and I wanted to. I wanted to make a COVID movie that wasn’t about COVID. You know, COVID spreads, social media spreads. If you look at the creature, it’s a bat, based on the theory of how COVID started. It’s not meant to be upfront, but there was thought there. When I was growing up I watched this film called Basil The Great Mouse Detective, the Disney movie, [and] in that the villain has a bat as a sidekick. It’s like a fucked up looking thing. It gave me nightmares! From that point, I knew I had to make a bat movie!

BJ: So this was your first pandemic short?

Ramone Menon: Yes it was. I also did a TV pilot that was about the worst police station in India—that’s where I’m from. I directed that remotely, I was the only person not on set! It was a talking head director on set.

BJ: With The Pey and your pilot in mind, what was it like shooting during a pandemic? There’s one actor on screen in The Pey, that’s got to make it a little easier right? And I’m not at all using easy as a diminishing term.

Ramone Menon: If you’re talking about how it was filming during COVID, we reverse engineered it. I was wondering what is the easiest thing we can shoot under these strict guidelines. Plus, like I said, it was during a spike. I decided to do one actor in a massive location, and have one creature coming after her that has an excuse to be in a mask. That automatically separates them. The guy is in a full suit, and that’s about as COVID safe as you can get to have one actor masked. We followed every single protocol as strictly as possible. The crew had their zones. You know one crew would come in and do their thing, and then the next crew would come set up what they needed to. It definitely slows the process down, but it’s worth it for safety. And we kept the crew tiny. We didn’t need too many people for it. What was challenging was the idea of the growing creature and we wanted it to be practical. We augmented some of the creature with VFX, but it was a challenge. The creature had this goo on it, and having liquids, blood, or goo, that makes the takes more difficult. Overall I felt like we reverse engineered it as best as we could. That’s why we have Noelle Miller on a screen. We would have loved to have her on set, but it was better to just have her on the phone.

BJ: I do like how that kind of plays into the claustrophobic feel. Going back to what you were saying about people and social media, the majority of the time you could have 10 million followers, but at the end of the day, it’s you in a room by yourself creating content.

Ramone Menon: Absolutely. You know COVID was very isolating, and we wanted to play with that element without bringing COVID into it. Like you said, the idea of this girl by herself, what is more isolating than that? There are so many people commenting on what’s happening but they can’t really help each other physically! Everyone who shares it gets their own Pey, that idea that everyone has their own monster, they are trying to fight it and no one can help them…that’s what we were going after.

BJ: One of the questions I wanted to ask, you pretty much answered. The creature was practical with VFX alterations?

Ramone Menon: Correct. The creature was 100% practical, except for the eyes. We added those in because we needed something to pop amongst the darkness.

BJ: The eyes gave me the biggest scare when Ophelia (Katie Leszynski) goes out the back door and there’s the wide shot of the back of the house with Christmas lights giving some color. She looks outside because the GIF transformed into her backyard but heads back inside. The shot lingers for a few seconds, and I was wondering if it was just held on too long…but then in the upper left-hand corner, you see those red eyes pop. It was really effective. Was it always planned to be practical? You’ve mentioned your love of The Thing and Alien; some of the greatest practical effects in film are in those two.

Ophelia walks towards a staircase, using her phone as a flashlight. The camera faces down at a titled angle, as if from the POV of a "bug on the wall"

Ramone Menon: It was always the idea to be practical. Anytime we do something purely VFX, it’s going to be difficult, and it really doesn’t have that weight of practical. It’s also a lot more fun to build your own monster. Our special effects guy is a genius, his name is Robert Bravo.

BJ: That’s a good name!

Ramone Menon: Bravo to him. He was very instrumental. See, I explained what I was thinking of, a humanoid bad, and he came up with various iterations of it. He was very on point. We didn’t have much of a budget for that stuff at all. The joke he kept making was, the budget you’re giving me to make this bat creature is less than my monthly cell phone bill. But he was great, we’ve worked together before, and we’re working on another project now. The bat suit was always going to be practical.

BJ: Are you allowed to go into what your new project is? Or is that under wraps?

Ramone Menon: It’s sort of under wraps, to a certain extent. In a broad sense, it’s folk horror that deals with superstition. It’s kind of like saying Jaws is a movie about a beach. We’re also developing The Pey into a feature.

BJ: That was one of the questions I had. Was the short initially done as a proof of concept? Or did you want to make a short and in hindsight, you thought, let’s make a feature?

Ramone Menon: It was always meant to be POC [proof of concept]. Most of the stuff that we do is POC for something. It’s much easier to get someone to watch a 10-minute short film than to get them reading an 80 or 90-page script. We were always in the mindset of POC. It just so happened when we made it that we felt it could stand on its own, so we put it in the circuit. We always try to make these POCs live from start to finish as their own movie. I like to get things into the festival circuit so they can have a life.

BJ: It almost feels to me like a cold open, like the first 10 minutes of Scream. I feel like you could put The Pey short film as the first 10 minutes of the feature.

Ramone Menon: Exactly! That’s kind of the idea we were going for. Sometimes when you’re coming up with a POC you show some characters getting killed that probably wouldn’t be in the movie. I thought of Scream immediately and want to just make the opening bit. We don’t need too much back story, we just go into it and take it from there. There are various cool ways to do POCs, David F. Sandberg was saying, which made a lot of sense to me, sometimes you don’t need a back story in a POC, just put a character in danger and the audience will find a way to relate to that. That was the approach we took for this.

BJ: Your next project will be this folk short then?

Ramone Menon: Because we’re developing The Pey into a feature, I want that to be the next feature I do. The next one I am filming, though, is a short. It’ll be a little bit more expansive, but we’re going to be breaking our rule a little bit and having more back story and context.

BJ: I will say the opening title card for Once Upon A Time In A Haunted House gave me a ’70s-style film that Tarantino would have watched when he worked at the video store. It feels like the vibe he’s recently been trying to go for. Where did that idea come from?

Ophelia reads a DM on her phone, the screen she is looking at is overlayed onto the right side of the screen. The message is from Faith, and it is a black image that asks, "do you believe in The Pey?"

Ramone Menon: Like I said earlier, I’m a huge fan of Sergio Lenoe. I have always wanted to do a western, but I don’t think that we’re at that level to pull one off. The idea of trying to do a western-style horror movie is what I was aiming for. It naturally developed into that whole ’70s vibe. I am also a fan of The Changeling and Amityville, so I feel like I was trying to mix the early spaghetti westerns with a haunted house movie. That’s why it has that vibe. When you’re talking about title cards popping up…it’s kind of a European feeling to have a massive title card pop up. They’ll hit you in the face with it. Like in Funny Games or Enter the Void. It’s all that Jean-Luc Godard stuff where they will have sporadic title cards. Lars von Trier does it really well. I feel like I’m a huge fan of episodic movies. You have an excuse to jump in time and change the pace of the movie. That’s the vibe I wanted to go for in Once Upon A Time. It is on the longer side on purpose, because we wanted to tell different stories. I was leaning into the idea that this movie could have been found in a video store in the ’70s. Something that would maybe be alongside Argento movies. Maybe Dario Argento‘s little brother.

BJ: One thing that was impressive about that was that it’s a big undertaking to take a short that already has limited time, and try to break it up into multiple stories. If you’re dealing with a filmmaker who isn’t good it will fall apart easily, but I think you really pulled off telling multiple stories without distracting from the core idea of the overarching story.

Ramone Menon: Thank you, I appreciate that. The idea was to mess with chronology. I love when stories don’t tell a straightforward story. Things like Primer, or Pulp Fiction. It’s fun to have the audience, positively, ask, what the hell is going on? I appreciate that you say that, when we break it up I think it really helps with the momentum. Horror can be tough to do, especially features, because people think you’re contained to a specific three-act structure. I feel horror works best on a two-act structure. There is a problem and then some sort of expansion of the problem, then it ends. Look at The Conjuring—great movie. The last act feels like an action movie. By then the scares are gone, and the buildup is gone. It feels like they were just trying to wrap it up. At this point, we know either the family members die or they live. If you read stories by Poe it kind of always works well with that structure. Hereditary does a good job with that, too—messing with the chronology of things also helps a lot.

BJ: With your shorts, there are some politics behind them, especially now that things like social media have been heavily politicized. I’ve noticed people either love politics in horror or vehemently despise it. I think horror is political. Always has been, always will be. Which is somehow a controversial statement. What are your thoughts on politics in horror?

Ramone Menon: I really like it. It touches on the time you’re in. You have to bring in your current fears. I don’t like it when it’s hitting you over the head though. Night of the Living Dead, it’s never said what they’re talking about but it’s pretty obvious. To a lesser extent, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I feel like those kinds of movies have a deep political bend to them. I love it, to be honest. There’s been a recent spade of movies recently, especially after Jordan Peele‘s Get Out, that leaned into things a bit too heavily. Those heavy-handed ones aren’t really my cup of tea. I love Get Out, but I’m talking about the ones after it. It’s a good mix, as long as there’s a balance of dealing with the social commentary while also making a good horror movie. Even with the stuff I came up with has political commentary as subtext, but I never wanted to make it front and center. First and foremost, I have to make a haunted house movie about a ghost, and it has to have good jump scares. Also, a lot of people aren’t a big fan of jump scares, but I am. There’s the suspense, the build-up, and then the shock and payoff! You have to use all elements to tell your movie. I’m not the biggest fan of movies that are just build, build, build, and then have no payoff or physical reaction. Conversely, I don’t like movies that are all physical reactions and no suspense. There’s a fine line of how to mix it, and the greats always find a way to pull it off. So, yes, I do like politics in horror, but also the movies without it are great too! What’s also great about horror is it’s what you make of it, and what you take away. The Hunt was okay, but you can make the same point without having been as heavy-handed as it was. It wasn’t too much, it just felt one step too far. The Purge does a great job with that idea.

BJ: I spent a lot of time at a cabin in the woods as a kid, so I’m a huge fan of campfire stories. In that regard I am saying this with the utmost respect, your short films feel like modern campfire stories.

Ramone Menon: I love the idea of them being modern campfire stories. The love for horror began with things like the idea of campfire stories. My dad used to tell us stories to put us to sleep. My brother and I would always try and stay up as late as we could, and he would be like, okay let me tell you a scary story. He would take characters like Dracula and throw them in with our family members. Our family meets Dracula! Like Abbot and Costello. It was always fascinating to me. I love the idea that you take this to that campfire element because I feel like it’s good when horror has that entertaining popcorn factor to it. I’m glad that you walked away with that feeling of it.

BJ: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers? Anything you wish you would have known when starting on your film journey?

Ramone Menon: So many things. The advice everyone says that is the most true is to make a movie. The other piece is to look at what you have that is realistically attainable. What do you have available that will look visually cool? Use that to help tell your story. When I was young, I wanted to write a gangster movie. How do you get people to be in your gangster movie at 17? It’s that aspect of it. You could have one location and a good actor. That’s really all you need. Take a garage for an example. Think about what is the scariest thing you can put in that garage. Again, look at Primer! They told such a grand epic tale with a guy in his garage and office. Oh, and watch as many movies, in the subgenre you’re trying to make, as you can and read the scripts if you can. That way you can see how they translated the words visually. Again, you need to be realistic with what you have though. You will start getting better with each film you make, but if you aim or start too high and fast you might end up discouraging yourself. Someone recently said they wanted to do a Godzilla movie, they just didn’t have the budget. The thought transformed into two people hiding from Godzilla and stumbling upon its eggs. When I heard it I thought it was fantastic.

BJ: How do you feel about virtual festivals vs in-person festivals? Or pre-/post-COVID festivals?

Ramone Menon: I think the hybrid model is good for people who can’t get access to the festivals. I do personally prefer in person. There’s a total difference. I did a festival purely virtual. It was great because I got to see all the movies, but I never had the interaction of meeting the filmmakers. I saw the same movie again at another festival in person, and it was such a different experience to see it with a crowd. And getting to talk with the filmmakers and learn and interact makes it so much better. It makes for a richer experience. The hybrid model is great, but if you have the opportunity to attend a festival I think you should attend. If there’s a festival in LA, I will go to it.

BJ: Any last thoughts you want to get out there?

Ramone Menon: Stylistically, my cinematographer Tommy Oceanak and I are working our way through the subgenres of horror. We did the haunted house, and the creature feature, and, like I said, next is the folk horror. I did a slasher a long time ago. I’m fascinated to see if I can switch styles within subgenres. I would love to do a giallo one day, it’s one of the best. Oh, and a pure Sci-Fi horror. One last thing, the music, done by our excellent composer Thomas J. Peters, is a big part for me. I love when music helps move a film or inspires a vision. We try to create themes for our work to really set the tone and help build the world.

Ophelia walks out onto her back patio. The sky is black with an orange moon in the sky.

Again I want to personally extend such a huge thank you to Ramone for taking the time out of his day to sit and talk with me. I learned quite a bit and had an absolute blast. I hope you find this interview as fun and entertaining as I did! Be sure to keep an eye out for The Pey on the festival circuit.

If you enjoyed this interview, please be sure to check these out as well!

Interview With The Filmmaker: Scott Slone Talks About Malibu Horror Story

An Interview With Mae Murray: The Book of Queer Saints and the Queer Horror Community

You Are Not My Mother: An Interview With Writer-Director Kate Dolan

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Written by Brendan Jesus

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