At the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, genre filmmaker Joe Begos debuted his newest horror film: The Mind’s Eye. His first movie, Almost Human, was a slimy, low-budget John Carpenter pastiche. The Mind’s Eye is a neon-lit ode to David Cronenberg’s telepathy thriller Scanners. The story begins in an alternate 1990, in which people with “psychokinetic” abilities are imprisoned in an institute run by the power-hungry Dr. Slovak (John Speredakos). When two powerful psychokinetics (Graham Skipper, Lauren Ashley Carter) escape Slovak’s grasp, the hunt is on. Will they survive?
The film will see a limited theatrical release in the US on August 5, and will be available on iTunes and other VOD platforms on the same day. The flick is a lot of fun, especially from a filmmaking standpoint. Writer-director Joe Begos and I spoke on the phone about the state of contemporary horror, how The Mind’s Eye fits into it, and how the film came to be.
TRAVIS NEWTON: Horror’s in an interesting place right now. Low budget horror flicks like Lights Out are doing well. No one’s making mid-budget horror, except for rarities like The Conjuring 2. Arthouse horror films like It Follows, The Witch, and The Neon Demon — acquired tastes — are showing up in hundreds of theaters in the US. That would’ve been unthinkable just a few years ago. What are your thoughts on the current state of horror?
JOE BEGOS: I complain about it a lot, but I think horror’s actually in a good state. If you look at it from a distance, it seems like every single f****** movie is a rich white family in Glendale being attacked by a ghost. That’s the Blumhouse model, and I wish that they would expand beyond that. Then you’ve got all these low-budget companies who are trying to make Blumhouse movies. Back in the late eighties, early nineties, there were so many subgenres of horror being made: robot movies, monster movies, slashers, thrillers, ghost movies. Now it’s all f****** ghost movies.
But, if you peel away the mainstream, we’ve got some really great stuff. You mentioned The Neon Demon, which only made a million dollars at the box office, but I think it’s a legit masterpiece. It Follows made $20 million on a $1.3 million budget. That’s great! I wish it had been released even wider. The Witch made good money, too. I think companies like A24 and Amazon are definitely helping. I hope that their horror films prove to be financially successful so people can keep pumping them out. So I think we’re definitely in a good state, even if you have to dig around to see it. I hope that once we maneuver through this landscape of streaming and theatrical windows and all that, we’ll be in a renaissance of horror.
NEWTON: I think it’s a good sign that we have small horror movies like The Mind’s Eye taking the stage at Comic-Con’s Hall H. How was the Under the Radar panel at 2016’s SDCC International?
BEGOS: Really cool. It was interesting to be up there with all these small movies. I had been to Comic-Con a handful of times and watched panels in Hall H. It was crazy to be up there. People seem to be realizing that Comic-Con is a good place to promote these tiny little movies. I was lucky that The Mind’s Eye got to be a part of that, and I hope that they keep promoting movies like it to all sorts of fans. I mean, you’re gonna have 7500 fans and every single giant journalist in the world in Hall H for Star Wars at 2 PM. Why not put a bunch of small movies that nobody’s ever heard of in there at 1 PM so people will f****** hear about them? They’ll talk about them, get the word out. I think that’s really smart.
NEWTON: David Cronenberg’s Scanners is an obvious influence for the world and story of The Mind’s Eye. But the look of the movie isn’t reminiscent of Cronenberg at all. All the strong reds, blues, and magentas reminded me a lot of Creepshow. What are some other visual touchstones for the film?
BEGOS: Creepshow, definitely! Dario Argento, too. I’m also a big fan of Gaspar Noé and the way he lights. I love lighting that looks unnatural, but comes from a natural place. If you watch the movie, there’s a ton of green, blue, red, purple, pink. But all of it is organic or from a natural source. I like to cover every single light fixture I can with blood, to turn everything red. I have lava lamps that are just shooting out green. Aquariums, stuff like that. Argento movies are very surreal and hallucinatory. With him, the unnatural colors kind of just happen. They’re sourceless. But I like having practical sources. They bring you deeper into that heightened world. I was sort of experimenting with that in The Mind’s Eye, but looking back I’m like “F***! I should’ve pushed it further!”
NEWTON: On the screener I saw for The Mind’s Eye, there’s a title card at the beginning that says “THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.” Was that just for the screener I watched? I loved that! Oddly enough, it really helped set the tone.
BEGOS: We put that on the print, so it’s actually part of the movie. I was very specific at every festival, every Blu-ray place: “It’s part of the movie. Do not cut it out!” It’s there forever.
NEWTON: Speaking of loud, let’s talk about composer Steve Moore. I loved his score for Cub, and I loved his score for The Mind’s Eye. How did you two get together?
BEGOS: About four years ago, I became obsessed with Zombi (the musical duo of Steve Moore and A.E. Paterra). I wanted to make the first legitimate movie with a Zombi score. But then, Adam Wingard ended up getting Steve Moore for The Guest. I thought, “Oh f***! Not only will I not be the first, but Moore’s probably gonna be out of my price range now.” I thought the score for The Guest was good. Then I saw Cub, and the score was f****** phenomenal.
But Cub was also a really low-budget movie, so I thought, “All right. I’m just going to try and get him.” I e-mailed Moore out of the blue and wrote, “I’m going to shoot this movie in six weeks. Do you want to talk?” And by coincidence, he had just watched Almost Human on Netflix a day or two before. He asked me to send him the script for The Mind’s Eye, so I did. He read it, fell in love with it, and agreed to do the movie. Now, I’m hearing and reading people saying that his score really elevates the movie. And yeah, I think his score brought the movie up a notch. I can’t even imagine it without his score.
NEWTON: You loaded this movie with stunts and clever gags. What’s your approach to writing, choreographing, and shooting action sequences?
BEGOS: Probably the completely wrong approach! But set pieces and action are what I love the most. They are what drew me to filmmaking initially. Ever since I was making movies as a kid, I wanted to try and push the boundaries. I grew up on Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. These guys were in their backyards just like me, with the same resources I had, and they were doing all this cool s***.
So throughout my teen years, I was just figuring out how to do all that stuff. I was able to bring all that to the table with The Mind’s Eye. I used the little tricks I learned and combined them with the help of professionals and friends who know what they’re doing. It’s a combination of, “what’s the professional way to do this? What little tricks have we learned? What can we do with camera tricks or editing?”
On Almost Human, we stretched our budget 500%, but we pulled it off! On The Mind’s Eye, we had more money, but we had to stretch it 1000%. We only had a couple hundred grand. People said “Oh my god! You want to do all this stuff! You want to shoot for 37 days! How the hell are you gonna do this?” And I had it all mapped out. I knew we weren’t going to have much money, so the fun thing was reverse engineering and figuring it all out.
Oh, and I hired awesome people. If my actors hadn’t wanted to do their own stunts, there wouldn’t have been as many stunts. Stunt people are so ridiculously expensive. It adds up real quick. The only stunt guy we used was in a scene where Noah Segan’s character falls through a glass shower door. We couldn’t risk cutting our actor’s face up. Other than that, it’s all the actors. So props to them. It was a massive team effort to pull it all off, so I’m glad that you appreciated the fact that we did all that stuff. We were killing ourselves hoping that people would appreciate what we were trying to do. There are only 14 CG effects shots in the entire movie, and they’re all wire removal. Everything else is real — all the fire, blood, and snow.
NEWTON: That approach paid off in the end. There’s a car stunt in this movie that had me gaping at the screen, because I was sure you only had one chance to get it right.
BEGOS: Oh, thank you! Yeah, we had one chance to do that, because the car was totaled. Then, we had six hours to shoot the flaming wreck with two actors around it. I thought that would be enough. What I wasn’t thinking about was the temperature. It was snowing, which looked awesome, but the gas lines froze up! The fire wasn’t happening on cue. It was a f****** nightmare. Now it’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie. When I was writing it, it read like “the snow is falling and the lightning flashes and the fire shoots up!” Everybody was like “Okay, Joe. Whatever you say.” But on the night we shot it, it was snowing and thundering! It all worked out! I was like “that’s right, m*****f******!” It came out almost exactly as I imagined it.
NEWTON: The movie is dripping with splatter gore. Who did the effects, and did you give any thought to how they would accomplish them when you wrote the script?
BEGOS: We hired Brian Spears and Pete Gerner. I sought them out because I was a fan of their work on Jim Mickle’s Stake Land. That flick cost under a million dollars and had a ton of astounding effects work. I approached effects and makeup for The Mind’s Eye like I did the action. I knew how much money we had, so I came to Brian and Pete with the effects budget. Then I told them that we weren’t cutting any gags from the script — we were shooting it all.
To their credit, we sat there and figured out every single effect and how to shoot it. I had pre-planned a lot of it with whip pans, trick editing, and sound effects, and they were very gracious. That pre-planning allowed them to build the effects exactly as I needed them. I have this weird problem: because I shoot everything I write, I can’t write something unless I know how I’m going to shoot it. But it worked in my favor here because Brian and Pete were able to grasp onto my basic ideas and bounce things off one another. They knocked it out of the park. On my next movie, I want to write the effects to be ten times more complicated and ridiculous because I want to challenge them. And I know they’ll pull it off. Those guys rule, and I want to use them forever.
NEWTON: Speaking of your next movie, what’s happening on that front?
BEGOS: It all depends on what I can get financed. I’ve got a few scripts. I’ve got a really brutal NC-17 satanic summer camp slasher. I’ve got a crazy time travel movie that I wrote with Mickey Keating that I want to shoot on 16 millimeter. It’s a cyberpunk-body-horror-splatter movie. The Fly meets Die Hard meets The Terminator! If neither one of those movies works out, I’ll just write something super dirty and nasty and violent, shoot it this winter, and have another ice cold horror movie like The Mind’s Eye.
NEWTON: There are so many professional tools available to young filmmakers today — way more than they need. It can be hard to know where to start. Any advice for young filmmakers?
BEGOS: Yeah! Whatever you want to shoot, do it as soon as possible. If you don’t have proper equipment, just shoot it with your iPhone. These days, you can get an iPhone movie into f****** Sundance. It’s like being in a band now. Anyone can go out and make a movie, so you have to work harder at your craft to make something that’s going to stick out.
Ten years ago, I couldn’t have made Almost Human for the budget I had. But now, with so much technology available, it was possible. Not just for me, but for theoretically anyone. So Almost Human needed to stick out more. I made 20 shorts before I made my first feature. I wish every day that I’d made 60 because my feature would’ve been that much better. Practice. Shoot and shoot and shoot. Writing is free. Write and write and write. I don’t have any better advice than that.