There are two things in life everyone should love — a good story and a good scare! “Monsters Wanted” is a documentary combing both of those elements! The story begins with Rich Teachout , who in early 2011, quit his lucrative job to focus on creating a one-of-a-kind haunted attraction. He and his partner Janel dedicated every moment, ounce of energy, and dollar to making their “Scream Park” a reality. “Monsters Wanted” is the story of their self-proclaimed madness and the industry, culture, and people who share it. The film follows Rich and Janel’s efforts from the first day of building beyond the last day of the season, offering a one-of-a-kind peek into an industry known for its macabre antics and well guarded secrets. “Monsters Wanted” is living proof there’s nothing more terrifying than following your dreams! Jason Price of Icon Vs. icon recently caught up with director Brian Cunningham to discuss his journey as a filmmaker, the challenges he encountered along the way and the blood, sweat and tears shed to bring “Monsters Wanted” to life!
I wanted to give our readers a little background on you. What originally intrigued you about the world of filmmaking?
I remember as a kid I would jump back and forth between different answers to what I wanted to be when I grew up. It would be a firefighter one day, then I’d want to be a rock star and then I’d want to own my own amusement park. I’d watch movies constantly and eventually got the idea that since I couldn’t be all these things in one lifetime, I could at least make movies about all the subjects I was interested in. That’s when I decided I should be a filmmaker.
What made you pursue it as a career?
I loved telling stories. I would do stop-motion videos for school projects in fourth and fifth grade, and the magic of editing and trick photography always fascinated me. I can’t remember a time when movies weren’t a huge part of my life.
Who would you cite as your biggest professional influences?
There are so many, but I would definitely say that Cameron Crowe was hugely popular at a time when I was just coming into my own as a filmmaker. Movies like Almost Famous really shaped how I look at storytelling and showed me that you can make an emotionally affecting movie that still has substance, good story and soul. That’s the kind of movies I really want to make.
Your latest project is ‘Monsters Wanted’. How did the industry of haunted attractions first come onto your radar?
I had gone to haunted houses as a kid, but I never stopped to think about how they were made. Shortly after I started dating my girlfriend Kaley (who’s also a co-producer on “Monsters Wanted”) she told me she was going to stage manage a haunted house and invited me to come to a meeting between her and Rich. We met at 10pm at a Denny’s and Rich was working furiously on his laptop and downing cup after cup of coffee. Within five minutes of meeting him he told me he was going to quit his job (that week, in fact) and put his entire life savings into making a haunted house. I was immediately intrigued and knew I had to e involved in this story somehow.
What was it about their story that intrigued you as a documentarian?
I think as a filmmaker I understand that “obsession with a dream” side of what they were doing. I’d taken quite a few risks to try and “make it” as a filmmaker, and this was a rare opportunity to look in on someone else’s journey to achieve a dream. From a story perspective, I knew there would be drama and hardship and all the things that make a great movie. Plus it was exciting for me to do a documentary where I didn’t have any idea where the story was going.
Tell us a little about your thoughts on the approach to making this film as you started out.
I wanted the movie to be extremely organic. Most of the stuff I’ve done commercially any in film has been very scripted, very polished and very planned. I wanted this to feel like a “fly on the wall” documentary that involved the audience with the story and made you feel a part of everything instead of making you an external observer. Intimacy always trumped “finding the prettiest shot” and we were careful to make sure we could talk to all the characters in a really informal fashion. That’s why there are so many “on the fly” interviews in the movie and a lot of wide-angle close-ups. We wanted you to feel like you were watching things happen as they really did. But we also wanted to make sure we didn’t stage anything or dictate anything about the story. This isn’t a semi-scripted reality show; it’s a real documentary where we captured everything we could and had no clue what was going to happen.
What can you tell us about the work that went into capturing the story on film?
We shot over 200 hours of footage and interviewed nearly 100 people. The crew was tiny by design…just two people at any given time. Usually that was two cameras working simultaneously or one camera with the second person operating a boom for audio. We wanted to keep everything extremely streamlined so we could move quickly to capture everything as it happened and could keep our “footprint” small so as to keep the actors comfortable without changing their dynamics or personalities. The amount of profanity in the movie is a testament to how comfortable all our characters felt on camera, I think.
Looking back on the process and all that happened, what do you consider the biggest challenge in bringing it to the screen?
The biggest challenge for me was finding a story that was truthful to both what actually happened and how the whole thing felt. We went through drafts of the movie that were way too technical with way too much detail, and even though they explained everything they didn’t have the right tone and feel. So that was a balancing act; to find the right story and tell it in a way that, while it can’t encompass everything that happened, is true to the spirit of what was happening.
The financial risk and struggle of bringing something you love to life is a major focus of the film. Did that mirror your production of “Monsters Wanted” in any way?
Not really. I am lucky enough to own my own commercial production company, so we had all the equipment we needed to make the movie. Plus keeping the crew small with just myself and Joe Laughrey (the co-director) meant that we had literally no overhead for paying crew. So our investment was 100% time. I asked Joe if he was interested in giving up 6 months of his life to follow this story, and that’s basically what both of us did.
In addition to Asylum, there are several other haunted attractions featured in the film. What was the most eye opening thing you discovered about this very unique industry?
I had no idea how much work went into these things. I assumed haunted houses were pre-packaged by large corporations who threw them up in September and left November first. But that just isn’t the case. These are mom-and-pop businesses struggling every year to stay afloat. It’s not a great business model to spend so much time and effort on an attraction that only opens twelve nights a year, but these people pour their souls into them because of the love of the genre. I didn’t expect that to be so universal to every owner and haunted house.
Was there something you were looking to accomplish stylistically or in some other form that you may have not tried before with this film?
I really wanted to find a story. I wanted to make sure I didn’t have an agenda or some preconceived notion of what this movie was about. That was the whole attraction of making something that was non-scripted. Throughout the shoot, my idea of what the movie would be changed dozens of times….which was a little scary and disconcerting. And we ended up with a movie very different (and I would argue better) than what I originally thought it might be.
Your co-director on this film is Joe Laughrey. What did he bring to the table for this project?
Joe was shoulder to shoulder with me every day shooting 14 hours a day. On a movie like this, I think it’s all about finding moments and communicating with your co-filmmakers about what you’ve captured and what stories need to be fleshed out with more coverage and footage. Joe and I “tag-teamed” everything to make sure we had different perspectives on each storyline and character. He was much more the fly-on-the-wall filmmaker you forgot was around where as I was buddy-buddy with all the characters and could ask questions on the fly to get clarification about what was happening. The two styles balanced really well in the finished film.
How different is the final version of the film than what you had envisioned when starting out?
Extremely different. I thought this would be an exploration of the horror culture and haunted house industries with Rich and Janel’s story acting as the backbone, but I realized toward the end of editing that the only way to really get into why these people do what they do, I had to get extremely intimate with one story. So while it still explores what originally excited me about the project, it’s a far more emotionally charged and “soulful” movie than I thought it would be.
What do you feel is the greatest lesson to be learned for Rich, Janel and the other people featured in film?
What I learned from them is that achieving your dream doesn’t always come with extreme fame and wealth and fanfare. It’s full of heartache and stress and hard work with very little economic payoff. But somehow that makes it more pure and meaningful because it means you really are doing it all “for the love.” I like that life philosophy.
What is the greatest lesson you learned as a filmmaker on this project?
I learned how to relax and go with the flow. I kept trying to make the movie in my head as we went, but reality had different ideas. In the end, it was an exercise in thinking on your feet and working with elements out of your control to make something truthful and entertaining.
“Monsters Wanted” is a great title for the film. How many ideas did you kick around before arriving at the title?
We had hundreds of title ideas, but I was always a big fan of “Monsters Wanted.” It felt like it encompassed the fun playfulness of the story as well as the darker elements of the characters and the whole “family” theme that really defines the documentary.
Is the world of horror is very expansive. Is there another topic in that genre you are interested in possibly exploring in documentary form?
Right now, I have no plans to do another documentary. This one kind of came out of left field and I felt compelled to follow it through. If I ever do another documentary, I think it will happen the same way.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the filmmaking process?
On this one I loved shooting when things were chaotic. It really gives you a chance to hyper-focus and gives you a great adrenaline rush. I’m not a huge fan of the sales and marketing side of things which is extremely important, but also a little monotonous.
Do you feel you have evolved as a filmmaker since first starting out?
Absolutely. I look back on how I shot the first days of the doc and how I interviewed people, and I wish I could go back and do it again. But that’s every movie. I think I’m always a different filmmaker at the end of the process than I was at the beginning.
What is next up for you as a filmmaker?
I have a bunch of ideas, all of them scripted. I’m working with my partner, Matt Niehoff, on an action comedy set in a rural Kentucky bar, but we’re just starting the writing process on that. For the next couple of months I’m really just focused on getting Monsters Wanted out to its audience.
What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to aspiring filmmakers?
Make a lot of movies. Get the bad ones and there will be bad ones, I promise! out of your system now. And learn the technical side of things. Artistry without technical expertise has its limits, and I see a lot of extremely talented filmmakers flounder because they don’t take the time to understand how the camera, lenses or editing software works. So just start making no-budget movies and learn how to do everything. That includes marketing and promotion, unfortunately. But really, don’t worry about raising money or getting the budget to shoot on a red, just start. The rest will fall in place after awhile.