Victor Mathieu may not be a household name in the world of horror filmmaking but, if his first film is any indication, he soon will be! A chilling and inventive take on the classic monster movie genre, “The Monster Project” follows a group of aspiring horror filmmakers, eager to raise YouTube subscriber counts, who post an online casting call for real life monsters to interview for their documentary. They find three participants and choose to film them sharing their haunted experiences in a mansion in the woods on the night of a lunar eclipse. The production suddenly turns into a nightmare when the participants transform into a real vampire, demon, and skinwalker (a harmful witch, according to Navajo legend, that can transform into any animal with the intent of harming people), forcing the unsuspecting crew to fight for their lives. Written by Victor Mathieu, Shariya Lynn and Corbin Billings, the film stars Toby Hemingway (“Black Swan,” “In Time”), Justin Bruening (“Good Behavior,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Ringer”) and Yvonne Zima (“Iron Man 3,” “Nice Guys”) provide strong performances with Jamal Quezaire and Murielle Zuker rounding out the cast. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with director Victor Mathieu to discuss his journey as a first-time filmmaker and the challenges he faced in bringing a unique creature feature to the silver screen!
How did you get involved with the arts early on in life and what made you pursue a career in filmmaking?
I grew up reading all the R.L. Stine “Goosebumps” books and was always inspired by how frightened I was by them but also so entertained. When I was very young, my grandmother used to read to me a terrifying story, which was a children’s story, that ended in a really, really dark way that used to terrify me. I was always very interested in the fact that I was so terrified of the book that I would hide it but still dare myself to pull it out from the bookshelf. I would look at it and run to bed. I wouldn’t be able to sleep for hours! [laughs] That aspect of storytelling started with horror for me. I was always fascinated with the idea of being afraid while, at the same time, being so infatuated. I couldn’t understand why I would love something I was so afraid of. Later on, I started acting in theater and I realized pretty quickly that directing was something I was more interested in. I went to film school at USC and I started directing after film school and progressively worked my way up to directing a feature film which is now what I do.
What made “The Monster Project” a story you wanted to tell?
As I mentioned, “Goosebumps” was something I was really inspired by and I think it defined a strong amount of my childhood. There was also a videogame that I played from the world of “Goosebumps” called “Escape from Horrorland,” which was released by Dreamworks Interactive. I was really, really crazy about that game and I played it again and again! It had monsters featured, countless amounts of monsters, and I was always blown away by the ability to create a world that was so different. It would throw you into a different universe and make you a part of it. I think that’s how it started for me. There were also so many films that had an impact on me. Ever since I was a little kid, I loved watching films and experiencing all these different emotions, just like anyone else, but there was something that pushed me toward the art of filmmaking. It wasn’t until I was in college until I saw “Evil Dead 2.” That was when I truly discovered my love of horror and I started looking more into it. I also saw a film called “The Hamiltons,” which was another key element in how “The Monster Project” came about. “The Hamiltons” was a family of vampires that lived together in one home. I started fantasizing about the idea of how cool it would be to make a film about a group of filmmakers that would interview a family of vampires from their home and things would take a turn for the worst. My love for monsters, especially coming from “Goosebumps,” kicked in and I decided to make a movie about a group of filmmakers who interview multiple types of monsters in one film. The importance of social media in our lives today also came into play. In terms of it being my first film, I had been trying for a while to make my first film. It was originally going to be a film called “Carnevil,” which was a film about coulrophobia, which is the fear of clowns. That turned out to be a film that would’ve been too expensive to make because I had grand ideas for it. As a first time filmmaker, it was impossible to find the funding for it. I moved on to finding my next idea which ended up being “The Monster Project.”
What can you tell us about other artists and directors who had a big impact on your work?
The directors I really look up to and who inspire me are Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi and James Cameron. For example, James Cameron, I watched all the behind-the-scenes footage of “Aliens” and “The Abyss” as I was preparing for “The Monster Project.” I was really interested in seeing all of the challenges he kept facing during pre-production, production, etc. It was very inspiring and it helped me keep myself motivated and enthusiastic when I was facing really difficult circumstances during the making of my film. I love the world that Tim Burton creates in all of his films. As for Spielberg, he’s a filmmaker who knows how to make me weep! [laughs] That’s a great thing! As I said, Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead 2” is the whole reason I got into horror in the first place, so he’s always been a huge influence for me. You can probably catch some visual influences from that film in “The Monster Project.”
“The Monster Project” is classified as a found footage style film. Obviously, there were many routes you could tell this story, so what made this the way to tell the tale?
I love found footage films but I feel like the genre has fallen into that repetitive zone where a lot of them follow the same formula. I wanted to do something that was very different from that. If anything, I wanted to turn the tables and go 180º on it. I was also frustrated by the fact that I would end up seeing the coolest parts of the film in the last two or two-and-a-half minutes of those films. I decided to do the opposite and jump into the action halfway through the film! [laughs] I thought it was important to jump right into the action and show people there really are monsters. I don’t consider “The Monster Project” a found footage film. I consider it to be a first person POV film because of the GoPro camera that is placed on the main character’s forehead. I think that’s a different type of storytelling. It’s a combination of found footage for sure but combined with the first person shooter, video game style in one film. I think that was different in that respect and was the one thing that attracted me, Phil [Sebal] and Jim [Beinke] to the idea originally.
The cast of the film added to the film and made the characters jump from the screen. What went into finding the right mix of people to bring these characters to life?
I had worked on a show called “Delusion,” which was an interactive, live horror play here in Los Angeles. Through that play, we were adamant about finding solid actors for that show because it was so reliant on acting. I discovered a lot of phenomenal actors by working on that show. I ended up bringing a couple of them onto “The Monster Project” very early on before shooting. I’m very glad that they stayed on and I appreciate that because I believe some of them waited for three years prior to filming because it took us a long time to find funding for it. Murielle Zuker, Shiori Ideta and Steven Flores were actors that I brought onboard very early on. Jamal Quezaire I found through casting and the rest were brought on by Bass Casting. Our casting directors did a really great job on finding actors like Toby Hemingway and Yvonne Zima. I think we found the right combination of actors and they all interacted really well with each other and played off each other’s characters as well. Each actor brought their own special element to the film but the one that really changed things was Jamal. When we had originally written the script, we didn’t expect for his role to be so comedic. Originally, the character was going to be a nerdy white guy! I felt something was missing, so we started looking into casting and Jamal popped up! He had the funniest profile pictures, so we brought him in and he was so funny people were on the ground, crying and laughing. At that point, we knew the role had changed and Jamal was going to be onboard!
Did the script evolve when you began shooting?
Not really. I made sure that everything was very well planned out from the get-go. Actually, there was one thing that really changed during filming. We had a very difficult time filming the basement scene where the demon is in the basement. It was a huge challenge for us to accomplish for some reason. We kept coming to it at the end of each day, at 5 a.m. in the morning, where we had 30 minutes to an hour left. It was crazy for us to shoot that scene and we had a very difficult time with it. We did a quick reshoot for the film a few months after principal photography. Since we weren’t happy with the way that scene was going, Phil Sebal, Corbin Billings and I sat down to discuss it. We came up with the idea of this sort of dream sequence that happens with the demon in the film. I think it ended up being a great addition to the film! That was the biggest change in the film and we were really pleased with how it turned out.
As a fan of horror, I’m sure you had a blast creating these monsters. What went into the design process?
Absolutely! When we came up with the idea for this film, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted the skinwalker to look like. We were all so proud of how the skinwalker ended up looking! Jim Beinke, who is the special effects creator and designer behind all of the special effects on the film, did an amazing job executing him and bringing a real twist to it with his team. He’s an amazing makeup creator and designer. We worked very closely together on the design process. Since we were looking for funding early on, there was no rush on it. I think we worked on it for two years prior to shooting in terms of working on the design of the suits and the face. We also created animatronics for the skinwalker’s face. You can see on some of the closeups that it was operated through animatronics. We really wanted to stay true to the fact that we wanted to go with practical effects, especially for the skinwalker. We had to use some visual effects, especially for the demon, but overall we wanted to make a film that was more reflective of the way that monsters used to look in their origin periods of the mid-1900s as opposed to using CGI. That’s why a lot of the stunts were done practically, along with the visual effects. Jim and his team did a fantastic job with all of the creatures. It was a very complicated process with the prosthetics and special effects, as you can tell by watching the film, and Jim Beinke legitimized the film by coming onboard and making it all happen!
What were other challenges you faced in bringing “The Monster Project” to life?
The biggest challenge was shooting the principal photography in under 15 days. That was a huge challenge considering we had a lot of stunts in the film and heavy practical effects. As you know, stunts take some rehearsal time, so it took away from my ability to really focus on the directing aspect of things even though things turned out as great as I hoped they would. It was a very fast paced environment, so that was a big challenge. In terms of what I learned from it, I just really look forward to the next one. I feel that I will always evolve as a director and continue to get better and better. I think I definitely came out of this project as a better director. In terms of specifics, I couldn’t tell you! [laughs] I will tell you that I am pleased with how it turned out!
That’s awesome. Where are you headed next? Are there hints you can give as to what you are up to?
Let’s just say that world of “The Monster Project” may be involved. Jim and I are looking forward to possibly doing something that is related to the film in the near future. Whether it’s a sequel to “The Monster Project” or a prequel about a certain character, a monster or a main character, is something we are eyeing right now. We are very interested in doing that! I have also been writing some other projects that are also currently in development, so we will see!
It’s inspiring to see an artist make his vision a reality. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
Bringing this film to life was such a long process. Phil, being my partner in crime, and I went through alot together. It was very brutal from time to time. It was a very difficult process and there were times that we didn’t know if the film was ever going to end! [laughs] It felt like a never-ending story at times. We kept working hard and made sure that we were moving it forward. It was a full-time job for years. We are very happy to see it pan out now! It’s the #1 most popular movie trailer on IMDB right now, which is huge for us. It’s such a huge reward and it validates the fact that all of this work was not for nothing! The fact that people are liking it and responding to the trailer for our film in a positive way is very rewarding. I think the lesson is to never give up, always keep working and if you have a story to tell and feel very strongly about it — GO FOR IT!
Thanks for your time, Victor! We loved the film and can’t wait to see what you have in store for us in the years to come. I wish you continued success!
Thank you so much, Jason! It was very nice talking to you! Take care!
For more information visit The Monster Project on Facebook, and follow @TMPmovie on Twitter and Instagram. ‘The Monster Project’ will be released on August 18th, 2017 via Epic Pictures.