Fans of cinema take note! An unstoppable creative force officially arrived on the scene — Micah Wright and Jay Lender! However, these guys are far from an overnight sensation. The duo, who originally met when they were fresh out of college, spent the better part of two decades working in television animation on some of the most memorable shows around. They have written, storyboarded, directed, created and composed songs for shows like “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “The Angry Beavers,” “Hey Arnold!,” “Phineas and Ferb” and “Constant Payne.” Their impact on pop culture doesn’t stop there! Together, this dynamic duo has written and designed on over 50 video games including hit games in the “Call of Duty,” “Transformers,” “Ratchet & Clank” and “Looney Tunes” franchises. They have written six graphic novels (including the WWII homefront epic, “Duster”), several films, and have won two awards for their virtual reality work for Samsung. It is an impressive resume and they are just getting warmed up!
In 2016, the time has come for these multi-faceted artists to make the jump into feature filmmaking with their amazing horror-comedy, “They’re Watching.” The film focuses on an American home improvement TV show visiting a remote Eastern European village where the young crew thinks the lack of mocha lattés and free wifi will be the worst of their problems. After their filming interrupts the superstitious villagers’ private religious ritual, the situation takes a turn for the homicidal … and when the blood starts flowing things get really weird. “They’re Watching” turns a classic horror premise upside down to create a fresh, funny, eye-popping (and extremely welcome) twist on one of film’s most beloved genres.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Micah Wright and Jay Lender to discuss their amazing careers in entertainment, making their long-awaited transition into feature films, the challenges of bringing “They’re Watching” from script to screen and what the future may have in store for them!
You both have an impressive body of work. What inspired you to pursue a career in the arts at an early age?
Micah: I have always enjoyed writing. I was never much of an artist but I always enjoyed writing. When I was in college, my college roommate said, “I am auditioning for a sketch comedy show today. Could you help me run lines?” I thought, “OK. Whatever!” I ran his lines with him and he asked me if I wanted to come watch him audition. I went and halfway through the audition, I was like, “Wow. These people are no good!” I just got in line and put my name on the list. I auditioned and they said, “You are terrible on stage but you are really funny! Why don’t you write something and come back next week?” I started writing sketches and by the second semester I was in the group and writing half of the show every week. We did a one-hour, original sketch comedy show every Friday in front of 300 screaming college kids. I eventually worked my way on to stage and was doing standup. When I graduated, I decided to move to Los Angeles. I came out here with the intentions of working on “The Simpsons” but then learned you had to go to Harvard to work on the show! I ended up at Nickelodeon, where I met Jay!
Jay: I think my story can be short! Once I realized that “Bugs Bunny,” “The Little Rascals” and “The Twilight Zone” didn’t just happen and that people needed to make those things, I knew I had to be involved in that kind of work!
After you met, it didn’t take long to form a bond and become a productive duo. What made you guys such a great team through the years?
Jay: I think what makes us great together is that we do not have the same ideas, world view or even the same style but we challenge each other. When we work together, we have plenty of big arguments all the time. I force Micah to back up his ideas. When I recognize that he is right, I back down and he does the same thing for me. Having the person who is essentially your worst critic in the room with you all of the time is an amazing trial by fire for all of your work. So, if Micah says it’s OK, I know it’s OK.
Micah: Yeah. I also think we bring different skill sets to the party. Jay is a brilliant artist and animation director and has picked up a skill set for editing in his head and putting it down on paper that I am still trying to achieve. I was trained as a film directing and editing kind of person, where you shoot a whole bunch of stuff and put it together in the editIng room. That is two different approaches to the same kind of material. We have different approaches to the work itself. I think that Jay has a superpower. It’s something I call X-Ray Deconstructo-vision! He can look at any movie or television show and immediately point out the story flaws and then is able to talk about how to fix the structure of the piece. If I had a superpower, I guess it would be Stupid-Idea-O-Vision! [laughs] I just throw out insane concepts and hope one of them sticks!
Jay: And they do. He gets to places that I can’t get to. He has big ideas that have never occurred to me. Then my job is to steer them into a direction that can be made into a story.
Which of your past projects have had the biggest impact on you creatively?
Micah and Jay: We started at Nickelodeon when it was the “Peas and Carrots” channel that no kid would watch. Over the next six years we were there, it grew to be the #1 channel on cable tv with kids and adults. There was a fabulous sense of “what’s next” and of artistic experimentation there in those years, and that kind of experience can either inspire you for life… or ruin you for life when you go work somewhere that’s not as experimental or creative. We chose to be inspired.
Your latest project is a great horror-comedy called “They’re Watching.” How did the concept come about and what made this the right vehicle for your first feature film?
Micah: We have been very interested in features for a long time. We had sold a feature script that got made in Korea as an animated film but we hadn’t had much luck with breaking into live action. I went to an event at The Writer’s Guild where Billy Ray, the writer of “Captain Phillips,” was speaking. He is also a director and recently wrote and directed “The Secrets In Their Eyes,” which stars Julia Roberts. He was speaking and he said, “I think the future is writers who direct and directors who write.” This idea of the Hollywood dichotomy where we have directors and writers separately is sort of a function of the old way of producing material that is quickly going away. These days that you have movies that cost less than $10 million and movies that cost more than $100 million and not a whole lot in between. Jay and I knew there was no way somebody was going to say, “Oh, you guys came from animation and video games, let’s make a movie!” Even if we say, “We made $3 billion for Disney last year on “Phineas and Ferb” or “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2″ made $2.7 billion worldwide … ”
Jay: Yeah! They aren’t going to turn around and say, “Here is Transformers 7. Go!”
Micah: Exactly! That is all they have now.
Jay: Yeah, that is literally all they have and the other smaller stuff is mostly independently produced. So we were thinking, “What can we do that is independent that we can write and direct ourselves, is cheap and would make money.” There is no point in writing a really small, domestic drama about a woman who loses her child at the bus stop if nobody sees it because then everyone says, “Yeah, you made a movie but nobody saw it. Why should we let you direct Transformers 7?” We thought about what we could do that would be small, compelling and inexpensive to make, so we thought, “Oh, a horror movie!” We love horror movies, so it was not a big jump for us to bring our sensibilities and skill sets to a horror movie. That is the movie that we did!
What did you hope to achieve with this first film? Were there things you wanted to showcase from your skill set?
Micah: We knew that we would end up showcasing things that were within our skill set. I mean, if you have a skill set and you aren’t using it, you are an idiot! [laughs] That is all I have to bring to the party, what I know how to do well. Attempting to do something I don’t like, am not necessarily good at or we are not the right people doesn’t make any sense creatively or from a business perspective. I think what we knew what we wanted to do when we did something was to respect the traditions of our genre but overturn them. Other people have more money, bigger names or maybe even have a great idea but for us to get down into the mud and deliver the exact film that has been fed to people all day long wasn’t what we were interested in doing. It is a viable business strategy and there is room in the world for just making horror movies that deliver gore nonstop. We wanted to do something that we would love and feel stood out from the crowd and let us be ourselves.
Jay: Exactly. I think both of us felt the urge to do something where anyone can watch it. I like to joke with my wife that this is a horror movie for her and her friends because half of our speaking cast are women. They talk about everything other than the man in their lives. It is also a film based on the number five show on cable television with women. It is very much a horror movie that women can enjoy and men can enjoy as well. I think a lot of times horror movies cater to just men. “Look at this pretty blonde girl get her throat slit!” No thanks! [laughs]
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced with this film? Are there hurdles that stick out in your mind?
Micah: Tons of them! Most films are made in the editing room. That, in a way, is true of our film as others. Luckily, we have this animation skill set that demands you edit the movie in your head before you shoot it because you can’t do in animation what you do in other films by saying, “Let’s try another angle,” or “Let’s try that again, only angrier!” In animation, that means completely redoing everything. We knew what we wanted when we got started but, because we were working in live-action, it also afforded us the opportunity to make some changes later on. There are some scenes in this movie that are in different places from where we wrote them. There are scenes where we swapped dialogue from other scenes and placed it on top of other scenes you see. We were able to really take advantage of live-action in a great way. There are things we would do differently now if we did a sequel, when we do a sequel. I think we are really excited about the potential of learning from the natural growth curve of working in a new medium of live action film, which was new to us, but also in working within the structures of this first person/found footage format.
What can you tell us about finding the right mix of people to bring these characters from script to screen?
Micah: We had written the character of Vladimir as a 50-year-old fat guy. Then we saw 20 50-year-old fat guys but then Dimitri Diatchenko walked in as a 6 foot tall, 290 pound of solid muscle, a gigantor! We instantly changed in our heads what the character looked like.
Jay: We had the same experience with Alex, who is our goofball character. When we were writing the screenplay, we kind of used Shaggy from “Scooby Doo” as the model because he is the go-to character and everyone knows what he would say or do in a particular situation. When we had our casting call, we saw a parade of excellent Shaggys. They all did excellent versions of that character. Then Kris Lemche walked through the door and started doing something completely different. He was doing this annoying, motormouth character but it was still our dialogue. Micah and I looked at each other and said, “What is that?!” After he left, we thought about it and realized that everything he had done still worked for our character even though it was a completely different take on what we had originally envisioned. We wanted to be kept on our toes like that. From that moment on, we couldn’t imagine Alex being played by anyone else.
Did you split the duties as co-directors or was it more working hand-in-hand?
Micah: I think we worked hand-in-hand and attached at the hip. There are certain things where I would step back and let Jay focus and vice versa. A lot of people feel the job of the director is to tell the actors what to do. My feeling is that if you are talking to the actors too often, then you hired the wrong actors! On set there are a lot of things a director has to be doing at all times. The number one job of the director is to make choices. Jay and I tend to think in similar ways, so whenever there was a choice that we had different feelings about, we would have a conversation between ourselves and then issue the edict from Micah and Jay as a unit. That way we wouldn’t get a divide and conquer situation on set. There are some things I handled better, logistical things and making sure we stayed on schedule, and things that Jay handled better like camera placement and shot choice. In general, I think we have similar desire for the material, simply because we had spent so much time writing it together.
Jay: When we write, we read aloud, so we have an idea of a baseline performance in our heads. As long as the actors are improving on that, which how could they not, we were happy! [laughs]
Was there are particular part of those skill sets that came in handy in an unexpected way for “They’re Watching?”
Micah and Jay: The one thing we could count on while transitioning from animation to live action was who we were and what we were capable of. Any skills we had were long since accounted for and applied to the project—we came ready to play our A-game. So, in that sense, the only unexpected skills came from other quarters. When we learned that two of our actors were concert-level musicians, we wrote that into the script, and ended up with something really special. Things like that, or happy accidents on the set, was the most exciting part about working in live-action. That kind of thing rarely happens in animation.
Was they’re anything you had intended to include in the film that didn’t make the cut or anything you were able to capture that you hadn’t expected?
Micah and Jay: There were a number of deleted scenes. One of them was the boss, Kate Banks, reminiscing about her great husband back home. We liked the scene, but it was slowing down the sequence and softening Kate too early in the picture, so we took it out. There was also a really great bar sequence where Vladimir and Alex concoct a plan to ship AK-47’s to Texas where Alex felt he could definitely sell them for big money. It got cut for time, and because we felt that Vladimir’s shady nature had already been explored with his offering to help Greg smuggle heroin into Moldova.
What are your thoughts on the current state of horror cinema? What’s the good, bad and ugly these days as both fans and filmmakers?
Micah and Jay: What we love about the Horror genre is that it’s a big tent and encompasses a lot of different story types and filming styles. No movie from Eli Roth could ever be mistaken for a film by David Cronenberg or Sam Raimi. John Carpenter’s films stand starkly apart from those of George Romero or Rob Zombie. Superhero films tend to be pretty samey-same, but it’s difficult to compare a film like ‘Slither’ to ‘The Witch,’ you know? But they’re both horror films. Horror encompasses everything from your mother going nuts like in ‘The Babadook’ to Michael Myers stabbing you with a knife because… well, just because. And one of the greatest things about horror is that whenever it starts to get too stale or rote, it’s such a relatively inexpensive format that someone with new ideas can whip up a sea change overnight. In the last few years we’ve seen radically different approaches to this sort of reinvention, from inside-baseball self-critique like ‘Cabin in the Woods’ to lowest-budget found-footage films like ‘V/H/S.’ We love horror. The only critique we have of horror is when filmmakers forget that gore and blood and murder by themselves aren’t a substitute for characters the audience cares about and a story which makes sense.
This film, along with your already amazing resumes, put you in a great spot for the future. Where do you see yourself headed next?
Jay: I think we have a couple more movies that we would like to do. We also have a couple of television shows we would like to do.
Micah: We are not self-funding, so we can’t necessarily decide what our next project is at the moment. We have movies, TV shows and graphic novels, we will see where the money comes from and then we will know what we will do!
Jay: We have two sequels to this sequel in mind, should we be lucky enough to make money on this first one. We have a couple of other horror movies that would be more straight forward, not found-footage first-person thriller movies like this one. We also have a World War II movie we would love to do and a number of gigantic, big-budget action films we would love to do as well, along with a live-action television show we would love to be out pitching as well.
Micah: I think the key for us is to always love what we work on.
What is the best lesson we can take away from your journey so far? Is there a secret to your success?
Micah: Work to please yourself. That is the one thing I learned very early on when I was working in animation. You have no idea if the audience is going to find something funny but if you don’t find it funny, moving or compelling, then no one else is either. If you are making yourself happy and being honest with yourself about if it is making you happy, that is a great first step.
Jay: On the more practical side, accept and respect the fact that it is a business. We may not like it, we are creative people and want to be able to do what we want to do but you can’t drag 80 people out in the woods at 3 a.m. in Romania for free! [laughs] If you don’t have a plan to generate a product that will make money, this will be your last time doing this!
Thanks for your time today guys! We wish you continued success and can’t wait to see where the future takes you!
Micah: Thanks, Jason!
Jay: Thank you!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.