Baron Vaughn Talks 'So Much To Do' Segment of Horror Anthology 'Scare Package'
Comedian/actor Baron Vaughn (Grace & Frankie, Mystery Science Theater 3K) makes his directorial debut with 'So Much To Do', a self-contained stylish segment in 'Scare Package', which turns the occult possession sub-genre on its head, with a short based around avoiding spoilers from a popular television show.
Born out of a love for horror cinema, 'Scare Package' presents a collection of seven standalone yet interconnected horror shorts, strung together by a fun romp through horror tropes and nostalgia. We caught up with Vaughn to discuss making his short and his relationship with the genre
Scare Package is an anthology that celebrates so much about what we love about the horror genre, with 'So Much To Do' standing out as a favourite short for me. It's been described as a horror film by horror fans - for horror fans. How did you become involved with the project?
My friend Noah Segan, who actually also directed a segment in 'Scare Package' called 'M.I.S.T.E.R' which he also stars in, was connected with the producers Aaron Koontz and Cameron Burns, who are Paper Street Pictures; a couple of gentlemen who traffic in the horror indie film circuit out in Austin, Texas. I live in Los Angeles and had met Noah kind of just around and we've become friends, so he asked me if I would be interested in being involved and told me what the premise of it was.
At first, I was a little, for lack of a better term scared because I have a love/hate relationship with horror film. I feel like I wouldn't consider myself a horror head or a fanatic of the horror genre but a lot of that has to do with what mainstream studios have decided what horror is, which doesn't necessarily appeal to me. Actually a lot of my favourite movies would be considered horror, they're just done in a more independent way and some of them aren't American films as well, so it's kind of like, it's a genre that I feel like there's a clash of cultures about what horror's supposed to be, so I got to work with a bunch of people who I was a little bit more aligned with, you know?
I'm still continuing to discover more about the horror scene and almost as if like I wish somebody told me about this earlier in my life and I wouldn't have had the feelings I had about other movies, you know, certain mainstream movies but indie horror and especially when people are being cheeky, or at least resourceful with how they do it, which makes people write and direct in very interesting experimental ways. That's the kind of stuff that I like and that's why I was really happy to be involved with this film.
Where as a fan does your relationship with horror films start? When did it begin for yourself?
Well, maybe a bit too young and that's exactly why I had a love/hate relationship with horror films. I think the first feature film that I had ever seen in my entire life was 'Nightmare on Elm Street' and I was probably five and that's why I stayed away from horror films for another two decades because it scared the living bejesus out of me! There was an Elm Street in my neighbourhood, I had a really hard time getting all the images out of my head and now I watch that and I can see and appreciate it in a different place but as a kid and still not knowing the difference between reality and fantasy, you know, what was happening on the screen wasn't real, I didn't have that yet, so it kind of scared me so much that it ruined me for horror films for a really long time.
That said, I would consider Sam Raimi or Edgar Wright, two of my favourite directors. They do other genres obviously but clearly they have a love for horror and it influences both of their styles and they have influenced me. The same could be said for somebody like Terry Gilliam, I like style and I guess what I enjoy most about those three directors that I named and their styles is that, yes it's fun and it's funny but they never condescend to the genre or the story that they might be telling, they're never making fun of the story. I've gotten into arguments about whether or not 'Shaun of The Dead' is a parody or a spoof, I don't think it's a parody and I don't think it's a spoof, it’s a zombie film, you know? It's about a group of people who would be unlikely to survive a zombie apocalypse but the fact that they play it for truth is what makes it funny, the fact that this group of losers has to figure it out, which is what makes it not a parody. They’re not making fun of zombie films, it is a zombie film. The situation is very realistic and terrifying, that's what Sam Raimi does too! He can make you laugh and in the next moment scream, which is what I aspire to be like.
What makes your short so formidable is that such a simple, sinister concept manages to say so much about racism in America. Black bodies are attacked, commodified, targeted, and appropriated. Where did the idea for 'So Much to Do' come from, and how long did it take for you to get the script shot?
Wow! Thank you very much for recognising some of those hidden themes in there. I can't remember if they asked us to pick a trope or assigned us conventions. Sometimes there are certain themes, you know, I don't know if it's true for you but I feel like every now and then there's a certain theme or certain conversation that continues to show up over and over again. I'm a stand-up comedian as well and a long time ago, say over a decade ago, I swear that every stand-up comedian had a joke about why they couldn't be parents and that was just on everyone's mind and everyone's lips. Before I discussed doing 'So Much to Do'; I live in Los Angeles and I'm a professional actor, I'm in a Netflix show and Netflix and all the streaming giants have really changed the way that we consume media. Binging is a cute, fun term now but the origin of the word is really about an addictive relationship to some kind of substance. Before I'm going to binge that show it was like, "Oh, I binged alcohol" or something that's not good for you but now it's like, "No, forget your life and your children, ha, ha. Watch this show for 6 to 13 hours. In Los Angeles you know, you drive around and we're constantly being inundated with the myths of Los Angeles and these are the shows that we're constantly watching. I just felt like I was driving around and at the time the last season of 'Game Of Thrones' was about to start and there's billboards for 'Game Of Thrones' everywhere, the last Avengers film was everywhere, there was a Star Wars film coming out, I guess I just noticed, especially from just the culture itself, how much time we spend in deep anticipation about a thing we have been convinced is the most shattering, transformative event the world has ever seen, whether that be the last Avengers film or the last 'Star Wars' or the last season of 'Game of Thrones'. They call it event film or event drama or something like that, right? I just all of a sudden tuned in to how much everybody around me was trying to convince me that this cannot be missed and that they have spent as much money and so much time trying to convince me that what they have made is the most important thing that has ever happened to humanity, so I was like, "The idea of a ghost is they have unfinished business" and that was a theme that all was also coming up. "Ghosts have unfinished business", you know, "The reason there's a ghost is because they have unfinished business", that old trope. I just thought, "Wouldn't it be funny if their unfinished business was this damn show that they have been watching their entire life" and they're like, "Oh, man, I can't believe the last episode I'm finally going to get closure to this thing that has taken up so much real estate in my mind and in my heart", then I was like, "Well, what if somebody got killed before that. Is that pull to finish their show strong enough to bring them back from the dead?" and that's kind of where the whole idea came from.
Is there a commentary you're making that runs deeper than surface level about the state of humanity being more passionate about avoiding spoilers, over the passions of being vocal about bigger issues in society?
Yeah, there is a kind of a theme about when you notice some of the racial overtones, the two men in the black-coats, the men in black hates - I forget exactly what I call them in the script but they don't have names. Their kind of identityless people who are doing some kind of thing, so their just sinister forces that exist and I guess the thing is that my wife is a writer too and we were talking about, I don't know if it was a friend of hers that did a project or a presentation on magical realism, which is its own genre. My wife is Mexican and Latin America has had stories that fit into the genre of magical realism, they just didn't speak English, so they didn't have that term applied to it. It was just kind of a way of doing stories, that was a natural way of telling stories for those cultures. So, this friend said that the difference between, say magical realism and sci-fi or magic realism and fantasy, is that the rules are never explained in magical realism, they just are. In a science fiction or fantasy film, how the world works is usually explained because we’re usually in the perspective of a character who’s introduced to this brand new world, you know, some obscure farmer is told about an intergalactic battle and he has this power called the force and he's like, "what the hell are you talking about?". We're in that guy's perspective and we learn all of that along with him but in my film, I didn't want to have to explain who these sinister forces are as much as that they are a fact, kind of like the structures that we live in society. Sure there are a lot of reasons why they exist, there's been a lot of debate and century’s worth of efforts to make things this way but they are a fact. How they work are a fact and something we have to experience, so these two sinister forces just exist and my two main characters, the marked man and Francesca, are caught up in a game that they're not aware of because they're so damn occupied with their show. That's why the thing ends and starts in the same place because to those sinister forces, this is a loop in which they're in control, right? They have the power of the omega and then what it is that my characters are watching is omega vision, so there's an implication that it is all you being stuck in a loop, that it's all these characters being stuck in a loop whether it's the watching of a show, which is taking their life-force, or that these literal beings are playing a game with their life force.
A lot of the music featured in your Comedy Central Show ('The New Negroes') deals with the subject of double-consciousness and how people present themselves versus what their inner-realities might be. Did any of your research for 'So Much to Do' include double consciousness and the psychological challenge attached to the idea of double consciousness?
Oh, absolutely! Double consciousness is a concept that was coined by W.E. Du bois; Du bois is one of the pre-eminent voices of black thought and philosophy in the United States. Dubois wanted to be a philosopher in the first place but back when he was I believe, the first black man to go to Harvard, it wasn't allowed, so he went a different path. There's a strong sense of his philosophical education in all of his writings, so double consciousness is a philosophical concept, which he applies to racism and I think it applies to a lot of different things. If you're existing in the world in a way in which you are not the default, meaning that you're either a person of colour, or you're a woman, or your trans, or you're queer, or you're a combination of all these things, then you are experiencing your life through your own eyes, not necessarily walking around thinking, "I'm black, I'm blackity black", you know? At some point you realise that others might be looking at you thinking those things and it makes you kind of have to be responsible for other people's assumptions about you, you start to kind of adjust yourself for it. In a sense, those themes are there but really what I wanted to think about was the idea of body horror and body snatching in the sense of double consciousness, because our main character the marked man, essentially inhabits the first body in his path, which happens to be this woman but ultimately it was that this spirit assumes, that this woman has no power to fight back, that she has no agency, that he can take her body to do whatever he wants to do, so then because he's caught up in the game makes a decision that also shows what his priorities are, you know. It's more important for me to watch my show than it is for this woman to have her own body if you will. That's ultimately what the fight is about at the end; it's for control over the body.
It stars Toni Trucks who does a great job at juxtaposing both comedy and horror, what was the casting process for the role like?
Well, I had worked with Toni and I know what she can do. The guy who played the marked man Aaron Alexander was a god-send, he was brought to me by the producers, they knew him from Texas and he had just moved to L.A. Luckily Aaron Alexander is a very skilled stunt-performer and fight choreographer. Both he and Toni have a lot of theatre training as do I. Toni also has a musical theatre background and as a person who also loves martial arts films, I know that any good fight is a really good dance. It's about two people who understand how their bodies move through space, so I thought, "Well, she knows how to dance, this fight choreography is that. Its rhythmic, it's in reaction to somebody else's moves", so I was like, "Hmmm, I think she'll probably be able to do that" and she picked it up so quickly, I was so right about it, ha, ha! Also her being on a show where she has to like to stay in a certain amount of fitness because she's in a show called 'Navy Seals', where she plays a military person. I asked her if she would do it and luckily she wanted to do it and then Aaron was a gift and they hit off and there was a very good vibe on set, you know. Even the day when we choreographed the fight, it just was a really good day and I think we choreographed it before we had cameras up. Ultimately the shoot was two days, we had to do one day of reshoots just because once we edited it together we were starting to see some certain things missing that could have helped.
As a comedian, you understand the importance of well-timed humour and it's something you use in this short strategically to release tension, just when the tension starts to feel unendurable. What was the most challenging part about making it?
Again, that's another good observation! I think with horror and especially with the directors that I like that I mentioned earlier, they all have a fantastic sense of rhythm and timing, which not only accentuates the stuff that they do, that is inherently comedic but also the stuff that they do that is absurd or weird, that they play with that tension in the scene. Also again, as a person who is theatre trained, one of my favourite play-writes ever in the history of time is Harold Pinter. Pinter's use of what they call the Pinter pause and the tension, which in a theatre is very palpable but on screen is hard to capture, although I think that obviously there's a lot of different directors that have figured out different ways to play with that, including the three that I named. I was trying to figure out how do I create the space in this film for that tension and those silences to really play, it was the space of where the men in black were even taking the marked man, it's like some strange dark field somewhere, even the space of the car, you know? We see the whole car when the windows burst we see the whole back of the car, I wanted to see all these bodies, including the vehicles and trees in the space, because as long as I make that world a little bit clearer to the audience then there's a sense of where all these things are coming from and it helps me with the timing.
The biggest thing I think is editing and luckily my wife is a very skilled editor as well, so she actually edited the film and we got to really get that timing down because it's important in the comedy, it's important in the fighting and it’s important in those places where you have the screams. There was one place that's basically like, where Francesca our hero sees the marked man for the first time and he appears in front of her car; we had to think about a lot in that moment. Does she see him first and then scream? Does she scream and then we see him? We were trying to figure out what works better and I think we went with the one we went with because we had a couple of friends who were horror aficionados, to see how it works with some of their favourite scenes in different movies.
We mentioned Jordan Peele before our interview and the link between body horror in 'Get Out' and 'So Much to Do'. Peele said he made 'Get Out' in an effort to master fear. Was there any fear for yourself in mastering 'So Much to Do' as a first-time film-maker?
Absolutely! I mean, my biggest fear is that I don't know what I'm doing and that I don't know where to put somebody to put the camera. There's a big thing that happens I think and I think this is really important for film making in general, especially for directors, because a lot of film-makers come into film thinking, "It's all about me. It's all about how I want it to happen and how I want it to look and sound", which is true to an extent but unless you surround yourself with people who you're willing to listen to, you're not going to get anything out of it. There's always somebody who has an interesting idea and I like to know what everybody on set's opinions are sometimes depending on the thing, because obviously this lighting person, this DP, the sound guy - this isn't their first time at the rodeo, they've had to problem solve, they've seen a lot of different things, so to me being able to look around and see smiles on people’s faces when we shot something, lets me know that I'm on the right path, that's what helps me master my fear, placing my trust into the collaborators that are with me.
Has it always been a plan of yours to transition from TV to film-making, much like Jordan Peele has within recent years?
Yes! I actually had the honour of sitting down with Jordan Peele once. We had a meeting before I made this film. He was fresh off the heat of 'Get Out' and had created his production company (Monkey Paw), so he was meeting with a bunch of different people. I actually think he's a really good actor; he's a very good actor. I loved 'Key and Peele', I'd been watching his work for a long time. One of the first things he said to me is how excited he was to never ever act again and I was like, "What you talking about?" and he was like, "Man, I can show up in sweat-pants, I don't have to worry about my weight, I don't have to worry about shaving my facial hair or my hair cut”. At first I was thinking "What's he talking about?" but then as I began to continue to think about it on my own I'm like, "Oh, that's right, my body and my image are at somebody else's behest", you know what I mean? There's somebody else who gets to decide if I shave my beard or if I cut my hair too short, if my waist gets too large then they'll have to go buy all brand new pants for me, so it's always kind of like this little bit of a thing of where you have to stay in a certain place but when you're the director you don't, nobody cares what the director looks like. They just care about what the thing they made looks like! That's why I also think it's weird for directors who usually look pretty rough to dictate to other people what their appearances should be.
Do you plan on staying around in the horror genre and maybe making your next project a full feature horror film?
Absolutely, I have a bunch of different ideas for horror films, I just have to figure what the point of them is. The thing is, again, if anything I can say is that I was wrong about horror film and I have been wrong about horror film. Like I said I unfortunately saw 'Nightmare on Elm Street' too young and it ruined me but as an adult, one of my favourite horror films is 'The Orphanage', otherwise known as 'El Orfanato' by J.A. Beyona. It's an incredible film and it would be classified as a horror film but I don't watch it and think it's a horror film, I just think it's a damn good film but that's also true of a lot of horror films that I think that about, you know? Again, I'm talking about Sam Raimi, I love 'Evil Dead', 'Evil Dead 2' and 'Army of Darkness', I love 'Shaun of the Dead, I now love 'Friday the 13th', 'Nightmare on Elm Street', 'Puppet Master', 'Halloween', all of those films. There's a history to the resourcefulness of the people that had to create those films, there's an artistry of trying to make those franchises last, even when it goes badly, it's still fun, ha, ha. If anything I think I've been wrong about horror films my entire career.
I also became friends with a woman named Pollyanna McIntosh whose worked a lot in the horror film genre, who's in a film called 'The Woman', in which she played the woman. She also wrote and directed the sequel called 'Darlin’'' and again, very fun, there's something to it. Indie horror has reignited my love of not only horror but film.
'Scare Package' is available now exclusively on Shudder.
Written By Luke Bailey