There’s Nothing Out There looks like a pretty complicated film for a first-time director. What had you done to prepare yourself for the scope of a full-length feature?
Well, luckily, I became obsessed with films at the age of four when I discovered Abbott and Costello movies. I’ve always loved comedy and was really drawn to their monster movies like [Abbott and Costello] Meet Frankenstein, Meet The Mummy, Meet the Invisible Man, and Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When I was 13, I got my first video camera and began making home movies. My first official short was called Breaking and Entering and was an attempt to do comedy/horror combining my love for slapstick and a slasher film. At 16, I began working as a P.A. (production assistant aka slave) on independent films in New York, which included a slasher flick called Posed For Murder and the infamous Troma’s War. I also decided to make my first full-length feature, a comedy/action/thriller entitled Strength in Numbers. It became a near two-hour epic that took me two years to complete. After that, for my senior project in high school, I decided to write and direct a full-length comedy murder mystery play called Murder In Winter as well as make a movie of it. So, I graduated high school with two feature-length home movies under my belt. I then did a few 8mm shorts at Hampshire College which were both “horror” oriented—one of which plays on the screen at the video store in the opening scene of There’s Nothing Out There. At this point, I felt that I was ready to make my first real feature and luckily my parents agreed. Before graduating high school, I had written There’s Nothing Out There in 1987 as an exercise to see how long it would take me to write a teen exploitation horror flick. I decided to make it a creature film and then thought it would be fun to have the lead character be an expert in horror films, like I was and still am.
You see, when I was 14, I had made up my mind that I wanted to be a director and realized that most first-time directors had started with horror. So, I began renting every horror film on video. The Evil Dead made a big impression on me, so I thought the cabin in the woods concept with a movie buff who warns everyone of the mistakes they make in horror films would be a good idea. I had never seen that done before but had loved the modern funny/scary takes on classic stories, like Fright Night and An American Werewolf In London. So, with that inspiration and my love for Abbott and Costello and Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther movies, I made There’s Nothing Out There in the summer of 1989 with the help of my parents and some private investors. My goal was to satirize the dumb clichés of many horror films, but not insult the genre which I loved. I just wanted to poke fun at all the stupid conventions, like the cat scare, and dumb things that people only do in horror films: stand in front of an open window, drop the knife, wander off into a basement or the woods by themselves, etc. I thought if I made a send-up of those clichés, then filmmakers would have to get smarter and come up with better stories and ways of scaring the audience—stop them from being lazy, in my opinion.
How long did the shoot last?
The shoot was 24 days starting in August. We finished in the beginning of September and the entire film was completed with post production about a year later. Overall, it went pretty smoothly. I was 20 at the time and, along with the lead actor, I was the youngest guy on the set.
As a first-time feature director, what was the one big thing that surprised you, that you weren’t prepared for?
Well, I was pretty well prepared and delighted to have a real crew. With all of my other home movies, I was doing just about everything myself. So, it was much easier since I didn’t have to move lights, operate the camera, hold the boom mic and try to wrangle all my friends to act in my films. Professionals were a pleasure to work with. And I also had a nice three weeks of prep with my cast. I spent a week in rehearsals and made a very detailed shot list. The second week, we went to a dance studio where I staged most of the fight scenes and action, to make sure that nobody would get hurt. The third week, I went to the real location and shot almost the entire film on video. So, I basically video storyboarded the whole film. You can see some of this on the special features of the DVD release.
It was a lot of work, but I got most of what I was aiming for. The biggest problem I had was with one of the actresses who had never been in a film before and a few days into the production, realized that making a movie is hard work. She didn’t understand that films were not usually shot in order and thought we were doing it just to torture her. She wanted out and made everyone’s life on the set very difficult. But, in a way, it helped bond the rest of the cast and crew. Many times you need a villain on the set, which helps everyone else come together when they have a common enemy. She became that villain. Again, on the DVD commentary track, I tell a lot more stories about her. To this day, she’s the only actor I’ve ever really had a problem working with.
There’s Nothing Out There has a couple of classic signs of a low-budget debut: it has an unknown cast and it was shot in basically one setting. All the kids are surprisingly good. Where did you find your cast?
We hired a casting director in New York. A man by the name of Bill Williams. Most of the actresses were models who wanted to act but had no experience. We found the entire cast through those auditions, except for the lead, Craig Peck. I went to high school with Craig, and he was the lead in my Murder In Winter, so I knew he could do it. He auditioned as well and landed the part. I was very happy with the cast, until the one actress began causing problems. But all the rest were real troupers and gave 100%. Unfortunately, only Mark Collver who played Jim went on to a film and television career. I worked with him a few more times in Los Angeles. He’s still a good friend and now a talented novelist as well. Hopefully, his book will be published soon. And for those interested, the lead skinny-dipping punker is a guy named Cy Voris who went on to become a very successful writer, with Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight, Bulletproof Monk and creator of the series Sleeper Cell being just a few of his credits.
When Bonnie Bowers came onscreen, I thought, “I didn’t know Jewel Shepard was in this!” Is it just me, or did you notice the resemblance too?
I know who Jewel Shepard is, and she actually auditioned for me years later on another project, but I never saw Bonnie as Jewel at the time. Didn’t make the connection. Although, I’m sure Jewel would have been a lot easier to work with.
[Laughs] Though most of the flick is set at the house by the pond, you also shot in a high school. How did you swing that?
It was a middle school in Piedmont in upstate New York. School was out of session and it was a half-day shoot. We shot all that stuff plus all of the video store opening on the same day. We got a bunch of extras and a lot of young-looking crew members to be the students. It was a long day but went pretty smoothly…until we wrapped. This was a non-union shoot and the teamsters got wind of the production. I remember the grip truck had to drive around, trying to lose them, before returning to the main house in the woods location so they wouldn’t know where we were shooting and cause problems. Luckily, that was our only run-in with the teamsters.
Yeah, those teamsters deserve a horror flick of their own. By my count, you trashed two cars in There’s Nothing Out There—pretty costly for a first film.
I really enjoyed the car crashes, but both had problems. The first crash, when Sally drives off the road into the woods, we built a big ramp and had a stunt driver do it. The crew decided to make a bet on how far the car would go. This was a bad idea because the stunt driver himself went in on the bet and he won because he hit the ramp going about 20 miles faster than he was supposed to. Jumped the car 44 feet and landed right on one of our cameras! You can see the shot in the movie. The car comes right into the lens before breaking it. That cost us some money.
The second stunt, when the white car flips into the pond, also did not go as planned. A pipe ramp was built with a rig to get the car going fast enough so it would jump and flip around in mid-air before hitting the water. There was no driver for this stunt. Unfortunately, the car was in pretty bad shape and couldn’t get enough speed on the grass and dirt. The car hit the ramp, flipped on its side but didn’t make it to the pond. It was supposed to be the last day of the shoot, so we were all depressed because we knew we had to come back and reshoot the scene with another car, which we did. The second car kind of worked, although it’s pretty easy to tell that it’s a different car. It landed in the edge of the water. We then had to knock it over and push it further into the pond to film it sinking. Luckily, since the film is a horror/comedy, the “transforming car” is accepted as one of the jokes in the film. So, it works despite the mistakes.
Truthfully, I didn’t even notice! What did you learn from your first feature? What did you take away that you were able to apply to your next film, be it technical, political or logistical?
Well, you learn a lot on every film. The main thing it did was prove to me and everyone else that I could make a real movie. Much of what I did on that shoot, I still do today. Rehearsal is key. A good plan and shot list is crucial. Video storyboarding is a great tool. I always try to push the boundaries of the budget and be ambitious. We had steadicam, crane, dollies and handheld on that film. I love moving the camera and really use all the “toys” when I can. I think I’m a very visual filmmaker but also know that the most important element is the performances. If you don’t care about the characters on the screen, it doesn’t matter how slick and beautifully lit your film is.
I also learned to trust my instincts. The famous “boom pole swing” gag came out of a logistical problem. In the script, the character of Nick was supposed to escape the creature by grabbing a chandelier and swinging out of the room. Unfortunately, our location didn’t have a chandelier, so I kept trying to figure out how to do this stunt. I went to a movie one night where they projected the film incorrectly. It was too low and the tops of the set and microphones could be seen in almost every shot. The audience was hysterical. Having seen so many low-budget horror films on video, I was used to crew shadows and mistakes in many of these films so I thought it might be fun to break the fourth wall for a second. Have the character stand up, and when he does, the camera tilts up and reveals the microphone boom pole in the frame. I thought the audience will think it’s a mistake, this being another low-budget film, and then surprise them by having the actor see the pole himself and actually use it to swing out of the room to avoid the creature!
The entire crew was against me on this idea. They said, “This is not a Mel Brooks film. You can’t cross the line and let people know it’s a movie.” I thought it would work and luckily, my father, Victor Kanefsky, who was the main producer and editor, trusted me and let me do it. I know a studio would never have let that gag be shot. But I did it, and it became probably the most famous and talked about moment in the movie.
Yeah, I loved that gag, but I have to admit it did surprise me.
So, ever since then, whenever there is a scene that everyone is worried about, I know that I have to do it because it’s the scene that people are going to respond to and talk about. This has happened time and again. In a film I did called The Hazing, there’s a scene with a giant tongue that everyone thought was going too far and wanted me to cut it. I refused and it too has become one of the best moments in the movie.
Oh yeah, possessed tongue fu! Loved it!
So, as a filmmaker, you have to trust yourself and try to follow your own path. You’ll never get great by always playing it safe.
Well said, man. All right, I hear you have a special re-release of the film planned for next year. What can you share with us about it?
Well, it looks like we’re going to be doing a special 20th Anniversary release of There’s Nothing Out There with Troma Entertainment. Lloyd Kaufman has always been a fan of Nothing and wanted the film when it was first made. I have stayed in touch with Lloyd all of these years and even put him in cameo roles in some of my later films. So, I think the time is right and they could do a good release, making it more available than it’s ever been. There’s Nothing Out There has always been one of those hard-to-find underground movies and has built up a slight cult following, maybe because of that. So, Troma seems like the perfect fit.
That’s true. I’m sure Lloyd will take care of it.
I hope all the special features from the last release will be on the DVD, including the commentary track with myself, some of the actors and some of the crew. All the deleted/extended scenes, the animated still gallery, the original trailer, the video storyboard comparisons, the audition footage including some body checks, rehearsals, bloopers, animated opening title test, and maybe a new featurette entitled “Fond Remembrances of Nothing – 20 Years Later.” There is also a book I wrote called Making Nothing At the Age of 20. It’s on the website (www.theresnothingoutthere.com). If we can figure out a way to link it with the new DVD, that would be great. It was written to inspire other struggling filmmakers and let them know how I did it. And maybe I’ll record a new commentary track just for the hell of it. We’ll see. But it should be packed with goodies if all goes as planned.
That sounds amazing! Okay, last question. One of the central ideas of the script (one of the characters is a horror fan and constantly warns what will happen based on the horror films he’s seen) was “borrowed” a few years later for the bigger-budget Scream. Any diplomatic thoughts?
Ah, the Scream story. A lot has been said on this topic and, believe it or not, I did not start it. I remember hearing about Scream and thinking that some of it sounds kind of familiar. When the trailer came out, I began getting calls from a lot of friends and people who worked on There’s Nothing Out There who though Scream had copied my movie. When I saw Scream, I enjoyed it a lot. The opening reminded me of When A Stranger Calls or, if you want to go back further, the original Black Christmas. Scream was definitely a much scarier film than Nothing. However, I did think Jamie Kennedy’s portray of “Randy” had some similarities to Craig Peck’s “Mike” in Nothing. I saw the connection but didn’t make much out of it. However, a few years later I found a horror movie review book that reviewed Scream and said, “Didn’t it just rip off a movie called There’s Nothing Out There?” Then I started seeing comments on the internet and realized that other people had made the connection between the two films.
Now, there is more to the Scream connection than I want to talk about right now. I do believe and have some pretty good proof that Wes Craven did see Nothing before he made Scream. I do not know if Kevin Williamson ever saw it, but Nothing was playing on cable a lot around the time he was writing Scream. So, it’s a possibility. Over the years, the reputation of Nothing has grown and more people have agreed on the connection, saying that my film may have “inspired” Scream.
But, I am a big fan of Scream, and it proved that I was on the right track. In 1990, when we were trying to sell Nothing and find distribution, the studios couldn’t get a handle on the film. They thought it was too scary to be funny and too funny to be scary. But the public and critics really liked the movie. It played a lot of film festivals and received a lot of rave reviews. It was great but frustrating because nobody would take a chance on releasing this little no-name movie. But I knew right then that if someone came along and made a film like this for enough money with a name actor or two in it, it could make a fortune. Scream proved me right and it also brought back the horror genre, which was great for everyone. And because of the success of Scream, years later I was able to make The Hazing and then Jacqueline Hyde, Nightmare Man, etc.
So, I have no hard feelings towards Scream. I wish we could have seen a bit of Scream’s profits and that There’s Nothing Out There would have been a bigger help to my career as a way into the Hollywood doors, but I was little ahead of my time. So, I keep plugging away, trying to make the best movies I can for as much money as I can get. It’s never been easy, but I still love what I do and hope to keep doing a lot more.
Well, that’s definitely the most important thing, my friend…